Cold Chisel’s Khe Sanh (1978) was played at Reclaim Australia rallies in various cities last weekend, which saw confrontations between anti-Islam and anti-racist protesters. The band’s frontman Jimmy Barnes has since issued a statement stating that “none of these people [Reclaim Australia supporters] represent me and I do not support them”.
To which the group – on its Facebook page – said it was “deeply saddened” but would continue to “privately” support the Australian icon.
Khe Sanh has achieved Aussie rock icon status (despite its early banning by censors), recently joining the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia registry of historically, culturally and aesthetically significant sound recordings.
So it is natural that a political platform built around nationalist sentiment, such as that of Reclaim Australia, would use a song like Khe Sanh to protest forces it sees as negatively affecting the nature and character of Australia.
But of course social and political conservatism are not traditionally associated with the genre of protest song. Music – as a tool of mobilising people against power – tends to suit a more progressive agenda, for the obvious reason that people in power tend to support the status quo.
Is Khe Sanh even political?
In the case of Khe Sanh, the lyrics portray the dire situation a Vietnam veteran faces upon returning to Australia. Barnes sings about his growing need for speed and novocaine, his alienation from mundane suburban life, and drifting from job to job across the country, unable to mend his “mixed up life”.
With its lyrics about being plagued by nightmares and jumpy in carparks, the song concludes somewhat nihilistically, with the singer about to catch the “last plane out of Sydney” to visit prostitutes in Hong Kong – hardly the stuff of standard conservative political policy.
The obvious conclusion is that many people who love this song don’t know the words very well, or they don’t care. It could be about tax returns and they would still enjoy listening to it. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But how can the song still connect with people in a way that supports political values, even if the song’s lyrics don’t necessarily reflect their values? What accounts for the passionate feelings over who gets to “use” the song?
The answer probably lies in the way in which populist politics relies on eliciting emotional responses, and music is an excellent tool for provoking people emotionally, independent of lyrics.
The inspiring structure of a song
The first thing to note about Khe Sanh is the subtle country music inflection to the basic rock style. Country immediately gives the listener a down-to-earth sensation, a genre and sensibility that corresponds with conservative values.
But the specifics of the song writing go beyond style, and Don Walker (Cold Chisel’s keyboardist, and the actual creator of Khe Sanh) certainly knew what he was doing.
There are several interesting things about the musical structure of Khe Sanh that make it an inspiring song.
For a start, Khe Sanh has no chorus. It uses a song structure that is less common in the modern era known as one-part – or AAA – form. One-part refers to the fact that one musical idea is repeated throughout the song, and AAA is a more technical form of song structure analysis where sections of music are assigned letters, with different letters for different sections. AAA, clearly, is a situation where all sections use the same musical material. Another commonly used word for the form is strophic.
One of the downsides to one-part song form is that too much repetition can lead to predictability, which is death for art. Khe Sanh deals with this problem ingeniously.
The song succeeds despite its repetitive form and not having a chorus, because the musical material underpinning the verses is so well crafted. In a way, the whole song is chorus-like because it uses the infamous four-chord pattern (brilliantly parodied by Axis of Awesome) that is often associated with soaring choruses, a staple of hundreds of songs.
Khe Sanh uses this progression to make the repeating verses emotionally arresting, but does so in a modified way to keep things interesting.
Traditionally, a four-chord progression goes something like this: it starts on the primary chord of the “home” key of the song (described with the roman numeral I, or called the tonic) – the strongest and most stable chord in a key - then it progresses through the second strongest chord (V, or the dominant) then a minor chord (VI, or the submediant) which has an important darker or slightly sad quality, before arriving at a relatively “weak” chord in terms of harmonic direction (IV, or the subdominant). This gives the progression an overall trajectory from strength to ambiguity.
Khe Sanh, however, starts halfway through the standard progression, reordering the chords. So after the bluesy but relatively happy piano intro, Barnes begins singing over chord VI, with a surprising shift to the darker minor chord, moves through the directionally-ambiguous chord IV, and arrives at the strongest chord, I, for a few moments of stability.
It’s worth noting that the first line of each verse inserts the “Amen” progression (I-IV-I) from traditional church music at this point - a deviation from the basic pattern that adds a hint of religious overtone, not for all listeners, but probably for people who are used to hearing that progression in that context.
A brief hint of the second-strongest chord (V) then propels the music back into the loop of the progression, with a smooth step-wise bass, and the beginning of a new line of verse.
In a nutshell, each line of the verse begins with a musically dark colour and moves toward resolution. By starting the four-chord progression half way through, the predictability of the progression is avoided. This recurring circular feeling contributes to the song’s overall groove.
The four-chord progression is only part of the harmonic structure, of course.
Khe Sanh has numerous other colours that add significant complexity and beauty to the song. In one memorable moment, where he anticipates his upcoming tryst with the Hong Kong prostitute, the key words “mattress all night long” are sung to a harmony which is extremely distant to the home key (F major is a very unusual harmony for music in G major). And many of the transitions back to the verse feature beautifully voiced chords of harmonic interest and subtlety.
An emotional reaction to politics
The overall harmonic repetition clearly suits Walker’s intention to tell a rich lyrical story, as he gets to load each verse with information – the ear is not distracted by constantly changing musical material.
The cyclic nature of this formal and harmonic pattern reflects the protagonist’s lifestyle, which also features a lack of direction, spinning wheels, stuck in a pattern of restlessness.
Barnes’ rhythmic approach to delivering consonants creates interplay with the syncopated piano part, also creating a kind of restless quality.
And perhaps the restless, discontent feeling at the heart of the song is what people connect with, regardless of their interpretation of the lyrics.
The song finishes by repeating the line “the last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone” several times. This is closest the song gets to the feel of a chorus.
In the song, the last plane out of Sydney is how the singer plans to get to Hong Kong. But for the lover of Khe Sanh, it seems to have a deeper emotional resonance.
One could speculate that, in the light of the country inflection, getting out of Sydney could represent, for some people, getting out of modernity, away from the symbol of all that’s wrong with the modern world – the big city.
At the very least, like many songs, Khe Sanh is a complex thing. Thanks to the music’s sophistication and intrinsic power, listeners can partially or completely disregard the lyrics and react purely to the musical content.
Projecting that emotional reaction onto a political position – through the heightened social setting of a rally – is the mechanism by which Khe Sanh was able to function as a protest song last weekend.