Yeah, it’s slim pickings. If you want to listen to some desiccated smackie’s sonorous hymns to Elvis or a couple of fey Brisbanites recite a list of their favourite Godard films, the cultural cringe back catalogue will serve you well. With Australian musicians a little less abashed about where they come from these days, navel-gazing is the new order; odes to suburban minutiae were back in vogue in Sydney and Melbourne last time I was there,¹ and of course Gareth Liddiard fancies himself Henry Lawson with a distortion pedal.
Rare is the songwriter who considers Australia’s place in the region. The Presets’ last big hit was ostensibly about treatment of asylum seekers (which explains why the promo clip was set on the moon). We have our two seminal songs “about” the Vietnam Police Action, now de facto anthems in suburban RSLs the nation over; the first is really about visiting a knock shop in Hong Kong, the second is in keeping with the Oliver Stone school of historical revisionism, where tragedy is a young man’s lost innocence rather than two million dead civilians.
Jesus. Here’s most of what’s left:
1. Not Drowning, Waving: The Kiap Song (1988)
“And the Townsville men all own plantations here/
They drink at the club with their Filipino brides”
Backed by an ensemble from Rabaul, David Bridie scorns the second-rate businessmen and linen-suited expat club loungers making hay (and coffee) out of Australia’s former colonial possession, turning Papua New Guinea into an outsourced version of the Queensland sugarcane fields in the decades before the White Australia Policy. “The labour’s cheap and strong up here, that’s the way it’s done up here,” and that’s still the way it’s done up there.
2. Redgum: I’ve Been to Bali Too (1984)
“Got a ride out to Kuta in the back of a truck/
Cost me twenty dollars and it wasn’t worth a buck”
Easy to forget that white trash Bali holidays have a longer pedigree than the mining boom. Well before Kuta supplanted the Gold Coast as the end of year private school playground, well before Denpasar Airport began shuttling thousands of shift-workers to and from the Pilbara each week, Bali was still the destination of choice for a fortnight’s constitutional: magic mushroom milkshakes, motorbikes with bald tires, bootlegs, stomach cramps and ear bashing your hapless friends in the months after you returned home.
3. Australian Crawl: Chinese Eyes (1980)
“Chinese eyes: you know it wasn’t just a holiday fling/
Chinese Eyes: she’s no take away chow mein”
Released 16 years before River’s Cuomo’s paean to half-Japanese girls, this was Australia’s contribution to the Yellow Fever canon: a man looking at an escort’s sticker in a public telephone box, overcome with a case of the orientalist vapours. Certainly wouldn’t fly today, although how’s this for a fun fact: El Scorcho failed as a single in the US because radio stations refused to play it. Australian DJs had no such compunctions, and it eventually took out the ninth slot on the 1996 Triple J Hottest 100. Even though the single cover looked like this.
1. Not to mention songs about copping a midnight gobby in a kebab shop.