The Great Australian Songbook I
By Andrew Stafford
(Recently, Brisbane writer and occasional Collapse Board contributor Andrew Stafford – author of Pig City – ran an Australian Songbook Top 40 on his blog. It seemed like a decent enough concept, and Andrew seems to have decent enough taste, so I asked if I could reproduce it on Collapse Board. You can find Andrew’s blog about “music, politics, Australian Rules football, birds and other obsessions” here – Ed]
40. COSMIC PSYCHOS – Lost Cause (1988)
It was Spinal Tap who pointed out the fine line between clever and stupid. In Australia, you won’t find three smarter beer-swilling yobs than Cosmic Psychos. This isn’t a song about punching above your weight – it’s about being out of your weight division entirely. “Dr” Ross Knight, the band’s bass player, is a farmer from outside Bendigo who’s been known to cancel tours when his tractor breaks down. At the time he wrote this song, he was working part-time in the medical records department of a local hospital, where he fell under the spell of an attractive young lady who’s “only 19, not a has-been!”
“I was about 25, 26 at that point, a bogan fucking pisshead,” Knight recalls. “I said to a mate of mine, ‘I wouldn’t mind taking her out’, and he goes, ‘Nah – have a look at you! She’s a lost cause, mate!” The song was later covered by L7 and The Prodigy.
39. DO RE MI – Man Overboard (1985)
After the comic ribaldry of the Cosmic Psychos, it’s nice to follow ‘Lost Cause’ with the best piece of feminist polemic set to pop music in Australia since Helen Reddy’s ‘I Am Woman’. Do Re Mi’s lean, agitated funk provided all the space required for Deborah Conway’s sharp-eyed, razor-tongued portrait of a relationship in terminal decay. Critic Toby Creswell reckoned Conway had a voice like a braying donkey. If that’s the case, it’s even more impressive that a song with no chorus and lyrics that referenced sexual boredom, penis envy and anal humour became a Top Five hit.
38. SEVERED HEADS – Dead Eyes Opened (1984; remixed 1995)
Australia is not well known for its electronic music output, but long before The Avalanches scored with ‘Since I Left You’ in 2000 there was Tom Ellard’s brilliant Severed Heads. Exploring the space between the industrial terror of Suicide, the pop smarts of New Order and the minimalism of Kraftwerk, the creepy ‘Dead Eyes Opened’ was both of its time and ahead of it, and proved it by being a hit twice: once upon its release in 1984, and then again with a remixed version in 1995.
37. DAVE GRANEY & THE CORAL SNAKES – You’re Just Too Hip, Baby (1993)
On one hand, Dave Graney is an eccentric from Mt Gambier, South Australia who’s read too many Raymond Chandler novels. His genius is in filtering his influences through his own uniquely idiosyncratic worldview, and you won’t find a better example than this minor hit from 1993 that set the former Moodist on his way to unlikely Australian King of Pop status a couple of years later. “You take a feather from every bird you see/You’ll never fly” is the perfect rejoinder to a jaded hipster, accented by Rod Hayward’s stinging guitar breaks.
36. MENTAL AS ANYTHING – The Nips Are Getting Bigger (1979)
One of the all-time great Australian drinking songs. It starts out just drinking beer, then it progresses to Jamaican rum, and things are all downhill from there for poor Martin Plaza: “Wiping out brain cells by the million, but I don’t care/It doesn’t worry me even though I ain’t got a lot to spare”. Reg Mombassa’s splashes (splatters?) of guitar are as colourful as his designs for Mambo, but it’s Plaza’s sad, funny and true portrait of everyday alcoholic waste that, once heard, never leaves you.
35. REGURGITATOR – ! (The Song Formerly Known As) (1997)
First, there’s a chuckle. Add a clipped white-funk guitar (which actually sounds more like Chic’s Nile Rodgers than Prince), then a belching bass keyboard fill, and voilà: instant party. Except it’s a party that Quan Yeomans doesn’t want to go to. He’d rather stay at home, dancing in ugly pants in the comfort of his suburban lounge room. Regurgitator are amazingly versatile – they can do hardcore, they can do pop, and their contribution to Australian hip-hop is massively undersold, but this wonderful paean to the socially awkward is their finest moment, and propelled its parent album Unit to triple-platinum status. Thank you, Mr DJ. (The correct clip is here.)
34. THE CRUEL SEA – This Is Not The Way Home (1991)
This is a driving song, best suited to very long, very straight, very red roads far beyond Woop Woop, with a bunch of mates and a case of beer for company: just leave the actual driving to whichever one of you is least inebriated. Snatches of conversations, casual observations, hints of violence and a chugging rhythm – Dan Rumour’s introductory snippet of guitar before the rhythm section kicks in is akin to a smooth change from third to fourth – and you’re away, with the throttling slide guitar in the chorus putting the whole thing into overdrive. Somehow, I’ve never been busted speeding to it.
33. DIVINYLS – Back To The Wall (1988)
‘Boys In Town’, ‘Pleasure And Pain’, ‘Science Fiction’ and the masturbatory epic ‘I Touch Myself’ were all bigger hits, and it would be easier to choose any of them for popularity’s sake. But on this killer tune, Chrissie Amphlett nailed her tough but vulnerable rock-chick persona for all time. Swathed in co-conspirator/lover Mark McEntee’s echoing Rickenbacker and unobtrusive keyboards, this is dangerous, borderline stuff, all the more compelling for its restraint: the predicted eruption never arrives, but Amphlett’s threats hang in the air, leaving you cowering in a corner.
32. THE SCIENTISTS – Swampland (1982)
Disclaimer: I’m trying to write a book about Australian garage rock under this title, and I bumped into the song’s author, Kim Salmon, at a Mudhoney show earlier this week. He joked that at the rate I’m going, he’d have his memoirs out before my own effort. He’s calling his work-in-progress Nine Parts Water, One Part Sand: How I Invented Grunge, and while he’s at least partly joking, there are plenty (Mudhoney included) who don’t dispute his claim. The Scientists were doing the soft-loud thing long before the Pixies, and with equal style: imagine The Count Five, The Cramps and Creedence jamming in a garage, and you’re back on the Bayou.
31. THE LAUGHING CLOWNS – Eternally Yours (1984)
After The Saints, Ed Kuepper formed the all but unclassifiable (and, occasionally, all but unlistenable) Laughing Clowns. With three virtuoso players in their ranks, the Clowns were musician’s musicians, with Kuepper – one of this country’s greatest guitarists – backed by drummer Jeff Wegener and saxophonist Louise Elliott. Here, Elliott’s the star, building from an austere melody to a stupendous climax: prepare to have your breath taken away at 4.21, when she holds a long note for eight full seconds, before taking flight for an extraordinary finale. Rock music doesn’t get much more moving than this.