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Australian rock music

Rennie Ellis (1940-2003), Angus Young, Los Angeles, 1978.

Rennie Ellis (1940-2003), Angus Young, Los Angeles, 1978, colour photograph. Image courtesy of the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive and the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-vn4103400.

Australian rock music has its roots in the 1950s and '60s when the style of music was growing in popularity around the world.

In the 1970s Australian rock bands became well known for classic hard rock. By the 1980s Australian music developed its own distinctive rock sound and became popular the world over.

First appearing in the United States of America, rock music was a fusion of white country and western music with black rhythm and blues music. These days, rock music is harder to define. Over the years it has influenced and been influenced by many other styles – elements of pop, funk, folk and world music can all be heard in many songs that are classified as rock songs.

The first Australian rock 'n rollers

In these early days, performers like Johnny O'Keefe and The Easybeats were easy to categorise as rockers, with songs such as Wild one, Shout and Friday on my mind mimicking the heavy-guitar sound and strong beat produced by rock performers in the USA and Britain.

Johnny O'Keefe went on to become the first Australian artist to appear in the Australian Top 40 (Wild one), the first to be signed and record for an international label (US Liberty) and was the first rock and roll artist to host his own radio program (Rockville Junction on ABC Radio).

The Easybeats, who met as immigrants at Sydney's Villawood Migrant Hostel in 1964, became famous worldwide. Other Australian rock bands to hit the big time during the 1960s and the 1970s included The Masters Apprentices, Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Daddy Cool and Skyhooks.

Classic Australian rock

Jimmy Barnes onstage.

Jimmy Barnes onstage.
Image courtesy of Cold Chisel.

Cold Chisel formed in Adelaide in 1973 under the name of Orange. Their music was characterised by meaningful lyrics, catchy tune and the aggressive singing style of their lead singer, Jimmy Barnes. One of their classic songs, Khe Sanh, tells the story of a Vietnam veteran and his struggles after the war. Cold Chisel is also responsible for many other Australian rock anthems.

Perhaps the most internationally well known hard rock band Australia has produced is AC/DC. Formed in 1973, the band began with brothers Angus and Malcolm Young and Dave Evans. Although the band's lead singer Bon Scott died in 1980, AC/DC has lived on for over three decades, performing to packed halls and rapt fans around the world. They deliver no-nonsense, hard rock - the oddity being the school boy uniform worn by now legendary guitarist Angus Young.

Intriguing Australian rock and the 1980s

The 1980s was a decade when Australian rock gained confidence and world-wide attention. Nick Cave, Melbourne musician and lead singer of alternative rock band The Bad Seeds, said that before the 1980s 'Australia still needed America or England to tell them what was good.'

The 'Aussie Assault' on the world rock stage included bands such as Men At Work, Midnight Oil, INXS, Crowded House and New Zealand's Split Enz. Alternative Australian rock bands such as The Triffids, The Church, Hunters and Collectors, Celibate Rifles, The Saints and Laughing Clowns also contributed a great deal to the unique sound evolving in Australian music.

'The fickle European rock press devoured the unusual sounds and, intriguing lyrics that captured Australia's intimidating landscape' that belonged to The Triffids and other bands. The Triffids were big business in England, Holland, Germany, France and particularly Scandinavia, particularly with their album Born sandy devotional. In Belgium, they played to 70,000 fans. Midnight Oil, then one of the biggest names in Australia, was billed below the band. Bernard Zuel wrote (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Jun 2006); 'the band that was seen internationally as capturing the Australian landscape and personality better than anyone else couldn't get past the myopic radio and mainstream media back home'. A remastered Born sandy devotional described by Uncut magazine as 'a desolate masterpiece from one of the great lost bands of the 80's' was released in July 2006.

In the 1980s, The Church, with their paisley shirts and catchy melodies, built a devoted fan base in both Europe and America. The commercial high point for The Church was in 1988 with the album Starfish and the single Under the Milky Way which was a hit in the USA, and sold more than a million copies. On the back of Starfish, The Church toured Europe and the US relentlessly.

Australian band Men At Work were part of the worldwide popularity of Australian rock in the early 1980s, with their anthem Down under introducing listeners around the world to Vegemite sandwiches. Their sound was an interesting mix of styles, with a slight reggae beat, very Australian lyrics and the shrill sounds of a flute. Other hits they produced included Who can it be now? and It's a mistake. Men At Work are still the only Australian artists with No.1 singles and albums in both America and England.

Midnight Oil performing at a concert at the Orange Town Hall,November 1985.Photo by Ant Healy.

Midnight Oil performing at a concert at the Orange Town Hall, November 1985. Photo by Ant Healy. Image courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Hunters and Collectors carved a path and place for themselves in Australian rock culture as 'the thinking man's pub band'. Many of their songs, such as Throw your arms around me are Australian rock classics.

Midnight Oil used rock music to tell a story and send a message. Songs such as Put down that weapon, Blue sky mining, Beds are burning and River runs red made popular music charts around the world.

The band's lead singer Peter Garrett said, 'Rock and Roll has traditionally been about cars and girls and now we were... trying to make it about something else as well.' The band used music to raise awareness of environmental and political issues, often performing with Aboriginal rock bands such as Warumpi.

INXS toured around the world, to huge crowds. Their lead singer Michael Hutchence had rock-star attitude, looks and a voice to match. In Australia alone, over a period of 25 years, INXS had 38 Top 40 hits. On top of this they received Grammy nominations and MTV music awards in the USA, six consecutive top ten UK and US albums, 17 Billboard hits and 23 UK Top 40 songs. In 2005 they launched a worldwide search for a permanent new lead singer, replacing Michael Hutchence who died in 1997.

Female led bands such as The Divinyls, The Baby Animals, Do-Re-Mi and more recently Spiderbait and Killing Heidi are also responsible for many Australian and international hits. Chrissie Amphlett, lead singer of The Divinyls said of the 1980s, 'You didn't have to be a really slick singer but you could develop your style. Everything was very possible again and it was raw... it was a really great period that bred a lot of creativity.'

The new generation

The lines where rock music ends and other styles begin is blurring today. Bands like Regurgitator use heavy guitar and electronic music to create their own unique sound, while Yothu Yindi, who had hits in the 1990s, use traditional Aboriginal music and language as the basis for their songs.

Janet from Spiderbait recording at Radio star studios in 2003.

Janet from Spiderbait recording at Radio star studios in 2003. Image courtesy of Spiderbait.

The new generation band Spiderbait had their first Australian number one hit in 2004. Black Betty, an African American work song first recorded in 1933, was later recorded by various artists including Ram Jam (1977), Nick Cave (1986) and Tom Jones (2002). Spiderbait's version has a fast beat and heavy guitar rock sound. Other bands such as Jet, Bodyrockers, Magic Dirt, Powderfinger and Jebediah are just a few of the latest batch of Aussie rock bands that are charting hits in the new millennium, many of them, like Spiderbait, coming back to the heavy rock sound that was forged in the 1970s and '80s.

Useful links

Australian rock music resources

Australian music industry websites

Australian music resources

Band websites

Last updated: 17th September 2007
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, Kathryn Wells

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