Seven reasons why Jimmy Barnes is the David Bowie of Australia

It’s time the Oz Rock Chameleon got his due

You know Jimmy Barnes, right? ‘Working Class Man’. ‘Khe Sanh’. Yelling sweaty rock guy. Does what he does, keeps on kicking, Oz rock royalty. No surprises. Wrong, friend. Wrong wrong wrongity wrong.

The man born James Dixon Swan is Australia’s stealthiest enigma, a mysterious changeling who has reinvented himself so many times over the decades that he might be the closest thing to a David Bowie figure Australia has ever produced. Sure, he’s never donned a clown suit or pretended to be an alien – so far anyway – nor does he have the sort of untouchable mystique of the late Thin White Duke. Mind you, writing two best-selling autobiographies that start a national conversation about the long-term effects of childhood abuse and poverty does kind of dilute one’s chances of creating a façade of otherworldly mystery.

But think about it: Australia’s got plenty of artists who have managed multi-decade careers, and how many of them have covered the sort of ground that Barnes has? At best, many of these other stalwart artists’ long-term experimentations boil down to “did an acoustic album” (isn’t that right, Mark Seymour? Close to the mark there, Diesel?) or “hey, I’m a novelty remix!” (John Paul Young, take a bow).

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Only Kylie comes close, having brilliantly revamped her image a dozen times or more. But there’s been little significant stylistic shift in her actual music. Barnes, meanwhile, has covered a lot of ground, from rock and soul to nursery rhymes and rockabilly to literally screaming on a mountaintop. That, friends, is range.

So, before Barnes releases his new album ‘Flesh And Blood’ this Friday (and a children’s book, and a cookbook later this year), here are seven ways that Bowie and Barnes’ careers echo each other.

Jimmy Barnes
Credit: Benjamin Rodgers

1. Both artists created themselves without pasts

While each performer seemed like fully formed phenomena by the time they came to public attention, both Barnes and Bowie had already paid some dues.

Bowie had cycled through several bands, multiple failed singles and three stage names before ‘Space Oddity’ finally broke through. Barnes, on the other hand, had been filling in on vocals for his brother John ‘Swanee’ Swan’s band Fraternity after their singer quit (some dude named Bon Scott) before joining, quitting and rejoining a band called Orange, who finally accepted that they needed a better name and rebranded themselves as Cold Chisel.

In both cases, the artists presented themselves as young ingénues of preternatural talent, rather than seasoned professionals with hundreds of terrible shows behind them. Barnes could appear fully formed as the Ultimate Rock Dude, while Bowie concentrated on seeming like he was literally from Mars. Audiences were none the wiser.

2. Both had a US-wooing soul period

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Like Bowie, Barnes couldn’t get the US to take notice of him while he was doing hard-edged rock. Cold Chisel didn’t make a ripple in the US and, despite tours by Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Bowie couldn’t get a foothold either. Both men responded to this rejection from the nation that influenced them so deeply by demonstrating their love for some of its most archetypal musical genres: classic soul and R&B.

Admittedly, 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’ didn’t set Barnes’ career soaring in the States but it was a massive career boost in Australia, where it was a commercial success and gave him a musical sideline that he has continued to explore since with tours and a similarly well-selling sequel.

3. Both had an extended chemical phase

It’s nothing to celebrate but both men spent much of the ’70s and the ’80s (and, in Barnes’ case, the ’90s) imbibing astonishing amounts of booze and drugs. And, importantly, both had whatever delusions of immortality cruelly ripped from them when their hearts gave out in early middle age 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 thankfully went well enough for him to return to performing just six months later.

David Bowie
David Bowie performing live in 1995. Credit: Pete Still/Redferns

4. Both scored hits by holding their own among rock royalty

One of Barnes’ biggest singles came as a spin-off the groundbreaking Australian Made touring festival, where he duetted with the headliners INXS on the Easybeats 1968 classic ‘Good Times’. It gave both parties cred: it showed that INXS could rock and it demonstrated to eager pop kids that this Barnes fellow had the all-important M. Hutchence seal of approval.

The track reached No.2 on the Australian charts (and also charted in the US and the UK, thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack to 1987 film The Lost Boys) and became the all-star closer every night on the tour, with the singers of all the bands on tour joining in.

That was impressive but it’s not quite writing a hit with a Beatle, which is what Bowie did when John Lennon popped by during the ‘Young Americans’ sessions and jammed for a bit along with guitarist Carlos Alomar. The eventual result was ‘Fame’, Bowie’s first US No.b1.

Bowie also provided Queen 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 the Mick Jagger duet ‘Dancing In The Street’ but surely, as a society, we can all agree that that song and video never happened, right?

Jimmy Barnes dedicates Beatles cover to hospital staff
Jimmy Barnes. Credit: Don Arnold/WireImage

5. Both joined bands and navigated out of mid-career slumps

Bowie’s 1980s started strong, with ‘Let’s Dance’ marking his first truly international smash-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 ever seeming horribly out of step with what was happening in music.

Barnes had a similar slump in the mid-’90s. His 1993 ‘grunge’ album ‘Heat’ was his first not to go to No.1 and 1995’s ‘Psyclone’ didn’t reverse the trend. But in ’97 he reunited with Cold Chisel. Hatchets had been buried and their subsequent album ‘The Last Wave Of Summer’ debuted at the top of the charts.

Similarly, Bowie had to go through a band period to get his mojo back: few rank the two Tin Machine albums among his best but, having some time off from being David Bowie clearly did his muse a lot of good.

6. Both became beloved by new generations

Is Bowie remembered for his stoic turn as a British officer in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence? Not really. His turn as an alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth? A bit. A goblin king with a frightwig and eye-catchingly well-becrotched tights in Labyrinth? Oh hell yes.

Barnes is yet to perform in a fantasy epic but he has written several kids’ books and performed with The Wiggles. That’s Aussie kid royalty, right there.

7. Both did better versions of ‘All The Young Dudes’ than Mott The Hoople

That’s just a fact.

Jimmy Barnes’ ‘Flesh And Blood’ is out July 2

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