Bottomless Pit- Preface

GENERAL

Moya Simpson and I moved to the Canberra region in March 1996, just as John Howard became Prime Minister. As Howard never officially moved into The Lodge, we always say we moved to Canberra when Howard didn’t.

It also marks the time when we were just getting into political satire, so it means that I have written hundreds of songs and parodies that document the reigns of six prime ministers- Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison. I have been nothing if not prolific.

What I’ve done in this series is dig through the bottomless pit of songs, picked the strongest ones, and written up the political and social background to them. I hope that the end result is a quirky, original take on a quarter of a century of Australian politics, through the prism of my songs.

HOW I CAME TO WRITE SATIRE

I’ve been a full-time songwriter and musician since 1971. At first, I was a children’s writer, then moved into the world of community arts, still working mostly with kids. In 1983, when I was composer-in-residence for Campbell-town Council, I met Moya Simpson, who had just discovered she could sing. Through her, I met Margret RoadKnight, and soon we formed a cabaret act with Margret and singer/actor Kerry-Ella McAullay. I started writing for our act- adult comedy songs, not a child in sight.

In 1995, Moya and I each had a mid-life crisis, fortunately at the same time. We headed off, with a car and caravan, from Sydney where we lived, to various parts of Australia, picking up gigs and workshops wherever we could, open-minded about where we might end up. The big difference now was that there was just two of us, me to do the writing and playing, Moya to do the singing. She’d only sung in groups before (often in foreign languages), and I was relatively new at writing adult material, so it was a big shift for both of us. During that year in the caravan, I happened to write a song for Moya that was about a political story.

JE PROTESTE

Nuclear testing was about to become a thing of the past thanks to a looming Test Ban Treaty. But French president Jacques Chirac decided to have a last hurrah, and, in the early days of his presidency, approved a test at Mururoa Atoll, south of Tahiti.

By way of protest, Australians started boycotting products like French wine, which was fair enough, until it all turned a bit silly- people refusing to buy croissants at Australian bakeries, for example. So I wrote Je Proteste in my very best Franglais, a list song which basically says that if we ban all things French, the problem will be solved.

Mesdames et messieurs
Avec les testes nuclieur
Je proteste, mesdames et messieurs
Je proteste

Take the flag from the pole
Au revoir Charlie DeGaulle
Since Mururoa Atoll
Mesdames et messieurs
Je protest

So to all things Francaise
Like Bastille Days, it’s goodbye not hello
I bid bon voyage to French fromage
And escargots
All those summer vacances
In the south of la France
Or Gay Paree
Toulouse Lautrec, croissants, baguette
C’est finis

Mesdames et messieurs
Avec les testes nuclieur
Je proteste, mesdames et messieurs
Je proteste

I’m sounding the knell on Sasha Distel
And Marcel Marceau
I’m closing the door on Charles Aznavour
And Brigitte Bardot
No more sweet chanteuses
I’m serieuse, and no Singing Nun
No le parking
No French kissing avec le tongue

Mesdames et messieurs
Avec les testes nuclieur
Je proteste, mesdames et messieur
Je proteste

Les Folies Bergeres and camembert
I will resist
There’ll be no more Can Can
No more Coq au Vin
They’re all off the list
No Veuve Cliquot, Cognac, Cointreau
Grand Marnier
Paté de fois
Ménage a trois, c’est terminée

Monsieur Jacques Chirac
You deserve le sac
Till you change votre tack
Monsieur Jacques Chirac
Je proteste.

POLITICALLY CORRECT WALTZING MATILDA

That year we appeared at a Folk Festival at Wollombi in the Hunter Valley, and, on the same bill, was my brother Mark, who was performing with a Brisbane poet, Douglas Broad. We went see their act, which included a very funny politically correct version of Waltzing Matilda.

We asked Doug if we could include it in our repertoire. At the end of our year in a caravan, we had a 6-week Christmas season with Kerry-Ella McAullay at The School of Arts Café, a great little cabaret venue in Queanbeyan, near Canberra. We’d already done the ’94 season and had been asked back. Included in the set list were Je Proteste, and Politically Correct Waltzing Matilda.

Once a jolly swag person temporarily halted by a water source
Under the shade of an indigenous species of eucalypt tree
And he or she sang as he or she watched
As he or she waited till the kettle boiled
(As long as he or she used solar power)
With your consenting adult permission
Will you come perambulating round the dance floor with me
Matilda, please?

Down came a species of ungulate to take sustenance from the water source
Up jumped the swag person and grabbed him or her or it with protestations of manifold  delight (personifold delight)
And he or she sang as he or she stowed his or her ungulate in his or her food-carrying receptacle
With your consenting adult permission
Will you come perambulating round the dance floor with me, Matilda, please?

Down came the local example of the socio-economic patrilineal paradigm
Mounted on his equine quadruped of distinctive blood lineage
Thereby demonstrating his complete contempt for the aims and objectives of the animal liberation lobby
Up rode the troopers (peace keepers) 1-2-3
We allege you have a species of ungulate secreted in your food-carrying receptacle
With your consenting adult permission
Will you come perambulating round the dance floor with me
Matilda, please?

Up jumped the swag person and sprang into that water source
‘You’ll never take me alive,’ cried he….. or she
And his or her non corporal manifestation (personifestation) may be aurally detected
As you pass by that water source
With your consenting adult permission
Will you come perambulating round the dance floor with me
Matilda, please?

Perambulating round the dance floor
Perambulating round the dance floor
Perambulating round the dance floor with me, Matilda, please
And he or she sang as he or she watched
As he or she waited till the kettle boiled
(As long as he or she used solar power)
With your consenting adult permission
Will you come perambulating round the dance floor with me
Matilda, please?

BUNGENDORE

The proprietor of The School of Arts Café, Bill Stephens, was very keen on the satire direction and encouraged me to write more. As an incentive, he offered us a whole season of satire in the coming year.

Time came to decide where we’d live, and I suggested Canberra to Moya. She laughed. But the interest in satire, coupled with some local enthusiasm for her voice workshops, must have helped change her mind.

I had organised to do a show over two nights at Bondi Pavilion, 23 and 24 March 1996. Entitled Short is the Song, it would mark 25 years of making a living as a full-time musician. On the Bill were Margret RoadKnight, Jeannie Lewis, Kerry-Ella McAullay, Tony Gorman, Dave Ellis, Blair Greenberg, my twin sons Peter and Yanto, Moya and Yours Truly.

In the meantime, Moya had been looking into finding us a house to rent. One stinking hot day, the car boiled over outside a real estate office in the town of Bungendore, about 30 minutes out of Canberra. So she thought she might as well venture into the office and see what they had. Before she knew it, she’d taken a lease on a house, and, after the Bondi shows, we drove to our new Bungendore home. It was 25 March 1996, just weeks after John Howard became Prime Minister.

Pretty well straight away, we set out writing and rehearsing our first full-length satire show. Called Shortis and Curlies, it was a three-hander- us plus a brilliant jazz singer, the late Andrew Bissett, whose book on the history of jazz in Australia, Black Roots White Flowers, I had read and loved.

Shortis and Curlies ran for a month to good audiences. We were now political satirists, and, at the risk of sounding like a firm of solicitors, became Shortis and Simpson. The stage was set for a new career adventure.

THE ESSAYS

I have divided Bottomless Pit into four parts:-

Howard (1996-2001)

Howard and Rudd (2001-2008)

Rudd and Gillard (2008-2013)

Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison (2013-2021).

I’m an old-school news junkie. I read newspapers in print (Canberra Times, Sydney Morning Herald, The Weekend Australian). I also watch current affairs on ABC TV and SBS. I tune into ABC News Radio, listen to Parliament, watch and attend Question Time every now and then. I also have a large library of reference books. It’s from all these sources that I have gained the information that has fed my songwriting over these 25 years.

I’ve researched the stories all over again for these essays, using books, newspapers, and on-line references. These are listed at the end of each part.

While looking on-line, I found that the Parliamentary Library, based at Parliament House in Canberra, has covered many of the main issues in papers written by their research staff, or guest researchers. I’ve found these to be very good factual accounts of what happened.

ON DAY ONE

I’d like to end this preface with a positive song. If you, like me, believe that apologising to the stolen generation and introducing gun control were fine achievements of two of our PMs, then you could say that Rudd and Howard did their best work On Day One. The quotes used are the exact words they uttered.

RUDD: When all is said
When all is done
I did my best work
On day one

(For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry. To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry)

HOWARD: When all is said
When all is done
I did my best work
On day one.

(There is a clear link between the volume of powerful weapons in the community and the extent to which they are used in an indiscriminate manner. I believe that it is in the national interest that there be a dramatic reduction in the number of automatic and semi-automatic weapons in the Australian community. I’ve held for a long time the view that I would dread the thought that this country would go down the American path so far as the possession of firearms is concerned)

BOTH: When all is said
When all is done
I did my best work
On day one.

The stories behind On Day One can be found within the relevant essays.

I hope you enjoy Bottomless Pit.

John Shortis
October 2020