The best Australian books on music

Clinton Walker Author Of Stranded
By Clinton Walker

Who am I?

I am an art school dropout and recovering rock critic who, since 1981, has published a dozen books on Australian music and popular culture, plus worked extensively in television and as a freelance journalist. I'm too old to be called an enfant terrible, but with the way I still seem to be able to court controversy, I must remain some sort of loose cannon! Sydney’s Sun-Herald has called me "our best chronicler of Australian grass-roots culture," and that’s a tag I’m flattered by but which does get at what I’ve always been interested in. I consider myself a historian who finds resonances where most don’t even bother to look, in our own backyard, yesterday, and the fact that so much of my backlist including Inner City Sound, Highway to Hell, Buried Country, Golden Miles, History is Made at Night, and Stranded are still in print, I take as vindication I’m on the right track…


I wrote...

Stranded

By Clinton Walker,

Book cover of Stranded

What is my book about?

Stranded is a cultural history of the Australian independent music scene that was spawned by the DIY punk movement in the late 70s and grew even despite resistance in the 1980s, up to a belated breakthrough in the early 90s thanks to the grunge realignment of the aesthetics of rock. It’s a blend of reportage, oral history, memoir, and criticism. When it was first published in 1996, it was considered somewhat contentious for its non-populist vision. What it was was prescient, putting its money on acts like Nick Cave, the Go-Betweens, and the Triffids who were so spurned in Australia in the 80s that they were forced into exile in Europe – and are now considered, worldwide, among the most enduring products of the period. After two decades out of print during which time the book’s legend only grew, it has just been re-released in 2021 in a new, expanded edition by the Visible Spectrum. 

The books I picked & why

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The Countdown Years 1974 - 1987: Glad All Over

By Peter Wilmoth,

Book cover of The Countdown Years 1974 - 1987: Glad All Over

Why this book?

Every Sunday night for nearly a decade between the mid-70s and early 80s, most young Australians could be found in one place – in front of the TV, watching Countdown. Countdown was the most powerful force in the local pop/rock scene, the maker and breaker of hits. Published in 1993 in the afterglow of the show’s long run, Glad All Over, by former Age journalist Peter Wilmoth, is an appropriately loving tribute, which includes acknowledging the many (like me!) who loved to hate the show but still always watched it! As mostly oral history, it’s a sparkling story, and if the Countdown phenomenon still begs harder analysis – because as much as it was a great booster for Australian music, it actually blocked just as much – that’s the nature of a new historiography: the field has to get opened up first, and then is subject to increasingly probing examination…

Pig City

By Andrew Stafford,

Book cover of Pig City

Why this book?

Cultural history is now a book business-standard. That wasn’t always the case. For me myself, I had to read Otto Freidrich’s City of Nets (1987) and Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming (1992) before I could properly formulate my 1996 book Stranded. Stalwart rock journalist Andrew Stafford’s debut book from 2004, Pig City, is a cultural history of the Brisbane music scene ‘from the Saints to Savage Garden’, which makes it a regional history too. What makes it gripping, next Stafford’s deft handling of the material, is the story itself, which is not just that of an erstwhile backwater finally coming of age, but up against and overcoming the oppressive jackboots of Queensland state premier, ‘hillbilly dictator’ Joh Bjelke-Peterson. Happily, that era is now long past, and BrisVegas is today a great music town; but wouldn’t have become so without the long struggle so vividly portrayed here.

Down Under

By Trevor Conomy,

Book cover of Down Under

Why this book?

Sometimes a book comes completely out of nowhere. Such was the case with Trevor Conomy’s Down Under. Conomy was not an author with a pedigree in music journalism or anything like that, but when Down Under came out, in 2015, it spoke for itself. The life story of a song – Melbourne pub band Men At Work’s “Down Under” – what makes the book compelling is not so much the story of its fluky success, when in 1982 it become a huge hit all round the world, but rather the aftermath: How more than a quarter-century later the song went to court against a copyright infringement claim. That it lost the case was a travesty and a human tragedy, and Conomy’s short, punchy little book reveals why in all its gory detail.


The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist: America's Lost Musical Genius

By Deirdre O'Connell,

Book cover of The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist: America's Lost Musical Genius

Why this book?

This book illustrates why this list had to be called the best Australian books about music. Because it’s an Australian author writing about an American musician. This is an exchange that works both ways: just this year, British musician/author Tracy Thorn published a book about Go-Betweens drummer Lindy Morrison, called My Rock’n’Roll Friend. Blind Tom is a biography of slave pianist Tom Wiggins, one of the first African-American musicians to crossover to success with white audiences, and remarkably he had not been so accounted for until Deidre O’Connell took up the cudgels. O’Connell is an academic, but thankfully doesn’t write like one, and this her first and thus far only book is totally engrossing. I hope she writes some more.


Wild about You!: The Sixties Beat Explosion in Australia and New Zealand

By Ian D. Marks (editor), Iain McIntyre (editor),

Book cover of Wild about You!: The Sixties Beat Explosion in Australia and New Zealand

Why this book?

There’s a genre of music books, in which I plead guilty to form, that is almost scrapbook-like, that mixes and matches elements to make, at best, a seamless blend of words and images, the sort of book that is a work of art in its own right like you used to find buried down the back of the aisles at counter-culture bookstores. Wild About You is the concept writ large, perhaps not least because editors Iain McIntyre and Ian D. Marks went through a couple of other similar-styled books before getting it quite so right with this one. As a portrait of the post-Beatles beat boom in Australasia in the 60s, it is definitive, written with vibrancy and beautiful and evocative for its illustrations and design. I’m still waiting for this dynamic duo to move onto the 70s!


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