In December of 2020, Rolling Stone Australia released a special edition issue which looks at the 50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time, paying tribute to the best and most impactful artists in Australian music history. While it would have been easy for the editors and writers of the publication to profess their love of the listed artists, the decision was instead made for those who found themselves inspired by these world-renowned names to share their own testimonials of why these artists deserve to make the list.
In celebration of the issue’s release in December, we’re counting down the full 50 artists and their accompanying testimonials in this ongoing online feature. If you want to get your hands on an physical copy of the magazine, be sure to subscribe now to experience the double-length edition featuring some of Australia’s best and brightest discussing the finest names in local music.
50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time – #36: Hoodoo Gurus (by Declan Melia of British India)
My formative memory of the Hoodoo Gurus occurred about a decade ago. British India was just starting to get some traction and we were playing a festival in rural NSW. We opened and the Gurus closed. After melting some faces with a string of familiar openers, Dave Faulkner announced that they were going to play a song they “hadn’t played in a while” and launched into “Turkey Dinner”, the b-side from “Death Defying”. A few bars in, the band looked at each other puzzled, the song floundered to a stop and Dave spoke to the band through the mic: “Hang on, I think it was slower than that, kind of sexier.” They tried again and nailed it.
There was no malice in the directive, the band all knew something was up, and if they were going to play it, they were going to play it right. Not for the sake of the audience, for the sake of the song.
It floors me that, four decades in, the band were still dynamic enough to dip into the obscure corners of their back catalogue if the mood should take them. This wasn’t a nostalgia act; the band weren’t on stage for any other reason than they loved the music. You could see it on their faces, and you could hear it in the songs.
And what songs! Take the first two cuts from the debut (which sounds like a greatest hits package when you play it today). “Let’s All Turn On” is a mission statement, a pop-art spasm of rock‘n’roll clichés falling over each other in excitement. It sounds like walking in on the greatest house party of all time. But this gives way to “I Want You Back”, and we’re in totally different territory. It’s catchy as hell, sure, but the melody is jerky and yearning. It’s a breakup song, but the lyrics only tell us half the story, the details artfully selected. Faulkner’s vocal is a masterclass in restraint and release, the drama when he jumps the octave in the bridge is operatic. It’s world-class songwriting, on par with the best of The Cure or R.E.M..
“It sounds like walking in on the greatest house party of all time.”
The first record set the scene, but they didn’t let up. Exploring their back catalogue, the quality is almost overwhelming. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that their wealth of singles deservedly clogged the airways when I was young. They’re the ultimate, “hang on, this is them as well?” band.
As their songs suggest, the Gurus weren’t part of a scene. Dorkier than INXS and janglier than pub rock, a bit paisley underground but with actual radio hits. The sheer joy of guitar pop permeates everything they touch. They remind us that rock‘n’roll should never be played without relish, but that doesn’t mean it has to be stupid. Life isn’t tragic, it’s bittersweet.