Photo: Bleddyn Butcher
How Punk, The Runaways and Aussie suburban life all contributed to a classic song about being homesick in Europe.
Mention Dave Warner and most people think of his biggest hit, Suburban Boy – a perfectly authentic slice of late-‘70s suburban Australian life which climbed to #31 in the ARIA charts, spending fourteen weeks in total in the Top 100 singles chart from 13th November, 1978.
‘The Boy From Bicton,’ as Warner was known, had many other cult favourites documenting life in the suburbs and exploring Australian cultural identity, including Convict Streak, Kangaroo Hop, Half Time At The Football, Mugs Game, Car Park and Suburban Rock, but for me, arguably his greatest triumph was A Million Miles From Home, initially released on 1981’s This Is My Planet.
Based on Warner’s time spent in England in 1975 and ’76, A Million Miles From Home wasn’t actually written until 1980, after another trip – this time to Los Angeles – found him hanging out with legendary producer/impresario Kim Fowley, a major figure in the punk and glam Hollywood scene who formed and managed The Runaways.
Warner had presaged punk rock with his band Pus, formed in Perth in 1973, and was keen to move on, so when he met with record label guys like Island Records’ Richard Williams, he played them his more melodic material rather than the spikier, punky material like Suburban Boy. “This was late 1975, early 1976,” Warner told me in a 2013 interview, “and they said, ‘it’s all good, but I’m looking for a different thing, I don’t know what it is yet.’ So had I played him the rawer stuff things might be very different today!”
With UK punk just about to break, it was during this time in England that the foundations of his next musical forays were laid. He called it ‘Suburban Rock.’
“I kind’ve looked at all these disparate songs that really had nothing in common in terms of musical style,” he explained, “but conceptually they’re all about my life and what I know. And at the time that I wrote Suburban Boy, Australian bands were doing the complete opposite. Axiom were doing Arkansas Grass, even The Easybeats were doing St Louis. So there was a lot of Australians writing stuff about places other than Australia, so I flipped that on its head even before I left Australia, but when I was overseas, it’s that classic thing, I think, that with a bit of distance comes a lot of clarity. So I started to write more songs. A lot were just personal experience songs, but a lot were things like Convict Streak which could only have been written if I was in Europe at the time, surrounded by these influences and bumping into crazy Aussies and stuff.
“So at the end of it all I looked at all this stuff and thought ‘what have I got’, and I figured what I had was the essence of ‘Suburban Rock’, which through it all flowed laminex table, football, TV – this kind of suburban existence that up until then NO-ONE had considered could have been the genesis for anything creative, let alone popular in Australia. That was THE most cringe-worthy thing, to do anything suburban.”
Upon returning home to Western Australia, Dave Warner’s From The Suburbs was formed and quickly secured a fanatically loyal following with this new music. In 1977 punk broke with Sex Pistols, The Damned and The Clash – but Warner never looked back. He’d done that already, and was focussed on the future.
Over the next few years he released three successful albums through Mushroom Records and toured the country repeatedly, giving what he dubbed his ‘Suburban Army’ songs they could completely relate to. Warner finally took a break in 1980 and headed to L.A.
“I met Kim Fowley several times at his North Hollywood flat,” Warner told me in another interview early this year. “We sat on the ground playing his records – he saw me as being a sort of garage punk and he wanted to record me – ‘cos a lot of people don’t know this, but he had The Runaways at that point and he had them doing Suburban Boy, but he changed the lyrics to ‘Suburban Girl.’
“The title and idea for A Million Miles From Home were Kim Fowley’s. We talked about the idea for an album about a young Aussie guy who is traveling the world but ultimately ends up back home. Million Miles was his suggestion as a homesick song, Buried in my own Backyard as the finale. North Of The Equator was one. I then set about writing the song when I got back from my trip in mid-1980. The images of the song were from my Kombi van trip to Europe with my friends Des and Larry in 1975-76.”
Having spent a few years wandering through Europe and living on the breadline in London myself, A Million Miles From Home quickly became my go-to homesickness track, guaranteed to make me smile when pining for home. Any backpacker is certain to instantly bond with lines like, “for months I’ve lived on bread and cheese,” and, “‘Cause I’m all alone/ and that’s not much fun/ when you’re a million miles from home.”
The sentiment “searched in vain for an accomplice” echoes the great opening line, “I wake up every morning with no-one beside me,” from Suburban Boy – the frustration of lonely singledom amplified when you’re a stranger in a strange land.
A Million Miles From Home is as uniquely Australian as anything Warner has ever written. The payoff summarises what he misses most from home in perfectly succinct form: “just give me my best friends/ a beer, a barbecue and a steak that bends.”
Travelling for months or years on end is never perfect – there will always be bumps on the road, ups and downs to challenge us along the way. Things rarely work out the idealistic way we planned them. But we all return home full of the great memories, the good times, and maybe a few funny stories about the mishaps – I know I did. Again, Warner hits the nail on the head brilliantly with the lyric, “but I’ll go back and I’ll tell you all/ about the fine wines and the great times/ and the laughter and the girls.”
Brilliantly, Warner summarised the conflicting emotions of life on the road with the simplest of all sentiments – one which we can all relate to: how do you admit to your family and friends that things aren’t going as well as you’d hoped? In doing so, Warner parlayed the inevitable occasional despondency and homesickness of long-term travel into one of his finest compositions.
“Pen poised above the postcard
I didn’t think writing back would be this hard
But how can you tell the truth
They only wanna hear what they want to hear
They wanna hear about success”
“The truth is that the persona singing the song is not quite me,” Warner admits. “I was never that homesick that I was lying about the wonderful times I was having but I did miss my pals and the weekly barbie before the footy. Pastis was ubiquitous in France where we stayed with my mate from Uni, Peter Verreck, in the Dordogne region, and I did marvel at the Rhine and the Seine, and did get bored with art galleries after a while. I think the song resonates with many Australians who go overseas in search of ‘culture’ and ‘excitement,’ only to find that the local footy can give you everything you really need: the company of friends.”
In many ways, A Million Miles From Home is the perfect pop song: melancholy but stoic, wistful yet full of promise, it buoys the heart when we’re longing for home, and reminds us where we come from, and where we can go back to if it ever gets too much to bear.
It’s this ability to perfectly capture the essence of a moment in time, and make it easily relatable for others who have been in similar situations, which no doubt gave rise to Bob Dylan once labelling Dave Warner as his favourite Australian songwriter.
Surprisingly, Warner says he never really considered releasing A Million Miles From Home as a single.
“Perhaps we should have done so,” he muses today, “but then, we never had any FM radio support, so they likely would not have played it regardless.”
A Million Miles From Home remains a fan favourite amongst the Suburban Army to this day, though Warner says they haven’t often played it live due to its unusual chord structure.
“[Late guitarist, Johnny] Leopard, bless his heart, used to get lost in the chords… but he wasn’t the only one! So I often left it out [of our set lists] because of the inevitable mistakes when it wasn’t practised within an inch of its life.”
These days Warner is a celebrated author and screenwriter living in Sydney with his wife and three children. He released the excellent When – his first new album of original material in 26 years – early in 2017 and continues to tour around the country.
Dave Warner’s From the Suburbs tour dates:
Saturday, October 21 at The Leopold Hotel, Canning Hwy, Bicton WA
Sunday, October 22 at Caves House, Yallingup, WA from 6 ‘til 9pm
With a bit of luck they’ll play A Million Miles From Home!
“That’s one of the most resonant songs for Aussies that I’ve written,” he declared in 2013. “I would say A Million Miles From Home and Suburban Boy and Convict Streak are up there.”
LINK TO LYRICS AT DAVE WARNER’S WEBSITE –
YOU TUBE –