A playlist about summer in SydneyBack to
(Photo: Prudence Upton)
Since the very beginning of rock’n’roll Sydney has been one of the great musical hubs of Australia, spawning many of the nation’s greatest successes: Johnny O’Keefe, AC/DC, INXS, Billy Thorpe, Midnight Oil, Divinyls, the Easybeats, the Cruel Sea and literally hundreds of others, who have defined the sound of the city and the wider world.
And like all vibrant cities, Sydney’s also spawned a lot of great music about itself. Here are ten quintessential, summery songs that celebrate the Harbour City.
Well, they’re not all celebrations…
1. Cold Chisel - Breakfast At Sweethearts
The place was also said to be the café of choice for Rudolf Nureyev whenever he was in Sydney. Like so many of Sydney’s landmarks, it’s long since vanished: these days the site is a McDonalds – which is not nearly as grimily romantic.
2. Australian Crawl - Reckless
There’s one thing about this classic Australian song which reminds the listener that Australian Crawl were surfers from Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula rather than commuters in Sydney catching the Manly Ferry to Circular Quay: written down, “quay” and “sway” would appear to rhyme perfectly well, but Sydneysiders know that the city’s ferry hub is actually pronounced like “key”. Still, this lament to a lost love on Sydney Harbour is an Australian classic for a reason: it’s a beautiful song.
3. John Kennedy’s Love Gone Wrong - Miracle in Marrickville
It’s one of the most charming songs about the inner west suburb, which historically was a melting pot of immigrant cultures (a marble quarry lured Italian and Greek masons to the area in the 1800s, while the floodplains of the Cooks River were perfect for Chinese market gardeners) and subsequently became a centre of warehouses and manufacturing.
When Kennedy’s song was written Marrickville was a working class suburb, but these days it’s undergoing very visible gentrification with new apartment developments going up alongside multi-generational delicatessens and Thai restaurants. It’s still a magical sort of a place, mind.
4. Urthboy – Knee Length Socks
Local hip hop artiste Urthboy, aka Tim Levinson, takes the listener on a step back into the early 00s club scene in the then-vibrant Kings Cross – specifically, the retro Britpop club his older brother Matt ran and which the young Tim used to drink in underage while gazing at the indie girls dancing like “perky little penguins”. As someone who used to frequent such clubs myself…yeah, that sounds about right. Ah, good times.
5. Little Pattie - Stompin’ at Maroubra
The Stomp was a short-lived dance fad which worked its magic on Sydneysiders in the early 60s as California surf culture made inroads in the beach-obsessed nation. A wave of songs for and about stomping were released but none contained the sheer level of stompery of Little Pattie’s debut single: He’s My Long Haired Stompie Wompie Real Gone Surfer Boy backed with the equally stomptacular Stompin’ At Maroubra.
The latter was a celebration of the beachside suburb in which Little Pattie (real name Patricia Amphlett, cousin of future Divinyls frontwoman Chrissie Amphlett) and her band the Statesmen regularly performed. These days Maroubra’s a pretty fancy sort of place where residents will most likely discourage rampant stomping – but hey, why not give it a bash?
6. Richard Clapton – Girls on the Avenue
Kings Cross was once the heart of Sydney’s red light district, but now the Potts Point/Darlinghurst area has becoming very chic for luxury developments. So it’s unlikely to inspire future songs about the seedier side of Sydney, such as Paul Kelly’s puntastic Darling it Hurts and Richard Clapton’s classic Girls on the Avenue, which was interpreted as a paean to Sydney streetwalkers – although Clapton insisted at the time that it was actually about girls he saw on The Avenue in Rose Bay. You can make up your own mind.
7. The Whitlams – You Gotta Love this City
For a lot of people, the Whitlams – named after legendarily progressive Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam and led by singer/pianist Tim Freedman – are the definitive poet laureates of the Sydney experience. Their catalogue contains plenty of references to local landmarks (the legendary and much-missed Sandringham Hotel in Newtown in God Drinks at the Sando, the claim that “it never rains in Tempe” in You Sound Like Louis Burdett), but it’s this song that sums up the complicated feelings that so many have for Sydney. Especially the lines, “you’ve gotta love this city / for its body and not its brain”, written in the wake of the takeover by the Olympic Games. Sydney’s a beautiful place, but there are times when she can be bitterly cruel – even (perhaps especially) to the ones that love her most.
8. You Am I – Purple Sneakers
Guitarist/songwriter Tim Rogers is a man whose lyrics are anchored to geography, whether it’s the Town Hall steps in If We Can’t Get It Together, or describing howling jets coming in to land as “birds of the inner west” in his solo song Under the Flightpath. But the achingly beautiful Purple Sneakers is especially memorable, not least because the opening lines “Had a scratch only you could itch / Underneath the Glebe Point bridge” were rendered inaccurate when the structure was renamed Anzac Bridge upon opening, making the song a hymn to a Sydney of an alternate universe, still filled with romance and illicit love.
9. Camperdown and Out – Manly
You get two for the price of one with this lo-fi band, since their name is a tribute to the enclave of Camperdown, while the song celebrates the beach that’s only a ferry ride from the very same Circular Quay mentioned in Reckless. It’s also a nice nod to the rarely acknowledged fact that our City of Villages is weirdly parochial: a band from Camperdown in the inner west would genuinely find a trip to a north side beach like Manly a bit of an exotic treat.
10. Midnight Oil – Wedding Cake Island
The Oils weren’t always a searingly political band: when they started out they were basically a rockin’ surf band playing the clubs and RSLs of the northern beaches. Wedding Cake Island is one of their early favourites – an evocative instrumental named after the island lying approximately one kilometre off the coast of Coogee (the name is derived from the flat, sheet-cake shape and the way the surf breaks over it like icing), which is also the site of an annual pilgrimage by surfers on Anzac Day. It’s a great place to scuba dive too, but be warned: it’s a much, much longer swim than it looks.
Andrew P Street is a Sydney-based, Adelaide-built journalist, columnist, author, editor and broadcaster. You can read his work in Rolling Stone, Time Out, the Guardian, NME, GQ, Elle, Australian Guitar, Blunt, The Big Issue, The Vine, King’s Tribune, Cosmos, Popular Science, the Sunday Telegraph, and also in his regular column in the Sydney Morning Herald.