Written by nineteen-year-old front-man Mark Callaghan (below), five years after his family emigrated from England to Australia, the song started out as a poem reflecting on the family’s ill-fated relocation to Bundaberg (Qld), and being confronted with a harsh and alien landscape “That certain texture, that certain beat/ Brings forth the heavy days/ Brings forth the night time heat.”
Callaghan’s family built a house halfway between the town and the coast on a new estate, “a loop of asphalt surrounded by open paddocks and cane fields, slumbering under a heavy cobalt sky.” (Mark Callaghan in liner notes to The Great Australian Songbook). An early line up of the band left to right below- Mark Callaghan (guitar/vocals), Graham Bidstrup (drums), Marilyn Delaney (vocals), Chris Bailey (bass), and Kayellen Bee (vocals/additional percussion); others who also become part of the classic line up included Robbie James (lead guitar), and Geoff Stapleton (keyboards).
Mark remembered walking up to the top of his street to catch the school bus “… one morning you turn around and there’s fire. It’s one of those songs where if your goal was only to sell records, whatever it took to do it, then the song would have been called ‘This is Australia’. But it’s not about that. It’s a brick veneer drama. My parents got divorced when they came to Australia, it was a horrible period of my life.” (Debbie Kruger – They Wrote The Songs Part 1 2018).
Callaghan was amused by the fact that the Sounds of Then was taken up as a kind of de facto national anthem, which seemingly captured the sense of space and remoteness of the country and extolled the virtues of its its stark majesty and untamed beauty; similar to the way that Men At Work’s Downunder was conveniently pigeonholed as praising Australian culture and manhood, when it was really skewering those who were depredating the land for profit – developers, miners, and others – and lampooning the jingoism and crassness of many Aussies abroad.
Mark’s family never successfully transitioned to Australia, and his parent’s divorce and the experience of that time, was deeply etched in his memory ‘I think I hear the sounds of then and people talking / Scenes recalled by minute movement / And songs they fall from the backing tape/ That certain texture, that certain smell/ …Out on the patio we sit/ And the humidity we breathe/ We watch the lightning crack over cane fields/ Laugh and think…. this is Australia.” The sense of place is evocatively imagined, cane fields afire, ash raining down, lightning arcing across the sky, heat and humidity baking a brick veneer home, Callaghan vividly relived his teenage years in this song.
Sounds of Then was recorded at the Rhinoceros Studios (Syd), and produced by American Joe Wissert (above) (Lovin’ Spoonful, Boz Scaggs and the Turtles), Mark Callaghan and the group’s drummer Graham “Buzz” Bidstrup. The song uses a haunting Geoff Stapleton keyboard refrain to evoke a sense of terroir and engaging guitar riffs and solos by Robbie James, add color and drama to the song. The band’s name was supposedly derived from the sound made when a loud open chord is struck on a guitar although the colloquial term for marijuana, ganga, can also be easily constructed, from the letters of the band‘s name. Mark Callaghan has had stints as an executive at Sony Music and Festival Mushroom, the band still tours and records, and their most recent release was a re-recording of 2002’s Surfing Round the World, released in 2019.
The wonderfully evocative Sounds of Then was not a big hit – #35 – but it became a ubiquitous television signature tune for Coca-Cola and the Nine Network throughout the 80’s, and the Bundaberg City Council honored the band in 2015 when they revealed a new street name – GANGgajang Way, in honor of the group and their timeless classic song.