The last 20 years have seen a multitude of books devoted to the Australian music scene, many of them tell-all biographies peppered with anecdotal apocrypha. Whilst most are entertaining and often quite revealing, much of our music history has gone undocumented and sadly neglected. It’s a big positive then that Clinton Walker’s new book Suburban Songbook fills in a huge historical gap as he plots the course of Australian popular music from the post war period to the pre-Countdown era.
Walker has long been one of our most respected and fastidious chroniclers of Australian music, best known for books such as Buried Country and Inner City Sound. In Suburban Songbook he excels himself as he creates a narrative of our cultural and social history, based on the songs and songwriters of the period. As he explains:
“I had just had an interest in the topic for a long time, I mean really this book is just seeing Australian music history through a different lense, it’s the lense of the songwriting, and I don’t think I’d ever really seen it looked at from that angle, and so that then becomes part of the motivation, to write a book, to find out, to plug the gap in the knowledge and in the market. And of course the more you find out the less you know as they say, and so I just kept digging, and finding material.”
A self admitted ‘recovering crate digger’ and ‘recovering rock journalist’, he has obviously built a great archive over the years, not only in thousands of records and magazines, but in his head as well. Suburban Songbook is extensively illustrated with all manner of old advertisements, movie posters, pulp novel covers, artist pics and record company ephemera, all which brilliantly compliment the detailed and highly engaging text. There’s also artwork from Martin Sharp, Stewart Macfarlane, Glenno Smith and Clinton himself, which he collectively and rightly describes as “an orgy of eye candy.”
The book is also very much a biographical journey for Walker, whose musical tastes have always been eclectic, ranging from Australian country, through obscure indie bands to seminal punk rock. He still remembers the impact of his early teenage years in Brisbane circa 1970, listening to K-Tel albums like 20 Dynamic Hits on a tiny record player.
“I’d listened to music on a tiny transistor radio I had, but when you started getting records, that was something else again, and it just fed this whole feeding frenzy, there was so much music on TV, whether it was ‘Happening 71’ or ‘GTK’, you know, and radio, and getting records like one of the first actual LPs I got after two Rolling Stones albums was Best of the Bee Gees, it all just imprints something on you.”
As a journey through the 50s to the early 70s, Clinton creates a face-paced and keenly observed sense of political change and social evolution. He clearly defines the numerous songs detailed in the book as part of the conservation with our culture, society and history. Combined with the treasure trove of archival illustrations he has lovingly assembled it’s both a shameless nostalgia trip for anybody who grew up in that post war period or a real opener for a more recent generation.
Whilst he had already accumulated much of the book’s material in his own archive, he admits that the project was very much a personal learning process
“…I actually learnt a million things, in terms of, you know, hearing songs I’d never heard, learning stories I didn’t know, but if you’re getting a big picture thing, yeah, that’s something I’ve maybe just started to think about a bit more deeply since finishing the book.”