Seven reasons Jimmy Barnes is Australia’s David Bowie
YesYou know Jimmy Barnes, don’t you? “Man of the working class”. ‘Khé Sanh’. Screaming sweaty rock guy. Do what he does, keep kicking, Oz rock royalty. No surprises. Wrong, my friend. Wrong wrong wrong wrong.
The man born James Dixon Swan is Australia’s most stealthy enigma, a mysterious changeling that has reinvented itself so many times over the decades that it could be the closest thing to a David Bowie figure that Australia has ever produced. Of course, he’s never donned a clown costume or pretended to be an alien – until now anyway – and he doesn’t have the kind of untouchable mystic of the late Thin White Duke, either. Remember, writing two best-selling autobiographies that start a national conversation about the long-term effects of childhood abuse and poverty somehow dilutes the chances of creating a facade of otherworldly mystery.
But think about it: Australia has many artists who have had careers spanning decades, and how many of them have covered the kind of ground Barnes has? At best, a lot of the long-term experimentation of these other loyal artists boils down to “made an acoustic album” (right, Mark Seymour? Close to the brand out there, Diesel?) Novelty remix! (John Paul Young, say hello).
Only Kylie comes close, having brilliantly revamped her image a dozen or more times. But there has been little significant stylistic change in his current music. Barnes, meanwhile, has covered a lot of ground, from rock and soul to nursery rhymes and screaming rockabilly literally on top of a mountain. That, my friends, is the reach.
So, before Barnes releases his new album “Flesh And Blood” this Friday (and a children’s book and cookbook later this year), here are seven ways Bowie and Barnes’ careers echoed.
1. The two artists created themselves without a past
While each performer seemed like a fully formed phenomenon by the time they caught the public’s attention, Barnes and Bowie had already paid some money.
Bowie had gone through several groups, several failed singles and three stage names before “Space Oddity” finally broke through. Barnes, on the other hand, had replaced his brother John ‘Swanee’ Swan’s vocal group, Fraternity after their frontman quit (a dude named Bon Scott) before joining, quitting and joining a band called Orange, which ultimately accepted that they needed a better name and renamed themselves Cold Chisel.
In both cases, the artists presented themselves as ingenious young people with supernatural talent, rather than seasoned professionals with hundreds of terrible shows behind them. Barnes could seem fully formed as the Ultimate Rock Dude, while Bowie focused on feeling like he was literally from Mars. The public was no more aware of it.
2. Both had a soulful period wooing the United States
Like Bowie, Barnes failed to convince the United States to notice him while he was rocking at the cutting edge of technology. Cold Chisel didn’t make waves in the United States, and despite touring Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Bowie couldn’t gain a foothold either. The two responded to this rejection of the nation that so deeply influenced them by demonstrating their love for some of its most archetypal musical genres: classical soul and R&B.
Granted, Bowie’s attempt went rather better: “Young Americans” was a major hit and that eponymous 1969 album and tour also forged the backbone of the band that Bowie would use for his next five albums. “Soul Deep” did not skyrocket Barnes’ career in the United States, but it was a huge boost to his career in Australia, where it was a commercial success and gave him a musical touch. he has continued to explore ever since with tours and a sequel.
3. Both had a prolonged chemical phase
There’s nothing to celebrate, but the two spent much of the ’70s and’ 80s (and, in Barnes ‘case, the’ 90s) drinking surprising amounts of alcohol and drugs. And, more importantly, the two had the illusions of immortality that were cruelly wrenched from them when their hearts collapsed in their early fifties despite embracing sobriety and healthy living.
In Bowie’s case, a heart attack ended his touring career when he needed emergency surgery in 2004 after a show in Germany; in Barnes’ case, he underwent open heart surgery in 2007, which luckily went well enough to get him back to work just six months later.
4. Both scored hits by holding their place among rock royalty
One of Barnes’ biggest singles came as a spin-off of the groundbreaking Australian Made Touring festival, where he duet with headliners INXS on the 1968 Easybeats classic “Good Times”. It gave credit to both parties: it showed that INXS can rock and it showed the enthusiastic pop kids that this guy from Barnes has the all-important Mr. Hutchence seal of approval.
The track reached number two on the Australian charts (and was also ranked in the US and UK, thanks to its inclusion in the soundtrack of the 1987 film. The lost boys) and became the closest to the stars every night of the tour, with singers from all groups touring.
It was awesome, but it’s not quite writing a hit with a Beatle, which Bowie did when John Lennon popped in during the “Young Americans” sessions and jammed a bit with guitarist Carlos. Alomar. The end result was ‘Fame’, Bowie’s first American No.b1.
Bowie also provided Queen with their most listenable song in the Spur of the Moment collaboration “Under Pressure”, another No. 1 in 1981. Yes, he had another No. 1 in 1985 with Mick Jagger’s duo. ‘Dancing In The Street’ but surely as a society we can all agree that this song and this video never happened, right?
5. The two joined groups and came out of mid-career slumps
Bowie’s 1980s started off strong, with “Let’s Dance” marking his first truly international hit album. But by the middle of the decade, he was in a creative trough, releasing the little-loved “Never Let Me Down” and for the first time looking horribly out of step with what was going on in the music.
Barnes experienced a similar slump in the mid-90s. His 1993 “grunge” album “Heat” was his first unranked No. 1, and 1995’s “Psyclone” did not turn the tide. But in 97, he found Cold Chisel. Hatchets had been buried and their next album ‘The Last Wave Of Summer’ debuted at the top of the charts.
Likewise, Bowie had to go through a period as a band to regain his mojo: few rate the two Tin Machine albums among his best, but having some free time to be David Bowie has clearly done his muse a lot of good.
6. Both have become loved by new generations
Bowie is remembered for his stoic turn as a British officer in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence? Not really. His alien turn in The man who fell to earth? A little. A goblin king with a scary and eye-catching tights Labyrinth? Oh damn yeah.
Barnes has yet to star in a fantasy epic, but he has written several children’s books and performed with The Wiggles. It’s the royalty of Australian children, right there.
7. Both made better versions of “All The Young Dudes” than Mott The Hoople
It’s just a fact.
Jimmy Barnes’ “Flesh And Blood” Releases July 2nd