For a brief moment in the mid 1980s, when huge crowds packed Australian sporting stadiums for 50-over cricket matches, signs reading “Like Wow – Wipeout!” began appearing in the outer, usually when a six sailed into the crowd. It was a reference to the hit song by the Hoodoo Gurus. Their singer Dave Faulkner told an interviewer that he was touched, because Australia’s real rock stars were, in his view, our sporting heroes.
Paul Kelly, a longtime admirer of Faulkner, would agree. On his new album People – part of an ongoing series of thematic compilations of the singer-songwriter’s work – there are no less than four songs about athletes: Every Day My Mother’s Voice tells the story of Indigenous AFL champion Adam Goodes; Every Step of the Way honours his peer Eddie Betts; and there are odes to cricketers Shane Warne and Don Bradman.
Kelly, a genuine sporting tragic, admits that he can get as starstruck meeting athletes just as others might get starstruck by musicians. Once, he spied tennis champion Venus Williams at Prahran pool in Melbourne. “She was sitting on a bench and it was like a goddess had come down from heaven and was just sitting among the mortals for a while,” he says. “It would have been the same, but even more so, if it was [Williams’ sister] Serena.”
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Partly, he says, it’s the physical beauty of athletes that makes them so charismatic. But it’s also about what they represent. Sport can be a window on to the soul of our nation. Goodes, the 2013 Australian of the Year who was booed off the field into retirement after a celebrated 16-year career, was an especially potent subject to write about.
Kelly was originally commissioned to write a song for the closing credits of Ian Darling’s 2019 film about Goodes, The Final Quarter. He picked up on Goodes’ story of how he dealt with racism both on and off the field: by remembering the words of his mother. And so the song became not just about Goodes, but a reminder to the rest of us that is all the more pertinent in the year of the referendum on the voice to parliament:
Every day my mother’s voice
Talks to me
Every day I make my choice
What to do and how to be
Kelly actually says he was initially worried the lyrics were “kind of banal”, but the song has become a fan favourite and a staple of his live sets: “It’s had this sort of electrifying effect on audiences, the band love playing it and people respond to it very strongly.”
Every Step of the Way similarly deals with Betts’s experience with racism, but in a way, it cuts even closer. Without naming names, it references the ugly end of Betts’s career with the Adelaide Crows, the AFL team Kelly (who grew up in Adelaide and famously wrote about it) happens to support:
I know my life is a blessing
And all blessings come with a curse
My enemies I know I can handle
But friends, now they can be worse
Kelly says this last line is a specific reference to the Crows’ former captain Taylor Walker, who was suspended for six weeks by the AFL for directing a racist comment at an Aboriginal player from another team in 2021, two years after Betts left the club. (Walker apologised for the remark, saying he was “embarrassed, ashamed and remorseful”.) In the song’s chorus, Kelly quotes Betts’s own words, about being “sick and tired” of what he had to deal with every day: “For him it was like being punched again and again, it was the cumulative effect of it.”
Kelly’s song for Warne – a near-novelty that was initially released in 2008 as one of two new tracks on another Kelly compilation – demanded a more lighthearted treatment. Written to the tune of London Is the Place for Me by Lord Kitchener, it poked gentle fun at Warne: the “bowler of mystery”, who became as well known for his off-field antics as for bowling the ball of the century to Mike Gatting.
Kelly had met Warne at a charity event, had his number, and sent him the song. It may have brought an end to a budding friendship. “We’d been in touch a little bit, just very occasionally,” Kelly remembers. “And then that was it. I never really heard back from him after that! I think his PA sent me a message saying ‘Shane says thanks for the song’. I think maybe he didn’t like the reference to his mother.”
Kelly says he was as shocked as everyone else by Warne’s death last year, having been captivated by him since his emergence on the field in 1992. “I loved watching him, all the way. Especially because I’m a leg-spinner – I grew up bowling leg-spin – so my first cricket hero was Richie Benaud.” There’s a slight pause, a flicker of an idea. “Maybe he needs a song.”
Sporting figures aren’t the only subjects on People, of course: there are tributes to artists and musicians (Charlie Owen’s Slide Guitar), outlaws (Our Sunshine, about Ned Kelly), and even politicians (Light on the Hill is a cover of Casey Bennetto’s song from Keating! The Musical). The themed series, which began last year, is ongoing: there have already been instalments on Time, Drinking, and Rivers and Rain.
The next instalment will be Poetry – songs Kelly has set to others’ words, including Shakespeare, when he gets sick of his own. It’s another way into Kelly’s voluminous catalogue, which now spans a staggering 28 studio albums.
“I guess every artist has a small part of their audience that goes really deep, but most people just sort of have a general idea,” he says. “This is just a way of inviting people in to listen in a different way.”
People by Paul Kelly is out on Friday on EMI Music