A history of Australian music in 6 objects
The Australian Music Vault opened this week in Melbourne, nestled among the Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, and the National Gallery of Victoria in the city’s cultural precinct.
It's a permanent space housing artefacts from across the history of Australian music – photos, posters, songbooks, setlists and costumes from acts like Paul Kelly, Nick Cave, Archie Roach, Kylie Minogue, Missy Higgins and heaps more.
Arranged around broad themes, rather than chronologically, the Vault will be regularly updated, pulling in artefacts from the Arts Centre’s permanent collection.
We asked senior curator Carolyn Laffan talk us through a few of the current exhibition’s more intriguing objects.
Molly Meldrum's Stetson hat
When it comes to Australian music, there are few more iconic objects.
This is one of many Stetson hats Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum has worn over the years – it was donated in the 90s, post-Countdown. The hat has come to signify Molly, who, Laffan says, has done so much for Australian music.
“He actually takes music very seriously and he does a lot of research,” she says. “His enthusiasm brings everything down to a level, where, if he thinks I should go and listen to that album, then I guess I should. He’s not often wrong.”
Spiderbait gig ledger, 1991
There’s a undercurrent of the punk and DIY ethos running through the whole exhibition. It comes out in the early fanzines, and the Birthday Party and The Saints posters.
But it’s also there in a few items donated by 90s Australian band Spiderbait.
“They do their own artwork,” Laffan says, adding that the exhibition includes the original cover art for the 1992 album P’tang Yang Kipper Bang Uh!. “They are very serious about their creativity and control of that.”
They were also serious, it seems, about posterity. One item in the exhibition is a detailed ledger, written by the band’s guitarist, Damian Whitty, in 1990-91.
“That was Whit keeping a record of their first 106 gigs – where they played, and who they played with,” Laffan says. “I just don’t think bands are doing that. It’s mainly Melbourne and around The Tote and the Evelyn. It gives a really good snapshot of what was going on in that moment.”
Rowland S. Howard's Fender guitar
It was an emotional moment when Genevieve McGuckin, partner of former The Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard, donated his guitar, amplifier, pedals and a notebook after the musician’s death in 2009.
“Genevieve was really quite keen that that guitar had a safe place,” Laffan says. “There’s not that many performers who only had one guitar, for their whole life. It’s very special in that sense.”
There's also a notebook, dated 1979, that includes lyrics to songs like 'The Guilt Parade' and 'Happy Birthday', which appeared on the band's 1980 self-titled album.
“Rowland was very much a writer as well, so he kept notebooks, not just with lyrics but short stories and meditations on life. Even when they were very, very young, they were already signing and dating things they were writing. So there’s a real sense that they felt they had a destiny.”
Angus Young's schoolboy outfit
This is an early incarnation of the AC/DC lead guitarist's famous stage get-up.
“It was donated by Angus, and it was made by his sister Margaret,” Laffan says.
“We wrote to the band, back in the 80s, to see if they’d like to donate something, thinking they might send a signed photo, and that costumed arrived, wrapped. That was a singularly great day.”
The costume is a significant part of the identity of one of Australia’s most successful bands. But that’s not only why it’s important.
“We’ve paired that a little bit with Chrissy Amphlett’s tunic,” Laffan says.
“She had said that it was Angus’ uniform that inspired her to wear a school uniform, too, because it’s such a democratic thing. I think both Chrissie and Angus are quite shy people off stage, but there’s something about that putting a uniform on, and putting a persona on, that they both found powerful.”
Paul Kelly's leather jacket
The exhibition includes a number of Paul Kelly-related artefacts, including the original handwritten lyrics to ‘To Her Door’.
The jacket, though, harks back to a side of Paul Kelly you don’t see much of these days.
“The younger people, they don’t remember the leather jacket Paul Kelly,” Laffan says. “He was another one of those people in the '70s straddling that pub rock, punk, folk moment, where everything was a bit DIY and raw and coming from a place of honesty.
"He’s very much seen as an elder statesman now, who has this unlimited well of lyrics that he can access. But I think it’s really interesting to look at that earlier period.”
Milk! Records compilation, 2014
A vinyl copy of a the first Milk! Records compilation, A Pear of Pears (With Shadows), is probably the most contemporary item on display.
It sits in an area dedicated to innovation in Australian music, Laffan says, because the label's owners, Jen Cloher and Courtney Barnett, have built the business in an innovative way.
“It’s a really great example of creating community, creating a low bar to get into music,” she says. “I am really interested in their sustainable philosophy, too – that you don’t go into debt to make a record. If you need money, you do a Pozible campaign, you do a residency somewhere. I think that’s a new form of innovation.”