• Shane Howard, Archie Roach (centre) and Paul Kelly (right) perform during the Sydney Festival First Night on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011.(AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy) (AAP)Source: AAP
From pub rock to hip-hop, for decades Australian musicians have been providing the soundtracks to protest and progress.
Simon Vandore

22 Sep 2017 - 4:59 PM  UPDATED 22 Sep 2017 - 4:59 PM

Take me to the magic of the moment
On a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow dream away
In the wind of change
Scorpions, “Wind of Change” - 1989

That was the sound of the Berlin Wall falling in Germany. Yes, it’s a bit cheesy and Scorpions’ use of English as a second language wasn’t the best, but this song summed up the spirit of people chipping away at the wall, waving their flags on top.

When I visited West Berlin the previous year, the soundtrack had been Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”. No, this is not a rickroll; it was new then, blaring vacuously from every nightclub doorway. It departed my life until the advent of internet trolling. But I have always remembered it, as it signifies the time before the winds of change.

Until the wall fell, listening to Scorpions was a bit embarrassing in the west, but they were popular enough in a West Germany prepared to embrace David Hasselhoff and Falco (okay, so the same country also produced Kraftwerk, Rammstein and Einstuerzende Neubauten). But “Winds of Change” transcended every glam-punk thing Scorpions had been: it was an event, not just a song.

Tracks like these remain in my head and yours, associated with those powerful, historic times that can still give you a shiver. You’ll find them throughout Soundtracks: Songs That Defined History as it continues on SBS, but modern Australia has produced many more.

Soundtracks to Indigenous rights

Words are easy, words are cheap
Much cheaper than our priceless land
But promises can disappear
Just like writing in the sand
Yothu Yindi, "Treaty" - 1991

“Treaty now, treaty yeah”. Fans couldn’t help but continue singing along with the next line “Nhima djatpangarri nhima walangwalang", even if they didn’t know it was Yolngu for “you dance djatpangarri, that’s better” (djatpangarri means a form of Yolngu popular music).

“Well I heard it on the radio, And I saw it on the television,” began Dr M Yunupingu in 1991. “Back in 1988, all those talking politicians.”

In the late 1980s, Prime Minister Bob Hawke had promised a treaty would exist between Indigenous Australians and the federal government by 1990. Here in 2017, it has yet to happen. Not even constitutional recognition of the first peoples has been put to a referendum. The soundtrack is as relevant as ever.

But as Indigenous folk singer Kev Carmody sang with Paul Kelly, “From little things, big things grow”.

Vestey was fat with money and muscle,
Beef was his business, broad was his door
Vincent was lean and spoke very little
He had no bank balance, hard dirt was his floor.
Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody, “From Little Things Big Things Grow” - 1993

The song celebrates the story of Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari, who walked off Wave Hill Cattle Station with his people in 1966 to protest conditions and demand title to land rightfully theirs, until Prime Minister Gough Whitlam symbolically handed it back by pouring a handful of sand through Lingiari's fingers.

In 1992, just before the song was written, the Mabo decision in the High Court of Australia overturned the concept of "terra nullius", which held that Australia was uninhabited prior to European settlement. "From Little Things Big Things Grow" became a soundtrack to the many land rights claims that followed.

Amid the political dithering over a treaty, another Indigenous cause took centre stage: the Stolen Generation.

“They took the children away”, sang the incomparable Archie Roach, “Snatched from their mother's breast, Said this is for the best, Took them away,” ending with the devastating “Yes I came back”.

And that, sung in 1990, is what led to the national apology and Sorry Day. And to everybody now knowing the story that’s told in Archie’s lyrics: “Sent us off to foster homes, As we grew up we felt alone, ‘Cause we were acting white, Yet feeling black.”

Of course, these very winds of change were forecast in 1982 by Shane Howard’s band Goanna:

Standing on solid rock
Standing on sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowin' down the line
Right down the line
Goanna, “Solid Rock” - 1982

In recent times, the song was adopted by far-right protesters as a nationalist anthem. One wonders what they make of “They were standin' on the shore one day, Saw the white sails in the sun, Wasn't long before they felt the sting, white man, white law, white gun.”

The campaign for a treaty received a recent boost when Wajuk, Balardung, Kija and Yulparitja man Clinton Pryor walked across Australia to request one from the Governor-General. As Yothu Yindi sang:

Nhe gaya' nhe marrtjini gaya' nhe marrtjini (You improvise, you keep improvising, you keep going)
Gayakaya nhe gaya' nhe marrtjini walangwalang (Improvise, you improvise, you keep going, that's better)
Yothu Yindi, “Treaty” - 1991


Soundtracks to the Vietnam War

And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can't get to sleep?
Any why the Channel Seven chopper chills me to my feet?
And what's this rash that comes and goes, can you tell me what it means?
God help me - I was only 19
Redgum, “I was only nineteen” - 1983

No song better captures the Australian experience of the Vietnam War, where “the Anzac legends didn't mention mud and blood and tears” and

Legend has it that members of the Vietnam Veterans Association turned up at songwriter John Schumann’s hotel room and led him away. He thought they were going to beat him up, but they wanted him to play the song to fellow vets, who loved it.

A hip hop version was recorded by The Herd in 2005 and reached #18 in Triple J’s Hottest 100 of that year.

Then there’s the iconic “Khe Sanh” by Cold Chisel, which tells (three years after the fall of Saigon) what happened when the veterans came home.

I've had the Vietnam cold turkey
From the ocean to the Silver City
And it's only other vets could understand.
Cold Chisel, “Khe Sanh” - 1978

The protagonist’s “growing need for speed and novocaine” and plans to “hit some Hong Kong mattress all night long” reflected the troubled, restless years that followed the lack of an official welcome home from a horrific war. The popularity of the song made sure people knew about it.

And this situation, too, changed with time. The Vietnam veterans had their welcome home parade. They march on Anzac Day. They are honoured and remembered.

Soundtracks to social change

You’re the voice, try and understand it,
make a noise and make it clear woah-oh-oh-oh
We’re not gonna sit in silence
We’re not gonna live with fear
- John Farnham, “You’re the voice” - 1986

How powerful are the lyrics to that song?

Songwriters Andy Qunta, Keith Reid, Maggie Ryder and Chris Thompson boasted links to Icehouse, Procul Harum, Eurythmics, Queen and Manfred Mann. It took some convincing for them to give it to “Sadie the Cleaning Lady” singer John Farnham as his comeback song, but it was a huge popular hit.

Activists have tried to bring the song back as a true protest anthem, though Farnham hasn’t been particularly happy about it. Maybe it’s just one for personal inspiration: don’t sit in silence, don’t live with fear.

Much grittier things were being sung at the same time, as battles raged between developers and conservationists. Here’s a stinging rebuke of the pro-development side:

Don't you wonder why?
They're tearing all the the old houses down
Can't they see?
That they're the best places around
vSpy vSpy, “Don’t Tear It Down” - 1986

Aussie pub rockers vSpy vSpy became massive in Brazil, where they were the soundtrack to surf culture. But at home they were “The Spies”, always on the radio, singing about local issues.

The Spies didn't do love songs, only social messages. Perhaps no lines in this article remain more current than the chorus of “Credit Cards”.

ID cards and credit cards
Plastic takes the paper's place
Feel a change
Feel a change
The number can become your name
What's your rating, is it triple A?
Are we told to do and told to say?
Half a world with plastic cards,
The other half left to starve.
vSpy vSpy, “Credit Cards” - 1986

Outraged protest songs in this tradition may have peaked in 2003 with The Herd’s fury at then Prime Minister John Howard’s populist move to block the refugees on the MV Tampa from landing in Australia.

Disgusted at a poll finding 77% approval for the move, The Herd, who would later also cover Redgum’s “I was only 19” in protest at Australia’s entry to the Iraq war, resorted to rather explicit vernacular.

We rode the sheep's back, now the sheep ride you
Wake up, this country needs a f***ing shake-up
Wake up, these c***s need a shake-up
The Herd, “77%” - 2003

That’s definitely not in this documentary.

But if you liked CNN’s earlier series The Eighties and The Nineties, Soundtracks will be a winner – especially if you loved the music episodes. Surprisingly, it’s been produced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – is there any pie in which that man does not have a finger?

Watch Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History on Sundays at 8:30pm on SBS. Previous episodes are streaming now via SBS On Demand:

More On The Guide
This new doco series links classic music to unforgettable moments in history
'Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History' is a celebration of the power of meaningful pop music.
These people are defined by the music they love and they don't care what you think
It's one thing to love a band - another to base your whole life around it.
How music videos changed the world
The 1980s gave birth to the music video, but the mix of popular music and video broadcast directly into lounge rooms across the world had a profound impact on the teenagers watching it.