They’re Australian classics and often signature songs for their acts. They’ve seeped through into national consciousness.
But these Australian songs were never big commercial hits, although they might have been highlights of their live shows or received valuable exposure on triple j or on community radio.
Cold Chisel: ‘Khe Sanh’ (1978)
“Their legs were often open, but their minds were always closed,” – lines like that had ‘Khe Sanh’ cast into the commercial radio sin bin.
On the Live at the Wireless album, Jimmy Barnes thanked Double J for being the sole voice in the wilderness to playlist it.
40 years later ‘Khe Sanh’ grows in power and in stature as a dark and distant song that captures the Australian psyche – aversion to authority, and pressure from others to conform.
To add to injury, it reached #41 on original release and even when re-released in August 2011 only tippy-toed to #40.
APRA’s 2001 poll placed it at #8 of all-time best Australian songs while it topped Triple M’s “Ozzest” 100 in January 2018 in a poll for the most ‘Australian’ song of all time.
Powderfinger: ‘These Days’ (1999)
Another live drawcard, ‘These Days’ only popped out as a lowly b-side (to ‘Passenger’) but topped the triple j Hottest 100 countdown in 1999.
Film director Gregor Jordan asked them to write a ditty for his forthcoming film Two Hands.
Bernard Fanning wrote the words inspired by some of the scenes Jordan played him.
The lyrics were poignant enough to be included for a time on the English curriculum in some Australian high schools, and used in the Victorian Transport Accident Commission’s The Hidden Toll TVC in late 2005.
Check out The Hidden Toll TVC:
‘These Days’ topped the Australian triple j Hottest 100 in 1999 (Fanning quipped: “We worked out that being number one on the Hottest 100 makes us the biggest band in the world because it’s the biggest music poll in the world”) and Song of the Year at the 2000 Music Critic’s Awards.
Tash Sultana: ‘Jungle’ (2016)
Tash was going through “a shitty time in my life”, she came home one day, ”pretty much wrote it on the spot”, banged the song out on her phone in the bedroom as a pocket psychodrama, uploaded it and saw it generate 22 million YouTube views.
She went on to pen songs she liked more, but fans would call out for it at shows and interviewers kept burbling about it.
She expressed that frustration when an Australian triple j presenter brought up the song. Tash lamented that the song she least favoured was the one everyone liked.
‘Jungle’ reached #39 in Australia and also #39 in the US alternate charts but ranked #3 in the Hottest 100 2016
The unloved child became a star: hey, that could have been a character stepping out of one of her songs.
Rose Tattoo: ‘Rock And Roll Outlaw’ (1978)
The original image for Rose Tattoo, devised by slide guitarist Peter Wells and early manager Sebastian Chase, was bright shock orange hair, shaved eyebrows and all-black clothes.
Then follicly-challenged Angry Anderson arrived to take on mic duties, and the concept was flushed down the loo.
Produced by Harry Vanda & George Young and issued through Alberts, their self-titled debut album yielded ‘Bad Boy For Love’ as their first single.
After it went Top 20, it was expected the far superior greater face-melting Rock And Roll Outlaw’, which generated greater reaction at their shows, was expected to do better.
Alas, when they went on the all-powerful ABC-TV show Countdown, an impromptu on-camera peck on the lips between Anderson and guitarist Mick Cocks – something they did many times at their live shows as a ‘love & brotherhood’ statement – saw them banned from the show.
Major radio warily kept its distance as a result, and the song stopped tracks at #68.
Due to its live popularity, the album was released under the title Rock ‘n’ Roll Outlaws in some overseas markets.
The Whitlams: ‘No Aphrodisiac’ (1997)
The centuries-old adage about people who write sad songs – which Tone Deaf just made up – is they’re doing it to sew up an internal scar or sending out a message: “Alright then, I’ll date myself”.
Piano-based slab of melancholia, ‘No Aphrodisiac’, which launched a thousand tear-stained love notes, didn’t start out as a standard love song.
Whitlams leader Tim Freedman says it’s actually about realising that his long distance relationship (she in Melbourne, he in Sydney) was unravelling.
Reviewers took some lines to insinuate hints of infidelity and masturbation.
The song’s writer credits include Pinky Beecroft and Chit Chat of Machine Gun Fellatio, who had a demo with some very funny personal classifieds, and six of those lines were used in the Whitlams’ tearjerker for comedic effect.
Freedman expressed his opinion: “Well, I don’t think it’s very unusual in terms of every other indie rock band has a song about loss, despair or loneliness.
“The difference I suppose is our song was coming more from the idea of indulging loneliness, instead of feeling defeated by it.”
Regarded as the band’s signature song. It only made it up to #59 on the ARIA chart but was #1 on the Hottest 100 1997 and took out song of the year at the ARIAs.
Check out The Whitlams’ ‘No Aphrodisiac’:
The Go-Betweens: ‘Streets Of Your Town’ (1988)
The best known of Australian band The Go-Betweens’ songbook is tied to Brisbane, where the band formed.
But it was written in Sydney, in a sunny top floor flat in Bondi Junction shared by Grant McLennan and Sydney-born multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown who were in a relationship.
This was just before they recorded their sixth album 16 Lovers Lane.
In a how-it-was-made piece in The Guardian, Brown estimated it took ten minutes to put together.
She recalled, “I was singing along and I sung that ‘shine’ line, which is like the call and response answer in the verses, and that’s pretty much it – that’s how it came about.
“And I don’t collect any songwriting royalties for that song, because that was a condition of my joining the band.”
Brown also set the feline among the pigeons in the piece with her comment, “Probably everybody concurs that it was a late addition to the album. And, I hasten to add, everybody [else] was dead against recording it as well.”
Lindy Morrison for her part remembered: “We all knew that it was going to be the single.”
Fans and critics drooled over the recording (especially its early mention of domestic violence) but it only reached #70 in Australia on Mushroom, faring better in the UK on Beggars Banquet (#60) and New Zealand on Mushroom (#30).
The band broke up a year later.
The Sports: ‘Who Listens To The Radio’ (1978)
Sports leader Stephen Cummings emerged from Melbourne’s creative and theatrical Carlton scene, alongside Skyhooks and Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons.
He had intended to start a magazine and sold subscriptions to cover printing costs. He used the money to buy a guitar in a pawn shop instead.
From early R&B beginnings Sports moved to a new wave pop sheen sound.
Their fortunes in the UK for all purposes vanished when the record company Stiff insisted on alienating English crowds by pushing their Australianness.
Their first record sleeve featured tennis star Evonne Goolagong holding a koala, and unsuccessfully tried to get Cummings to do an Elvis Costello and change his name to Steve Cochran (after ‘50s rocker Eddie Cochran).
America was more obliging but The Sports made the decision not to spend too much time touring abroad.
The lead-off single from the Don’t Throw Stones album, ’Who Listens To The Radio’ was the precise articulation of Cummins’ onstage persona, all nervous energy and wry rhythms.
It was a live stand-out, but peaked at #35 on the Kent Music Report in Australia and #45 in the US.
Check out The Sports’ ‘Who Listens To The Radio’:
Paul Kelly & The Coloured Girls ‘Leaps & Bounds’ (1986)
At this year’s AFL Grand Final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, a thrilling moment was when 100,000 spectators bawled along with Paul Kelly on the line “Looking over the bridge to the MCG.”
It was always a special song. Although best known as an album artist, Kelly has had a run of Top 10 hits, ‘Leaps And Bounds’ wasn’t one of them.
The bard had penned it with Chris Langman (later a film maker) when they shared a flat in Melbourne’s Punt Road during their days in the band The Dots.
An early version of the song came out in Langman’s 1980s band The Glory Boys, which included future Crowded House member Nick Seymour.
In a twist of fate, Crowded House would play the song when Kelly was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 1997.
Also by coincidence, Iva Davies’ Flowers recorded a version for their debut album Icehouse but it didn’t make final cut. Flowers’ drummer John Lloyd had been in The Dots.
The Kelly version emerged on the double album Gossip, cut when Kelly moved to Sydney and formed The Coloured Girls.
The name, from a line in Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild’ (“and the coloured girls go…”) was hastily changed to The Messengers when the band started to tour America.
‘Leaps And Bounds’ was never a hit even when issued as a single (unlike other tracks on the album, ‘Before Too Long’ and ‘Darling It Hurts’) but Kelly would perform it with great effect at special occasions in Melbourne.
These included the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games on March 26, 2006 and at the 2012 AFL Grand Final.
Avalanches: ‘Since I Left You’ (2001)
The Australian band might be listed under EDM but their first album Since I Left You – complete with over 3,000 samples and made with band member Robbie Chater battling autoimmune diseases – totally defied genre-speak.
What’s more when they returned almost two decades later, they not only found an audience waiting in an era of disposability, but had made another record that cast new shadows on music style and this time showed off its imperfections.
Their first gig in ten years was in Melbourne: they just ran through the set once before stepping onstage before 25,000 people. Groovy, baby!
The song ‘Since I Left You’ had cultural magnitude, right from when a demo was issued as part of a mixtape.
The end result, released as the third single, embodied the joy of listening to various kinds of music.
The main sample, used on the chorus was Main Attraction’s 1968 track ‘Everyday’.
It also boasted Rose Royce’s ‘Daddy Rich’ Tony Mottola’s ‘Anema e core and ‘By The Time I Get to Phoenix’, The Duprees’ ‘The Sky’s The Limit’, Lamont Dozier’s ‘Take Off Your Make-Up’ and Klaus Wunderlich’s ‘Let’s Do the Latin Hustle’.
But it was no mainstream hit. In Australia it entered at #67, dwaddled around for two weeks, and then exited stage right.
It was #16 in the UK, #29 in Ireland and #97 in the Netherlands.
However, it was #8 in the Hottest 100 2001.
Check out Avalanches’ ‘Since I Left You’:
The Triffids: ‘Wide Open Road’ (1986)
Australian collective The Triffids had much experience driving over the Nullarbor from their home base in WA to cast their net wider on the East Coast.
They developed a first-hand appreciation of the country’s red dusted spaces, the sense of mystery and dislocation, “big and empty” sky, “wilderness” and “flatlands” which flitted through the song.
David McComb, its writer, would later observe, “Like the rest of the Born Sandy Devotional album, it seemed to naturally evoke a particular landscape, namely the stretch of highway in between Caiguna and Norseman, where the Triffids’ Hi-Ace monotonously came to grief with kangaroos.”
He started writing it in Melbourne, remembering waking up one morning and having all the lyrics pour out of him quickly.
Like all his best songs, the narrative combined the personal and the universal.
In this case it was about a man so determinedly trying to find his lost love that he cut off any friend and family member who stepped in his way,
McComb finished the melody “at a soundcheck in Europe somewhere” before the band decamped to London to cut Born Sandy Devotional with producer Gil Norton.
‘Wide Open Road’ is affectionately remembered for the way it captured Australianness, not only n the words but the sense of space and the sounds the band weaved around it.
McComb died in 1999 at the age of 36.
Steve Kilbey of The Church, who stepped in to perform the song with The Triffids when they were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame (2008) was a big fan of the number.
“It’s a huge song. It’s like singing (Led Zeppelin’s) ‘Whole Lotta Love’ – everybody knows it and loves it. The moment I heard it I wished I’d written it.”
In 2001, APRA hailed it among the 30 greatest Australian contemporary rock songs.
Ironically, it did better overseas peaking at #64 on the Australian Kent Music Report and #25 in the UK.
The song reached #68 on triple j Hottest 100 1989 and #9 in 1990.
Jet: ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ (2003)
That instant riff has been heard enough – on radio, games (Rock Band, Guitar Hero), sports meets, movies (Flushed Away) and of course that Apple iPod dancing-silhouettes ad which broke them worldwide, — to make it Jet’s signature tune.
It’s been compared to Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’ but Nic Cester was actually listening to a lot of ‘60s era Easybeats, Who and Stones to channel their brashness.
He also picked up bad habits as cringe-worthy lines about girls with big black boots and long brown hair.
Nevertheless it was one of the standouts for the crowd that came to the band’s long-time residency at the Duke of Windsor in Melbourne and experienced the songs on their first album Get Born develop strong identities.
Both the song and the album were causing some minor ripples as part of the guitar renaissance of the time.
But it took Apple to send it to #29 on the Billboard Hot 100, #3 on Modern Rock Tracks and #7 on Mainstream Rock Tracks. It sold 1.3 million units Stateside.
Check out the Apple TV commercial for iPod:
Its success gave Get Born a good kick up the caboose, sending it after eight months to American sales of 3.5 million allowing Cester to buy a house in Como, Italy not too far from George Clooney’s.
Cester admitted to Vice, “That was definitely a tipping point. That kind of global exposure is game changing definitely.
“Particularly then with the iPod because it was ‘the’ new product that everyone was taking about.”
‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ charted in 10 countries.
In Australia, where their record deal with EMI was dramatically signed on the bonnet of a car at one of Beat magazine’s legendary Christmas parties, it peaked a #20 n the ARIA chart but voted #1 on the Hottest 100 2003.
The Angels: ‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again’ (1976)
Australian pub rock was all about drinking and shagging, best delivered with fists pumping in the air and beer slobbering out of the corner of lips.
But one of the greatest pub-rock songs started out as a sensitive tale about loss and grief.
Two university friends of Bernard Neeson had gone away during college break to Mt. Gambier where they had rented a cottage in the pine forests.
The lady’s semester began before her boyfriend’s, so she returned to Adelaide alone.
Her motorbike crashed into a pole and she died.
The guitar riff on the subsequent hard rock attack (the 4-minute album version) is meant to be an ambulance siren.
In their grief, Neeson and his friend had D&M discussions about loss and grief, and the song developed from there.
Neeson told the Australian Adelaide Advertiser: “I started thinking about connecting with people, and yourself, through art and I knew about this artist colony in Santa Fe, so I worked that into the song, and my father always had Renoir prints in our house, so that went in as well.”
Boogies are boogies are boogies.
But the Angels’ song quickly drew similarities with a 1974 Status Quo b-side ‘Lonely Night’, more so with the Quo song’s line “Cos I never thought I’d see or hear you again”.
A one-off “six figure sum” was sent packing off to Quo before any legal recriminations began.
‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again’ was released a number of times – a slower outtake, a 3:12 minute single version without ambulance riff, two live versions – with the 1988 live rendition cracking the Top 30.
These days all earlier versions sound tame without the famous “No way! Get fucked! Fuck off!” audience chant after the band delivers the song’s title.
Neeson said the first time he heard it was in Mt. Isa, Queensland (he said 1978, other band members reckon 1983) and being startled as to why the crowd waited until the encore to tell the band in that chant, “I say old chap, not terribly keen on your chummy old band, eh what.”
At least five towns have taken claim as to where the chant started.
But fans told band members that a DJ at a Sydney police-supervised Blue Light disco would play the song and shout the chant over the record for the schoolkid crowd to repeat it.
During the school holidays, these kids would be spread across Australia, where the band was coincidentally touring at the time, and the chant heated up the bush telegraph.
Neeson said, ‘It’s become the audience’s song, it doesn’t belong to the band anymore.
“I can’t think of another song where the crowd has made up their own words and they’ve become part of the song.”