Culture - Issue 91 - Magazine | Monocle

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Starman shines a light

David Bowie was a marvellous musical maverick but he should also be remembered for his contribution to turning the tide of Australia’s self-awareness.


A lot has been claimed of David Bowie's god-like genius and much if it is true.

But the one big thing that sailed under the radar in the UK is just how important he was to Australia’s race relations and its view of itself. Just as Bowie was critical of MTV for under-representing black musicians yet made MTV-bait like the video for “Let’s Dance”, he loved Australia but didn’t like all of its attitudes. That 1983 hit single “Let’s Dance” is a timeless classic, a see-no-joints bit of construction and execution; an emollient slice of pop perfection produced by Nile Rodgers. You might think the video would be something glossy, maybe starring model-worthy dancers shimmying about in a big air-conditioned Manhattan studio. Au contraire: it was shot in a dusty old roadhouse hotel in the outback town of Carinda and stars Bowie, granted, but also cattle-herders, sheep-shearers, men in battered hats and Aboriginals. Aboriginals on the TV? In 1983? Bowie, as with much else, was ahead of his time.

Bowie’s hair is dyed Tintin-yellow but his colonial manners are far better than those of Hergé. Lyrically, “Let’s Dance” plays its cards close to its chest but the video features a young Aboriginal couple stuck in menial jobs while dreaming of performing the chorus line: “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues”. Co-director David Mallett later described the promo as being “intentionally anti-racist”; the other co-director was Bowie himself, who told the ABC that it was “a direct statement on integration”.

Of course, no one was talking about this back then, not until Bowie’s video presented a mirror to Australia and it looked back, whitely. There’s a campaigning spirit to “Let’s Dance” that is executed with subtlety and humour, as evidenced by Bowie playing a factory owner who prefigures Christopher Walken’s insane Bond villain Max Zorin. Of course, this is as nothing compared to the video’s use of early special effects: a nuclear explosion behind a mountain range and a dream sequence above the Sydney Opera House, Bowie’s face shimmering across the harbour like a medieval annunciation painting. Charming and important as it is, we were all stagily coughing into our Foster’s at those moments (only in the UK; I know you Aussies haven’t as much as heard of it).

Sometimes it takes a sly intervention from an artist who has had his senses attuned in London, New York and Berlin to use his stay in Sydney to present a watershed moment. For the first time Aborigines saw themselves in unstuffy entertainment, that thing which changes attitudes faster than 100 years of politics. After all, “If you say run, I’ll run with you; if you say hide, we’ll hide”.


Emily York

Owner, Penny Drop


Australia’s live music industry brings a staggering AU$15.7bn (€10.3bn) to the economy. Within this industry is boutique music-touring business Penny Drop, which does everything from booking visas to venues. Known for its credibility and consistency, it brings the world’s more interesting artists to their antipodean fans.

How do you know which artists will do well?
I don’t always know but I gravitate toward talented innovators. They can be polarising but are often the artists that evolve in the most interesting way over a long career. I just finished working on my fourth tour with Joanna Newsom – she’s a rare talent.

How much do Australians enjoy live music?
We have a huge appetite for it. Often artists will draw the same numbers here as they would in cities such as London and New York, which proportionally means more people are turning out to see an act here than anywhere else in the world.

How have you sustained a business in music?
It’s taken a long time to get the balance right. It’s a challenge to have the will power to not just dive into everything that sounds cool and seems exciting. And I maintain a passion for music. I try to make sure I am doing something that is truly exciting and inspiring for both the artist and the audience.

The Show

What we're tuning in for

Wolf Creek

US feature films aren’t the only ones being adapted into big-budget TV dramas: Australian grindhouse horror thriller Wolf Creek is being turned into a six-part series by Netflix rival Stan.

The content

Set in the deep Australian outback, Wolf Creek follows the story of 19-year-old American tourist Eve Thorogood, who escapes from notorious backpacker killer Mick Taylor (he appeared in the original film) and embarks on a mission of revenge after he kills her family.

The talent

John Jarratt reprises his role as Taylor, while Eve is played by Australian actress Lucy Fry, who is set to star in James Franco-fronted Stephen King adaptation 11/22/63. The show was created by Greg McLean, who directed the film, but largely written by Peter Gawler and Felicity Packard, the duo known for writing mob drama Underbelly. It’s directed by Tony Tilse.

The schedule

The six-hour series will launch in mid-2016 on Australian online TV service Stan, with all episodes available at once. The show will subsequently be sold to global broadcasters and digital operators by French sales agent Banijay International.

On Record



A wonderful follow-up to the Aussie electro trio’s debut, Bloom brims with confidence and choruses. Recorded in Berlin, this is bedroom music exported to the dance floor with big beats and universal themes. A richly deserved breakthrough beckons for this summer stunner.

The Jezabels


Welcome back The Jezabels, with this square-jawed, look-you-straight-in-the-eye, hugely satisfying album of gothic-tinged electronic rock. Ten strong songs and true and all that. Or is it? The Australian four-piece are operating at two speeds here. There is the operatic pop of Kate Bush (“Smile”) and the driving big-sound keyboards of Cyndi Lauper (“Unnatural”); then there is the deep, dark lyrical content that nods to “concept album” territory. Cynthia? The Greek goddess of the moon. Synthia? She also plays mean piano. And beautifully. Made in straitened times of illness for one of the band members, this is a record with a brooding dark heart and a big bright soul.

The Close-up

Just trying looking away


John Singleton, 74, the maverick ad man turned radio baron and racehorse owner, can often be found holding up the bar. Recently warned by doctors that his life will be cut short if he doesn’t quell the drinking, “Singo” likes to sink a few. Legend has it that he tests potential business partners’ fortitude by taking them on a pub crawl before signing the deal.


Having grown up in Sydney’s working-class inner-western suburbs, Singo’s education is limited to his years at Fort Street High School, one of the city’s most prestigious academic government schools. He obviously took the school’s motto seriously: Faber est suae quisque fortunae translates roughly as “Every man is the maker of his own fortune”.


Revered for his work ethic and party spirit, Singo embodies the “Work hard, play hard” ethos that Australians so admire. In addition to his love of beer, horseracing is a passion. Often he combines the two. On an exceptionally winning day at Sydney’s Rosehill Gardens racecourse, he shouted every punter at the track a drink.


His ad agencies have created some of Australia’s most famous television commercials, many engaging the use of strong “ocker” Australian accents to get the message across. His campaign for the Labor party saw fellow larrikin and good mate Bob Hawke elected prime minister in 1983. His stakeholding in the Macquarie Radio Network, Australia’s most-listened-to, has furthered his media reach.

Finest Moment

In addition to stellar business success, Singo has enjoyed many fine personal moments. Not least of all six wedding days and the births of seven children.




Shelter: How Australians Live

Kara Rosenlund

Shelter, a stunning book of words and pictures, is a road trip that gobbles the miles between agricultural lands, the dusty interior and surf country. We see verandas and red-tin roofs, crammed kitchens and vermilion sands. A map would help but then maybe the whole idea would get lost?



Ned Kelly: The Man Behind the Mask

Hugh Dolan

Hugh Dolan gives the tale of great Australian folk hero Ned Kelly the graphic treatment. Kelly’s story is wonderful – from Tipperary to notoriety via bars, gun fights and jails – and Dolan’s comic telling is wry, spry and pithy. Notable too is the author’s subtle way of slipping social commentary into the speech balloons: women’s place in colonial society, for example. While Kelly was fast and loose, Dolan’s straight and true – but what a ride.



All That is Lost Between Us

Sara Foster

Set amid the cold beauty of the Lake District, Foster’s latest psychological thriller harbours a deep menace. Less forensic crime investigation and more domestic dissension, we witness a hit-and-run accident turn a family into the tormented and the tormentors. Escalating tension and classic suspense make this a contemporary page-turner.




Philip Salom

This bittersweet tale of two odd couples left searching for the Australian dream is set in Melbourne’s suburbs. It traverses academia, cross-dressing and bushfire zones and is an insightful novel about big characters with very little in life, exploring what this says about the rest of us.



A Loving, Faithful Animal

Josephine Rowe

Rowe’s much-anticipated debut novel dives into the heart of a family attempting to salvage themselves from the scars of the past. Brutal and tender, this is a dark domestic drama battling with the wreckage of the Vietnam War.

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