Khe Sanh. Two words that are instantly recognisable to any Australian. I’m not sure when it was decided that 70s and 80s pub rock classically sums up the Australian experience, but it seems an inevitability to be caught in a Cold Chisel sing-a-long at any Australia Day gathering here in London – whether you like it or not.
I was at a pub in south London last Australia Day, when an Australian cover band sprang to life on the stage next to me. As they rolled out one Australiana hit after another, I realised something that didn’t surprise me. All the songs were male artists/bands. I understand it would be difficult for an all-male band to cover Strawberry Kisses by Nikki Webster, but they must have some songs in their repertoire that don’t exclusively ignore a whole swathe of our music industry?
At this point I decided it was time to find out. As This is Australia by Gangajang faded out with a strum of an acoustic guitar, I made my way to the front of the stage, “Can you please play anything by Kylie Minogue?” I thought that’s a safe bet, she has enough hits that could be deemed “classic” and while I wasn’t expecting much, I felt her biggest hit, Can’t Get You Outta My Head, wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
“They changed the word ‘boy’ to ‘girl’ as though I was going to run up onto the stage and rip their pants off at the first hint of any sexual ambiguity.”
I’m not sure whether the confusion that crept across the lead singer’s face was due to the song request or the fact a gay man was giving a request to them at all – probably both – but he slowly responded by retuning his guitar and playing Back in Black by AC/DC. That’s funny; maybe he didn’t hear me. As the song finished, I again requested our mother Minogue, to which the band played Beds are Burning by Midnight Oil. Either they had a very strict request policy or they were ignoring me. Finally they begrudgingly played two verses of Can’t Get You Outta My Head. Honestly my two year old nephew could have performed it with more enthusiasm. And they changed the word ‘boy’ to ‘girl’ as though I was going to run up onto the stage and rip their pants off at the first hint of any sexual ambiguity.
They then followed it up by confirming their heterosexuality with I Was Only 19 by Redgum. Way to kill a mood.
I was so dissatisfied with their half baked Kylie attempt, I then jokingly asked if they could play All Seats Taken by Bec Hewitt nee Cartwright, to which I thought the base guitarist was going to punch me in the face.
As the night drew to a close I couldn’t shake the feeling that we had all been cheated out of our Minogue moment. I thought about the songs played that night trying to discover a reason. A lot of them were about the geographical whereabouts of Australia itself or some event that had taken place in Australia’s history – Great Southern Land, I Come from a Land Down Under, Khe Sanh, I Was Only 19 – it made sense that songs about Australia were played on Australia Day. I don’t see any songs in Kylie’s back catalogue about definitive battles in Vietnam, so fair enough. But then there were other songs that had nothing to do with Australia other than they were by Australians – Somebody that I Used to Know, Need You Tonight, Throw Your Arms Around Me. All songs about love and relationships. And Torn by Natalie Imbruglia and Chains by Tina Arena are about Palestine? And what about Savage Garden? They’re men, they had chart success everywhere with Truly Madly Deeply.
I felt the stigma of pop weighed heavily on this cover band, challenging their masculinity – I mean they had to change the word “boy” to “girl” just in case their sexuality came into question. Don’t even mention covering a song from a band with a gay male lead like Darren Hayes. They might as well have performed a sex act on each other.
“It pandered to an out of date stereotype of what it means to be an Australian and in particular being an Australian here in London.”
There were many reasons why I left Australia, but one of them was because I felt like an outsider in my own country. I was frustrated with the way Australian society kept the gay community at an arms-length whilst enjoying the spoils of a $30 million dollar cash injection into the economy through visitors to the Sydney LGBTI Mardi Gras, yet the legislation for equal marriage is still years off from being considered because our Prime Minister views a basic human right as “the fashion of the moment”, whereas a conservative UK government passed marriage equality into law with not much opposition. The differences between Australia and the UK on gay rights are glaring.
What does this have to do with an Australian cover band not playing female centric songs on Australia Day? I’m not sure, but it did make me feel like they were keeping me at arms-length and I wasn’t allowed to enjoy what was supposed to be a day for us all. It pandered to an out of date stereotype of what it means to be an Australian and in particular being an Australian here in London. We aren’t all fresh off the Piccadilly Line wearing flag capes, drinking stubbies, whilst wearing stubbies, thanks.
So I decided to make my own playlist and party for my gay Australian friends who may feel a sense of alienation on Australia Day. I’ve called it Australia Gay. The playlist consists of all the amazing pop songs ever to have originated from the land down under. No Barnesy, no Farnesy. It’s over 7 hours long. Seriously. Maybe that’s why the cover band didn’t want to play Can’t Get You Outta My Head, because they realised once they started, they may never stop. Maybe.
Countdown: Laurence’s Australia Gay Top 10 music videos
Laurence Driscoll lives in London and writes a blog called projectnewboyfriend.com. Follow him on Twitter @ProjectNewBF.