What’s the difference between a rock star and a pop star?
Australia has produced only six true rock stars
- 1 of 2
- next ›
April 1981. The Brisbane-based band The Go-Betweens, with whom I am a vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, are in Sydney to record a single. We are staying with friends in Darlinghurst, and early on a Sunday morning I go for a walk. The sun is up and the sky is cloudless and pale blue. There is a crystal quality to the air, as if night rain has washed the muck from the city and with it the shouts and drunkenness of a Kings Cross Saturday night, to deliver a morning that is blissful and still. I turn a corner and face a street with the slight curl of a horseshoe to its shape, lined with an impressive run of terrace houses. As I proceed, I see at the far end of the street, 80 or 90 metres away, a tall, thin man approaching. We are like two gunfighters in a Western, advancing from either end of town. The drama of this little scene reinforced by the fact that no one else is around. We keep on walking and when he is about 20 metres away, I realise that the person in view, sharing this early morning street with me, is Marc Hunter, the lead singer of Dragon. He is an inch taller than my six foot three, his black hair is short with a red streak, his high-cheek-boned, feline face is handsome and relaxed, and he is wearing a black velvet jacket, open shirt and tight jeans. He is ramrod straight and his chin is high. He looks fucking incredible. I have just had time to clock all this when he is upon me, giving a nod and a smile as he passes. I know that he doesn’t know who I am. Another realisation comes seconds later, a mental zap that he has sent from his mind to mine. I get it. Being a rock star is a 24-hour-a-day job.
He didn’t have to look so good so early – he just can’t help it. There could have been a stage and 10,000 people positioned at the end of the street, and he wouldn’t have had to break stride – a check of the hair, perhaps – to strut to the microphone and perform a full show with his band. He was prepared and it wasn’t just the clothing – it was something more important than that, easy to miss when blinded by the bling and clichés of rock stardom, the limousines, entourage, groupies, the tattoos and luxury hotels – it’s to do with attitude. A haughtiness, a regal grab at life, a mood, that doesn’t just come on at six o’clock in the evening when showtime is close. Rock stars are ready at breakfast. He was probably only going to the shop to get milk and the paper, and yet there could have been a gaggle of teenage fans waiting at the corner – the ego allows for that situation – or a passing stranger like me, and he wasn’t going to let us down; we’d get the full show too – even at 7 am. That’s the lesson he flashed in passing, and if I hadn’t have been there, he would have been looking as good, still happy to groove on his own aura. Because there is one other generalisation that can be made about rock stars – and this I learnt later, and not through personal experience, but from general observation – despite all the love they get, and the adulation they inspire, there is only one person they truly love. One person and one person only. Themselves.
The Hunter episode and other musings on rock and pop stars came to mind in late 2013 with the release of Rock Country, a compendium of Australian-related rock-culture essays edited by Christian Ryan. It’s an impressive book, in spite of its nonsensical title, and one that dispenses with the conventions of rock-history chronology and worthiness in favour of a hip sideways glance involving “feel” and fandom. Highlights include Malcolm Knox’s tribute to the Sebel Townhouse in Sydney’s rock and entertainment history, Clinton Walker’s ode to Barry Gibb, and Tony Wilson’s tracking down of Keith Richards’ Melbourne “wife” from The Rolling Stones’ 1973 Australian tour (spoiler: her name is Karen and she lives in beachside Caloundra, north of Brisbane). Amid much to marvel at, one lengthy feature, however, annoyed me, with its assumptions, methods of assessment and conclusions – at best questionable, at worst plain wrong. Editor Ryan is a provocateur: “This book does not play safe,” he writes in the introduction; its aim is to skittle assumptions and generate debate. A 55-page centrepiece, ‘Five Greatest Australian Rock (& Pop) Stars’, certainly does that.
The problem starts with the title. Imagine ‘Five Greatest Australian Red (& White) Wines’ or ‘Five Greatest Australian Movie (& Stage) Actors’. It’s like trying to cram two beasts into a cage and sell it as one animal. Although music is the common denominator, there are enormous differences between rock and pop stars (the rock star, by the way, is the red wine, and the pop star the white), and each deserves their own list. Ryan, perhaps wanting to have it both ways, gathered the votes of 78 musicians, from bands as disparate as The Easybeats and John Butler Trio, to arrive at a top five ‘Rock (& Pop) Stars’ list. The result is a fudge, skewed by the votes of the older acts, predominantly pop, who favour ’60s and ’70s artists, and by the inherently blurred terms of the exercise. In an effort to clarify, I shall proffer a list of my own, entitled ‘Australia Has Produced Six Genuine Rock Stars And Here They Are’.
Before considering the lists, though, a few observations are in order, beginning with this one: the worth and work of the pop star equals the worth and work of the rock star. That is, rock shouldn’t look down on pop. Kylie Minogue couldn’t belt out Spiderbait’s ‘Black Betty’, and Angry Anderson, for all his outlaw credentials, couldn’t do ‘Love Is in the Air’ with any of the craft and beauty of John Paul Young. Pop singing is an art. In the late ’60s, it was cathedral-sized: listen to Normie Rowe sing ‘It’s Not Easy’, or Ross D Wyllie ‘The Star’, or Colleen Hewett ‘Superstar’, and that carries through today to Gabriella Cilmi’s cracking tones on ‘Sweet About Me’, or Lorde soaring on ‘Royals’. But the pop world, frivolous and fashion-driven, with a target audience of pre-teen girls, plays against the credibility of its own artists.
Pop stars are invariably solo artists: the companionship and fortification that rock stars gain from their bands is mirrored in the pop star’s symbiotic relationship to management, record producer and record company. And a pop star’s career and life are ruled by the charts. A pop star with a record this week at number three is a much happier person than if it were at 23, and if the new record doesn’t make either spot, the singer will be found curled up in bed, crying under the covers, unwilling to leave the house. Pop stars are vain, fragile and skittish, knowing that survival depends on exploitation of their two finest qualities, their voice and looks, in a system that seemingly decides hit records at random. Pop stars of both sexes are also pretty, and the creation of “looks” and the maintenance of youth are of utmost importance. For the rock star, who is invariably the best-looking guy in the band, the charts are of far less significance – worth a glance, but more important is the mirror, and the look of wonder and envy elicited when walking into a room. Their confidence also comes from having far greater control over their careers: if they fall on their arse, or an album bombs, then they can always tour, do another album, instruct the songwriters in the group to buck up their act. All the while they are on drugs anyway, and know, whether stoned or straight, that everyone’s in love with them and sex will not be a problem. In the public eye, the pop star is the gazelle, the rock star the panther – which is why the world went crazy when Kylie and Michael Hutchence stepped out together as a couple.
So to our lists. The Rock Country top five is topped by Hutchence. He is on my list, too: the lead singer of INXS certainly had the swagger, even if his talents tended to the lightweight. More on him later. At number two is John Farnham, a pop star, the greatest this country has produced. He began his career as Johnny Farnham, with a number one record, ‘Sadie (The Cleaning Lady)’, in 1967, only to see his fortunes fade in the mid ’70s, when he accepted the fate of many a falling star of the era – to sing your songs at RSL clubs in a burgundy velvet suit. Desperate in 1981, he joined a rock group, Little River Band, but the pop star and the rock band didn’t “take” (they often don’t), and with manager Glenn Wheatley as confidant and financier he became a solo artist again, releasing a single ‘You’re the Voice’ and album Whispering Jack to achieve every pop star’s dream of having two records at number one. At number three is Bon Scott. Where do you put him? In the late ’60s he was a pop star in The Valentines. In 1970 he was a hippie, singing and playing recorder in Fraternity – Adelaide’s answer to The Band. It wasn’t until 1974, when he was 28, that he joined AC/DC, and what were they at the time? A churning glam act. Bon, before joining, reputedly wondered if they were “rock enough”. AC/DC’s lead singer, shirtless in his ball-hugging jeans, is hard to categorise; there is gravel in his voice and the devil in his eye, and yet there he is on Countdown in schoolgirl drag, up for some Molly-inspired pantomime and laughs. Rock or pop? The jury is still out on Bon.
At four is Johnny O’Keefe, a ’50s rock ’n’ roll singer and a Farnham mentor. He’s another pop star and one whose career highlights (‘She’s My Baby’ from 1959, still one of the great vocals) were recorded before rock music and culture was dreamt into existence by the lyrics of Bob Dylan, the singles of The Who and a fledgling underground press in late 1965. O’Keefe, with his pills and car crashes, certainly lived on the edge, but stays in the pop firmament, reluctantly forced off centre-stage by The Beatles, who before 1966 were pop stars. Last on the Rock Country list is another artist on mine: Chrissy Amphlett. Star power and attitude are on high wattage for the lead singer of Divinyls; more on her later.
My list is a corrective to that of Rock Country: it contains six rock stars, all of them lead singers of bands, two pairs from recent decades, followed by a performer most prominent in the ’70s, and finally, one from the ’60s – the father of Australia rock stardom, the One who started it all, who in Rock Country’s poll of 78 famous musicians did not garner a single vote. So, what are my criteria? Because rock stars are commended for their outlandish and eccentric behaviour, it is difficult not to be guided by these same qualities when compiling a list of them. Respectability is banished. Good looks take you a mile. The ability to construct an alternate universe with yourself as the burning sun, a virtue. The doe-like nerves of the pop star are nowhere to be found. Instead, a rock star is forever cocked, screams and glory their everyday, with time between a dull wait before the next round of love.
Nick Cave and Tex Perkins are my first pair. One the high priest, the other the low. Both imposing, both creatures of the stage, with voices and charisma that transfix audiences. Cave, with perhaps the highest international profile of any of the nominees, and as commanding a performer and artist as any, is a shoo-in, you would think, when constructing any rock-star list. Yet he comes in ninth in the Rock Country list, behind Kylie Minogue. Cave, bespoke-suited, jewel-encrusted, with the appearance of not doubting anything he does, has to be there. Perkins is a harder sell: there’s no footage of him playing to 75,000 people at Wembley Stadium, as there is for Hutchence. With Tex, it’s attitude, backed by a square-jawed feral handsomeness and a growl that elevates him above many other famous lead singers. Ten years ago, I spotted him at the bottom of Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall; no finery, just a T-shirt, black jeans and black thongs, the mane of thick hair, a rangey bodgie prince. He doesn’t need gold records to stroke his ego; as with Marc Hunter, there could have been a stage around the corner, and a crowd waiting for Perkins to grab the mic, crouch and take command. Ready in his way.
Being rock stars in the ’80s, Michael Hutchence and Chrissy Amphlett did not lack hits and large audiences: it was a decade when decadence and money (catnip for rock stars) were abundant, and major-label albums came with three videos, enshrining the singer’s dominance in pouty close-ups, then cutting away to the decade’s visual cliché – a vase of flowers crashing to the floor in slow motion. Hutchence is the pin-up boy of the era (he’s on the cover of Rock Country) and bestrode it with élan; he’s on my list for recklessness and narcissism alone (though in person he was charming and gracious). Some generous critics tend to overlook his borrowings from Mick Jagger and other rock frontmen when assessing his talents. While he was lauded as a performer, his greatest strength was as a vocalist, sliding his breathy lyrics between Andrew Farriss’s Chic/Talking Heads riffs and anchoring ‘Never Tear Us Apart’. As for Chrissy, it’s all to do with her presence, and where Hutchence leans to type, she is singular. The rock-star trappings are there, of course, and her ability to lead a band and be the focus on stage is unquestionable – vampire teeth, rock-girl haircut and the schoolgirl uniform that is more pinafore or nurse. Remember also that she was an actress, and with her jutted elbows and bewitching facial expressions she created a performance style, an “otherness” essential to the rock star.
Hunter we know and adore, and he is the reason the borders of my list stretch to New Zealand – although Dragon’s career and success were primarily built in Australia. The band were prominent in the boom years of Countdown, from 1974 to 1984, when the show set much of the pop agenda, and acts played to the nation before a dance-floor audience of 200 teenage girls and Molly Meldrum. Hunter, with his self-possession, aloofness and danger, navigated the line between pleasing that audience and distancing himself from the other singers who could also be considered rock stars. What stops the elevation of Jimmy Barnes and Doc Neeson, and in the next decade the best-looking boys in their bands, James Reyne and Mark Seymour, is a set of competing notions concerning the streak of egalitarianism in the Australian character, the ruthless levelling of ego on the pub-rock circuit, and the simple wish of lead singers to remain with their mates and not be poncing about in front of them. In the early ’90s, from the ashes of grunge (an anti–rock star movement) rose Silverchair’s Daniel Johns and You Am I’s Tim Rogers, essentially glamorous singer-songwriters, bound in performance by their guitars. One strutting, charismatic rooster did emerge from the era, Bernard Fanning, but he and his band, Powderfinger, were adamant during their ten-year reign as the biggest band in the land that they were not to be regarded as rock stars. Ego was a dirty word, an understandable and decent stance. It is also the reason why we have to jump back to the late ’60s, when things ran wild, to find one lead singer happy to shake his moneymaker in front of his band and stare down the barrel of a TV camera, thinking, “I’m beautiful.” It was Jim Keays.
The long-time music journalist and compiler of Australia’s first national Top 40, Ed Nimmervoll, once remarked that pop stars such as Johnny Farnham and Ronnie Burns were marketed and groomed to be the sort of young men that a girl of the late ’60s would be happy to bring home and introduce to her parents. A mother of the time would have only had to take one look at Jim Keays to know what had walked in the door. TROUBLE. He was the lead singer of The Masters Apprentices, and he was handsome, stylish in all the fashion phases of the era, and the possessor of the finest hair (male or female) in the history of Australian rock; enough already to etch his name into the pantheon. Keays, like Hunter and Hutchence, his heirs, exuded a preeny self-confidence and a smirking good humour; he was happy to go along with the ridiculous ritual of miming to his band’s increasingly heavy-sounding hits, while incorporating into the performance the fact that there was only one true object of his adoration – himself. The group moved to London in 1970, where they recorded their most famous song, ‘Because I Love You’, a clip of which, shot in a studio and on a foggy Hampstead Heath, is not only one of the most evocative music videos ever but also showcases Keays in excelsis; no longer mere rock star, but climbing the stairs to rock divinity. The hair is now an impossibly luxuriant mane, layered to the shoulders, he is sporting a close-shaved beard, and as he whispers the song’s anthemic chorus in close-up – “Do what you wanna do, be what you wanna be, yeah” – the rocket that was the Australian rock scene of the late ’60s hits the moon. That is the image, and when locked to the lyric it’s hard to think of a more potent or affirming moment in this country’s rock story.
In 2010, when writing ‘Scream’ for the Monthly, a homage to ’60s and ’70s pop stars, I interviewed, among others, John Paul Young and Ronnie Burns, and knowing I wouldn’t get access to Farnham, I spoke with his manager, Glenn Wheatley, at his rented harbourside apartment in Sydney. He was welcoming, and thoughtful on the subject of his famous client, but there was one other subject I wished to broach. Wheatley was the bass player for The Masters Apprentices from 1968 to ’72. In his autobiography, Paper Paradise, his time in the band is treated as a chapter in a manager’s career, and his personal reflections, as fond as they are, focus on the band’s financial mishaps and their concerts – the latter still vivid. Halls with thousands of screaming fans inches from the stage, little security; a cacophonous, barely-in-control ritual, bearing little resemblance to the fenced and carded concert experience of today, that leaves Wheatley shaken and shocked in remembrance. I asked him how Keays dealt with it. He looked up from the coffee table, a broad grin breaking across his face as he spread his arms wide like wings, in what I took to be his singer’s pose amid the mayhem and worship. “Jim – oh my god, he loved it.” Of course he did.
Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.