Tracing the Influence of Australian Rock on the International Scene

Psychedelic juggernaut Tame Impala and grunge storyteller Courtney Barnett have more in common than GRAMMY nominations and the attention of worldwide audiences. They come from the land down under.

Australia is a unique country and strange things happen to music when it hits Aussie shores. It is analyzed, weighed for relevance and craftsmanship, then modified for cover versions — mixed with beer and danger — and played to drunken friends at the local pub.

Covers made way for originals — mixing the best of U.K./U.S. sounds with genuine intensity and unique insight; the vocal stylings hovered between U.S. and English working-class. This gave way to unashamed Aussie accents with acceptance beyond the local scene. As with anything unusual and exciting, the Australian sound began to influence offshore musicians looking for a different slant for their own music. It was evident in the 1950s, continued through to the ‘90s and is a resilient and distinctly proud sound, still asserting itself into the world music scene.

Johnny O’Keefe, The Wild One

In the ‘50s era of Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, Johnny O’Keefe was the Australian star. Known as JOK or “The Wild One,” he was the first Australian artist to tour overseas successfully, opening the doors for subsequent offshore jaunts for local talent. Johnny was a hard rocking, hard drinking onstage explosion who toured with the leading U.S. heavyweights, including the above mentioned Gene and Eddie. He earned acceptance for Australian rock ‘n’ roll, his influence even spawning the Iggy Pop cover of “Real Wild Child (Wild One)."

The inroads made by JOK convinced 1960s Australian acts that it was possible to enjoy international success. The band of the moment was the Easybeats, whose inspiration was the British Invasion sound, dismantled and reassembled for a nation not so damp and dreary as England. “Friday on my Mind” is their biggest overseas release, and has been covered extensively by such diverse performers as Peter Frampton, Blue Oyster Cult and David Bowie. In contrast to some of their contemporaries, the Easybeats provided positivity to the international '60s scene, like color TV in an age of black and white.

AC/DC: Australian, Not British

Perhaps the biggest effect the Easybeats would have on the world picture was due to rhythm guitarist George Young, whose success furthered the aspirations of his younger brothers, Angus and Malcolm Young of AC/DC. Their music featured heavily in the '70s Aussie soundtrack, and when they headed off to the U.K., they became the most influential Aussie rock band ever. There is not a country in the free world where their songs are not still banging heads and inspiring guitarists with overdriven, blues-based rock, brewed up in Australian pubs and blasted out at maximum volume with vocals and presence to match.

AC/DC is everywhere, even in non-musical culture. Mike Judge could have chosen any two bands for the t-shirts worn by his slackers, Beavis and Butthead, but Metallica and AC/DC won out, reaffirming their relevance to disaffected American youth. There is no end to the artists who quote AC/DC as an influence — solid power chords matched to cool solos and amusing lyrics is a great formula for any rock band. From Skid Row to the Foo Fighters, their legacy continues. Aussies find it amusing when overseas fans say “I didn’t know they were an Australian band,” a sought after accolade in the early years.

From Garage Rock to Grunge to Indie to Dance

The post punk and indie rock scene of the '80s flourished in Australia. The acceptance of AC/DC buoyed local confidence and bands like the Lime Spiders, Screaming Tribesmen and Celibate Rifles solidified Australia’s position as a producer of world-class acts. Due to the small population, around 16 million at the time, it was not unusual to have a larger fan base in countries like the U.S., where acceptance by only 1% of the population meant unparalleled success.

During the 1980s, bands like the Scientists and Died Pretty formed, often quoted as major influences on the U.S. Grunge scene. No surprise to Australians, grunge down under is considered '70s Aussie pub rock, mixed with punk for a disassociated American youth, reminding Aussies of their brother’s garage band, blasting out AC/DC and Black Sabbath covers on weekends.

Just as the future was looking bright for Australian rock 'n' roll, there was a cultural shift both internationally and domestically which changed everything. As dance music became hugely popular, rock bands played to diminishing audiences as the punters attended factory raves, and guitars were hanging unsold in music stores.

Adding to the rockers’ misery, gambling laws were amended in Australia to allow widespread introduction of poker machines in pubs and clubs – traditional venues for live music. No longer were managers hiring bands to attract patrons. The new machines drew in the crowds, fleeced them, and cost nothing after installation. Those who did manage to get a gig were paid a pittance, sometimes just enough to hire a PA and enjoy the privilege of playing live.

Then came the Deregulation of Local Content on radio. Prior to 1992, Australian stations were required to maintain a high percentage of local talent in their playlists. This changed with deregulation, opening the floodgates for financially driven offshore-production companies to pay exorbitant “promotional considerations” to ensure their artists were played incessantly. “Play it often enough, and it will become popular” was the catch cry, the result being a seriously diluted local mainstream.

All is not lost, as the internet and youth culture bring Aussie rock back to the forefront and restore its relevance and influence. As previous generations trawled through old albums to find inspiration, Celibate Rifles singles are being unearthed, and Angels or Rose Tattoo records are getting another spin. The intensity and impudence of Australian rock are being rediscovered and applied by bands from San Diego to Munich — a testament to the enduring influence of a small bunch of cheeky musicians from the middle of nowhere.

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.