“And the music was good and the music was loud, and the singer turned and he said to the crowd…Let there be Rock”!!! (ACDC – Let there be Rock). Blood Sweat and Beers! Aussie Pub Rock is a genre that reveled in the rebellious times of Australian society in the 70’s and 80’s capitulating in an identity for our nation. In the early years particularly, is was a rough and ready scene, full of bands prepared to take a literal beating in the car park after the gig from booze soaked punters if their performance was deemed crap. The scene was intense and loud; spit, sweat, tattooed muscles flexing and jam packed with Aussie blokes slamming drums, playing mean, fat guitar riffs and swilling jugs on stage. You had to be tough to thrive in this scene, physically and mentally. Everything about the style was brash, unapologetic, and inherently Australian.
I was born in 1970 and had the privilege of growing up in this era and some of my fondest memories were of seeing The Angels, Rose Tattoo and The Saints whilst underage. Yes, liquor licensing laws were lax back then and if you could afford the cover charge, you were in. I saw my first live gig (a Brisbane band called Dog, Fish, Cat, Bird, who I had heard on 4ZZZ), in a pub just before my 17th birthday!
Key bands, some of whom will be referred to in this look at Aussie Pub Rock (in addition to the three mentioned above), include: ACDC, Cold Chisel, Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, Midnight Oil, Australian Crawl, INXS, Noiseworks, Hunters and Collectors, Divinyls, Uncanny X Men, Boom Crash Opera, The Radiators, The Choir Boys, Men at Work, The Celibate Rifles, Painters and Dockers and the Screaming Jets.
History, Influences and the Cultural / Political Landscape of the Times
The white picket fenced conservative comfort of the post war 50’s was long gone and had been replaced by a decidedly rebellious 1960’s after Rock n Roll hit Australia’s shores. The economy was flourishing and teenagers had a never before experienced disposable income to spend on music, and they did. The rock n roll of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, The Kinks and of course the Beatles was being devoured by the eras youth; they now had their own music and were playing it on jukeboxes in milk bars across the country. Australia of course embraced its own stars during this period including Daddy Cool, Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Normie Rowe, The Bee Gees, The Loved Ones and most famously the Easybeats. It was the formation and promotion of the latter and their international success which launched a new and unlikely partnership between two families from different sides of the tracks; The ‘Youngs‘ and ‘Alberts‘. Both families immigrated from Europe, the Young family (George, Malcolm and Angus), from the mean, smog laden streets of Glasgow and the ‘well to do’ Alberts from Switzerland. This union would go on to drive some of the most iconic pub rock bands of the 70’s and 80’s like ACDC, Rose Tattoo and The Angels.
Pub Rock got its name from the places where it was played, small, crowded, smoke filled back rooms of local hotels (see Rose Tattoo video above, 1982). Usually you could smell the beer soaked carpet from about a block away! The genre was really born out of a relaxation of liquor laws in 1971 seeing extended pub trading hours, the legal drinking age reduced from 21 to 18 and the ban on women drinking in public bars repealed. Up until that time, live music (apart from large or international acts), was really only performed in community or municipal halls and churches, no alcohol was served. “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” (Wise, B. 2016).
As with Britain and the USA, the 1970’s saw a change in the economic landscape with a deep recession and record inflation affecting most of the west. Times were tough and this was directly reflected in the DIY aesthetic and lyrical content of the pub rock bands of the time (much like the punk movement in the U.K). Categorised by screaming vocals spitting venom about social injustice and political issues, the raw unpretentious volatility and ‘what you see is what you get’ qualities of pub rock reflected the hardships Australians were enduring at the time and struck a nerve. Major breakthroughs for bands cutting their teeth on the pub circuit in gaining exposure, included the launch of Countdown in 1974 (the same year colour TV started broadcasting), Double J and 4-ZZZ in 1975 (a year after FM radio hit the airwaves). There was now brand new mass mediums for new bands to be heard by record labels and punters alike, further driving attendance at their live gigs.
For the most part, the main musical influences on the pub rock genre would be blues and boogie rock. There was usually a solid driving back-beat and a real emphasis on fat guitar (always at the forefront), repetitive riffs (no focus on overtly melodic solos), and immersive loud, dry drumming. To understand the sound, it is key to appreciate the space in which the sound was played; small, crowded smoke filled rooms not designed for live music, which promoted that ‘in your face’ aesthetic synonymous with pub rock. It was simple, visceral, raw and loud; big amps and PA systems in small spaces providing an inescapable wall of sound. No place for subtlety or pretense. The lyrics were always local and revolved around the good and bad times of the Australian existence.
If asked by someone from overseas what Aussie pub rock was? The simple ‘Ah ha’ moment delivering instantaneous understanding (to what is definitely a more complex question), would be to answer, “AC/DC”! It has been over 40 years since AC/DC played the pub circuit in Sydney and then nationwide, but they have refused to change their formula. Angus stated in a recent interview “You can listen to what we do and you can go, ‘Well, it’s AC/DC, but it’s a new song.’ So that’s what we’ve always tried to achieve. So we’ve always got that style. That’s how we sound”. This is why they have succeeded as Australia’s most prolific musical export where others have failed. In the late 60’s, hugely popular Australian band ‘The Easybeats‘ (Angus’s brother George), had made a fatal error, trying to match the trends of the musical evolution occurring at the time and changing their style to suit. Their career once so promising was over in a short two years. Have a listen to my favorite AC/DC song played live in Paris (1980) for an auditory description of the sound of pub rock. The recording is not so good which I feel really gives you an idea of how they would have sounded in the back room of a pub (minus the heavy bass frequencies). The key elements of this genre: guitar the star out in front, drums simple but steady and driving, bass in support of the back beat and of course the raucous lyrics and vocals of Bon Scott:
I have focused on the best known sound of pub rock in this blog, but there are many variations, some driven by the ‘punk’ explosion of the late 70’s in Britain (think Radio Birdman, Hitmen and the Saints), and some encouraged by the ‘new wave’ genre of the early 80’s (Models, Icehouse, Mental as Anything and even INXS), but all have one thing in common. These bands were all initially entertaining in dingy pubs and surf clubs!
So what actually defines the Australian pub rock sound? Mark Seymour of Hunters and Collectors (a quintessential pub rock band), explains: “In Australia, the pubs are the places where people experience rock and roll, which isn’t what happens in America or England. There’s a whole cultural thing that interests me about pubs, a whole language you can draw on”.
Pub Rock is exclusively Australian, uniquely nationalistic and there are many pub rock anthems about the fabric of our society that have endured the test of time holding a special place in peoples hearts culturally. Not surprisingly, 11 of the top 20 in Scenestr’s top 100 Australian songs of all time (as voted by a crew of the Great Southern Land’s most talented muso’s), are of the Aussie pub Rock genre (see the full listing here)! Most lists of a similar nature from different sources come back to the same songs again and again.
This music does not often translate to people of other nations however, and there were few bands of this genre who achieved major success overseas. Internationally, people just don’t ‘get us’ a lot of the time? We however know these songs are exclusively ‘ours’, and we are proud of it! As Mathieson (2009), points out “It’s not surprising that a country of such size, where the vast majority of people are dotted around the coastal edge, feels the need to add definition. All that space must be filled somehow, lest it overwhelm us”.
Pub Rock endured for a good 20 years (much longer if you listen to a radio station like MMM (Brisbane)! ‘Rush You’ by the Baby Animals’ is widely considered to be the last great pub rock album, amusingly released the same month as the first great grunge album; Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’. “By the end of the 1980s a variety of factors had combined to call time on pub rock. Generational change was affecting audiences. The spread of dance music, the first raves in capital cities and the natural need of 18-year-olds to have a sound to call their own were all factors. At the same time, the band rooms in pubs were being put to new uses, whether attracting families (which necessitated a wholly different type of carvery), or lining every inch of wall space with poker machines”.
So is Pub Rock, really dead? In the words of the punters of the legendary pub rock anthem ‘Am I ever Gunna’ See Your Face Again’ by the Angels: No way, get F*#ked!, F#*k! off! It lives on in the hearts and minds of those who were there and the genre is actually experiencing a bit of a revival with the youth of today digging through their parents albums to enjoy what was surely a golden era in Australian music. Have a listen below to some of the most iconic and memorable (to me) pub rock anthems:
Feature image courtesy of https://imgur.com/gallery/SLSVo
Angels live gig image courtesy of http://theangels.com.au/doc-neeson-hospitalised/ Retrieved on the 29/11/17
Wise, B. (2017). Bound for Glory – The State of Aussie Pub Rock! | Addicted to Noise. [online] Addicted to Noise. Available at: http://a2noise.com/bound-for-glory-the-state-of-aussie-pub-rock/ [Accessed 9 Dec. 2017].
Jimmy Barnes image courtesy of http://pilerats.com/music/bands/baddreems-aussie-pub-rock-playlist/ Retrieved 06/12/17
BLABBERMOUTH.NET. (2017). ANGUS YOUNG Explains AC/DC Sound. [online] Available at: http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/angus-young-explains-acdc-sound/ [Accessed 9 Dec. 2017].
Off the Record : 25 Years of Music Street Press, edited by Sean Sennett, and Simon Groth, University of Queensland Press, 2010
Mathieson, Craig. Playlisted : Everything You Need to Know About Australian Music Right Now, University of NSW Press, 2009.