The Arts and Australians: 7 Songs from the ‘Other Side’ of Oz


One of the great things about being an Australian is wherever you wander the world odds are good you’ll come across someone from close to home. Whether in old Tokyo, hiking the Appalachian trail, or in the foothills of Rome, if you’re really in a pinch debating who is better between Australia or the South Africa at Rugby a quick ‘tell him he’s dreaming!’ will get you a cheeky Aussie nearby ready to recall the nation’s great sporting moments.

What’s more, Australia ‘kicks goals’ world over. True, the nation’s culture isn’t perfect in all cultural exports – Vegemite is most certainly an acquired taste after all –  but criticisms of experiences with the locals Down Under more often center around a run in with an Emu over a over a hipster in Melbourne (though true, both dress in black and have skinny legs).

Were there one drawback to a cheery national identity though, it’s that some of our great and immense contributions to the arts can at times be overlooked. Sure, you know the words to Back in Black, Eagle Rock, have Friday on your Mind now and then –  and you always hear Waltzing Matilda at a football game – but what about the other side of the coin? As a nation that has delivered a rich variety of distinguished and illustrious artists to the world stage, it’s appropriate to look at a few that put forward a more reflective (if somber) hit song or two….

The Seekers The Carnival is Over

Owing its origins to a Russian folk song from the 1800’s it could be said this song just scrapes over the line in being regarded as Australian. Nonetheless though, just as Australian music has always been a huge conflagration of influences from around the globe made our own, so too did this ode by The Seekers very much make anew in English an austere song about long goodbyes.

Cold Chisel Khe Sahn

If Scott Mckenzie’s classic song San Francisco sounded somber but conveyed a cheery message, Khe Sahn is perhaps the inverse. At first listen it appears fit to sit among the great pub anthems of Australia’s history, but once clear it’s an ode to a Vietnam veteran struggling to reintegrate into Australian society as a civilian; it’s clear this tune is indeed something more, also speaking of a restlessness in youth that Holden Caulfield of the Catcher in the Rye would be all set to sign up for.

At first glance it may appear this song is out of place, for few songs can convey such a message while also having a very singable chorus, but rather than make this a bad thing it is what makes Khe Sahn so unique; a song with a deep sentiment that shared airtime with other Australian classics of the late 80’s and early 90’s; and make its so very Australian in this regard.

Powderfinger These Days

The iconic band from Brisbane once said ‘listen we don’t write songs to make you feel happy’.  While that has not always been uniformly so, certainly Powderfinger were have proved more than a little good at issuing melancholy melodies. This said, even when they trended towards a lonely bass note or chord, they still scored big points when it came to melody and catchiness.

This piece hits the right notes in this regard, eminently catchy, but an ode to how fast time goes by – something that’ll be very familiar to any Australian stunned the AFL is nearly over for another year – and a song that is as instantly recognisable to many in Australia as a creep lady in that milk ad.


Silverchair Ana’s Song (Open Fire)


For a band that was first signed with a view towards being Australia’s answer to Nirvana few would’ve imagined Daniel Johns and Co would go onto contribute such a rich variety of songs to the great catalogue of Australian music. While later albums Diorama and Young Modern were arguably the more impactful contributions as a whole (just like Sgt Pepper’s and Abbey Road outpaced a Hard Day’s Night) this track from Neon Ballroom may be their most enduring.


With lead singer John’s having had a much publicised battle with anorexia, the song’s title of Ana is a play on words, as an otherwise melodic tune holds a brave underlying message of enduring and overcoming an illness. Certainly, a song alone is not meant to replace medical care and professional treatment; but for those embattled by such a challenge in life, such a song has served to many as inspiration notwithstanding the moody vocals and strained chords beneath it.


Nick Cave Red Right Hand 


Throughout his career Nick Cave has carved out a unique niche as a great concept artist. His song Red Right Hand may be among his most renowned (so keen Cave fans may well suggest a more obscure track best befits his legacy) but the imagery and narrative detailed in this song is perhaps invested better here than anywhere else in Cave’s catalogue.


A song that’d fine an easy place in a old western or a Tim Burton film, it has a authentically gritty Melbourne feel to it, while also being instantly engaging to anyone who listens from all over the world.


The Living End All Torn Down


Speaking of Melbourne, this song by The Living End has put forward one of the most iconic music videos in Australian culture. Intent on being a rallying cry against what the band perceived as over-development in the city at the time, the property boom and rise in house prices in years since may well leave them wondering if they wrote it too soon.


On the other hand, a number of old decaying buildings or eyesores that existed within the bands time have since been rebuilt, while others remain. This to say, this melancholy ode shall likely hold appeal to those who lament a grand old building gone, just as they may well wish a bad apple or two would soon follow its place. Either way a worthwhile listen if yet too.


Goyte Somebody that I used to know


For a guy that grew up in the beautiful Mornington Peninsula – just a short drive outside of Melbourne City – it’s hard to imagine Gotye would have all that much to be upset about each day. Then again, if he regularly took the Nepean Highway to work maybe this is it.


Nonetheless, for anyone who was yet to hear it this is very much a must-listen and affirmation when it comes to across the board music Australia does it very well. One of those understated tunes that relishes on a strained chords and a near-wail to get across the main lament, it leaves any who listen to it in no doubt why the song it indeed iconic (and yes, subject to many parodies).


Play it Once, for Old Time’s Sake..


A straight run through of all these songs may give an overseas listener concern to think the land Down Under is full of laments and tears – and that’s surely not the overarching aim here.


Instead, just the same as Australia holds a veritable litany of songs to sing along and cheer – and many more written by non-Australian bands who’ve sought to capture the ethos of Oz – so too is it true that for every rock anthem, there a quite number being issued somewhere.


If a culture of 25 million is surely fortunate to have so many ballads built upon happiness and fun in its national catalogue, so too is it useful now and then to affirm we’ve a equal balance of the opposite.


In turn, just the same as one can wander the world over and find in LA – aka the glam rock capital of the world – a solid balance of songs best suited to stadium rock or closer to a quiet cafe shop,  all up, these songs are surely just like a sweet and sour cocktail: best featured in a mix and best consumed over time. Lest the final note here be morose though…


Bonus: Great Southern Land


Were there ever a local song that captures so well the wide variety of music in Aus it may well be Great Southern Land. Seemingly sombre, but with an unquestionably positive beat and undertone, one of those songs Australians adore (and overseas sports teams tolerate when we’re bellowing it at a band hall somewhere overseas). This version well worth a listen here.

Ed Kennedy is a journalist, ghostwriter, and web developer from Melbourne, Australia. Contact Ed via on Skype or LinkedIn.

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