Examining the flipside of Australian musicby Martin Boulton
Wendy Saddington was a trailblazer for women in the Australian music industry. Her name still resonates with those fortunate enough to see her prowl stages in the late 1960s, early `70s and sporadically in later life.
Witnesses would tell of a voice that was a force of nature and it's those up-close, in-the-flesh recollections of Saddington that count for so much because she never recorded a studio album.
Saddington's "big, bluesy, soulful voice was distinctive," writes Julie Rickwood in An Anthology of Australian Albums: Critical Engagements, a new book co-edited by Professor Jon Stratton that throws a spotlight on 15 albums that might not have set the charts on fire, yet have each made significant impacts on Australia's diverse musical, cultural and social landscape.
Stratton has a sociology background, in particular in cultural studies with a focus on race and multiculturalism. He's also a huge music fan and contributes three chapters to the book.
"This collection is really unusual in the Australian music tradition," he says. "It doesn’t focus on those albums which are most popular, or even those albums that are in some way considered to be most significant in terms of mainstream attention.
"Alongside some under-appreciated records from white men, this book features a lot of albums by women and a lot of albums from ethnically diverse artists, many of whom are often left out of mainstream accounts of Australian music."
Rickwood's chapter on Saddington, who drew comparisons to Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, looks back to a live album from 1971 by Jeff St John's band Copperwine. Saddington refused to play by anyone's rules and moved "from band to band, driven by a desire to find musicians who could support her unique voice," according to Rickwood.
Stratton says Saddington was treated poorly by the Australian music industry but helped pave the way for singers such as Renee Geyer and Chrissie Amphlett during a time when the industry "couldn’t handle having a strong woman with an extraordinary rock voice".
"The industry in Australia, historically, has been so white and so male … and you get these artists like Wendy Saddington who struggled so hard to make a name for herself," he says.
Rather than landmark albums by the Easybeats, AC/DC, INXS or Kylie Minogue, which launched careers at home and abroad, the book delves deep into albums by the Missing Links, the Scientists, the Drones, Coloured Balls and more, charting the reasons for their compelling, albeit relatively unheralded impact.
Sia, Courtney Barnett, Flume and Dami Im have all reached international audiences in recent years and their albums also come under the microscope in great detail, both in terms of their popularity and cultural shifts.
Stratton's chapter on the Scientists' album, Blood Red River, describes it as "a statement of intent" from founding member Kim Salmon, who forged a long career in music that's influenced some of the world's best known rock bands.
"My personal story, in relation to Blood Red River, starts when I came to Australia in the early 1980s," Stratton says. "I was gobsmacked at Australian rock music. In England, what had I heard? The Seekers and Rolf Harris, so to come here and discover this amazing rock music. I had no idea about the depth and quality and the innovation of Australian music. When I came across the Scientists and Blood Red River, it’s like wow, this is amazing.
"A lot of the book is premised in ideas about diversity and difference. The dominant canon of Australian popular music is basically white and male and what we wanted to do was say 'no, it’s much broader than that'. A lot of women have been involved in popular music, increasingly people of colour have been involved and Indigenous artists. It’s not just this narrow tradition."
A.B. Original's album Reclaim Australia was released at a time when debate around celebrating Australia Day on January 26 had reached fever pitch.
Hoodoo Gurus frontman Dave Faulkner described it as a cultural landmark and "angry, funny, heartfelt, slamming hip hop music ... that takes its inspiration from `90s gangsta rap, and filters it through a modern Aboriginal perspective" when announcing it had won 2016's prestigious Australian Music Prize.
Suzie Hutchings and Dianne Rodger, who wrote the chapter on A.B. Original, say Reclaim Australia addresses "complex and distressing social issues including Indigenous-Australian deaths in custody and high mortality rates, police brutality, racial profiling ... and ultimately the failure of many Australians to acknowledge Indigenous-Australian traditions" and all this "with a mix of light-
hearted banter, witty lines and brutal honesty".
"We've come a long way," says Stratton, in terms of the "blossoming out" of music in Australia, partly due to new technologies but largely through the increasing diversity within Australia's population.
"Up until now, not much has been written to reflect that shift," he says. "Since the early 2000s, the Australian music landscape has been changing, with a much greater recognition and respect for music from non-white, non-male artists."