“A brick veneer prison is waiting for you…”
Skyhooks debut album, Living in the 70s, was ground zero for songs that spoke to Melbourne’s identity. Before it was released by Mushroom Records on October 28, 1974 the image of the city was a cultural identikit. After the release Melbourne had a new topography of glam riffs, sardonic social critique, and sexual specificity. It was a youth revolution with wild outfits that helped shape a new national identity.
“In theatre, in newspaper, in writing, there was a sense of Australia becoming itself rather than a colonial offshoot,” says the band’s guitarist, and future Melbourne identity, Red Symons. “People started talking differently on the radio. They stopped using a BBC accent to make themselves sound posh. If something followed from that with other Australian bands it wasn’t that we invented it. We simply opened the door.”
The track titles alone script a scene: Toorak Cowboy, Carlton (Lygon Street Limbo), and Balwyn Calling. The latter was a tale of modern attraction and thwarted commitment written by the band’s chief songwriter, bassist Greg Macainsh. Studded with detail, the lyric begins casually at a party but escalates to describe marriage and a possible move to the sleepy suburbs.
“I can’t think of anybody who was writing about Melbourne in rock & roll bands until we did,” says Symons. “I suspect it’s a recurring theme in Greg Macainsh’s lyrics – a desire not to be anchored down. When you’re in your early 20s you haven’t figured which direction you want to strike out in.”
While Balwyn Calling was one of the few songs on Living in the 70s not banned from airplay by the Federation of Australian Commercial Broadcasters due to sex and drug references, it was still both frank and euphoric, with complementary guitar parts that surge forward. Youthful decisions have rarely sounded so urgent, or particular to Melbourne.
“There was a curiosity about who it was about, if it was a particular person. To this day none of us really know but that’s not important. If the audience like it without knowing who it’s about that’s the important thing,” Symons says. “I, for one, did not end up in Balwyn.”
PAUL KELLY AND THE COLOURED GIRLS – Leaps and Bounds (1986)
“I remember, I remember, I go leaps and bounds…”
Now one of Paul Kelly’s signature songs, with its transcendent evocation of traversing Melbourne on a chilly winter day, Leaps and Bounds was begun by a pair of aspiring songwriters – Kelly and his friend Chris Langman – fresh from Adelaide who shared a succession of apartments in the late 1970 at either end of Melbourne’s most unyielding arterial road.
The first was on Hoddle Street, Collingwood, near a busy intersection then without traffic lights where tow trucks inevitably arrived at 4pm every afternoon, while the second was to the south and even noisier on the hill in South Yarra where Punt Road heads down to the Yarra River. They were constantly writing songs, Langman remembers, mostly instigated by the already accomplished Kelly, but one track was a shared tale of wonder for their new home.
“At first it was a much more general song,” says Langman, who subsequently has enjoyed a long career as a screen director. “Paul always say the song is about nothing, but I kicked it off and it was really a joyous time – if there’s anything joyous about Hoddle Street – where you’re just walking down the street with your feet off the ground. You just couldn’t do that the same way in another city.”
There was a punk version of the original collaboration recorded with Sports frontman Stephen Cummings producing, but Leaps and Bounds lived for years anonymously on a cassette in Kelly’s possession. He rediscovered it in the mid-1980s, while living in Sydney and preparing to record his breakthrough double album Gossip.
“Paul said to me, ‘Sorry, I had to change some of the lyrics’, and of course the words he changed are now all the ones people know,” Langman happily admits. “For example, ‘the clock on the wall’ became ‘the clock on the silo’. I always liked the song, but people have come to love it. I was at the [AFL] Grand Final this year and Paul singing it was the best thing about the day.”
CROWDED HOUSE – Four Seasons in One Day (1991)
“Even when you’re feeling warm, the temperature could drop away…”
“Melbourne is a city of secrets. There’s a feeling in the air that not everything has to be said or spoke or made apparent. Songwriters love that,” says Tim Finn. “You don’t want to talk about your feelings, but you’ve got this great opportunity to sing about them. Other cities are in your face and obvious, but Melbourne’s not like that.”
The New Zealand singer-songwriter would know. Melbourne was a “refuge” for Split Enz in 1975, after a disastrous relocation to Sydney, and Tim Finn would live here for many years, including a stint beginning in 1989 when he resided in Caulfield. His younger brother, Neil, was based in St Kilda East with his young family, trying to satisfy an American record company unhappy with the direction of his band, Crowded House. Spontaneously they began writing songs together – including the masterful Four Seasons in One Day – which became Crowded House’s third album, the brilliant Woodface.
“Because we were living very different lives it was very interesting for each of us to be with the other one,” recalls Tim Finn, who plays the Queenscliff Music Festival later this month. “Neil and his wife, Sharon, were expecting their second child, and he was in a very stable and healthy relationship, while I had been through a couple of very unstable and unhealthy relationships.”
Suffused with bittersweet acoustic textures, the song uses Melbourne’s mercurial weather as a metaphor for the emotional shifts that punctuate the everyday. Neil’s lead vocal, with Tim’s harmonies, reveals a duality that can be both undeniable and unbearable: “finding out wherever there is comfort there is pain”.
“I’m pretty sure that was Neil’s line,” Finn says. “We were sharing with each other as songwriters do – there’s no conversation, but it wells up and suddenly you’re singing about yourself. Because we were brothers, with this huge tide pool of memories between us, we could be honest and raw without having to spell anything out.”
And does Melbourne really experience four seasons in one day? “Usually there are two: you can get those heavy spring rains, then suddenly it’s warm and sunny,” reasons Finn. “But if you add the early morning and late night you’ll probably get the other two, so I’ll say yes.”
FRENTE – Accidently Kelly Street (1992)
“Throw away those keys start walking, and watch those tiny things go by…”
At the start of the 1990s Richmond was deserted. The post-World War II southern European migrant families were moving out and gentrification was just a property developer’s pipedream. Rundown share-houses were full of tertiary students and musicians. Among the latter was Tim O’Connor, born in England and raised in Adelaide, who was the bass player in an idiosyncratic acoustic pop band named Frente that mainly played at then independent music mainstay The Punters Club, on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.
“Everyone was broke, but rents were cheap and you could always afford a few beers at the pub,” says O’Connor, who now lives in Castlemaine. “For a little while I had a one- bedroom flat in Fitzroy for $60 a week. We knew lots of people in bands and someone would come by and you’d just start playing records with them. Melbourne felt like a breath of fresh air.”
When O’Connor had to leave a share house in Clifton Hill mid-way through a tour, he joined some friends in a Richmond rental sight unseen. He thought it was in Kelly Street, but on the day he hurriedly moved discovered it was actually Kenny Street (Molly Meldrum lived over the back fence). Six months later O’Connor decided to write “a love letter to the inner-city”, which complete with a misspelt title that summed up the song’s love of happenstance, was titled Accidently Kelly Street.
“I was an Elvis Costello fan, but I decided to write a happy song,” O’Connor says. “I wondered what would happen if David Byrne and Elvis Costello wrote a song together. I loved the simplicity in that lyric.”
Fronted by Angie Hart’s sweetly invigorating vocal, Accidently Kelly Street begins as a description of the Richmond share house before taking to the streets. O’Connor was writing about the possibilities of footpath encounters and shared moments of connection, qualities that have only become vital to Melburnians in the years since. While the song initially had to go through some public satire, it emerged as a celebration of what residents in those now crowded inner-city suburbs value most: a sense of community.
COURTNEY BARNETT – Depreston (2015)
“You said we should look out further, I guess it wouldn’t hurt us…”
Courtney Barnett didn’t set out to write a song that would become a touchstone for beleaguered first-time home buyers, but she hit a nerve with her recollection of leaving her stomping ground in Melbourne’s inner-north to accompany her then partner to an open house in suburban Preston. The search for affordable housing took her to “a Californian bungalow in a cul-de-sac”, and some uncomfortable realisations.
“I remember that it came out almost fully formed. I assumed there would be more to it – like a chorus, or some other chords – but the initial part just came together and it just felt right,” says Barnett, who has lived in Melbourne for the last decade. “It wasn’t my money – I was just along for the story. That’s the silver lining for a lot of my life and a great way to look at the world.”
The song speaks to inequality and the lack of affordability in housing but it sneaks up on you. Barnett’s tone is conversational, mixing offhand rhymes about saving money for a deposit via a coffee machine (“now we’ve got that percolator, never made a latte greater”) and real estate agent observations (“aren’t the pressed metal ceilings great?”).
You can picture every detail in the lyric, and as a slide guitar part adds another layer of regret you realise, along with Barnett, that a deceased estate means more than a buying opportunity. Someone’s life was made and lived in the house, with a myriad of experiences and emotions, and all that is gone.
“You can see a house as a material object, but then you see the flipside which is the nostalgic, personal importance that it holds,” Barnett says. “A home is so much more than a shelter – people’s whole lives are built around their sense of home.”
Barnett never did make the move to Preston, and these days she’s favourable to Coburg even though she currently doesn’t have a home of her own; when she had a week off from touring in Melbourne recently she stayed at a hotel and experienced the city as if a tourist. But Barnett’s love for Melbourne hasn’t changed.
“Melbourne is definitely inspiring,” she says. “People for the most part are quite open to an experience and a conversation. They share stories and the moment. They’re not too closed off and scared.”