Titans of Aussie rock

Over the last couple of months we’ve seen the death of two Australian music legends, brothers George and Malcolm Young.

George was a driving force behind the Easybeats, who were a great Australian band of the sixties. They had a bunch of songs chockful of classic guitar riffs, and in Friday On My Mind, one of the most perfect songs of the era. Later George joined with fellow band member Harry Vanda to become a legendary song-writing and production duo.

Malcolm was the younger brother of George, and with his brother Angus formed the nucleus of one of the greatest rock bands of all time, AC/DC. It’s hard to imagine two better rock guitarists than Malcolm and Angus Young.

Vanda & Young guided AC/DC to the top of the charts, with Bon Scott as their lead singer. These are all fucking legendary names, and a great era of Australian guitar rock.

As it happened I watched a dramatization of the Easybeats story a few weeks ago, followed on by a fascinating documentary on the music and characters of that era, and the Albert’s sound – the production company that broke, and then nurtured these great performers.

I was just a kid back then when AC/DC where making it, but have sketchy memories, especially of the classic video of AC/DC performing It’s a Long Way to the Top on the back tray of a truck driving down Swanston street. Great video, great song. A few years later I remember my best mate and next door neighbour, Peter Woody, buying the Back in Black LP and us playing it on high rotation. And for many years I can recall a piece of graffiti scrawled on a bench at Montmorency railway station: Bon Scott lives!

I was rapt watching these shows, nostalgic, but also fascinated by the stories and the progression from those early days to a professional and mighty music industry. It made me realise things I’d never really taken much notice of until then. I knew Stevie Wright, and have his epic song Evie on my iTunes. What I hadn’t realised was what a powerful and charismatic front man he was. For a little fella he packed a lot of power in his voice and performance, and more attitude than ultimately he could survive. I came away convinced than in the story of Australian rock music he’s one of the three outstanding front men – he, Bon Scott, and Michael Hutchence. What does it mean that they all died prematurely?

Like so many I loved Bon Scott. He had the perfect voice for a rock band like AC/DC, a powerful snarl laden with rugged experience. Added to that he had a style that at a distance seemed menacing, but in fact he was a rad Aussie, a larrikin with energy you could bottle. He was on the edge and liked it there, and it captivated thousands of fans like me. He wasn’t just a voice (like Brian Johnson), he was a persona. I’m one of the old school fans who think the Bon Scott years were the best of AC/DC.

I remember the days of Aussie guitar bands and pub rock and in your face attitude and they’re just great memories. We’ve been lucky.


These are the times we lose what we had

Seems like most Saturday mornings these days have become tribute sessions in my home.

I do the same thing pretty well every Saturday. I’ll head out the door near 10 and walk the short distance to Hampton shops where I’ll do the bulk of my weekly shopping – groceries, bread, and the few meat veggies I haven’t previously bought at Vic Market. I’ll come home, unpack my groceries and clean the kitchen while I listen to music through my Apple TV.

Lately, I’ve been returning home and playing the music of recently deceased musicians. A couple of months back I played the music of Soundgarden and Chris Cornell back to back. A few weeks back it was Linkin Park’s turn after the death of Chester Bennington. After hearing of his death yesterday I’ve played the select few songs of Glen Campbell this morning.

I don’t have a lot of songs by Campbell, but they’re great songs. Wichita Lineman has to be one of the most poignant and evocative songs of all time. He has such an easy voice that yet expresses the yearning the song expresses. Beneath it is the strumming of the guitar that sets the pace of the song and somehow allows you to picture the windswept, lonely plains the song evokes. This is in my top 50 songs, and this an ideal version (though the Clouds did a great cover about 20 years ago).

The other song I have of his is Galveston. To me, this has a similar quality. I don’t know if I imagine it, but I always picture a man about to go off to war and an uncertain future and looking back towards his hometown, and the sweetheart he has there. He sings with a melancholy hope that he may yet get back to what he realises he really loves. We never find out if he does.

See, that’s the power of the music. The words of the song suggest the tale but don’t tell it, yet the combination of voice and music and tone create that sense. That’s how we come to love music, how it plays to our memories and inspires our imagination, our longing, our own sense of wonder and belief.

Both these songs are Jimmy Webb classics. He must be one of the most prolific and successful songwriters of all time.

These are the only two songs I have of Campbell, though I have a wider appreciation of him. I was never a fan of Rhinestone Cowboy, but I might have had Where’s the Playground, Susie? on my playlist.

The deaths of musicians and actors and those others who have regularly featured in our life always make us reflect. It’s like a little bit of your own history gets buried with them. When you get to my age you begin to see the long trail. Glen Campbell was 81, and from an era earlier than mine, but I felt it keenly when Chris Cornell died at the same age I am now.

One memory that popped into my head yesterday was curious. I had a random recollection of flicking through my bohemian aunt’s record collection sometime in the eighties and coming across an album by Glen Campbell. I must have paused. I knew some of his songs, and his smiling, handsome face was familiar to me, if only by viewing True Grit.

My aunt will be dead near 15 years come next year, but memories like this remind you that other lives have come before. Whatever trials I experience, or you, whatever joys or whatever simple pleasures we experience others have experienced before. We hold it close to ourselves, but it’s common experience in different guises, generation after generation.

Once my aunt must have picked up that album and thought to buy it. She worked, she played, possibly she loved. She was a woman of strong opinion and independent ways, affectionate and adoring to us as children. She must have played that album looking out over the harbour from her apartment in Watsons Bay, which is when I would have found it.

It wasn’t there years later after her death when I packed up her house. What happened to that album? I don’t know. She went on for a while, and then she didn’t, and all she had was scattered to the winds. But I remember.


Keeping me going

I reckon the thing I’ll miss most if and when I die is music. It has such a power to stir and rouse, to thread itself through your life entwining with your memories. If you live close to it, as I have, it becomes a sort of mirror of your existence. It’s hard to believe you could lose that – not the just I have cherished throughout all these years, but the music too that I’m yet to discover. Man, it kills me sometimes I love it so much.

I switched on the TV before and switched to a music channel and they were playing the top 50 songs of the ’70’s. A very young looking David Bowie performed Golden Years, a great song. Now he’s a performer I come to appreciate more and more as I get older. Then there was a great laid-back Aussie song, Eagle Rock by Daddy Cool.

Then one of my all time faves. There was Phil Lynott out front of Thin Lizzy performing on the steps of the Sydney Opera House singing The Boys Are Back in Town. I love that song, always have, and it has such a killer riff. A lot of attitude, both band and song, though Phil now is long gone.

Right now Boz Scaggs is singing The Lido Shuffle. I know it because everyone’s parent had a copy of Silk Degrees in the mid-seventies. It was a monster album in the adult market, but it’s a cool song.

Fuck off, now it’s Abba. Gee they were big, but more popular with the girls. Looking back now and listening they had a stream of catchy, near perfect pop songs. This one’s Mama Mia, such a fun song, but the times then were fun to weren’t that? Or is that just looking back with a nostalgic glow. I was a schoolboy. I remember learning the trumpet in music classes and a choir we had briefly singing an Abba song I think, though I could be wrong. All the boys loved the blonde, Agnetha, but I always preferred the brunette, Frida, and still do. Boys are simple, and men too, give them a buxom blonde and they’re happy. I prefer the subtle and sophisticated, but I doubt when I was 11 or 12 that came much into it.

That’s what I mean. So many memories.

That’s my afternoon sorted. Channel surfing between this and the footy while I do the housework and a bunch of cooking. Music, it keeps you going.

What’s a great Aussie song?

Switched the TV over to one of the music channels yesterday and caught a playlist of, allegedly, the 50 best Aussie songs. I listened to it in the background, then watched for a bit switching between the footy. I agreed with a lot of the picks, and disagreed with a few too. Anyway, it got me thinking, and being a bloke I decided to put my own list together.

Now I’m not going to list 50 songs, and I’m not going to put them in order either because I reckon that’s impossible.

  • Buy Now Pay Later (Charlie No. 2) – The Whitlams
  • No Aphrodisiac – The Whitlams

Coupla Whitlam’s songs, which won’t be popular with everyone, but Buy Now is a very poignant song, and No Aphrodisiac was a quirky hit at the time, added more for spice than any other reason.

  • Harpoon – Something For Kate
  • Captain – Something For Kate

Something For Kate are a forgotten, overlooked band, but they had a couple of cracking songs. These aren’t the very top shelf, but they certainly belong in a top 40. Harpoon was a cover of a great Jebediah song, and a better version.

  • These Days – Powderfinger
  • Passenger – Powderfinger

Long, celebrated Australian career, but a tad unfashionable Powderfinger. IMO these are their two best songs.

  • State of the Heart – Mondo Rock
  • Cool World – Mondo Rock

Now we’re going back to the early eighties. Ross Wilson, stalwart of Australian rock music, lead singer of Mondo Rock and been around forever – he’s also got another track on this list with Daddy Cool, when he had long hair. State of the Heart is just a very beautiful, very true song, and has memory associations for me. Cool World is just a very catchy, very clever pop song.

  • Power and the Passion – Midnight Oil
  • Short Memory – Midnight Oil
  • Blue Sky Mine – Midnight Oil

The Oils have got to be on this list, and probably unlucky to have only three songs on it. I reckon they were the best band in the world for a bit, and their passionate, hooky songs are classics. I don’t know which is my favourite. Great band.

  • Because I Love You – Masters Apprentices

Hands up who knows this song? Kinda psychedelic, late 60s/early 70s, this song creeps up on you.

  • Great Southern Land – Icehouse

This is a great song in its own right, but it also rouses a patriotic urge in me too.

  • Throw Your Arms Around Me – Hunters and Collectors

A classic Australian band, but this is their standout song. They recorded a few versions of it, most of them not it justice, but they got it right in the end. Much covered, this features Mark Seymour’s raw, imperfect voice, but it adds something to it. Has some great lyrics. Close to the top of this list.

  • What’s My Scene – Hoodoo Gurus
  • Bittersweet – Hoodoo Gurus

The Hoodoos are just a great Aussie band, catchy, fun songs, these are their two best. Continue reading

Another voice silenced

I couldn’t believe it when I heard Chris Cornell was dead. It couldn’t be true I thought, just one of those internet rumours that later turn out to be rubbish. It wasn’t a rumour, though. It was true.

It’s funny, I just wrote about him in passing the other day. As I did I wondered at the music still to come from him, thinking, at least he would do some good stuff. He won’t though, not now. He’s gone.

I saw him about 5 years ago at the Palace theatre with a couple of mates. He was great. He had that mighty voice, the best voice in rock music, but he had presence too, and humour. He was a good bloke.

That’s what makes this harder in a way. There’s a great sense of loss that another of the voices I grew up has now been silenced. That feels a real thing, but even so, it feels a little different with Cornell. There’s a lot from that great generation of musicians that have passed on, but – without being rude about it – many that didn’t come as a great surprise. Many had troubled or volatile lives, many with a history of substance abuse, many who – despite their fame – who lived on the edge. Chris Cornell was not like that – at least he didn’t appear to be so.

He always appeared to be very fit and healthy. Though he had lived in the heady world of rock music there was never any suggestion that I knew of that he lived dangerously. He had his moments with drugs and alcohol, but seemingly without the self-destructive intent of so many others. He seemed happily married and perfectly grounded. He was revered and successful, but he seemed real too, the sort who easily met my criteria of someone I’d have a beer with.

It’s emerged this morning that it was suicide. In a way it makes sense of things – how does a fit and healthy 52 year old die? It makes it even sadder though, and I’m at a loss. It’s an awful tragedy.

Last night it was in my head all night and I went to bed feeling an indeterminate anger. I lay there trying to figure it out. Maybe it was because it seemed so unlikely – or at least, so wrong. Maybe it was because it was another good person gone – and too many lately. Maybe it was more personal – I grew up with Soundgarden, and later Audioslave, and Chris Cornell was a regular voice in my ear. He is of my generation, almost exactly my age, and he has gone now while I remain and I tried to riddle that. Finally there was a sense that as time goes by it feels as if my team becomes depleted and me – and people like me – are left remaining, clinging to memories of a time fast fading, and the people of that time plucked from us one by one. Once it was our world, now it is not – and the world is much changed.

That night at the Palace I surreptitiously taped some of his performance. I have a heap of his music on my iTunes, but I reckon those recordings, more intimate, more gritty, will come to mean more to me because I was there and he spoke to me that night, as he did to hundreds of others, and many thousands more through his career. That much we share.

On a final note it seems I am writing a lot lately about people who have passed away. I wonder at that myself. It feels abnormal, but wonder if the frequency will remain at this level. Are these the times? I don’t want to write so much of these things and I’ve decided to refrain when I can. I’m not here to write eulogies, and it’s too damn depressing besides.

Music then and now

Last Saturday week I went out for dinner with the boys. We had a few drinks at a cool bar before walking across the road to a very hip, newly opened restaurant serving modern Mexican and umpteen types of margaritas. Right up my alley.

Being a boys night out the conversation was broad and often robust. Sport had a good run through, we touched upon work, naturally, and even real estate. We discussed a potential day away tasting wines down Red Hill way, and some mythical time when we might actually get away for a golf weekend. We talked booze and food, and finally, we talked music.

All of us are around the same age. Two of us are very keen on music. Each of us is pretty opinionated. The one thing we could all agree upon is how music has changed since we were kids.

I’m not about to regale you with stories of how it was better in my day. It’s natural for me to think that because it’s what I grew up with in my formative years. The music of my youth is the cultural equivalent of a home cooked meal. Sentimentality mixes with familiarity, and with a good dose of memory thrown in. That’s the thing about music – it’s not just the song.

We are pretty knowledgeable though. Over the years we’ve gathered a plethora of popular and arcane knowledge. We’ve watched musical styles come and go, enjoyed some, and enjoyed others less. It’s fair to say that right now – and probably the last 8-10 years – is a musical era we enjoy less than the eras before (my favourite would be the early nineties). In our discussion, we were able to unpick the musical differences with some aptitude – not just styles, but methods; not just trends, but themes. We ranged over where music sits within modern culture, harking back to a time when every kid wanted to play drum or lead guitar in a rock band, when music was an essential soundtrack to the angst of your teenage (and after) life, when music was about sex. From where we sat, well removed from daily pop culture, it seemed quite different.

One of the conversational threads we happened across was how few rock bands there is today – and that many of them are holdovers from 20 years ago. U2 are still going around somehow, as are Green Day. Foo Fighters are reliable for a good album every couple of years, the Arctic Monkeys, Queens of the Stone Age, and doubtless more, including many that flash onto the scene, and off again (I exclude the real heavy metal, which is a niche product). The rock era is gone though – the era we grew up with – and so too is the attitude that went with it.

I used to put a list together of my favourite songs of the year. It’s the High Fidelity list-making side of me that many men possess, the need to catalogue, classify and interpret. I started doing it when I was about 17 and occasionally come across a list scrawled in poor hand-writing not seen since the late eighties. It’s an interesting nostalgia trip.

I used to publish some of the lists here, though I’ve trailed off in recent years simply because there’s been a lot less to capture my attention. That remains true – but also true is the fact that good music, including rock music, is still being produced, it’s just that often it’s a lot harder to find than it used to be. Mainstream music these days appears more electronic based, rather than guitar, or is themed more towards a teenage audience. It’s a matter of taste, but I’m drawn more towards indy and alternative music these days.

For that reason, I think it’s wiser to hold off on announcing my favourite songs until a few years later because often it takes a while to unearth the music I like.

Anyway, today I’m combining my list for 2014/15 into one list – because it would be too light on if I didn’t. Even so, while these are good songs I don’t think a single one could be called a classic, and few would rate alongside my picks of 20 years ago.

Having made all those statements two of my favourite songs from 2014 were monster hits. Hard to resist the voice of Paloma Faith though – it’s a mighty instrument, and so the first two songs are hers:

Only Love Can Hurt Like This – Paloma Faith (2014)

Changing – Sigma w. Paloma Faith (2014)

More typically:

Chemical Plant – Robert Ellis (2014) – brooding and elegiac.

He Won’t Come – Ezra Vine (2014)

And there’s a dance tune I don’t mind, kinda catchy:

Outside – Calvin Harris w. Ellie Goulding (2014)

Looking back now 2015 was a slightly better year:

Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart – Chris Cornell (2015) – the best voice in rock music.

The Sound of Silence – Disturbed (2015) – a cover, and maybe even a slightly clichéd cover, but pretty powerful.

Do You Remember – Jarryd James (2015) – has an insistent, soulful, dreamy quality. Hooked the first time I heard it. Great production.

The Night We Met – Lord Huron (2015) – a good example of the slow burn. I only discovered this last week watching 13 Reasons Why. I find a lot of music that way, more so than from radio and the charts. I’d be lost without Shazam. This is a tender piece of music.

Sugar – Robin Schulz w. Francesco Yates (2015) – man, this is pure sex. Gotta move to this, gets in your bloodstream.

Elastic Heart – Sia (2015) – another dance tune, but likewise pretty irresistible. Can’t forget the video either.

Make You Better – The Decembrists (2015) – actually, a great band I should have referred to earlier. At last some jangling guitar.


Music to pass by

On the plane back from Brisbane on Thursday after a wearying day, I had my headphones on listening to music when for reasons unknown I began pondering the music I’d select for my funeral (assuming that one day I pass away).

I’ve written about this before, though not in detail. The music should be reflective of me and given my eclectic tastes, it’s my preference that there are a variety of musical genres.

I nominated Glen Gould’s version of the aria from Goldberg Variations previously. He was a great pianist, and his version is not just sublime, it’s incredibly intimate. This would be played as background to a reflective phase of the ceremony.

One of my favourite pieces of classical music is St Matthew Passion. Funnily enough, it’s another Bach tune, but he does seem an apt composer for funereal events. His music was written for the church, and every bit of it has a profound spiritual dimension. Passion is an utterly sublime and deeply moving piece of music, and the choral elements join the worldly to the spiritual. This is the music either walking in, or more likely as the ceremony ends.

A part of me wonders if I should include another classical composer to speak for the other parts of my soul – and I think of Beethoven and his vivid, lived-in, stormy music. If I were to choose a piece by him then it would be the 2nd movement from the 7th Symphony, music I have always found immensely stirring as it builds upon itself, swelling sinuously to a point that invites wonder. Bach’s music is fit for the human condition striving for something more holy; Beethoven’s music is a soundtrack to vivid living.

Other classical pieces I might have selected was Mozart with his Masonic Funeral Music or, less likely, his Requiem, or probably his Clarinet Concerto, which is a celebration of life  – each of these is marvellous pieces of music and a further example of the infinite treasures you leave behind once you are gone. You wonder how you can live without these things – but then, cometh the time, that’s not the problem.

The rest of the music would be more contemporary, a mix of the solemn and the life-affirming. I want to be honest though.

I’m inclined towards My Way, but every man and his deceased dog now have that for the funeral, even the most craven follower, almost as come death everyone wants to proclaim an independence we never had in life. For that reason alone I rule out this song – I don’t want to follow that crowd. I might choose another Frankie song though – maybe The Best is Yet to Come? It Was A Very Good Year is not a bad option too, though it’s the sort of phone that makes you want to get on with it while you’re in the here and now. And That’s Life – very descriptive for me.

Would Hurt be too bleak? It’s a wonderful, raw song, and for me it must be the Johnnie Cash version. It’s not a happy song, but it’s true. It might bring a few tears (I hope!) on a solemn occasion, but I won’t go to my grave oblivious.

Warren Zevon has always struck me as a songwriter who well described the travails of existence in his music. I find many of his songs an apt soundtrack to the ups and downs I’ve encountered. For my funeral though I think Keep Me In Your Heart is just about perfect.

Other suitable choices are Bittersweet Symphony by the Verve, maybe Paul Kelly with Dumb Things, and I Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty.

It’s an interesting exercise. Hope someone out there is keeping notes.