“Songwriting is mysterious to me. I still feel like a total beginner. I don’t feel like I have got it nailed yet.” – Paul Kelly
Australian music is in my blood. Maybe it started when I was a babe in arms. My first sitter – when I was a very wee baby – was a fifteen-year-old pop singer name Patricia Amphlett. Patricia (known as Little Pattie) had just released her first single He’s My Blonde Headed, Stompie Wompie, Real Gone Surfer Boy which was climbing the Sydney charts at the time.
Patricia also happened to be a cousin of that other Amphlett girl, Chrissy, who would storm the world’s charts with her band the Divinyls in the eighties.
This country has been blessed by many stellar talents. In the late 50s and early 60s a wave of immigration from the UK brought an impressive crop of musicians (and actors) to our shores and the resultant bands; the Easybeats, Bee Gees, and later AC/DC (to name just three) all impacted upon the world stage to various degrees of greatness.
Other bands like Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Max Merritt, and Daddy Cool would dominate the local charts through the late 60s and early 70s. Then the Birthday Party came along.
The arrival into the Australian music scene of Nick Cave and his band the Birthday Party (formally the Boys Next Door) seemed to signal a sharp change in the tone of Australian music. This change had already been foreshadowed in the sound of Brisbane band The Saints (and Sydney proto-punk outfit Radio Birdman).
Pre-dating the ‘76 punk explosion, the Saints had received critical interest from the music press for their raw Stooges/MC5 style sound and strong songwriting but received little actual airplay at home.
Despite the Saints playing John the Baptist to their proverbial (anti)Christ, when Cave and co. exploded out of Melbourne’s punk underbelly, Australia was little prepared for the aural and visual assault that was the Birthday Party and had no idea what to make of any of it.
Feeling stymied by the self-limiting minds and imaginations of what then passed for the local culture, the boys from Melbourne took their talents to London (a tradition among Australian bands at the time) where they fast developed a reputation for violent and dramatic gigs that became the main influence for the eighties Goth scene.
The Birthday Party, having inspired a slew of new Goth bands, disintegrated around ’83. A few years later, bassist Tracy Pew died of injuries sustained during an epileptic seizure (of the original Birthday Party line-up, Cave, Mick Harvey, and Phill Calvert survive, Rowland S Howard having succumbed to liver cancer brought on by a Hepatitis C infection in 2009).
From the Ashes of the Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds were born. It was this band that gave Nick Cave the vehicle to truly develop his unique songwriting skills. Cave is often dismissed as some sort of Lord of Goth but that is patently reductive and belies his transcendent writing skills.
My pick for Nick Cave is Fifteen feet of Pure White Snow not because it is my favourite (mine is Are you the one I’ve been waiting for?) but because I think it nicely sums up what latter-day Cave is all about.
Paul Kelly’s songwriting career stretches back as far as Cave’s, though Kelly was certainly the more accomplished in those early years. Kelly eschewed the growing trend towards punk and new wave in the late 70s and early 80s, choosing to focus more on solid songwriting in the folk rock vein.
Like Cave, Kelly is a musical storyteller but unlike Cave, his stories are very Australian. Any country could have produced a Nick Cave, only Australia could have produced Paul Kelly.
His songs were, and are, a landscape of the Australian psyche and he has been able to move effortlessly through genres taking in and often reconfiguring folk, soul, blues, rock, and (much later) electronica. Kelly is an institution in Australia having passed into the mainstream without dropping a beat credibility wise.
In his searing honesty and self-examination, he reminds me a great deal of Springsteen, though if anything, he is even more earthy and authentic than that great artist.
Paul hails from Adelaide originally but has moved around a great deal over his career. This has given his music a universal feel and allowed him to capture the everyman in his songwriting. He has also worked with many of the luminaries of Australian music and is greatly respected by his peers.
My Paul Kelly choice is Dumb things because, in my opinion, it is one of the finest songs to ever come out of this country.
My final songwriter is Paul Dempsey of the band Something for Kate. There would be plenty of Australian’s in particular that would be outraged that I’ve included him in this company and left out such greats as Robert Forster and Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens, however, I consider Dempsey (a baby at just 40) one of this country’s finest.
Dempsey – another Melbourne boy – has been pumping out fantastic, genre-spanning material for over two decades both with his band and on two masterful solo records.
The thing I love about Dempsey is that he’s no purist, he’s a music enthusiast, with a deep love of all good songs regardless of genre. This has given his own songwriting efforts a fluidity and freedom that is remarkably rare.
Paul, like Springsteen, has suffered bouts of depression (seems to come with the territory when you have Irish blood) and I believe this experience has lent a depth to his songwriting. Added to all this is his phenomenal singing and multi-instrumental skill as a player (He played almost everything on his most recent solo album).
My pick for Dempsey is California because it captures the amazing musicality of the band, Pauls terrific songwriting, and the pop sensibility that has put such an incredibly nuanced band into the mainstream charts.
There you have it, my three favourite Australian songwriters in a nutshell. Many will disagree but I stand by my choices. All three have grown me as a person and provided the soundtrack to my weird little life.