A history of Australian folk-punk

A couple of years ago, down in Tasmania to play at HOBOFOPO festival, I wrote this guide to folk-punk. I love folk-punk, and wanted to articulate why. Turns out lots of people want to read about this niche genre, and that article has become the most consistently read post on this blog. So, as I prepare to head down to play at HOBOFOPO again, I thought I’d again turn my pen to the subject and write this: a history of Australian folk-punk.

I should start by saying this is not a definitive list. I’ve especially looked to include videos of bands that were pioneers of a style or notably influential. If you like it though I encourage further exploration of some of the other artists I mention. As to what makes someone a folk-punk artist, I’ll admit this can be subjective and all I can do is refer you to my previous article.

I should start by saying that Australia has its own distinctive history of both folk and punk music; both of which have influenced the artists on this list. There was a revival of Australian folk music and culture in the 1970’s often linked to radical politics. That decade too saw bands developing uniquely Australian folk-rock styles – most notably Redgum‘s political folk-rock (even when succumbing to the musical excesses of 80’s arena rock they held on to a folk sensibility), and the rocked-up traditional Aussie folk of The Bushwackers (check out this amazing video of them miming on daytime tv).

Those bands, along with UK folk-punk pioneers The Pogues, would have been big influences on the first generation of Australian folk-punk acts in the late 1980’s. One of those acts was Melbourne’s Weddings, Parties, Anything. They mixed a punky/pub rock with some folk instrumentation; while the subject matter took folk’s story-telling style as well as a folk-singer’s eye for Australian history, places and working class politics. Somewhat cultural archaeologists, The Weddos (as a pub audience would predictably abbreviate their moniker to) would cover old folk songs (most notably Tex Morton’s hobo classic Sgt Small), as well as keeping alive Australian history through songs like this early tribute to Henry Lawson.

At the same time in Sydney, fiery Scottish socialist Alistair Hulett formed Roaring Jack. They trod similar territory musically and thematically, though with a sound a bit rougher and the politics a bit more explicit.

As the decade changed another significant folk-punk band emerged. Mutiny were similar musically and also looked often to Australian history and radical politics for subject matter. They came out of the anarcho-crust punk scene though, which shows through in the breakneck tempos of their songs and the fact that the politics venture from the traditional class warfare and union songs to singing about squatting buildings and choosing to live on the fringes of society.

Meanwhile in Adelaide appeared something different. The Bedridden had a rudimentary level of musicianship and a love for irreverent subject matter – their style was similar to what would later emerge from New York as “anti-folk”. They only ever released a couple of albums, but played on and off for a decade with an ever rotating cast of musicians; plus key member Baterz was also quite prolific as a solo musician until his unfortunate death in 2002. In Adelaide, Baterz and The Bedridden are legends, as proved by an epic tribute album compiled after Baterz’ death.

As one century changed to another, that Celtic punk sound became more common as American bands like Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys entered the mainstream. In Australia a steady stream of bands emerged in this style, most notably The Go Set (who built a big following playing a very Weddos-style pub rock folk mix). But plenty of others have popped up, including but not limited to: Melbourne’s The Ramshackle Army and The Currency; Sydney’s The Rumjacks (very popular overseas but not always in Australia due partly to the behaviour of their lead singer) and bush balladeers Handsome Young Strangers; Brisbane’s Wheatpaste and The Great Shame. In a style that can at times be a bit generic, one of the most original acts are The Dead Maggies, who formed with the mission statement of “folk-punk songs about historical Tasmanian murders and suicides”.

Another old form of folk music that worked well when mixed with punk was country. Australian punk and country had definitely crossed paths even early on, in the inebriated “cowpunk” of The Johnnys or the various bands that emerged out of St Kilda led by Fred Negro. Over the years various bands fused the two in different ways – in Melbourne Graveyard Train‘s horror-themed hoedowns, in Perth the boozy epics of The Kill Devil Hills. A bit less punk but unquestionably great was the “subversive homespun bluegrass” of Sydney’s The Lurkers , while a bit more punk (albeit with pedigree from Australia’s country music capital of Tamworth) was the foulmouthed hillbilly thrash of Sydney City Trash.

Other styles of folk-punk were brewing across the country though. In Queensland Steve Towson appeared Billy Bragg-like with just his voice and a very rhythmic style of electric guitar playing. He sang about radical politics and Australian places; and also toured and recorded relentlessly for a few years, which is also quite a folk-punk characteristic.

Another man with a guitar was Jamie Hay, singer and guitarist of iconic Newcastle crust-punk band Conation. In his quieter moments he recorded a set of acoustic songs as Fear Like Us – prefiguring the later deluge of American punk singers donning flanelette shirts and recording alt-country acoustic albums. Fear Like Us have remained an infrequent but ongoing musical presence for more than a decade now, occasionally turning out to be a pretty fierce rock act themselves.

Another Newcastle band with a bit of a thing for alt-country was Like… Alaska.  Where the country-punk I mentioned early had been blokey and boozey, Like… Alaska took the introspective singer-songwriter style of Bright Eyes or Ryan Adams and carved out their own space in the punk scene of the mid-2000’s; again before the sight of punks singing country songs was quite as common as it is now. The lovely voice of Jen Buxton too adds a dash of femininity to a list that so far has been pretty male-dominated and masculine in outlook (working class jobs, drinking, fighting, travelling around).

Way across the Pacific Ocean, a new development in folk-punk had been brewing. Florida’s Against Me! emerged playing a style of punk that was completely unplugged, yet bursting with energy and intensity; they took punk’s DIY touring method to a new level with shows in parks, laundromats and wherever could be found. Over the next few years this became the dominant style of folk-punk; from the ultra-positive nerd vibes of Ghost Mice, to the misanthropist gutter folk of Pat “The Bunny” Schneeweis’ various musical incarnations and the intense cacophony of Blackbird Raum.

Most well known of Australian artists in this style is Chris Burrows. First as Asking For It, then The Anorexic Olsen Twin, and most recently as This Is A Robbery; and either on guitar or piano; Chris thrashed out his distinctive songs from chilly and beautiful Tasmania. And within the developing folk-punk subculture he became Australia’s main ambassador.

Chris wasn’t alone though. The ease of playing completely acoustic music meant that folk punk bands popped up all around the place, often only momentarily. New venues appeared where it was scarcely possible before; like St Stephen’s Cemetery in Newtown where there were some classic shows. Here is a video of Ethan Del Carmen playing there as Commonfilth!, a couple of state moves and musical projects later he is still playing acoustic music now under his own name.

On the burgeoning flannelette singer-songwriter scene, Lincoln Le Fevre started strumming in Hobart, Ben David from Adelaide, and Rachel Maria Cox of Newcastle encouraged more prominence for women and transfolk in the genre with the label/booking agency Sad Grrls Club. In Brisbane former Sydney City Trash member Paddy McHugh re-emerged singing insightful, funny and powerful songs about Australian people and places.

There was a heady point for a few years when a bunch of acoustic folk-punk bands were travelling the country playing shows in all kinds of locations. Glitter Rats played punked up versions of old folk songs. Lordy Lordy were an all-women gutter folk band that emerged out of the forests of Tasmania. Year Of Scummery made their name their manifesto, hitching across the continent and playing gigs wherever they could set up with an ever-rotating cast of members.

Many acoustic punk projects were great but short term, playing a few gigs and then dissolving, sometimes without even leaving a recording. One though who stuck around was Wil Wagner. From his days as a teenager singing Chris Burrows covers, Wil developed his own distinctive style and eventually a full band setup as The Smith Street Band. In a couple of albums (and many tours) they had become one of the country’s most popular rock bands. They had also developed a pop-punk sound that wasn’t exactly very folky. But it did hold on to a bit of the spirit of folk-punk; as well as a narrative song-writing style that has become their signature and means I will still include them under that amorphous banner of folk-punk.

The influence of The Smith Street Band on Australian music has been immense. Having been around this tiny scene for a long time, it’s a bit of a shock now to often walk into a venue and see a band playing with an obvious Smith St influence. One of those (who have by now enjoyed enough success of their own to have outgrown the comparison) is Camp Cope. Again, they grew out of the acoustic sets of Georgia Maq. They also brought a bit of punk’s tradition of feminist action to the fore; in their lyrics and in their actions calling out sexual assault at gigs. Songwriter Georgia Maq also happens to be the daughter of one of the members of Redgum – the first band I mentioned in this post. Which makes this seem like the perfect place to end, having travelled a generation.

Folk punk though keeps going as strong as ever, with artists of varied styles mixing these two genres and philosophies. The HOBOFOPO festival coming up next month in Hobart is the perfect example to demonstrate the happy present and future of Australian folk-punk.

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