Out of the Cabinet 1981

Please note that we did no Out of the Cabinet show for 1981. Somehow when the Cabinet Papers release changed from one a year to two a year, it was omitted. So I’ve written this as if we did it, so that there is no break in the timeline of essays.

Table of Contents


1981 was the year when the dangers of passive smoking were becoming evident, with experts claiming that it caused somewhere between a third to half of the effect of direct smoking.

And still on health, the CSIRO announced that 60-70% of lead in topsoil came from petrol. The petroleum industry disagreed, claiming that the peak scientific organisation had wildly overestimated it, and that the looming change to unleaded petrol was unnecessary.

But with the cost of the dreaded fuel rising from 37c to 37.5 cents per litre, there was a growing shift towards smaller cars, like the Mitsubishi Sigma, which you could purchase for $5,999. Despite this, the 4 millionth Holden car left the GMH assembly line that year.

If you preferred public transport, and you were in Sydney, you would have had to buy your ticket from the driver, or a kerbside ticket-seller, as bus conductors became a thing of the past.

So to the banks- with interest rates rising from 11.5% to 12.5%, long established banks were merging to form Westpac and the National Australia Bank.

It was enough to drive you to drink, which you could achieve quite cheaply by buying yourself a wine cask at just over $1 a litre. But it seems that the world hadn’t yet caught up with this accessible invention from Down Under, because at an Australian Government reception at Davos, in Switzerland, the menu consisted of seafood, beer and cask wine. The only problem was that the Swiss waiters couldn’t work out how to get wine out of a cardboard box so the Aussie diplomats had to come down a peg or two and show them how it was done.

After downing all 4 litres you could probably do with a visit to the doctor, which would set you back $14. And if the doctor suggested you look at an alternative method of relaxation, you could always turn to the Sydney Morning Herald which, in May 1981, published its 10,000th cryptic crossword, a milestone indeed.

All this at a time when the average wage was $315 a week, and the average price of electricity was $6.63 a week. You could get yourself a tube of Colgate toothpaste for 69c, a packet of Blue Omo for $1.19., and a plastic rubbish bin for $6.50. The bin of course had no wheels, and was not provided by the council.

1981 was the year when a referendum was held in Tasmania to vote for whether or not the Franklin Dam should be built. The questions on the ballot paper gave voters choices as to where the dam should be situated, not whether they approved or not. So 45% voted informally, writing ‘No Dams’ on their ballot papers.

And more and more people were taping music off FM radio, so much so that a levy on blank cassette tapes was advocated. Whether your cassettes were illegal or legal, you could listen to them on your brand new Sony Walkman, while you were perambulating.


I like small speakers
I like tall speakers
If they’ve music they’re wired for sound
Walking about with a head full of music
Cassette in my pocket and I’m gonna use it
Out on the street, you know
Oh oh whoa oh oh whoa oh oh

Into the car, go to work and I’m cruising
I never think that I’ll blow all my fuses
Traffic flows
Into the breakfast show.

Wired For Sound was a big hit for Cliff Richard in 1981, making it to number 1 here in Australia. By then, Cliff had had hits in every decade since the fifties, and this was one of his eighties’ efforts.

Power from the needle to the plastic
AM, FM, I feel so ecstatic now
It’s music I’ve found
And I’m wired for sound
I was a small boy who don’t like his toys
I could not wait to get wired for sound.

The Walkman was created by Sony, first released in 1979, so quite the thing by ’81. These days the sight of someone walking around or sitting in a train with headphones on is ubiquitous, but back in the day, Cliff was singing of the latest technology.

I like small speakers
I like tall speakers
If they’ve music they’re wired for sound.


Her hair is Harlow gold
Her lips are sweet surprise
Her hands are never cold
She’s got Bette Davis eyes

She’ll turn her music on you
You won’t have to think twice
She’s pure as New York snow
She’s got Bette Davis eyes.

Jackie DeShannon is a prolific American singer-songwriter with a string of credits including When You Walk in the Room, made famous by The Searchers in the sixties.

Some years later, after watching Hollywood legend Bette Davis starring in the classic movie, Now Voyager, she co-wrote a song called Bette Davis Eyes. Her recording of the song had a jazzy, bluesy swing, and went pretty well unnoticed.

DeShannon’s co-writer, Donna Weiss, a backing singer for the likes of Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan and Ry Cooder, sent the song to husky-voiced session singer and songwriter, Kim Carnes. With her band and her producer, Carnes threw the song up in the air and rearranged it as a darker contemporary synthesiser-driven track, recorded in one take.

I’m a big fan of the mondegreen, and the producer of this new version of Bette Davis Eyes perpetuated a beauty when he misheard the line ‘She knows just what it takes to make a crow blush’. He thought it was ‘to make a pro blush’, quite a different meaning.

She’ll unease you
All the better just to please you
She’s precocious
And she knows just what it takes to make a pro blush
She got Greta Garbo stand off sighs
She’s got Bette Davis eyes.

Bette Davis herself loved the song, writing in her memoir:

It was a thrill to become a part of the rock generation.

She actually wrote to all involved to tell them this, and Carnes visited the actress at her home a number of times.

She’ll let you take her home
It whets her appetite
She’ll lay you on her throne
She’s got Bette Davis eyes.

The track has a local connection, in that the video clip was directed by an Aussie, Russell Mulcahy, and his creative effort, which was huge on MTV, helped get the song to number 1 in Australia, and around the world, one of the big hits of 1981.

She’ll tease you
She’ll unease you
Just to please you
She’s got Bette Davis eyes.


After their disco successes, The Bee Gees were moving towards projects beyond the confines of the group. When asked in a newspaper interview who they’d most like to work with, they unanimously went for Barbra Streisand. Her people saw the article, and spoke to The Bee Gees’ people.

Streisand was looking for a way to put out a contemporary album that took her away from the Broadway orientation of much of her work. So Barry, Robin and Maurice sent her five songs which she liked so much she asked for five more.

The big hit on the ensuing album, Guilty, was written by all three Bee Gees, and recorded as a duet with Barry.

And we got nothing to be guilty of
Our love will climb any mountain near or far, we are
And we never let it end
We are devotion
And we got nothing to be sorry for
Our love is one in a million
Eyes can see that we got a highway to the sky
Don’t wanna hear your goodbye.

Barbra and Barry weren’t the only ones to have nothing to be guilty of in 1981.

John Hinckley Junior, obsessed with actor Jodie Foster, had written Foster a love note threatening to kill newly inaugurated President Reagan if she didn’t love him. She didn’t, and his subsequent assassination attempt wounded the president and three others.

Foster had played a teenage prostitute in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver which was due to be aired on Channel 7 just a few days after the incident. The viewing was promptly cancelled by the Broadcasting Tribunal.

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

And he’s got nothing to be guilty of.

Other assassination attempts that year did result in persons being found guilty. Pope John Paul II was riding in a Fiat Popemobile which had just arrived at St. Peter’s Square at Vatican City, when Mehmet Ali Ağca fired 4 shots at him, causing severe blood loss. Ağca was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, though the Pope forgave him.

A group of assassins was responsible for the killing of Egypt’s President Sadat in 1981. Each were tried, found guilty, sentenced to death, and executed by firing squad.

And in The Mall in London, six blanks were fired at the Queen at the Trooping of the Colour, while she was riding her 19-year-old horse, Burmese, but monarch and horse were unharmed. The perpetrator was Marcus Sarjeant, who, inspired by the attempts on Pope and President that year, as well as the killing of John Lennon months earlier, said he did it to be famous.

In Australia in 1981 we got to find out who was guilty of the killing of baby Azaria Chamberlain- it was the dingo. Well, that was in February, but after new evidence was presented, this verdict was quashed later in the year and a second inquest begun.

This time, (but watch this space), the  dingo had:

                     Nothing to be guilty of.


Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles had known each other for several years, and had been ‘seeing each other’ for about 6 months when the Prince finally popped the question in February 1981. But Di had a holiday planned, so she didn’t give him an answer up front.

The holiday was spent at Bloomfield, the property owned by her mother and stepfather near the NSW town of Yass. When she wasn’t helping rid the property of the noxious weed called the Bathurst burr, she was staying in a beach house near Bateman’s Bay. The Australian air must have gotten to her because on her return she accepted the Prince’s offer, and was soon sporting a £30,000 engagement ring, made of diamonds, sapphire and white gold.

Despite the British feminist magazine, Spare Rib, producing a prophetic badge that bore the words Don’t do it Di!, the royal wedding went ahead in July, attracting a television audience that represented 1/6 of the world’s population. Amazingly, the BBC didn’t charge for coverage, so it was picked up by most Australian channels, except ADS-7 in Adelaide who showed a John Wayne movie, and TVT-6 in Southern Tasmania who showed Last Tango in Paris.

The wedding had a few interesting moments, like Diana calling her beloved Phillip instead of Charles. And there was a change to the traditional vows with the Princess not promising to obey the Prince.

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser wanted Charles to be the next Governor-General, but, according to a poll, only 28.4% agreed. Overwhelmingly the opinion was that our next representative of the Queen should be, as had been the custom for 50 years now, an Australian.

Later in the year the royal family could relax as it was announced that the Princess was expecting an heir to the throne the following July.


Not long before I began writing this essay, the great AC/DC musician and songwriter, Malcolm Young, had died. A few days later, a fellow Malcolm (Turnbull that is), in an attempt to break through to a different demographic, was doing an interview on Sydney’s Triple M’s morning show. The hosts asked the then PM what his favourite AC/DC song was. It was obvious he didn’t know any, which is fine, but instead of declaring ignorance, he asked the interviewers to name theirs. ‘Long Way to the Top’ and ‘Highway to Hell’ were mentioned, so he could have named one of those, but no, what does our Malcolm do? He names a song by Mental As Anything- If You Leave me Can I Come Too, a song that happens to come from 1981.

Words were exchanged last night
You could call it a fight
It’s such a shame, I never thought we would
Wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t so good
I’ve had enough of that
With other loves in days gone by
It wasn’t much I know
Mmm just enough, enough to make me cry

If you leave me, can I come too?
We can always stay
But if you leave me, can I come too?
And if you go, can I come too?

The song has one of the great hook lines of all time in my opinion, one of those that makes you think ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ But the credit goes to singer/guitarist of The Mentals, Martin Plaza.

If You Leave Me made it to number 4 in the Australian charts.

Don’t let it happen again
‘Cause that I couldn’t take
Ooh once was quite enough
It’s easy to forgive, harder to forget           

If you leave me, can I come too?
We can always stay
But if you leave me, can I come too?
And if you go, can I come too?

In 1981, another Malcolm (Fraser that is) was PM, and that year his Industrial Relations minister Andrew Peacock resigned, accusing the PM of gross disloyalty. Leadership challenges were in the air, though not acted upon (unsuccessfully) until the next year. Fraser was never a big fan of Peacock and vice versa, so it’s very unlikely that he would have ever said to Andrew:

If you leave me, can I come too?


It was the 25th anniversary of TV in Australia, and Federal Health Minister, Michael Mackellar, marked the occasion by buying a colour TV set in Hong Kong, but made a false customs declaration when he brought it into Australia. To make matters worse, the Minister for Customs, John Moore, did nothing to make sure that the fine of $184 was paid. Both ministers resigned over the affair. These days they’d be stars of Border Security.

Big TV shows of 1981 were Brideshead Revisited, and a TV adaptation of A Town Like Alice, presenting the Northern Territory to the world.

The TV quote of the year though came from George Negus on 60 Minutes, when he said of Treasurer John Howard:

His manner of speech is as exciting as a Dictaphone on an off day.

Just in case TV wasn’t boring enough, televised parliament was being talked about, and the keenest advocate was none other than Speaker, Billy Snedden.

Meanwhile on the big screen we viewed Australian movies like Gallipoli, Breaker Morant and Puberty Blues. From America there was Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark , The Shining and Superman 2. And from Britain, French Lieutenant’s Woman, Elephant Man, Being There, The Life of Brian, and Chariots of Fire, based on the true story of two athletes, one Christian, one Jew, competing in the 1924 Olympics.

The movie was a blockbuster, winning many awards, as did its soundtrack, written by Evángelos Papathanassíou (known professionally as Vangelis), a Greek composer whose work ranged from ambient music to jazz, to orchestral and electronic music. Choosing a contemporary sound was quite ground-breaking for an historical film which would normally attract a symphonic score reminiscent of the period.

Chariots of Fire was the biggest-selling single of 1981.


Who can it be knocking at my door?
Go away, don’t come ’round here no more
Can’t you see that it’s late at night?
I’m very tired, and I’m not feeling right
All I wish is to be alone
Stay away, don’t you invade my home
Best off if you hang outside
Don’t come in, I’ll only run and hide
Who can it be now?

The music of Who Can It Be Now? was written by Colin Hay in a treehouse in Bermagui on the south coast of NSW. The words came later, when he was living in a flat in Melbourne’s St Kilda, next to drug dealers, and people would often knock on Hay’s door by mistake, to the point where he became paranoid about opening his door.

Who can it be knocking at my door?
Make no sound, tip-toe across the floor
If he hears, he’ll knock all day
I’ll be trapped, and here I’ll have to stay
I’ve done no harm, I keep to myself
There’s nothing wrong with my state of mental health
I like it here with my childhood friend
Here they come, those feelings again!

The song was a hit in Australia for Men At Work, made it on to their album of that year, Business As Usual, and went on to become an international hit.

On each episode of SBS’s RocKwiz, the house band always plays an instrumental version of this Aussie classic as the panel tries to work out who the guests are.

So, Quiz Time:

  1. Who can it be now?
    When I was elected French president in 1981, one of the first things I did was to abolish the guillotine.
  2. Who can it be now?
    I’m a slick, bright and bouncy, manufactured English vocal group that won Eurovision in 1981 with a particularly annoying song that was only notable because the two boys in the group pulled long skirts off the two girls, revealing mini skirts.
  3. Who can it be now?
    I’m an Australian state premier who, after a ‘xxxxxslide’ at the last election, was returned even more handsomely in 1981.
  4. Who can it be now?
    I’m a notorious Australian state premier who allowed sand mining on Moreton Island in 1981, the year my wife became a senator.
  5. Who can it be now?
    I’m an ex-pat Australian singer-songwriter who managed, in 1981, to get a songwriting credit for co-writing (with Carol Bayer-Sager) one line of Arthur’s Theme.

When you get between the moon and New York City.

The best line in the whole song, in my opinion.

  1. And finally, Who can it be now?
    I am an ex-pat Aussie living in the USA, and I sang one of the big hits of 1981. The song was about the physical side of a relationship, but I managed to make it look like it was more about fitness than sex.

And the answers are-
1. Francois Mitterand
2. Buck’s Fizz
3. Neville Wran
4. Joh Bjelke-Petersen
5. Peter Allen
6. Olivia Newton-John, and the song?


Let’s get physical, physical
I want to get physical
Let’s get into physical
Let me hear your body talk, your body talk
Let me hear your body talk

I’m saying all the things that I know you’ll like
Making good conversation
I gotta handle you just right
You know what I mean
I took you to an intimate restaurant
Then to a suggestive movie
There’s nothing left to talk about
Unless it’s horizontally.

A backing singer on The Bee Gees’ Spicks and Specks album from 1966 was Steve Kipner, who went on to become half of duo Tin Tin, best known for the 1971 hit Toast and Marmalade For Tea.

In 1981, Kipner, then living in California, had co-written (Let’s Get) Physical, with overt references to horizontal folk dancing. Thinking it would be ideal for a raunchy singer like Rod Stewart, he was surprised when it was taken up by squeaky clean Olivia Newton-John.

The accompanying video gave a boost to the popularity of the fairly new exercise regime that combined music with exercise, aerobics. And Olivia’s gym gear made physical exercise a fashion statement.

It was still too steamy, though, for certain conservative US communities, and was on the banned list on some radio stations, which of course added to its success.

I’ve been patient, I’ve been good
Tried to keep my hands on the table
It’s gettin’ hard this holdin’ back
If you know what I mean
I’m sure you’ll understand my point of view
We know each other mentally
You gotta know that you’re bringin’ out
The animal in me.

Enough of that sex talk, time for a history talk from Dr Jim Stokes.

I want to get cerebral
Let’s get into cerebral
Let me hear your history talk
Let me hear your history talk.

Unfortunately, there was no history talk for 1981 from Dr Stokes with his usual wry look at the Cabinet Records of that year, but you can read about the papers by going to Cabinet documents 1981.


Songs, YouTubes, Credits
Bette Davis Eyes written by Jackie DeShannon and Donna Weiss
Bette Davis Eyes Jackie DeShannon version
Bette Davis Eyes Kim Carnes version
Wired For Sound written by Alan Tarney, B. A. Robertson
Guilty written by Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb
If You Leave Me written by Martin Plaza
Who Can It Be Now? written by Colin Hay
(Let’s Get) Physical written by Steve Kilby and Terry Shaddick.

The Bee Gees by Melinda Bilyeu, Hector Cook and Môn Hughes.

Show never performed
Essay written Nov 2018.