As a corrective to yesterday’s song by the
inimitable imitable Miley Cyrus, here’s the cheerful and noisy (and Australian) Ratcat:
Ratcat – “Yes I Wanna Go” (1991)
Here’s Ratcat with “That Ain’t Bad” (1990):
Mix The Ramones with The Lemonheads and you have Ratcat. You also have this song which did a nice job in 1990 of cleaning out the loudspeakers of radios all over Australia. One thing I really like about the song is that when the guitars kick in, they’re filthy – and then, as the song progresses, they keep getting filthier and filthier until you start thinking that you may have blown your radio’s speaker because you played the song too loud. “That Ain’t Bad” went effortlessly to number one courtesy of its irresistibility. (One reason I like living in Australia is that you can have a song like “That Ain’t Bad” sitting at number one on the charts – and have it in high rotation on the radio.)
Ratcat were a one-hit wonder. Actually, that’s not strictly true. Ratcat had a second single that did fairly well, but nowhere near as well as their first, before the band disappeared – so technically they were two-hit wonders. I don’t know if this two-hit wonder thing is an exclusively Australian trait, but it’s been very common throughout the history of Australian radio, and it’s happened plenty of times to international bands as well (e.g., Right Said Fred‘s “I’m Too Sexy” followed by “Deeply Dippy“, and The Proclaimers‘ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” followed by “I’m On My Way“).
“That Ain’t Bad” is a song that needs to be played at maximum volume.
As a bonus, here’s a live version with an incredibly enthusiastic crowd of teenage girls screaming and singing along to the song. It’s fabulous:
Ratcat – “That Ain’t Bad” (Metro Choir Mix) (live) (1990)
I’m a regular reader of some mighty good power pop blogs such as Powerpop, Absolute Powerpop, Powerpopaholic et al, but being antipodean (i.e., from the land of Men At Work, Olivia Newton-John, and Air Supply) I’ve often wondered why Australian power pop records have rarely, if ever, been mentioned on them. I mean, I don’t cry myself to sleep about it, but I think to myself (apart from it being a wonderful world): has anyone outside of Australia heard much power pop from Australia?
I’m guessing not, because it seems to me that even with the Internet’s electronic tentacles reaching ever further into homes all around the world, those blogs’ readerships seem to be predominantly American, which makes me slightly sad because there’s so much music that’s come out of Australia over the years, and I’m bursting to let people know about.
As a result, here’s a history of power pop in Australia.
Before I go on, I must issue a huge disclaimer: I can’t claim to have heard every bit of Australian power pop ever produced, so this list won’t be terribly exhaustive or even authoritative – it’s just a bunch of songs from Australia. This is definitely a history rather than the history.
By way of an introduction, here are a few words on how I see power pop. It’ll give you an idea of my perspective, bias, and level of ignorance…
(You can safely skip this introduction, as you may not find it interesting in the slightest.)
All of my early youth (and I do mean all – I was born in 1961) was spent with The Beatles in ridiculously high rotation on the radio, which was fine by me, as I adored The Beatles (and still do). But when the Fab Four broke up in 1970, Australian radio decided that, because they weren’t a band anymore, their music didn’t exist anymore. So radio stations stopped playing The Beatles and started playing lots of other stuff instead. The music they played was predominantly Australian, like long-haired hippy songs, novelty songs, or pop songs sung by angelic voices, as well as plenty of other styles. The 70’s was a time of enormous musical variety in Australia, and I loved all of it. (I may be easily pleased.)
As for power pop, I saw (and heard) the light one day in 1972 when I heard “Radancer” by UK band The Marmalade on the radio:
I thought “This is a pop song – and it’s really heavy!” (Well, I was 11.) From then on, I listened for any other “heavy” pop songs that might appear on the radio. In Australia, though, there wasn’t much on offer, courtesy of the aforementioned long-haired hippy songs, novelty songs, and pop songs sung by angelic voices.
I couldn’t believe that a song could be really poppy and really heavy, even more so than “Radancer”. This was fantastic. A little later that same year, The Raspberries‘ “Go All The Way” blasted out of the radio:
And that was that – I was completely hooked on power pop. I liked 1972. A few years later came Cheap Trick – and I was even more hooked.
I didn’t know until much later that the kind of music I was instinctively seeking out more than any other was called power pop, but that’s what it was alright. It even popped occasionally on Countdown, the Australan TV music program in the 1970’s. Every Australian teenager – and I mean every single one of them – watched Countdown religiously at 6PM each Sunday night. (When Wikipedia talks about Countdown‘s cultural influence, you’d better believe it, baby.)
Unfortunately, during those formative years I never heard – or even knew about – Big Star until years afterward. (Countdown didn’t played them, and neither did any of the radio stations I listened to.) As a result, the Holy Trinity of power pop (The Raspberries/Big Star/Cheap Trick) was incomplete for me because I hadn’t bonded with Big Star as a teenager (i.e., the music becoming virtually a part of your DNA as your personality forms) as I did with the other bands. I have to admit, though, that even after becoming well acquainted with Big Star, I’m still not much of a fan. This’ll probably sound like sacrilege, and instantly revoke any power pop credentials I may have had up until now, but… I generally find a lot of their lyrics a bit too maudlin (e.g., “Thirteen“), their musicianship painfully sloppy (e.g., “Don’t Lie To Me“), and their melodies not terribly strong (e.g., “Stroke It Noel“), to fully enjoy them. You can call me a heretic now if you like. Maybe I needed to have been an American teenager when I was growing up.
I don’t know if this helps make up for the unforgiveable sin of not loving Big Star, but I want to mention that there are plenty of bands from the US of A that I do love. Just not Big Star. I won’t mention all the American bands I like enormously because: a) you don’t need to read yet another list of someone else’s favorite bands; and b) this guide is already much longer than it needs to be. However, I will mention that I’m a huge fan of Jellyfish. And I’m an even huger fan of Sugarbomb, my favorite band of the 21st century (Tastes Like Sugar and Bully hold pride of place on the CD shelves.)
Anyway, my musical upbringing will give you a general idea of the sort of music coming your way in this guide. I fully realise that I have my taste in music, you have yours, and the twain may never meet. I certainly don’t want to impose my musical tastes on anyone (especially you). That’s why I want to stress that this guide is just that: it’s a guide, not a commandment.
Although there have been – and still are – squillions of power pop bands in Australia, I’ll only concentrate on a few, mainly because they’re the ones I know well.
Hopefully, you’ll like some of what’s on offer. I love it all. I’ve grown up with these songs – and I’m glad I did. Have fun listening!
PART 1: THE SIXTIES AND SEVENTIES
THE EASYBEATS – “Friday On My Mind“ (1966)
Just as every other country in the Western World had their own version of The Beatles in the 60’s, so did Australia – and they were The Easybeats. Depite their early shameless moptop emulation (they later tried becoming The Rolling Stones as well), The Easybeats did produce some great singles that may be considered power pop. I hope so, because it’s about the only remotely power pop-ish Australian band I could think of that was active in the Sixties, and I wanted to have at least one band from each decade.
“Friday On My Mind” was written by Easybeats members Harry Vanda and George Young who went on to become a two-man hit factory, writing and producing chart-topping singles for what seemed to be every single Australian performer in the 70’s. I wanted to show you a list of just how many great songs they were responsible for but could only find this page which has an awful lot of song titles but no audio examples. Even the usually-reliable Wikipedia came up short with an unhelpfully small (they call it “selected”, I call it stingy) list on their page for Harry Vanda.
But back to the song in question. “Friday On My Mind” was voted in 2001 the top Australian song of all time. That sounds about right to me.
“I’ll Make You Happy” (1966)
“Good Times“ (1968)
ZOOT – “Eleanor Rigby” (1970)
I’ve included Zoot‘s version of “Eleanor Rigby” in this guide because: a) I like it a lot and think it’s power pop; and b) the guitarist was Rick Springfield who decamped to the US in 1972 where, as just about every 80’s music-lovin’ American knows, he went from General Hospital to “Jessie’s Girl.”
SHERBET – “Summer Love” (1975)
If ever a season had a theme song then this is it. “Summer Love” is routinely played on the radio here any time the weather warms up (which, in Australia, is often, so I get to hear it a lot). It doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, as soon as this song comes on the radio you’re instantly at the beach on a sunny day and it’s full of people having fun.
Sherbet were one of the two most popular bands in Australia during the Seventies (the other was Skyhooks, and both bands had to put up with an entirely media-generated battle for supremacy, much like the Blur/Oasis nonsense in the UK in the 90’s). Sherbet had everything a young audience could want at the time: silk shirts that seemed to not have any buttons (their shirts always seemed to be open); flared silk pants; and lots of very clean hair. Later on, as they were losing popularity (and to escape their teenybopper image), Sherbet changed their name to The Sherbs (ugh), but that didn’t work. They then tried to crack the American market by changing their name yet again and releasing records there as Highway. It was a failure. (I’m not surprised.)
“Summer Love” probably isn’t power pop at all, but I love it and want at least somebody outside of Australia to hear it.
Also recommended (and also probably not power pop):
“Matter Of Time” (1976)
“You’ve Got The Gun” (1976)
SPLIT ENZ – “Things” (1979)
“Things” has the odd distinction of being the only Split Enz single that virtually no-one knows about. This non-album single was released in October 1979, in between 1979’s Frenzy (a fabulous album) and 1980’s True Colours, their breakthrough album (another fabulous album – I like Split Enz a lot). They even made a video for it and everything, but for some reason radio wasn’t interested in it at all, and the song consequently didn’t chart anywhere. Not even in New Zealand, their home country. I still don’t know why radio wasn’t interested in it. I love this song, but I wasn’t a radio programmer in 1979 so I didn’t get a say in the matter.
Although Split Enz came from New Zealand, when they became successful in Australia they were automatically adopted by the Australian listening public. I don’t quite know why, but every band from New Zealand who ever had any kind of popularity in Australia was automatically adopted by Australians and claimed as their own. Maybe it’s a little brother thing, what with New Zealand being a little smaller than, and a little to the side of, Australia.
Anyway, that’s why Split Enz are in this guide: they’re Australian.
“I See Red“ (1978)
“Give It A Whirl“ (1979)
“I Got You“ (1980)
PART 2: THE EIGHTIES
THE SWINGERS – “Counting The Beat” (1981)
This is one of my all-time favorite Australian singles. The Swingers were a three-piece formed by Phil Judd after he left Split Enz in 1978. Although Phil Judd came from New Zealand, he’s Australian (see Part 1’s entry on Split Enz). “Counting The Beat” was The Swingers’ second single and it went to number one in Australia. It also became the highest-selling single for 1981. “Counting The Beat” fever hit so many people simultaneously that, as this unreadable web page says, it “effortlessly roared to the top of the charts faster than any other Australian single in ten years”.
Unfortunately, The Swingers were a one-hit wonder. After “Counting The Beat”, the band disappeared and Phil Judd went on to write film scores.
Whenever I play “Counting The Beat”, I think: “This is the coolest song ever.” I also think that the video for it is just about the coolest thing ever as well. I’m here to tell ya, this song is like a drug to me, so beware: you may succumb to its irresistibility, too. You only need to play this song once…
Incidentally, if you do listen to this song, the recommended volume level is maximum.
DIVINYLS – “Science Fiction” (1982)
“Boys In Town” (video) was their debut single in 1981 and they let you know who they were right from the get-go. They even recorded a pummeling version of The Easybeats’ “I’ll Make You Happy”. They named their version “Make U Happy” (1982), way before Prince decided to reduce the English language to text messages in his song titles.
Just between you and me, I find Divinyls’ lead singer Christina Amphlett to one of the most intriguing, alluring, seductive – and intimidating – temptresses to ever hold a microphone. Throughout the Eighties her performances almost always managed to get me hot and bothered (and I don’t mean that in a bad way, either). In “Only Lonely”, when Chrissy sings, “Oh, baby, wonder if we could get involved?”, my answer is invariably: “Yes.”
It was extremely difficult picking only three more songs to recommend because their first three albums – Desperate (1983), What A Life! (1985) and Temperamental (1988) – are full of solid tracks. So I made it four.
“Only Lonely” (1982)
“In My Life” (1984)
“Good Die Young” (1984)
“Sleeping Beauty” (1985)
CROWDED HOUSE – “Mean To Me” (1986)
I know that Neil Finn is mighty good at ‘wistful’ and ‘melancholy’, but he’s equally adept at ‘rockin”. “Mean To Me” is the first track on Crowded House’s 1986 self-titled debut album. I think this is a great, great song.
For Crowded House in power pop mode, “Locked Out“ (1993)
HOODOO GURUS – “What’s My Scene” (1987)
The Hoodoo Gurus started out as a thrashy Day-Glo kitsch combo with their 1983 debut album Stoneage Romeos which contained songs about the regular things like breakups (“I Want You Back” [video]), but also songs about grave-robbing (“Dig It Up“), volcanos (“Leilani” [video]), bombs talking to hurricanes (“Tojo” [video]), and kamikaze pilots (“I Was A Kamikaze Pilot“), but settled into a dependable power pop band throughout the 80’s and 90’s. The word “dependable” isn’t meant to be derogatory here at all – quite the opposite, in fact: throughout their entire career, you could depend on each new album to be filled with great tracks (such as “What’s My Scene“). Pretty much all of their songs were written by lead singer, Dave Faulkner. As far as I’m concerned, Dave Faulkner couldn’t write a bad song if he tried. Also recommended: “My Girl“ (1983)Link(video) “Death Defying“ (1985)Link(video) “Good Times“ (1987) Link (video) And plenty of others. Really, you can’t go wrong with any Hoodoo Gurus song – just pick one and play it. If you’re still reading this, I admire your stamina. PART 3: THE NINETIES AND NOUGHTIES RATCAT – “That Ain’t Bad” (1990) Link Mix The Ramones with The Lemonheads and you have Ratcat. You also have this song which did a nice job in 1990 of cleaning out the loudspeakers of radios all over Australia. One thing I really like about the song is that when the guitars kick in, they’re filthy – and then, as the song progresses, they keep getting filthier and filthier until you start thinking that you may have blown your radio’s speaker because you played the song too loud. “That Ain’t Bad” went effortlessly to number one, courtesy of its irresistibility. (One reason I like living in Australia is that you can have a song like “That Ain’t Bad” sitting at number one on the charts – and have it in high rotation on the radio.) Ratcat were a one-hit wonder. Actually, that’s not strictly true. Ratcat had a second single that did fairly well, but nowhere near as well as their first, before the band disappeared – so technically they were two-hit wonders. I don’t know if this two-hit wonder thing is an exclusively Australian trait, but it’s been very common throughout the history of Australian radio, and it’s happened plenty of times to international bands as well (e.g., Right Said Fred‘s “I’m Too Sexy” followed by “Deeply Dippy“, and The Proclaimers‘ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” followed by “I’m On My Way“). “That Ain’t Bad” is another one of those songs that needs to be played at maximum volume. REGURGITATOR – “Blubber Boy” (1995) Link (video – embedding disabled. Grrr again.) SPIDERBAIT – “Glockenpop” (1999) Link (video – embedding disabled. Grrr again.) HAPPYLAND – “Don’t You Know Who I Am” (1998) Link Regurgitator and Spiderbait were two bands who vied with each other for the title of second-best Australian indie-rock band in the 90’s (the title of best goes to You Am I). Both bands were clever – at times, too clever (Australians call it ‘smart-arse’) – courtesy of the lyrics that tended to be one of two things: sarcastic, or of the bite-the-hand-that-feeds variety. I have no idea what “Blubber Boy” is about, but the lyrics for “Glockenpop” are a good example of Spiderbait’s contempt for the music industry (and maybe a contempt for the listener, too). Musically, though, it pushes all the right pop buttons for me. You probably wouldn’t call “Glockenpop” power pop, but I do – I call it dreamy power pop. And it has a suitably trippy video, too. If “Glockenpop” isn’t rocky enough for you, try “Shazam!”, a great little piece of foot-stomping glam from 2000: Link Happyland was a side project for Janet English, the singer/bass player from Spiderbait, and her boyfriend Quan Yeomans, the writer/singer/guitarist from Regurgitator. “Don’t You Know Who I Am” is unsparing in its criticism of fame and celebrities. Biting the hand that feeds yet again. YOU AM I – “Get Up“ (2001) Link I’ve always thought of You Am I as an Australian Sloan, regularly churning out a steady (but not necessarily great) supply of power pop. However, You Am I’s singles were always good. (According to Wikipedia, they’ve released 24 of ’em.) Although I reckon “Berlin Chair” is their crowning glory (it’s a flat-out great song, and gives me goosebumps every single time I hear it), “Get Up” is a better example of their power pop credentials. Also recommended: “Berlin Chair“ (1994) Link (video) “Cathy’s Clown“ (1995) Link (video) “Mr Milk“ (1995) Link (video) THIRSTY MERC – “My Completeness“ (2004) Link Thirsty Merc is a band that came out of nowhere to dominate the Australian charts for most of 2004 with its self-titled debut album. Apart from having a name that I’m not especially fond of (Thirsty Merc? Why on Earth would anyone ever want to call a band Thirsty Merc?), everything else they do is splendid. They play power pop that’s smart – they’re all good musicians, they know lots of chords but don’t always show them off, and they’re lyrics are literate. I decided against recommending their biggest hit, “Someday, Someday” (video), because it’s not terribly representative of the band. It’s a mid-tempo rock ballad. Unfortunately for the band, relentless playing of it on the radio helped define them in the public’s eye as a mid-tempo-ballady rock band. To me, that’s a pity because the other six (!) singles from that album all sound great on the radio. Predictably, for the first single from their second album, radio stations wanted (and got) another song exactly like “Someday, Someday“. It now seems to me that Thirsty Merc are forever going to known as “that mid-tempo-rock-ballady band”. Nevertheless, their first album is one well worth seeking out. I can’t think of a bad track on it. (OK, “Claude Monet” is pretty cheesy, but it’s still good – and it mentions Claude Monet.) Also recommended: “In The Summertime“ (2004) Link (video) “Emancipate Myself“ (2004) Link “Katie Q” (2004) Link NEON – “A Man” (2005) Link When I first heard “A Man” I was bowled over. This is precisely my kind of power pop. Neon are a three-piece band from Melbourne, and they’re 2005 self-titled debut album is a big dose of heavy-hitting tracks. “A Man” was supposed to be their breakthrough single (they were backed by a big label and had plenty of promotion) – but they’re a power pop band, and you know what happens to power pop bands on the charts (i.e., nothing). The single they released after “A Man” was “Dizziness” which contains the great line: “Dizziness makes the world go round.” The sound on the YouTube video for “A Man” is atrocious so please avoid it. Apart from here, the song can also be found on Neon’s MySpace page. As soon as the page loads, go straight to “A Man” and press Play. Repeatedly. Also recommended: “Friend” (2005) Link “Hit Me Again” (2005) Link “Happy Going Nowhere” (2005) Link and the epic “All I Want” (2005) (I just had to sneak in another one) Link THE WELLINGTONS – “I Get My Heart Broken Every Day” (2008) Link The Wellingtons are also a band from Melbourne, and their third album, Heading North For The Winter, is a ripper (that’s Australian for “very good”). Aaron over at Powerpopaholic loved it (he awarded it 10 out of 10 and rated it fifth best album of 2008) and I love it, too. I played this album every day for two weeks. The album is pure power pop goodness, one song after the other. When you listen to the album for the first time, you’ll think to yourself: “OK, so they put the best song at the start. That makes sense.” Then the second song comes on and you think: “Hang on, this is as good as the first song…” And then the third song comes on and you’re thinking: “No way! How can this song be as good as the first two?” And on and on the album goes, while you’re constantly thinking “You’re kidding!” as each song appears. Also recommended: “Song For Kim” (2008) Link (video) “Come Undone” (2008) Link (video) “Freak Out” (2008) (all one minute and thirty-one seconds of it) Link (video) Well, I reckon you’ve read more than enough. That’s about it for this particular look at power pop in Australia. POSTSCRIPT It’s disclaimer time again: There are plenty of other power pop bands and artists currently active in Australia such as Even (you’ll like Even if you like Big Star), Grand Atlantic, and Michael Carpenter, but I haven’t heard enough of all those artists them to make any kind of “Wow, you gotta hear this!” recommendation. Sorry about that. I’ve just realised that I don’t have any skinny tie bands from the 80’s to recommend, but that’s because I don’t remember any of them. There were plenty in Australia at the time (I guess), but for me it was a blur of black-and-white clothing and people standing around like Elvis Costello on the cover of My Aim Is True. I’ve probably missed a lot of other bands – bands that you have heard of, and would recommend because you’re not me. If so, please spread the word. In the meantime, there’s a blog called Australian Power Pop that will without a doubt fill in all the gaping holes in this history. And Popboomerang Records has this frighteningly large list of Australian power pop bands to help you (and me) explore more of what’s out there. Incidentally, I haven’t mentioned Bob Evans and his 2006 album, Suburban Songbook, mainly because I don’t consider it power pop (I know, I know: there are quite a few songs listed above that you probably wouldn’t categorize as power pop, either, so you’d be completely correct if you say that I have no right not to include Bob Evans in this guide). Absolute Powerpop adored this record, rating it Top Album of 2006, and the album’s appeared on a few power pop best-of-year polls, but I have a problem with it. Whenever I listen to it I hear a touch of whimsy, and I hear a touch of the Brian Wilsons (I also hear Billy Joel‘s “Piano Man” in Bob’s “Don’t You Think It’s Time“) – but I don’t hear power pop. Am I missing something? The pop’s there, but where’s the power? I know that guitars don’t always have to be turned up to 11 in a pop song, but I don’t get from Bob Evans any kind of adrenalin rush or a wonderful melody-and-harmony-induced grin that power pop usually gives me. I like the album, but I don’t consider it power pop. I’m just letting you know that I know about it, but didn’t want to put it in this guide – and to save you the trouble of responding heatedly with a “How could you not mention Bob Evans, you idiot? He’s Australian!”
Nevertheless, I hope that you enjoy some, if not all, of the music on offer here. Have fun!