Released in May 1978, ‘Khe Sanh’ tells the story of an Australian-Vietnam veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress and struggling to re-integrate into civilian life. The song was written by pianist Don Walker at Sweethearts café in Kings Cross, New South Wales, and although every Australian knows the lyrics, ‘well the last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone,’ when it was released, the song only reached number 41 due to Australian censors giving the song an A classification, meaning that it was unsuitable for airplay. Despite this, DJs begged the band to release the song as a single, and these days, ‘Khe Sanh’ receives high rotation on classic rock stations. ‘Khe Sanh’ became the Australian Cricket Team’s anthem during their tour of the Caribbean in 1995.
‘Sounds of Then (This is Australia)’ started off as a poem by GANGgajang front man Mark Callaghan as he recalled his family’s move from England to Queensland. After the move, his parents divorced, and this along with the culture shock meant that Callaghan’s first few years in Australia were incredibly difficult, and the song is about remembering that period through sounds, smells and sensations and the power that music has in triggering lost memories. The song reached number 35 on the Australian Singles Chart and was used in 1996 by the Nine Network. Visually provoking lyrics such as ‘Out on the patio we’d sit, and the humidity we’d breathe, we’d watch the lightning crack over canefields,’ prompt recognisable scenes of summer in Australia, and the songs charm lingers 31 years on.
In 1982, ‘Solid Rock’ was released off Goanna’s Spirit of Place debut album, which became the first charting rock record to feature the didgeridoo. The album features anthems of social protest with ‘Solid Rock’ telling the story of Aboriginal dispossession. Goanna frontman Shane Howard was inspired to write the song after a trip to Uluru where he witnessed ‘imma’, a community ceremony. Howard wrote the song to ‘inspire Australians to look deeper into the historical racism and injustices suffered by Aboriginal Australia at the hands of Settler Culture since 1788.’
No Australian can help but feel patriotic when Men at Work’s ‘Down Under’ starts to play. The lyrics about a Vegemite sandwich and the copyright infringed ‘Kookaburra’ flute sections are intrinsically Australian. Written by Colin Hay and Ron Strykert, the song was the third single from Men at Work’s 1981 debut album, Business As Usual, and went on to reach number one in Australia, New Zealand and Canada before it topped the US Billboard Hot 100 in January 1983 where it set up camp for four weeks. ‘Down Under’ went on to sell two million copies in the US alone, and following its American success, the single reached number one in several European countries. The song tells of a travelling man who is proud of his nationality; however, the meaning behind the lyrics is that of a country which has lost its spirit due to overdevelopment, and the song hopes to instead celebrate the country’s true greatness.
Released in August 1982, ‘Great Southern Land’ was Icehouse singer-songwriter Iva Davies’ answer to Men at Work’s ‘Down Under’. In his opinion, ‘Down Under’ was a song full of clichés and sounded as if it were written by someone who didn’t grow up in Australia, which is true considering that Colin Hay has Scottish roots. Davies said, ‘I wanted to get rid of all the postcard stuff, all the koala bears and get to something more substantial,’ and that he did. The song’s narrative has motifs of isolation, and the lyrics describe Australia in acute accuracy with the line, ‘a prisoner island hidden in the summer for a million years.’
Released in 1987 from Midnight Oil’s sixth studio album, Diesel and Dust, political song ‘Beds are Burning’ went to number one in New Zealand, South Africa and Canada and cracked the top ten in France, Netherlands, Australia and the UK. The lyrics stand in support of returning native land back to the Indigenous Pintupi people, many of whom were forcibly removed in the 1950s and 1960s. Midnight Oil performed the song at the 2000 Olympic Games wearing black with the word sorry written on their clothing. In the audience was former Australian PM John Howard who that same year had refused to apologise to Indigenous Australians and the Stolen Generations. ‘Beds are Burning’ is John Howard’s favourite Midnight Oil song.
‘True Blue’ is slang for authentically Australian, and no song captures that spirit better than country-folk musician John Williamson’s song ‘True Blue’. The song uses colloquialisms such as ‘smoko’, ‘fair dinkum’, and ‘she’ll be right’, and poses the rhetorical question about whether the concept of mateship still exists in Australia. Mateship is a core value of every Australian and is highly regarded in the sporting community, which is why the song is often performed at sport events. John Williamson performed the song twice at Steve Irwin’s public memorial as it was the Crocodile Hunter’s favourite song and is fitting, considering Steve’s true blue character.
Written by Geoff Mack in 1959, before being popularised by Lucky Star in 1962, ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ originally listed Australian towns, primarily those along the east coast; however, the songs popularity spawned versions from America, Britain, Canada, New Zealand as well as Asian and European versions. Many American states also have their own local version, and it’s even been adapted for beer. Everyone from Johnny Cash to Rolf Harris have recorded the song, and it’s been sampled by Rihanna, used in The Simpsons and several advertising campaigns including one from Google. The Australian version is made up of four verses and lists over 80 towns.
Political rock group Midnight Oil’s second single from their 1982 album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, mentions the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis and dismissal of former Australian PM Gough Whitlam as well as the Pine Gap spy base in Alice Springs. The lyrics also describe ‘Smiling zinc cream’, and ‘Breathing eucalypt’, and uses slang including ‘Daytime telly’. ‘Power and the Passion’ also includes the only drum solo studio recording from the band, and the song has been played at 2005’s WaveAid and 2009’s Sound Relief as well as on every Midnight Oil tour since 1982.
Jimmy Barnes signature song ‘Working Class Man’ was written by Journey keyboardist Johnathan Cain and appears in the end credits of Ron Howard’s 1986 film, Gung Ho. The song spent 14 weeks on the Australian charts and seven weeks on the New Zealand charts and was performed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics’ Closing Ceremony. The song is about Jimmy Barnes’ loyal, hardworking audience and makes reference to Elvis, Vietnam and Uncle Sam, allowing for the content to become relatable throughout the world, despite the song’s iconic Australia status.