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Happy Mag took a deep dive into Western Sydney for their recent print – yes, it still happens! – edition, #17. I was asked for some thoughts on Western Sydney music then and now, the albums that mattered, and why they mattered.

It got me looking around now and going back to prehistoric times of being a kid in the west, the corner of the city most people forgot, then and now. There were some feelings.


IT’S TRUE ENOUGH that you can’t be what you can’t see. Watching people who look like you and sound like you on screen or on the radio tells you that paths are available and alternatives possible. That’s me. They are me. There is a we, not just an I.

Those aren’t just encouraging revelations; they can be life changing. The absence of it can crush that life.

As someone who as a kid saw another brown person on TV, or read a byline that wasn’t Smith or Jones, Fitzgerald or McDonald, about as often as I ordered a dinner from a posh restaurant menu, as someone who knew that the lawyers and TV hosts, the doctors and the actors came from “over there”, the idea that my friends and I could be considered among them was fanciful.

That’s why if I caught a glimpse of someone that seemed more “us” then “them” I leapt on them as equal parts dreams and heroes, the reality be damned. For example, there was a sister pop act call Cheetah, one blonde and one brunette, but both looking more “foreign” than any other act on Countdown, and I figured they must be wogs like me, all of us possibly fitting in what later would be called “Middle Eastern appearance” by our friends in the police and media. How exciting.

Decades later I found out they were as Anglo-Saxon as they come, though yes, they had regularly been assumed to be otherwise. But it didn’t matter because those three minute bursts on TV or radio had left a crack in the façade of Australian society, and that’s where the light came in.

All this is true, and all this is part of the story. But it’s only part. The other story of music and culture in Western Sydney is more a case of you can’t be observed if you’re not being heard, but that’s their problem not ours!

Because the truth is, the music was always here, the art was always here, even if this simple fact eluded decision makers whose idea of travelling was to get to Annandale, whose holiday jaunts to Cronulla or the Blue Mountains counted as broadening their minds. Yes, even in the dank and dim days of the 1980s and 1990s where Tim Rogers, transplanted from the very far west, of Perth, was growing up in the Hills district northwest Sydney, before the farms disappeared completely, before travelling to the city could be done down a motorway or a fast train line, before Hillsong had brought the sell.

Rogers regularly would come into a record store in Parramatta and wonder if he would impress the bloke behind the counter, John Encarnacao, and maybe emulate him. That was the John Encarnacao who had grown up in Smithfield and Fairfield a few years earlier and was a recording artist in pop and art rock bands like The Flies and Smelly Tongues; a collaborator with people like Bill Gibson, who had been in defining Sydney rock bands New Christs and Eastern Dark, and later American indie pop figureheads, The Lemonheads; who played on the same bills as The Hard-Ons and was at school with a couple of members of Lime Spiders.

When rock in any form dominated the airwaves and pub rooms it wasn’t just that you could see bands every week playing venues from Rydalmere and Cabramatta to Pennant Hills and Revesby, this mattered because many of those bands grew up near you, knew the same stories you knew … were you.

The 1995 album Hi Fi Way, from Rogers’ band, You Am I, may have been recorded in NYC and inner Sydney, but in Western Sydney we knew it was from us. The Hard-Ons’ Yummy may have sounded like surf punks overrunning a metal gig in Narrabeen with big tunes shouted bigger but we knew they were from Punchbowl, we knew they didn’t look like a bunch of white kids slumming it, and we knew that’s what we sounded like and what we looked like too.

Radio didn’t care? TV and the newspapers didn’t know? Fuck ‘em. Generations now have grown having been fed by their own stories and inspired by their own heroes. Whether they knew it or not – and I suspect they know it well – Five Seconds Of Summer, fruit of the Hills too, or The Rubens, from Menangle, a bit of a hike down the M5 from Punchbowl, were fed on that milk.

Montaigne’s Glorious Heights, a top five album from 2016, refashioned what was possible. A debut, from a non-binary artist, from Western Sydney, not playing rock, not packaged as trouble-free pop – so many things that once would have been considered almost insurmountable barriers – it said “so what?” to anyone who thought it unlikely, and “see now” to people who heard themselves represented in the words and sounds and aspirations of the artist also known as Jess Cerro, a football-playing, philosopher-quoting child of Argentinian, Spanish, Filipino, French and, now, Australian heritage. How western Sydney is that?

As Montaigne said to me a couple of years later, not long before representing Australia at, of all things, Eurovision, “It’s the fact that a lot of our behaviours, individually as well as on a macro level … is internalised from your childhood, from your parents, from the relationships and environment that you grew up in.” And Glorious Heights reshaped that environment.

When rock ruled, R&B and funk, soul and then hip hop were occasionally heard on the radio, if they were American, but never bothered with if it was local.

“Did it even get made locally?” you could imagine it being asked. Followed by “anyway, it’s only the wog kids into it”. Hell yeah, it was being made and even if it was only the wog kids listening – it wasn’t you know – there were more and more of them. And they wanted it.

Urthboy’s The Signal and Hermitude’s one-two punch of HyperParadise and Dark Night Sweet Light – all released on the label that said Western Sydney has not been waiting for you, Elefant Traks – felt like they grew there when others merely flew (over) there.

See the roots, the crisscrossing roads, the genesis of the same fuck ‘em we’re here attitude in them that blew up through OneFour’s run of tracks from Ready For War to Comma’s.

Feel the community tendrils, the representation that can be literally and figuratively explored in L-Fresh The Lion’s trio of Liverpool albums whose sequence of titles tell this bigger story of being, of connection, of saying: One, Become, South West.

This originally was published in Happy Mag.


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