Dave Warner is a Western Australian living treasure. He is a successful writer with his latest two – yes, two! – books (crime novel, Over My Dead Body and the Marlion Kickett bio, Belief) released in the last few months!
Warner came to prominence as one of Australia’s most irreverent rock’n’rollers. First with his punk band Pus, preceding the Pistols and The Saints. This led to his band From the Suburbs; a phenomenon in its own right. His highly charged, electrifying, punters knee-deep in participation live shows across Australia left most bands of the time in his wake. He also recorded a handful of great albums, filled with songs that have easily stood the test of time. Personal, political, sociological, provocative and always with lyrics soaked in wit and whimsy, while the band fired off killer riffs, rhythms, melodies, harmonies and backing beats.
Distilling Dave Warner’s recorded catalogue into Top 30 songs is a challenging task to say the least. Fans have a personal investment in Warner. Faced with an embarrassment of top shelf songs, trying to choose what songs make it and what’s left out will, no doubt, stir controversy. That’s just choosing the songs! Placing them in an order that reasonably captures their weight in Warner’s catalogue and as history might consider them, and not upsetting his Suburban Army (yes, it was real) is akin to a scene from an Indiana Jones film. A tough gig.
It is hard to comprehend why Australia doesn’t put more effort into building a critical and historical record of our music artists, beyond the big and obvious names. The Warner Top 30 is an example of one Australian artist that should matter to the story of the journey of our popular music from 1955 to the present day. Warner’s songs are not of a time or merely interesting artefacts, they are bloody good to pearlers. They are part of our shared experience; the soundtrack of our days.
So, please enjoy this Top 30 and let it ignite robust discussions. About Dave Warner and his place in Australian music.
30. Surrey Hills Boogaloo
Ten years after Warner amazing run of albums, winning hand of songs and “you had to be there” live shows he released the album Surplus and Dearth. While it might not have matched his wild run from 78 to 81 it still had foot stompers like this. A thumping beat, a catchy riff and Warner at his scathing social commentary best.
Clocking in at one minute and thirty six seconds, one of his shortest song is a tumble of words spilling over a tight rhythm that combines 50s rock with a 70s beat. This song finds Warner’s taking a sound he loves and mining it in search of his own suburban rock sound. A sultry, lust at first sight adventure involving a femme fatale and our trusty protagonist who doesn’t mind shocks in the dark.
Witty, incisive, contemporary and playful, Wimbledon (from Correct Weight) is also a radio friendly piece of pure pop. Verses are underscored by a new wave beat that weaves into a catchy, singalong chorus. Live, it was a favourite.
27. The Australian Rock Industry
Warner, the social commentator, exemplified. Yet it also begs the question, what does Warner want to be – an Australian Randy Newman or Loudon Wainwright III or a key figure of rock and roll? Like Elvis Costello who spat out the line, ‘I want to bite that hand so badly’ in his song Radio Radio, a critique of the music industry, Warner is too damned observant. Still, there are so many great lines and putdowns (‘clowns who toss coasters’) it’s hard to resist. His commentary holds, sadly, 40 years on.
26. Clarke’s Bolero
Warner experimenting with flamenco beats is intriguing and authentic. The song’s hold is in how the flamenco beat interweaves with the rock rhythm. Following the rock chorus another instrument is added each time the flamenco beat returns to further layer the sound. Warner’s singing is a feature.
25. Mug’s Game
Die-hard fans will argue with Mug’s Game this far down the list. It is no doubt a remarkable story song, half spoken half sung. The little guitar riffs (when Zongo features for example) complement the tune which for large parts of the 14-minute song are a background accompaniment to the satirical story. It is a top shelf scathing indictment on trendies that includes hilarious observations and headline stand-up comedy material. The chorus is what makes this song (‘…you’ve got a girl at Christmas, lost her by New Year, the worst part is she’s ripped you off and made off with your beer….’). We’re all mugs in the end.
24. No Fences
This song was written by Warner and Martin Cilla and performed by Nicole Warner. A comment on our individual defences that acts as a metaphor about how we treat each other (with a meditation on European/Indigenous relationships) expressed as a soaring paean to our better angels. Nicole pushes these layers gently with a beautifully timed rendition that rises steadily to its crescendo. A softer side of Warner’s catalogue. This side of Warner’s musical offerings is not given the same credence as his more boisterous tunes. When he does mine this vein, he brings back gold. • Photo left live 2019 by Les Everett.
23. Buried in my own Backyard
Warner goes gospel all the way with a New Orleans jam that takes the song and the protagonist’s hopes, marching band and congregation through suburban streets to its final destination. You’ll be tapping your foot to a great backbeat before a sax solo leads us astray down its own trail. With so many ripper throwaway lines you are almost spinning by the end of the song. True to his suburban sound our exasperated protagonist sick of the shallowness of a US model rock industry wants to be buried in his backyard. And there’ll be an eskie full of beer, barbie burning snags and dancing all night long.
22. I’m on Facebook but Where’s My Friends
Warner released this song in 2016, decades after he left the rock and roll circus. In the meantime he became an acclaimed crime novelist, among other artistic efforts. This was the single from his most recent album, When. This is a song that must be heard in concert. It’s a call for community. Real as opposed to virtual. Warner’s love of the history of popular music can be heard in the harmonies (community) and call and response which are this song’s signature. Oh, and a trippy little drum solo.
21. Australian Heat
Warner’s music could be its own sub-genre of rock and roll, called Warner rock. The band sound is immediately recognisable but there is a distinct, unique flavour the French would describe as je ne sais quoi. This song is literally that Warner sound. Let’s see, the lines thrown off as if ad-libbed, the accent could not be more revealing, an in your face attitude, and a wit that has been baked in Australian humour since CJ Dennis and Henry Lawson. Johnny Leopard sparkles on both hot and air-conditioned guitar, and then there’s his trademark blistering solo as the bridge.
20. Car Park
In 1997 the esteemed US singer-songwriter Guy Clark released a song called Parking Lot, detailing everything that happens in a bar’s parking lot. Warner had already mined that meeting place almost twenty years earlier. It’s a fun, frivolous, ‘frowaway. The tune is Nick Lowe pop (that’s a compliment). Warner may have even staged some Saturday afternoon carpark concerts back in the day.
19. Bicton Breezes
How did this song never find its way on to an album? Warner’s tip of the hat to The Kinks and his family history. A dirge, led by horns (almost a lest we forget) that allows Warner to meander through disparate memories. They are linked together by the simple idea (that may be part of Warner’s manifesto) to ‘be always what you aint’. His wry wit is there but respectfully tempered. The band is simply magnificent.
18. North of the Equator
Fittingly, Warner’s car story is set in the US but with, of course, revved up sardonic Aussie wit. This song is burn ‘em up Chuck Berry rock including honky tonk keyboards. The confidence in Warner’s singing is key. Plenty of show off rhymes (Appalachions/rekindled aspirations). A song that at times feels like the band is going to careen off the highway such is its driving energy. But he gets the Chevy Nova to its destination, having scored “something more refreshing than a Coke” on the way.
17. No Good Can Come From This
Written to synch with his last novel, River of Salt, the song is a Warner classic. Another slow ballad (a Warner strength). It has the feel of an early sixties pop tune, showing a side of Warner’s singing not featured nearly enough in his catalogue. The harmonies (think The Ink Spots or even The Jordanaires) is the highlight. With one of Warner’s best lines, ‘though her love is a waterfall, this man’s heart is but sand’.
16. Strange Night
Years before John Hughes titillated our understanding of teenagers Warner had already shone a light into the messy, unruly nest that is young male bonding. We may not have got into the fix these seventeen year olds did but we can recognise the deal. This is a short story told in less than four minutes. Another song filled with such novelistic detail you can almost see yourself in the moment. Featuring an accident, maybe even a death, blood on a Christmas jumper and with the memorable line, “we still had two Emu Export and some Kalgoorlie Stout” that stamp dates the time and place.
15. We Want a Kid
Fans can only wonder why Warner didn’t continue to forge his own rock and roll path through the years. His early work speaks for itself. Then you hear a song like this from When (2016) and you wonder what Australian music has missed out on. Few are observing our times with Warner’s insights. His satirical report has Swiftian clarity. The tune never gets ahead of Warner’s delivery. The wit is sparkling (‘we’ll have a nanny or a granny or a manny to serve’). The kid is described as “it”.
14. Waiting for the Cyclone
There’s not many songs written by big city rock and roll musicians about Australia’s far north. There’s Paul Kelly or Midnight Oil political songs. Maybe This is Australia by Ganggajang. Along with the likes of Neil Murray, Warner had already been there. Choosing the personal over the political. The tune oozes the North’s oppressive heat and languid boredom. As the lyric goes, Zac the dog is lying on his belly, tongue out. If you have lived or travelled beyond the 26th parallel you get how cyclone season features in people’s lives. This song starts with a didge solo and ends with a back porch jam that segues back into the didgeridoo. Neat encapsulation of place, people, time and something about the waiting.
13. Nothing to Lose
No this isn’t a rap song but it is a rock beat that allows the singer to rap. And he lets rip. Warner’s best it is so bloody Aussie. With verses that jump from Mutiny on the Bounty to Saturday afternoon watching Westerns on TV to cricket – this is an Australian retort to fatalism. The maidenhead verse is the highlight. One of four songs in this top 30 that did not get a guernsey on an album. Go figure.
12. Halftime at the Football
An incredible slice of an, er, Australian experience, captured in Warner’s inimitable voice. The main problem with nominating Halftime at the Football is nominating which version. Anyone who has seen Warner live (late 70s, early 80s) will tell you they saw the best version ever. They’re not wrong. It is sensational live. The audience is part of the song. At his shows we have all played the part ascribed us by Warner, be it paper boys, the ambulance, the commentators, the parents or the horny teenagers. Imagine this performed live at the AFL Grand Final with the Members Stand singing, ‘we don’t know what’s going on’.
11. Convict Streak
A live staple, the instrumental intro compels and invigorates. It holds its place in stories fans tell of Warner’s blistering live shows. Remember, Warner was and is a consummate performer. The song itself is something far deeper than the chorus would suggest in that it locates Australia in a specific moment. It is central to the legend of Warner and is one of his seminal takes on the Australian identity. For late 70s it’s a bullseye. As modern Australia has matured and identity politics and philosophy continues to gather momentum a song like Convict Streak could be seen, if read literally, as overtly masculine. If read as commentary on Australian history it could be seen as observing masculinity’s attempt to control the Australian identity narrative. The song’s first word is Maybe indicating the protagonist is barely convinced himself of his argument. And the reference to Lambing Flats deliberately disrupts the flag waving, anthem stomp to underscore our European history’s racist stain. In recent years Warner has led into the song describing it as satire. To remind the listener not to take the song too literally. However we consider it 40 years after its release the song still fairly boils over with inchoate rage and a disorientated anger (‘it’s not that we’re behind the times, we’re a different land’). And live, it goes off.
10. Million Miles from Home
Warner’s songwriting matured rapidly. And this song signals a step up in Warner’s storytelling. The song doesn’t depend on his journalistic eye. What drives the song is the emotional pull. What makes it even more poignant is the pull is a male expressing his emotional journey (to a mostly male audience). It is tender and witty. The song is deceptively superficial but below that surface lies a candour and melancholy without ever getting self-pitying. The call for home (a beer and a bbq) is touching. The guitar solo flows both emotionally and melodically. You can hear Warner’s anguish in his singing, facing the unresolvable conflict between travel broadening the mind and the heart pulling for home.
9. Bicton vs Brooklyn
Drums kick start this magnificent bastard of a story and your heart would be pumping within the first five seconds. The first line tells you how good this song is. Rhyming marathon with street that you’re on is genius. The whole ridiculous tale, reminiscent of Springsteen at his most romantically foolhardy, centres on two guys who may or may not cross paths and may or may not turn their encounter into a biff. This song is powered by the anticipation. The song’s arrangement and band sound heighten the sense of drama. All the while Warner tosses off great images that nod to West Side Story. The tension is taken even higher when the harmonising backup singers step forward. Tip of the hat for contrasting Brooklyn with Bicton and fingers crossed a NY Warner fan never actually ventures to that not so dangerous suburb outside Freo. Kudos also for marking Brooklyn at a time when danger may have lurked there before baristas with combed beards became the law.
8. John Arlott Makes Me Chuckle
This should be an Australian standard. Tender, honest and easily recognisable. The more personal Warner’s reflections are the stronger his song seem to be. The longing described is palpable. Great writing merges the personal with the prosaic with the profound. This is an example. Here, Warner describes a satisfied life that still hungers for more. The listener is lulled by a gentle tune that evokes a Saturday afternoon where two lovers are enjoying the simple pleasure of each other’s company and bodies … and yet there is that gnawing that this might not be enough.
7. Summer of ’78
Warner’s best unreleased song. Well, it did appear as the b-side to Australian Heat. And it is a revision of Summer of 76, a song that turned up on Warner’s recent vinyl re-release of his seminal album, Mug’s Game. Summer of 78 is so fresh, so vibrant you can almost feel teens ready to rip the top of their first beer at the OBH as the sun sets on the magnificent Indian Ocean. Dismiss Summer as a throwaway little pop tune at your peril. This is another example of what Warner gifted Aussie popular culture. Aussie musicians have gone to the well of American music for their inspiration (Cold Chisel, AC/DC, Paul Kelly) but not many have drawn its inspirations so deeply as Warner. Summer is as Aussie as but the song’s bedrock is Eddie Cochran and The Beach Boys. The pull of the ocean in this song is clearly Warner’s heart. If that was all there was to Summer of ’78 it would be enough. Warner adds a yearning. The song’s rhythm (just add handclaps), the swing in the melody, the positive vibe in the lyrics suggest a great night or weekend ahead. Pathos is underwritten in the refrain (‘Ah, what are we gonna do/must be so many things to do’). Some of rock’s best songs (think CCR, Springsteen, Nirvana) walk that line.
6. Free Kicks
The kick drum start, 60s female backing vocals, and tight guitar line sets this song up. Then Warner as suburban preacher steps up to the pulpit. The premise is a uniquely Australian take on a universal image. Turning footy tropes into relationship metaphors (he was a winner and a winger, he pushed women in the back with his charm) to warn the lost and the lonely of the battles one must endure to find a kindred soul. The instrumental break pushes this song, gives it an urgency. But the song stands on its lyrics. ‘She loved me so much she’d wait while I mated my beer’ has so many layers a Cultural Studies course could analyse it all semester. The lines that follows, up that ante. ‘But I retained possession too long and when I finally let her go the siren had gone/My goals lay empty before me, berated and frustrated so I hit the referee’). Seriously. This was written in the late 1970s and the observations, including wit, metaphor, Odyssey reference, could be looking at sport, relationships and violence as it is happening today. Don’t forget the drum roll leading into the verse! Song as sermon and how could you not be a believer.
5. Joey Black
This song literally bursts out and you cannot tell whether the tune or singer is leading. Told from the titular character’s point of view (not a devise Warner uses that often), the song’s rhythm entwines with the wild mercurial intensity of Joey and the story he has to tell. Warner’s prescience in this song is remarkable. The song forecasts the results of Fremantle gentrification through the eyes of a young lower-to-middle class guy whose home is lost and life is upturned. It’s from 1980! Warner’s images are as pertinent today, 40 years later. Applying a The Who meets The Kinks type soundscape gives the song its headbanger feel. Guitars surge and at times warp, drums pound like hammers and as Joey’s story reaches its climax (‘well I tell you I want all the money I can get’) the band already barely holding the song together takes it up a few notches and the whole thing feels, just for a beat, like it’ll explode before Joey and the band bring the whole damn thing together. This is as exciting a sound as Dave has produced; raw and cooked, primal and sophisticated. Live it grabs you viscerally, you are almost willing the band to keep playing faster until it does collapse. That, my friend, is the essence of rock and roll.
4. Old Stock Road
There are many reasons Warner should be recognised in the pantheon of Australian rock and roll. One reason in particular is the inherent open-mindedness in gender relations in his songs. This is a rollicking tune, about, ah, sexual relations. About a couple deep in the throes of uninhibited passion. Actually it could be about a couple of different sessions, in bed and a car, mashed together. The song is candid – Last Tango in Paris so. There is an urgency in the lust making, twentysomethings going at it, the moment flushed with sweat and daring. The drums propel that urgency with a ripper riff and wild yet tight solos. Warner’s singing, emphasising the rhythm, builds the song to its climax. It’s feverish pace, candid content and tight structure make this a standout. This is in a very select group of songs from the last 70 years that capture youthful sexual abandon in such a forthright manner. A live fave.
3. African Summer
Warner at his most playful and original, with a deep dive into the intensity of Perth weather in January – summer as a trope to twist ideas inside out. Warner uses it imaginatively, persuasively and as mood and rhythm. It’s a west Aussie reflection of time and place. The wordplay is sublime, (Indian Ocean swimmer, swummer, swum under la Narrows … jumping like chimpanzees in their Staggers and Lees … neon bananas) and the tune reeks of a hot summer’s night, trying to score … something. The song is in step with rhythms and beats found in Talking Heads songs and the sort of music Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon went on to explore. It puts Warner at the forefront of the development of a particular strand of Australian pop music, blending rock and funk.
2. Kangaroo Hop
This is Warner on a stick. Playing with a 1950s rock’n’roll idea (inventing a dance craze) and refashioning it as an Aussie anthem. A steady drum beat slowly builds, setting the tone before guitars saw across the top with their own jagged rhythm and then the drums crash through to take control. Then those lines. Do the hop, do the kangaroo hop, the Australian hop, the kangaroo hop – when you’re an Australian the only thing they think you can do is the kangaroo (pause) hop! And the song kicks into another gear.
Dave is all about identity. Warts and all, Australian. He cut his teeth as a rock act in the era of pub rock. Huge beer barns with hundreds of young people out on a Friday night drinking their pay packets and looking for love or a root. Bands playing five or more gigs a week. For years Warner was the best live act in Perth, maybe Australia. And he has this electrifying dance up his sleeve. Hundreds of punters jumping up and down on the spot (more joyful abandon than pogoing would ever permit) singing at the top of their voices, do the hop, the kangaroo hop. A sight to behold, a mass of bodies hopping in unison.
It is almost impossible to imagine bands and fans connecting like that today. Warner may have imagined that this song would be a dance craze and he had a suburban army who wanted that too. Could Perth in the late 70s start a dance craze based on kids hopping like kangaroos? Warner gave it a damned good shot. And in pubs across Perth and Australia his fans hopped.
The thing is, it still resonates. Not in a nostalgic way. The verses are a witty nod to an array of Aussie characters and ideas that paints a vivid picture of an imagined place. Then the chorus centres the song, as a dance and as a statement. A song as community.
1. Suburban Boy
Every great rock artist has a calling card. That song. This is Warner’s gold plated calling card. So what came first? That riff or the song idea and lyrics? Does it matter? Of course not. How they blend and how the song sounds is the thing. And this song cooked.
The song encapsulates the lost and restless teen/twenty Aussie knockabout bloke. Footy features. Name Australian bands or songs that did that before Warner unleashed it in 1978. Bear in mind how footy dominates Australian culture. Now wonder again how hardly, if any, a song prior to Suburban Boy even touched on a subject so inherent to the Aussie identity. But this song did. Loudly and with a killer riff.
Suburban Boy maintains the old adage, keep it simple. The focus is one guy, who can’t understand why he has been forgotten. Trapped in that netherworld of twenty something, unable to distinguish lust and love and belonging. Springsteen’s song, Dancing in the Dark and The Beatles, I Want to Hold Your Hand and other standout songs examine this dilemma. Warner gives it a uniquely Australian flavour. And then there’s the riff. Surely in the top twenty riffs in Australian songs.
Pathos is central to the story. The protagonist is old enough to know his situation aint right but not mature enough to know it is a fleeting thing. That is the core tension and it is strung tight.
The superficial tension is between our protagonist and boys from the city. What is really burning his wick is that he is waking up every morning with no one beside him. It is not a sexual reference even though that is part of his dilemma. This song conveys a longing for companionship, maybe even love and it is real. You can feel it. Despite the angst and mixed up confusion that is the spleen of the song, its heart is what matters. We are the protagonist and boy do we feel his pain. And then there is that goddamn earworm of a riff!