Music of Australia

From Academic Kids

Template:Australianmusic The earliest music of Australia was the folk music of the Australian Aborigines. Aboriginal music declined after European colonisation, and has only recently begun to be revived, often with modernised influences. Bands like Yothu Yindi have begun the popularisation of Aboriginal folk in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Australia has also been home to notable classical composers as well as artists working in popular music genres such as rock, jazz, country and electronic music.


Aboriginal music

Main article: Australian Aboriginal music

Aboriginal music has become a vehicle for social protest, and has been linked, by both performers and outsiders, with similar forms from Native Americans; Jamaican singer Bob Marley is often credited with helping to revive traditional Aboriginal music, as did the movie Wrong Side of the Road, which depicted Aboriginal reggae bands struggling for recognition and linked it with land rights. Yothu Yindi's sudden pop success in the 1990s surprised many observers, and helped bring many Aboriginal issues into mainstream Australian affairs. In 1980, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) began broadcasting traditional music and has become extremely successful. CAAMA has helped popularise remote musical communities, such as Blek Bala Mujik whose "Walking Together" became a sort of Australian anthem after its use in a Qantas commercial.

Other popular Aboriginal music artists/bands include Desert Oaks Band, Blackstorm, Chrysophrase, Young Teenage Band, North Tanami Band, Christine Anu, Warumpi Band, Bart Willoughby, Archie Roach, Buna Lawrie, Coloured Stone, Areyonga Desert Tigers and Waryngya Band.

Aboriginal mythology tells of a period in the ancient past called the Dreamtime, during which totemic spirits wandered the continent singing the names of plants, animals and other natural features. Thus, song brought the world into existence; these totemic spirits left emblems across the continent, and the paths between them are called songlines. Music is thus deeply linked to the creation myth; Yothu Yindi's Mandawuy Yunupingu said "The song is creation. The art is creation. The specialness in that, is that we have a heart and mind connection to mother earth... Songlines is entrenched within the land itself, the journey of the songlines is from the east to the west, the journey is about following the sun" (Breen, p. 11).

Classical and contemporary

Main article: Australian classical music

Perhaps the first Australian musician to gain international recognition (at the end of the 19th Century) was soprano Dame Nellie Melba. She was followed half a century later by another prominent soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland.

Composer Peter Sculthorpe is notable for his incorporation of the sounds of the Australian bushland and outback in his symphonic works such as Kakadu, Mangrove and Earth Cry.


Main article: Australian jazz

The history of jazz and related genres in Australia extends back into the 19th century. During the gold rush era of the 1850s so-called Negro minstrel troupes began to travel to Australia, touring not only the capital cities but also many of the booming regional towns like Ballarat and Bendigo.

By the 1920s, phonograph machines and increased contact with American popular music had firmly established jazz in Australia. The first Australian jazz recording came in 1925.

After World War 2, Australian jazz diverged into two strands. One was called "dixieland" or "trad" or "revivalist"; this field had a major effect on popular music, and produced musicians like Graeme Bell, who, like many similar jazz musicians, were based in Melbourne. Other musicians emulated the American jazz avant-garde, like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, who were moving towards a style called bebop.

In the 1960s, many musicians were caught up in the beat boom and began playing rock and roll, and audiences turned away from jazz. Later in the decade, musicians inspired by American West Coast jazz began playing an Australian version of it, while others returned to the "big band" style.

The latter part of the 20th century saw continuing innovation and diversification in jazz, with some artists coming to fame, like Don Burrows and his protege James Morrison by playing in a more mostly traditional style. Other musicians pursued a style more influenced by bebop and free jazz and this has remained a strong area of activity.

Country music

Main article: Australian country music

Australia has a long tradition of country music, which has developed a style quite distinct from its U.S. counterpart. Waltzing Matilda, often regarded as Australia's unofficial National anthem, is a quintessential Australian country song, influenced more by Celtic folk ballads than by American Country and Western music. This strain of Australian country music, with lyrics focusing on strictly Australian subjects, is generally known as "bush music" or "bush band music." The most successful Australian bush band is Melbourne's Bushwackers, active since the early 1970s.

Another, more Americanized form of Australian country music was pioneered in the 1930s by such recording artists as Tex Morton, and later popularized by Slim Dusty, best remembered for his 1957 song "A Pub With No Beer". In recent years local contemporary country music, featuring much crossover with popular music, has enjoyed considerable popularity in Australia; notable musicians of this genre include Beccy Cole, Gina Jeffries, Lee Kernaghan, Sara Storer, Keith Urban and the hugely successful Kasey Chambers.

Rock and popular music

Main article: Australian rock

Australia has produced a wide variety of popular and rock music. While many musicians and bands (some notable examples include the 1960s successes of The Easybeats and the folk-pop group The Seekers, through the heavy rock of AC/DC, and the slick pop of INXS and more recently Savage Garden) have had considerable international success, there remains some debate over whether Australian popular music really has a distinctive sound. Perhaps the most striking common feature of Australian music, like many other Australian art forms, is the dry, often self-deprecating humor evident in the lyrics.

First wave of Australian rock

Main article: Australian rock

In the mid-1950s, American rockabilly was spreading across the world. Sydney's independent record label Festival Records was the first to get on the bandwagon in Australia, releasing Bill Haley & the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" in 1956. It became the biggest-selling Australian single ever.

Johnny O'Keefe was the first Australian rock star, rising to fame by imitating Americans like Elvis Presley and Little Richard. O'Keefe and other "first wave" bands were popular until about 1961, when a wave of clean-cut family bands took their place.

Though mainstream audiences in the early sixties preferred a clean band, grungier bands inspired by American and British surf, garage and psychedelic rock were appearing major cities, including Sydney and Melbourne. These included The Atlantics and The Denvermen.

Second wave of Australian rock

Main article: Australian rock

The "second wave" of Australian rock is said to have begun in about 1964, with the advent of Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs. There were also cult acts like The Throb, as well as a wave of acts from New Zealand, including Dinah Lee and The La De Das.

Third wave of Australian rock

Main article: Australian rock

The "third wave" of Australian rock began in about 1970 with the last of the early 60s groups dissolving. Few acts from this era got major international success, and it was even difficult to achieve continued fame across Australia, due to low radio airplay.

By the end of the decade, artists like John Paul Young (the first Australian to have an international hit with 1978's "Love Is in the Air") were able to get on Australian radio and had developed a unique sound to Australian rock. One of the reasons for the increased exposure was the success a television show called Countdown as well as the first all-rock radio station Double Jay. Hard rock band AC/DC also found a major audience in the late 70s and early 80s, touring all over the world, while a score of Australian expatriates like Olivia Newton-John and Peter Allen became pop stars.

This period also saws bands like Skyhooks moving towards New Wave, and punk rock bands like The Saints, as well as electronic musical groups, such as Severed Heads and Essendon Airport. Perhaps most influential of the underground scenes, however, was Australian pub rock, which began in Adelaide in the early 1970s with bands like Cold Chisel.


In the 1980s, numerous innovative Australian rock bands arose. These included Hunters & Collectors, perhaps best known for their hit "Throw Your Arms Around Me", Paul Kelly, Hoodoo Gurus, John Farnham and The Go-Betweens. This decade also saw the rise of world music groups like Dead Can Dance; of special important is Yothu Yindi, who helped found the field of Aboriginal rock.

The first annual ARIA Music Awards were held in 1987. John Farnham and Crowded House were the most successful artists of the event.

1990s: indie rock

Main article: Australian indie rock

In the 1990s, the excessives of the 80s provided a bleak backdrop for commercial music, with only bands like AC/DC and INXS able to break into the US/European markets. On the home front, the advert of the indie scene that sprouted power pop bands like RatCat and Falling Joys. There was also success in songwriters like Tom Morgan from Sydney band Smudge collaborating with popular US band The Lemonheads. Morgan was affiliated with the Half A Cow record label which was one of many label/records stores that existed during the 90. Half A Cow owner Nic Dalton also played in The Lemonheads and had his own bands such as Godstar and Sneeze.

American and British alternative music, especially genres like grunge and Britpop became popular towards the mid 90s, leading to the rise of Australian alternative bands included Regurgitator, Powderfinger, Silverchair and The Clouds. During the 90s came the centralisation of many of the independent labels that saw the passing of labels such as Red Eye, Waterfront after the failed attempt by Polydor to provide a commercial outlet to these independent labels.

Industrial and electronic music also saw some fame in the 1990s, especially bands such as The Avalanches, Itch-E and Scratch-E, Severed Heads and Snog. The most internationally popular Australian band of the decade, however, was undoubtedly the electropop duo Savage Garden.

2000s and later

Later in the 1990s, and into the new millennium, garage rock saw a resurgence in Australia, alongside the US and UK. Bands like Jet and The Vines rose to prominence. During this time Australian roots music came to some prominence with artists such as John Butler (leading the John Butler Trio), and The Waifs. Even more popular were female singers-songwriters such as Delta Goodrem and Missy Higgins. Somewhat belatedly, Australian hip hop artists began to receive commercial attention through artists like Hilltop Hoods, MC Trey, Maya Jupiter, 1200 Techniques and The Herd.

See also


  • Breen, Marcus. "The Original Songlines". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 8-19. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

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