Paul Kelly

TrackAlbum / EP
From St. Kilda To Kings CrossPost
Leaps And BoundsGossip
When I First Met Your MaHidden Things
Deeper WaterDeeper Water
They Thought I Was AsleepFoggy Highway
Dumb ThingsUnder The Sun
CarelessSo Much Water So Close To Home
Difficult WomanDeeper Water
To Her DoorUnder The Sun
How To Make GravyHow To Make Gravy EP

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Contributors: David Lewis & Andrew Shields

Like the great group, The Go-Betweens, and the brilliant guitarist, Rowland S. Howard, Paul Kelly was among the small group of Australian artists whose music I only really began to explore after I moved from Ireland to Australia in the early 2000s. What all three of these fine artists shared was an unashamed literariness and (especially in the case of Kelly and The G-Bs) a determination to portray a distinctively Australian sensibility in their music. This marked them out from many of the Australian artists I had heard who had often seemed determined to sound generically American in their work. Indeed, Kelly himself has described how he was inspired to write in this vein after hearing The Go-Betweens classic song, Cattle And Cane, for the first time. The evocative use of local detail in it meant, Kelly has claimed, that “he could smell … Northern Queensland” in that song. Kelly has also argued that the song gave him a new point of departure in relation to his own songwriting at a time when he was actively searching for one.

However, while Kelly was influenced, in some respects, by The Go-Betweens work, in his own songwriting he rapidly developed a unique voice of his own. For example, his work tended to lean far more towards traditional style story-telling than The G-Bs did. He was also far more influenced by folk music than they were and, on occasion, adopted traditional ballad forms which were very far removed from their style. He also quickly developed a mastery of compression and an eye for the telling detail which he was to use to sometimes devastating effect in his best songs. Through his admiration for the great American short story writer, Raymond Carver, he also developed a knack for knowing which details to leave out of his songs. In this respect, their emotional effect was often heightened by the fact that the listener had to supply for themselves some of the backdrop to his songs. Working through hints and inference his very best songs (including most of those selected here) carried an emotional punch which few other songwriters could equal.

My first selection, From St. Kilda To Kings Cross, comes from relatively early in his career and, in many respects, it is a remarkably accomplished song to lead off a debut solo album (Post in 1986). It should be noted here, however, that he had been around the music business in Australia for some time before this and had already recorded two commercially unsuccessful albums with his band, The Dots. In the song, Kelly showed he had already mastered the evocative use of specific local detail (the journey from one place to the other takes “thirteen hours on a bus”, while, if it does not rain too hard that night, the narrator claims, everything in Kings Cross “will shine just like a postcard”. Along with this precision, however, Kelly also goes on to describe a moment of transcendence which is experienced by the narrator of the song while he has his head pressed against the window on the bus. At the moment, he describes “all around … [him]; feeling “like all inside [him]” and his body leaves him and his soul goes “running”. The reasons for this almost mystical experience are not made clear but it fits with the shimmering arrangement of the song and it gives it that element of mystery which is one of its great strengths. This, then, was Kelly’s first truly great song and it remains an Australian classic.

In my next selection, Leaps And Bounds, from his 1986 album, Gossip, Paul Kelly again uses specific local details which add to the evocative nature of the song. They also add an exotic feel for those listeners like me who were born outside Australia. In it, he describes being high “on a hill looking over the bridge to the MCG” (the Melbourne Cricket Club, that is) while, above him, “the clock on the silo says eleven degrees”. However, along with this beautifully observed local detail, the song is also concerned with the nature of memory and its elusive quality. What exactly is brought back to the narrator of the song by the smell of the “burning leaves” is not made clear from the song but we can all speculate as to what it is (bush fires perhaps?). The album, as a whole, has a harder-edged sound than did Kelly’s first album and this is, in large part, a result of the addition of his excellent backing band, The Coloured Girls (later known as The Messengers) with whom he played until 1991. As is the case in Leaps And Bounds, the band could combine enormous subtlety with, on occasion, as the American critic, David Fricke, has put it, being as ‘raw and ornery’ as any 1960s Australian garage band.

My last three selections, however, show Paul Kelly moving into a much more raw and complex depiction of mature relationships and of the strains and emotional scars which they can cause. All three also show his mastery of compression and ability to deal with complex issues in a remarkably concise way. Of the three, When I First Met Your Ma is a beautifully observed depiction of the history of a relationship, while Deeper Water is a superb ‘rite of passage’ song with a sombre twist. The last of the three, They Thought I Was Asleep is probably my favourite Kelly song and shows a master storyteller at the height of his powers. It is a powerful depiction of the moment when the narrator of the song first encountered some of the complexities of the adult world. This is revealed, however, largely in oblique hints and in a masterly concentration on telling details (for example, the oncoming car headlights showing the “the tears on the cheeks” of his father’s face). The child’s reaction to the scene between his parents is also captured brilliantly in this song. A superb live version of the song can be seen here. As this song demonstrates, and as his long back catalogue of superb work shows, Paul Kelly is a songwriter of rare skill, who ranks among the very best that Australia has produced.

Andrew Shields

 

 

Paul Kelly captures the Australian working class better than nearly any other writer (of any style); his fans note a lack of pretension and an honesty that is stunning in its simplicity and complex in its observations. Like Peter Garrett (Midnight Oil), Slim Dusty, Missy Higgins and a few others, he sings in an unembarrassed and unashamed Australian accent, though his influences are international, especially American roots music. He is a rightfully a continual presence on Australian rock radio, and the songs I have chosen are among his more well known; for an international audience, (although he is popular in Britain), I think it appropriate to show why he has popular appeal. He is Australia’s best songwriter by many reckonings, and I (and I think Andrew) would put him as world class.

My first selection is Dumb Things written for the Australian film Young Einstein; it also appeared on Look Who’s Talking 2. Kelly was apparently surprised that the producers used what he thought was the demo: the original concept was to have it slower. Nonetheless, it opens with a howling harmonica, and the Messengers (or the Coloured Girls – same band) roar like a train through the narrator’s list of bad decisions. It’s funny, it’s angry and it’s remorseful, all at once. “I thought that I just had to sing”…

Kelly asks in the next song many unanswered questions: “How many cabs in New York City?” “How many notes in a saxophone?” A gorgeous melody, and a beautiful chorus, Careless is a rumination on relationships. Again from the Messengers, the wistful lyrics and circular harmonic structure suggest, at least to me, a restlessness in the narrator’s sense of his relationship. Kelly can say a lot with very little – his economy of style is incredibly effective.

Difficult Woman was written, allegedly, for Renee Geyer, who did a brilliant version anyway. Apparently she upbraided Kelly for not writing a song for her after he’d written for other people. Renee is one of Australia’s greatest female singers, and the strength of her opinions is a part of her formidable reputation. She apparently didn’t like the lyrics at first, though it is now one of her signature songs and a great favourite. (How much of this is ‘true’ and how much of it is established legend I’ve never been able to work out, but in true ‘Liberty Valance’ style I’m printing the legend anyway.) Kelly does a marvellous version that ranks as one of his best performances.

As I said earlier, Paul Kelly is a master of saying a lot with just a little. To Her Door, the one that most Kelly fans will object to being here (‘but he did so much more that’s better!’). He did do much more, but despite saturation, I couldn’t go past this one. The character development is in the details: He catches an Olympic bus: in Australia, the poor only catch planes to go to a funeral (at least until recently) – the 20 hour bus trip to Melbourne from the North Coast (the Buttery – a drug and alcohol rehab centre) suggests they’re not well off. We know it’s Melbourne because he catches a Silvertop Cab: the main taxi company in Melbourne. So much is implied in the song, and yet the story of almost redemption – we’re never quite sure if they get back together – is powerful and lasting.

My final selection is seen by some as a sequel to To Her Door. Kelly denies it, and I’m inclined to agree with him, though it would make a nice bookend. In fact, it’s one of the best songs ever written from Australia, and almost certainly the best song about prison from here. In two of my other toppermosts (Cold Chisel and AC/DC) I write about two other great prison songs, but this one pips them at the post, I think. How To Make Gravy does not mention prison, warders, jail, crime yet we know it’s from a prison: he mentions getting good behaviour, and being out by July. He also misses someone he doesn’t like – there’s no one he wants to fight in “here”. It takes the form of a prisoner’s thoughts at Christmas time – given no control over his life; given the forced separation of his family; given the loneliness, and remorse, the prisoner tries to capture some of this by talking about what should happen on Christmas day, some family gossip and the recipe for gravy. It’s heartbreaking and honest. With a marvellous melody and a simple but effective chord structure, what more does a great song need?

Paul Kelly is a formidable songwriter, a fine musician, a great bandleader and has a deserved place in the pantheon of great songwriters. This list omits many other great songs, as most of these do, and Kelly fans have varied opinions. We haven’t gone into the dizzying number of bootlegs, of which I am assured definitive versions and as yet unreleased classics lurk and are appreciated.

David Lewis

 

 

Paul Kelly official website

“Paul Kelly: Stories of Me” (movie trailer)

Paul Kelly interview with Andrew Denton on “Enough Rope” (2004)

Paul Kelly on YouTube

Paul Kelly biography (iTunes)

David Lewis has written several posts for Toppermost. He lives in Sydney and lectures in Popular Culture and Contemporary and Roots Music at the Australian Institute of Music. He writes on music here.

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …

TopperPost #492

5 Comments

  1. Glenn Smith
    Dec 8, 2015

    What no Billy Baxter? Nothing from Manila? As both learned contributors note Kelly is a great story teller which he backs up with some superb melody writing. Another important record for him in the lead up to Post was Chris Bailey’s Saints EP Paralytic Tonight, Dublin Tomorrow. Post is a superb album, and From St Kilda perfectly sums up what was a very difficult personal journey for him after the collapse of the Dots. Incident on South Dowling and Look so Fine from Post are worth a mention as is White Train. Another one I might have snuck in is Wintercoat from Comedy. That said I love all these songs, a great list which covers a lot of territory across an extensive career.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Dec 9, 2015

    Glenn, thanks for this. Must say I enjoyed the title of the The Saints EP, which I will check out immediately…
    David, would agree that Kelly is world class. I would place him in the category I reserve for those great songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot and Bruce Cockburn in Canada and Johnny Duhan in Ireland who have remained in their home countries for most of their careers. These artists’ work is, however, just as good or better as that of their often more fashionable and feted contemporaries who have made their careers overseas…

  3. David Lewis
    Dec 9, 2015

    I understand that most of Paul Kelly’s London shows are full of Australian ex-pats…
    Glenn: all great choices – as so often happens, I narrowed down a longer list. And then, I heard one on the radio… and then one on a car stereo, and then I flipped through his book of lyrics (recommended reading)…
    Start here and expand!

  4. Andrew Shields
    Dec 11, 2015

    In relation to Paul Kelly’s book, there is a very good interview with him about it by Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens available here. He also talks about his decision to tour Australia intensively early in his career in it.

  5. Ian Ashleigh
    Dec 29, 2015

    I’ve just listened to the Spotify list and enjoyed every track. Thanks guys for introducing me to yet another new name and some more music to explore. Have a great 2016.

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