Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published January 20th 2020
The 1980s knew what Australia was about
January 26 is known in Australia as Australia Day, when we celebrate the official arrival of Europeans on the country in 1788. Sure, other Europeans had been here before, and Indigenous people had arrived some seventy thousand years before, but that is the day. It has become something of a controversial day in recent times, but that is not what this column is about.
This is about the songs that celebrate Australia.
Come on, this will be good!
What I have done is gone through my music collection and found ten songs that I think best encapsulate Australia as a country. These are NOT simply my favourite Australian songs. I am pretty sure Weekend Notes would not appreciate a list of over 100 songs, as much fun as that would be for me to put together. These are songs about Australia or aspects of Australia. Of course, some of the tracks here would be included in that list, but...
Now, in order for this to be a decent, manageable column, I had to set myself some rules. No songs about individual Australian cities or towns (so a song like 'Reckless' by Australian Crawl, about Sydney, or so many Skyhooks songs about Melbourne just didn't make the cut). Songs had to be by Australian artists or artists recognised as being from Australia. Now the final rule I set for myself was an odd one. My original list was rather large, but when I looked at my favourites, nearly all of them were recorded in the 1980s. So, I decided to restrict myself to that decade.
Oh, and for what it's worth, the song 'I am You Are We Are Australian' (1987) (or whatever it's called) is not here because I truly dislike that song. Also, for the record, 'Working Class Man' by Jimmy Barnes was written by Americans and was not meant to be about Australia. And a few did miss out, but this is my list of favourites. If you think others should have been included, please leave a comment!
The list, in year order!
'Down Under' by Men At Work (1981)
Come on, you knew this one was going to be here, right? The classic Australian song about being an Australian in the world and living life as an Australian is one of the first songs many people not in Australia still think of when asked about Australian songs. The lyrics are such a celebration of being an Australian that it is hard to not sing along to the chorus (or scream along to the lyrics: "…he just smiled/ And gave me a Vegemite sandwich…") and smile. It is full of joy and one of the perfect encapsulations of what it meant to be an Aussie in the 1980s.
'True Blue' by John Williamson (1982)
While this might seem an odd song for someone like me to enjoy, I think it is because I was exposed to it so often when it was released that it has sunk into my subconscious. It did not chart or do well at the time, but some people I was associated with (as an 11-year-old) did like it, and it became a part of my aural history. Almost lamenting the disappearance of the true "ocker" Australian, it is a lament about a changing Australia. As a side-note, in the late 2000s, early 2010s I was a member of an online writing group, and one of the members (a Canadian – hi, Paul!) asked me to explain the slang in this song. It is a wonderful way of introducing some Australian vernacular. And it is a really good song to boot.
'Solid Rock' by Goanna (1982)
This is a protest song (that should have been in my column) about the treatment of Indigenous Australians since white colonisation. There have been heaps of covers by various Australian acts over the years, but the original is still the best. To encapsulate what an entire nation of people went through so completely in a 3-minute rock song is a master-class of song-writing, and this is just that. This has almost become the anthem for those fighting against Australia Day, but it is a song about Australia that tells a tale that needs to be told. And as for the song, that didgeridoo and the pounding drum beat – what a glorious sound. Plus some finely crafted lyrics… this is a true Australian classic.
'Great Southern Land' by Icehouse (1982)
Simply put this song is about Australia. It paints a picture of the country and the people and the land itself. This is a magnificent lyrical construct, without getting mawkish or overwhelmed by either sentimentalism or anger. This is Australia, and that is it. It's an island ("…endless ocean…"), it was a penal colony ("…prisoner island…"), it was untouched for a long time ("…Hidden in the summer for a million years…")… and yet, it also held an ancient race that was not treated well ("…they're gonna betray you…"). So well written.
'Give Me A Home Among The Gumtrees' by Bullamakanka (1983)
To most Australians, this is simply the theme song to the TV series Burke's Backyard that ran for well over a decade. But its source goes back to the 1970s. However, it was not until 1983 and Bullamakanka recording their version that it took Australia by storm. It was in 1983 or 1984 that I first heard it, and it struck me immediately. Another celebration of what it is to be Australian, but utilising all the Outback clichés instead of the way modern Australians saw themselves, this is a fun song. And, yes, I know, it is Australian country. So?
'Cattle And Cane' by The Go-Betweens (1983)
The Go-Betweens have recently undergone a re-appraisal of their work, and not before time. They were one of the finest and yet most under-rated Australian bands at the time. Sure, they had some success – I bought two of their albums on cassette way back when – but they deserved more. And this track, about growing up in Outback Australia, without a real chorus, just misty-eyed remembrance, is one of their very best. So beautiful.
'Sounds Of Then' by Gang Gajang (1985)
Admission time – in 1985 I became sick of this track. It was everywhere. Not until a good ten years later did I actually listen to it again and came to appreciate it for what it is – a wonderfully written song, a nice piece of 80s pop, and a real celebration of Australia. It's lying on sweat-drenched sheets in the summer, it's watching burning cane fields, it's houses made of Hardiflex… it is Outback Australia in the 1980s. It is another great encapsulation.
'Wide Open Road' by The Triffids (1986)
This is, at its heart, a song about a relationship break-up. But it's a break-up that seems to be set in Australia. The wide-open road of the title a metaphor for moving on. Yes, the US and Canada have wide open roads as well, but driving over the "flatland" under a sky that was "big and empty" just feels Australian, especially sung by an Australian band that never got the accolades they deserved in The Triffids. The song just says, "Australia," to me.
'My Island Home' by The Warumpi Band (1987)'
Most people associate this song with Christine Anu (1995) and just assume she was the original singer. Well, she wasn't. And while her version is really good, there is just something about The Warumpi Band's original that I really enjoy. Told from the perspective of an Indigenous Australian celebrating the home their ancestors have lived on for seventy thousand years, it has come to represent the feelings of many Australians. While the meaning is often taken to mean Australia, the island, it is about going back to an island off the coast of Australia after living in the Outback for a while. However, the greater meaning seems to have taken over, and it means "Australia" to so many.
'Under The Milky Way' by The Church (1988)
And I'll finish with a song that has come to be about Australia and be recognised as an Australian anthem, even though when it first came out I thought it was about being homesick (the mention of being in Memphis did that to me). Still, it has come to represent to people time and again what it means to be Australian, under that glorious sky and the Milky Way we can see in the Outback (even from my own rural home) telling us where we are. A beautiful song.
There we go – 10 songs from the 1980s that say, "Australia", celebrating what it means to be Australian, and just bringing Australia to life in the realm of a decent rock/pop/country song. These are the songs that the modern generation needs to be made aware of, to show where they have come from. And very few modern songs have celebrated Australia or told stories of Australia as well as those from over thirty years ago.