From Perth’s pysch rockers Tame Impala to Dolewave darling Courtney Barnett, Australia’s music export is in rude health. But what lies beneath? Aussie affeciando James Dodd takes a break from his vegemite butties and Neighbours re-runs to dig out some of the best Aussy music you may or may not have heard.
Years Active: 1978-'89
Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider hoped their music would go on to represent the sound of German life in the late '70's. Just as the Beach Boys wished to chronicle California a decade earlier.
But if there’s an Aussie band that sounds like Australia then it's The Triffids. On inducting the band to the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2008, Ian MacFarlane (look him up later) proclaimed:
“He (lead singer and lyricist David McComb) infused his melancholy songs with stark yet beautiful and uniquely Australian imagery. Few songwriters managed to capture the feeling of isolation and fatalistic sense of despair of the Australian countryside.”
Indeed, McComb's Cohen-inspired stories evoke colourful images of both the vast desolation of Oz's outback along with the intimacy of sun-soaked days in suburbia.
Despite moderate success at home, The Triffids relocated to London in 1984 where Rough Trade had released ‘Treeless Plain’ and ‘Raining Pleasure’ to a charmed UK audience. Success looked assured after the band appeared on the front page of the NME in 1985 and in 1986, after a year on the road with the likes of The Bunnymen, the band produced their magnum opus -‘Born Sandy Devotional’.
There are tales of love and hope, of heartache and delusion. However, omnipresent is McComb's considered juxtaposition of the two extremes of his nation's landscape.
The album's success saw the band sign a three-record deal with Island Records and the label was rewarded with two releases in two years with 1988's ‘Calenture’ and 1989's ‘Black Swan’. But despite critical acclaim, the commercial performance was not as hoped and this, coupled with the constant touring and the band's desire to return home to Australia, saw The Triffids dissolve in late '89.
McComb would turn his attention to a prolific-yet-unprofitable solo career, playing under various and sporadic guises until his death in 1999, aged just 37.
Listen to: ‘Wide Open Road’, ‘Stolen Property’, ‘Trick of the Light’.
Sounds like: Leonard Cohen, The Velvet Underground, Neil Young.
KIM SALMON AND THE SCIENTISTS
Years active: 1976-present
In 1976, Kim Salmon formed Perth’s first punk band The Cheap Nasties. Like most Aussie punk bands of the era, they were openly influenced by the imported sounds of The Modern Lovers, The Stooges and New York Dolls. The band were short-lived but gave Salmon the springboard and momentum to establish himself in Western Australia’s growing punk scene.
However it was after forming The Scientists in 1978, that Salmon began creating the sounds he’s best remembered for to this day.
The Scientists started life as the Exterminators, whose set included an ode to their hometown of Perth called ‘Asshole of the Universe’. After a couple of changes in personnel, the band released their first release as The Scientists in mid-1979 - a 7” single titled ‘Frantic Romantic’. In 1980 after more line-up changes, they released a self-titled EP, now considered, as Ian MacFarlane states, as “one of the most collectable artefacts of the Australian punk rock era.”
In 1981, after a brief hiatus, Salmon and his band reformed after EMI had issued their debut self-titled LP – often referred to as ‘The Pink Album’ for lack of information on the record’s sleeve. The content is high energy pop punk. Comparisons to The Ramones and The Undertones inevitably followed and Salmon might’ve felt he’d missed the punk boat as The Scientists’ next transformation commenced immediately after the debut release.
In late ’81, Salmon took the band to Sydney for pastures new. By this time he’d absorbed The Cramps, Captain Beefheart and Suicide and started work on a new collection of brooding rock and roll songs. Through touring and notorious live shows (often ending in the band being subjected to abuse from the pissed-up audience’s reaction to their threatening and confrontational sound), The Scientists caught the ear of AuGoGo records’ Bruce Milne in Melbourne. Milne agreed to release the Blood Red River EP which remains one of Australia’s most influential and original releases of the post-punk era.
National success saw Salmon and his ever-changing line-up relocate to London before embarking on a European tour with fellow noise-merchants The Gun Club. The ambivalent Salmon remained in the UK in various incarnations of the band and in 1985 released his first offering outside of Oz in the primal and emotional ‘You Get What You Deserve’.
With their throbbing basslines, scratchy guitars and aggressive vocals, it’s thought The Scientists’ sound was a precursor to the Seattle grunge scene. Salmon himself using the ‘G’ word to describe his music in 1983, claiming that Australia was the premier exporter of grunge. Mudhoney’s Mark Arm would corroborate, claiming that by the time Mudhoney had started, their biggest influences came from (the also great) feedtime and The Scientists.
Listen to: ‘Swampland’, ‘We Had Love’, ‘Atom Bomb Baby’.
Sounds like: The Stooges, The Cramps, Link Wray.
THE GO BETWEENS
Years Active: 1977-2006
The Go Betweens might just be Australia’s most consummate pop group. Formed by the songwriting duo of Grant McLennan and Robert Forster in 1977, it didn’t take them long to amass a catalogue of simple, new-wave inspired songs ready for touting around the UK’s flourishing indie labels.
In 1980, the group arrived in Glasgow to sign a deal with seminal label Postcard. During an eight week stay, The Go Betweens played three shows with new label mates Orange Juice and Josef K and collaborated with OJ’s drummer Steven Daly on single ‘I Need Two Heads’. The single was well received by a UK audience with one outlet describing the ditty as “like the Velvet Underground covering an obscure Mersey-beat song”, and the song peaked at No.6 on the UK independent charts.
On returning to Brisbane, the band released their first official album, ‘Send Me a Lullaby’ distributed in the UK by Rough Trade to further positive reviews. In 1983 came ‘Before Hollywood’ - their most commercial offering to date, released again through Rough Trade after the band had been convinced by the label to return to the UK full-time. The album produced single ‘Cattle and Cane’, considered by many Aussies as the greatest Australian song of the decade - a view shared by the NME, who in 1992, declared the song to be one of the 100 best independent singles of all time.
The band continued to hop between labels, releasing ‘Spring Hill Fair’ via Sire Records in 1984 followed by ‘Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express’ and ‘Tallulah’ on their new label Beggars Banquet in ’86 and ’87.
It was in 1988, though, after returning to Brisbane, they released their most refined work. 16 Lovers Lane’ is an album of charisma and delicate craftsmanship. As was standard, the song writing was shared by both McLennan and Forster; the former’s style being more soft and reflective (McLennan claimed he’d write songs for his mother), the latter’s songs more angst-ridden and sardonic. Despite rave reviews, the commercial performance of the album and its lead single ‘Streets of Your Town’ was disappointing for the duo, who disbanded in 1989.
McLennan and Forster pursued solo careers throughout the nineties but found themselves recording together again at the turn of the century and, with the help of Sleater-Kinney, released‘The Friends of Rachel Worth’, a long 12 years after their last offering. The duo continued to record. ‘Bright Yellow Bright Orange’ came in 2003 and in 2005 The Go Betweens released what would be their last album, the gleamingly melodic ‘Oceans Apart’.
In 2006, Grant McLennan died of a heart attack aged 48 leaving Robert Forster to disband The Go Betweens. The band left behind a legacy attested by such contemporaries as Belle and Sebastian and Teenage Fanclub.
Listen to: ‘Quiet Heart’, ‘Love Goes On’, ‘Cattle and Cane’.
Sounds like: Aztec Camera, Elvis Costello, The Kinks.
Years active: 1980 to present
Not many bands can claim to be prolific and yet retain an appetite for creativity after 35 years in the game. Admittedly, It's not all been a critical success, but Steve Kilbey and Peter Koppes keep on producing the goods to this day. Last year, The Church released their 24th album.
It's been an interesting trip for Kilbey and Koppes, who first played together in a glam-rock outfit on Canberra's live circuit in the mid-seventies. In 1980 they teamed up with guitarist Marty Willson-Piper and drummer Nick Ward (the latter replaced after one record), exploring a more Byrds influenced neo-psychedelic sound. The band's debut ‘Of Skins and Heart’ achieved national success and brought significant attention to the band who would go on to release a further five albums in the 80s alone. Each record would see an evolution is style and sound.
In 1988 came ‘Starfish’ their most critically and commercially successful release to date. Here, Willson-Piper's dreamy guitar interplay provided the perfect ethereal backdrop for Kilbey's ever-increasingly surreal lyrics. The album features The Church's best known track in ‘Under the Milky Way’, a song so successful, it became a threat to the band's very existence.
The song brought a 1989 ARIA award for 'best single' and Kilbey refused to collect the award. It featured on TV ads and became a staple anthem in Australia's boozy karaoke bars. The mainstream success was unwelcome, the Church were a band eager to continue to evolve and create. The fanfare prompted Kilbey to describe the song as ‘flat, lifeless and sterile’. In 2001, the song was used on the soundtrack to Donnie Darko and despite new interest in the band, Kilbey remained resolute, omitting the song from live shows for a number of years in the fallout after the film's exposure. “We're not a bunch of old hacks regurgitating our golden years”, he said.
What the Church might lack in commercial judgement, they more than make up for in creativity and fierce commitment to their artistic principles.
Listen to: ‘To Be In Your Eyes’, ‘Under the Milky Way’, ‘Reptile’.
Sounds like: Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Joy Division.