Saturday, 24 November 2012

Whatever Happened To The Revolution? - Skyhooks, Whitlam and Australia’s cultural cringe by Paul B Spurling


This is an essay that I wrote as part of my BMus at NMIT this year.

Sadie, the cleaning lady
With trusty scrubbing brush and pale of water

‘Sadie (The Cleaning Lady)’ – Johnny Farnham (1967)

Home, Home, goin' alone to the sound of the military brass
Home, home, lovin' alone, layin' on
Arkansas grass

‘Arkansas Grass’ - Axiom (1969)

He bought his first dope outside the South Yarra Arms

‘Toorak Cowboy’ – Skyhooks (1975)


It is a widely held view that Robert Menzies was the most ardent anglophile to ever lead this country. His first visit to England at age 41 was said to have been a profoundly emotional experience, prompting him to exclaim that he had finally come “home” (Maloney 2007). Indeed sections of his 1963 speech during a reception for the Queen at Parliament House such as describing Her Majesty as "the living and lovely centre of our enduring alliance" and the reading from the work of 17th-century poet Thomas Ford ("I did but see her passing by/And yet I love her till I die.") are an entrenched part of Australian political folklore (Bryant 2011).

When viewing the black and white promotional film clip for John Farnham’s 1967 monster hit ‘Sadie (The Cleaning Lady)’ (Uptight 1967) through modern eyes the first thing one is struck by is its (in the most clichéd sense of the term) ‘Englishness’ - there’s the accent in the vocals, there’s the George Formby arrangement, not to mention the terminally polite (some would say ‘quaint’) persona that Farnham presents here.

However, I would argue that on closer inspection several things reveal themselves: the English accent actually comes and goes, giving the vocal performance a tentative quality - it is the sound of someone ‘hedging their bets’; the all-smiling politeness reveals itself to be closer to a sort of desperate obsequiousness. Rather than the ‘cheeky Cockney chappie’ that Farnham seems to be going for here, he comes across more like a bashful choirboy too eager to please. In short, this is not what Englishness looks like. This is what someone aspiring to Englishness looks like. Even though he was a year out of office by that stage it is easy to sense the spectre of Menzies and his perception of British superiority (the Australian-born and bred PM also famously announced that he was “British to (his) bootstraps”) looming large here.
(I am aware that the preceding example could possibly be clouded by the fact that John Farnham was born in England, but I would submit that as an artist he has always identified as Australian and was indeed ‘crowned’ Australian Of The Year in the nation’s bicentennial year no less)   

Fast forward to the mid-seventies. And Skyhooks make their first appearance (playing ‘Horror Movie’) on the newly-minted pop TV show Countdown (1975). Much has changed. In fact we’re now Alice through the proverbial looking glass: black & white is now colour (‘75 marked the introduction of colour television in Australia); Farnham’s forelock tugging has been replaced by a palpable irreverence or, to use Australian vernacular, ‘piss-taking’; ‘smart’ suits have been replaced by garish faux-glam garb; naiveté replaced by a worldly, sneering cynicism; and the innocuous (a less charitable onlooker might say ‘vacuous’) lyrical content of poor old ‘Sadie’ replaced by socio-political comment by way of a simple yet stunningly effective ‘horror film equals television news’ metaphor (“Horror movie, it’s the six thirty news” is, as the cliché goes, more relevant now than ever).

Looking at this performance in a bit more detail one’s attention is drawn to the following: in lead singer Graeme ‘Shirley’ Strachan’s facial expressions and general demeanour there’s more than a hint of ‘I could take it or leave it’, in fact at times, as Peter Wilmoth (1993, p.120) observed, Shirl here gives the distinct impression that he would rather be surfing (there’s also the (not so) small matter of the ludicrously large outstretched hand painted on the crotch of his tight satin jumpsuit); the gladiator’s hat worn by drummer Imants ‘Freddie’ Strauks; the black lipstick, white make-up and long black hair on Bob ‘Bongo’ Starkie, ensuring that he bears more than a passing resemblance to a pantomime Lady MacBeth; and of course Redmond ‘Red’ Symons who, with his blood-red Elvis cape and sub-kabuki make-up, is a remarkable combination of ingénue, geisha and the devil himself.

‘Horror Movie’ was written by Skyhooks’ bassist Greg Macainish (who wrote most of the band’s material). Authenticity was a primary concern in his song-writing: “They (the songs) had to be about places I'd actually been to. I was a bit sceptical about Arkansas Grass by Axiom because I'm not sure any of the guys had been to Arkansas. And the song's about the American Civil War and I was sure they hadn't been to the war." (Jenkins 2004)

Billy Pinnell, a 45 year veteran of the Melbourne radio scene, says that Macainish’s  songs “exploded the cultural cringe” and in the process “legitimised Australian song-writing” (Jenkins 2004).

Freddie Strauks also alludes to a ‘cultural cringe’ when he mentions that up until the period under discussion “Australian musicians had an image of themselves as being less than good” (Wilmoth 1993, p.125). In plain terms, what we are talking about here is an old-fashioned inferiority complex.

So did this new attitude, this newfound pride in being an Australian musician emerge out of a vacuum or was there something going on in the broader socio-political arena that helped create the conditions in which a band like Skyhooks could flourish? What was happening?

Gough Whitlam was happening, that’s what. First coming to power in 1972, Whitlam (1985, p.553) himself states that his first task was to formulate “an acceptable philosophical basis for a major government commitment to the arts and cultural activity, something more than the provision of additional funds”. Implicit here seems to be that over and above simply throwing money at the problem, Gough sought to somehow instil in Australians an outlook that would help the arts to flourish. And, as he lamented at the time that “many of our finest artists are working overseas”, it could be assumed that addressing/redressing the infamous ‘cultural cringe’ would have formed at least some part of that “philosophical basis”.

Red Symons makes explicit the connection between this governmental mood-setting and Skyhooks’ success: “The national pride that Whitlam had encouraged meant that we could suddenly be proud of ourselves as Australians.” (Wilmoth 1993, p.126) 

The Oxford Dictionary (2012) defines a ‘revolution’ as a “dramatic and wide-reaching change in conditions, attitudes, or operation”. Under that definition, a strong argument could be made that in the mid-seventies Skyhooks with the Whitlam-led change in conditions and their new attitudes and modes of operation were spearheading nothing less than a revolution.

Every revolution needs a manifesto. And for Skyhooks it came in the form of their debut album ‘Living In The Seventies’. It’s their Das Kapital (or Little Red Book at a pinch); and it sets out their agenda over the course its ten tracks. Three of the songs name check Australian locales (in fact, in all three cases you don’t even have to wait until the lyrics kick in as the references are in the titles themselves): ‘Carlton (Lygon St Limbo)’ chronicles the “spaced out faces” in and around the “pizza places” along the strip close to Melbourne University - students of which made up a fair slice of Skyhooks’ audience at least in the early days (Nimmervoll n.d.); ‘Toorak Cowboy’ takes a shot at the rich and the aimless with specific place references coming thick and fast (“He gets his hair cut at Marini's, and he drives a Lamborghini”; “He bought his first dope outside the South Yarra Arms”); and in ‘Balwyn Calling’ the hapless narrator tries in vain to fend off unwanted advances from a girl who lives in, you guessed it, Balwyn (“Well you thought she would be a one nighter, But now she wants to squeeze you tighter, Cos you ain't safe when you get home, She's gonna call you on the telephone, Hey boy that’s Balwyn calling…”). There’s also the curious case of Red Symons’ ‘Smut’ which paints a rather seedy picture of a night out at the ‘cinema’ and has the main protagonist deploying a packet of Twisties (an Australian brand) in a way that I’m sure that the original makers could not have (and would not want to have) predicted.

By 1977, however, the revolution was over. The less arts-focussed Malcolm Fraser had deposed Whitlam as PM (in controversial circumstances which won’t be discussed here) and was firmly entrenched in the lodge (Whitlam (1985, p.555) claims that Fraser had the lodge’s music room converted into a ‘second toilet’). And Syhooks’ own bête noire Sherbet had well and truly taken over the mantle of ‘Australia’s biggest band’ with their massive hit ‘Howzat’ (Sherbet’s days as a force were numbered too as it turns out, but that’s another story).

But in a sense the ‘damage’ had been done. Skyhooks may have lost the fight but, due to the huge influence they had on subsequent Australian songwriters, they won the war. Indeed we can see their influence everywhere: in Australian Crawl’s hit ‘Beautiful People’ in which James Reyne sings about (beautiful) people “going out tonight to get their Bombay rocks off” (the Bombay Rock being a notorious beer barn on Brunswick’s Sydney Rd), as well as the Reyne-penned ‘Reckless’ which talks about watching the Manly ferry cutting “its way to Circular Quay”; in the way Stephen Cummings name checks the Russell Street Police Headquarters in The Sports’ ‘Boys (What Did The Detectives Say?’; in the songs of Cold Chisel’s Don Walker such as ‘Flame Trees’ (his ode to Grafton), ‘Home And Broken Hearted (“hiked up to Sydney in the week before Christmas, it was 38 degrees in the shade, bought a second-hand Morris for a cheap 220 and I drove it down to Adelaide”), the blistering travelogue of ‘Hound Dog’ (“Ride the line to Hornsby station, find my circus animals again”), as well as ‘Saturday Night’, a song about Sydney which shares its name with a Skyhooks song  about Melbourne; and it is relatively easy to draw a line back to Skyhooks when hearing Paul Kelly’s now-iconic opening lines to his song ‘Leaps And Bounds’ (“I'm high on the hill looking over the bridge, to the MCG, and way up on high, the clock on the silo says eleven degrees”).

Whitlam’s legacy endures too, with programs initiated by his government such as the recognition of China, Legal Aid, Medicare, and even the national anthem (but unfortunately not free tertiary education) still with us to this day in one form or another.

One of the more successful recent chroniclers of the Australian urban experience by way of Skyhooksian place name checking is Newtown song-writer Tim Freedman. Songs of his that reference Australian places include: ‘Melbourne’ (“walking around the rainy city when there are things to do at home”); ‘Love This City’ (“holding court on Taylor Square”); and ‘God Drinks At The Sando’ about the Sandringham Hotel in Newtown. The debt that Freedman owes to Skyhooks was made relatively clear when in 1999 his band released a cover of Greg Macainish’s ‘Women In Uniform’ (Skyhooks’ last top ten hit in 1978 before the almost-novelty comeback single ‘Jukebox In Siberia’ in 1990). And the name of Freedman’s band? The Whitlams of course.

References

Maloney, S 2007, ‘Robert Menzies & Winston Churchill’, The Monthly, April (Issue 22), accessed 23 October 2012, <http://www.themonthly.com.au/print/486>

Bryant, N 2011, ‘What Do They Think Of Us?’, Correspondents Report, ABC Radio National Transcripts, accessed 27 October 2012, <http://www.abc.net.au/correspondents/content/2011/s3351297.htm>

Uptight 1967, ‘Sadie (The Cleaning Lady)’, YouTube video, posted May 2009, accessed October 1 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0c55lXRAeg>

Countdown 1975, ‘Horror Movie’, YouTube video, posted September 2008, accessed October 1 2012,  <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7l8rlnMpCI>

Wilmoth, P 1993, Glad All Over: The Countdown Years 1974-87, McPhee Gribble, South Yarra

Jenkins, J 2004, ‘Songs of Melbourne’, The Age, 28 August, accessed 1 October 2012, <http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/08/27/1093518069546.html>

Whitlam, G 1985, The Whitlam Government: 1972-1975, Penguin Books, Ringwood

Oxford Dictionaries 2012, USA online version, accessed 28 October 2012, <http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/revolution?q=revolution>

Nimmervoll, E n.d., Skyhooks Biography, AllMusic, accessed 28 October 2012, <http://www.allmusic.com/artist/skyhooks-mn0000748978>

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