Australian album art in the 80s part 4: Let there be rock!
There are few more uniquely Australian musical exports than pub rock. For the uninitiated (all two of you) the term has a fairly literal meaning – rock music, that is played in pubs. More specifically the hot, sweaty, beer-stained inner-city and suburban pubs of Australia. The beloved institutions that become second homes to locals, for the better part of their adult lives.
Up until the 70s most live music in Australia was held in non-licensed venues such as churches and community halls. It wasn’t until the baby boomers began to come of age and governments began to loosen their restrictive licensing laws that public bars even began to resemble today’s pubs. In the early days of pub rock, owners began providing live music for free, to draw in crowds. This saw an influx of new Australian bands, many of whom would go on to national and international stardom. Pubs like the Civic Hotel in Sydney, the infamous Star Hotel in Newcastle and The Station in Melbourne helped to create a circuit for bands, allowing them to travel up and down the east coast of Australia and as the pub rock phenomenon exploded, they were able to travel further west to the other capital cities.
The venues were small, the crowds were drunk and the style was no frills, high octane rock ‘n’ roll. There were very few solos or histrionics, just fist pumping and head banging anthems for those unforgettable nights that you just can’t seem to remember.
Cold Chisel live at the Star Hotel 1981
From the late 70s to the early 90s there were hundreds of bands that emerged from the pub rock scene. Many of them didn’t go anywhere beyond a few shows, others are still with us today. Leading the charge in the 80s were perennial favourites Cold Chisel, who mixed political angst with working class machismo and turned it into art. ‘Swingshift’, their 1981 live album, captures singer Jimmy Barnes on stage, mid-song, and really encapsulates the essence of not only the band’s sound and personality, but the energy and atmosphere of an 80s pub rock show.
The photo was taken during the band’s 1980 ‘Youth In Asia’ tour (also where the album was recorded) which saw the band play an astounding 64 dates in 15 cities over 88 days. The name ‘swingshift’ was so chosen, according to the band, for being the midnight to dawn shift in mental asylums, the shift that staff dread as it’s usually when the inmates are at their most out of control.
Before Jay Z, Metallica and Prince, there was AC/DC who released ‘Back In Black’ in 1980 – their first studio album after the death of singer and founding member Bon Scott. The cover features little more than the band’s logo and album titled embossed on a jet-black cover, and was designed by long-time collaborator Bob Defrin. It’s a striking way to commemorate the passing of a beloved member, and the beginning of a new era. AC/DC are arguably the most successful and influential pub rock band of all time and they continue to be one of the most profitable touring bands in the world. ‘Back In Black’ itself is one of the highest selling records of all time, and is commonly regarded as one of the best rock albums ever recorded. Quite a feat for a little group from Sydney who cut their teeth in the early days like so many others.
Another big name in pub rock from Adelaide, The Angels released a similarly classic and starkly designed record in 1980. Dark Room features the band’s name and album title running along the entire top and bottom of the cover (set in album art go-to font Eurostile Wide) and peering out from the darkness are a pair of eyes, possibly belonging to singer Doc Neeson. It’s an eerie and striking image and the influence the cover art seems to have extended far and wide, most notably with defunct stoner rock group Tumbleweed paying tribute on their 2000 swan-song ‘Mumbo Jumbo’.
Not all pub rock is about screaming into a microphone and sweating on the front row though, and by the end of the decade the sound and the the style had definitely evolved. INXS helped usher in a new era of cool with their skateboards & leather cover for 1987s ‘Kick’. While the traditional pub rock scene was still thriving, INXS and others had began to break away into a movement that was more concerned with fashion than fist-fighting. Designed by Nick Egan (who also photographed the band and directed a number of their music videos) it really captures the zeitgeist of the late 80s, taking its cues from youth and street culture.
We take quite a big jump across rock ‘n’ roll in the 80s, from the early riotous rock ‘n’ rollers to the image conscious and disaffected bands that round out the decade, but ultimately the principle stays the same – people playing loud music for people who love to listen to it. The pub rock and live music scene have taken some serious blows over the last few decades, from the proliferation of poker machines to the changing liquor and noise restriction laws, and so there are increasingly fewer opportunities for new and unknown bands to play. Just think how different the music industry would be now if AC/DC and INXS had never been given the chance to play outside the garage.