Paul Kelly’s “How to Make Gravy” and me

My favourite Christmas song is twenty-two. But it seems as though it’s been around forever. Like Love Actually, which premiered in 2003, they’re both part of the festive furniture, and signal the season’s arrival.


It’s the 21st of December and our protagonist Joe, freshly imprisoned and hotly anxious, reaches out to his brother. But is “How to Make Gravy” a letter or a phone call? Initially, the form seems spoken- “Hello Dan, it’s Joe here,” but then moves to a written mode- “I hope you’re keeping well.” Which is it? I don’t know.


Over four and a half minutes, this mystery of the medium continues while we meet the brothers; Angus; parents Frank and Dolly; Joe’s wife Rita; his kids; sisters Stella and Mary; Mary’s former boyfriend, the olfactorily-offensive one (just a little too much cologne) and, of course, the almost missable Roger.


Although most are only mentioned once they’re Australia’s first family of Christmas song. We feel like we know them. Despite these skeletal sketches, they’re writ large. Dolly’s the uncrossable matriarch. I can imagine having a beer with Angus, and if he were alive surely Bill Hunter would play Frank in the film version, all gruff wisdom and barbeque tongs.


‘How to Make Gravy’ begins with opening chords similar to Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’ but its guitar riff by the recently-departed Spencer P. Jones almost nods in homage to the British band’s late-sixties hit song. This might be partly why Kelly’s tour de force seems like it’s been around longer than 1996. It’s deep in our musical tectonics.


Across the top and also underneath is that doleful slide guitar, foreshadowing the anguish to come. Exhilarating, it’s suggestive of outback space and tropical heat and melancholic veranda conversations.


The next surge is when Peter “Lucky” Luscombe’s drums kick in with an electrifying jolt at, “I guess the brothers are driving down from Queensland and Stella’s flying in from the coast”. Although I was drawn to the song upon its release, and taught it (and Radiohead’s “Karma Police”Karma Police” Radiohead,”) to year 10 classes, it was our move to England early this century when it took a profounder hold.


Kerry and I each took ten CD’s with us and Paul Kelly’s Greatest Hits- Songs from the South was the first I packed along with Jeff Buckley’s Grace and The Beatles’ Revolver. Settling happily into a village rhythm I’d cycle home on Fridays post-pub, and put it on in our townhouse after the dark had already stolen through our patio windows.


At this moment I’d then fly homeward, down across the land and ocean. Its melodic panorama contrasted with the claustrophobic British winter and the unforgivable 4pm nightfall. We spent a first European Christmas in Madrid, freezing under a pale sun far, far from Australia’s burnt dirt.


I’d only considered it as a stand-alone song until I read this from the singer: “I’m sort of aware where certain songs are written a few years apart from each other – ‘To Her Door,’ then ‘Love Never Runs on Time’ and ‘How to Make Gravy’ – I’ve got a feeling it’s the same guy. He keeps coming back.”


Here Kelly’s created a fictional universe, or at least some intertextuality, especially as the line, “Tell ’em all I’m sorry, I screwed up this time” indicates a wider backstory, an extended narrative, featuring our central character and his wife Rita.


And what of that famous recipe for gravy?


“It’s a real recipe of my first father in law, which he used and which I still use. When I make gravy for my family, that’s the recipe that I use, and now they always make me, make the gravy. It’s my job now (laughs). When I made up the song it wasn’t my job but it is now. Sometimes art influences life or the other way around.”


I love how the song’s acknowledged with today, December 21, declared national Gravy Day. There’s even a hashtag- #GravyDay.


A portrait of timeless Australia, it’s as evocative as the timber pylons of the Port Willunga jetty; a backyard cricket match; the ribbon of road unrolling across the Hay Plains.


As our boys splash about in the twinkling pool on Christmas morning, and I sneak my first piece of ham I anticipate that plaintive strumming and forlorn slide guitar and hearing, yet again, Joe’s confessional.


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About Mickey Randall

No, instead I get out my Volleys, each with the inescapable hole, just by the little toe. What if someone bought a pair of Volleys and they didn’t develop these holes? The absence of holes would itself make a psychological hole.


  1. It’s a cracker, isn’t it? I like how PK sees Joe as the same dude from ‘To Her Door’ and ‘Love Never Runs On Time’. That resonates with me.

    Good get with the guitar intro. I also hear that intro in the brilliant Mike Scott (The Waterboys) song ‘Long Way to the Light’ which was released the year before.

  2. Sorry, wrong song, meant this link:

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Fine words there Mickey. Thanks

    According to PK’s book How To Make Gravy, this song was originally written for a Salvation Army Christmas compilation, inspired by (to quote PK ) “… one of my all-time favourite records, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, featuring The Crystals, The Ronettes and others. I play this record loud every Christmas morning”

    PK melded the underlying sentiment of White Christmas and Kelly family Christmases to produce what was supposed to be a comedy. Instead, he penned a Christmas gift to us all.

  4. Hi MR
    It is a terrific song and resonates deeply. I love how PK can find the sweet spot of the Australian experience or essence or whatever it is. Song and time again.

    However, can I (with a little rascally irreverence) note a couple of flaws in the actual song/story? The song tries to pull off the nigh on impossible – entwine a quite specific story into a much broader story. It is where the broad brush strokes meet the finer drawn lines that the flaws, or at least questions appear.

    My starting point is, what is Joe actually in jail for? Is this family working class or middle class? I pose these rhetorical questions because these detail goes to the heart of who we historically identify with. Our general sentiment goes much deeper for the battler. However I detect evidence that Joe might not be a battler. He is a little too articulate for the broad brush battler stereotype (“Multiplies each matter, turns imagination into fact”) and he’d rather fight Roger at their Xmas bash because “there’s sure as hell no one in here I want to fight” and I put it to you, does the average punter listen to let alone know Junior Murvin? Surely they’s be pushing the tables back to play Chisel.

    This is not to suggest that a person can be articulate, not want to fight and have deep musical knowledge and still spend time in jail. However, this song is attempting the “everyman” story. My over-particular observations suggests PK has painted too detailed a character to be “everyman”. And even more concerning, if he is a white collar crim (nooooooooo!!) should we be barracking for him at all? PK has some questions to answer, that’s for sure (tongue firmly in cheek).


  5. Happy gravy day, Mickey! My favourite Xmas song and like others I love the idea that this is ‘love never runs on time’ man – another favourite PK song. Always assumed this to be an everyman story, whatever that really means. Working class music cultures, particularly those of successive generations of migrants, were/are many and varied. So much of our culture these days is produced by the privileged, privately educated, so I’ll happily embrace any attempt to tell different stories.

    Saw PK at quarter time at the Parade in the winter, heading out to the huddle. One of those moments where you pass the opportunity to say three words to a stranger who has been significant in your life, for the sake of the right three words.

  6. george smith says

    I’d like to pay tribute to the three wise Christmas songs – “River”, “Fairytale of new York” and “How to make Gravy.”

    All three blow the sentimental Winter Wonderland to kingdom come, and show us what Christmas is really all about – ordinary people a long way from home with dreams that definitely don’t come true.

    With “Gravy”, the protagonist is in jail, so he misses out on family and home. By the time he gets out in July, Christmas, and presumably his family, will be long gone. Also, unlike most Christmas songs, the temperature is very hot.

    With Fairytale of New York, Shane and Christie show us a brawl that would make the average Aussie Christmas spat pale by comparison:
    “you scumbag, you maggot,
    you cheap lousy faggot
    Happy Christmas your a***
    I pray God it’s our last”

    And finally “River”, where our lovely Joni Mitchell is mourning over lost love in a place far from home, where it doesn’t snow and the rivers don’t ice up. Her wish to skate in the frozen north is achingly painful.

    Which gives you all a realistic Christmas.

  7. Happy Gravy Day, Mickey.

    One of the most joyous aspects of this song (and indeed Paul Kelly’s catalogue) is its cross-generational appeal. My three sons (ages 23, 22, 20) all texted me this morning to wish me Happy Gravy Day, quoting random lines from the song.

    I first saw Paul Kelly and the Dots in 1982, when I was much younger than what my boys are now. I delight in the fact that some 36 years on, they are getting joy from his music. To sit in a PK audience these days is to marvel at the wide variety of punters’ ages.

  8. Good stuff Mickey. I often think of this as a song about loneliness and isolation at Christmas. Separation – self inflicted and otherwise – from people that give our life meaning at Christmas.
    As I get older I notice one of the generous Australian secular traditions is the inclusion of “orphans” in our family celebrations. Those who have nowhere or no-one to be with at Christmas. Something I’ve experienced as both giver and receiver, and is becoming more widespread across our community. Barabbas at the table.
    I reckon the lyric is that internal monologue we all have in preparation for speaking or writing. What we are thinking/hoping we might say. I love the way it gets more scattered and desperate as the song progresses – but finishes on a small note of optimism.
    Happy Festivus to you and yours.

  9. Thanks Mickey.
    That’s well recognised. Happy #gravyday.

    What are any of us doing, really?

    (“they didn’t like our drugs, our children or our dogs… the way we made it up each day…” [I can’t believe we were married]).

  10. Seems others are asking the big questions as well:

  11. Peter Crossing says

    Thanks Mickey.
    Enjoyable story about a terrific song. And a good ‘story’ song always elicits thoughts and questions.
    The family in How To Make Gravy do not appear as dysfunctional as the one described by Robert Earl Keen in Merry Christmas from the Family.
    I always play the Elvis version of Merry Christmas Baby on Christmas morning. It sets up the day.
    Best wishes to all.

  12. Luke Reynolds says

    Magnificent Mickey. A very happy #GravyDay to you.

    Totally agree with Smokie on the cross-generational appeal, recall roaring out the lines about ‘Roger’ in the early hours after a cricket club function last season with teamates much younger than me. Good times.

  13. Yep “How To Make Gravy” is up there with “Fairytale Of New York” as Glen’s favourite yuletide tunes.

    Xmas down here is so different to those north of the equator. There’s not too many songs about Australian Xmas’s coming to mind.

    I recall back in 1976 ‘Ol 55’, had a number one with ” A Rocking Christmas”, backed with a cover of the Beach Boys, “Little Saint Nick.”

    Good point PB re the Xmas orphans; been there done that. The better half is currently over in your hot city: i’m holding the house, feeding the cat and all the required domestic chores.


  14. Yeah How to make Gravy sounds a LOT to me like Thunderclap Newman’s (written Pete Townshend).

  15. Xmas morning here in Victoria.

    I had a few tasks to do, so into the car I hopped. First two tracks on the CD I played were of course, Fairy Tale Of New York, followed by How To Make Gravy.

    Frohliche Weihnacten Almanackers.


  16. Went for an early drive to Hurstbridge, this Boxing Day.

    My Companion was Paul Kelly’s Greatest Hits.

    To kick off Boxing Day what better pair of tunes to hear than Leaps and Bounds, followed by Bradman.

    ‘ave a good one.


  17. Mickey and of course easily the best thing about,Paul Kelly is he is a Norwood man !

  18. Festive greetings to all and thanks for commenting. I do love this week between Christmas and NYE, and especially that first occasion when I forget which day it is. Brilliant. I do enjoy the languid, almost fluid rhythms of the week, loosely orchestrated by cricket and beach, food and drink.

    Back to the MCG!

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