Mark Callaghan, of GANGgajang, wrote the words for famous song Sounds of Then sitting on the back deck of his Kalkie home.
Mark Callaghan, of GANGgajang, wrote the words for famous song Sounds of Then sitting on the back deck of his Kalkie home. Contributed

Bundy-inspired song evokes the Sounds of Then

IT STARTED life as the beginnings of a poem, a collection of thoughts scribbled by a teenage boy trying to adjust to life in a new town, a new country.

Almost by accident, it became one of Australia's most recognisable pop anthems.

Mark Callaghan arrived in Bundaberg aged 14, after his English parents decided to migrate to Australia and start a new chapter for the family.

The son of a British army officer, Callaghan was accustomed to moving to new towns and starting over with new schools, new friends.

But this was different.

It was Bundaberg in 1972 and, when Callaghan started at the Christian Brothers school (now Shalom College), he was painfully aware of the suspicion he aroused in the Aussie kids in his class because of his "Pommy" accent.

"I certainly stood out," he told the NewsMail.

"Kids wanted to have a go at me because I spoke with an accent."

Those first few months were tough - it was difficult to make friends and everything seemed so foreign to him.

Callaghan and his family lived in a simple brick veneer home in Kalkie (now owned by former Member for Hinkler Paul Neville), surrounded by scrub and cane fields.

Cane fires were prevalent in those times, and he found it strange to watch the crops grow and grow around them for months, only to disappear in what seemed like an instant after a great show of leaping flame and deafening crackle.

But he worked at chipping away the prejudices of his peers. He joined sporting clubs such as Bingera FC and eventually made friends out of those suspicious Aussies.

Aged 15, Callaghan penned the words to a poem from the deck of his home that would one day become Sounds of Then, with the memorable chorus: "Out on the patio we'd sit, and the humidity we'd breathe. We'd watch the lightning crack over canefields, laugh and think, this is Australia."

When he left Bundaberg a few years later to study architecture at the University of Queensland, he found himself among a concentrated collective of like-minded people for the first time in his life.

"They were all just like me - same interests, same sense of humour. We were a small class of 40, but 13 of us played the guitar," he said.

He formed a band with three others from that class in 1977, jamming and playing punk gigs here and there: "Punk was all about just getting out there and playing, not being a virtuoso."

By 1979, that foursome had evolved into the Riptides, and Callaghan decided to give up uni after four years of study, once he had gained his diploma of design (something that has come in handy for house renovations but not much else).

The Riptides were being produced by Graham "Buzz" Bidstrup, a former Angels drummer. Callaghan later worked with Bidstrup and fellow ex-Angels bass guitarist Chris Bailey to write songs and perform for an ABC music-drama called Sweet and Sour in 1984.

Out of that collaboration grew GANGgajang, which took its name from the sound of a guitar chord ("gajang") and the creativity that came from a collective, or gang, of individuals.

Sounds of Then featured on the band's debut eponymous album in 1985, but it wasn't even released as one of the stand-out singles.

"It started life as just another song - it just happened. There are songs you get precious about and you re-record and re-record, but this wasn't one of them," he said.

Despite that, he still remembers the first time he heard Robert James's jangly guitar ringing out as they were playing around with riffs for the song - the way it hit him in the chest, and knew it was spot-on right from the start.

But the band was ill-prepared for Sounds of Then's eventual success.

"When the song came out, it was the era of MTV and music videos," Callaghan said.

GANGgajang will perform at this year's Woodford Folk Festival. Photo Contributed.
GANGgajang will perform at this year's Woodford Folk Festival. Photo Contributed. Contributed

"We didn't even make a video for it because it wasn't one of the three singles off the album. As it turned out, that was a big mistake."

The band eventually had to pay the ABC about $1000 for the release of footage of them playing on the channel's Rock Arena program, so they could use it for promotional and music video purposes.

When it was released, Sounds of Then charted at 35 and made a ripple of impact. It wasn't until Coca-Cola used the song for an advertising campaign and the Nine Network adapted it as the theme for promoting its 1996 season of programming that it was re-injected into the consciousness of Australians and a new generations of listeners.

The song has continued to grow in popularity - and has had a slight name adjustment along the way.

"When it was released, it was just called Sounds of Then, but it's now Sounds of Then (This is Australia)," Callaghan said.

"That's largely because there used to be a bit of confusion about the title. People would go into record shops and say to the guy behind the desk, 'I want the Out on the Patio song' or 'I want that This is Australia song'."

While Sounds of Then is the band's best-known tune, there are others Callaghan wrote that evoke his memories of Bundaberg, including Ambulance Men and To The North.

GANGgajang went on to make four studio albums and three compilations, and, while they have been a sort of moveable feast of members over the years, the nucleus of Callaghan, Bidstrup and Bailey remained at the heart of it.

Bailey succumbed to throat cancer in April 2013, a loss that is still deeply felt by his former bandmates.

Callaghan, who now calls North Sydney home, still has fond memories of Bundaberg - in fact, Sounds of Then is all about how simple things such as sounds and smells can evoke powerful memories.

But he's not entirely sure how it came to happen that his family settled in the sugar city in the first place.

"The idea was we got a car in Brisbane and Dad said we would drive north and stop where we liked it the most," he said.

"I suspect we kids were really raucous in the back seat and we stopped because Mum and Dad were sick of us.

"We stayed the night and that was it."

 

>> Mark Callaghan features in the NewsMail's upcoming special publication, the Bundaberg Hall of Fame. To read about him and other high achievers from the region, keep an eye out for the book, due for release in November. 

 

SONGS WITH LINKS TO BUNDABERG:

 

TO THE NORTH

(Bidstrup/Callaghan)

To the north are the canefields, seas of waving green

And then the fires come, and burn the water

It's a sight to be seen

The men in slouch hats reap the harvest

Brown sticks they place in cages

And then the trains hiss, they carry bounty

From the furnace to the mill

Stick men silhouettes bend against the flame,

Shout above the crackle crunch.

Watch as the ground spits at the sky

A yellow-orange spit from a mouth that will never die…

 

AMBULANCE MEN

(M Callaghan)

You know I drove home today, I saw the places I'd played

For hours in the sun, five on five, three on one

And the trees had all gone from the street with the school and the radio on

Replaced by arcades filled with people having fun

And just to see them they've got what they want

They've got a civic centre but best of the lot

you know what they've got?

Well they've got ambulance men in the main street

Well they've got ambulance men in the main street

Well they've got ambulance men in the main street

And you know you could win

Every once in a while disaster falls on the town in the sun

When they sit down waiting for rain to come

Still, there's a pub to be found on every corner in town

where there's boys in the bar and there's girls in the lounge rooms with their mums

And just to see them, they've got what they want

they've got a sporting complex but best of the lot

You know what they've got?

Well they've got ambulance men in the main street

Well they've got ambulance men in the main street

Well they've got ambulance men in the main street

And you know you could win.

SOUNDS OF THEN

(M Callaghan)

I think I hear the sounds of then,

And people talking,

The scenes recalled, by minute movement,

And songs they fall, from the backing tape.

That certain texture,that certain smell,

To lie in sweat, on familiar sheets,

In brick veneer on financed beds.

In a room, of silent hardiflex

That certain texture, that certain smell,

Brings home the heavy days,

Brings home the the night time swell,

Out on the patio we'd sit,

And the humidity we'd breathe,

We'd watch the lightning crack over canefields

Laugh and think, this is Australia.

The block is awkward - it faces west,

With long diagonals, sloping too.

And in the distance, through the heat haze,

In convoys of silence the cattle graze.

That certain texture, that certain beat,

Brings forth the night time heat.

Out on the patio we'd sit,

And the humidity we'd breathe,

We'd watch the lightning crack over canefields

Laugh and think that this is Australia.

To lie in sweat, on familiar sheets,

In brick veneer on financed beds.

In a room of silent hardiflex

That certain texture, that certain smell,

Brings forth the heavy days,

Brings forth the night time sweat

Out on the patio we'd sit,

And the humidity we'd breathe,

We'd watch the lightning crack over canefields

Laugh and think, this is Australia.

This is Australia



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