Words & Music

Shark Fin Blues
The Drones

Standing on the deck watching my shadow stretch
The sun pours my shadow upon the deck
The waters licking round my ankles now
There ain’t no sunshine way, way down.

Shark Fin Blues by The Drones is the greatest Australian song ever written according to a poll of over 70 prominent Australian songwriters conducted by Triple J in 2010. Yet the 2005 single was never a hit, not even by alternative standards and outside of a (rather large) cult following in the inner suburbs of our capital cities the song and the band remain relatively unknown. So why do our songwriters, those who should know a thing or two about the craft, rate Shark Fin Blues so highly?

The Drones formed in Perth in the late 90s before relocating to Melbourne a few years later, their reputation built on a dark literate aesthetic and ferocious live show. Shark Fin Blues was the first single from their AMP winning album of 2005, Wait Long By The River And The Bodies Of Your Enemies Will Float By.

Written by singer/songwriter Gareth Liddiard, the song describes feelings of isolation, futility and loss through the eyes of a doomed sailor going down with the ship. The Drones play it loud and loose, with a sense of hopeless abandon that only swells as the ocean rises. The sharks circle like ‘slicks of ink’ around the boat as Liddiard, shouting and gasping for air, drowns in a sea of guitars.

‘Cause if I cry another tear I’ll be turned to dust
No the sharks won’t get me, they don’t feel loss
Just keep one eye on the horizon man, you best not blink
They’re coming fin by fin until the whole boat sinks

According to Liddiard, Shark Fin Blues was inspired in part by Karen Dalton’s 1971 version of a traditional folk song called ‘Same Old Man’.  Employing a songwriter’s trick, Liddiard wrote new lyrics to the old song, keeping the meter and rhyming pattern of the original.

“I can remember doing it over the Karen Dalton thing to get started… by the time I’d finished it was completely different. It wasn’t a very good time in my life. My mum had just died, so I wasn’t feeling fantastic…” Liddiard kept one crucial line from the original song – ‘floating away on a barrel of pain’. A killer line good enough to both articulate the new song’s feelings of despair and inspire its watery imagery.

Later Liddiard wrote new music for the song as well; a simple four-chord progression that cycles through most of the song, rising and falling in intensity with the lyrics. It’s passionate and forlorn, reveling in the sort of ragged glory associated with the likes of Crazy Horse or Dirty Three. The song’s relative simplicity is in contrast to the longer, more intricate nature of much of The Drones’ other material.
Liddiard describes his writing style as being one of ‘biting off more than I can chew – then chewing like crazy’.  Taken to its utmost, this approach can result in a song like The Radicalisation of D, wherein Liddiard chewed like crazy on the story of David Hicks before spitting out a 16-minute opus of nearly 1300 words. Other songs delve into the darker reaches of our colonial past with an Australian Gothic sensibility akin to the film The Proposition, but with guitars. For Port Hedland-raised Liddiard, singing about Australian subject matter in an Australian accent comes naturally and although there is nothing overtly antipodean about Shark Fin Blues it still retains, through its sun baked imagery, a distinctly local flavour.

So is Shark Fin Blues the greatest Australian song ever written? The answer may depend on who you ask. For our songwriters the question strikes at the heart of what it means to be an artist, for each is striving, in their way, to forge their own unique sound and vision. Perhaps in Shark Fin Blues and the music of Gareth Liddiard and The Drones they recognise a formidable talent and acknowledge an authentic Australian musical voice.


Phil Kakulas is a Melbourne-based songwriter and musician who plays double bass in
The Blackeyed Susans.


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