Is there something called “Australian” music? I’m not just talking about music made by Australians. I’m talking about music that could not have been made by anyone but an Australian. And the answer to that question is ‘Yes’.
Throughout the history of music there have been times when our own environment and culture has created a musical difference. Sometimes it’s a subtle difference, sometimes it’s significant. It goes as far as influencing our taste in music. There are international artists who’ve made more impression here than in their own countries. Luck? Support? Sometimes there’s more to the story.
If you read the music history books, you’ll invariably get the American perspective, sometimes the English. Rarely the Australian perspective. We’ve listened to the same music but the experience is different, and can impact on the music itself.
Here’s a simple example. The Fifties. We know about the birth of rock and roll in America, “race” records reaching white audiences because radio didn’t recognize those boundaries. Race mattered in America. Colour was not a factor. A lot of early rock and roll fans didn’t realize the songs they loved were by negroes. Race wasn’t a factor in England or Australia. We liked what we liked. It wasn’t that we were comfortable about coloured people. We just didn’t have to think about it.
Two things influenced the English music of the 50s. There was no commercial radio. Only the BBC. That meant that as contemporary music evolved English music fans couldn’t rely on radio to keep themselves informed. Ever since, England has had a consumer culture of discovery.
The other major impact on English music in the 50s was the British Musicians Union, who restricted what non-British music could be heard on radio and on stage. The first “rock” star England saw in person was Pat Boone.
Not so Australia. Thanks to promoter Lee Gordon Australia saw Bill Haley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc etc. Australia didn’t just see these artists in the flesh , “we” saw these artists before the rest of the world. Australia was rock and roll’s stepping off point from America to the world. Think of the English rock of the 50s, compare it to the Australian, and you’ll notice the difference. We understood. England didn’t. Couldn’t.
Given these differences we don’t just go on and melt back into a happy homogeneous state as if it didn’t matter. At the edges, these and subsequent differences continue to assert an influence, not always dramatic, sometimes significant. That’s what I plan to explore with this column. Music that’s somehow “Australian”, from yesterday and today.