SUBSCRIBE & BE THE FIRST TO KNOW
Subscribe to our newsletter and we'll keep you in the loop on all the latest happenings at the Australian Music Vault, plus music events at Arts Centre Melbourne that may spark your interest.
Music that is written or composed by an Australian artist is considered Australian music. However, it is not only the nationality of the composer that leads to this label. The lyrics, multicultural influences, attitude, accent, fashion, costumes and much more can be uniquely Australian. These are all contributing factors in classifying music as Australian. International artists can often influence Australian music but, just as often, it is the Australian musicians who are the influencers. Many Australia musicians move overseas and bring their Australian style to other countries and artists. Australia is a long way from the rest of the world, so we are an interesting case study in terms of musical identity. Certainly we like to do things our own way, and with our own flair.
I can’t afford to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is overrated. I can’t be worried about whether I’m having a good day or a bad day. I look at the whole thing as kind of labour. If you’re gonna go down and build a brick wall, you need to go down and build a brick wall. It’ll never get built if you wait for the day that you actually feel like getting out the bricks and the mortar.
Writing music is a complex task. It’s not always easy to be creative or find inspiration, or to make a career and become famous through music. However people do find comfort and solace in creating music, and enjoy writing lyrics and music for many different reasons. Australian music has a unique history. You will learn more about this when you visit the Australian Music Vault. Geographically speaking, Australia is quite isolated from the rest of the world and this has lead to innovation and originality in aspects of our unique music scene. Punk music in Australia, for example, was very different to punk music in England. There are many social, environmental and historical factors that influence the music made in Australia: the small population in a big landmass, with most people living around the coastline; the impact of colonisation on the Indigenous people; our accents and colloquialisms; our outspoken manner. The Australian music industry is very interesting to learn more about, and we can see many issues in society reflected in the industry today.
As a class or individually, take some time to list words associated with writing and performing music. Once you have a list, define these words as a group.
Below are some helpful words to define before you come to the exhibition (don’t peek at this before you make your own list).
Gig, audience, verse, chorus, bridge, intro, outro, timbre, arrangement, chord, melody, harmony, setlist, synthesizer, punk, lyrics, sound engineer, musical influence, audience, vault, manager, publicist, record (both verb and noun!), CD, indie, mixing, venue, record company, beat.
Music is created to be heard and enjoyed! Within each of the sections below is a playlist of songs to listen to in preparation for your visit to The Australian Music Vault. As a class, listen to one a day and discuss.
Here are some examples of questions you can discuss with your class
Listen to The Wild Ones playlist on Spotify
Taken from A Pair of Pears (with Shadows) – A Milk Records Compilation (2014) this song is a sweet and humorous look at the differences between people in relationships. The song appears to be written about Jen Cloher, Barnett’s partner, and frequent musical collaborator. Together the pair run Milk! Records, an independent artist run record label based in Melbourne.
Jimmy Little’s career as a singer-songwriter and guitarist spanned six decades, starting in 1951 and ending with his retirement in 2010. He was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 1999. His discography includes a huge output of gospel and country music. His cover of the Warrumpi Band’s Blackfella Whitefella was included on his album Messenger, a collection of contemporary songs reinterpreted by Little and released in 1999.
Released in 1971, Looking through a Window was co-written and co-produced by Billy Thorpe. Saddington only released one single and one album, but she was a legendary performer. Coming out of Melbourne’s vibrant pub scene of the 60s and 70s she was known for performing with such conviction “that the stage could literally shake”.
Eagle Rock was released by Daddy Cool in 1971 and became the best selling Australian single of the year. Written by lead vocalist Ross Wilson it was named after a 1920s American dance, which now accompanies the song whenever it is heard.
Since I Left You is the title track from The Avalanches debut studio album released in 2000. The album uses extensive sampling; an estimated 3500 samples can be heard throughout this album. As Guardian journalist Sam Richards wrote “You could argue that Since I Left You, with its brazen lack of original content, represents the sound of pop finally eating itself.”
PNAU is an Australian dance music trio from Sydney. Chameleon, released in 2016, is the first single from their album Changa. PNAU have collaborated extensively with Elton John and have also produced tracks for the likes of Robbie Williams, Ellie Goulding, Groove Armada and Mika.
Science Fiction was a single from the Divinyls first studio album Desperate (1982). It has been named by APRA as one of the Top 30 Australian songs of all time. Chrissy Amphlett, lead singer for the Divinyls was known for her charismatic performances and her signature outfit of a school uniform.
Listen to Two Way Traffic playlist on Spotify
Written by Malvina Reynolds in 1957, this song is a famous children’s lullaby. It was performed by The Seekers with Bobby Richards and his Orchestra on the 1964 album Hide and Seekers. The single was released in 1966 and achieved international success, reaching charts in the UK, US, Malaysia and South Africa.
Into My Arms is the first single from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ album The Boatman’s Call (1997). It is a gentle piano ballad, asking questions about faith in the modern world as well a heart felt expression of love and loss.
The Greatest is taken from Sia’s seventh studio album This is Acting (2016). Several media outlets have perceived the clip for the song as a tribute to the 49 victims of the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. Spencer Kohnhaber of The Atlantic wrote The Greatest "is very potent, a work of art, not charity. ... There's no break here from the rest of Sia's catalogue about pain and release in everyday life”
Spinning Around is taken from Kylie Minogue’s seventh studio album Light Years (2000). It was a great commercial success, reaching number one in Australia and the UK. Full of disco influences it addresses the themes of personal power and reinvention.
Drop the Game is a collaboration between electronic dance music producer Flume and Melbourne singer Chet Faker. Released in 2013 it is taken from their EP Lockjaw. Josh Dixon of music website Renowned for Sound said of the track “It's as close to perfect as electronic music has come in a long time.”
Written and performed by Peter Allen in 1980, this song tells of the longing for home felt by Australian expatriates. The song has been arranged and performed by many choirs, and was famously used by Qantas for the company’s television advertising campaigns from 1997 to 2004.
Let There Be Rock is taken from the album of the same name released in 1977. The song tells a fictionalized version of the history of rock’n’roll. It asks a simple question – what would the creation story sound like if it was created by AC/DC?
The Easybeats were the first rock and roll band from Australia to achieve international success with the single Friday on My Mind. The song, released in 1966, was influenced by The Beatles and was recorded in Abbey Road Studios in London. In 2001 it was voted the best ever Australian song in a poll conducted by APRA AMCOS to discover the Top 30 Australian songs of all time.
You’re the Voice is one of Farnham’s greatest international hits. It is taken from the album Whispering Jack (1986). Written by Chris Thompson, Andy Qunta and Maggie Ryder, and originally recorded by Chris Thompson, it became a hit when John Farnham covered it and included one of the most famous bagpipe solos of all time.
Released in 2011, Somebody That I Used To Know has sold more than 13 million copies worldwide, becoming one of the best-selling digital singles of all time. Taken from the album Making Mirrors, the song is a duet sung by Gotye (Wally De Backer) and Kimbra. It tells the story of separation and estrangement from different perspectives and won Record of the Year at the 2013 Grammy Awards.
Listen to The Real Thing playlist on Spotify
The Real Thing was the debut single by Russell Morris, released in 1969. It was written by Johnny Young and produced by Ian “Molly” Meldrum. Trademarks of 1960s psychedelic rock feature in this ambitious recording that uses sitars and overdubs created on an eight-track recorder. It has been covered by Midnight Oil, Kylie Minogue and Sia.
Horror Movie (1975) is a song commenting on sensationalist news and current affairs. Taken from the album Living in the Seventies it was the first song by The Skyhooks to reach #1 in Australia.
Featuring Australian singer Montaigne, this is a single taken from Hilltop Hoods' album Restrung. It was released in 2016. MC Suffa says the song is about “living in a small town, a place where things don’t change too much. . . . sometimes living in a small town is like living in a different era.”
Kimberley Calling is taken from the album Blackbird which was released in 2014. Songwriter Dan Sultan says the song is is about “traveling up through the Buccaneer Archipelago in The Kimberley and reconnecting with family up there.”
Originally released as a B-side in 1980 the song became an international hit after it was re-released as a single from Men at Work’s debut album Business as Usual in 1981. Songwriter Colin Hay told Songfacts: "The chorus is really about the selling of Australia in many ways, the overdevelopment of the country. It was a song about the loss of spirit in that country. It's really about the plundering of the country by greedy people. It is ultimately about celebrating the country, but not in a nationalistic way and not in a flag-waving sense. It's really more than that."
Originally gaining success as a Triple J Unearthed winner, Missy Higgins released The Sound of White in 2004. Scar was a four track single that debuted at #1 on the ARIA charts and has been her most commercially successful song.
Dr G Yunupingu was Australia’s most commercially successful Indigenous artist. He recorded songs both in Yolnu languages and in English. He was born on a remote island 580 kilometres from Darwin, and as a shy, blind child he learnt to play drums, keyboard, guitar and the didgeridoo.
“Dr G Yunupingu was educated by immersion, cultural immersion — from his aunties, parents and grandmothers, with love and lullabies; from his uncles, fathers and grandfathers through ceremony songs and storytelling”
– Michael Hohnen
Kardajala Kirridarra are an all-women band hailing from the sandhills behind the community of Malinja, NT. Working with producer Beatrice Lewis they meld the contemporary with the traditional. Sung in both Mudburra and English, their music tells the story of the connection between Aboriginal women and country, and is a reminder about the importance of women as creators. Their debut album, released in 2017 features sounds from the surrounding lands, such as seed pods, thunderstorms and clap sticks.
Sampa Tembo is a Sydney based spoken word and hip hop artist. She was born in Zambia, raised in Botswana and has lived in Australia for three years. Blessings was released in 2016. Her work has been described as “heavenly poetry and swirling philosophising” by The Guardian.
Listen to Agents of Change playlist on Spotify
Archie Roach is a musician who has provided an important voice for Indigenous Australians. Song to Sing is taken from the album Bloodstream, released in 2012. It is an uplifting and joyous testament to life. Written in the wake of the loss of his wife Ruby Hunter, the song brings hope and optimism. Roach draws on soul and gospel to bring the message that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Treaty was written by Australian musician Paul Kelly, Peter Garrett and Yothu Yindi members Mandawuy Yunupingu, Stuart Kellaway, Cal Williams, Gurrumul Yunupingu, Milkayngu Mununggurr and Wityana Marika. It was written as a response to Bob Hawke’s statement that a treaty would be concluded with Indigenous Australians by 1990. The initial release of the song did not receive any commercial success. However, a dance adaptation of the song by Filthy Lucre peaked at No 11 on the ARIA charts in 1991.
Beds are Burning was released in 1987 and is taken from the album Diesel and Dust. It is a political song about giving Australian land back to the Pintupi. Released just before Australia’s bicentenary it became a powerful anthem reminding Australians that the nation was built on stolen land.
I was only 19 tells the story of an Australian soldier’s experience of the Vietnam War. It was released in 1983 and became an important song featured at various war commemorations, raising conversations about soldiers’ lived experiences of war. It was covered by hip hop artists The Herd in 2005.
From Little Things Big Things Grow was written around a campfire in 1991 by Australian songwriters Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody. It tells the story of the Gurindji people’s struggle for land rights and reconciliation. Between 1966 and 1975 the Gurindji people, led by Vincent Lingiari, began a strike that resulted in Gough Whitlam handing back their land to them. The song has been performed by many prominent Australian musicians and was featured on Paul Kelly and the Messenger’s album Comedy (1991) and Kev Carmody’s album Bloodlines (1993).
Written by Shane Howard, Solid Rock was taken from the album Spirit of Place by Goanna, and released in 1982. Inspired by attending an inma (corroborree), he saw a “deep culture, a beautiful tradition” that changed the rest of his life. The song that came out of it was an angry political song that took Aboriginal dispossession and placed it centre stage of white Australia.
Anthem is taken from Tiddas’ self titled album (1996). It was produced by Joe Camilleri and features the voices of members Sally Dastey, Lou Bennett and Amy Saunders. The song is an antithesis to the Australian anthem, which does not acknowledge an Indigenous Australian history.
The Children Came Back is a track created by Briggs, an Indigenous Australian rapper, record label owner and actor. It was released in 2005 as a sequel to Archie Roach’s song They took the Children Away about the stolen generation. Featuring Dr G Yunupingu, the song is a celebration of Indigenous identity and resilience.
Helen Reddy is an Australian singer and activist. Her song I am Woman was released in 1972 and became a number one hit, eventually selling over one million copies. It became a theme for women’s empowerment and an anthem for the women’s liberation movement.
Listen to Punk/New Wave playlist on Spotify
I’m Stranded was the debut single from The Saints. Released in September 1976 it was the first independently produced rock record in Australia. As the lyrics
suggest, much of the song was written on a midnight train. The success of the single led to the band to signing a three-album deal with EMI in the UK.
Wide Open Road, released in 1986, is taken from the album from Born Sandy Devotional. In the lyrics songwriter David McComb uses images of the Australian landscape and geography as a metaphor for a failed relationship and the space it leaves.
Dirty Three is an instrumental trio consisting of Mick Turner on guitar, Warren Ellis on violin and Jim White on Drums. Lullabye for Christie is taken from the album Whatever You Love, You Are, released in 2000.
Australian rock music historian Ian McFarlane described them as providing a "rumbling, dynamic sound incorporated open-ended, improvisational, electric rock ... minus the jazz-rock histrionics".
Prisoner of Society was originally released on the 1997 EP Second Solution/Prisoner of Society. It is a raw, raucous punk song about rebellion that ultimately became the highest-selling Australian single of the 90s.
Magic Dirt is an iconic rock band, fronted by vocalist and guitarist Adalita Srsen. Plastic Loveless Letter was released in 2003 and was featured on the album Tough Love.
“They had six brilliant albums and countless killer singles and their live show was consistently unrelenting as they mixed pop, grunge and noise in an often seamless fashion” – Double J
Other listening resources are:
Everyone experiences music differently. It is subjective, which means it is an emotional, personal response based on feeling or opinion rather than fact. The same piece of music can evoke vastly different emotions, images and thoughts in people. Some people like music with a lot going on, for example music that uses a lot of different instruments and lots of notes. Others may prefer simple music, for example soothing music that helps them relax.
Talk to someone much older than you about their experience of Australian music. Use some of the following prompts to get them talking:
If you’re not sure whether a band or a singer was Australian you can always do a little research to find out. You may be surprised! Keep a record of the musicians you didn’t know were Australian.
You can write notes or record your discussion. For help on how to make easy audio recordings, see here.
Words are an important element of a song. In song writing they are known as the lyrics. Lyrics can be simple, nonsense, poetic, intellectual, colloquial, rhyming or whatever you want them to be! Lyrics say a lot about both the song and the artist.
Nick Cave is an Australian musician. Born in Warracknabeal, country Victoria, Nick Cave has become one of Australia’s most successful and celebrated musicians. He was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2007. Some of his most popular songs include The Ship Song (or here) and Into My Arms. He is renowned for his emotionally intense songs and lyrics.
When Nick Cave was young he kept a journal in which he jotted down new words he’s never heard before and wanted to remember. This is a great idea for young writers and musicians. Many musicians find inspiration in everyday things. It could be something heard, like an overheard conversation on a train, or read, like a sign or a piece of graffiti on the wall, or witnessed, like a moment or situation. They take note of these things they see and hear and use them later in their lyrics.
Talent contests existed long before the reality television versions we see today. The talent content has been an important part of music history for a long time. From 1958 to 1972 the TV show Bandstand showcased emerging performers, just like The Talent or The Voice does today. However, Bandstand also had a core group of performers who regularly appeared on the program. These core performers included many great Australian musicians such as Olivia Newton John and the Bee Gees.
In 1965 Bandstand hosted a talent competition, Starflight, in which the winner won a trip to New York City to record a song with Mercury Records. Helen Reddy was announced as the winner however it wasn’t until she arrived in New York, along with her three-year old daughter, Traci, that she learned the prize was an audition with the record label and not a recording session. Mercury Records considered Helen Reddy’s performance on Bandstand her audition and told her she was unsuccessful. There was to be no recording. Helen and her daughter were stuck in New York with no money and no job!
Despite that knockback, Helen chose to stay in New York and pursue a singing career. She worked very hard to break into the music industry. Eventually in 1972 she wrote the song I Am Woman with guitarist Ray Burton. At the time, Helen didn’t know of any songs that talked about being a woman in a positive manner. She said “I couldn't find any songs that said what I thought being woman was about. I certainly never thought of myself as a songwriter, but it came down to having to do it. I remember lying in bed one night and the words, 'I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman', kept going over and over in my head.”
The lyrics to I Am Woman can be found here. The song slowly became more popular as more people recognised its originality and inspirational, and progressive, lyrics. I Am Woman became an anthem for the Women’s Movement of the time. For older students, you can find more information about the relevance of the song to the feminist movement here. Women were inspired by it, sang it, and used it as a song to represent women coming together for equality. Even now the song used in women’s marches around the world.
You’ve probably heard of the Grammy awards. First held in 1959, the Grammy awards are American awards for outstanding achievement in music. The Grammy awards sit alongside the Emmy awards (for television), the Tony awards (for theatre), and the Academy awards (for film). Not many Australians have received a Grammy award. To win a Grammy, the artist’s album or single needs to be popular in the United States. Some Australians who have managed to win one of these highly regarded awards include Kylie Minogue, Gotye, AC/DC and the Bee Gees. However, it was Helen Reddy who became the first Australian to ever win a Grammy! In 1972 she received the Grammy award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for I Am Woman. In her acceptance speech she thanked “God,...'because she makes everything possible”. This was a very strong, political statement to make at the time when women’s rights were not as advanced as they are today.
Helen was the first person born in Australia to reach #1 on the US charts and she went on to have many more hits, host her own TV program and be great friends with Olivia Newton-John!
In 2006 she was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in Australia, along with Midnight Oil and The Divinyls. To find out more about the ARIA Hall of Fame, check out Project 1 in the Stand Alone Collection Module.
So why is Helen Reddy’s Grammy award a significant item in the Australian Music Vault collection? You may have noticed a lot of ‘firsts’ in Helen’s story; the first Australian to win a Grammy, the first Australian to get a #1 US hit. In a time when men dominated the music industry, Helen Reddy worked hard, wrote powerful songs, made some difficult decisions and, ultimately, achieved success. She did this by writing strong, meaningful lyrics and being unapologetic about being a woman. In the 1970s, and even today, this is a big deal for a female artist. It was Helen Reddy herself who donated the Grammy award to the collection. Instead of the impressive award sitting on her own mantelpiece, Helen chose to let us all see it. Having Helen Reddy’s Grammy award in the collection is an important part of the documentation of Australian music history. Good on you, Helen!
Further watching on Helen Reddy:
Subscribe to our newsletter and we'll keep you in the loop on all the latest happenings at the Australian Music Vault, plus music events at Arts Centre Melbourne that may spark your interest.