New SBS series Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History has been taking a largely US-based focus to its titular proposition. Mostly looking at the music that is associated with some of the key moments in American history, it covers the songs linked to events like the Vietnam War, Hurricane Katrina, the women’s movement and September 11.
Recent Australian history is also marked by some memorable musical moments. Whether it’s landmark events, changes in society or music trends given a distinctly Aussie spin, homegrown acts have provided the musical backdrop for era-defining occasions with songs like these…
1950s: The arrival of rock’n’roll
“Wild One” by Johnny O’Keefe
As it had been in most other parts of the Western world, rock’n’roll music was wholeheartedly embraced in Australia. The music-led revolution was swift, with all parts of society affected – from what people wore and said to the products that were made and programs that were shown on TV. And while it was one thing for Australians to eagerly embrace American stars like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, rock’n’roll was made even more potent by the emergence of local performers like Johnny O’Keefe. Nicknamed “The Wild One” after his breakthrough hit, JOK proved there was an audience for Australian rock music and made it pretty clear the new fad was here to stay.
1960s: The swinging ’60s
“Friday On My Mind” by The Easybeats
The decade of massive social change brought with it two of the biggest bands the world has ever seen: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, whose music provided the soundtrack to an era of renewed optimism and freedom. The Easybeats were Australia’s contribution to that and “Friday On My Mind” was an energetic celebration of the weekend that summed up life for the working class kids for whom rock music was the new religion.
1970s: Countdown changes everything
“Horror Movie” by Skyhooks
More than just a music show, Countdown played a significant part in the development and bolstering of Australia’s cultural identity. And thanks to its airing on the national broadcaster, it served to unite the country’s youth population in a way that had never occurred before. Early in Countdown’s tenure, the runaway success of a band like Skyhooks, who relied on showmanship as much as musicality, summed up how impactful the new Sunday night ritual of tuning in to the pop music show had become in such a short space of time.
Early to mid-1980s: Australia takes on the world
“Down Under” by Men At Work
“What You Need” by INXS
The homegrown acts that’d made the greatest inroads internationally in the late ’70s had been US chart dominators Air Supply, a middle-of-the-road soft rock duo, and pop star Olivia Newton-John. In the ’80s, two Aussie bands that’d grown out of the pub rock circuit exploded overseas: Men At Work and INXS. Men At Work’s “Down Under” was a worldwide chart-topper following its release in late 1981. Not only did it educate the world about the existence of vegemite, but thanks to its association with Australia’s victory in the 1983 America’s Cup, it became the musical symbol of David championing over Goliath. Meanwhile, “What You Need” by INXS was the sound of a band becoming global superstars and Australia’s unique brand of rock music gaining international acceptance. Throw in Paul Hogan throwing another shrimp on the barbie and this period was one in which Australia’s identity beyond our own shores really started to take shape.
Late 1980s and early 1990s: Aboriginal land rights take centre stage
“Beds Are Burning” by Midnight Oil
“Treaty” by Yothu Yindi
While many bands followed Men At Work and INXS’s lead and sought to break internationally, some continued to focus on local interests – and there was no more pressing social issue in the late ’80s and early ’90s than Aboriginal land rights. Prior to the High Court’s 1992 landmark decision in the Mabo case and the subsequent passing of the Native Title Act 1993, two songs did much to draw attention to the ongoing struggle of Australia’s Indigenous community for legal acknowledgement of their rights: Midnight Oil’s 1987 single “Beds Are Burning” and the 1991 dance remix of “Treaty” by Yothu Yindi. While the former, by one of the most popular bands in the country, did much to bring the issue to the attention of the wider Australian public, the success of the latter, despite the remix having the original version's most pointed lyrics removed, showed the tide had turned on the subject.
Mid-1990s: Anything Seattle can do…
“Tomorrow” by Silverchair
Pop was out and rock was in during the mid-’90s as grunge took a hold of the world, just as rock’n’roll had four decades earlier – infiltrating fashion, cinema and other aspects of life. And if there was one thing Australia knew how to do, it was to rock out… hard. Taking their lead from the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, a trio of teenagers from Newcastle put their own stamp on grunge and impressed rock fans not only locally but in the US as well. In the process, Silverchair set themselves up as one of this country’s all-time biggest bands, and inspired a wave of other teenage wannabe musos to try and do the same.
Early 2000s: Australian rap comes of age
“The Nosebleed Section” by Hilltop Hoods
Australia took its time to get rap. Initially resistant, the mainstream slowly accepted the genre, at first embracing only the most commercial of hip-hop (MC Hammer, Young MC, Vanilla Ice) before slowing broadening its horizons. As for Australian rap music, successful attempts to break out of the underground had been few and far between until after the turn of the century. Leading the charge were Adelaide’s Hilltop Hoods, whose 2003 single “The Nosebleed Section” marked a turning point, after which local hip-hop was taken more seriously than it ever had been and, as a result, the soundscape of the country changed forever.
Watch Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History on Sundays at 8:30pm on SBS. Previous episodes are streaming now via SBS On Demand: