Monday, 3 December 2012

More than SGs and Wobble Boards – Music from the Big Red Rock

From Firebrand Magazine Issue #2, November 2012

For a lot of people living outside of Australia, the mention of Australian music usually means one of a few things – for baby boomers, there’s a good chance that their first thought will be of AC/DC, the rock band that took the world by storm and never let go. For older music listeners (in particular in the UK), they may remember Rolf Harris, with his wobble board and novelty songs such as “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” and “Two Little Boys”, or Folk/Pop group The Seekers, with their lush close-harmony vocals surrounding the beautiful voice of Judith Durham. But there’s more. Much more.

Prior to colonisation, Australia had a 40,000 – 60,000+ year history of indigenous music which produced the iconic Didgeridoo, as well as featuring Tapping Sticks and, of course, the human voice. Having no written language, Aboriginal culture and legend was passed down through the generations by way of stories and song. Thus, music was of vital importance to the first Australians as a way of preserving and passing on their culture and heritage.

With the first colonies came waves of British and (later) European settlers, who brought with them their own unique musical instruments and influences. From this melange of styles came the Bush Ballads, based on the Anglo-Celtic traditions of the settlers and convicts that came (voluntarily or otherwise) to the Great South Land. The best known of these songs is Waltzing Matilda, which over the years has become Australia’s adopted unofficial national anthem – which is interesting, considering that the song (words by Banjo Patterson) is about a sheep thief who drowns himself to avoid capture by troopers.

With the post World War II waves of European immigrants came more and more colours to the Australian cultural spectrum. German, Italian, Greek and Scandinavian music influenced what we sang, played and listened to, and as Australians began to establish their own national identity, these influences were melded together as part of the emerging Australian sound. At this point, American influences were also being felt as the United States, drawn out of it’s pre-war isolationism, added it’s own, smaller wave of immigrants to the mix, bringing blues and jazz to a new audience. Adding to this influence was the relatively new advent of television, which meant that these musical forms were being seen and heard by an ever-increasing part of the world’s population. All of these influences were drawn upon as Australians worked out what they liked to play and listen to.

These days, Australia is as much a cultural melting pot as ever, and has produced a great many artists that have achieved success at home and abroad. Acts such as AC/DC, INXS and Men At Work became known around the world, but there is a much deeper history of Aussie rock and roll. From the outset, when rock music first swept the globe, Australians have been rocking, and I will endeavour to outline how we did it.

In the mid-1950’s, American rock and roll spread across the world. Sydney-based independent record label Festival Records was the first to get on the bandwagon in Australia, releasing Bill Haley & His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" in 1956. It became the biggest-selling Australian single ever released up to that time. American-born promoter Lee Gordon was the first to bring US acts to Australia, staging big tours with the likes of Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis playing to rapt audiences around the country. Before too long, Australia had its own ‘bad boy’ of rock’n’roll in Johnny O’Keefe, who became Australia’s first rock star imitating Americans such as Elvis and Little Richard. This was the first wave of Australian rock, and lasted to the early 60’s, when a more clean-cut style of band started to dominate the airwaves. Although the more family-friendly acts were on the radio, there were still guitar-oriented rock bands playing the live scene, many influenced by instrumental surf-rock bands like The Shadows and Dick Dale. One of the most prominent home grown bands of this era was The Atlantics, who scored a worldwide hit with their classic, ‘Bombora’.

In 1964, following the phenomenon of The Beatles, another wave of Australian rock bands hit the scene, again borrowing from the style of overseas hits and developing from there. A lot of bands that had been playing the instrumental surf music recruited singers and took off in the new direction of ‘beat’ music, a la the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Some of the most popular acts around this period were Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs, Ray Brown & The Whispers, The Easybeats, The Bee Gees and The Masters Apprentices. Another solo star rose in the form of Normie Rowe, and acts such as Max Merritt and The Meteors, Dinah Lee and The La De Das made their way across the Tasman Sea from New Zealand to try their luck on Australian shores. Also at this time, many Australian bands and singers tried to further their careers by moving overseas, mainly to England, then seen as the place to be. Few bands were successful in their ventures, and only The Seekers and The Bee Gees (who were born and raised in the UK anyway) enjoyed long-term success. Other acts that made the trip were The Easybeats (the first rock band to crack the UK market), The Twilights and the La De Das.

In the 1970’s, a lot of the 60’s stars had faded, and Australian music underwent many changes. This period saw the emergence of what was to be known as the ‘Pub Rock’ scene, which spawned acts who would go on to great things in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Bands such as Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil, Skyhooks and The Angels went on to dominate Aussie airwaves for the best part of a generation. It is also around this time that Australian media got into the game, with magazines, radio programs, TV shows and record labels dedicated to rock and pop music springing up to cater to the needs of an ever-increasing listening public. Australia was beginning to forge a real identity as a rock and roll nation. In these seminal years, there were many acts that helped create that identity. These acts included Air Supply, Dragon, Kevin Borich Express, Jon English, Little River Band, John Farnham, Sherbet, Hush, Ted Mulry Gang, Brian Cadd, and many, many more.

The 80’s and 90’s saw Australia start to break free from overseas influences and stand on its own, without “needing America and the UK to tell us what was good” (Nick Cave). Many rock bands appeared in this period, including Men At Work, Divinyls and the Hoodoo Gurus who all went on to great success internationally. Other bands such as Hunters & Collectors and The Bad Seeds achieved a great deal of success locally, with some small amount of overseas recognition.

Today, we see more Aussie bands than ever making a mark on the music scene, both at home and overseas. For the rockers, there are bands like Voyager, Chaos Divine, Karnivool, Jet, Eskimo Joe, Ragdoll and many more that are proudly flying the flag for Aussie rock. Bands such as Airbourne are playing the festival circuit in the US and Europe to huge crowds, and AC/DC still rule the stadiums when many artists of a similar vintage have long ago hung up their guns. We suffer the same media-inflicted blight of so-called TV ‘talent shows’ (Idol, X Factor, et al) down here, but there are still enough ‘real’ acts out there to warrant a long and satisfying browse through the Australian lexicon of rock.

There are many names that have been omitted from this yarn due to time and space constraints, but I hope that I have described to some extent just how far Australia has come as a musical nation. Whatever your taste in music, be it Classical, Jazz, Blues, Pop or Metal, there is a huge range of very real talent coming from these sunburnt shores. If we weren’t so far away, you would all hear much more from us. As prolific as the Aussie scene is, it is still at the other end of the world from Hollywood, New York and London, and not all of us can afford the trip to the Northern Hemisphere. That being said, there is always the magic of the internet. When you have a minute or ten to spare, try googling some of the names in this article, or maybe have a search on YouTube. I guarantee that you will find something to make you smile and tap your foot - or bang your head!

Read the rest of Issue #2 here.
Read my latest column in Issue #3.

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