The Sentinel explores iconic songs that reference Sydney – and have helped define the city in our hearts and minds. By Richie Black.
The long list of famous songs about our so-called ‘harbour city’ is not only a testament to Sydney’s storied history – but its search for identity, growing up and growing into a voice.
The best of them aren’t really about familiar landmarks but speak to a humanity breathing in the suburban daze, stepping into the waves, or groggily taking in a Kings Cross dawn.
Our selection of the city’s greatest hits encompasses those we feel have contributed to, or reflected, a little of this town’s understanding of itself.
Disclaimers: this list is not even vaguely exhaustive. Some of the inclusions will be so obvious as to make you cringe – but obviousness is partly the point. They can also be myopic, naïve, white-male-centric (and yes, some of them we’d happily never hear again).
They’re also pre-2000 songs and qualify as ‘historical artifacts’ – and if that seems a bit boomer then, yeah, guilty.
But we don’t mean it to be discriminatory. Actually, we’re preparing a deep dive into the music that defines Sydney now and in the future, including the wealth of hip-hop coming out of the western suburbs, ‘cos it deserves a whole article to itself.
We’ve probably also discounted songs you’ve always loved. We’re not including tunes that reference Sydney but aren’t really about Sydney (‘Khe Sanh’). And we’re leaving out songs that don’t seem to resonate much, say, beyond a rock star’s fever dreams (Rose Tattoo’s ‘Sydney Girls’).
The lost and lonely debris of the night
Speaking of obvious, dear old Cold Chisel – thanks largely to the poetic heart of main songwriter Don Walker – had a singular way of crystalising Australiana (including Sydney) via songs that still resonate down the decades. These anthems humanised the marginalised and downtrodden in the ’70s/’80s/’90s … then the endless repetition of classic rock radio exulted them to the status of icons and heroes.
You can’t actually have ‘Breakfast At Sweethearts’ (as per the 1979 tune) anymore – it got converted into a McDonalds long ago – but you know you’ve been there, or somewhere like it in Sydney. Surely every inner-city dweller has washed up in a café on a Sunday morning feeling like Barnsey’s weary, yet stoic protagonist? Nothing is more indelibly Sydney.
Well, since Sweethearts has been defunct for some time (and arguably so is the Cross), you might think there’s nothing that local about the lyrics – “Coffee’s hot and the toast is brown/Hey streets weeper, clear my way,” etc. – and even “Campbell Lane” doesn’t really exist.
But the meaning of music is informed by more than mere lyrics – through autobiographical reflections, through legend, through a collective understanding – we all just know it’s about the Cross.
All that land and all that water
Paul Kelly’s ‘From St Kilda to Kings Cross’ (1985) is another fairly obvious choice – or is it? The lyrics refer to a passage to the promised land of Sydney. But on arrival, as we know, it’s subsumed in a melancholy rain “falling soft” – and the protagonist actually yearns for the St Kilda Esplanade he’s left behind. In fact, he’d perhaps exchange Sydney Harbour “all that land, all that water” for his beloved St Kilda.
Okay, yes, as much as it is about Melbourne, the song also seems to be about the space between it and Sydney; about the emotional and physical distance. It speaks to the separate identities of both major cities – all grown up and a little impervious and forbidding to outsiders – but definable and home to those who know them best.
Few outfits carry Sydney in their musical bloodstream like The Whitlams – and their local sensibility notably came through on 1999’s Love This City album. It’s most explicit on a track like ‘God Drinks at the Sando’ which, amongst its melancholy charms, conjures not just a vivid sense of the dearly departed Sandringham Hotel, Newtown – but crusty Sydney pub culture broadly.
Here, in the “grainy light of four o’clock”, Tim Freedman sings of a typical barfly, gone to seed yet with an ancient wisdom that lets him savour the passing of time (“drinks slowly, like it’s holy”), the presence of others (“he likes to sit/watches people come in and smiles”) and community (“somehow we’re a part of him”). A metaphor for the Inner West in all its decrepitude, conviviality and – yeah – complacency?
But gentrification (and booze) seem to be steadily overwhelming the old buffers at the bar – the sweet romanticism of pub culture has been soured a little by the relentless Justin Hemmes and, well, liver abuse.
So, by way of balance, we’ll also pick the title track ‘You Gotta Love This City’, as an arrestingly cynical take on our favourite city.
In this ditty, our hero experiences a litany of misfortune – until, reduced to stumbling along the harbour foreshore like a bum, he’s suddenly confronted by the gaudy explosions of a fireworks display.
The song is notionally about Sydney celebrating its successful bid for the 2000 Olympic Games. But its take on the city’s occasional yen for callous displays of spectacle and entitlement, of bureaucratic ineptitude at the behest of worthier investments, will probably be relevant ’til the end of time.
On the beach
Our Sydney identity cleaves desperately to the water, the sand, the surf … despite the fact it’s at a fair distance, if not pretty inaccessible, to the majority of Sydneysiders. But there are loads of eligible musical entries that have helped shore up the city’s relationship with the beach. Little Pattie, for example, brought surf rock to Sydney with 1964’s ‘Stompin’ At Maroubra’.
The Chisels, yet again, were able to articulate the frustration of the marginalised in 1991’s ‘Misfits’, this time in a Manly context that is a paean to middle-class beach culture (“Surfboards through the turnstiles/Speedboats on the bay/All around the seagulls scream/Children out to play”) which is also implacably hostile to the outsider.
Meanwhile, ol’ Barry Crocker sang of going to Bondi for a ‘Chunder in the Old Pacific’ (1972) in a way many of us can relate to.
But funnily enough, it’s an outsider’s perspective that feels particularly vivid (perhaps for unintended reasons). In her 1985 song ‘He’s On The Beach’, British singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl sings of receiving postcards from a friend (an ex-lover?) who has emigrated to Australia – “Sydney Bay”, to be precise – and now finds himself in a shimmering, sandy idyll with “sunshine everywhere”. Both uplifting and bittersweet, the song evokes the promise, rather than the reality, of our city – which, particularly for the Brits, is an intrinsic part of our identity – in dreamily naïve, almost banal, terms (“It’s brilliant there, there’s something in the air”) across a shimmering melody.
We know the murky truth is way more complicated, for better or worse, and that the sea-breeze barely reaches Newtown let alone Penrith. But here is the Sydney of our/their dreams, glittering in the reflection of the water, a hallucinatory endless summer that’s lured a billion backpackers.
Once upon a rhyme in the west
In case you hadn’t noticed, a lot of the focus of these significant musical artifacts lies in the inner-city – particularly Darlinghurst/Kings Cross, whose tableaus of sleaze, excess and tragedy have been a rich mine of lyrical material for everyone from Cold Chisel (as noted) to The Fauves.
The ‘burbs seem to have been less inspiration for iconic songs – although some gave it more than a cursory glance. The likes of Mental As Anything, for example, went halfway out there – with their 1980 song ‘Blacktown to Bondi’, which kinda explored the schism between east and west. Meanwhile, the aforementioned ‘Misfits’ by Cold Chisel (“In the west I’m a fast young fool”) touched a little on the dispossessed beyond Strathfield.
But was there anyone out there? Well, the truth is there was – it’s just that mainstream media wasn’t paying any attention.
In fact, there was an urban phenomenon – whose origins could be traced to the late ’80s – of folks who actually lived in places like Parramatta and Liverpool using mix desks and microphones to express lived experiences. People for whom pub rock was meaningless, who wanted a means to express themselves on their own terms. The phenomenon deserves its own entry – so stay tuned for our follow-up in the coming weeks.
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