Love This City: Revisiting The Whitlams’ Seminal Album, 20 Years On

Image: The Whitlams – supplied.

Author: Paul Macadam

How often do you hear a song about Sydney? How about an album? Love This City is not strictly conceptual – just two tunes directly address the place in a geographical sense – but Sydney runs deeper in The Whitlams’ DNA than that of any other nationally recognised band. And if they didn’t love it, they’d have named the album something else. Several songs are lighter and brighter than you might remember; a tonal uplift attributable to frontman Tim Freedman working with a budget he previously could’ve only dreamed of, and his having reached the other side of a tough time. As the record turns twenty, I want to celebrate its musical qualities, while reflecting on how sharply it observed developments which Australia is still reckoning with.

When The Whitlams began, an exclusively piano-playing frontman was almost unprecedented in Australian popular music. Before the mid-90s, your established options as a male performer from these shores were to sing (preferably in a denim jacket), play (preferably electric) guitar, or both at once. A slight yet steady de-masculinisation of Oz society occurred throughout the decade, and by its midpoint, the country was finally ready for a Freedman. Tina Arena had helped legitimise the piano/singer-songwriter combo, but it was still a musical climate dominated by guitars. The true story of Freedman informally forming The Whitlams with the late Stevie Plunder at the 1992 Big Day Out while not watching Nirvana also holds a poetic truth: they were content to follow their own path, whether that was in sync with the zeitgeist or not.

Like 1997’s Eternal Nightcap, the opening track of Love This City features an invitation to live with the narrator. That might be coincidental, but it tells the story of a new optimism across the record. On ‘No Aphrodisiac’, it was designed to sound desperate, with “There’s room for your dog…” followed by an awkward silence. ‘Make the World Safe’ is in a different mood. Notice the major key; the brisker tempo; the busy chord changes. “Nothing bad will happen now,” claims the refrain, a knowingly impossible promise. Freedman harmonises with himself in the chorus, as though willing that declaration into reality.

‘Thank You (For Loving Me at My Worst)’ keeps the good times rolling. It’s the album’s most unreservedly joyful song; driven by a swinging mid-60s groove complete with horns and bells (the latter possibly nicked from ‘You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice’ by The Lovin’ Spoonful). Never as solemn as depicted, Freedman lets his humour lead the way. He sings of shaking up the band with a keytar, ironising their misfit status alluded to above. During those final runs of “If this isn’t love, it’s very close”, the chords keep shifting between a major 7th and the minor 7th underneath; a musical metaphor for excited uncertainty.

The bitter, witty title track reveals much about its setting and era. And this era, too. Gentrification, alienation, exclusive opulence, under-resourced transport networks: it’s all there. Our observer suffers an implausible number of misfortunes within 24 hours, concluding that Sydney winning its bid to host the Olympics is one too many. “Lathered up thinkin’ ‘bout designs for T-shirts”, he scowls, and while the barb is specific to the then-forthcoming Games, there’s an enduring relevance: quick-buck business ideas and the dipshits with more money than sense who dream them up are as Sydney as a liquid picnic in Hyde Park. Alongside the goodwill fostered by a once-in-a-life occasion, the event’s legacy includes unfulfilled promises of a tourism boom, and an 80,000-seat stadium that everybody hates. History has been kind to Freedman’s cynicism on this matter.

Thematically, the next two songs can be viewed as one. A beloved Newtown boozer for over a century, the Sandringham Hotel held additional significance as a live music venue in the 1980s, 90s, and again from 2005-2012. It hosted many early Whitlams gigs, but was awash with poker machines by the time of Love This City. ‘God Drinks at the Sando’ stemmed from watching a musician gamble where the stage once was (note the overlap with the next song’s opening stanza). The performances are delicate; carrying the song with care like it’ll smash into pieces if dropped. In verse two, listen out for a rumbling chord which disrupts the peace. It’s as close as you’ll hear a piano come to symbolising a drink spilled over a table. ‘Blow Up the Pokies’ doesn’t mess about with its title. While ‘God Drinks’ has a dash of romanticism about the subject’s drunken state, it’s wisely stripped away here. That two-stepped chord progression from ‘Thank You’ returns from the start, this time evoking sorrow rather than joy. “And I wish I, wish I knew the right words”, sings Freedman to a friend; the stutter employed not just to fill in syllables, but to illustrate how hard the perfect speech is to conjure. The lights on the Sando’s old stage are movingly juxtaposed with those on the fruit machine screens.

The word “dodgy” surely made its debut on top 40 radio with this single, and I can’t think of another song as unflinching in its account of gambling addiction’s impact, or as damning of its structural enablers.

The Whitlams had a political conscience beyond their backyard. ‘400 Miles from Darwin’ turns its attention to the Timor-Leste struggle for independence, focusing on Australia’s complicity in upholding a dictatorship (after the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, where over 250 unarmed protesters were murdered, Canberra continued to recognise Indonesian rule). Fingers are pointed at citizens along with the state. “In 20 years we’ll pay to shed the same cheap tears” is a dig at those who would sooner soothe their guilt via the cinema than confront a crisis in an unfiltered way. Two decades on, as the farcical Northern Territory intervention turns twelve, and the outsourced horrors of offshore detention continue with no end in sight, ‘400 Miles’ remains vital. With the Prime Minister using ‘quiet Australians’ rhetoric to make a virtue of tight-lipped compliance, the charge that we “kept on driving quietly home” demands contemplation in the present tense.

The last song I’ll pick out is ‘There’s No-One’, maybe the finest Freedman has written. A ballad about life on the road, it reaches wider into the question of what it means to be missing someone, yet comfortable enough with your own company. “I’m not a tomcat doin’ the rounds”, he insists, denouncing the libidinous character of ‘I Make Hamburgers’ as the chords slide in descending semitones. Recorded in Memphis, the band made the most of their location, calling in Stax session man Lester Snell to take over the keys, and Jackie Johnston, credited with the gorgeous layered harmonies in the coda. It was described in interviews as the album’s least difficult session and the immediacy is palpable.

I’ll say this of most albums, it could’ve been a fraction shorter. ‘Her Floor Is My Ceiling’ affirms Robert Forster’s truism about penultimate tracks, and was left off the setlist for the album’s anniversary tour in June. Still, Love This City holds together with remarkable cohesion, given the number of people involved. Five bassists and six drummers lent their services – ‘Pretty As You’ features two of each – which could’ve easily resulted in a record pulling in eleven different directions. A lineup in flux had the potential to be an obstacle, too. Terepai Richmond (drums) and Warwick Hornby (bass) – Whitlams from 1999 onwards – respectively played on half and none of the tracks. The key? Whether on zither or marimba, everyone stuck to the adage of playing what’s right for the song. Love This City holds value as a document of a moment, but also for seeing what was around the corner; locally and nationally. While there are more songs of love than of protest, that variety remains a strength, and each topic is imbued with unique perceptions.

The Whitlamsalbum Love This City was released on the 1st November 1999 and continues to strike a chord with Sydneysiders today.

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