“A Tale They Won’t Believe” by Weddings, Parties, Anything

The convict era is not one of the brighter parts of our past, but for some reason, it’s one of the ones we’ve most chosen to romanticise, even though we have a pretty good idea of the truth behind it.

Weddings, Parties, Anything’s classic song retells the story of one of the most infamous Australian convicts, Alexander Pearce (although curiously, the song never names him) from his own point of view. And in doing so, it shows us a microcosm of everything about the convict era.

Pearce and his companions break free of their imprisonment in Macquarie Harbour, a lonely outpost on the western coast of Tasmania, and make a perilous journey across an uncharted and untamed wilderness to Hobart. The wilderness we’re discussing here is south-west Tasmania, still a wilderness even today. The men travel on, running out of alternatives for food until finally cannibalism is the only solution.

After repeated incidents, it is only Pearce who survives to make his way to Hobart, where he tells his tale to the authorities after being arrested. They assume he is lying, and send him back to Macquarie Harbour – where a species of proof eventually comes to light, as Pearce has developed a taste for cannibalism now…

The starkness of the wilderness, the isolation of Australia, the ever-present risk of starvation – and the thought that “death or liberty” are the only choices, and either of them better than imprisonment – are all very characteristic of the convict experience. No less so is the refusal of the authorities to listen to the truth if it will not conform to their prejudices – a quality which is regrettably still quite visible in our politics even today. And the simple-minded dream of freedom, of a better life anywhere but here…

…this too remains a profound, if rarely acknowledged, part of the Australian psyche.

“And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” by Eric Bogle

Actually written by a naturalised Australian rather than a native born one, Eric Bogle’s “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” grapples with the conflicting nobility and futility of war, with the ANZAC landings at Gallipolli and their annual commemoration as its particular focus. The incredible power of its simplicity and sentiments can be seen in how widely it has been covered – and the fact that not a few of those who cover it have no idea who wrote it, believing it to be a traditional folk song.

Scottish-born Bogle moved to Australia when he was 25, and fell in love with the country – although his song-writing reflects the conflicting impulses that love arouses in him: pride in our achievements and frustration with our national failings. His fierce idealism is tempered by an active sense of humour and a love of silliness, all three of which are features of many of his songs (albeit the first rarely found with the latter two). More than forty years after leaving Scotland, Bogle still has a strong accent, and like most Celts, a profound distrust for Saxons and Normans.

Questioning the point of war is a common theme in Bogle’s work, with “No Man’s Land” a similar questioning of World War One in general, and “My Youngest Son Came Home Today” doing the same for the Troubles in Northern Island. He also has a great sympathy for the plight of the Australian farmer, as seen in “Now I’m Easy”. Bogle has also taken potshots at Australian racism in “I Hate Wogs” (it’s not what you think from the title). For a man not born here, he gets Australia in a way that many who were do not.

“And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is one man’s tale of naively volunteering for the Great War, getting both his legs blown off, and wondering why in Hell we celebrate as the birth of our nation a defeat created by our supposed superiors in the Mother Country. It was written long before the Howard years – in 1971, leading some to see it as a Vietnam allegory – and the glorification of the legend of ANZAC, but listening to it, it’s hard not to hear the song as a reaction to little Johnny’s aping of the 1915 British High Command.

“Bow River” by Cold Chisel

In an earlier installment of this series, I mentioned Cold Chisel’s “One Long Day”, which I find myself terribly sorry there wasn’t a place in this list. But I promised myself only one Chisel song, and as brilliant as that one is, it loses out to “Bow River”. They both have a similar subject matter, but one is a mellow bluesy piece and the other one is rock’n’roll – no contest, really.

That subject matter is something that flows on naturally from the last couple of installments of Australian Anthems: it the idea of getting away from it all. The flipside of urbanisation is the desire to get the hell out of the city, for good or for just a weekend, and feel truly free.

The Australian built environment is quite centralised and dense – it doesn’t take more than a few hours driving to get out to an area where even the farms are fairly far from each other, and you can imagine what this land was like as a wilderness.

This longing is a holdover from our frontier past, although in recent decades it also partakes of environmentalist sentiments. Either way, it’s a desire for clean, fresh air and no sounds but the wind and occasional birds.

At the same time, it acknowledges that this dream is a forlorn one without the money to pay for it (and the logical corollary, that working will be necessary to get that money together) – and that furthermore, when this holiday is over, however long it lasts, nothing will remain but the memories of it.

“Don’t Tear It Down” by Spy V Spy

Urbanisation is a fact of life in this country, particularly when you look at how many of us live in our cities compared to the vast expanses of rural land and wilderness that make up our nation. Cities, as I’ve already noted, force us into contact with each other, and where there’s contact, there’s friction. And cities also have their own traditions and feelings associated with them. As Cold Chisel put it in “Flame Trees”: ‘we share some history, this town and I, and I can’t stop that long-forgotten feeling…

Australia is a young land as far as the built environment goes, and so it’s only recently that we’ve faced the issue of whether to conserve or destroy the architecture that previous generations have left us. On the one side, conservation is expensive and poorly understood, not to mention getting in the way of vastly more profitable new developments. Destruction, on the other hand, isn’t so simple. The old Australian belief in terra nullius finds its modern expression here, as if demolishing an old building also demolished its history and the memories of all who ever went inside or even just walked past it.

It doesn’t work that way. People don’t work that way. We live, we love, we laugh, we work, we play, we cry, we fight, we drink and we die, and we do almost all of these things in the built environment almost all of the time. Even after death, we’re buried and memorials are built for us in cemetaries and such. The built environment is the physical environment in which we exist, the stage upon which our plays are acted, and we cannot help but invest it with emotional significance. It carries the weight of memory and sentiment – almost every step we take through the streets of our towns is down memory lane.

Ask any fan of a suburban AFL club how they feel about the abandonment of the suburban grounds, and almost all of them will tell you stories not just of their team’s home ground but of all the others. How much more so for the place where you got married, or met your love for the first time, graduated, got a job or a promotion, lived, walked your dog, and any of a million other activities, great and small, earth-shattering or trivial?

More than any other, “Don’t Tear It Down” is a plea to that environment, asking that it be saved and protected and cherished. Because as the natives of this land knew long before the white man ever got here, the land is our story.

“Dumb Things” by Paul Kelly

It’s InvasionAustralia Day again, and I’ve decided that I’m going to make an annual practice of adding to my list of Australian Anthems. For 2016, I’ve gone with one of Paul Kelly’s early classics.

Something that everyone seems to notice about Australians is our sense of humour. We’re laconic and wry and self-deprecating. Self-deprecation is very much at the heart of Australian humour, the flipside of our national fear of being seen to big note yourself, our love of cutting down tall poppies. It’s rarely been done better than here:

Not only does this song rock your arse off, but it take self-deprecation so far that it becomes almost a boast. The phrase ‘humble-brag’ hadn’t been invented when this song came out, but it is absolutely the best way to describe it. “Dumb Things” includes a lengthy list of stupid to the point of self-destructive actions, but also an allusion to Greek myth, the claim that Kelly always had a go, and finally, the wry acceptance of it all.

I plan to have this song played at my funeral. And I doubt that I’m the only Australian with that plan…

“I Was Only 19 (A Walk In The Light Green)” by Redgum

The Vietnam War didn’t get nearly as much play in Australian media as it did in American, but those occasions when it did come up tended to pack a punch.

That’s what gives “I Was Only 19” its place here. Along with “Khe Sanh” it’s one of the few Australian songs to tackle what it means to be a veteran of that war. But where Jimmy Barnes’ detached delivery only hints at the depths of anger and confusion that lie within, John Schumann’s laconic verses are counterpointed by the emotional outbursts of his choruses. He neither hides his pain nor wallows in it – he simply demands the answer he feels he is entitled to. The answer to the question, “Why?”

In 1914, Australians went to fight because the mother country called on them to do so. in 1939, we fought from a simplistic (though far from wrong) ideal of good versus evil. But in 1965, we fought from a bitterness and confusion that were only enhanced by the actual experience of war. If the First World War was Australia’s ‘baptism of fire’, then surely the Vietnam War can be seen as a stormy passage from naive adolescence to regretful maturity on the part of our nation.

The palpable anguish that leaks through every line of the song speaks to – and from – that part of the Australian psyche that is ever belittled by the politicians of enemy and allied nations. (To say nothing of the politicians of our own.) That does not understand realpolitik or its continuation by other means. That understands only that it is called upon to sacrifice and suffer yet again, in the name of a bipartisan foreign policy that appears to consist almost entirely of finding suit-clad rich men with English or American accents to say “Yes, sir!” to.

What could be more Australian than that?

“Most People I Know (Think That I’m Crazy)” by Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs

To most of Australia, this song is one the few really well-known flower child anthems. It represents free love and hippie shit and all that. The other side of the Sixties from songs about Vietnam.

And there’s certainly an element of that in the song. But to most people listening to it, it’s more an anthem of individuality. We all prize that about ourselves. The little eccentricities that make us us. (The irony of an anthem for individuals is as lost on the fans of Billy Thorpe as it is on the fans of, say, Rage Against The Machine.)

To me, though, what’s more interesting is the one line in the song that talks about God. You know, the line that most fans of the song ignore and wish wasn’t there.

Because isn’t that mostly how we feel about religion in this country? Oh, we have our various faiths, but in the national character, there’s a deep discomfort with anyone who talks about it too much. It’s not so much that it’s an embarassment as simply that it’s a matter that most of us – at least until the last decade or so – think of as a private one.

But this song violates that privacy at the exact same instant that it defeats our expectations of what a hippy anthem should say. And it’s that irony, and that contradiction that makes me think this song would be a good national anthem.

“Solid Rock” by Goanna

There’s a lot of songs about the coming of the Europeans to these shores, and most of them take the point of view that it has been an unmitigated disaster for the prior inhabitants. So what makes this one special?

It was one of the first songs to take that stance; it took it at least as strongly as any other song ever has and more than most (I’ve no easy way of checking, but I’d be surprised to learn that any Australian song used the word ‘genocide’ before it); it was a good-sized hit among the white population; and, last but by no means least, it completely rocks. “Solid Rock” is also the first and pretty much only hit from Goanna, a very talented band – they deserved much better from the public than they got.

It’s a cry of rage, of anger against injustice. Just listening to it conveys a sense of all that has been lost, a traditional way of life that had lasted for thousands of years, gone forever in a little over a century – and all the reasons why it happened (which basically amounts to: white people didn’t see black people as real people). As a true reflection of our nation’s history – as opposed to the increasingly bullshit words of our actual national anthem – it’s hard to beat.

“Still Hanging ‘Round” by Hunters & Collectors

There are other songs that deal with the life and leisure of the working class – “Friday On My Mind” by the Easybeats, for example, or the execrable “Working Class Man” by Jimmy Barnes – but none of them capture the sense of the treadmill that is the working week as well as this song does.

“Still Hanging Round” is an anthem of the pointlessness of it all, both of working and of what we work for, of the fact that Friday nights spent drinking are not sufficient reward for Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays spent working. And yet, the song seems to ask, what else is there? It’s a seven day long cycle that never seems to change, and who has the time, the money, the imagination and the will to break out of it?

What sets this song above most others of its ilk is the fact that it does not counsel going along with this state of affairs. Where the Easybeats and Barnes each in their own way seem to accept an underpaid working week as the normal state of affairs, Marc Seymour (lead singer and lyrcist) refuses to. He proposes no alternative, to be sure, but at least he asks the question – could it be different and better? (On this level, its closest competitor is Cold Chisel’s superb “One Long Day” – but I’ll talk more about that in a later post.)

This is an overlooked song in the Hunters & Collectors output, mostly, one suspects, because most people don’t look below the surface and lump it in with those other songs I’ve mentioned above. But if “Say Goodnight”, “Holy Grail” and “When The River Runs Dry” show the band for the poets of the working class they surely are, it’s “Still Hanging Round” that really demonstrates those class credentials.

“What About Me?” by Moving Pictures

I doubt that Garry Frost and Frances Swan intended to create the absolute anthem of the Howard years when they set out to write “What About Me?” but they succeeded admirably. For song inspired originally by empathy for “a little boy waiting at the counter of the corner shop”, it became the absolute opposite: to most people listening to the song, it invokes little more than their own sense of self pity.

Anyone actually listening to the last verse would have taken away a different message – “I guess I’m lucky, I smile a lot…” as the song itself says – but few people seem to have looked much past the chorus. The boy in the first verse, the girl in the second, each of them is looking for little more than some basic human dignity, an acknowledgement that they are a person. Little enough to ask, and indeed, in the Eighties, when the original version was first released and the clip frequently seen on television, it did seem that at least some people had gotten the message. (My rose-tinted view is less so than it seems – the song was the national number one selling song for six weeks in 1982, and it seems unlikely that so many buyers were so lacking in self-pity even then.)

In 2004, Shannon Noll released a cover of the song which sold over 280,000 copies and also reached number one on the charts. This version of the song – by a winner of Australian Idol, no less – seemed to sum up exactly why John Howard was Prime Minister. By 2004, he had persuaded a large portion of the nation that they were “battlers” – people who honestly believed they were doing it tough. After all, they could barely able to afford the mortgages on their investment properties and the private school fees for the kids. By that time, “What About Me” was more reminiscent of the words put in Howard’s mouth by Casey Benetto: “What’s your country done for you?” than of the original call for good manners as social justice that Moving Pictures intended.

These two tendencies of “need a hand, mate?” and “I’m alright, Jack” are polar opposites, yet both very much a part of the Australian psyche. They are the two sides of most of our political debates, albeit rarely expressed so baldly, as to do so would be neither relaxing nor comfortable.

In suggesting this song as our national anthem, I find myself very much hoping we do not prove deserving of it as one…

“Whatareya” by This Is Serious Mum

Possibly the most fundamental conflict in Australian society – more than any question of morality or ethics – is one particular social divide. It’s the one that lies between the two groups characterised by TISM as the yobboes and the wankers. Between the university-educated and the trade-school-educated; between the book reading and the Herald-Sun reading; between chardonnay and beer drinkers.

Americans would recognize it as the divide between jocks and nerds, but here in Australia, although it springs from the same roots, it goes wider. It’s a difference between levels of education, and thus, levels of income. Ultimately, it is a division between the working class and the middle class. But these are all just labels, indicators, general trends. To be a yobbo or to be a wanker is a matter of personal identification. It’s a decision you make for yourself in primary school, not even knowing you’ve made it.

Australia is a land of considerable social mobility, but to travel from one of these tribes to the other is a difficult thing to manage, as both groups are insular and suspicious of outsiders. That said, increasingly, Australia finds itself culturally perched in between the two groups, as politicians of all stripes try to position themselves to appeal to both groups and unwittingly create bridges across them. Australia’s high level of urbanisation also tends to break down the barriers, as it forces the two groups to interact more than would otherwise be the case (as in Australia’s rural areas, where the proportions skew massively towards yobboes rather than wankers). For that matter, there’s a strong tendency in both groups towards culturally appropriating the other group – and this is, of course, because they are not two separate cultures, but merely two facets (albeit large ones) of the larger Australian culture as a whole.

It is, despite what the song implies, perfectly possible to appreciate James Hird and James Joyce, after all. But for exposing the fault line, making it visible, the song deserves a greater recognition, if only to remind us all of a mistake we shouldn’t make.