Australian punk was born out of disillusionment — with politicians, with society, with the music offered up by the mainstream. When it erupted in the mid-1970s, led by Brisbane band The Saints in the police state era of Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, it became the music of alienation and rebellion. ADRIAN CUNNINGHAM gives us the insider’s perspective on living through one of the most exciting and important eras in Australian music history.
I was at high school in the back blocks of Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland in the mid-1970s. Politically and socially, it was a grim time. Ultra-conservative heavy manners and rigid conformity were almost impossible to escape. Contemporary music, so often a refuge of hope for disaffected teenagers, was of little or no interest to me.
Rock music at that time was fat, boring, self-important and bloated. Rock stars swanned around like minor royalty on the Titanic. Turgid heavy blues-boogie and tedious prog rock ruled; only the awesome David Bowie and his fascinating associates Lou Reed and Roxy Music offered some respite from the gloom.
I spent my days regretting that I had not been born ten years earlier, when I could have enjoyed my teenage years listening to the exciting and contemporary sounds of the early Who, The Small Faces, The Kinks and The Yardbirds. I still listened to The Kinks and The Yardbirds, but I felt like a museum curator rather than someone who was part of a vital and current zeitgeist.
Then in late 1976 things started to change. I saw The Sex Pistols playing ‘Anarchy in the UK’ on an afternoon kids’ TV show on the ABC called Flashez. I was buying the NME at my local news agent — delivered three months late via the slow boat from London — and read about some intriguing new names from New York: The Ramones, Patti Smith and Television.
Even more astounding, I heard about a Brisbane band called The Saints that had made a splash in London with their independent single ‘(I’m) Stranded’. The idea that anyone good could come from Brisbane — of all places — took some getting used to. It took me a while to deal with the cognitive dissonance associated with overcoming my cultural cringe.
The Saints (like The Ramones) didn’t look very cool — certainly not compared to the Yardbirds or the Kinks — but the power of their music was undeniable. Suddenly I had something contemporary, and local, that was exciting and meaningful. My life was forever changed. I no longer felt like I had been born out of time — indeed, I started to feel like I had been born at just the right time to enjoy one of the most exciting eras in rock music.
Throughout 1977 the good news just kept piling up. An avalanche of great music was released in the UK and the USA. Australia seemed a bit slow in comparison, but we had The Saints and we also had Sydney’s blistering Radio Birdman, who I saw late one night on ABC TV doing a live studio performance for a short-lived show called The Real Thing. I became Toowoomba’s only confirmed punk. My choice might have been met with open hostility in what was, frankly, a very narrow-minded and violent town. I was probably saved by the sheer out-there novelty of my choice. In 1977, a lone punk in Toowoomba was no threat to the established order, so could be treated with amused condescension.
Nevertheless, my days in Queensland were numbered. Upon finishing school, I immediately decamped to the excitement of Sydney — too late to see Radio Birdman or The Saints, who by then had both departed for the UK — but just in time to participate in the emerging punk scene which had its epicentre in a few inner-city pubs and dive bars. A scene that was small enough, even in a city as large as Sydney, that you quickly got to know all the faces and feel the warm inner glow of knowing you were part of something precious and secret.
This article celebrates the great music that emerged from that scene — a scene where Australia’s contribution was at least the equal of any other country. I have selected 30 songs that represent the best of Australian punk. The first nine selections actually come from Australia’s original punk scene, the 1965-1967 era of garage punk that mirrored similar phenomena across a plethora of regional cities in the USA. Those original Australian punks are largely forgotten today — hell, they were largely forgotten in 1977 too! But they were honoured by the late ’70s Oz punks, who drew inspiration from the fact that those pioneers had proved that great and exciting music could be made in the land Down Under.
One rule I have observed in making this list: no one band gets more than one song. This is unfair on the likes of The Saints and Radio Birdman, who deserve multiple entries. But I want to convey the size and diversity of the Australian punk scene and pay tribute to all the weird, wonderful and talented eccentrics that burned, burned, burned like fabulous roman candles.
1965 The Easybeats – ‘Wedding Ring’
Working class kids from the immigrant hostels of Villawood in Sydney’s deep south west, The Easybeats became Australia’s Beatles. But they never lost their garage punk aesthetic. Once, when asked who was Australia’s greatest band, The Saints’ Ed Kuepper replied instantly and in a manner that brooked no contradiction: ‘The Easybeats’.
They released many great songs, including the world-wide smash ‘Friday On My Mind’, but this early rocker shows them at their garage punk best. The story of singer Little Steve Wright’s tragic later years of waste and misadventure is well known, but in 1965 he was the epitome of exhilarating exuberance and snotty rebellion. Remember him that way.
1965The Missing Links – ‘You’re Drivin’ Me Insane’
Described by Ian Marks and Iain McIntyre in their brilliant book Wild About You as “about as caveman primitive as rock’n’roll can get,” this song is as punk as they come.
The Saints later covered the Links’ totemic ‘Wild About You’ on their debut album. If the Easybeats were Australia’s Beatles, Sydney’s Missing Links were our Rolling Stones or, more accurately, our Pretty Things. As Marks and McIntyre say, they were “Too loud, too outrageous, too unstable, too provocative, too young, too dirty, too destructive, too scary — too much”.
1966 The Purple Hearts – ‘Just a Little Bit’
B-side of this Brisbane band’s third single, ‘Just a Little Bit’ is one minute and fifty-one seconds of ferocious Benzedrine beat. In Lobby Lloyd on guitar and Mick Hadley on vocals/screams, the Purple Hearts featured two of Australia’s most primal punk talents.
The Black Diamonds – ‘I Want, Need, Love You’
Hailing from Lithgow, The Black Diamonds played definitive and devastating ’60s garage punk. Eardrum-shredding and only just staying the right side of being totally unhinged, this track is a white-knuckle ride from start to finish.
1966 The Loved Ones – ‘Everlovin’ Man’
Melbourne’s The Loved Ones featured ’60s rock’s most adventurous and unorthodox vocalist, Gerry Humphries. His voice really is something extraordinary. At just two minutes and eight seconds, their second single was a massive national hit. Never before or since has a top ten hit featured such mind-altering singing. The B-side, ‘More Than Love’, is just as good.
1967 The Atlantics – ‘Come On’
Sydney’s Atlantics, as their name suggests, started out as a surf band — having an early hit in 1963 with ‘Bombora’. As fashions changed they went back to the garage and recorded ‘Come On’ in an Eastlakes scout hut, favoured because it gave them the desired “raw, thumping, rock’n’roll sound”. By 1967, the Atlantics were journeymen and this manic piece of history almost disappeared from view as a B-side. But those who heard it never forgot it.
1967 The Elois – ‘By My Side’
Yet another B-side (presumably ’60s punk bands reserved A-sides for their more poppy, commercial fare), this song was later covered by the Hard-Ons in 1986 without coming anywhere near matching the sheer visceral ferocity of the original. Sounds like a gang of hyperactive Neanderthals speeding in a souped-up Corvette with shredded leopard skin trim — and about as tasteful.
1967 Masters Apprentices – ‘Buried and Dead’
The Masters Apprentices later became Australian hippy pop royalty, but prior to that they released a couple of classic ‘wrong side of the tracks’, grungy garage anthem singles. This, their mucho intenso second single, was later covered by Radio Birdman, who certainly knew a reverb and fuzz drenched punk classic when they heard one.
1967 The Creatures – ‘Ugly Thing’
It is probably not possible to invent a better garage punk band and song name combination than this. You knew before the needle hit the groove what you were in for, and this delivered on those expectations in spades. It is punk gone truly and absolutely feral.
It was recorded and released in late 1967, by which time garage punk had been sidelined by hippy psychedelica, so it was the last desperate gasp of a dying genre. But what a way to go out! Vindication following oblivion would have to wait ten years but, as always, quality won out.
1977 The Saints – ‘This Perfect Day’
Jump forward ten years, it’s as if Dark Side of the Moon and Tales from Topographic Oceans never happened. And thank god for that!
The Saints were another bunch of immigrant kids from an outer suburban wasteland. They are rightly celebrated for their monumental milestone recording from June 1976 of ‘(I’m) Stranded’. But unbelievably, even better was to come later. Written by Ed Kuepper in Oxley on Christmas Day 1976 and released on single shortly after their arrival in the UK in mid-1977, this song is the greatest piece of music ever recorded by an Australian band. Period.
“This song is the greatest piece of music ever recorded by an Australian band. Period.”
They performed it on Top of the Pops and the British promptly rushed off to the shops in droves to buy it — only for the record company EMI to completely underestimate demand. Stocks were unavailable for weeks and the single dropped out of the charts. It was as close as The Saints ever came to being truly successful. A year later the band fell apart in the face of patronising anti-Australian English attitudes and the band’s unwillingness to conform with increasingly ridiculous punk stereotypes.
As great as The Saints’ oeuvre is, the only song of theirs that comes close to matching this is their apocalyptic ‘Nights in Venice’. The studio version of ‘Nights’ on their debut album is awesome, but check out the live version recorded at Sydney’s Paddington Town Hall immediately before their departure for London to get a true sense of the aural meltdown that this song could deliver.
1977 Radio Birdman – ‘Do The Pop’
Like The Saints, Radio Birdman released their first vinyl independently via mail order in late 1976. The Burn My Eye EP was utterly brilliant and quite unprecedented, as was 1977’s Radios Appear album.
Any number of Birdman songs deserve to be on this list, but I have chosen the raging, intense and life-affirming ‘Do The Pop’. Guitarist Deniz Tek was a native of Ann Abor, Michigan and was totally besotted with Ann Arbor heroes the Stooges and the MC5. ‘Do The Pop’ is his tribute to those heroes.
Like The Saints, Radio Birdman had a unique belief in the worth of their cause and the vital importance of swimming against the tide of current trends. This fierce self-belief often came across as arrogance, but when you listen to their music and watch recordings of their live performances it is clear that their arrogance was well founded.
1978 Boys Next Door – ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’
This was the first release by Australia’s greatest musical export, Nick Cave.
The Boys Next Door were formed at Melbourne’s exclusive Caulfield Grammar. Inspired by the first wave of punk (there is a great photo taken at a Saints gig in Melbourne with young fan boy Nick wigging out in front of the stage), they signed to Michael Gudinski’s short-lived Suicide label — an attempt by a music biz insider to hop on the punk bandwagon.
This is a period of his life that Cave now prefers to forget, regarding the Suicide association as an embarrassing misjudgement and his early recordings as being excruciating juvenilia. Nevertheless, the band does a spirited punk deconstruction of Nancy Sinatra’s 1960s classic.
Despite his ambivalence about his early output, Cave continues to be proud of his involvement in fighting the early ‘punk wars’ against a hostile and uncomprehending establishment. He is grateful for having had the certainty of the punk cause as something that kept him and his cohorts grounded as they wobbled through the chaos of the 1980s.
1978 Young Charlatans – ‘Shivers’
While Nick Cave was consorting with Michael Gudinski, his future collaborator Rowland Howard formed a punk super-group with Melbourne scenester Ollie Olsen and former Saints (and future Laughing Clowns) drummer Jeffrey Wegener.
Their party piece was a song that a 16-year-old Howard had written two years earlier — a song that was destined to become an absolute classic. The Young Charlatans recording of ‘Shivers’ did not emerge until 1981, and then only on an elusive cassette magazine called ‘Fast Forward’. In the meantime, in 1979 Howard had joined the Boys Next Door, who then recorded ‘Shivers’ with Cave on vocals. Much to Howard’s annoyance, Cave insisted on singing the song. Years later Cave conceded that he was incapable of doing it justice.
1978 Thought Criminals – ‘More Suicides Please’
Written about office workers queueing up to jump off the top of Sydney’s Australia Square, then Australia’s tallest building, this song is darkly hilarious.
Roger Grierson’s Thought Criminals showed an imaginative way forward for a local punk scene that was at risk of descending into self-parody. Angular, fast, jagged and frantic are words that have been used to describe their sound, but it was never less than fun, funny and intelligent. A gem.
1979 The Lipstick Killers – ‘Hindu Gods of Love’
Produced by Radio Birdman’s Deniz Tek, this classic slice of Sydney-via-Detroit hard rock is probably the best artefact from the large and often somewhat clichéd genre of post-Birdman Sydney punk.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s there seemed to be dozens of bands in Sydney intent on copying Radio Birdman. I once saw the Lipstick Killers play at the Civic Hotel to a bunch of sieg-heiling neo-Nazis — and, disturbingly, no one in the band seemed to object. Which kind of supports the Saints’ Chris Bailey’s reservations about Birdman’s military-style armbands and stage banners when, at a shared gig at Paddington Town Hall, he famously thanked “the local chapter of the Hitler Youth for the fine stage props”.
But that is probably all forgotten now. The Lipstick Killers amazed me when they released this piece of sheer brilliance. Honestly, I didn’t think they had it in them.
1979 Little Murders – ‘Take Me, I’m Yours’
Heavily influenced by British ’60s punk like The Who, The Troggs and The Kinks, Melbourne’s Little Murders became the darlings of that city’s mod scene. As unpromising and derivative as that sounds, this song is a delight and is as good an example of punk pop as you can find anywhere.
1980 Tactics – ‘Buried Country’
Canberra’s Tactics, led by the quirky, intelligent and mercurial Dave Studdert, were a punk band that pointed towards a brighter and more interesting future that could transcend the stultifying limitations of punk.
Close associates of the Thought Criminals, ‘Buried Country’ first appeared on a poorly recorded EP in 1979. The definitive version appeared a year later on their debut album, My Houdini. This song took white Australia to task for its mistreatment of Aboriginal people — something that was unusual, to say the least, in the 1970s.
1980 ME 262 – ‘Gonna Die’
Named after a Blue Oyster Cult song, Sydney’s ME 262 were yet another post-Birdman outfit with a Detroit obsession. ‘Gonna Die’ was recorded as a demo, but not released until one of the ‘Do The Pop’ compilations appeared over 20 years later. Pretty obscure, in other words. But this song does not deserve its obscurity, as it is one of the few post-Birdman outfit recordings that could give Deniz Tek’s gang a run for its money.
1980 The Sunnyboys – ‘The Seeker’
Hailing from Kingscliff in northern New South Wales, the Sunnyboys caused a sensation when they hit the inner-city circuit in Sydney in 1980.
Their initial release, an absolutely stunning four-track EP released on Phantom Records, was even better than Radio Birdman’s Burn My Eye EP from four years earlier. Any of its four songs could sit happily in this list, but ‘The Seeker’ exemplifies everything that was great about The Sunnyboys. Later the band were signed by Michael Gudinski’s Mushroom label and went on to enjoy considerable, and deserved, mainstream success. But none of their subsequent recordings captured the sheer joy, creativity and energy of that initial EP.
Leader Jeremy Oxley later sadly suffered from mental illnesses that have blighted his career, yet The Sunnyboys still periodically reform and tour to the delight of their still-loyal fans.
1981 The Birthday Party – ‘King Ink’
In 1980 the Boys Next Door renamed themselves The Birthday Party and moved to London to take on the world.
At the time, they had moved away from their punk origins and were embracing more experimental and arty post-punk sounds. Their first year in London was a demoralising experience. No one wanted to know them (except for the redoubtable BBC DJ John Peel) and they were severely disillusioned by the music that they saw and heard there. It lacked energy and it seemed that the punk wars had been fought for nothing.
On returning to Australia in late 1980 for a Christmas visit to friends and families, a rethink and reinvention was called for. I saw them play with Laughing Clowns and the Go-Betweens at the legendary Paris Theatre show in Sydney in late November when they were still fairly arty and ‘post-punk’. Nick Cave even played saxophone on one song!
After Christmas, they returned to Sydney as a totally transformed entity. They had gone completely feral. No more saxophones, no more arty endeavours. The Stooges primal ‘Loose’ was now an encore. They had rediscovered their obnoxious punk roots. This was the shtick they took back to London along with their new album, Prayers On Fire, which they had recorded over the summer break. This new much more confrontational version of the band blew everything else in England to smithereens. World domination awaited.
‘King Ink’ was the apotheosis of this new manifestation of the band — an ugly, awkward and hideous “fuck you” to the new romantics and other scum that were in the band’s crosshairs.
1981 New Race – ‘Haunted Road’
Although Deniz Tek had relocated back to his native USA after the demise of Radio Birdman, the Birdman legend grew out of all proportion in his absence.
In response to this heightened interest, Tek formed a temporary touring supergroup made up of former members of Birdman, and his hero bands the Stooges and the MC5. A stupendous live album from this tour was released. Alongside retooled Birdman and MC5 tunes was this amazing new Tek composition that was as exciting as anything he recorded with Radio Birdman.
1981 The Scientists – ‘Swampland’
Led by unique Kim Salmon, the Scientists were Perth’s premier late-70s punk band. By 1980 they had run out of steam. In late 1981 Salmon reconstituted the band with a different line-up, taking particular inspiration from The Cramps’ brand of trashy psychobilly.
The next few years became their golden age. Swampland was the B-side of the new incarnation’s first single (the A-side ‘This is My Happy Hour’ is also an essential recording) and it contains all the best elements of Salmon’s particular talents. It is utterly irresistible. Also, don’t miss 1983’s incredible ‘We Had Love’ single and Blood Red River mini album.
1982 The Screaming Tribesmen – ‘Igloo’
Originating in Brisbane in 1981, the Mick Medew-led Screaming Tribesmen combined members of legendary defunct Brisbane punk bands The 31st and the Fun Things, including Brad Shepherd (of Hoodoo Gurus fame) and Ron Peno (of Died Pretty fame).
Recorded in late 1982 and released on single by Citadel in 1983, ‘Igloo’ was their masterpiece. They later relocated to Sydney, experiencing innumerable line-up changes and hooking up with former Radio Birdman guitarist Chris Masuak. Unfortunately, as time went on the band descended into b-grade hard rock and denim clichés. But they will be forever lionised for the cavernous guitar and haunting melody and lyrics of ‘Igloo’.
1983 The Moodists – ‘The Disciples Know’
Formed in Melbourne in 1980 out of the remnants of Adelaide punk band the Sputniks, The Moodists featured the enduring talents of Dave Graney, Clare Moore and Steve Miller.
In early 1983 they released their finest moment, the Engine Shudder EP, featuring the eternally brilliant ‘The Disciples Know’ — all squalling guitars and claustrophobic vocals. Later that same year they relocated to London. I saw them play there in early 1986, sharing a bill with Melbourne’s equally awesome Crime and City Solution (featuring Rowland Howard and the enigmatic Simon Bonney).
But London wasn’t really interested (their loss) and the band broke up out of frustration in 1987. Graney continued to forge an idiosyncratic career as self-annointed ‘King of Pop’ and leader of the Coral Snakes.
1983 Beasts of Bourbon – ‘Ten Wheels for Jesus’
Another occasional punk/garage/swamp rock supergroup, which has featured a shifting cast of members over the years, with the only constants being Spencer P. Jones and Brisbane’s Tex Perkins (also of the Cruel Sea).
Their first album, The Axeman’s Jazz was recorded in four hours in October 1983 in Woolloomooloo for $100. When released the following year it spawned the alternative hit single ‘Psycho’ and became the best-selling alternative album of the year in Australia. The initial line-up included the Scientists’ Kim Salmon and Boris Sujdovic, as well as the Hoodoo Gurus’ James Baker. Perkins claims that the album is the best thing he has ever done and ‘Ten Wheels for Jesus’ beats some stiff competition to be the best thing on the album.
1984 X – ‘Halfway Round the World’
Former Rose Tattoo member Ian Rilen formed X (not to be confused with their Los Angeles punk namesakes) in 1977 as one of Sydney’s first punk bands. Their sound was brutal, unsubtle and uncompromising.
I saw them first in 1980 supporting Ed Kuepper’s Laughing Clowns, by which time old school punk was looking and sounding somewhat irrelevant. I was not impressed. They had just released their album X-Asperations, which did nothing for me — though hindsight reveals it as having more redeeming features than I was prepared to concede at the time.
X split up shortly after that and Rilen went on to form the far more interesting post-punk band Sardine v. X reformed in 1984 and, lo and behold, they were brilliant — combining the best aspects of the old X, with some of the subtlety and creativity that Rilen had acquired in Sardine v. The 1985 album At Home With You, produced by Lobby Lloyd, is magnificent. It features the excellent ‘TV Glue’ and also this gem, which had originally appeared in the previous year as the B-side to an excoriating version of John Lennon’s ‘Mother’.
1985 The Triffids – ‘Field of Glass’
Perth’s Triffids are one of the top five Australian bands of all time. Leader, the late lamented David McComb, was a singular talent in every respect. Like their Brisbane contemporaries and rivals, the Go-Betweens, they were never regarded as punk, though they were certainly post-punk.
But in 1985 they veered extremely close to punk with their Field of Glass EP. Under the sway of Nick Cave and The Birthday Party, McComb chose that record to plumb the darkest depths of intensity possible. The resulting title track is nine harrowing minutes that are certainly not for the faint hearted, but which constitute one of the most powerful recordings ever made by an Australian band. Believe me, after you hear this song you will never be the same again.
1986 The New Christs – ‘Born Out of Time’
After Radio Birdman’s demise in 1978, singer Rob Younger spent a few years at something of a loose end. His distinctive frame and haircut could often be seen wandering around the streets of inner Sydney and he even did a stint behind the counter of the alternative record shop, Anthem, underground at Town Hall station.
Eventually, he formed the New Christs who released the supremely collectable single ‘Face A New God’ in 1981. The band then disappeared from view, re-emerging with a new line-up in 1983 to support an Iggy Pop tour Down Under. This version of the band recorded two classic, take-no-prisoners singles, ‘Like a Curse’ (1984) and ‘Born Out of Time’. Both deserve a guernsey on this list, but I have given the nod to the latter — if only for its classic couplet of ‘I was born out of time, what’s your excuse?’
The New Christs continue to this day, with whatever shifting cast of support musicians Younger chooses to recruit when the fancy takes him.
GOD – ‘My Pal’
GOD were third generation punks and the best evidence available that the punk flame could be kept alight by youngsters not forged in the fires of the 1977 insurrection.
Written by 15-year old Melbournian Joel Silbersher, this debut single on Au Go-Go records has grown in stature and reputation over years to the point that it is now regarded as a solid gold punk classic. The band itself proved to be a short-lived entity. But, hey, if you have one brilliant shot in the bolt, get it out there fast and then get out of the way. The perfect punk aesthetic.
1991 The Aints – ‘It’s Still Nowhere’
Appropriately, the final entry in this list belongs to Australia’s greatest punk (though he would, of course, reject the label): Ed Kuepper.
After the original Saints split up in 1978, Kuepper returned to Australia to put together his next project — the utterly unprecedented experimental band Laughing Clowns. Saints singer Chris Bailey responded by appropriating the Saints name and forming a succession of reasonably good, though quite orthodox, bands that had absolutely nothing to do with the vision of the original Saints.
To say that Kuepper was irked by that would be a gross understatement. Eventually Kuepper decided to seize back ownership of his original vision by forming the ironically named Aints. While his musical interests had broadened considerably in the interim, at heart he was still a hard rocker who liked nothing better than making a huge racket on his Gibson SG.
The Saints have toured off and on over the years whenever Ed feels the need for some primal rock therapy. ‘It’s Still Nowhere’ is probably the pick of their handful of recordings, but really you can’t go wrong with any of them.
Adrian Cunningham is an Australian punk obsessive. He is definitely not on Twitter.