It was the anthem of 1980s Australia and a career-defining moment for one of the country’s greatest rock gods.
Jimmy Barnes’ Working Class Man was a song dedicated to his fans, and his famous film clip, set amid the burning sugar cane fields of Far North Queensland, remains an enduring symbol of the era.
Barnes recently told the ABC about the excitement of filming in the sugar cane fields after touring many times in North Queensland.
“I had seen them burn up in the distance, but this was my chance to finally get up close and see what was going on,” he said.
“I had heard stories about snakes and spiders and all kinds of animals running away from the fire, but I never thought they would all run my way.”
While sugar cane farming is still a major industry in Far North Queensland, most farmers no longer burn the sugar cane and are opting for more environmentally friendly practices.
But the fires were once commonplace.
And while the sweaty singer belted out his tune, in the background of this video was a group of real blue working-class men bringing the lyrics to life.
Almost four decades later, sugar cane farmers Arnold Carne and Johnny Jashar still laugh about their guest appearances the day Barnes was filming during harvest time at Mr. Carnes Farm in Edmonton in 1985.
“We have waited [Barnes] and it started raining and the contractor got cranky, so we decided to just go ahead with the firing, with or without him,” said Mr Carne.
“Anyway he showed up and the contractor started at one end and Jimmy went down the other end to wait for the fire and it came through and almost cooked him.”
Mr Jashar recalled people running to cool off the singer.
“I remember a guy came and got a bucket of water to pour over Jimmy’s head to cool him down. He carried a bucket of water halfway across the farm because the fire was very hot,” he said.
Barnes said the least of his problems was remembering his lines.
“As it burned, there was a vortex of fire and it didn’t take long for me to get into it,” Barnes said.
“[In the clip]you’ll see me looking back.”
He said the flames were getting closer.
“I thought I was about to burst into flames with the cane,” he said.
“At the time, most of the liquids I was drinking were extremely flammable, so that didn’t help.”
A chance to film
The film crew only had one chance to capture the fire scene as it was the last fire of the season.
“It was really fast, about seven acres [2.8 hectares] sugar cane went up and the fire was out in about five minutes,” Mr Carne said.
“After it was all over, Jimmy came out cursing and carried on, so we went home and then Jimmy came over to the house and thanked us and asked if they could get more footage the next day.”
The production team filmed the workers harvesting the sugar cane in daylight.
Mr Jashar was captured cutting sugar cane, driving the refuse tractor and hauling the cane but had no idea what the footage was for.
“My boss said ‘comb your hair tomorrow because the cameras are here,’ but he didn’t explain much more,” he said.
“I thought it was a TV advert for the new tractors we drive. I didn’t know who Jimmy Barnes was.
“I actually had one of his tapes, a Cold Chisel tape, but at the time I only knew the songs and I didn’t know it was him.”
Mr Carne, who is more of a Slim Dusty fan, also didn’t realize he was among the rock royalty until well after filming wrapped.
working class people
Barnes said the landscape of far north Queensland left an indelible mark on him.
“Ever since then I’ve been drawn to the tropics and I wanted that landscape to be a part of this song,” he said.
“The working class people I met in this country not only came from the foundries and metal shops I remembered from Scotland, but they also came from the farms and the sugar cane fields.
“It was a great experience and everything happened way too fast. The story of my life really.”
37 years have passed since the publication of Working Class Man, the title that has since been used for Barnes’ self-penned memoir.
Mr Carne has since sold his farm and retired but Mr Jashar still owns a sugar cane farm and works the sugar cane.
“I like training outdoors, I like the land and the dust,” said Mr Jashar.
“The city is too fast for me.”
He said the famous song and accompanying film clip resonated with Australians, and especially the sugar cane farmers of the far north, because it encapsulated rural life.
“It was good to be a part of, it’s a good song and it really shows what life is like in Australia,” he said.
“That’s them, the working class; that’s us.”