November is a special time of year for Australian music fans. triple j holds their annual Ausmusic Month celebrations, the industry is warming up for the ARIA awards, and the summer festival season is just around the corner.
To celebrate what is possibly one of the most exciting months for the Australian music industry, we’ve put together a bit of a timeline of tunes to give you an idea about who we have to thank for the magnificent musical culture we have in Australia today. It’s by no means exhaustive, but it might introduce you to some home-grown musical heroes you’ve never heard of, or maybe even rekindle a local love long forgotten!
First, we meet the woman who is arguably Australia’s greatest diva, along with plenty more fantastic Australian music trivia, just after the jump!
1. Dame Nellie Melba – Valse (from Romeo et Juliette by Gounod)
Born Helen Porter Mitchell in 1861, Dame Nellie Melba was Australia’s first musical superstar. Born and trained in Melbourne (the city from which she took her stage name), this formidable soprano went on to sing on some of the world’s greatest stages, and also has the honour of being the first person to give a musical performance on radio in Australia.
Don’t think she’s cool enough yet? She was the first Australian to appear on the cover of Time Magazine in 1927, she has a suburb in Canberra named after her, she appears on the Australian $100 note and not one but FOUR foods named in her honour, all created by the French chef Auguste Escoffier.
When Melba died in Sydney in 1931 from septicemia, developed as a result of facial surgery a few months before, she was mourned right across the world. Her funeral was one of the grandest Melbourne has ever seen, making headlines in Great Britain, New Zealand, Europe and the United States, securing her place as one of the greatest and most loved talents Australia has ever produced.
2. Percy Grainger – Country Gardens
In the early twentieth century, another Australian rose to the top of the ranks in the international music community. He was a pianist, born in Melbourne in 1882, who went on to be at the forefront of the British folk music revival, exemplified by this arrangement of the folk-dance tune above, before going on to forge a name as one of the most innovative composers of the day. Later in his career, he also went on to be known as a great musical educator, passing on skills and knowledge to the next generation of young musicians.
He was also, to put it quite lightly, a bit of a nutter. Grainger married his wife in front of over 20,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl, before going on to have a very colourful private life.
But all that incredible character aside, Grainger was one of the best pianists and composers Australia has produced, and was certainly one of the richest, earning a yearly income that, even today, would make most people swoon. There isn’t a lot of footage of him playing piano floating around, but here’s a little glimpse at why he was one of the most revered musicians of the era.
3. Tex Morton – Rocky Ned (The Outlaw)
Moving from the classical sound, we run into one of the great pioneers of country music in Australia, Tex Morton.
He was not only one of the first popular American-style artists, but also one of the first New Zealanders to fall victim to the ‘you’re one of us, now’ attitude that successful Kiwis often face upon crossing the Tasman.
After privately recording a few ‘hillbilly tunes’, Morton emigrated to Australia in the 1930’s, and was soon signed and making recordings that would go on to influence many, including arguably the best known name in Australian country music, Slim Dusty.
Despite going on to have minor successes around the world, including expanding his act to include sharp-shooting, memory tricks, whip cracking, film and television acting, and hypnotism, Tex Morton never forgot his true homeland, as demonstrated by this lovely little clip from New Zealand TV, filmed back in 1967. The influence of his cheeky manner and ability to adapt American country culture for the antipodean audiences can still be seen today in the remarkably strong country music scene still kicking around in both traditional and more contemporary styles here in Australia.
4. Johnny O’Keefe – Shout
To leave The Wild One off this list would be an absolute crime, so here he is – Australia’s first rock and roll superstar!
This tune, however, is actually a cover of a tune originally recorded by the Isley Brothers. Still, it has become one of the first songs people think of when asked about Australia’s contribution to the 1950’s rock and roll craze.
And don’t even pretend that you don’t know all the words. You totally do, even if it’s only subconsciously.
5. The Easybeats – Friday On My Mind
The year is 1966. The world is well and truly in the grips of Beatlemania, but the Fab Four from Liverpool have recently stopped touring, so there’s a certain amount of opportunity for musicians willing to fill the vacuum. And in Sydney, there are five sons of recent migrants willing to take that chance and run with it.
“Friday On My Mind” plays on a lot of the British Invasion elements that were hugely popular at the time, and is not only the first international pop hit by an Australian group; it’s the first of a string of successes for the writing team behind it: George Young and Harry Vanda. (What else did they write? Oh, only this, this and this.)
Let’s be honest, if you’ve ever done a working week in your life, you’ll understand why this song is brilliant. The extra music history points are just a bonus.
6. Little River Band – Reminiscing
While these days, Little River Band is really a bastardisation of its true, magnificent, original self (Birtles Shorrock Goble 4 LYF), their history is a truly impressive one. This particular tune, for example, has been played on US commercial radio over four million times since its release in 1978, a feat yet to be beaten by any other Australian artist (although I hear Gotye is having a red-hot crack at it), and reached #3 on the Billboard charts.
But seriously, how cute is this clip? And the harmonies! Seriously, I dare you to find a better soft rock ballad. SPOILERS: you won’t be able to.
7. INXS – Need You Tonight
INXS are a band that elicit mixed feelings in me. They are one of the few bands that have managed to cultivate a spectacular, incredible legacy that most musicians could only ever dream of, before shitting all over it in a series of insanely stupid moves.
But in 1987, they were absolutely golden. Michael Hutchence was an absolute sex god, and they were writing phenomenally catchy tunes that the whole world was digging, with this tune hitting #1 on the Billboard chart in the US, before galloping across Europe in a cloud of success.
Sure, they were a right mess when they finally finished up (tragically with a whimper rather than a bang), but this is way we should all endeavour to remember them, because once upon a time, they really were awesome.
8. Silverchair – Freak
When I was a kid, Silverchair was easily one of the most terrifying bands around. My cousin Amy loved them, but they were just a little bit too intense for a child who had barely started primary school to process.
Thank god for growing up, because now I am able to comprehend that Silverchair are, quite frankly, amazing, and have been pretty consistently that way for almost 20 years. (Yeah, try to come to terms with that. Pretty sure you’re gonna struggle.)
This particular tune made it to number 1 in Australia, proving that these young fellows from Newcastle were more than able to follow up their massive debut album, Frogstomp. On top of that, over the years that have followed, Silverchair have managed to overcome a range of hurdles, including Daniel Johns’ personal issues and an extended hiatus, to create music that spans across genres and expectations, proving themselves to be worthy of all the accolades they’ve earned over the last two decades.
9. Savage Garden – Truly Madly Deeply
While Silverchair spent an admirably long time together, the other great Australian success of the 1990’s and 2000’s, Brisbane’s Savage Garden, burned brighter but for a much shorter time. Who was to know when this track was released in 1997 that Daniel Jones and Darren Hayes would only release one more album before splitting in 2001? Answer: nobody.
“Truly Madly Deeply” was a massive hit for the duo, taking the #1 spot on the Australian, Canadian and US charts, and leading to a string of hits, including one with a cheeky Kirsten Dunst cameo, which we maintain is pretty damn cool.
NOTE: For reasons unknown to us, “Truly Madly Deeply” is unavailable on Spotify in Australia, so we’ve had to replace it in our playlist with “Affirmation”, the title track of Savage Garden’s second album. Yes, we’re as mystified as you are that Spotify haven’t got this one listed. Like, seriously guys, WHAT GIVES?
10. Gotye – Somebody That I Used To Know
Oh, come on. Don’t look at me like that. This was inevitably going to make the list. It’s the biggest Australian hit the world has seen since the last song we showed you. And nobody deserves success more than Wally De Backer, especially when it’s off the back of a song as incredibly flawless as this one. Yes, it’s been played everywhere. No, you’re not allowed to pretend you don’t know all the words, because you definitely do. Yes, we know you’ve perved on naked Gotye or Kimbra or both.
And all of that is okay, because this release really is about as close as anyone has got in recent times to the perfect pop song. It’s simple, it’s catchy, it’s emotional and it’s beautiful. It has also more than earned its place among some of the greatest Australian songs ever written, because it’s just… right. No amount of hipster posing and putting down is going to change that.
What are some of your favourite moments from Australian music history? Have we missed any out? Have you learned something cool about Australian music history from this article? Let us know! Send us an email, a Tweet or a Facebook comment. (Or be old fashioned and leave it in the box below! We like that too!)