There are few lyricists who are able to make me feel grateful to be Australian the way Paul Kelly can. Amongst the many popular songs that sing the praises of cities like New York, Los Angeles and London, Kelly is able to portray a much-needed, down-to-earth and honest representation of Australian cities and life. As a staple of the Australian music scene for decades, the singer-songwriter has had numerous hit singles, as well as many other artists covering his songs.
Paul Kelly will be playing Bluesfest this year, alongside the likes of Jack Johnson, Snarky Puppy, and Tash Sultana. We’ve put together a list of 10 essential Paul Kelly tracks to get you re-educated on his extensive discography, so you can sing along when you catch his set at the festival this month.
To Her Door, Under the Sun (1987)
To Her Door epitomises Kelly’s abilities as a storyteller. Written about the domestic life of a married couple, it paints a narrative that shows a stark contrast to the Hollywood portrayal of happily ever after. This track is also a great song to learn for beginner guitarists, and I have fond memories of playing it with my Dad as a teenager.
How To Make Gravy, How to Make Gravy (1996)
A beloved national classic, ‘How To Make Gravy’ tells the story of a man in jail writing to his brother on the outside, explaining how to make the gravy for Christmas. It cleverly interweaves lines from the recipe with lines about how much he misses his family: “And don’t forget a dollop of tomato sauce for sweetness and that extra tang/ And give my love to Angus and to Frank and Dolly/ Tell ’em all I’m sorry I screwed up this time”.
Dumb Things, Under the Sun (1987)
Dumb Things is of Paul Kelly’s most beloved songs, and for good reason. The title sums up the themes addressed in the track – the protagonist has done some, well, dumb things. “I see the knives out, I turn my back/ I hear the train coming, I stay right on that track”. There’s also a sick electronic keyboard solo in the song that screams Australian eighties alt-rock.
Sydney from a 747, Smoke (1999)
With an opening line that asks “have you ever seen Sydney from a 747 at night?” this song is starkly Australian. ‘Sydney from a 747’ was released on the 1999 album Smoke, which was a collaboration between Kelly and Australian bluegrass group Uncle Bill, and features a banjo and pretty vocal harmonies. Whenever I’m flying in or out of Sydney at night, I think of this song.
Leaps And Bounds, Gossip (1986)
‘Leaps And Bounds’ was released in 1987 and has a distinctly eighties sound, with bright keyboard synths and twangy guitar. The song gives a shout out to the MCG, and the chorus is super catchy. The song had a long history before it became a final product, first beginning life in 1978 when Paul Kelly and co-writer Chris Langman played in a band in Melbourne together.
You’re 39, You’re Beautiful And You’re Mine, Stolen Apples (2007)
One of Kelly’s slow piano ballads, this love song speaks of the fondness the protagonist feels for his long-time partner. It’s a calming track, with pretty lines like: “Like a sailing ship at sea bearing spice and history/ You come swaying to me in your prime/ You’re 39, you’re beautiful and you’re mine.”
From St Kilda To King’s Cross, Post (1985)
‘From St Kilda To King’s Cross’ is one of those tracks that just feels so Australian. It opens with the line “from St Kilda to King’s Cross is thirteen hours on a bus/ I pressed my face against the glass/ and watched the white lines rushing past”. The song goes on to describe the protagonist missing St Kilda Esplanade, and saying he’d trade Sydney Harbour for it.
Darling It Hurts, Gossip (1986)
A blues song with distorted guitar, ‘Darling It Hurts’ sounds a little different to most Paul Kelly songs. The single was released in 1986 and was the second release from group Paul Kelly & The Coloured Girls. It tells the story of a man who sees an ex-girlfriend has become a sex worker in Darlinghurst, and the subsequent emotions he feels towards it: “darling it hurts to see you down Darlinghurst tonight”.
Before Too Long, Gossip (1986)
I’ve always interpreted this song as being about unrequited love and the hope that the person you’re lusting after will soon realise they love you back. The melody is sure to be stuck in your head for a long time after listening, and the female backing vocals towards the end of the song add a gorgeous layer to the track.
From Little Things Big Things Grow, Comedy (1991)
A protest song, this track was first released by Paul Kelly & The Messengers in 1991. It tells the story of Vincent Lingiari, the Gurindji strike, and the beginning of the Indigenous land rights movement. The song spans eight years, describing the struggles faced by the Gurindji people, and the issues they came up against in the fight to get their land back.
Paul Kelly will perform at Byron Bay Bluesfest this month.