Australian rock, sometimes called OZ Rock is used to describe the various rock and many pop bands and solo artists from Australia. Australia has a rich history of rock music and an appreciation of the roots of various rock genres, usually originating in the United States but also Britain, Ireland, Continental Europe and more recently the musical styles of Africa. Internationally, AC/DC has come to be the most well-known Australian rock band, with more than 63 million sales in the US alone.
1950s to early 1960s: the “First Wave” of Australian rock
In the mid 1950s American rockabilly and rock and roll music was taken up by local musicians and it soon caught on with Australian teens, through movies, records and from 1956, television. EMI had dominated the Australasian record market since the end of WWII, and they made British music a powerful force in the late Fities and Sixties with signings like Cliff Richard & The Shadows, The Beatles, The Hollies and Cilla Black. EMI (Australia) also locally distributed Decca (The Rolling Stones’ label) as well as the American Capitol label (The Beach Boys). During this period, however, a number of local companies in Australia expanded into the growing Australian music market, which grew considerably after the emergence of the first wave of American rock’n'roll.
In 1951 merchant bank, Mainguard took over a struggling Sydney engineering firm, retooled and relaunched it as Festival Records. Its main local competition was ARC (the Australian Record Company), a former radio production and disc transcription service that established the successful Pacific, Rodeo and Coronet labels and competed with Festival as a manufacturer/distributor in NSW.
Several major events took place in 1960. In January Festival Records was purchased by rising young media magnate Rupert Murdoch, and a few weeks later, in April, ARC was taken over by the American CBS company, who closed the Coronet label and replaced the Australian CBS label.
Although most of the major labels were based in Sydney, Melbourne’s vibrant dance and concert scene powered a local boom in rock’n'roll and pop music and it became Australia’s pop capital in the 1960s. During the Fifties luthier Bill May expanded his Maton guitar company, becoming one of the first local manufacturers of the new electric guitars and amplifiers. In 1953 precision engineering company White & Gillespie established a custom recording division, which their company history claims was the first in Australia to press records in the new vinyl microgroove format. The new division soon included the W&G label and studio. In 1960 Melbourne consumer electronics company Astor Electronics created its own record division, Astor Records, which established the Astor label and also became a leading distributor.
And then they came…
All through this period Australia was experiencing the effects of a rising tide of migration, as thousands fled the wreckage of postwar Europe. The majority of migrants were from the UK, and many were “Ten Pound Poms” who were able to take advantage of the Australian government’s generous 10 assisted-passage fare. Also, for the first time since the Gold Rush large numbers of “non-Anglo” migrants came to Australia from places like Greece, Italy, Malta, Spain, Portugal and eastern European nations like Yugoslavia, Hungary and Poland. These immigrants exerted a powerful influence on all aspects of Australian society and notably in popular music?many major Australia pop performers of the Sixties were the children of migrants from Europe and the UK.
The arrival of American entrepreneur Lee Gordon in 1953 marked a major expansion in Australian entertainment. He established himself with a record-breaking tour by American singer Johnnie Ray and Gordon’s now-legendary “Big Show” promotions brought to Australia?in many cases for the first or only time?dozens of the biggest American jazz, rock and popular stars of the era, including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Artie Shaw, Nat King Cole, Johnnie Ray, Frank Sinatra, Bill Haley & The Comets, Little Richard, Buddy Holly & The Crickets, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and many others. He also promoted local talent by using Australian acts as supports on his concerts.
In the mid-1950s Festival Records grabbed an early lead in rock’n'roll by releasing Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” in Australia in 1956 after the single had been turned down EMI/Decca. It became the biggest-selling hit ever released in Australia up to that time, and its success set Festival on its way to becoming the dominant Australian local record company for the next fifteen years.
Soon after, inspired by Elvis Presley and Little Richard, Johnny O’Keefe achieved local stardom after his breakthrough appearances on Lee Gordon’s Bill Haley tour.?O’Keefe carved out a singular career and became a legend of Australian rock music. He hosted one of Australia’s first TV pop shows, Six O’Clock Rock, became a partner in Lee Gordon’s record company, Leedon, and was the first Australian rock’n'roll performer to attempt to break into the USA. Iggy Pop acknowledged O’Keefe’s importance when he recorded a version of O’Keefe’s hit “Real Wild Child” in the 1980s, which he recently re-recorded with successful Australian band Jet. For a few years, O’Keefe and other local rockers like Lonnie Lee & The Leemen, Dig Richards & The R’Jays, Col Joye & The Joy Boys, Alan Dale & The Houserockers, Ray Hoff & The Offbeats, Digger Revell & The Denvermen and New Zealand’s Johnny Devlin & The Devils whipped up excitement on a par with their American inspirations.
The success of these ‘First Wave’ rock’n'roll acts was brief, and by the early ’60s the first boom had begun to fade. Between O’Keefe’s last major hit in 1961 and Billy Thorpe‘s first hit in 1964, the local pop scene became noticeably blander and more conservative. The charts were dominated by clean-cut acts, like the members of the so-called “Bandstand family”, most of whom were signed to Festival and were regular guests on Australia’s leading TV pop show, ‘Bandstand’,which explicitly aimed to appeal to anyone “from eight to eighty”.
An alternative to mainstream pop was instrumental ‘surf’ groups, for instance The Atlanticsand The Denvermen in Sydney, and Melbourne’s, The Thunderbirds. Many of the players in these dance bands had come from the jazz scene, and were also strongly influenced by the R&B and “jump” music of performers like Louis Jordan. Others were inspired by figures like American surf guitar players Dick Dale and Duane Eddy, and particularly by the popularity of The Shadows and American band the Ventures. The Shadows’ influence on Australasian pop and rock music of the Sixties and Seventies is still much underrated, and their lead guitarist Hank Marvin.
These instrumental bands cut their teeth playing at the dance venues in Australia’s major cities and regional towns. Like Australian jazz bands of the period, these rock’n'roll musicians became extremely accomplished players. Because dance patrons in those days actually danced as couples to traditional rhythms, dance bands in Australia and New Zealand tended to play a wide variety of musical styles.
Johnny O’Keefe’s attempt to launch an American career failed, but British-born singer Frank Ifield was one of the first Australian post-war performers to gain widespread international recognition. He was hugely successful in the UK in the early Sixties, becoming the first performer to have three consecutive #1 hits there, and his biggest hit, “I Remember You” was #1 in the UK and a Top 5 hit in the U.S.A.. Entertainer Rolf Harris also had several novelty hits during this period and became a fixture on British television with his variety show.
The Beat boom
The Beatles and other British Invasion groups had a massive impact on the Australasian music scene. These bands toured Australia and New Zealand to wild receptions in the mid-Sixties. When The Beatles’ 1964 Australian tour arrived in Adelaide, an estimated 300,000 people ? about one-third of the city’s population at that time ? turned out to see them as their motorcade made its way from the airport to the city.
The tours and recordings by ‘Beat’ groups revitalised the pop genre and inspired scores of new and established groups, who quickly developed a vibrant and distinctive local inflection of the 60s ‘beat music’ craze. The Easybeats and The Bee Gees are probably the best-known acts from this era to gain success outside Australia, but by the mid-Sixties there were hundreds of bands working in Australia and New Zealand.
1964-1969: “Second Wave”
1964?1969 is often classified as the ‘Second Wave’ of Australian rock. The leading acts of this period include Little Pattie, Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs, beat duo Bobby & Laurie (Australia’s first “long-haired” performers), the Easybeats, Ray Brown & The Whispers, Tony Worsley & The Fabulous Blue Jays, the Twilights, the Loved Ones, the Masters Apprentices, MPD Ltd, Mike Furber & The Bowery Boys, Ray Columbus & The Invaders, Max Merritt, Dinah Lee, Australia’s most popular male singer Normie Rowe, The Groop, the Groove, Lynne Randell (who toured America with the Monkees and Jimi Hendrix), Johnny Young, John Farnham, Doug Parkinson, Russell Morris and Ronnie Burnsand. Also of note were cult acts such as the Missing Links, the Purple Hearts, The Wild Cherries, The Creatures and The Throb, who had only limited success at the time but whose ‘heavier’ sound would exert a significant influence on later bands like The Saints.
It was during the ’60s that New Zealand performers began to move to Australia in search of wider opportunities. Although their origins are often overlooked (in much the same way that Canadian performers like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are routinely classified as “American”) these trans-Tasman performers ? people like Max Merritt, Mike Rudd, Dinah Lee, Ray Columbus, Bruno Lawrence, Dragon and Split Enz ? have exerted a tremendous influence on Australian popular music.
Another significant Australian from this period, and one whose importance is only now beginning to be widely recognised, was the critic and journalist Lillian Roxon (1932?1973), who grew up in Brisbane but who was based in New York from 1959 until her premature death from asthma. She was a close friend of feminist writer Germaine Greer, photographer Linda McCartney, poet Delmore Schwartz, artist Andy Warhol and many musicians including Lou Reed. Roxon wrote the world’s first Rock Encyclopedia, published in 1969, and her writings about pop music and musicians were central to the development of serious rock criticism and rock journalism in the late 1960s and 1970s.
By far the most influential and popular music-related publication of this period was the weekly magazine Go-Set, which was published from 1966 to 1974. Founded in Melbourne in 1966 by a group of former Monash University students including Philip Frazer, Tony Schauble and Doug Panther, Go-Set chronicled all of the major events, trends, fads and performers in Australian popular music, as well as featuring regular columns by renowned Melbourne radio DJ Stan Rofe and Aussie fashion designer Prue Acton.
Go-Set also published the first national Australian pop charts in October 1966 (all charts prior to this were state-based) and it gave extensive coverage to overseas musical developments?it was one of the first international music papers to report on the emergence of Jimi Hendrix and two staff members?writer Lily Brett and photographer Colin Beard ? travelled to the USA and the UK in mid-1967, reporting on the famous Monterey International Pop Festival and the burgeoning music scene in London, as well as chronicling the exploits of Australian musicians overseas including Normie Rowe and Lynne Randell. Another aspect of Go-Set’s activities was its exclusive reporting and promotion of Australia’s prestigious annual rock band competition, Hoadley’s Battle of the Sounds, which ran from 1966 to 1972. Go-Set conducted a pop poll of performers which led to the King of Pop Awards starting with Normie Rowe in 1967.
Although it was explicitly established as a ‘teens and twenties’ magazine, in its later years, inspired by newer publications like Rolling Stone magazine, Go-Set took on a more mature presentation, with numerous rock performers including Jim Keays andWendy Saddington writing for the magazine. In 1970 former columnist Ian Meldrum scored a world exclusive for Go-Set when he interviewed John Lennon in London, during which Lennon made his first public announcement that The Beatles were breaking up.
As in other countries, independent record labels proliferated during this period. The local branch of the British-owned EMI company had dominated the Australian record market since the 1920s, but in this period it faced increasing challenges from its rivals, including the Australian arm of the American CBS Records and particularly from the Sydney-based Festival Records, a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited.
Festival had its own successful house label, and it also signed valuable distribution deals with some of the most important and successful independent labels of Sixties, notably Leedon Records (which released the earliest recordings by The Bee Gees),Spin Records and the Perth-based Clarion Records. The many hits released on these independent labels comprised a significant part of Festival’s total turnover.
Other important independent pop labels of this period included the Melbourne-based W&G Records, Astor Records ? also a major distributor?and the short-lived Go!! Records label, which was set up in conjunction with the popular pop TV series The Go!! Show.
Independent studios and production companies began to play an increasingly important role in the local record industry. Arguably the most productive and influential pop studio in Australia at that time was Armstrong’s Studios in Melbourne. Studio owner and engineer Bill Armstrong was an industry veteran who had worked for major record labels, radio stations and advertising clients; and his new studio, which opened in 1965, soon became the most sought-after in the country and probably produced more Australian pop hits than any other in this era. It was also one of the first studios in the country to install 8-track and 16-track recorders in the late 1960s and early ’30s, and was an important training ground for some of Australia’s best engineers and producers including Roger Savage, John L. Sayers, Ern Rose, John French and many others.
One of the first and most important independent production companies was Albert Productions, which signed both Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs and The Easybeats.?It was established in 1969 by young music executive Ted Albert, whose family that owned Australia’s leading music publishing house J. Albert & Son and the Macquarie Radio Network, which then included leading Sydney AM pop station 2UW.
Albert Productions scored many major Australian hits (released locally on EMI’s Parlophone label) with both their flagship acts in the mid-Sixties, and the Albert Productions record label, esatblished in the early 1970s, became one of the most successful Australian labels of that decade. Other significant ‘indie’ production houses of ther period included Leopold Productions (Max Merritt, The Allusions), set up Festival’s original house producer Robert Iredale, and June Productions, led by former W&G/Astor staff producer Ron Tudor, who went on to found Fable Records in 1923.
1970-1975: “Third Wave”
After a period of flux in the late 60s, during which almost all of the dominant 60s acts dissolved or faded from view, Australian rock moved into the so-called “The Third Wave” (1970?1975), a fertile period in which newer performers and veterans of the 60s Beat Boom coalesced into new formations and developed a more mature, progressive and distinctively Australian rock style. Some of these acts were successful within Australia, but few managed to achieve any lasting local or overseas success, due to the combination of poor management, lack of record company support and lack of radio exposure.
Early “Third Wave”
Until the late 1970s, many Australian performers found it hard to become established and to maintain their profile, because of the difficulty in getting airplay on radio. Until 1975, Australian pop radio was dominated by a clique of commercial broadcasters who virtually had the field to themselves and their influence over government was such that, incredibly, no new radio licences had been issued in any Australian capital city since the prevailing industry structure had been consolidated in the early 1930s. All commercial pop radio was broadcast on the AM band, in mono, and the commercial sector strenuously resisted calls to grant new licences, introduce community broadcasting and open up the FM band (then only used for TV broadcasts in Australia) even though FM rock radio was already well-established in the United States.
Many of the more progressively-oriented artists found themselves locked out of Australian commercial radio, which concentrated on high-rotation 3-minute pop single programming. This was a result of the widespread adoption of the American-inspired “More Music” format, which had been pioneered in Los Angeles with great success by the Drake-Chenault programming consultancy.
There was a great deal of innovative and exciting music produced; although few Australians got to hear more than a fraction of it at the time, this music is undergoing a major resurgence both locally and internationally, since Australia is one of the last untapped resources of 20th-century popular music.
Landmark acts of this period include Spectrum and its successor Ariel, Daddy Cool, Blackfeather, The Flying Circus, Tully (band), Tamam Shud, Russell Morris, Jeff St John & Copperwine, Chain, Billy Thorpe & The (new) Aztecs, Headband, Company Caine, Kahvas Jute, Country Radio, Max Merritt & The Meteors, The La De Das, Madder Lake, former Easybeats lead singer Stevie Wright, Wendy Saddington, The 69′ers, The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band and country-rock pioneers The Dingoes.
Guitarist-songwriter-producer Lobby Loyde (ex Wild Cherries, Purple Hearts) was another key figure in this period, most notably with his ’70s band Coloured Balls, who gained a considerable following, despite media allegations that their music promoted skinhead violence. Lloyde had also played an important part in the re-emergence of Billy Thorpe and the ‘new’ hard-rock incarnation of the Aztecs, and his solo and band recordings in this period had a significant impact in Australia and internationally;Henry Rollins and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain are among those who have reportedly cited Lobby as an influence.
Rock musicals were another important development in Australia at this time. The local production of Hair brought future “Queen of Pop” Marcia Hines to Australia in 1970. In 1972 the hugely successful and much-praised Sydney production of Jesus Christ Superstar premiered, and this production alone included Marcia Hines, Jon English, theatre legend Reg Livermore, the two main members of Air Supply, Stevie Wright, John Paul Young and Rory O’Donoghue. It was directed by Jim Sharman, who went on to lasting international success as the director of the both the original stage production and the film version of The Rocky Horror Show.
Alongside the more obscure acts was a raft of successful pop-oriented groups and solo artists, including Sherbet, Hush, Ray Burgess, the Ted Mulry Gang (TMG) and John Paul Young, who became the first Australian performer to have a major hit in multiple international markets with his perennial “Love Is In The Air” (1978) a song which was, not coincidentally, written and produced by former Easybeats Harry Vanda and George Young, the masterminds behind many of the biggest Australian hits of the mid-to-late Seventies. The tail-end of the Second Wave gave birth to the record-breaking Skyhooks, who bridged the transition from the Third Wave into the period of the so-called New Wave music acts of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In commercial terms, howeverm Sherbet was undoubtedly the most successful of these.
The early 1970s also witnessed the first major rock festivals in Australia, which were closely modelled on the fabled Woodstock festival of 1969. The festival era was exemplified by the annual Sunbury music festival, held outside Melbourne, Victoria each January from 1972 to 1975. Although there were numerous other smaller festivals, most were not successful and failed to have the lasting impact of Sunbury. After the disastrous 1975 Sunbury festival, which sent the promoters broke, large-scale festivals were considered too risky and were only occasionally staged in Australia until the advent of the annual Big Day Out in the 1990s.
Also paralleling a US trend was the beginning of an Australian Christian music culture. One of the first examples of this ternd was the surprise success of singing nun Sister Janet Mead whose ‘rock’ arrangement of The Lord’s Prayer was a major hit in Australia and the USA and earned a gold record award in the USA. Bands like Family in Brisbane, and Kindekrist in Adelaide, started performing. Rod Boucher formed Good God Studios, which recorded a range of alternative Christian artists. Following on these foundations, later artists such as Newsboys had significant popular success.
Two important changes which had a dramatic affect the rock scene were the long-overdue introduction of colour television and FM radio in 1975. This period also saw the decline of the booming local dance and discoth-que circuit that had flourished in the 1960s and early 1970s. These rock dances were a continuation of the social dance circuit that had thrived in Australia’s cities and suburbs since the 19th century, and they were hugely popular from the late Fifties to the early Seventies, but they gradually faded in the early Seventies as the “Baby Boomer” generation grew into adulthood and changes to licencing laws saw pubs take on an increasingly important role as venues for live music.
From the 1950s to the early 1970s, the main venues for live music were discoth-ques (usually located in inner city areas), church, municipal and community halls, Police Boys’ Clubs and beachside surf clubs. Bigger concerts and international tours were usually staged in the few large-size venues, such as the legendary Sydney Stadium (originally built as a boxing arena), the Sydney Trocadero, and Brisbane and Melbourne Festival Halls. Such venues regularly attracted large numbers of young people because they were supervised, all-ages events Australia’s restrictive liquor licensing laws of the period meant that these venues and dances were almost always alcohol-free.
According to rock historian Glenn A. Baker, in 1965 there were up to 100 dances being held every weekend in and around Melbourne alone.The most popular groups frequently played almost every night of the week, commonly commuting around town, performing short sets at three or more different dances every night. It was a very lucrative circuit for musicians and even moderately popular acts could easily earn considerably more than the average weekly wage at that time.
The decline of the local dance circuit, combined with the fact that the baby boom teenagers of the Sixties were now ageing into adulthood, led to the rise of a thriving new city and suburban pub music circuit in the mid-70s, which in turn spawned a new generation of bands who cut their teeth in this often tough but formative training ground.
Teen-oriented pop music still enjoyed strong popularity during the 1970s, although much of it was sourced from overseas, and the proportion of Australian acts in the charts had hit an all-time low by 1973. That trend began to change around 1975, thanks largely to the advent of a new weekly TV pop show, Countdown, in late 1974. It gained a huge audience and soon exerted a strong influence on radio programmers, because it was broadcast nationwide on Australia’s government-owned broadcaster, theAustralian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Countdown was one of the most popular music programs in Australian TV history, and it had a marked effect on radio because of its loyal national audience ? and the amount of Australian content it featured.
The most important feature of Countdown was that it became a critical new interface between the record industry and radio. By the late 1970s, radio programmers ignored Countdown’s hit picks at their peril. Host Ian “Molly” Meldrum also frequently used the show to castigate local radio for its lack of support for Australian music. Unlike commercial TV or radio, Countdown was not answerable to advertisers or sponsors, and (in theory) it was far less susceptible to influence from record companies. Like no other ABC program before or since, it openly and actively promoted the products of these private companies. Countdown was crucial to the success of acts like John Paul Young, Sherbet, Skyhooks, Dragon and Split Enz, and it dominated Australian popular music well into the 1980s stimulating domestic demand for Australian pop and rock, with quality varying in extremes of good and bad.
The late 1970′s
The advent Double Jay and Countdown fundamentally changed the political economy of Australian popular music, and the pub circuit gave rise to a newer generation of tough, uncompromising, adult-oriented rock bands.
One of the most popular Australian groups to emerge in this period was the classic Australian pub rock band Cold Chisel, which formed in Adelaide in 1973 and enjoyed tremendous success in Australia in the late 1970s and early 1980s, although they never managed to break into other countries.
Other popular acts from this transitional period include AC/DC, Skyhooks, Richard Clapton, Ol’ 55, Jon English, Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons, The Angels, The Sports, The Radiators, Australian Crawl, Dragon, Rose Tattoo, Ross Wilson’s Mondo Rock, acclaimed soul singers Marcia Hines and Ren?e Geyer and pioneering Australian punk/new wave acts The Saints (Mk I) and Radio Birdman. The band Sebastian Hardie became known as the first Australian symphonic rock band in the mid-70s, with the release of their debut Four Moments.
Three “Australian” acts that appeared towards the end of the Second Wave - AC/DC, Little River Band and Split Enz - and lasted into the late 1970s and early 1980s achieved the long sought-after international success that finally took Australasian rock onto the world stage.
The progression of the Australian independent scene from the late seventies until the early nineties is chronicled in Stranded: The Secret History of Australian Independent Music 1977?1991 (Pan Macmillan, 1996) by author and music journalist Clinton Walker.
Australia’s main contribution to the development of punk rock, (not including sixties garage rock bands), consists of The Saints and Radio Birdman.
AC/DC are perhaps the most well-known rock group from Australia. They have sold millions of albums, toured the world several times over, broken countless attendance records, and influenced hard rock music the world over.
From their humble beginnings, Scottish brothers Angus and Malcolm Young forged a hard-hitting, ball-breaking pub guitar sound, similar to Alex Harvey but tougher. When Bon Scott joined the band to lend his unique vocal talent, the band began their ‘long way to the top’, shooting to the top of the Australian rock scene in 1974 – 75 and their song “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”. This song is now widely regarded as the Australian rock anthem. The band found a degree of international success, especially with the release of their Highway to Hell album. This was to be Bon Scott’s last album. During the subsequent tour, Scott was discovered in the backseat of a friend’s car, having died of alcohol poisoning (choking on vomit).
The band found a new singer in English-born Brian Johnson and released their next album, Back In Black, in the early ’80s. The U.S. took notice of the band with some of their finest songs, such as the title track and You Shook Me All Night Long, and the album became one of the best selling albums by a band ever, selling over 22 million copies in the U.S. and 42 million copies around the world
AC/DC are credited as a seminal influence by scores of leading hard rock and heavy metal music acts, and they are now rated the fifth-biggest selling group in U.S. recording history, with total sales of over 100 million records.
Little River Band
Another highly popular and lucrative band of this period is the soft-rock-harmony group Little River Band (LRB). Resurrected from the ashes of an earlier band called Mississippi, LRB centred on a trio of seasoned veterans.
Lead singer Glenn Shorrock had fronted Australian 60s pop idols The Twilights and singer-guitarists Beeb Birtles and Graeham Goble had been the core members of Mississippi; prior to that, Birtles had played bass in chart-topping Australian ’60s pop group Zoot whose former lead guitarist Rick Springfield also became a solo star in the USA.
Under the guidance of manager Glenn Wheatley (former bassist in The Masters Apprentices, one of the top Australian bands of the Sixties) LRB became the first Australian band to achieve major ongoing chart and sales success in the United States. They achieved huge success in the late 70s and early 80s and their single “Reminiscing” now ranks as one of the most frequently-played singles in American radio history.
Seventies and Eighties: Indie, punk, post-punk and early Australian electronica
Other developments starting from the mid 70s were the appearance of early electronica, as opposed to electronic music, as Percy Grainger had invented some obscure electronic instruments earlier, and Rolf Harris was famously associated with the Stylophone. The most notable of early electronica were Cybotron, Sydney’s Severed Heads and Melbourne’s Laughing Hands and Essendon Airport who began to experiment with tape loops and synthesisers, but did not rise to prominence until the 1980s. Electronica had existed in the Australian classical music scene with David Ahern in the late 1960s. By the late 1990s Severed Heads were signed to the influential label Nettwerk records. Single Gun Theory had been with Nettwerk since 1987. The pop band Mi-Sex scored a major hit with the single “Computer Games” in 1980, which was one of the first Australian pop recordings to employ sequenced synthesiser backings. In 1980 producer Mark Moffatt pioneered?dance technology by becoming the first in the world to use a Roland 808 rhythm composer and MC 4 digital sequencer on record with his studio project the Monitors.
Following the punk movement several influential bands of this post-punk era were The Birthday Party, led by Nick Cave, Foetus, The Go-Betweens, SPK, Dead Can Dance, These Immortal Souls, Crime and the City Solution, No, Louis Tillett, Laughing Clowns, Kim Salmon and the Surrealists, Beasts of Bourbon.
While many Australasian bands from the 1980s remained cult acts outside of Australia, some, including Little River Band, Men at Work, AC/DC, INXS, Midnight Oil, and later Crowded House, found wide success throughout the decade. Groups with international hit singles included Real Life with Catch Me I’m Falling , Send Me an Angel, Divinyls with
Pleasure and Pain , Big Pig with Breakaway and Rick Springfield with Jessie’s Girl, Moving Pictures had a hit album with Days of Innocence. Jimmy Barnes and Michael Hutchence performed Good Times (THE COLLABORATION THAT INSPIRED THE ‘RIFF’ ALBUM) a song by the Australian songwriting duo Vanda & Young and it was included on The Lost Boys soundtrack. Expatriate Mike Chapman continued his career as a prominent record producer and co-wrote Mickey which became a major hit when Toni Basil performed it.
Originally beginning under the name of the Farriss Brothers in Sydney during 1977, INXS eventually took on the band-name that would take them to international fame and released their first self-titled album in 1980, which featured their first Aussie hit, Just Keep Walking. Four years later, the band’s single Original Sin from the album The Swing would open the door to worldwide recognition, but their breakthrough release was the album Listen Like Thieves that truly put them on the international stage. INXS, as a band, came to a stop in 1997 when singer Michael Hutchence was found dead in a hotel room.
The 1980s was a boom period for veteran Baby Boomer acts, this includes occasionally critically praised, popular acts such as The Party Boys, James Reyne, Models, Sunnyboys, Hunters & Collectors, Machinations, Johnny Diesel, Matt Finish, Ward 13, Hands Off, Hoodoo Gurus, Chantoozies, The Dugites, The Numbers , The Swingers, Spy Vs Spy, Eurogliders, Mental As Anything, Boom Crash Opera, I’m Talking, Do R? Mi, Rockmelons, Stephen Cummings, The Reels, The Stems, Paul Kelly, Nick Barker, Paul Norton, Jenny Morris, The Triffids, The Choirboys, Icehouse, Redgum, Goanna, 1927, Max Q, Noiseworks, GANGgajang , The Black Sorrows and The Zorros.
The mainstream taste was to tap into the “classic” Fifties rock look, with a contemporary touch, while alternative rockers were often identifiable for sixties and seventies retro. At this time Goth fashion was very unusual and heavily applied black mascara was the sign of a deeply troubled person.
Many of these acts often topped the Australian charts but never gained international success. Mainstream Australian rock of the eighties was generally uncontroversial with the exception of Kylie Minogue for her limited vocal range, Chrissy Amphlett and Ecco Homo, who were deemed by some to be too sexually provocative and Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty”, which was commonly objected to by some because Paul Kelly co-wrote it. Nick Cave was not famous in Australia until Triple J Radio became a nationwide, prominent broadcaster. Audiences who went to The Angels gig were famous for their good humoured response “No way, get fucked, fuck off!” to the lead singer’s lyric “Am I ever going to see your face again?”.
Mainstream acts such as singers John Farnham, Darryl Braithwaite and Jimmy Barnes were very successful for many years within Australia, but remain largely unknown outside the country. Farnham’s commercial comeback was one the biggest success stories in Australian music in that decade, the former “King of Pop” spent years out of favour with the public and the industry, often reduced to working in suburban clubs, but he returned in 1986 with the album Whispering Jack, which became the biggest-selling album of that year and remains one of the biggest selling Australian records. His manager was Glenn Wheatley, former manager of Little River Band.
Renowned artists such as singer-songwriter Paul Kelly and his band The Coloured Girls (renamed The Messengers for America), ambient-rock-crossover act Not Drowning, Waving and Aboriginal-band Yothu Yindi drew inspiration from distinctly Australian concerns, particularly from the land, and they were critically well received within Australia, and also found international listeners.
One noteworthy group in this decade was the pioneering Aboriginal group Warumpi Band from the Northern Territory, whose landmark single “Jailanguru Pakarnu (Out from Jail)” was the first rock single ever recorded in an Aboriginal language. Triple J was the cutting edge radio station of the time and was instrumental in bringing this band to public attention, as were Midnight Oil, who took the group on national tours with them. Their classic 1987 single “My Island Home” was successfully covered by Christine Anu in the 1990s. Another memorable song of the Aboriginal rock scene is “Black Boy” by Coloured Stone.
Critically acclaimed acts like The Church, Cosmic Psychos, the darkwave-world music group Dead Can Dance, Hunters & Collectors, Hoodoo Gurus, Scribble, The Moodists, The Deadly Hume, The Wreckery, the second incarnation of The Saints, Laughing Clowns, The Go-Betweens and a new band formed by Nick Cave and Mick Harvey, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, developed consistent followings in Europe and other regions. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and the side project Honeymoon in Red were heavy on the pop cultural references to cult favourites like Johnny Cash and Saul Bass and lurid pulp fiction. Their pop art influenced style anticipated the Quentin Tarantino craze of the following decade. From the late seventies to the late eighties there was also a lively Australian post-punk scene which was made up of bands that showed obvious influences of bands such as Tangerine Dream, Wire, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Suicide. New Zealand’s Fetus Productions briefly lived and worked in Australia. Of the early Australian electronica scene just a few truly memorable recordings emerged, for example “Lamborghini” by Severed Heads, “Pony Club” by The Limp “The Pilot Reads Crosswords” by Scattered Order and the electronica of Hugo Klang. Makers Of The Dead Travel Fast and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were precursors of postrock. SPK was a sinister industrial band in the early 80s and they surprised many of their fans by reinventing themselves as a fashion friendly synthpop group in the mid 80s. SPK’s sound was unlike the chilly asexual minimalism of many little known experimental bands of the time. Australian Crawl, a chart topping rock group, dabbled in minimalist composition with “Reckless”, using a very simple bassline and voice, without alienating their established audience.
Use of Violin was unusual in Australian rock bands and two bands who did were Box the Jesuit and Crime and the City Solution.
Detroit rock influenced bands such as the Celibate Rifles, The Scientists, Lime Spiders and The Hitmen would serve as a link between the garage rock revival of the 1980s and the grunge scene to follow. From the bassy “I Don’t Wanna Go Out” by X in 1979 and throughout the eighties the Australian indie rock scene produced catchy melodic songs with heavy guitar and bass backing. Examples are Johnny Teen and The Broken Hearts “I Like It Both Ways”, “I Lied” by The Pony, Too Much Acid byPineapples from the Dawn of Time, Chewin’ by Space Juniors, These Immortal Souls’ “Blood and Sand, She Said” and The Scientists’ “Swampland”. Some bands had a foot in both the mainstream and alternative scenes, for example, The Johnnys, Hunters & Collectors, Hoodoo Gurus, TISM, Painters and Dockers. In 1989 the group No released “Once We Were Scum, Now We Are God”, an Ep that was in parts as hard rock as The Cult, despite No being generally perceived as an “underground” band.
Noise rock acts included Lubricated Goat and People With Chairs Up Their Noses. Some of the louche pub rock names of the time were People With Chairs Up Their Noses, Free Beer, Shower Scene From Psycho, Thug.
The Mark of Cain, one of the better and more faithful hard rock bands of the decade, formed in Adelaide between 1984-85.
The decade also saw perhaps the most concerted examination of the routine and everyday aspects of suburban and inner-city life since perhaps The Executives 1960′s classic “Summer Hill Road.” This approach was explored not only by Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls (in songs like “From St. Kilda To Kings Cross” and “Leaps and Bounds”) but also by The Little Heroes (e.g. “Melbourne is Not New York”), John Kennedy’s Love Gone Wrong e.g. “King Street” and The Mexican Spitfires e.g. “Sydney Town” and “Town Hall Steps.”
Hong Kong’s Leslie Cheung covered Big Pig’s “Breakaway” in 1989, in this decade, one of the rare instances of a popular overseas artist covering a song by a popular Australian band (other than AC/DC).
Iconic music festivals of the decade included the Narara Music Festival, Australian Made and Turn Back the Tide at Bondi.
1990s – ravers and alternative rockers
The Big Day Out
In 1990, Boxcar released their first album, Vertigo. Central Station Records in Sydney was one of the leading retailers of dance music. The Sydney street press became half and half dance music and rock.
Highlights in rock from people of ATSI background were Archie Roach’s Took the Children Away, Christine Anu’s Party and her version of My Island Home and Yothu Yindi’s World Turning.
Fans of early punk band The Saints were excited when Ed Kuepper reunited with members of The Saints and played and recorded as The Aints. Kuepper was at the time receiving praise from the critics for his album Today Wonder, that featured simply Kuepper singing and on guitar and Mark Dawson on drums.
In 1991, the band Necrotomy played live on the Peter Couchman talk show special Couchman on Heavy Metal during a period of media controversy about Heavy Metal music.
Another acoustic act of the late nineties was Machine Translations.
The nineties was famous for not only grunge but also eclecticism with Machine Gun Fellatio and Def FX being popular cross-genre acts.
Cranky was well known for the song “Australia, Don’t Become America”.
Gerling, an alternative rock and electronica band, formed in 1993, as was the pop?punk band Noise Addict featuring Ben Lee, who went on to be a prominent singer and songwriter into the following decade.
Peril was an attempt to make the self-styled avant garde music of the Tzadik Records label.
Musicians and music fans of the nineties tended to be less nostalgic for pre-punk rock compared to those of previous decade. The Cruel Sea and Divinyls were exceptions, showing the influence of the music of the sixties. Dave Graney and TISM continued to be popular with their irreverent commentary on contemporary culture.
Baby Animals, a noisy band with a feisty female singer, released their eponymous debut album in 1991. They were briefly successful, however Australian music lovers preferred their feisty women foreign, for instance interest in Americans Courtney Loveand L7. Commercial rock radio stations and, in spite of their SNAG image, Triple J have fostered a music scene that allows female singers to mainly be mawkish, bland and demure. Examples are Frente! and The Waifs. At the time, groups like Frente! and The Waifs were a welcome relief from the dourness of grunge and the many alternative acts espousing angst, choofers (stoners), the Slacker work ethic, fashionable cynicism and sarcasm, heroin chic and the idealised suffering artist.
Throughout the developed world, alternative rock of various kinds became more popular during the 1990s, especially grunge.
As in other countries, independent music festivals also saw a resurgence in popularity, notably the Big Day Out (which began in Sydney in 1992) attracted and helped build the careers of many Australian acts as well as showcasing international artists to a local audience, and the Woodford Folk Festival, attracting large crowds in South Eastern Queensland.
Notable Australian independent acts of the time included the Falling Joys from Canberra; Diana Anaid from Nimbin; Magic Dirt from Geelong, Tumbleweed from Wollongong; The Superjesus from Adelaide; Regurgitator, Powderfinger, Screamfeeder, The Sallyanne Hate Squad and Custard from Brisbane; Something for Kate, The Living End, Dirty Three, Rebecca’s Empire, Bodyjar and The Meanies from Melbourne; Jebediah, The Blackeyed Susans from Perth, RatCat, The Clouds, You Am I, Vicious Hairy Mary, Caligula, The Whitlams, The Crystal Set, The Cruel Sea, Crow, Nitocris, Skulker, Frenzal Rhomb, Pollyanna from Sydney; Spiderbait from Finley, New South Wales and Silverchair, who began as a teenage combo in Newcastle, were discovered by Triple-J and have since become one of the most successful Australian bands of all time. The changes brought about in this period and the aforementioned bands are discussed in the book The Sell-In by music journalist Craig Mathieson, And of course there was that apocalyptic electro/industrial metal sound that Jerk had that took the country by storm around the year 2000.
Frank Bennett covered many of the fashionable alternative rock bands in big band mode. His version of Radiohead’s Creep was his most well known recording. His music was less danceable than overseas Retro swing acts Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Brian Setzer Orchestra. Frank Bennett was deeply ironic and only had moderate success with audiences who were attracted to the romanticised Harry Connick, Jr.. Music in the style of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett was unfashionable in the Alternative rock scene, stigmatised by the derisive term Lounge Lizard. Singers Dave Graney, Tex Perkins and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (particularly for their album The Good Son), also drew on the styles. By the end of the decade there was renewed interest inLounge music from elements of the club scene, the interest being in both the composition and the campness.
The Screaming Jets was a popular hard rock act from Newcastle. Having a down to earth image, they and Divinyls were examples of bands that survived the backlash against so called Hair Rock of the Eighties (i.e. Warrant, Poison, Europe, Cinderella). In 1994, hard rock band The Poor charted at #30 in the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks with “More Wine Waiter Please”. The Candy Harlots‘ 1990 Foreplay EP reached 17 in the ARIA national Top 100 chart.
The nationalisation of Triple J was well received across the country where there was little in the way of Australian radio content that was not crassly commercial, stale or blatantly sexist, racist or homophobic. Triple J also embraced political incorrectness, playing songs such as “Backdoor Man” by Pauline Pantsdown, “(He’ll Never Be An) Ol’ Man River” and All Homeboys Are Dickheads (New jack swing style) by TISM, “Closer to Hogs” a song about bestiality by the Nine Inch Richards and unashamed displays of inner-Western Sydney cultural chauvinism.
Paul Capsis was one of the few rock acts to work with a theatre director, Barrie Kosky.
Killing Heidi had a hit song with “Mascara” in 1999.
Raja Ram was one half of Shpongle and their debut album in 1999 was Are You Shpongled?.
Roots music continued to have a strong appeal, with acts such as Blues band Bondi Cigars and Zydeco band Psycho Zydeco.
The comedy quiz show Good News Week was regularly signed off with Paul McDermott singing his rendition of Hunters & Collectors’ stodgy classic “Throw Your Arms Around Me”.
Triple J’s Come Together festival
Several Australian rock bands saw international success in Europe and the US. Notable examples include The Vines, who rose to prominence in the UK before becoming known in Australia, and Jet. Jet, influenced by seminal 1960s acts such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, had their single “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” used in an Apple iPod commercial, and consequently have sold 3 million copies in the US alone. Another band which had great success is Wolfmother, a hard rock band, very influenced by 1960s/1970s psychedelic rock and heavy metal bands, like Black Sabbath. In 2007, Wolfmother were awarded a Grammy for best hard rock performance for their extremely successful single “Woman”.
Apart from those bands which achieved international success, one of the well known Australian rock bands of the first decade of the 21st century was Grinspoon. They first achieved success in the music industry in 1995 after being Unearthed by Triple J, and have been a mainstay of festivals such as the Big Day Out ever since.
Domestically, roots music, seemingly a catch-all term for somewhat more laid-back acoustic music covering blues, country and folk influences, came to some prominence, including Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu,The John Butler Trio, and the plaintive harmonies of The Waifs. A number of “blues and roots” festivals have sprung up and are attracting large audiences.
As well as these uniquely “Aussie Bands”, 2005 in particular sparked many brand new Australian “indie rock” bands such as End Of Fashion who won ARIA awards for their debut self-titled album and hit song “Oh Yeah” (as well as performing at the Homebake festival and appearing on talk show Rove Live several times). There is also Kisschasy who appeared in concert on October 2, 2005 with teen favourite Simple Plan. Another band to appear on the scene at this time were John Smith Quintet wielding their new brand of funk onto the Australian charts and music scene.
A wave of female fronted, PJ Harvey-esque bands emerged in Australia during the early 2000s, most notably Little Birdy and Love Outside Andromeda. And with the phenomenial success of Missy Higgins, artists such as Sarah Blasko and others have found themselves a strong following.
There has also been an abundance of modern rock bands who have been influenced by the alternative and progressive scenes. Bands like The Butterfly Effect, Karnivool, Mammal and Cog have all seen success, with The Butterfly Effect probably gaining the most international attention.
Australian hardcore punk is an active rock music subgenre with a dedicated following. Many bands never tour outside their home state but enjoy a relatively large local fanbase. Recorded material of their work may be hard to acquire as live shows are the mainstay of the scene.
The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethic is strong with local distributors and small record labels active in most capital cities. Unlike the United States relatively few bands are straight edge or influenced by particular political views or religious convictions.
The strong sense of DIY ethics embarrassed by independent street press and community radio stations mostly in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth forms a breeding ground for creative artist who wish to explore the audio spectrum as seen in Sticky Carpetrockumentary of Melbourne music scene.
In recent years, Australian hardcore bands have been growing in fanbase and success, the most notable being Byron Bay’s Parkway Drive signing to American punk/hardcore record label Epitaph Records.
Pendulum bassist Gareth McGrillen. The band mixes numerous genres, including electronic.
The first popular Australian rock song to resemble contemporary dance music was the funky The Real Thing (1969) by Russell Morris. The high beats per minute blip of mainstream Electronic music in Australia appeared in the early 1980s with Severed Heads’ Lamborghini. Severed Heads formed in 1979 and were the first electronic group to play the Big Day Out. The band achieved long term success, winning an ARIA Award in 2005 for “Best Original Soundtrack” for The Illustrated Family Doctor, where lead singer Tom Ellard said the band would never fit into mainstream music.
Traditional rock bands such as Regurgitator have developed an original sound by combining heavy guitars and electronic influences, and rock-electro groups, most notably Rogue Traders, have become popular with mainstream audiences. However, Cyclic Defrost, the only specialist electronic music magazine in Australia, was started in Sydney (in 1998) and is still based there. Radio still lags somewhat behind the success of the genre?producer and artist manager Andrew Penhallow told Australian Music Online that “the local music media have often overlooked the fact that this genre has been flying the flag for Australian music overseas”.
(Compiled by Snake Sixx – It is still a work in progress)