How to describe Paul Kelly"
For those of you not in tune with the pop scene Down Under – yes, I know you exist somewhere – Paul Kelly is one of the most respected songwriters to come from the sunburnt country. Arguably our equivalent of Springsteen, the man has penned many definitive singles over the last thirty years. Songs such as ‘Leaps and Bounds’, ‘How to Make Gravy’, ‘Deeper Water’ and ‘To Her Door’ are universally heralded – and only a little bit tongue-in-cheek – as part of the fabric of Australian life.
In March 1986, the imagining of such achievements would have seemed laughable. Even more so than the sequence of events that led Kelly to Sydney’s Trafalgar Studios to record his landmark double album Gossip
. Famously, Aussie music guru Michael Gudinski had his arm twisted into signing Kelly to his label Mushroom by his Head of PR Michelle Higgins. Gudinski’s reluctance was understandable: few artists have less selling power than a 31-year old single dad who has failed to break the gig circuit over the better part of a decade. Add in Kelly’s ongoing heroin habit and the deal must have seemed borderline ludicrous.
and its creator have long since rewarded whatever faith Gudinski invested. It’s a rich double album with irresistible pop songs, creative turns and tough writing. Yet its initial appeal is only half the story: Gossip
was a crucial and transcendent example for Australian songwriters. Kelly’s heavy use of domestic iconography inspired future artists to wear their Aussie background on their sleeves rather than either blend into American or British styles or follow cultural stereotypes. Kelly’s depiction of his country is not the land of kangaroos, Vegemite, smiling beaches and farmers with a she’ll-be-right-mate attitude. It gets gritty and goddamn unpleasant on ‘Incident on South Dowling Street’, ‘Darling It Hurts’ and ‘Tighten Up’ as fatal drug overdoses, poverty, domestic violence and prostitution are sucked out of his inner-city vistas like scum out of a carpet. Most infamous of all is ‘Maralinga’, a finger-pointing tirade against the nuclear tests conducted in South Australia by the British Government that – either unwittingly or indifferently – exposed the indigenous Yankunytjatjara people to incurable radiation poisoning. In a country less comfortable with its colonialization than it would ever care to admit, ‘Maralinga’ was a taboo piece that pricked a collective conscience. “A strangeness on our skin/A soreness on our eyes like weeping fire,” intones Kelly over the ghostly arrangement, “a pox upon our skin/A boulder on our backs all our lives.”
A long apprenticeship playing in pubs had refined Kelly’s playing to an attractive if tight variation of jangled ’60s pop. Perhaps sensing that this shot would be his only one and anxious to ensure the album’s commercial success, Kelly piles on the radio-friendly sheen. Whilst many may point to the success of singles such as ‘Leaps and Bounds’, ‘Before Too Long’ and ‘Darling It Hurts’ as validity of this tactic, it gives Gossip
a vanilla, undistinctive flavour in areas after a few spins. Remember, people don’t love ‘Leaps and Bounds’ for its conventional arpeggio figure. The song is Kelly’s most memorable anthem because it illuminates the MCG as a cultural cornerstone.
Relying on his storytelling over ground-breaking music, Kelly mischievously referred to his interpretations as “quotation”. ‘Somebody’s Forgetting Somebody’ takes a healthy slice from Elvis’s ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’, 'Last Train to Heaven' references Curtis Mayfield's 'People Get Ready' while the whimsical closer ‘After the Show’ is a nod to Lou Reed’s ‘Goodnight Ladies’. The experimental touches ensure Gossip
is more than merely the launching pad for a rich musical career. Dub makes its way onto the theatrical opener ‘Last Train To Heaven’ and ‘Tighten Up’ and the forays into rockabilly are razor-sharp on ‘Incident on South Dowling Street’ and ‘The Ballroom’. Spectral ballads like ‘Randwick Bells’ make the everyday profound while the title track holds a strangely medieval pomp.
During the 1980s, Australia saw better and more successful albums than Gossip
. However, as far as breakthroughs in accepted topics and styles go, Paul Kelly delivered something that his followers can thank him for as much as his audiences.
'Last Train to Heaven'
'Leaps and Bounds'
Incident on South Dowling Street'
'Darling it Hurts'