In the mid-1970s a musical and social phenomenon took hold of Australian youth. It latched on in the pubs across the cities and moved into the suburbs and country towns, ebbing and flowing across two decades. Between late 1976 until the early 90s, rock music informed almost every part of Australian musical culture. It dominated the sales charts, filled TV screens and radio airwaves, and the bands who made it filled the pubs across the land every night of the week. Pub rock was, in the words of veteran Australian rock writer Anthony O’Grady, “a revolution in Australian popular music”. Then, quite suddenly it seemed, it was over.
Recently, the Molly TV series, the newly-updated edition of Murray Engleheart’s Blood, Sweat & Beers and music releases like the vast and excellent Glory Days of Aussie Pub Rock have helped to rekindle an interest in this most important era of Australian popular music. Of course, one only has to switch on to rock radio to hear how pub rock continues to dominate the airwaves, but that handful of Oils, Chisel, Oz Crawl and Dragon songs and ‘Take a Long Line’ hardly paint a picture of how immensely powerful a cultural force it was in Australia. Nor do they show how devastating its loss has been to the live music since. During the pub rock era, live music was simply everywhere. The Thursday paper’s entertainment section was crammed with listings of hundreds of gigs for the upcoming weekend, all over the city and suburbs, and all of them would pull crowds. Rooms like the Whitehorse and the Station in Melbourne and Sydney’s Bondi Lifesaver and Stagedoor Tavern wrote themselves into history as they hosted some of the most successful music acts this country has ever produced.
O’Grady, who headed the staff of the influential Rock Australia Magazine in the 70s and 80s, explains how the phenomenon came to be.
“There was a unique set of circumstances, not just musical but socio-economic and political, that really created the environment in which pub rock flourished,” he theorises, a point he makes in his extensive liner notes to the Glory Days compile, “and there was also an absence of competing interests. There was no video games – maybe the Atari, but at least not on the scale there is now, the Internet didn’t exist except in the very rareified atmosphere of the military and universities, and so the crowds tended to coalese at music. Numbers swelled in accord with the fact that crowds attact a crowd, and it became a cultural thing.”
These days, Rugby League dominates all media platforms in Sydney and south east Queensland from February until October. In the 70s and 80s, it was still struggling for a decent profile. Some games could barely attract more than a few hundred. Rock barns were squeezing in thousands a night.
“I think that rock had a more vociferous following than even sport did,” O’Grady says. “Up in Sydney Rugby League was really trying to attract live crowds and looking at celebrity eventers to get women to come along, but women had absolutely no problem going along to a pub rock gig!”
Punters of both genders were spoiled for choice. Pub rock’s scope was so tremendous that no single, clearly defined set of guidelines exists for what bands it could be applied to. While Blood, Sweat and Beers concentrates on many of the harder edged acts like late-period Aztecs, the Angels, Radio Birdman, Rose Tattoo and the bands that spawned or came after them – Buffalo, Coloured Balls, X and the like – the Glory Days CDs contain a vast array of bands playing everything from classic blues (Cyril B. Bunter Band) to art rock (Split Enz) to heavy metal (Heaven) to punk (The Hitmen) to party-flavoured pop rock like Mental as Anything and the Cockroaches and all points in between. Some bands, most significantly AC/DC, are notable by their absence from the album. O’Grady suggests that they “were never really a pub rock band when they were in Australia, and they came back as a theatre act”, but admits that even he was taken by surprise at the reach of compiler David Laing’s project.
“Matt Finish, XL Capris, the Warumpi Band… it’s a whole lot of stuff that you don’t think is pub rock. It’s all four-four time but it’s different to what The Angels or Rose Tattoo ever did. You get onto Painters and Dockers and you go, ‘Well that’s a bog ordinary four-four’, but you listen to what the song is about and you realise it’s very informed satire. There was great variety there.”
He refers a conversation he once had with David Kent, complied of the Kent Report chart that was the forerunner of today’s ARIA charts.
“In chart terms,” O’Grady explains, “there is no such thing as ‘pub rock’, only records that were bought, and records that weren’t! It was like an insiders’ club, an absolutely huge insiders’ club in the sense that radio wouldn’t play a song because it was defined as pub rock, they’d play a record because they’d go to a pub and see a crowd very enthusiastic about a band and think, ‘We better play this because this is our demographic’. It was great for us because we knew what it was about, but it was delusionary because it was the mood of the time, and that is unlikely to be replicated [now] except on a very artificial level.”
A casual glance at the track listing of The Glory Days of Aussie Pub Rock offers a list of bands that still cop a flogging to this day – Cold Chisel, the Angels, Midnight Oil, Divinyls, Noiseworks, Dragon: names so ingrained into our culture that it sometimes seems like they simply stepped fully formed into radio playlists and onto episodes of Countdown. But radio often only began to play a lot of these artists after they had already slogged it out for long years on the road. Chisel, one of the most successful and over-played Australian artists of all, couldn’t get anyone to spit on them for years.
“Cold Chisel started out as a Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Bad Company cover band, and they were hot stuff in Adelaide because people wanted to dance to that stuff,” O’Grady recalls. “They went to Melbourne, and they were going nowhere! They were the third band down that would get the call if the other support band couldn’t make it. They went up to Sydney and it was pretty much the same. Almost in desperation they said, ‘Well if we’re gonna go down, it might as well be on our own terms so let’s start playing Don Walker’s songs’. And they did and then after some time, Newcastle crowds went ‘Yeah, we understand this shit!’ and the ball started rolling from there.”
For the Angels, another Adelaide-born band that came to fully-fledged life at the same time bands began to move from the dance halls and cafes and into pubs, it was a similar story.
“It took The Angels five years to get onto the radio,” he says, but it wasn’t because radio just suddenly realised how good they were. “It was because the record company PR people had dragged [radio programmers] out to Parramatta and seen the crowds stretched around two blocks and they’d go in and see the show and people would be jumping up and down and they’d go away and think ‘Well, we might be missing something here!'”
Nobody appears to care about that these days. Music publicist Chris Maric recently recalled standing sidestage at Soundwave with the program director from a major Sydney radio station that trades in endless repeats of early- to mid-90s stadium rock and bland modern commercial music. When Maric remarked on the enthusiasm of the huge crowd to the metal blasting from the stage, the radio man “just shrugged and said, ‘It’s a bit loud’.” Even bands with the spirit of pub rock pumping through their veins, acts like Airbourne, Kingswood and Violent Soho – who recently featured on the cover of Rolling Stone and hosted a mid-year sold out national tour – fail to attract the attention of rock radio.
But not everyone did then, either. For every Cold Chisel and Midnight Oil, there were bands like the Elks and the Zimmermen who cultivated dedicated but small followings. Some were popular in some towns, but not in others, like Newcastle band Heroes and The Boys, who were big enough in Perth at one point to open for Iron Maiden there while virtually unknown elsewhere. Still more had trouble breaking out of inner city venues.
“X drew big crowds, but only in the inner city,” O’Grady points out. “The Hitmen drew big crowds in the inner city and tried but didn’t quite succeed in penetrating that Parramatta heartland, the outer western heartland. There’s a lot of different theories about why but in a lot of instances it came down to the flip of a coin and being in front of an audience that would take a liking to you at the right time.”
Australia’s pub rock movement was so extraordinary even overseas visitors were impressed by the sheer size of the crowds bands were pulling.
“There was a time, in the 80s around 1983 – 85 where people would come out from England and America and see the seething masses and say ‘Wow! It’s happening here! It’s not happening in our own cities to the same extent. We’ve gotta get onto this’.”
Unfortunately, Australian bands often had difficulty connecting with foreign audiences. Critics would accuse them of sounding ‘too Australian’ for commercial tastes.
“There was distinct socio-economic-political links to those seething crowds that just didn’t exist in London or New York or LA,” O’Grady explains, “so there was still this cultural difference where Jimmy Barnes would go over there and they just wouldn’t understand him. Cold Chisel would go over to England and they would go, ‘Who are these bunch of yobbos? How dare they keep writing these maudlin songs and passing them off as meaningful’ – talking about ‘Choir Girl’. Whereas a band such as Icehouse could fit in quite well there because they had that Bowie, Roxy Music ethic going on and they had a ready-made audience.”
Pub rock held sway for more than fifteen years, surging and receding before surging again. By the early 1990s however, the rot began to set in. While the newly-reformatted Triple J was helping to usher in a new generation of Australian bands spearheaded by the likes of You Am I, Tumbleweed, Powderfinger, Silverchair, Grinspoon and The Living End, the days of heavily-swollen audiences at venues night after night were over. Whereas in pub rock’s heyday even third tier bands could play up to four nights a week and eke a living simply from gigs, by the mid-90s only full-scale touring acts were earning much at all. Smaller bands found it hard to play more than once a week, if that, as former venues turned their backs on original music for other forms of entertainment – cover bands, karaoke, poker nights. Others are gone altogether, victims of urban sprawl, falling attendances and changing attitudes to music overall.
Scott Kovacevic’s recent article on the Daily Review highlights a range of factors that include licensing laws, in-home entertainment and suburban gentrification. In the comments section of the same article, Radio Birdman guitarist Deniz Tek points out a general feeling of apathy from a populace now used to downloading their entertainment for free from the Internet.
Anthony O’Grady believes the long-lingering death began with the increased policing of drink driving in the 1980s and was hastened by demands from councils, developers and residents.
“I think that it all started with the RBT,” he asserts. “The pubs were targeted because they were seen to be rowdy and they were obvious targets. That sort of finished Sydney, when that came in. I think it was more sporadic in Melbourne. It just decimated crowds and it took a while for people to work out strategies how to beat RBT, with designated drivers and stuff like that and so some came back [to live shows], but a lot didn’t. At the same time, there was noise regulations on pubs that meant that big barns for 2000 people where 10,000 people in nearby houses could also hear the band where suddenly confronted with ‘Do you want to spend $50,000, $100,000 to sound proof properly? How long is this nonsense going to last anyway?’ So a lot of them just said, ‘We’ll just get some quieter entertainment’.”
Just as pub rock was spawned by a unique combination of circumstances, a different combination of circumstances has then conspired to bring it undone. Rock no longer rules the airwaves or the recorded music charts. As Murray Engleheart points out in his book, “It’s not the Back in Black album that now blasts from the car stereos of tough-nut young blokes. Instead, it’s computerised modern ‘R&B’, rap and dance music [that] the rock scene hated.” Not only has an entire form of music gone missing, he says, but character as well. Along with the great Bon Scott, four-fifths of the original Rose Tattoo recording line-up are all dead: Pete Wells, Mick Cocks, Dallas Royal and Ian Rilen. So too are Chrissie Amphlett, Ted Mulry and Billy Thorpe, Doc Neeson and Chris Bailey of The Angels, Marc Hunter and Paul Hewson of Dragon, Skyhooks’ Shirley Strachan, Brad Robinson and Guy McDonough from Australian Crawl, Steve Prestwich from Cold Chisel… these days it’s getting difficult to name a prominent pub rock era act that doesn’t have at least one deceased member.
In Sydney, hoteliers’ push for the profits from gambling dens was the final nail in the coffin for the glory days of pub rock. Once one of the hottest rock tickets in Sydney until well into the 90s, the Family Inn at Rydalmere is now just another unremarkable suburban pub. As Engleheart notes in his AC/DC biography Maximum Rock N Roll, the venue was the scene of Bon Scott’s last live appearance in Australia when he turned up at a Swanee gig and joined he and Jimmy Barnes on stage for a jam a month before his death. Like it, many of the rooms where bands strutted like giants on the stage night after night now echo instead with the bells and whistles of poker machines.
The most recent track on The Glory Days of Aussie Pub Rock is from 1995. It’s deeply unlikely that Australia will see a music movement like it ever again.