For the past little while I’ve been filling in as Mornings presenter on 91.7 ABC Coast FM here on the Gold Coast.
During my time there we were running a promotion to celebrate Australian Music Month. The question posed of listeners was (and is): What is Australia’s greatest album of all time? Once it’s all been narrowed to the relative needlepoint of a Top 5, the leading vote-getters will be played in toto during Fridays in November. You can vote here if you’re keen to put a ticket or two in the hat. Might even win your self a 15 disc prize pack if you do!
Anyhow, all the musical pondering naturally enough got me thinking about what my top few were.
What was fascinating to me is how inseparable a sense of time and place was and is when it came to music that has somehow glued itself to me on my journey.
Hereafter my various justifications…
Probably best to start with the outsiders and roughies that I couldn’t quite find room for.
Among them is ‘Minor Birds’ by Melbourne roots rockers Downhills Home. It’s an album that probably passed a whole swag of folks by, but it’s just so damn lovely I couldn’t let it drift past me without a mention. Also – and this will become a recurring theme – it became something of a soundtrack to a moment (in its case my last days in good old Melbs before I moved north to Queensland). Augie March’s ‘Moo You Bloody Choir’ has a similar resonance because I can connect it to the sticky carpeted, pub-on-Fridays, over-coated Melbourne I knew BEFORE kids. Same goes for Wagons ‘Trying To Get Home’, an album I heard before it became an album (if that makes sense) when I saw Henry Wagons and Si the Philanthropist and the doctor who played lead guitar and the rest of the scruffy, motley crew that made up Wagons’ five piece squeeze into already crowded enough Marquis of Lorne on a Sunday arvo while we all tucked into tequila shots just because we felt like it. Then there’s The Drones, a band I reckon has robbed me of a little hearing on account of me unwittingly positioning myself in front of a PA speaker one night unaware that the Dronesian method involved turning everything up to a million and just letting rip. Their ‘Wait Long By The River And The Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By’ is in my opinion easily the most epic album title ever, and on it exists arguably the greatest contemporary Australian rock song in ‘Shark Fin Blues’. But does it all hang together well enough as an album to make the final shortlist?
There’s also the recordings you simply can’t ignore. I’ve mulled over any number of Paul Kelly albums. ‘Gossip’ is an obvious inclusion in a final long-list – all those artful words and stories (even if production that renders elements of the record sounding a little thin to my ears – just quietly, I reckon it’d be great if PK revisited and re-recorded it). ‘Comedy’ was another I pondered. Again, it spoke of a moment, a bit of a lonely time if truth be told, one where certain images leached in. AC/DC’s ‘Powerage’ and Cold Chisel’s ‘East’ were records my family’s neighbour, Syd, played over and over while he tinkered about doing whatever and his big Alsatian Frank barked deep octaves. Syd drove a truck. He was an outlaw in the relative sanctuary of comfortable middle class Cremorne, Sydney, where I grew up. His music was heavy and dark and kinda naughty and spoke of the kind of girls I’d most likely never know.
The Oils too. ‘Species Deceases’ was my entry point with them. ‘Hercules’ was HUGE, but that was an EP. Still, through it I found ‘Head Injuries’ – that cold, cold change and catching the bus to Bondi and the RAGE that existed back on the borderline, wherever it was. And on a lighter note there was Gang Gajang’s self-titled effort. A theme album to a trip up to the tropical north with a mate in a Kingswood. While they sang about cane cockies and breathing humidity we were driving through February soup, the whiff of canefields filling our car, Mt Bartle Frere always gazing down at us. There may or may not have been a girl involved in that memory, too. Ah, innocent, heady times. And even though Powderfinger are a band I’ve never really totally connected with, I LOVED the pure rock sensibility of ‘Vulture Street’. Some of those gee-tar tones just kick serious freckle. In the end, sadly, commercial radio kinda killed it for me. Then there’s Jimmy Little’s ‘Messenger’. Robert Forster’s ‘The Evangelist’. Karma County’s ‘Olana’. Geez I haven’t even mentioned the Easybeats. Or Billy Thorpe. The pioneers!
Seriously, I could go on forever.
Focus, Matt. Focus.
So to as close to five as I can get…
5. Ed Kuepper – Honey Steels Gold
Have you ever really listened to this album? I mean REALLY listened? It just sounds incredible. That persistent throb in the title track was the soundtrack to god knows how many late night crawls from Sydney north to Sydney east and back. And the rest of it just sounds SO big. And Kuepper’s weird, creepy lilt. And the chimy 12 string. Yep, that album just sticks.
4. AC/DC – ‘High Voltage’ AND ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’
Yes folks, we have a tie. I can’t separate them. So, so dangerous and so utterly gnarly. And simple, kinda. And loud. And glorious. And fun. And drunk. And cheeky. And by lordy if Bon Scott isn’t out and out undisputed KING of rock vocalists i’ll eat my dining room table. Acca Dacca, I tips me lid.
3. Hoodoo Gurus ‘Mars Needs Guitars’
I could have picked out any number of Hoodoos albums. Selinas, Coogee Bay Hotel. Oh, the fabulousness of those nights there back then. Loud, fun, infectious, anthemic classic rock/pop. And, in this album, such variety. The bluegrass-infused ‘Hayride to Hell’. ‘Death Defying’ is kinda weird surf doo wop. An an oft-forgot track, ‘In the Wild’, is like what you’ d get if you locked the Ramones, the Oils, and the Stray Cats in a studio for beer-soaked afternoon. Then there’s ‘Bittersweet’ with it’s big, rich, jangly chords – just magnificent. And I always loved how Australian Dave Faulkner sounded. Yep, the Hoodoos were OURS.
2. The Saints – (I’m) Stranded
This album terrified me at first. Chris Bailey was like a possessed devil-man. The word punk was being bandied about. To my sensitive little private schoolboy ears it all reeked of smack dens and violence and petty thievery necessary to survive until the next fix. The album’s sleeve did little to alleviate my concerns: four gaunt detached souls staring at me from the bowel of some filthy warehouse. But as scared as I was, the sound was just insane, and that alone made the terror approachable. The amps sound like they are going to burst. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard drums sound so good. And the whole thing feels so alive, like you’re up front at a pub gig getting blown backwards by volume. The fact that I’d later learn how influential this record was internationally made me feel proud I’d sensed something within when I first heard it. I still play it A LOT. ‘Prehistoric Sounds’ gets a run occasionally, but inevitably I always return to the brutality of (I’m) Stranded.
1. You Am I – ‘Hi Fi Way’
It’s truly bizarre that a band that I kinda completely lost somewhere along the way still manages to wrangle my number one spot. But again I come back to the whole musical time and space connectivity argument. I think I first saw them play at the Annandale Hotel circa ‘Sound As Ever’. I remember thinking: Jagger swagger. Tick. Richardsian danger. Tick. British jangle. Tick. And once I’d finished my ticking I stood back in quiet awe that despite the whole influences on sleeve schtick, these guys sounded absolutely and undoubtedly Australian. But with ‘Hi Fi Way’, the big, thick, heavy sound of their previous outing had lost a little weight. Over the raucousness I could now hear Rogers taking me to places I recognised. Under the Glebe Point Bridge in a pair of purple sneakers. Red things to swill. Personality pills. Stagelit sweat flicking from that proboscis of his while he told us about Cathy’s Clown. And all the while I was working in five day stretches to go and see music like this on Saturday nights in pubs bursting with excited people attuned to a decade of classic music that just kept coughing up new and utterly compelling stuff like there was no off switch. We were a music factory back then. if we still are, I’m clearly immune to whatever’s in production. In the You Am I of that moment we had it all: real, raw rockin’ sounds with words that defined us and all without the need to slip into acoustified beachy barefoot strummery or folksie cliche or (dare I say it) the need for a white guy to roll out a didj and get all Ben Harper on our arses with a Weissenborn (good as it may sound’n’all).
Bloody hell, is Hi Fi Way the greatest Australian album of all time?
I don’t know.
But it was without a doubt the soundtrack to the moment when I first really opened up my eyes to how sincerely good rock music could be when it didn’t try to be anything other than Australian.
For me, at least here and now, I reckon that’s as good a yardstick as any.