My son is losing faith in the Australian-ness of Australian classic rock since he heard Jimmy Barnes speak. Fair point, laddie! And then he started asking tricky questions about other Australian bands.
“Well, no, Glasgow isn’t part of Australia.”
“In the Constitution it says New Zealand are allowed to join if they want, so isn’t that good enough.”
So who are the greatest Australian rock bands anyway?
“Greatest” is tricky but for the purposes of the exercise we will go with ARIA and a few others of obvious stature who ain’t in there yet, but should make it soon enough. Sadly on this criterion neither Girlfriend nor Supernaut could be considered. Sorry, guys, but it was out of my hands.
“Rock band” is another tricky concept. “Musical differences” seemed to be a way of life for some of these bands, with a revolving door for band members. One of the most remarkable (non Australian) cases is the Fall whose alumni, approaching 50 in number, rate their own book. Here in Australia line ups changed frequently and there are a several people whose stints in different bands have earned them a couple of ARIA gongs. Compare the latter careers of the Little River Band and Birtles, Shorrock & Goble to gain an understanding of the complexity of band membership and the intellectual property rights relating to name ownership.
And finally – “Australian”. Here we go with a simple concept: Australian born.
So we are looking for bands where all of the members were born in Australia. This is not a simple exercise. I had hoped ARIA might have useful biographical information on band members. No such luck. I had further hoped that I might find a list of the people honoured as part of the band from the ARIA website. Again, no luck. Some bands have websites, and almost all of them have some useful information on Wikipedia but, as usual, the quality of information varies wildly. There was a publication called the Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop which I had high hopes for, given its thickness and seeming comprehensiveness. While it was obviously a labour of love on the part of the compilers some of the biographical material was a bit sketchy. Many of the articles tended to start at the time of the formation of the band, although sometimes a reference would be made to an “English-born” member.
The quality of information I discovered about the members of bands varies widely in quality and in some cases we are reduced to guesswork.
The Easybeats – it was so long ago that they met at Villawood when it was a more optimistically styled as a Migrant Reception Centre. Australia’s first great band consisted of two Englishmen, two Dutchmen and a Scot.
The Scot’s young brothers Angus and Malcolm went on to form AC/DC and the classic Australian era line-up included the manic Bon the Scotsman as their front man.
The Bee Gees are almost certainly the Isle of Man’s greatest musical export.
The front man for the Loved Ones was Gerry Humphries, once of London.
Keith Potger of the Seekers has to be Sri Lanka’s finest musical export to Australia.
Jim Keays was another Glasgow boy, so there go the Master’s Apprentices.
Beeb Birtles from Amsterdam was a key member of Zoot, who are not an ARIA band but made the subjective cut, just. Gotta admire boys in pink suits.
Daddy Cool were serious contenders right up until I discovered Gary Young was born in New York.
It is hard to imagine a more Australian voice than Brod Smith’s, but he was born in deepest Hertfordshire, meaning that Dingoes were not entirely native fauna.
Much of the fizz in Sherbet was provided by their English born guitarists, Clive Shakespeare and the recently deceased Harvey James.
Red Symons claims to have come over from England on the same boat as the Bee Gees. I’m not sure how the Bee Gees would have looked with Red playing in the band, and I’m not sure he could have hit the high notes. Farewell, Skyhooks.
Max Merritt, Split Enz, Dragon, Spectrum / Ariel and Crowded House all sort of qualify under the constitutional criteria, but really, there is a strong East Tasmanian component in each of those bands.
British born front men count out the chances of the Angels, Hush, Men at Work, Cold Chisel, Air Supply, the Church and Billy Thorpe.
The Little River Band’s classic early line up included just one Australian born member among the Dutch / Italian/ English born membership.
The best Nigerian Australian band is clearly Australian Crawl as James Reyne lived there for his first four formative musical years.
Jo Jo Zep was never going to qualify.
Radio Birdman got their hard edged sound direct from Detroit’s Denis Tek.
Chris Bailey from Northern Ireland and Ed Kuepper from West Germany were the driving forces behind the Saints.
The O’Doherty boys from Auckland via Mombasa knock out the Mentals.
Models had connections to both Canada and New Zealand.
Martin Armiger’s English sense of fair play ruled out the Sports.
Triffids attacked England first in the book and that is where Martin Casey originated from.
The lack of biographical information about any Hunters & Collectors beyond Mark “Benalla” Seymour means that, given there were 13 on stage at various times, they can hardly be considered. With 13 men on stage in the 1980’s it is hard to imagine them qualifying just on the law of averages.
Divynls at various times worked as some sort of American studio band with Chrissie Amphlett and Mark McEntee as the two Australians out front. Scratch them.
Icehouse / Flowers were also a studio band backing Iva Davies from Wauchope. Giving Brian Eno playing credit on an album gets you critical kudos, but lowers the Australian-ness of the “band”.
So who’s left in contention to be considered as the greatest all Australian rock band? The top five contenders from the classic era are:
Midnight Oil for the first half of their career up until Bones “Kiwi” Hillman started banging the drums.
Boys Next Door / Birthday Party. How did the quote go: Nick Cave is an Australian rock singer who lives in England and Brazil (it was back then) and sings southern American blues to Germans.
Rose Tattoo. The Tatts were also a clear winner in the deadest Australian rock band category. No reunion tours for Angry any more.
INXS with Michael Hutchence, before they adopted their rent a singer approach.
Hoodoo Gurus are still rolling along, after an eight year hiatus, with basically the same classic late 80’s line-up.
Of the more recent bands Silverchair and Jet probably qualify.
Honourable mentions can go to the Go Betweens who were big in France, apparently (le pub rock Australien), and Spiderbait- without a doubt, Finley’s finest musical export.
So the answer to the question of which is the greatest Australian band, based on overseas impact, is probably a straight choice between the major commercial success of INXS and the critical acclaim accruing to Nick Cave’s early outfit.
On the other hand, if the choice is to be based on gallons of sweat left on Australian pub dance floors then the other three are probably right in contention.