Working Class Bands: the rise, fall and present day new wave of Australian pub rock

If malevolent aliens one day pointed their city-barbequing laser beams at planet Earth and demanded each nation plead their case for survival by sending forth a current musical act that best represents the sound of that particular country, what the bloody hell would we do?

Of all the nations at the forefront of the music industry, trying to nail down a classic Australian sound might be one of the more difficult things to accomplish. Hip hop acts like Hilltop Hoods and folk singers like Courtney Barnett are distinctly Australian, with their lyrics spat and sung respectively in that unmistakeable drawling accent, sure. And we sent Guy Sebastian to Eurovision this year I guess but I’m almost certain that if we sent him to the aliens that the Sydney Opera House would be in ashes quicker than the White House in Independence Day.

‘These battle SCAAAAARS!’

If I was Prime Minister though (and, God-willing, one day I will be) I could think of no type of band I’d rather represent us, and put approximately 22 million innocent lives in the hands of, than one of the new wave of Australian pub rock bands currently making their presence felt.

This. This is the Prime Minister I would be

Living in a country where a huge segment of the population still invests both their time and their money wholeheartedly into reality television catpiss like The Voice (fuck you, Madden Brothers) and X-Factor (fuck you, James Blunt), where winning a miserable, scripted talent contest is now seen as an acceptable means of breaking it into the world of professional music, I find it so goddamn refreshing and reassuring that there are still bands out there paying their dues, putting in the hard yards at local watering holes Australia-wide and finding their success that way.

In order to explain my choice to the people of Australia though, I’d have to start from the beginning…

Billy & the Aztecs 1964It was in the (if you believe everyone’s mother and father) halcyon days of the late 60s that liquor licensing laws at last became deliciously liberalised and allowed bands of that day like Buffalo and the pictured above Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, the widely recognised pioneers of this movement, to be granted glorious freedom from what was then the standard practice of bands being able to perform only in unlicensed and thus liqour-free community halls and churches.

Into the bars and pubs they went. Where the air was no doubt filled with thick, choking clouds of ‘I don’t give a shit’ Benson and Hedges smoke and the crowds were all of a sudden older, rougher and ripped to the tits on tap-poured XXXX, Tooheys or VB (depending on which state they found themselves in of course).

Yes, apparently the combination of rock and roll and alcohol was appealing in some way.

You don’t say…

All of a sudden, profit. By the time the 70s rolled around, the working class were pouring in to their locals in droves for the now beer-improved thrill of a live music experience. From this beautiful sequence of events, a distinct sound was born.

A sound that owed as much to the Southern rock and bluegrass of American bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival as it did to the Delta blues. There were also splashed in elements of rockabilly, punk and British Invasion bands like The Who. Later on would see the introduction of the synths and brass indicative of the New Wave movement, but in the beginning it was simple but infectious riffs backed by mammoth rhythm sections and fronted by the kind of blokes who didn’t have to be the greatest vocalists to hold an audience captive.

They told stories of love and love lost, good times and bad, of life in Australia as they saw it. Some of those stories were funny, others bleak, others still debaucherous. Above all else, it was both easy to listen to and a rip roaring good time to drink to. This was the teetotalling heyday of pub rock. It saw the arrival of legends like Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, saw the lowering of many a pair of flared trousers as Daddy Cool were doing the Eagle Rock.

An era that saw crowds screaming their unwavering reply to The Angels and frontman Doc Neeson‘s age-old question of whether they were ever going to see your face again. For those playing at home was it:

A. No way

B. Get fucked

C. Fuck off

D. All of the above

The answer we were looking for was ‘D’. It was gleefully, gloriously all of the above.

An era that saw crowds full of the people your mother warned you about shrieking along with the oh so appropriately monikered Angry Anderson as he fronted the terrifying Rose Tattoo and roared things like ‘nice boys don’t play rock and roll’.

Australian pub rock bands also experienced their own version of the punk incursion that the Ramones and the Sex Pistols had orchestrated both in the States and across the pond. Radio Birdman and the Cosmic Psychos (who are still getting around, recently touring with upstarts Dune Rats and playing this year’s Bigsound festival) emerged from the fringes with their own outstanding contributions to a punk rock patchwork quilt held together by safety pins and soon to be covering the globe.

There was also sheer domination and damn near perfection of the artform from probably the most iconic Australian pub band of all time, Cold Chisel.

Theirs was music that spoke to the punters, most of whom were firmly and deeply entrenched in the working class. Whether they were living on the East or West coast, in bustling cities or in rural or seaside towns, the noise made by Cold Chisel was blue collar and no-frills, just like they and their legion of fans were.

There was absolutely no room for any of the pomp and theatrics of some of the more popular international bands of that era like Queen and Led Zeppelin or the glitz and flair synonymous with the Icarus flight of disco, just a hard-working, wide-roaming band made up of the same salt of the Earth people who were there to take it all in. For all the tongue-in-cheek disdain that Cold Chisel might be regarded with today as ‘bogan music’, I can only imagine the kind of goosebumps a song like Khe Sanh, a chillingly accurate portrayal of post-war life for a Vietnam veteran, would have elicited when Jimmy Barnes first ripped into it in that inimitable gravel rash falsetto in front of hordes of people who’d either lived or been affected by that exact life themselves all the way back in 1978.

The one attempt to break Cold Chisel as an international act in the USA was largely a flop. They were probably too Australian if you had to point to a reason why, their voice and their stories just not resonating with American audiences the way they did Down Under. The age old rock cliché of the frontman outgrowing the band then happened, with Barnes emerging a household name as a solo act in the mid-80s from the ashes of Chisel, a band who wouldn’t perform together again for over a decade.

Though Cold Chisel’s failure internationally may have been as big as their success locally, if you needed any more evidence that pub rock is the quintessential sound of Australia you could look to the fact that its two biggest international exports were hauled by the scruff of the neck out of some of the dingiest pubs and surf clubs around: AC/DC and INXS.

Both were lead by arguably the top two in terms of frontmen Australia has ever produced in Bon Scott and Michael Hutchence respectively. Both charismatic in spades, both shameless showmen, both possessed of instantly recognisable voices and the ability to grab a crowd by the throat and not let go.

The former’s band was started up by the rough as guts sons of Scottish immigrants to Sydney, Angus and Malcolm Young. AC/DC began as sly-grinning peddlers of a dirtbag blend of uncompromising old time rock and roll and sleazy blues with a working class Australian twist on it. It was rife with the kind of larrikinism and tongue-in-cheek humour that formed the backbone of the Australian personality.

The latter rode in from Sydney on the slightly more sophisticated New Wave movement of the early 80s. INXS employed liberal doses of synth, saxophone and sexuality into their act along with some ultra-catchy rock and roll hooks. They embodied the spirit of pub rock as a tight-knit group of brothers and close friends who scrapped tooth and nail for every chance they got.

When both broke internationally their sound drastically changed to accommodate their now worldwide audience. Right when AC/DC were picking up steam, Bon Scott passed away in the most tragic of circumstances. The band picked up new frontman Brian Johnson, stopped playing boogie rock in pubs and started playing big, dumb, sports-highlight reel hard rock in stadiums. They subsequently failed to release a truly great album after their first with Johnson, Back In Black (an album that had Scott’s fingerprints as a lyricist all over it), but they still enjoyed skyrocketing worldwide success nonetheless. They distanced themselves from their homeland in turn, a place whose overly critical media and lack of opportunities to make it truly big had left a sour taste they never truly got rid of.

INXS first broke it big in the USA on the back of synth-driven new wave hits like Kiss The Dirt (Falling Down The Mountain) and Original Sin, but were soon having elements of funk and hard rock mixed in and the raw sexuality of frontman Hutchence turned all the way up to 11. It created a more palatable and ‘bigger’ mainstream sound and image, positioning the band as stars and culminating in the utterly transcendent Kick album. The band soon found themselves playing to the same kind of packed to the rafters stadiums as AC/DC.

Hutchence’s passing in equally as tragic circumstances in 1997 was their end (I will never, EVER count Rockstar: INXS and their awful replacement frontman JD Fortune as anything more than a terrible joke without a punchline) but their timeless hits and musical legacy still echoes on today.

Fun little fact as an intermission, Australia’s other biggest international musical exports, The Wiggles originally began life as The Cockroaches, a pub rock band dubbed the hardest working around after they allegedly played over 300 gigs in a single year.

I’m not entirely sure how one goes from singing songs like I Want A Leather Jacket to dancing around in skivvies with Captain Feathersword and Henry The Octopus but I’m guessing the Big Red Car-loads of money to be made by entertaining children instead of sweaty old dudes behind a bar may have had something to do with it.

While AC/DC and INXS were kickstarting the hearts of audiences worldwide, back in the more modest Down Under scene a number of bands had been toiling away and working their fingers to the bone in pubs around the country. They were hoping to be the next big thing and break it overseas, just as those two bands did.

It was arguably one of the most patriotic and internationally visible periods in Australian history. Crocodile Dundee was at the height of his inexplicable fame, re-energised tourism campaigns were inciting global intrigue in our island home, our sailing triumph in the Americas Cup and the exorbitant celebrations of the 1988 Bicentenary looming rapidly.

Taking full advantage of Australia’s newfound prominence on the world stage were Men At Work, who gave us possibly the most overtly Australian song of all time (or at least the tune hollered most by obnoxious Australian backpackers in hostels and bars the world over) in Down Under.

Several other bands sprung forth from that same primordial ooze of blood, sweat and beers that was soaked into pub carpets. Hunters and Collectors, Painters and Dockers (a name that couldn’t be any more derivative of the working class), Australian Crawl, Mental As Anything and the Hoodoo Gurus all began enjoying prime real estate on the Australian charts. They found themselves going from bar-room corners to the stages of Countdown or Hey Hey It’s Saturday, then the twin cultural mountaintops of Australian televsion. Sadly though, none of them would break it anywhere near as big as either AC/DC or INXS, not by a long shot.

Around the same time, running directly counter to the majority of the nation celebrating what many people consider to be an invasion 200 years ago, perhaps even reactionary towards it, Australian rock showed it had a social conscience at this time. The politically-charged Midnight Oil agitated ceaselessly for change and highlighted the lack of respect for our natural environment as well as the ongoing struggles of our Indigenous people in their music.

Indigenous rock and roll legends like Coloured Stone, The Warumpi Band and Yothu Yindi were relaying those same struggles firsthand.

There was also a young man named Paul Kelly. Suffixed then by his band The Coloured Girls, he threw out a mixture of classic, rhythm-driven pub rock hits like Dumb Things, To Her Door and Before Too Long as well as gorgeously-penned folk songs advocating for Indigenous rights. Maralinga was in response to British nuclear testing on Indigenous land and From Little Things Big Things Grow told the story of Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji strike, highlighting the plight of the Indigenous people in reclaiming that land and their struggle for reconciliation. He became Australia’s answer to Bob Dylan, and I still rate How To Make Gravy as better than anything Dylan ever wrote (with the exception of Like A Rolling Stone of course).

As with any story like this though, the good times didn’t exactly last. Although there were still a few pub rock bands scattered throughout the 90s and early 00s: The Screaming Jets, The Living End, The Vines, Powderfinger and Jet to name just a few of the most recognisable, the heyday of the late 70s and early 80s was all but over. Part of it was that the audience who had grown up in that era of pub rock had also aged with it, part of it a shift in youth culture away from bars and pubs and into an increasingly large number of dance-oriented nightclubs, but it had as much to do with the meteoric rise of genres from abroad like hip hop, grunge, RnB and vomit-y boy band pop that held a stranglehold on the charts by the mid-90s.

Music television like the immortal rage made these international acts infinitely more visible, accessible and thus brought them to the forefront of popularity here. Festivals like Big Day Out soon kicked off and became the best way to catch these same big name acts in a live environment, they certainly weren’t about to play the Corner Hotel any time soon.

Except for that one time Mick Jagger totally did

More than anything else, the Internet came along and obliterated everything we knew about everything. It made recording and distributing music as well as attaining recognition and popularity as a band even easier as the world became almost entirely connected for the first time in history. Making your name playing rock and roll gigs to six blokes and a dog all talking about football and not paying attention to you absolutely still happened, but it didn’t have to anymore. DMA’s most recently exemplified this trend better than any other Australian band of the last two decades; rocketing to fame largely off the back of the beautiful Delete without ever venturing out of their bedroom to play a single gig prior to recording and releasing their self-titled debut EP.

Pub rock was not only in danger as a way of musical life but also as a genre itself, looking like it was about to become as obsolete and forlorn as the now scratched vinyl and unspooled cassette tapes it was first laid down on. The unprecedented dominance of exponentially developing technology and its influence on both the recording and instrumentation of existing genres as well as the sudden explosion in popularity of many EDM genres that hadn’t been previously possible like house, trance, dubstep and techno perhaps gave pub rock and its practitioners an uncool ‘oldies’ feel. Laser-like precision in both recording and performance became sought after, perhaps a reflection of the futuristic feel we all had entering the new millennium, and there was little room for the rough and ragged style of pub rock from days gone by, once gloriously revelling in its imperfections.

The truth was that the artists who had blazed the trail forward initially had aged too along with their audience. They were no longer seen as the cool and hip rockstars they’d once been lauded as, their style a relic of a forgotten past, and they were left really without anyone up and coming who thought it worthwhile to take their place and keep their sound alive.

Not only that, the dawn of reality television like Australian Idol in turn placed more emphasis on, and had the general public hooked and near foaming at the mouth for, wholly-manufactured, completely hollow solo pop artists. Music had become a product of television ratings and a script instead of hard work and elbow grease. Many of these artists had probably never played inside a pub before, let alone done their time and left their all on a beer-soaked stage with a shitty sound system that renders everything near incomprehensible, a turn of events that would have had stalwarts like Doc Neeson and Angry Anderson swearing into their middies.

Our darkest hour

And yet, despite all of this seemingly working against it, pub rock is not extinct by any means. Just as vinyl came roaring back in popularity in recent times, you can find more bands than ever today adopting not only that same vintage sound but more importantly picking up the torch, and with it the same hard-working ethos, of their musical forefathers. They embrace the pure Australian-ness, for lack of a better word, of being a rock and roll band the way Doc Neeson and his Angels, Jo Jo Zep and his Falcons or Billy Thorpe and his Aztecs intended when they laid out the long-forgotten blueprint for it all those years ago.

Some of them you’ve absolutely heard of, others you may never have, but they’re all flying the pub rock flag in one way or another.

The Durries might come off initially as some kind of a joke band, with a lot of space in their song titles and lyrics devoted to the virtues of different cigarette brands, but there is no joking to be found in their absolutely relentless and musically accomplished blues rock that is focused entirely on that original pub rock mentality of having a cracker of a time.

They’re only in their infancy as a band, having just released their debut EP We Build Schools and with only a handful of gigs under their belt, but their live shows thus far have all been stellar affairs. They’re finding themselves playing to ever-increasing crowds of the faithful in Brisbane institutions like Saturday night Trainspotters at the Grand Central Hotel and the famous Ric’s Bar in Fortitude Valley and it seems like national stardom isn’t far off.

The Peep Tempel are a power trio out of Melbourne whose uncouth and gritty brand of rock and roll is pure working class and won them a whole mess of new fans after their hard-hitting love song Carol stormed the airwaves last year. A tune with an unforgettable hook that begs to be bellowed in unison (‘And I don’t think Trevor is good for you!’) and was nominated for Song Of The Year at the 2014 APRA Awards.

They may not be the easiest on every set of ears, but thankfully myself and like-minded others don’t mind having their rock and roll lyrics shouted straight at them one bit.

The Drunk Mums made their start in the Far Northern reaches of Queensland in Cairns, playing in some of the roughest local establishments to be found before migrating south to Melbourne and releasing their debut self-titled LP in 2012. One of the most raucous acts you will ever see live, they owe their sound, driven by simple but supercharged power chords and sneering, snotty vocals to Bon Scott-era AC/DC, Rose Tattoo and the punk rock influence of Cosmic Psychos almost as much as anyone.

Their sophomore album Gone Troppo is due out at the end of September, their first single from it the aptly-titled Pub On My Own.

You Beauty are one of Sydney’s up and coming acts, indicative of the Australian pub rock sound and aesthetic of the mid-80s. Their debut record was a concept album about an early 90s rugby league star going off the rails (a tale that has played out in real life in many a seedy hotel) and their lead singer has been known to rock a vintage Parramatta Eels guernsey (from the good old Peter Sterling days when sleeves weren’t designed to cling for dear life to a player’s biceps).

Their new single Illywhacka came out this July in the lead up to their sophomore album and it absolutely reeks of early INXS, a pleasure to listen to. This video is also amazing:

Bad//Dreems are one of the fastest rising stars in Australia. With just an EP and a hard slog of touring under their belts, the band played a ripper of a Splendour set this year and have a huge buzz behind the release of their debut LP this Friday, Dogs At Bay. Hailing from Adelaide, the band have wholeheartedly embraced their rural Australian roots.

Their sound is caked in red dirt, rhythm heavy with twangy guitars and bass that chugs along like a midnight train and harkens straight back to Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls. Their songs are coarse and at the same time breathtakingly brittle, with raw, emotion-shredded vocals that burrow deep into the heart of the listener. They tell outsider stories. Stories about life in rural Australia and of life as a world weary battler, the stories that just aren’t told by mainstream rock acts coming out of the bigger metropolitan areas.

Violent Soho may be a little heavier than your typical pub rock band, but their approach to touring both initially and still today despite their huge mainstream success is largely indicative of the respect they have for the way their musical forebears approached the business. They have blazed a trail of thunderous, take no prisoners riffs, pit of your soul lyrics and cumulus clouds of cannabis smoke across Australia, playing in as many rural venues as they do big cities and festivals.

Their last tour was No Sleep Til Mansfield and saw the band paying homage to their roots and rejecting the larger venues they could have filled with ease for much smaller taverns and hotels across the country, an absolutely beautiful sentiment.

Finally, The Smith Street Band. We’ve previously called them ‘the most underrated Australian band’, I’d like to think of them as perhaps the most important contemporary rock band we have. Like Violent Soho, they embrace playing in much smaller venues than the ones they could fill. Like Bad//Dreems, they wear their hearts firmly and proudly on their sleeves.

They also embrace their Australian roots without fumbling around in the pitch black of blind nationalism. They recognise the faults and the darker side of this country, having let their feelings towards Prime Minister Tony Abbott be made known in no uncertain terms in the poetically-titled song Wipe That Shit-Eating Grin Off Your Punchable Face, as well as protesting against the treatment of asylum seekers by unveiling the banner ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ during their Splendour In The Grass set this year.

They are emblematic of so much of what it means to be an Australian in the 21st century. Their lyrics (sung in that fantastic, reassuringly familiar ocker accent of Wil Wagner) screamed along to by hundreds in hotels or tens of thousands of rabid festival-goers alike. They are as close to the second coming of bands like Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel as you are ever likely to get; hard rocking, politically engaged, socially conscious, down-to-earth, and they are exactly who I would send the aliens to ensure our continued survival.

Their sound draws on the deepest wells of music and ideals this country has to offer, tracing back through the decades while at the same time ploughing forward into the future. They are perfect. Help us The Smith Street Band, you’re our only hope.

These are just the bands I happen to like the best. Make no mistake, there are hundreds of other acts I haven’t had the space to name who are still out there diligently paying their dues in venues pungent with spilled XXXX Gold and Bundaberg Rum. Playing an honest three chords in places where people order their drinks by the pints, schooners or pots and you’ll get lung cancer from spending more than five minutes in the beer garden. In places like Fortitude Valley, Newtown and Fitzroy, or on the outskirts of the major cities, or up and down the country in towns with only one road in and out, never forgetting to include the further flung cities like Darwin or Hobart, the kind of places the bigger acts mostly either flat out ignore or wouldn’t be caught dead in.

It’s their loss.

These are bands who, like me, probably had their first musical experiences shaped by a myriad of the Australian groups of days gone by. AC/DC were the first band I ever really got into, Highway To Hell one of the first records I ever owned, and they opened me up to a world of music I’d never knew existed as a 14-year-old kid.

They blew me away. They instilled in me a deep appreciation for bands who work hard, who keep it simple and don’t take themselves too seriously, and who exhibit the kind of tongue-in-cheek, give-no-fucks attitude towards performing that so many of my favourite rock and roll bands do, whether Australian or international.

And so it makes me happy to be able to see that pub rock isn’t dead by a long shot. Not the idea, not the sound and, most importantly, not the culture behind it: real music played by real people in real places. Music that is synonymous with the country of my birth. It may never again experience the giddy heights of the 70s and 80s, but it at least still has an important place in both our history and our current discourse. For myself at least, there isn’t a sound I’d rather associate with our nation’s musical output than old-fashioned, good time, Australian-smoked rock and roll.

It’s one of the many reasons so many people are getting so riled up about the potentiality for more stringent, wholly ineffective lockout laws across cities and towns here in Queensland and in other states like the ones so many Sydneysiders are loath to abide by at present. The implementation of these laws would be a monumentally harmful blow to a movement that has been the backbone of our musical and overall cultural identity for decades, running the risk of it fading into obscurity again.

So many of my favourite musical memories have happened inside the dark and dank confines of pubs and bars, to rob a future generation of that experience would be a tragedy. Because without pub rock; the quality, the diversity and the hard-working reputation enjoyed by Australian artists today, who in turn create the outstanding music their fans enjoy, just wouldn’t be the bloody same.