A trip through the booze-fuelled golden era of Australian rock.
It’s no big secret that as a whole, Australians are pretty keen on pubs. This is a truth that’s unavoidable regardless of whether you’re a craft beer sipping artisan in the inner suburbs or a rural XXXX-bashing bogan, and if there’s anything that pairs nicely with a few froths, it’s pub rock.
Emerging in the early 1970s through the likes of Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs and further shaped throughout the ’80s by noted producer Mark Opitz, pub rock can be best characterised as rudimentary rock with a heavy backbeat and simple lead lines, with vocalists placing an emphasis on catchy lines for audiences to drunkenly shout back at them.
Given the incredulous amounts of alcohol being consumed at these shows, pub rock punters tended to care less about the stature of the band performing and more about the accessibility of their music, which gave birth to a great gamut of rock anthems that continue to dominate Australian radio even to this day.
Of course, many of the records released during Australia’s pub rock era can easily be criticised for their overtly loutish lyrics and mundane compositions – but they prove to be an essential part of the story of Australian music nonetheless.
Today, we’re casting our minds back to the glory days of beer gardens and sticky bathroom floors, revisiting 15 of the best records from Australia’s pub rock era in the ’70s and ’80s.
- Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, groups like Cold Chisel, The Angels, Divinyls and Hunters & Collectors pioneered an energetic rock ‘n roll that perfectly suited the boozy pubs they were often playing in.
- Other trailblazers from the pub era included Spy V. Spy, The Radiators, Rose Tattoo and The Cockroaches.
- Pub rock would later give way in the early ’90s as grunge and alternative styles began to rise to the forefront of musical culture.
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Australian Crawl – Boys Light Up (1980)
A certified classic, by all accounts. ‘Downhearted’ has got to be one of the most underrated heartbreak jams of its era, ‘Beautiful People’ is easily one of the best Aussie debut singles ever, and nothing will spill a freshly poured schooner quite like the rush to the dance floor of a country pub when the romper stomper rhythm of the title track kicks off, which is also the best (and only) song to ever use the word ‘dorseted’.
Hoodoo Gurus – Mars Needs Guitars (1985)
They mightn’t have attained the same level of success as some of their contemporaries, but you can’t deny the Hoodoo Gurus were one hell of a band. While their biggest hit might’ve come two years later with ‘What’s My Scene’, it’s their 1985 effort Mars Needs Guitars which is most emblematic of their pub rock prowess, with songs like ‘Bittersweet’, ‘Death Defying’ and ‘Like Wow – Wipeout!’ demonstrating the power of their uncluttered, no-fuss brand of rock ’n roll.
The Angels – Face To Face (1978)
As one of the more hard-edged groups on Australia’s pub rock scene, The Angels’ blend of rowdy punk, classic rock and just a dash of heavy metal proved to be pure moshpit ethanol with audiences at the height of their powers. While their biggest hit to date is still their iconic debut single ‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again’, it’s undeniable their best long-player is 1978’s Face To Face, featuring seminal live cuts like ‘After The Rain’ and ‘Take A Long Time’.
The Radiators – Feel The Heat (1979)
The Radiators are the original archetype of a Aussie pub-rock band: the guitar tones are raucous, the harmonies are perfect for sloppy singalongs, and there’s plenty of those weird little lead synth lines that just never fail to make audiences go bonkers. 1979’s Feel The Heat features all these elements in abundance, with the Sydney outfit gigging the absolute shit out of the album to make sure it was firmly embedded as a classic of its era within the minds of their fans.
Midnight Oil – 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, ,1 (1982)
Possibly the best political pub rock record of the bunch, Midnight Oil’s fourth studio album asserted them as a force to be reckoned with among their contemporaries and audiences, who took to the band’s immediately accessible songwriting and Peter Garrett’s passionate lyricism in droves. ‘Power and the Passion’ is an all-time classic, and ‘US Forces’ is still supremely underrated.
Divinyls – Desperate (1983)
Fuelled by the breakout success of their debut single ‘Boys In Town’ two years prior, Desperate proved to be the record that would really assert Chrissy Amphlett and McEntee’s pedigree on the live scene. Featuring two of the greatest Divinyls tracks ever in the form of ‘Science Fiction’ and ‘Casual Encounter’, Desperate ended up peaking at #5 on Australia’s albums chart, and set up the band for a further decade of chart dominance.
Rose Tattoo – Scarred For Life (1982)
Best known for featuring the fist-pumping Aussie rock standard ‘We Can’t Be Beaten’, Scarred For Life is pub-rock at its rowdiest, with each track decked out with boozy slide guitar riffs, rollicking rhythms and frontman Angry Anderson’s trademark growls. Like a drunken toasted sandwich after midnight, Scarred For Life is rather cheesy and a bit stale by today’s standards – but that doesn’t stop it from being the highlight of any night out.
Cold Chisel – East (1980)
To be fair, any one of Cold Chisel’s albums could’ve ended up on this list – these guys were the rulers of the roost in Australia’s pub rock heyday, and their early output is considered as godly among most listeners. Of course, nothing will get a pub beer garden surging quite like ‘Khe Sanh’, but if you had to pick one standout long-player from their discography, East has got to be the one. ‘Choir Girl’ and ‘Cheap Wine’ are the big singles, but beneath the surface, it’s album tracks like ‘Standing On The Outside’ and ‘Ita’ that seal the deal here.
Mental As Anything – Fundamental (1985)
Mental As Anything probably represent the more poppy side of Australia’s pub rock output, but they’re a quintessential inclusion into this list regardless. Fundamental, or Fundamental As Anything, sees the band at their most tongue-in-cheek, with songs like ‘Surf & Mull & Sex & Fun’ putting a distinctively Aussie larrikin twist on new wave to make for a endlessly enjoyable ‘80s party anthem.
The Choirboys – Big Bad Noise (1988)
During what seemed to be the final glory days of pub-rock, The Choirboys released an anthem that seemingly revived the genre to make sure it saw out the decade – the ecstatic ‘Run To Paradise’. However, it wasn’t the only notable track to come from the Sydney band’s sophomore effort Big Bad Noise: ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ and ‘Struggle Town’ also achieved chart success, and helped make sure the countless years The Choirboys had spent on Sydney’s pub circuit were worth it in the end.
Spy Vs. Spy – Harry’s Reasons (1986)
Named for the iconic Mad Magazine comic of the same name, Spy Vs. Spy proved to be a fresh breath of air for many Aussie pub-rock punters, with the band’s ska-inspired sound and lyrics about xenophobia, homelessness and drug use cutting through amid an era of down-strummed, distortion-laden oi-oi-oi rock ’n roll. Harry’s Reasons might’ve been their less commercially successful effort, but with tracks like ‘Injustice’ and ‘All Over The World’, it’s certainly their most potent release.
INXS – Shabooh Shoobah (1982)
Before they became the stadium-packing, chart-dominating superstars we tend to remember them as, INXS were just another Sydney pub rock group hunting for success in the early ‘80s. Shabooh Shoobah, which proved to be their breakthrough effort when released in 1982, saw the band hone in their song craft with tracks like ‘The One Thing’ and ‘Don’t Change’, the huge hook of the latter only hinting at the superstars they’d soon become.
Hunters & Collectors – Human Frailty (1986)
Eschewing the arty punk-funk of their previous releases, Hunters & Collectors’ 1986 album Human Frailty saw Mark Seymour really come into his own as a songwriter, penning some of the best anthems of the pub rock era with ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ and ‘Say Goodbye’. Some of the guitar playing on this album is sorely overlooked, and the rollicking power of John Archer and Doug Falconer’s drum and bass playing is also worth a note of its own.
Cockroaches – The Cockroaches (1987)
Once dubbed ‘the hardest working rock ’n roll band in the country’ due to their habit of playing at least 300 gigs a year, Sydney outfit The Cockroaches made a name for themselves with their eponymous debut in 1987, featuring cuts like ‘She’s The One’ and ‘Some Kind Of Girl’. While The Cockies have a fair share of fans in their own right, the band is best known for featuring Anthony Field and Jeff Fatt, who would later rework many of their former band’s songs in a more kid-friendly manner for their new group, The Wiggles.
Crowded House – Crowded House (1987)
Look, it’s debatable as to whether Crowded House can really be grouped into the pub rock category, and we all know that the Finn brothers are actually from New Zealand, but I’m not going to run the risk of not including them and having the comments section come down over my head. Plus, this album features two of the greatest songs of all time with ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ and ‘Something So Strong’. It mightn’t be strictly ‘pub rock’, but Crowded House will certainly make a pub rock – that much is a given.
Witness the story of Australian pub rock in the flesh with the National Portrait Gallery’s free photography exhibition.