There are a few indelible qualities unique to the Whitlams, detectable from their first days as a trio playing university bars around Newtown, and still there now as they play their back catalogue of gutsy ballads with orchestras to boot. There’s Tim Freedman’s distinctive voice; somehow as plaintive and clear as when he started singing, despite now pushing 60 years old. Then there is the wry cleverness of the lyrics, often focused on long nights (and mornings) out on the plonk, chasing elusive women and troubled friends. And Freedman leading from his piano, which feels almost old-fashioned for an alternative rock band – though that label has never felt like a comfortable fit for a group that dips in and out of blues, jazz and pop, from song to song.
I was six when their breakthrough album, Eternal Nightcap, came out; You Sound Like Louis Burdett will always hold a fond place in my heart for allowing me to say “fuck” in front of my parents for the first time. They are the first band I ever saw live and by far the band I have seen perform most often. That is to say: I have never felt so prepared to write a piece, or agonised over one so much.
25. Fall for You (Torch The Moon, 2002)
With its shuffling beat and bendy guitar notes, this is the Whitlams song most often enjoyed by people who don’t normally like the Whitlams. It’s undeniably catchy and the whisper of a woman’s vocals underneath Freedman’s gives it a hypnotic quality.
24. I Will Not Go Quietly (Torch The Moon, 2002)
Written for a now forgotten ABC drama, this playful tune about behaving badly and have a great time while doing so is fun. Freedman delivers the braggy lyrics with real gusto: “I was the best, you all knew it / On the days I cared at all / You can all say I blew it, you’ll be talking about me for years.”
23. Following My Own Tracks (Undeniably The Whitlams, 1994)
The only song on this list that is not sung by Freedman, but one of his fellow founding members, the late Stevie Plunder. You’ll spend the day humming this track’s beachy little guitar riff.
22. Up Against the Wall (Eternal Nightcap, 1997)
A gloomy, grubby song about a tempestuous relationship that more than earns its spot for the lyric: “She was one in a million / So there’s five more just in New South Wales”. One to sing next time you are heartbroken.
21. Breathing You In (Torch The Moon, 2002)
Hidden among all the grander songs on Torch The Moon is this dreamy little track about the simple joys of spooning with a loved one on a weekend: “Don’t get up, I’m in heaven.”
20. Royal in the Afternoon (Torch The Moon, 2002)
A blokey rock song about leaving behind the life of a hellraiser for domestic bliss: “Nobody’s going to satisfy me / Except you and the baby and the colour TV.” Freedman sounds as if he is having fun as “the mad king of it all”, while Jak Housden provides the bouncy guitar.
19. 400 Miles from Darwin (Love This City, 1999)
A sweeping, mournful song about the East Timor genocide and Australia’s apathy to violence so close to our shores. Freedman imagines a crowd watching a film about the massacres and consoling themselves afterwards: “Compose ourselves and fix our hair / We would have all been Schindler there.”
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18. Make the World Safe (Love This City, 1999)
As the first track on the Whitlams’ album after Eternal Nightcap, Make the World Safe may have seemed a strange opener, coming after so much gloom. But this buoyant song wins everyone over, with Freedman promising to protect a romantic partner and ending on a cute string pluck.
17. You Gotta Love This City (Love This City, 1999)
Like a misanthropic Springsteen, Freedman whisks us through the life of a guy in Sydney who is having a rough old time – “too sick for breakfast / car wouldn’t start / the train was really full / and his girlfriend has got a boyfriend” – and builds it all up to the rotten cherry on top: finding out his city is about to host the Olympics. It’s funny about everything that’s rubbish about Sydney, it’s bluesy and it has backing vocals from Marcia Hines.
16. Out the Back (Torch The Moon, 2002)
One of my colleagues thinks this song is “too Tim Winton”, but she’s wrong. The warm strings and lazy percussion makes for a very beguiling song, packed with elegant imagery of an afternoon spent surfing: “I can sit out here like a teabag”; “gum trees are stamped into the sky”.
15. I Make Hamburgers (Undeniably The Whitlams, 1994)
Who hasn’t tried picking someone up with the line, “Hey, that’s a salad roll”? This is the closest to a novelty song the Whitlams have. Hollering “more sauce!” during live performances ranks up there with “no way, get fucked, fuck off” in the pantheon of Australian music call and responses. But underneath the fun, it still has heart: a burger-flipping lothario who just likes giving girls the world.
14. Ease of the Midnight Visit (Torch The Moon, 2002)
“Show me a way to stop loving you and I’ll stop coming ‘round,” Freedman opens wistfully. This slow track is the best of what I lump together as his “old man love songs”: horndog lyrics swapped in for yearning for emotional connection, a certain languid quality in music, and did I mention so much yearning?
13. Charlie No. 3 (Eternal Nightcap, 1997)
With its lyrics about a friend in the thralls of addiction, some interpret Buy Now Pay Later (Charlie No. 2) to be about Plunder, the Whitlams founding member who died a year before Eternal Nightcap was released. But Freedman has said that Charlie No. 2 is about fellow musician Charlie Owen, while Plunder is the subject of No. 3: an appropriately moody song dominated by punchy piano chords, as Freedman sings about a despondent man, “staring down from the 56th floor”.
12. Keep the Light On (Little Cloud, 2006)
Reading the comments on YouTube, it seems Keep the Light On has become a regular at funerals. This melancholic song is a beautiful choice even though it isn’t overtly about death, but a loved one who only gets in touch when they have lost their way (“Each time you reach out, a new shout or shine-on”). It works as a story about friendship and love that endures even when the worst happens: “I’ll always keep the light on for you / You try so hard to be alive.”
11. Best Work (Torch The Moon, 2002)
Some might overlook this track for the band’s other big songs, like Blow Up the Pokies or Kate Kelly. But Freedman’s falsetto opener and bold piano sound makes it stand out – along with the great bridge, where the lovely yowl of an electric guitar spills over the crescendo.
10. Catherine Wheel (Sancho, 2022)
On a first listen, this cover of a Megan Washington song sounds like it would be destined to play at weddings for the rest of time. But where Washington’s sparse original is more overtly sorrowful and grieving a relationship burning out in real time, the sweet piano and strings in this version lends a hopeful quality to Freedman’s grave voice, somehow still sounding like he’s thirtysomething.
9. 1995 (Undeniably The Whitlams, 1994)
From the moment the clock begins ticking, it is obvious that 1995 is teetering on being overproduced, especially when compared to the rest of the band’s laid-back second album. But the momentum builds so steadily and Freedman truly puts his pipes to the test, singing “there’s nothing I can do” with such ferocity that it is hard not to feel electrified.
8. The Curse Stops Here (Little Cloud, 2006)
A moving companion to the next song, Freedman pays tribute to the two other founding members of the band: bassist Andy Lewis, who killed himself in 2000 while struggling with his gambling addiction, and guitarist Plunder, who died in an apparent suicide in 1996. “I am the last one,” Freedman sings, as strings and horns build underneath. “And the curse stops here.”
7. Blow Up the Pokies (Love This City, 1999)
Told from the perspective of a musician playing the pokies where he once performed, this protest anthem about the poison of gambling in Australia is the Whitlams’ biggest radio hit (though, as Freedman writes, “one regional network would back-announce its title as I Wish I so as not to offend local sponsors”). Knowing that Lewis killed himself just three months after this album was released, having just lost a week’s wages to the pokies, makes it even more impactful.
6. You Sound Like Louis Burdett (Eternal Nightcap, 1997)
Named for the “inner-west Sydney eccentric”, drummer and Freedman’s one-time housemate, this energetic song is filled with sleazy guitar, jangling piano and a breathless account of life in Sydney that is bewildering to Whitlams fans living anywhere else. (I may have believed Tempe was invented by Freedman until very recently. And does everyone start masturbating when they get to Marrickville?)
5. Gough (Introducing The Whitlams, 1993)
It is impossible not to tap your toes to this jaunty whirlwind tour through the life of the band’s namesake, former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam. Plunder, real name Anthony Hayes, attended the same school as Whitlam, which was enough to get Freedman writing about the links between the two men: “He learnt Latin, held his head up high and he hated the Liberals though he didn’t know why”. And the “days of wine and roses” when Australia had a prime minister who, among other positives, championed the arts: “All the artists flew in and all the arseholes flew out.”
4. Thank You (For Loving Me At My Worst) (Love This City, 1999)
I, for one, am very fond of all Whitlams songs that sound like Freedman is a bit pissed in a honkytonk bar. (Perhaps one out east called Scrum, with only red wine and the finest of cigars?) This upbeat ode to days spent with roguish friends is unabashedly earnest – but, if this isn’t love, it’s very close.
3. Melbourne (Eternal Nightcap, 1997)
Much of Eternal Nightcap was shaped by Freedman’s relationship with children’s author Martine Murray (author of the A Dog Called Bear, among others). The open sweetness of its lyrics – “If I had three lives, I’d marry her in two” – paint a heartfelt portrait of young love, while the drone-like strings and tinkling piano evoke the best of 1990s pop – Manic Street Preachers, the Verve, Oasis.
2. No Aphrodisiac (Eternal Nightcap, 1997)
“A letter to you on a cassette, because we don’t write any more,” ranks among the most instantly recognisable opening lyrics in Australian music; even in 2022, when both cassettes and writing to ex-lovers are but distant memories. Freedman says he wrote the song “quickly, after drinking Irish whiskey”, having just visited Murray in Melbourne and sensing they were drifting apart. Initially released with no video or marketing, it became a radio hit, won song of the year at the Arias and topped the Triple J Hottest 100.
No Aphrodisiac is a demarcation in the Whitlams’ sound: gone were the boyish songs about mates and girls, replaced by melacholic, clever songs about being lonely and drinking too much (and girls). In a neat encapsulation of the band’s shift, Lewis even swapped his double bass for an electric bass halfway through the track.
1. Buy Now Pay Later (Charlie No. 2) (Eternal Nightcap, 1997)
While some may have wished to see my No 2 here, there is only one No 2 and its No 1. The lyrics of Buy Now Pay Later, being both so specific and universal at once, are what make it so powerful, directly addressing a friend wrestling with addiction: “If I hadn’t left early last night / I would have made a speech to you / How you’re not the only one you’re going to hurt”. But the friend tends to their addiction lovingly, hauntingly: “You love it like a little dog / and feed it on the scraps you find.”
The death of Plunder a year before this song, and the death of Lewis just over two years later, means this song came to encapsulate everything that makes the Whitlams stand out: Freedman’s remarkable voice, the poetry inherent in his lyrics and his willingness to step up to the piano and confront tragedy.