Almanac Music – The growing maturity of Australian Rock

Jimmy Barnes: macho, strong, unflinching, self-confident, sensitive… wait, what?

 

I like to think some people who read Barnesy’s recent two-volume autobiography left the experience somewhat confused.

 

What is the ultimate man’s man doing spilling his guts about child abuse, domestic violence, drug addiction and mental health? Is this really the same guy who mythologised the tough, resilient bloke on ‘Working Class Man’?

 

Perhaps it isn’t all that surprising: This is, after all, the voice of Vietnam veterans’ struggles for identity and inner-peace on “Khe Sanh”, who’s shown he’s willing to protect his music and its messages even if it means calling out bigotry and estranging his fans.

 

But it’s fitting an elder statesman of Aussie Rock has chosen the last few years to open up completely: it mirrors a growing trend among present-day purveyors of the genre.

 

If you only had commercial radio and the charts to go off, you could be forgiven for thinking Aussie guitar bands have been obsolete since the Jet/Wolfmother nostalgia-fest – and went extinct entirely after Thirsty Merc circa “The Good Life” in 2015.

 

Of course this isn’t the case, but perhaps it hasn’t been as easy to recognise the growth of one of the newest branches on Oz Rock’s evolutionary tree given it’s been subtle and understated – a juxtaposition of the early noughties zeitgeist which, thanks to iTunes, was practically impossible to ignore.

 

When Courtney Barnett’s career made the leap from street press to Rolling Stone a few years back, she was venerated for her highly individual songwriting, with a knack for making the ordinary extraordinary.

 

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But it now it seems the qualities of Barnett’s music can be just as accurately used to describe an entire sub-genre. In the past few years, several rock acts have emerged carving out solid careers of their own while embracing an ethos of everyday storytelling and straightforward guitar playing.

 

There’s Adelaide duo The Hard Aches with their refreshingly frank and vulnerable reflections on share houses, relationships, distance and depression.

 

There are female acts like Jen Cloher and Camp Cope, who aren’t pushing Rock’s boundaries so much as redrawing them through their lyrical discussions of homosexuality, body insecurity and sexism in the music business.

 

 

 

And in the spirit of Midnight Oil, Gang of Youths and Bad//Dreems have established themselves as six-string social commentators, their songs part healthy frustration-venting, part searches for identity, truth and morality.

 

 

 

 

All these acts are still recognisable as Rock for their focus on authenticity over virtuosity, but they’re certainly a lot more mature and modest than what we’d usually associate with Australian guitar bands. Where are the guitar solos? Where’s the bravado?

 

Context helps in appreciating the differences. Cold Chisel, Rose Tattoo and the Angels made it big after lifting the needle on the molten sounds of the likes of Deep Purple, The Stones and Billy Thorpe.

 

These early heavy bands from the US and UK sent a message through their makeup, a message a generation of young people down under largely adhered to: If you’re a young white man and learn to play guitar, you’re in with a shot at stardom.

 

Two things young white men have in abundance are confidence and libido, so it’s no surprise the golden era of Aussie Pub Rock featured Bon Scott voicing his alluring satisfaction with life in a band on “Highway To Hell” and Angry Anderson bragging about his post-incarceration libido on “Bad Boy For Love”.

 

Cut to 2018: Instagram accounts and turntables have replaced the electric guitar as mainstream avenues to popularity and self-expression, while TV talent shows and the internet have successfully plotted to bring down Rock bands as a commercial force.

 

It’s the cultural equivalent of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. And just like 65 million years ago, it’s the small and unpretentious that have recovered from this impact most quickly, their size or lack thereof suddenly an advantage.

 

These furry little mammals of Australian rock trace their ancestry back to artists who eschewed the music trends of their time in favour of pursuing their individual styles. Think The Lemonheads, The Replacements, Elliot Smith and Paul Kelly.

 

They still use their instruments to conjure up a bedlam of noise, but this noise isn’t there as a substitute for the lyrics but rather a supplement, enhancing the feelings conveyed in the words. You’re more likely to find the next Bruce Springsteen in this bunch than the next Angus Young.

 

Like the young white men of the seventies, they write about the experiences most familiar to them. The key difference is theirs are not experiences living with power and masculinity, but living without or despite them.

 

No surprises then, the impact they’re having on pop culture is growing now we’re in the era of AFLW, RUOK and #MeToo. But ironically, it means we now have a growing crop of bands giving Aussie Rock a new lease on life who criticise the same social norms its trailblazers thrived in. You’re now encouraged to open your heart and mind rather than your fly.

 

We could do worse than to celebrate acts of this type as our present-day rock heroes. As Barnesy’s shown us, there’s nothing more Rock’n’Roll than admitting your flaws and speaking out when something’s not right.

For further Almanac Music stories, click here: https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/almanac-music/

About Alex Darling

Melbourne-born, NSW-based footy fan, lover of the Saints, classic rock guitar and good writing on each of these topics.

Comments

  1. Alex- much to like in your piece. I’m really enjoying Camp Cope, Jen Cloher and Gang of Youths at the moment- self-aware and socially conscious lyrics. Have to admit that apart from the opening track the new Courtney Barnett has failed to catch me yet. I look forward to your next musings on music. Thanks.

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