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Forgotten Australian Music Gems of the 80s & 90s

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by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published August 21st 2018
Aussie music is more than AC/DC
Australian music – it's more than loud bands in smoky pubs and Kylie Minogue singles. Really, it is. Australian music has produced a huge number of excellent songs throughout the years. So many, in fact, that quite a few fall between the cracks and are forgotten about too quickly. This, then, is a brief list of my favourites. These are the songs you just don't ever see on Rage, radio stations rarely play them, they don't appear on albums with titles such as The Best Aussie Beer Drinking BBQ Songs Ever Volume XLII. They are songs that are incredibly good but no longer seem to sit in the collective conscious.

Of course, this list will not include songs by artists that are constantly well played – John Farnham, Cold Chisel, The Easybeats, AC/DC, et al. – but there are a few artists and songs that may surprise. Hopefully, this list stirs something in the old fires of the memory.

concert, music, band, artist
Ah, the memories... (source: pexels)

Shut Up / Kiss Me – Paul McDermott and Fiona Horne (1998)

Paul McDermott is a fine singer, as his output with the Doug Anthony All-Stars is a testament to. Their rendition of 'Heard It Through The Grapevine' from The Big Gig has gone down to my generation as one of the finest pieces of televised music ever. Fiona Horne fronted Def-FX (Magick was a great album) and her voice is also fantastic. On the TV show Good News Week, they performed this song. I bought the CD single, fully expecting it to be a local hit. It wasn't. Which is a shame because the lyrics are beautiful ("Your words poured like wine over an open wound…") and the rising crescendo chorus is brilliant. I love this song and feel it was cruelly overlooked at the time and still to this day. One of the finest Australian songs ever.

The Unguarded Moment – The Church (1981)

The Church had a huge hit with 'Under The Milky Way', which still gets dragged out on FM radio and played at odd times. But this 1981 single, from earlier in their career, I feel is better. The song has that perfect mix of sing-along chorus and interesting lyrics, along with that 1980s pop vibe that still feels relevant today. It came out when I was 10 (!) but I didn't discover it until a few years later and I assumed it had been a smash. None of my friends had even heard of it. Shame; this is great.

Soldier Of Fortune – John Paul Young (1983)

Everyone who listens to Australian pop is aware of JPY's 1970s output – 'Love Is In The Air', 'Yesterday's Hero', 'I Hate The Music', etc. – and then his revival, thanks to Strictly Ballroom. But, to me, this is his best song. Again, it's the 1980s feel of it, but it's also the lyrics and the whole atmosphere of the song. It actually feels like JPY is living the song as he's singing it. His voice has a more mature edge than in his hits from the 70s and that might also have something to do with the reason I like the song… and maybe why it is not as well-regarded any longer. Still, I think this is his best.

Twist Of Fate – Olivia Newton-John (1983)

It is a little-known factoid that Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta tried to follow Grease up with another film called Two of a Kind 5 years later in 1983/4. To say it was not successful is like saying McDonald's is not gourmet cooking. The film was… not the best. However, this song from the soundtrack is fantastic. Maybe because it was tied to the movie it is not regarded; it did get a bit of airplay at the time, may have nudged the charts briefly, and then it fell away to be forgotten by most people… except for sad, old men like me who refuse to leave that time period. The song is a great bit of 80s synth pop that Olivia exploited so well with 'Physical', and yet her voice is allowed free reign. Ah, the days before Autotune when singers actually had to, you know, be able to sing.

Initiation – Tommy Emmanuel (1991)

At the time this was released, it was everywhere. He played it on Hey, Hey It's Saturday and countless other TV shows, and when I saw him live supporting Eric Clapton, this song had the entire theatre mesmerised. And then it was forgotten. Okay, sure, I know that instrumental tracks tend not to stick in the consciousness too long (although, 'Rebel Rouser', 'Apache'…) but this track is so unique. All the percussion, guitar and other sounds are done on a single guitar with a few effects pedals (I guess). And what you hear on the track and what you see live is the same, so overdubs are not used either. This a masterclass of guitar playing and the fact that few people remember it is not right!

On My Own – Craig McLachlan (1991)

Okay, now I know Craig McLachlan gets bagged a fair bit, especially for his music. People always cite his cover of 'Mona' as an example of everything wrong with Australian music in the late-80s, early-90s. But, to be honest, it wasn't terrible. Hell, I bought the Check 1-2 album and really liked the song 'Amanda'. He is certainly a better singer than the majority of Neighbours "stars" who've released songs, and at least he didn't go through SAW. I saw him live in the Grease arena spectacular and he was awesome. So we come to this song. It is a moodier piece, punctuated by a booming chorus and a few mood effects, and I loved from the first time I heard it. There is just something about the atmosphere, swirling and moody, like mid-era Ultravox. It didn't bother the charts much and he went back to acting full-time not long after. Shame.

Someone's Singing New York New York – Ghostwriters (1991)

Made up of members of Midnight Oil and the Hoodoo Gurus, this single came out in 1991 (and was also on the Political Animal album from 2007) and it is just fantastic. The guitar work sets a tempo that is angry, fitting the depressing lyrics of a person looking back on his hometown and all that's happened to it over the years to make it not what it once was. It's just a superb song and is universal; the song is not Australian or American in its setting – it could have happened (and does happen) anywhere. It has the feel of a Diesel And Dust era Midnight Oil song but is different enough to stand out on its own as something unique.

Sex And Fame – Jump Incorporated (1986)

This little-known band had this one single which tickled the Australian charts and then they all but disappeared. The band lasted only a few years as an entity, but if this is their legacy, then that is a fantastic way to be remembered. The song is a standard piece of 1980s pop-rock with some really intense lyrics ("Love is nothing/ Nothing but a gun") and some great music behind it. I bought the 12-inch remix (as was the norm back then) and played it to death. I was 15 when it came out, in year 11 at high school, and so maybe it was the inherent "naughtiness" of the lyrics for a Catholic school-boy that first attracted me to the song, but it is actually a fine piece of Aussie rock.

So, what other forgotten gems have I left out? Please, add your own suggestions below!

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Why? Music this good should be remembered
Your Comment
Steve - a few surprises, a couple I don't know, and some downright dodgy ones! But always entertaining.
by May Cross (score: 3|5553) 518 days ago
I have most of Tommy Emmanuel's CD's and have seen him play live. WOW, what an instrumentalist. Brother Phil (RIP ) also talented. At least one (or two) of his albums are in the car for long trips.
by Gloria (score: 2|283) 517 days ago
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