It is probably natural, if not logical, to think that the further away you go from home, the stranger and more unfamiliar the places will seem. Hence the Latin phrase, Hic Sunt Dracones (Here be Dragons) written across the east coast of Asia on the Lenox Globe, one of the oldest surviving world globes. By this reckoning Australia, 10,000 miles away, should seem one of the most unfamiliar to British eyes. In many ways, of course, having developed in isolation from the rest of the world, it is a totally different sort of place, with its odd animals found nowhere else. Yet in others, because of the way it was colonised and because of the cultural familiarity of programmes like Neighbours, it often doesn’t seem like the other side of the world, where everything should really be a foreign country. In terms of notions about Australia, the UK has also had the phenomenon of Rolf Harris, a reassuring uncle from overseas figure who has been part of the British landscape now for as long as the Queen (his first British TV appearance was in 1953, the Coronation year).
Through music and films and TV, Britain has had a mixed picture of Australia. Much of it has been of the matey, Crocodile Dundee type of genre, with songs like A Pub With No Beer and the adverts for Castlemaine xxxx Lager. This has been alongside a notion of the outback and a vast and strange landscape that seems about to reclaim its own, seen in children’s TV shows or films like Smiley or Skippy or, at the other end of the spectrum, films like Walkabout and Rabbit-Proof Fence. (Rolf Harris touched on both strands early in his singing career with Tie My Kangaroo Down, Sport and Sun Arise). There has, however, been little from songs about particular cities - Sydney, Melbourne, Perth – to help paint a picture of them in the mind.
When I went to Australia – a short (4 day) trip to Brisbane, via the flight to Singapore that Magna Carta sung so evocatively of in their Airport Song – I had few clear expectations. The experience was an odd one. The initial thought, emerging in searing sunshine 2 days after setting off on a dreary September evening in England, was that I really was on the other side of the world, rather like Alice falling down a very deep rabbit hole. A question that used to be asked at school even came into my head for a fleeting moment.: ‘Why don’t people in Australia walk upside down?’. This feeling, however, didn’t last longer than the ride into Brisbane. Perhaps because it had developed as a series of ‘villages’, I found it difficult to get a sense of the place. There were some pleasant semi-tropical botanic gardens, a lot of glass towers and shopping malls where you might get charged ’10 bucks’ American-style for something, a Chinese quarter, a sense of motorways and endless suburbs. An hour’s drive or so north were views over countryside that could have been England. A short train ride to the south was the Gold Coast, a mixture of Blackpool and Tenerife’s Las Playas de Americas: hot sun, brilliantly blue sea lined by skyscraper hotels, garish neon lights, casinos, the sense of dollar signs floating in the air. Viva Las Vegas might have been a suitable soundtrack.
The choice of song here, then, might seem odd: Streets of Your Town, a hauntingly beautiful song by The Go Betweens, from their 1988 album 16 Lovers Lane. The Go Betweens were a Brisbane group that were as far away from the stereotype of a band from Queensland as possible. They took their name from L.P Hartley’s novel; they did melodic, lyrical songs by founder members Robert Forster and Grant McLennan that had a Byrds jingle-jangly sound at times; they had a female drummer. Many of their songs referenced Queensland and Brisbane and Streets of Your Town is an evocative mood song reflecting Brisbane in the era of the notorious Bjelke-Petersen Queensland government: a sunny upbeat tune with dark lyrics.
It is also a particularly interesting song for two reasons. The first is that it is one of those songs that is misinterpreted by some to be the opposite of what was intended by the authors. Streets of Your Town has been described as ‘a favourite summer song’ and has been used as a jingle by Prime Television and by Brisbane paper, the Courier-Mail, in its ads: I don’t know if the lines about butcher’s knives and battered wives were included. The best known example of songs like this is perhaps Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA being taken up by Reagan’s 1984 election campaign as a patriotic anthem but there have been others. Leonard Cohen’s dark, bitter Hallelujah was taken by many as a Christmas offering a la Mistletoe and Wine when Alexandra Burke’s version was released as a Christmas single after winning the 2008 X Factor. Or there was the 1973 Strawbs’ hit, Part of the Union, taken up by the Trades Union Congress at the time and others since as a union solidarity sing-along, though it had been written as a satirical anti-union whinge by group members Richard Hudson and John Ford aggrieved at having to join a union when doing a holiday job as students.(They re-surfaced later in the 1970’s as part of one-hit wonders The Monks with Nice Legs, Shame About Her Face, which I don’t think was misinterpreted by anyone as an anthem of feminist solidarity). And David Cameron was either being deeply ironical or missing the point of the lyrics when he claimed The Jam’s Eton Rifles as one of his favourite songs. (As Paul Weller put it, "Which part of it doesn't he get? It wasn't intended as a f***ing jolly drinking song for the cadet corps.")
The second is that the imagery and mood offered through the song and two accompanying videos for Streets of Your Town is totally at odds with my brief experience of Brisbane. So much, in fact, that the place in the song still exists in a parallel universe somewhere and I think that, maybe one day, I will emerge into the sunshine as from a rabbit hole and find it.