George Young: the original architect of Oz Rock

Between his work as a guitarist and songwriter with the Easybeats and as a producer (along with fellow Easybeat Harry Vanda) for AC/DC, there is a very strong case to be made that George Young was the original sonic architect of Australian rock & roll. Other than Vanda – and with no disrespect to anyone who came before them, or followed after – the legacy of Young, who died yesterday aged 70, arguably outstrips anyone’s.

Those are big claims to make, so let’s start at the beginning. Young was born in Glasgow in 1946, migrated with his parents and younger brothers Malcolm and Angus to Sydney in 1963, and met Vanda at Villawood migrant hostel (now shamefully a detention centre) the following year – an event Australian Musician magazine selected as the most significant event in this country’s rock music history, in 2007.

That’s another big call, but the Easybeats, Australia’s first and finest response to the British Invasion (and the Beatles in particular) all but justify it by themselves. Their second single She’s So Fine, released in May 1965, launched them to local stardom. Their fifth, Sorry – led by a propulsive, serrated Young riff that prefigured younger brother Malcolm’s rhythm work with AC/DC – took them to the top of the Australian charts.

That was in October 1966, by which point the Easybeats had relocated to England. Until then, Young had written music for singer Stevie Wright, who contributed lyrics. It was the year of Revolver and Blonde On Blonde, and there were murmurs that the wild, colonial Easybeats lacked polish by comparison. Young was subsequently teamed with the Dutch-born Vanda, who was still learning English. Their first recording was Friday On My Mind.

The Easybeats’ joyous paean to the end of the working week was a worldwide smash, covered in years to come by everyone from Blue Öyster Cult to Bruce Springsteen, as well as David Bowie, who recorded it for his album Pin Ups. In 2001, the Australian Performing Rights Association voted it the best Australian song of all time; it was added to the National Film and Sound Archives registry in 2007.

If that had been all, Young’s legacy would have been secure. But it was his ongoing work as a songwriter and producer for other artists that turned he and Vanda into giants. As house producers for Albert Productions, they started out by rescuing the doomed Wright’s career with the magnificent three-part opus Evie in late 1974. Around the same time, another Scottish immigrant, Bon Scott, joined AC/DC.

A few stories sum up George Young’s contribution to that band. First, as Clinton Walker has pointed out in his biography of Scott, Highway To Hell, Young insisted that AC/DC should never deviate from straight, hard rock & roll: following trends, he believed, had been the Easybeats’ undoing. He also identified the silence and space in Malcolm Young’s stop-start riffs as crucial to their early sound: “It’s the stops what rocks,” he said.

The most famous story is of smoke billowing from Angus Young’s amplifier as he laid down the climactic solo for Let There Be Rock. From the control booth, George gesticulated and screamed at the guitarist to keep going, with Angus just managing to finish before his Marshall melted. “There was no way we were going to stop a shit-hot performance for a technical reason like amps blowing up!” George said later.

The work Vanda and Young produced for AC/DC – Let There Be Rock, especially – had a tougher edge than the sound Robert “Mutt” Lange gave the band for their international breakthroughs Highway To Hell and Back In Black, recorded after Scott’s death. Vanda and Young were by then also working with the likes of the Angels and Rose Tattoo, who would go on to influence a new generation of hard rockers, notably Guns n’ Roses.

And yet again, there was still more to the story. For as much as Vanda and Young can be credited for birthing the sound of what we now know – sometimes somewhat derisively – as “Oz rock”, they were also writing and cutting huge pop, and even disco hits: Can’t Stop Myself From Loving You, performed by glam rocker William Shakespeare, followed by a string of songs including Love Is In The Air for John Paul Young (no relation).

Vanda and Young even formed their own studio project, Flash & The Pan, whose first single Hey St Peter, released in September 1976, prefigured new wave just as punk was breaking worldwide. The song’s B-side, Walking In The Rain, was covered in 1981 by Grace Jones on her iconic album Nightclubbing. The mesmerising synth-pop of Waiting For A Train, released in 1983, featured Wright on vocals and hit No. 7 in the UK.

The story of Australian rock & roll, from the Easybeats to the Saints to the Hard-Ons and beyond, is of migrant kids. We should all be forever grateful for the day George Young met Harry Vanda at Villawood. And if it sounds like too much of a stretch to say Young defined the sound of Australian rock, listen to that manic, choppy riff from Sorry again – then try to imagine it without him.

First published in The Guardian, 24 October 2017

When Kurt met Courtney

A few years before Courtney Barnett was known to the wider world, during a period of life where she was, by her own estimation, “kind of unemployed and a bit depressed”, she bought a record on a whim and a recommendation. It was Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo, his breakthrough fourth album from 2011. She took a particular shine to the track Peepin’ Tomboy, an odd folk song with dense clusters of fingerpicked guitar.

“I didn’t even know who he was,” she says. “And it was beautiful – it’s still one of the most beautiful-sounding records that I’ve ever heard. There’s something about that album in particular that has a real magic to it, and I’ve followed him ever since. Apart from the sonic level of that album, I really loved his phrasing and lyrics. I felt really akin to it.”

A couple of years later, when Vile was touring Australia pushing the follow-up album Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Barnett found herself supporting Vile at a show in Melbourne, at Abbotsford Convent. Later at a barbecue, the pair briefly connected, and Barnett slipped him a copy of A Sea Of Split Peas, which compiled her first two EPs, including her own breakthrough hit Avant Gardener. Vile particularly fell under the spell of the opening track, Out Of The Woodwork.

“I’m a fan of all her music, but I’m a sucker especially for the pretty, kind of floaty melodic ones, and then I started listening to her new record [Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Think],” he says. “I feel like a lot of music today doesn’t have the classic songwriter thing, you know. Depreston – that’s a classic song.”

It’s interesting that Vile connected with a song that, on the surface, is full of local suburban references, but he speaks of Barnett’s easily relatable voice and deadpan delivery. “The lyrics are good no matter what they’re about,” he says. “And the melody is really classic – it’s just the right amount of melancholy, but still poppy, you know.”

It’s also easy to see why the two songwriters sensed an affinity: the casually drawled vocals, multi-layered storytelling, and a mutual love of Neil Young, both in singer-songwriter mode and the slacker-grunge sounds Young’s band Crazy Horse helped spawn at the turn of the 1990s. Over what Vile calls “a perfect storm” of two Australian summers, the friendship spawned a full-length collaboration and a cryptically named album, Lotta Sea Lice.

The pair had slowly become closer, bumping into each other on the festival circuit and through mutual Melbourne friends when Vile was in Australia. “You kind of forge these strange friendships with people that you don’t know all that well, but you hang out and kind of have a special love for, and then you don’t see them again for a year until you bump into them in Scotland or something,” Barnett says.

Vile says he was smitten by Barnett’s songwriting to the point of obsession, and eventually he emailed Barnett saying he had written a song, Over Everything, with her in mind to pair with him on a duet. On his next Australian tour, a couple of days in the studio were booked. Jim White and Mick Turner from the Dirty Three were brought in, and Barnett came up with another song, Let It Go. The pair also recorded a cover of a golden oldie, Blueberry Hill.

It could easily have ended there. Vile says the original plan was to do an EP, and with his time in Australia up, the pair went their separate ways. But the idea wouldn’t die. Barnett and Vile kept in correspondence, and more and more song ideas were slowly stockpiled. By this time, Barnett’s international profile had exploded, and time had to be carved out for a second recording session.

Even then, there was no real plan; just two songwriters lost in the joy of their own craft. Beforehand, emails with demos attached flew back and forth between the pair, and lyrics were cut up and spliced amid the flow of conversation. “The next time I came back, we went from two and a half songs to 10 songs, if you count Blueberry Hill, which isn’t on the record,” Vile says.

“We were having so much fun, and then we realised we had enough for an album,” Barnett says. The results transcend the recording’s rather ad-hoc approach. It’s everything you might expect from an album between the pair: nine spaced-out folk-rock songs, played loosely, but with real clarity and purpose. Two more covers – Barnett singing Peepin’ Tomboy; Vile tackling Out Of The Woodwork – rounded things off.

Barnett had recorded Peepin’ Tomboy solo, and sent it to Vile finished. “That was the first song that I really connected with back when I bought that album,” Barnett says. “I was going through a dark time … You know how music is – half of what you fall in love with is the memory of it, or the feeling that surrounds it when you listen to it, and that’s what’s always stuck with me.”

For Out Of The Woodwork, Vile says he needed extra backing. Stella Mozgawa from Warpaint was brought in to play drums, but what he really wanted was Barnett’s voice: “There’s a chorus in there which every man, woman and child sings on in her version, so I wanted at least get her to sing along on the chorus,” he says. “I kind of needed Courtney as a muse for my version of her song to really feel it.”

It’s rare, but some of the best music can be born this way. “We just kept adding to the pile without any real end-goal, which was kind of nice,” Barnett says. Vile agrees: “I never thought that it would be a full-length album, but it came together that way, which was kind of beautiful. Nothing was forced, but it was very musical.” Lotta Sea Lice is one of this year’s happiest musical accidents.

First published in Spectrum (The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age), 6 October 2017

NB: There are in fact two more covers on the album: Jen Cloher’s song Fear Is Like A Forest, from her second album Hidden Hands, and Belly’s Untogether.

The Aints: Hit me like a deathray, baby

In the space of less than two years between late 1990 and mid 1992, Ed Kuepper released no fewer than six albums. Three – Today Wonder, Honey Steel’s Gold and Black Ticket Day – were released under his own name, and were predominantly acoustic. The other three were electrical storms of white light, white heat and white noise recorded with a band Kuepper called the Aints, a smirking pun on his first band, the Saints.

The Aints saw Kuepper reclaiming the songs and the energy of that band, feeding into an extended feud between the guitarist and singer Chris Bailey, who has continued to play under the Saints’ name since the original group split. According to the press release ahead of this tour, the Aints “sought to bring justice to the sound and attitude of the original Brisbane-based band”, which at least implies that an injustice was being done elsewhere.

Last year, Bailey took his version of the band on a 40th anniversary tour of the release of the single (I’m) Stranded. Now the Aints are doing the same, with the Saints’ first album of the same name released in 1977. And the first show of this tour is in Brisbane – at the Tivoli, no less, the city’s best-sounding room. Saved from demolition and development last year, the art-deco building is celebrating its centenary in partnership with the Brisbane Festival.

With that back story, and weight of history, this show is one of the most anticipated slots on the festival calendar. Kuepper’s timing couldn’t be better: a park in his old suburban stomping grounds of Oxley is being named in his honour; the Saints are receiving similar, long-belated civic recognition. Considering the band was formed in an era of repressive state conservatism, there’s an irony at seeing the occasional politician in the crowd.

Flanked by former Sunnyboy Peter Oxley on bass and the Celibate Rifles’ Paul Larsen on drums, along with a horn section and long-term collaborator Alister Spence on keyboards, Kuepper’s band is built for purpose. He ambles on stage, cordially welcomes the crowd, and tears into This Perfect Day, its riff a hot-rod variation on the Stones’ Paint It, Black. There’s only one key ingredient missing: maximum volume.

It’s followed by The Prisoner, a brooding masterpiece from the Saints’ third album Prehistoric Sounds, but still, things are a little muted. It’s not until the fifth song, The Chameleon, that we feel the band’s full sonic punch as the brass is brought into play. Swing For The Crime is next, and that’s when the entire room lifts, Larsen pounding the song’s tumbling rhythm, the horns blowing the magnificent Stax-style soul break.

Then Kuepper deals a trio of wild cards. The first two are songs which he says were written but never recorded, or played live, by the original band. The first is called SOS ’75 and is as brutal as anything recorded on the band’s debut; the second, Demolition Girl Part 2, was slated for the same album but dropped (it’s also about half the speed of Part 1). The third, Red Aces, was recorded by the Aints on their third and final album Autocannibalism.

In a sense, it’s the highlight of the night to hear these songs, breaking up the predictability of the set list. It also would have been a pleasure to hear more from Ascension and Autocannibalism, the Aints’ excellent pair of studio albums, which featured non-Saints material. But that’s not what this night’s about, and certainly not what the crowd is here for. For the rest of the set, it’s one stone classic after another.

It peaks with Nights In Venice – this time, the riff a molten, sped-up take on Led Zeppelin’s Communication Breakdown – and Messin’ With The Kid. They’re the two lengthiest cuts from (I’m) Stranded, and two of the first songs the band wrote, dating back to 1973–74, when Kuepper and Bailey were teenagers. Messin’ With The Kid especially is still towering, and the addition of brass gives it even more swing and heft.

On Nights In Venice, Kuepper forgets a number of lyrics, as he does on the inevitable closing one-two of Stranded and Know Your Product. Perhaps it’s nerves, or how rarely he performs these songs, but it’s doubtful too many people care, since everyone else in the room knows them backwards. Kuepper, clearly amused and enjoying himself, gets the crowd to sing the opening riff of Know Your Product before leading the band through the song.

They encore with Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High, a Saints staple from their earliest days. At the song’s centre, Kuepper takes one of his greatest solos, breaking down and rebuilding the pop standard. This wasn’t a perfect night – there were ragged moments, and the sound quality was variable. But when it all clicked, to quote a line from Nights In Venice, the Aints “hit me like a deathray, baby, from above”.

First published in The Guardian, 28 September 2017

“A bloody-minded bunch of bastards”

The place: 8 Ormiston Avenue, Gordon, a leafy suburb on Sydney’s Upper North Shore. The year: sometime in 1972. A teenaged Robert George Hirst hauls his drum kit into the attic of the Cape Cod-style home owned by the parents of James Moginie.

Pretty soon, all hell starts breaking loose. There’s a thudding bass riff, played by Andrew “Bear” James. A couple of mighty clangs from Jim, and soon he’s noodling away over the top of Hirst’s kick drum. Hirst, all the while is hooting and hollering:

“SCHWAMPY MOOSE! SCHWAMPY MOOSE!!!”

It’s followed by an even greater cacophony, which sounds like Hirst kicking his drums back down the stairs again, just for the fun of it. Bands have, perhaps, had less auspicious beginnings. So begins the story of Schwampy Moose, soon to be known as Farm, and – later – as Midnight Oil.

THIS box of recordings represents both a purging and a history, but history is rarely linear and never neat. Tentative steps and great leaps forward can be followed and are sometimes accompanied by self-doubt; by glances sideways; by the occasional strategic retreat. It is a collection both of defining and celebrated moments, and of things that fell between the cracks.

But always there is purpose, and there is integrity. Those qualities took Midnight Oil to places few artists dared to go. To the Indigenous communities of Australia’s central and western deserts. To Midtown, Manhattan for a guerrilla-style protest against an oil company. To a heaving Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, in that country’s first post-Apartheid, multi-racial concert, following the election of President Nelson Mandela.

In purpose and integrity also lies resistance and refusal. A refusal to play/mime on Countdown, Australia’s long-running answer to England’s Top Of The Pops that was all but compulsory Sunday-night home viewing for a decade from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s in suburban lounge rooms. The many declined invitations to tour South Africa, for as long as Apartheid remained in place.

There was even a declined invitation to the Grammy awards in 1988, at the apex of Midnight Oil’s international success, so singer Peter Garrett could attend a protest at home against Bicentennial celebrations of the European invasion of Australia on 26 January 1788. Midnight Oil had their own priorities, and if they weren’t yours, that was just too bad.

You can’t capture that kind of refusal on tape. But it, too, is part of Midnight Oil’s history. It screams – in blue, perhaps – between the lines, at a time when resistance and refusal are needed more than ever.

FROM early on, the Oils – Hirst, Moginie, James (replaced in 1980 by Peter Gifford, who was in turn replaced in 1987 by Wayne Stevens, aka Bones Hillman), guitarist Martin Rotsey and Garrett, who grew up not far from Moginie in neighbouring Lindfield – were a strange hybrid that sounded like no one else.

In his autobiography Big Blue Sky, Garrett describes the band crawling from its cocoon to become an “iron butterfly”; surely a deliberate choice of words. The band’s first, self-titled album from 1978 is aflame with punk energy, inspired both by English bands and, locally, Sydney’s Radio Birdman, featuring the mesmerising Rob Younger out front – another singer with jerky stage movements and long, white-blond hair.

But there are also lingering elements of progressive rock, of psychedelia, and of the utopian hippie surf ethos of the 1971 film Morning Of The Earth and its classic soundtrack by G. Wayne Thomas. Even hyperkinetic songs like the opening Powderworks stretched over five minutes; the closing Nothing Lost, Nothing Gained carries for nearly eight at a pace that might, by the standards of the day, be considered meandering.

Still, there was no mistaking that the Oils meant business. Garrett maximised the visual power of his already daunting frame and features by shaving his head (which also served the utilitarian purpose of helping him take surf photos from the water without his hair getting in the way). Soon, the Oils began to establish a reputation as a band that was not to be missed, and definitely not to be fucked with.

This phase of the group is documented on a live performance from 1978, the first of several Live at the Wireless recordings made over the Oils’ career by ABC youth radio station 2JJ, later to become Triple J. (Among the treats here – underscoring the band’s earlier influences – is a cover of Take Me Down Easy, originally recorded by Jo Jo Gunne, formed by erstwhile members of psych-prog band Spirit.)

The sound is bright and trebly, but the key ingredients are in place. In the left channel, Moginie takes one mile-a-minute break after another; in the right, Rotsey chops out the rhythm like a competition woodcutter, only for the roles to be reversed when Moginie switches to organ for Surfing With A Spoon. All the while, Hirst leads from the back with his perpetual-motion drumming.

In effect, between Garrett and Hirst, the Oils had two frontmen, and Moginie identifies Hirst as the band’s driving musical force. “Great bands need great drummers, and we had a great drummer. It’s the way Rob’s kick drum’s slightly ahead of the beat and his snare’s about on the beat – or maybe even slightly back on the beat – so you get this pumping effect, and I think that’s the core of our sound.”

The band would tighten up that sound dramatically on their second album, amplifying the energy, boosting the bottom end and trimming the fat, even on workouts like the show-stopping Stand In Line. “I remember producer Les Karski saying, ‘The first thing I’ve got to do with you guys is get rid of the hippie waffle,’” Hirst says. “And he did, so the Head Injuries songs are much more concise.”

FAST forward to 1981, and the fourth CD of this collection, Punter Barrier, and one can hear the real beginnings of a phenomenon, starting with a live version of Stand In Line that first appeared as a B-side of the Armistice Day single. By now, the Oils were mowing down audiences in performances more like hand-to-hand combat in beer barns, inner-city theatres and outdoor festivals all over the country.

“That’s what will happen if you play 180 gigs a year in the clubs and pubs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane,” Hirst says. “It was quite gladiatorial back then. We were part of a circuit with Rose Tattoo and the Angels – even AC/DC of course were still here – and we’d learned how to play really hard, tough music through these huge PAs, which we used to call triple four-ways.”

The arrival of Peter Gifford had given the band a harder look, too, including work-wear overalls that several members would soon adopt. “Giffo was a chippie [carpenter], and he brought that no-fuss quality to the band,” Hirst says. “But he was also a great musician. He had an amazingly tough sound, and a down-beat with his right hand – exactly where my kick drum was – and we locked in immediately.”

Gifford’s impact can be heard in all its brutal glory on Punter Barrier – and seen, on the Moments In Space DVD – in a gig from the Tanelorn festival, recorded on a freezing night outside of the small New South Wales town of Stroud not long after the recording of the band’s third album Place Without A Postcard, recorded in Sussex, England on the property of famed English producer Glyn Johns.

It was so cold that you can see steam rising from both the audience and band members, who are swaddled in heavy winter clothes – Garrett’s head looks like it’s on fire. “The temperatures plummeted just before we went on stage, and poor Split Enz were coming on after us as well, so it was even colder for them,” Hirst says. “Looking back on it, though, you can just feel the roadwork that we’d done.”

But while Place Without A Postcard did well at home, it failed to find much international support, and all the roadwork in the world wasn’t going to keep the Oils afloat much longer. Behind the scenes, tension was building. Within a year, they were back in England – this time, London – with a much younger producer, and an air of desperation.

BY the time it came to record 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (or 10–1, or 10, 9, 8, depending on which shortened version of the title you prefer) Hirst was at his wit’s end and suffering panic attacks. “There was huge pressure on the band,” he says. “It was make or break … We were sick of going overseas and losing money and then coming back to Australia, and having to do a long tour just to recoup and go again.”

“We had nothing to lose at that point,” agrees Moginie. “There was no sense we were trying to preserve or protect any legacy. It was like we never had any legacy; we almost started with a clean slate. It was, let’s just make a record that works as a record, and there’s great moments on 10–1 where it just sounds like it’s about to explode.”

The story of the making of 10–1 (the title both a countdown to what then seemed like imminent nuclear Armageddon at the height of the Cold War and, more subtly, a sly reference to the TV show the band still stubbornly refused to play) is told on Only The Strong, a new documentary that sees its first release on this box set. It features the wizard-like figure of producer Nick Launay explaining, alongside Moginie, Hirst and Garrett, how the band achieved the array of extraordinary sounds buried within its dense textures.

As Launay and the band explain, 10–1 took the Oils out of the pubs and into stadiums via a sharp left turn into radical post-punk production techniques. To that point, Launay had worked with England’s Gang of Four, Killing Joke and on Public Image, Ltd’s Flowers Of Romance album, as well as the epochal single Release The Bats by Australia’s Birthday Party. He was met by a band ready to shed its skin.

Songs were cut up and reassembled. Hirst’s drums were recorded without cymbals, to be overdubbed later, and two of the album’s biggest-sounding songs (and singles), US Forces and Read About It, were built on multiple layers of acoustic guitars, with electric guitars used more sparingly, to devastating effect. US Forces featured Hirst playing piano strings with his drumsticks in the chorus, a feat so difficult Launay never attempted it again with another band.

Then, of course, there was Power And The Passion, with its percussion loop, that drum solo – Hirst’s performance throughout 10–1 is a masterclass – and topping it all, the brass section who blew themselves blue in the face trying to hit those hysterical high notes in the song’s coda. But for all that, as Garrett notes, the core of the band was not lost in the process: “We had an album that was very different to what we’d done before, but it was Midnight Oil, and when you went to see us live, you heard it.”

The sense of triumph is summed up by Hirst. “We were a bloody-minded bunch of bastards,” he admits. “We were very demanding on everyone around us, [including] each other … We were hard to deal with, we antagonised and irritated a lot of people, and at that moment, in the Townhouse studios with 10–1, I just thought, right, it’s all been worth it! We have actually reinvented what we are.”

Garrett – who in his memoir says he must have listened to the album 10 times on the flight home from London – says in the documentary: “I really was hitting the roof … Once we got onstage to play the songs – and they were all eminently playable – then of course that rounded it off.”

AFTER the countdown, Midnight Oil dropped the bomb (figuratively speaking) on the Capitol Theatre, Sydney on the 27 November, 1982.

Previously released as a dual DVD, Best Of Both Worlds, along with another spectacular gig recorded by 2JJ, Oils On The Water (also included here), the Capitol set remains arguably the best existing document of the band in full flight. All the tension that went into the recording of the album and the excitement of delivering the Oils’ best set of songs to date was detonated in front of a berserk audience.

“It’s so fast!” Garrett said with a grin, during an earlier interview. It’s true – many of the songs at the Capitol, such as No Time for Games and Lucky Country, are played as if by a bunch of speed-fuelled truckers. Rotsey and Gifford are straining at their leads, Moginie remains the band’s ice-cool centre of gravity, and Garrett is simply messianic. Behind them, Hirst pushes the band over the edge with abandon.

The blistering opening performance of Only The Strong, especially, demonstrates the extraordinary chemistry that had developed within the band; listen to how Moginie and Rotsey’s guitars talk to each other in the breakdown. Moginie laughs: “How many guitarists does it take to change a light bulb?” (The answer: “Two, because I could have done it better than the other guy!”)

Moginie confesses that when Rotsey first joined Midnight Oil, he feared he might have been usurped. “Guitar players are notoriously competitive, usually,” he says. “But I think in our case we realised early on that our styles were so different, there was never any trying to follow each other. There was a wonderful tennis-like quality to it, as if we were knocking a ball backwards and forwards across the net.”

10–1 also saw Midnight Oil emerge as a potent political force as well as an artistic one: after touring for the album was complete, Garrett would have his first tilt at a parliamentary seat as a high-profile candidate for the single-issue Nuclear Disarmament Party in the Australian federal election of 1984. He lost, narrowly. History may have been different. But history also has a way of repeating itself.

FOLLOWING the breakthrough of 10–1, the band recorded their next album, Red Sails In The Sunset (again with Nick Launay) in Tokyo, Japan. It saw the band pushing the boundaries of the studio even further – and, inevitably, there was a push back. First came Species Deceases, an EP of primal garage rock in the vein of 1980’s Bird Noises. Then, in late 1985, came an unexpected opportunity, and a quantum shift.

At that time, the Mutitjulu people were handed back custodianship of Australia’s largest monolith, Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), of which they were the traditional owners. To commemorate the event, they asked Midnight Oil to write a song. This was The Dead Heart which, Garrett writes, was built on Moginie and Rotsey’s acoustic guitars “churning like an 18-wheeler, backed in by a crunching snare drum sound”.

In 1986, the band backed it up with a tour through Aboriginal communities, accompanied by the pioneering Warumpi Band from Papunya, west of Alice Springs. This was the Blackfella/Whitefella tour, named after the Warumpi Band’s classic song, filmed by the ABC, and included here. The tour was an unforgettable shock to the entire band’s system, as the Oils were confronted with third-world living conditions in the middle of the so-called Lucky Country. Garrett writes in his memoir:

“I made a note about my gut feeling that if we were to get a clearer fix on where the nation sat, we had to go to the roots of our history, and so it proved. Sure, you could read about it, but once you took the step to head to a place where the wounds and the memories were as fresh as today, there were no excuses, no turning back.

 “We were strangers in this timeless land, where the grandeur and fine detail of the landscape took your breath away, but in the same instant, the pervasive poverty and extreme conditions brought you up short, as did the ever-present sense of ennui and grief. The story of Aboriginal peoples following the arrival of white settlers was one of loss: the loss of country that sustained them and gave their life meaning; the loss of family and neighbours to the sickness that followed; and finally, the loss of interest in living, still tragically evident in the suicide rate of young Aboriginal men.”

Most of the band members have returned to the communities they visited in the years since, including Garrett after he became a cabinet minister more than 20 years later. The experience has never left them. Hirst says he has still barely been able to come to terms with what he saw, noting that while there have been gains, there have also been regressions – the suicide rate of Aboriginal men, for example, has only increased.

Garrett continues: “Here in the desert we had to slow down, in the way we played, in the way we thought. In the great silence that enveloped us, we had to listen carefully – to the words that were deliberately chosen, to the long gaps in conversation, to the odd angry shout erupting in the night. Only then did we get a glimpse of the depth of the culture of those we had come to perform for.”

It also had a profound impact on the Oils’ sound: as Hirst says, “we just left much more space between the beats and the notes – much simpler songs”. There was a newfound appreciation for space, for stillness, for quiet, and for echoes that you can still hear, rebounding back to you from the band’s greatest work: Diesel And Dust.

ON 24 March 1989, an oil tanker, the Exxon Valdez, ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska. In the following days, it spewed over 10 million gallons of crude – possibly much more – into the ocean and over more than 2000 kilometres of remote coastline. The spill devastated local communities and wildlife, including countless seabirds, seals, sea otters, and fishing stocks; the images shocked the world.

What was more shocking, and shameful, was Exxon’s response. Despite the fact that the after-effects of the spill persist to this day, Exxon continued to appeal costs awarded against it for the following 20 years, progressively reducing their damages bill from $5 billion to just over half a billion dollars. Spurred by sheer disgust at this environmental calamity, Midnight Oil began planning a response.

A little over a year after the spill, in the middle of their Blue Sky Mining tour, the Oils pulled up on a flat-bed truck outside the glass-walled headquarters of Exxon on the Avenue of the Americas and 6th Avenue, Manhattan. This was agitprop; this was a raid. In the course of the following half-hour, they played a furious set to a swelling lunchtime crowd, unfurling a banner: “MIDNIGHT OIL MAKES YOU DANCE – EXXON OIL MAKES US SICK”.

The agog faces pressed against the glass upstairs were soon replaced by drawn curtains, while at ground level, the band were trying to see how many songs they could get away with before the NYPD inevitably pulled the plug. Some, though, were notably enjoying themselves. “If you look at the film clip for King Of The Mountain you can see the cops starting to sway and move,” cackles Hirst, “and the sergeant there who was basically running the show eventually just said, oh, enough’s enough!”

The success of the protest action, which involved climbing or ducking significant bureaucratic and logistical hurdles, was a tribute to the determination of many people in and around the band who made it happen. Hirst cites the band’s sixth member, manager Gary Morris – another bloody-minded bastard possessed of “enormous charisma, a very firm handshake, and a tendency to talk someone into the earth before he would take a ‘no’. He was a formidable presence.”

Mention should also be made of the support the band were given by those in Sony Records at the time, particularly Mason Munoz, who went beyond simply respecting the band’s artistic and political independence. “There were mavericks in record companies then, and in radio as well,” Hirst says. “We relied on them. I can’t imagine the Oils having got anywhere near where we did without those enlightened folks.”

The end result was Midnight Oil at their best. If you wanted the perfect example of the band’s commitment to its values, its willingness to get up the right people’s noses and take others along with them – besides their performance at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in “Sorry” suits, sadly not included here for licensing reasons – the Exxon protest was it.

A FEW years later, the band was invited to perform on MTV Unplugged, a performance included here in its entirety on DVD for the first time. The unplugged concept, at that point, was an MTV staple – the idea being that by stripping away amplification and effects, fans would see a more “authentic” version of their heroes playing their favourite songs.

Some artists took the format further than others. Neil Young, at least sans his ear-bleeding backing group Crazy Horse, was hardly a stranger to the acoustic format; so too Bob Dylan. Conversely, one of the best and most famous performances, by Nirvana, was at times very much plugged in (check, for example, Kurt Cobain’s guitar in their cover of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World).

Midnight Oil’s performance is recalled differently by the band members. “No!” replies Moginie instantly, laughing, when asked if the concept suited the band.

Nonetheless, the band performed well, as is apparent on the DVD, with the group bolstered by the addition of keyboard player Chris Abrahams, of Australian improvisational jazz trio the Necks. Also, Moginie concedes, Diesel And Dust had already seen the Oils tone down their aggression to put greater emphasis on the songwriting and the vocals.

The Oils were still a rock band, though, and at the time he felt Unplugged was just a way of making guitar players turn down, or even eliminating them altogether. Worse, he says, “it was like making Rob play his drums with one arm behind his back! I think we did a really good job of it and it’s part of our history but personally it’s not something I look back on with much fondness.”

Hirst himself feels very differently. “It was quite an honour to be asked to the Ed Sullivan Theatre to do that,” he says. “We spent a few weeks stripping the whole thing down, and what we found was underneath the grunt of the amps and the drums, there [were] actually some really good, melodic songs.” In other words, the Oils proved exactly what the format asked them to.

The difference in perspective is as simple as Hirst’s position from behind the kit, compared to Moginie’s as a guitarist. With the volume down, Hirst – playing a supportive rather than leading role – could finally hear his own band. “Personally, I heard things I’d never heard before [that] the other members were doing, but because of the sturm und drang of the big show, I just wasn’t aware of,” he says.

And while Moginie felt he and Rotsey had been reduced to simply “strumming our hearts out”, Hirst heard the magical mesh between them. “Jim and Martin had been playing for so long together, there was this lovely guitar interplay. Of course, shortly after we’d done that everyone said oh, what the fuck – let’s just plug into the amps and blast away! But I think we discovered things about our vocal ability and how melodic the songs were, and that was quite a revelation.”

WHILE Hirst and Moginie’s recollections of Unplugged may differ, one event about which the entire band is unanimous was their historic concert a year later at Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg, performing alongside Sting, Lucky Dube and Johnny Clegg in the first major multi-racial show in post-Apartheid South Africa. It was a genuinely special night, with musicians and audience united in the most joyful of celebrations.

It was especially remarkable that the audience knew the songs, since the band’s albums had not been exported to South Africa during the earlier economic embargo: the word (and the lyrics) had spread via bootlegs. The Oils had resisted previous overtures to tour the country, and Garrett had sung on Sun City, a hit protest single by Artists United Against Apartheid, a collective led by the E Street Band’s Steve Van Zandt.

Johannesburg sits at an elevation of 1753 metres, which is not all that far short of Australia’s highest peak, Kosciusko (title of another Oils song). It made singing a challenge, both for the asthmatic Hirst and for Garrett, who had to do it while whirling and jerking about the stage in his inimitable fashion. Thankfully, they had plenty of cover from the locals.

“We started with The Dead Heart and we had this massive singalong,” Hirst says. “Everyone was singing to the fullness of their abilities, and of course there’s serious vocal firepower in South Africa, you know, they can really sing. We should have just left them to it! Dead Heart never sounded better; Beds Are Burning never sounded better.”

Hirst says he gets shivers just talking about the gig to this day, and Garrett likewise cites it among his favourite moments. As for Moginie, he says he didn’t even realise the concert had been filmed; unearthing it for this box was a Eureka moment. “It was a moment in time that was just captured and there was a tape of it we didn’t even know we had! We looked at it, and we were [like] holy shit – this is just great.”

ABOVE all, Moginie says, the aim of this box set was to present an honest overview of Midnight Oil’s history. Here, we rewind to Schwampy Moose and the first CD here, Lasseter’s Gold, a collection of previously unreleased outtakes and snippets. It’s a fascinating insight into a democratic band at work, from their rough beginnings right through to A Sunburnt Sky, a reject from the Breathe sessions in 1996.

These are songs that, for one reason or another, fell between the cracks. Two of them, Schwampy Moose and Farm – a one-minute, ambient Moginie mood piece from 1975, featuring the name the band would use in their early gigs – are ancient relics that have survived. Some tracks might have been less fully formed than others at the time of recording, and fell behind in the pecking order as deadlines approached.

Others fell victim to the preferences of band members and producers, or were later reworked to turn up elsewhere: Wreckery Road, for example, on Hirst’s first Ghostwriters album. Ghost Of The Roadhouse, a demo for 10–1, features a reference to “bells and horns at the back of beyond”, a line that became a title for an instrumental on Red Sails In The Sunset.

At times it’s even possible to hear the band cannibalising itself: Doghead, another instrumental recorded over the New Year of 1987–1988, features an opening chord pattern lifted – perhaps intentionally, perhaps not – from Scream In Blue. This was all part of the Oils’ process: a musical jigsaw puzzle, where shapes were constantly thrown together in different keys and tempos until they interlocked.

“We’re really wearing our hearts on our sleeves here, because everyone’s got favourites on these,” Rob says. “These are songs which didn’t see the light of day, often with good reason. Some of them you can hear they need to go the extra mile with the writing or the arrangement or the production, but we just thought, what the hell – if not now, then when?”

“The thing about it that’s interesting is that when you’re doing demos, like these were, everything’s very unguarded,” Moginie says. “The lyrics are unguarded, the playing’s unguarded; [and] maybe not quite as righteous as it could be, but then you have this other frail human quality which sometimes gets lost in the studio when you’re doing a million takes and you’ve got a producer and a deadline.”

And, as the title suggests, there is gold here, too. “Things like The Band Played The Last Melody we were all going, why the hell didn’t that make it onto an album?” Moginie says. “Things would just get overlooked – maybe there was something a bit odd about a song; a lyric here or there or a dodgy chord, but nothing that couldn’t have been fixed. Other songs would just get traction, and attention would move on.”

OVER a long career, a band’s time can come and go, and come again. At the time of this box set’s release – close to 15 years since Midnight Oil was last an active entity, and 45 since those rough beginnings in Jim Moginie’s attic – let us pause for a moment to survey the landscape.

A real estate tycoon and reality television star, Donald Trump, is in the White House. His appointee as Secretary of State is none other than Rex Tillerson who, between 2006–2016, was the CEO of Exxon, a company he has served since 1975. Meanwhile, ice caps and glaciers are melting as the planet continues to warm at an alarming rate – a phenomenon that Exxon has also spent billions of dollars denying.

In Australia, there continues to be debate over changing the date of Australia Day, which for Indigenous Australians remains a day of dispossession and devastation. The majority of recommendations of a Royal Commission into black deaths in custody remain unimplemented; shamefully, the percentage of Indigenous people in prison has increased from 14 percent in 1991 to 27 percent.

It would be a misunderstanding of Midnight Oil’s purpose to assume the band will get back together because the political circumstances seem somehow to demand it. For the band, the music always – always – came first. Having said that, Garrett left the band in 2002 to further his political career; after a decade-long stint, including as a cabinet minister in the Labor government, the Oils were free to resume.

And Midnight Oil make you dance.

But Midnight Oil also make you think.

On the eve of his 2017 tour of Australia, a day after the inauguration of President Trump, Bruce Springsteen was asked about art’s responsibility to the times in which we live. The Boss replied that it was the same as it had always been: it was to witness, and it was to testify, and in doing so, it might help lift people up, and inspire them. Art, at its best, is an appeal to our better angels.

The last time Midnight Oil toured the USA, it was in the months following the levelling of the World Trade Centre in the terrorist atrocity of 9/11. The sad result, 16 years later, is that the very freedoms that nation so cherishes are under attack as never before. Even Green Card holders are finding it hard to get into the country as Trump and the judiciary battle in a very real crisis for the country’s constitution and international standing.

How might a dissident bunch of Australians fare?

“I imagine Rex Tillerson was one of the ones with his face pressed against the glass, looking down at this Australian rock band with our big banner and going, what the fuck?!” Hirst says. “I wonder if he’ll remember us, if we do tour the United States this year. It’ll be interesting to see whether we last the distance, and whether we’re appreciated or deported.”

Whatever happens, the Oils will be there, to witness, and to testify: it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.

Liner notes written exclusively for Midnight Oil’s Overflow Tank box set, released 12 May 2017

Right Here: Behind The Heartache

Scene: a tall, erect man, aged 60, is walking up a long gravel driveway. He is impeccably, incongruously dressed for the country surroundings: dark blue suit and tie, rose-pink shirt, dress shoes. It is the Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster. He is carrying a guitar. An old radio voice-over asks him to describe the music he plays. “It’s like running water off thin white strips of aluminium,” he replies. Soundtrack: the first three notes of Cattle And Cane.

The next person we see is footage of the late Grant McLennan, the song’s author, who died of a heart attack at the age of 48 in 2006. He is dragging on a cigarette. “We’re not a trendy band,” he says. “We’re a groovy band. And I like that.”

Rewind. Setting: The Golden Century, a Chinese restaurant in Sydney. Film director Kriv Stenders, best known for Red Dog, is pitching his documentary about the Go-Betweens, Right Here, to a suspicious Lindy Morrison, the band’s drummer on their first six albums, and multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown. During the band’s life, Morrison had been in a relationship with Forster; Brown with McLennan. Old wounds remain close to the surface.

Morrison describes the meeting as “extraordinarily traumatic”. The Go-Betweens is a subject on which she long ago stopped giving interviews, except in relation to specific projects. The story of the band always returns to the friendship between Forster and McLennan: Forster’s memoir of last year was titled Grant & I. After the band broke up, Morrison and Brown fought and settled with the two songwriters for a share of royalties.

For Morrison and Brown especially – along with former bass players Robert Vickers and John Willsteed – Right Here was a chance to detail their vast musical contributions. Cattle And Cane would have been lost without Morrison’s unique time signature; Bye Bye Pride is crowned by Brown’s oboe part; Streets Of Your Town features a gorgeous Spanish-inflected acoustic guitar solo played by Willsteed.

“I don’t think Kriv knew who or what he was dealing with,” Morrison says. “He had no idea of what had unfolded at the closing of the band, and the discussions about that brought forward our feelings again about what had transpired.” Stenders didn’t know what had hit him. “I must admit I didn’t sleep that night,” he says. “I think they ran me through a gauntlet to test my mettle … There was so much emotion, so much anger and frustration there.”

The dysfunctional band documentary is a staple of the genre, but it’s just getting started in Australia. So far, most of the energy has focused on the punk scene of the late 1970s. Radio Birdman and the Saints, Australia’s two primary sources for the movement – both famously tempestuous groups – have been honoured recently on film. But for human drama, the Go-Betweens, arguably Australia’s first post-punk band, were untouchable on stage and off.

What Right Here has that most “rockumentaries” lack is atmosphere. Taking the Go-Betweens’ stifling mid-1970s home of Brisbane as its starting point, it feels naturalistic and expansive. Interviews with band members were shot on the verandah of an enormous Queenslander owned by Stenders’ sister near Beaudesert, south of Brisbane. But the suffocating humidity, which builds like a thunderstorm, is provided by the complex relationships between the members.

Forster stares into a bonfire as he recounts how he and McLennan decided to end the band in 1989 and return to their beginnings as a duo, heedless of Morrison and Brown’s financial and emotional investment. “We were just bumbling boys,” he says. Morrison’s response is acidic: “Both of us refused to be defined as the girlfriends, and that’s what they did, when they dumped us. They treated us like ex-wives, and that was the greatest insult.”

It’s a heart-stopping scene, shot in darkness, with Brown and Morrison together. There’s a twitch in Morrison’s eye as she bitterly recounts the moment, while Brown’s eyes are full of tears. But if Right Here was only about settling scores, it would be a lesser film. There are many moments where Morrison’s old fondness for Forster, Forster’s for Morrison, and Brown’s deep anguish at the loss of McLennan are keenly felt.

To get those moments, Stenders put his subjects through the mill. Morrison was interviewed for 16 hours, in four blocks of four hours each. For her, she says, the results were therapeutic. “It’s lifted the sense of sadness I’ve always felt about the band. It’s made me close the door … I feel great about the band and the music now; I feel that finally that bloody striped sunlight sound has warmed me!”

The Go-Betweens, as McLennan noted, were never trendy. “I never gave a shit,” Morrison says in the film. “We did not look the part, we didn’t sound the part, we were not the part. We were too intelligent.” Cue the opening chords for Streets Of Your Town, the closest the band’s “striped sunlight sound” ever came to a hit. It reached 70 on the Australian charts; 82 in Britain. “We may as well have put out a free jazz record,” Forster says.

Yet the music has endured. Forster and McLennan reconvened the band at the turn of the millennium – without Morrison and Brown – making three more celebrated albums before McLennan’s death. Here, Stenders encountered a problem he couldn’t resolve. Interviews with Glenn Thompson and Adele Pickvance, the band’s drummer and bass player during this period, hit the cutting room floor. The band’s final act is summed up in five minutes.

The decision grieved Stenders, as well as Thompson and Pickvance, whom Stenders says was especially upset. But the heart of the Go-Betweens’ story lay in that classic line-up. Stenders justifies it by saying he wanted to present an emotional history of the band, not a discography. “That band just kept on building and building to a point where I think it just caved in on itself,” he says.

In 2013, Morrison was awarded an Order of Australia medal for her services as a performer and an advocate. A social worker before joining the Go-Betweens, she is now the welfare co-ordinator with music industry charity Support Act. The end of the band, she said, “was pivotal in me going out and establishing myself as Lindy Morrison, and I will not be anyone but Lindy Morrison, and nothing will change that”.

But she will always remain a Go-Between. “Despite the acrimony, despite the anger, despite the betrayal, ultimately there’s still love there, and I find that very moving,” Stenders says. “I know it’s an extreme analogy, but when soldiers go to war, that bonds you forever, and I think it’s the same with the Go-Betweens. That’s why the music was so great, because they lived it and believed in it so passionately.”

When the Go Between Bridge was opened in Brisbane in 2010, Forster and Morrison shared a moment. “We walked across the whole bridge together, just him and I,” Morrison says. “Just chatting, like a couple of old codgers. That was very, very special to me, and I’m sure it was special to him. We’ve had our moments where we’ve been able to find each other again. It’ll never return to what it was. But we found each other on that day.”

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 23 September 2017

Peter Perrett returns to earth from another planet

Rock journalist Nina Antonia said it best. “If there was only one song in the universe and it was Another Girl, Another Planet, I would still have all I ever wanted,” she wrote. Though not a hit at the time, the song, released in 1978 by London group the Only Ones, is now a celebrated classic: a muted guitar intro swiftly blooming into a headlong rush, set to lyrics that make little effort to conceal singer Peter Perrett’s narcotic love affair.

“You get under my skin, I don’t find it irritating / You always play to win, but I don’t need rehabilitating,” Perrett sang. And for decades, Perrett was a man beyond rehabilitation: in a variation of the famous Charlie Watts story about Keith Richards telling the Rolling Stones drummer he had a problem, former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders – one of rock’s most notorious junkies – once paid Perrett a visit to lambast him for wasting his talent.

Thunders died in 1991; Perrett, miraculously, is still alive. After three albums with the Only Ones, who recorded some of the most elegantly wasted rock music ever made between 1976 and 1981, he disappeared into an abyss of addictions: first heroin, then crack. There was a brief reappearance in the mid-1990s, followed by another decade’s silence before a brief Only Ones reunion. “That was my avatar there on stage, it wasn’t really me,” he says.

And now, in what is surely this year’s most unexpected and best resurrection, Perrett has returned, aged 65 and looking about 85, despite a still-impressive mop of rock-star hair. His first solo album How The West Was Won shows his sleepy Sarf London voice and droll humour preserved intact, its title track sardonically declaring his love for Kim Kardashian: “She’s taken over from J-Lo as my number one / Even though I know she’s just a bum.”

The album was made with his sons Jamie and Peter Perrett jnr on guitar and bass respectively. Previously, they’d played for a short time in Babyshambles with Pete Doherty, Perrett’s modern wastrel equivalent. “It was my family who drew me back into music,” Perrett says. “They rehearse upstairs from where I live. I’d hear them rehearsing and they’d come down and say ‘Why don’t you come up and play, Dad?’ “

Perrett hadn’t picked up a guitar in years. “I got refocused and disciplined,” he says. “My life had changed, and I started living a more orderly existence.” Songs poured forth: 40 of them from the summer of 2015, pared down to 10 for just his fifth album in 39 years. “I’ve always believed in quality rather than quantity,” he deadpans, but awareness that his time may be limited means he’s already working on a follow-up.

The Only Ones had reformed in 2007, after Another Girl, Another Planet was used in a British ad campaign. Originally, the song had charted for one solitary week – at number 44, in New Zealand, three years after its release. “Maybe it’s because it’s got a 32-bar intro, with a great big long guitar solo before the vocals come in,” Perrett muses, when asked why, or how, his most beloved song flopped. Or maybe it was the subject matter.

Regardless, it will long outlive its maker. “I’d much rather have a song which people still listen to 40 years later and respect and do covers of, rather than have something which is a big hit and is then forgotten,” he says. “[With] Another Girl, Another Planet you can’t really tell when it was recorded, because I think it’s timeless. I think everything we did was timeless.”

But recruiting the band again wasn’t an option. Drummer Mike Kellie, who died earlier this year, was seriously ill and an earlier foray back into the studio hadn’t gone well. The band gigged for a couple of years before things fell apart again. “I was there in body but not in mind. My mind was back in my room with my various paraphernalia, that I wanted to return to as soon as possible.”

Perrett was also aware of the danger of tarnishing the band’s legacy. He says the sessions the band recorded were “a pale representation of what we were”. In hindsight, he says, “nothing new was going to come out of it because I wasn’t in a state to be productive, or even want to be productive. It always felt slightly nostalgic, and if I’m going to do music I want to do it because I’ve got something new to say.”

Clean at last, with the support of his sons and drummer Jake Woodward, Perrett had a young, fresh band imprinted with his own musical DNA. Nostalgia was replaced with an urge to start anew. “If I’m not feeling my emotions to the fullest extent then I haven’t got that driving force to be in that state. Before, my mind was very distracted and my emotions were numb, and to me that’s not the way to produce your best work,” he says.

Years of abuse have taken a toll on Perrett’s body. “My lungs aren’t that great, but they manage to sing,” he says. “I had to learn how to sing again; it’s like a harmonium where the bellows are a bit squeaky. So I had to find a way of singing where they sounded great again. The one drawback is we’ve got to start gigging soon, and I won’t be able to jump around the stage. I have to conserve my energy to concentrate on singing.”

I ask what has pulled him through. “What’s got me though is basically love,” Perrett says. He’s not joking. His wife of 47 years, Xena, has stood by him throughout. “I’ve shared all my experiences with my soul mate. That’s why I had to have four love songs on the album.” (Although one of them, Troika, might be better described as a paean to a triumvirate: “You must admit there’s strength in numbers,” he sings).

In the album’s most telling and triumphant song, Something In My Brain, Perrett describes an experiment with a rat. “He could choose food / Or he could choose crack / Well the rat, he starved to death / But I didn’t die, at least not yet / I’m still just about capable / Of one last defiant breath.” It finishes with a raised fist, or maybe it’s a middle finger: “Now rock & roll is back in me – oh yeah!”

But as he also sings in An Epic Story, it’s too late for repentance of sins. Perrett insists he wouldn’t do anything differently. “It’s sort of embarrassing how many times you have to do something before you learn your lesson, but I can’t really regret it, it’s just me,” he says. “You know, I’m a flawed person, I’m an imperfect human being … The advice I’d give to young people is don’t do what I did, but I wouldn’t change any of my decisions.

“It’s not constructive to think about mistakes that you’ve made and how things might have been different. To have the pleasure of making an album that was the perfect album I could make, for that time, makes me celebrate the past. Even though I can be honest about certain aspects of it, to me it’s still a celebration of survival. You know, lots of my friends aren’t here.”

First published in Spectrum (The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age), 2 September 2017

Neil Finn: Out Of Silence review

Perhaps the first thing the listener needs to do with Out Of Silence is forget about the circumstances in which it was created. For four consecutive Fridays in August, Neil Finn has live-streamed the making of his fourth solo album via his Facebook page, releasing the singles More Than One Of You and Second Nature on the 11th and 18th respectively. The recording was completed in a final four-hour session on the 25th.

Clearly, this approach excited Finn and his fans. But when the process is forgotten, all that is left behind is the music itself: piano-based orchestral pop, with a minimum of drums and percussion. The album is compact at 35 minutes, and complex in its instrumentation and arrangements, scored by composer Victoria Kelly. It is beautiful on the surface and yet seemingly bottomless: these songs are too subtle and densely textured to take in all at once.

But it feels like easy listening; as natural as breathing. Finn’s last album Dizzy Heights, produced by Dave Fridmann with Kelly also on board, was unusually hard work by comparison. And it’s here that you appreciate the craft in these songs and the manner in which they’ve been executed. The songs were recorded quickly, but tightly rehearsed: you may have been a fly on the wall, but that doesn’t mean Out Of Silence was made on the fly.

Chameleon Days exemplifies how Finn can make the most sophisticated pop music sound like the simplest thing in the world. Opening with ghostly vibraphone and strings, it’s joined by Finn on piano, singing in a high falsetto, and one of the album’s few drum tracks. The lyrics shapeshift with the melody: “That must be how the music is meant to be played / The colours change in our lives / We all have our own chameleon days.”

There is so much going on in this song that it feels almost unstable, especially when it hits a surging bridge, with backing vocals doubling down heavily on the beat. But Finn’s piano keeps returning to the hook that keeps it anchored, at least until its final, breathtaking coda, where it’s finally cut loose and allowed to float away. It’s one of his loveliest creations, as good as Fall At Your Feet or Private Universe.

Second Nature is the other track with drums, played at a brisk gallop, and the most familiar in style to Finn’s work with Crowded House. But, as a steady quiver of violin and cello keep pace, male and female backing vocals alternately blend and diverge. It’s the most baroque of pop songs, reminiscent of Andy Partridge’s later work with XTC, but a deserving single, immediate in its appeal.

Other songs are much darker, as Finn goes into territory he’s rarely explored lyrically. The Law Is Always On Your Side is a short but moving piano ballad about a police killing. Terrorise Me is a song inspired by the horrible events at the Bataclan in Paris in November 2015, Finn looking terror straight in the eye and refusing to be cowed: “If you want to terrorise me / Make me hate you in return / Love is stronger when it hurts.”

Finn has often been compared to Paul McCartney – famously the former Beatle deferred to Finn when asked how it felt to be the greatest songwriter alive – but at moments like this, he’s closer to George Harrison: a mystic determined to appeal to our better angels. “I think that we can fight and still be friends / Words are hard to control, and some better left unspoken,” he sings in the opening song, Love Is Emotional.

At the top of it all is Finn’s voice. Of all his outstanding qualities, perhaps it’s his singing that’s the most undersold: completely distinctive, unforced and gentle, whispering melodies only he could conjure in your ear. Out Of Silence sees him at his most contemplative and tender, at the most troubled of times. If you missed out on watching this album being born, rest assured the songs will wait for you.

First published in The Guardian, 2 September 2017

NB. Apparently the McCartney story is a myth!

Missing pieces

For five days over late August and early September in 2016, a strange case gripped the Australian media. A family of five abruptly went missing from their rural property east of Melbourne. They left their house unlocked, and all potential trace elements behind: phones, credit cards and identification documents. Keys were left in the ignitions of remaining cars.

The alarm was sounded by one of the three adult children, around 24 hours after their disappearance, when he disembarked from what turned out to be an ill-fated road trip near Bathurst in central New South Wales, some 800 kilometres from their home. The two remaining daughters were quickly located after they stole a vehicle to escape; one of them later turned up in the back of a man’s ute, to the shock of the driver after he’d driven another hour away. Their mother was found the following day, wandering the streets of Yass, near Canberra; two days later, the father was discovered, safe but dehydrated, on the outskirts of the north-eastern Victorian town of Wangaratta.

The story became a viral sensation. “It felt like a variation on the Netflix show Stranger Things, itself a pastiche on missing people stories from the 1980s,” wrote Chris Johnston, a respected senior writer for The Age. “The strange gaps in the information also read like something out of The X-Files, with its protagonists fleeing from technology but tracked just the same.”

But the real echoes, he said, were closer to home. The road trip gone wrong was a common trope “straight from an Australian horror story”, with echoes of Australian cinema classics Walkabout and Picnic At Hanging Rock, of the legend of Burke and Wills, of foreign travellers stranded in harsh landscapes and unable to find their way home. Either way, the premise was identical: “City folk head into the bush and get lost, metaphorically and physically.”

Bizarre twists – that favourite tabloid phrase – abounded. Marnie O’Neill, writing for news.com.ausuggested that the family might be suffering from a psychiatric condition known as folie à deux (madness of two) between the family’s husband and wife, which can in turn grip the children (folie à famille, a family madness). She wasn’t the only one to speculate that the family was suffering from some kind of delusional disorder, as experts were asked to weigh in.

These were some of the kinder interpretations. One website cut to the chase with its headline “The family that went mad together”. The Australian edition of the Daily Mail found a new angle by posting “eerie” photographs of the family home: “What happened inside the walls of this pretty farmhouse that drove the family out of their minds at exactly the same time?”

Finally, when all members of the family were accounted for, a statement was released: “More than anything, my family and I need time to recover and receive appropriate assistance, including mental health services,” it read. “To this end, we request that media respect our request for privacy.” The statement was reported with a photo of its author leaving a police station in a car, shielding his face from waiting cameras.

Six months later, Mamamia posted a smiling, undated picture of two of the family members, taken from Facebook, which purported to show them “moving on with their lives”. It was accompanied by a link to a Mamamia Out Loud podcast, where a group of women shared their theories about what went wrong after the “bizarre series of events”. The discussion begins with a breathless introduction:

OMG, can we please talk about the [name withheld] family mystery? Someone needs to call Sarah Koenig, seriously, this is the weirdest story. Can Sarah Koenig please make season three of Serial about this?

I’ve decided not to identify the family, although the story will be instantly familiar to many Australians and to anyone overseas who was following the news at the time. Personally, I avoided most of the reportage. It felt gratuitous, prurient. Beyond the immediate urgency of finding the family safe and well, everything else seemed like voyeurism. This was a deeply private matter and they were not public figures.

Whatever happened to them, it needn’t and shouldn’t define them in the public gaze any more than in the eyes of their extended family, friends and community – all of whom would have just been grateful and relieved to have them back. They have a right to rebuild and get on with their lives without the judgment or scorn of strangers, and without their name being reduced to a byword for craziness.

After all, I thought at the time, it’s no less than I would want for myself. Almost exactly six months before their disappearance, I headed into the bush and got lost too.

ON THE evening of 22 February 2016, I scrawled a note to my former partner, threw a handful of clothes and possessions in the car, and took off into the night. I didn’t know what I was doing, or where I was going: north, south, east or west. Somewhere along the way, I fired off three tweets that were unfortunately reflective of my state of mind before deactivating my social media accounts.

I drove all night, pausing only at a truck stop by the side of the highway to rest at around 2 am. The noise of the generators, and the adrenaline overloading my system prevented me from sleeping. I drove on, pulling up again in a country town, watching the sun rise from a sleeping bag on the local sports oval, then got back in the car and kept going.

By later that morning, the adrenaline had worn off, the car was labouring and I began to feel the weight of exhaustion, the magnitude of what I was doing and the distress I was causing for others. I switched on my phone, which was flooded with messages, called home and was persuaded to check myself into the nearest hospital. In between, my face was on the front of news websites. I’d been officially declared missing.

If I was sure I knew what was going on in my head at the time – and I’m still not – I wouldn’t explain it to you, much less why. I was, however, carrying lethal means of self-harm within the car, to say nothing of the fact that, while stone-cold sober, I drove a 28-year-old vehicle for more than 12 hours and close to 900 kilometres in a highly agitated and distressed state without sleep, food or water. By the time I was admitted to hospital, I’d barely eaten in 48 hours.

You could call it a cry for help or one long scream. It doesn’t matter: what does is that I didn’t follow through when I could have or, mercifully, hurt anybody else. According to Mindframe, which provides guidelines to the media about the reporting and portrayal of suicide and mental health issues, approximately one in five Australians will experience some form of mental illness each year. I’m far from alone.

This story, however, is not mine. It’s about how we talk about mental health and people in crisis, particularly in the frenzy of modern news reporting, when social media can and often does run ahead of the news cycle, when difficult ethical decisions are made in real time – often before facts are fully established – in an age of clickbait, confessional storytelling, declining revenues and minimal editorial oversight.

“Every time a journalist makes a decision around how to report on either mental illness or suicide, they’re making a judgment call based on the facts about the story that they have in front of them, so the application of the guidelines can be variable,” says Jaelea Skehan, chair of Mindframe’s media advisory group and director of the Hunter Institute for Mental Health.

Mindframe’s National Media Initiative began in 2002, with the aim of building collaborative relationships between the Australian media and the mental health sector to promote suicide prevention and to encourage accurate and sensitive reporting of suicide and mental health matters. It also conducts guest lectures in most journalism schools across Australia, including in compulsory law and ethics classes.

In the 15 years since, most media outlets have adopted conventions such as the listing of emergency hotlines at the bottom of stories. To avoid the risk of copycat behaviour, methodology is rarely mentioned; phrases such as “committed suicide” are avoided in favour of “taken his/her own life” – if suicide is noted at all. There is a fine line between breaking the stigma of an awful phenomenon that claims more than 2,500 Australian lives a year and glamorising it.

But reporting on what are complex and often unknowable circumstances, the warp speed of modern journalism, the concomitant time pressures on its practitioners, the amplification of social media and the capricious demands of editors who oversee different newsroom cultures and values all mean that the variability Skehan refers to occurs both across and within organisations, sometimes wildly.

“Now more than at any previous time, when you talk about the media you have to ask who are you talking about,” says Margaret Simons, until recently the director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. “Nevertheless, leaping in and generalising, I would say reporting around the subject is better than it used to be, but it’s still nowhere near good enough.”

She points out that mental health exists at the interface of many news stories: homelessness, for example, and domestic violence. She castigates Melbourne’s Herald Sun, which last summer ran a months-long campaign that cast a handful of people sleeping rough in the vicinity of Flinders Street Station as a public menace. “I think their reporting on homelessness has been disgraceful, particularly since they’ve also done some very good reporting on domestic violence. But they don’t seem to join the dots between the two.”

Mindframe, she says, has made a difference. “Particularly among younger reporters who’ve been through journalism courses in recent years; most of them would have been introduced to the complexities of mental health reporting. It doesn’t necessarily mean the culture of the newsroom supports them, or all of them are equally sensitive, or remember what they were taught. But at least they’ve had to think about it.”

Since Mindframe’s establishment, however, the social media revolution and the collapse of traditional media business models have meant the organisation’s best attempts at education are arguably lagging behind structural and institutional forces beyond its control. Similarly, the Australian Press Council, which regularly reviews its own material, has not updated its guidelines on health and medical reporting since 2001.

“I have definitely noticed that as I read mental health stories, I’m increasingly cringing,” says Melissa Davey, Melbourne bureau chief at Guardian Australia, formerly of the Sydney Morning Herald. She identifies two other pertinent issues: the loss or outsourcing of experienced in-house subeditors, especially from Fairfax’s ranks, and the diminishing numbers of specialist reporters.

It’s a sensitive subject for Davey, whose own family has been affected by severe mental health issues. She draws breath sharply when she brings up the case at the top of this story. “Everyone’s editors wanted to know what was going on there, and wanted approaches made to the family.” She attempted to make contact with one of them using Facebook’s Messenger service. She says it’s something she has dwelled upon ever since.

I CAUGHT up with some of the news surrounding my own disappearance in the weeks that followed. All of it was to some extent inaccurate, having been pieced together entirely from Facebook and Twitter. My partner had been advised by friends not to comment, particularly to television networks, so no one had much to go on. I read the stories with a sort of morbid detachment; I couldn’t afford to get too caught up in it.

One piece threw me, though. It was in the Daily Mail, and there at the top were screenshots of the three tweets I had broadcast (and later deleted) when in the middle of an emotional crisis. No link to helplines was provided. This was two months after the event: I’d come across the story accidentally, in the course of searching for an old article I’d written.

I looked at my profile picture and the awful words alongside it for several minutes, with an odd sensation of being outside and looking down on myself from a distance: the face, those words belonged to me, but I barely recognised them. What I recognised was that in writing them, I’d inadvertently cast myself as the Road Runner: I’d lit a firestorm on my trail, with coyotes in pursuit.

I emailed the journalist concerned requesting that the tweets be removed. The editor emailed back, noting that stories were normally not altered, but acquiescing seemingly on the grounds that I had asked nicely. They were replaced with an extra bullet point at the top of the piece: “There are reports he earlier posted a series of worrying tweets.” Helplines were added to the bottom of the copy.

Most other stories were well intentioned. I was a missing person, and the overriding concern was that I be found. It was hard to escape the feeling, though, that to some I’d ceased to be a human being: I was a story to be “got”. At least one piece referred to me in the past tense. The publications to which I’m most grateful are the ones for which I do the most work, as they all decided not to report the story at all.

What to do, though, when social media is racing ahead of the news cycle? Such a frenzy, Simons says, “will have journalists acting both as participants and also feeding off it, and a lot of that can happen before [a situation is] even clear”. Engaging an online audience often extends to the moderation of comments on stories, the inclusion of which may be dangerously inappropriate in such circumstances.

We have also become conditioned, in an age of overexposure, to want to know everything. (It’s perhaps worth pointing out here that a few editors were keen on what I’ll call the “Oprah” version of this story; naturally, a first-person tell-all would also have been cheap to commission.) “We can end up in a very precarious position where a story can quite quickly go from being in the public interest to not being in the public interest,” Skehan says. “We have this blend between traditional and digital and social media, and it means that people can forget when lines are being crossed.”

Every case is different, each presenting editors and journalists with a new set of considerations and complexities. And every media organisation faces another question, if it stops to ask itself this question at all: when to pull back? “At what point, when the initial story is over and the person is found, do we need to continue to stalk and hound and look for every single tiny detail associated with that story and try to summarise it in a headline?” Skehan asks.

This is especially the case when reporting on public figures. Sporting identities including former Essendon AFL captain and coach James Hird, former Olympic swimmer Grant Hackett and another celebrated AFL footballer, Lance Franklin, have found themselves the subject of heavy public scrutiny in recent times. All have received varying levels of support – or endured different degrees of intrusion.

Franklin, who took time away from the sport with depression (something that, in any other job, we would call sick leave), was treated with the most sympathy. Hird, who had been at the centre of a years-long scandal over the use of performance-enhancing supplements that eventuated in 17 players being suspended for 12 months, was admitted to a psychiatric facility in January 2017 after an overdose of sleeping tablets.

Hird and his family had learnt to live with media camped outside their home; now the cameras followed them to the clinic, where Hird’s condition was the subject of rolling updates as drawn-looking family members came and went. A familiar scene ensued: Hird’s wife, Tania, reading a prepared statement asking for the family’s privacy to be respected, in front of a scrum of cameras and microphones.

There is no common law tort of privacy in Australia, a subject that has been examined by successive law reform commissions. In 2004, years before the phone-hacking scandal, model Naomi Campbell successfully sued the English tabloid the Daily Mirror after it pictured her leaving a rehabilitation facility, in a three-to-two majority ruling that Campbell’s right to privacy, in that instance, outweighed considerations of press freedom. “You could argue the same with the Hird case,” Simons says.

Hird later wrote – by editorial request from the Herald Sun, but seemingly on his own terms – about his experience: “Everyone has a breaking point and I reached mine after years of continual stress … In 2002, I fractured my skull and required multiple metal plates in my head. I, for one, would prefer multiple skull fractures to the feeling of deep clinical depression.”

I have read Janet Malcolm’s excoriation of her craft (and mine) many times over. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” reads the famous opening sentence of The Journalist And The Murderer. Malcolm goes on to talk about the “catastrophe” suffered by the inquisitor’s subject:

On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist – who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things – never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own.

It is the most uncomfortable truth any serious writer of non-fiction must acknowledge. This is not to say that journalists as a group lack empathy or consideration: “I think we get an incredibly bad rap when actually we really, really care about getting it right,” says Davey, and it’s obvious that she does. The point, though, is that a journalist’s first duty is not to our subjects. It is to our readers. I am no different.

In their study Black Saturday: In The Media Spotlight, Denis Muller and Michael Gawenda (Simons’ predecessor at the Centre for Advancing Journalism) examined the thorny issue of gaining informed consent from people who are traumatised. What practical meaning does informed consent have when the subject is in shock or distress? And how can a journalist assess the subject’s capacity in this regard? Survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires, they wrote, “described themselves as being in a kind of daze in which they were responding to questions while disoriented by a sudden and violent displacement, worried about the fate of friends or property, agitated by lack of knowledge of what had happened to their towns and communities”.

When a person is in crisis, comparatively little thought may be given to the state of mind of those closest to them. For 24 hours, my former partner – a private person with no media experience – found herself fending off inquiries and requests for photographs. At the same time she was trying to liaise with police, with no more idea than anybody else where I was or whether I was dead or alive.

Dr Stephen Carbone, leader of policy, research and evaluation at beyondblue, says anyone experiencing a mental health crisis is not going through it alone. “Their loved ones are going through the same emotional turmoil, particularly if they’re bereaved. It’s especially painful when people have been bereaved by suicide; it’s a very confronting and challenging type of death for people to deal with.”

“When someone is in a state of a distress and concerned about the welfare of someone else, then their cognitive abilities can be impacted,” Skehan says. “If media are asking them to comment, they’re actually asking them at a time in which they are incapable of doing it in the same way that they would if they weren’t in the current situation.”

On the other hand, as Simons argues, it is also the media’s job to help people tell their stories. This becomes particularly difficult when reporting on subjects with potentially reduced capacity: the homeless, for example. “Would the journalist be entitled to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going to tell your story because you’re not in a position to make that decision’? That could be insulting, and equally ethically questionable.”

Then there is the issue of verification. Muller and Gawenda quote one frustrated reporter lamenting that the demands created by the 24/7 news cycle, and the insatiable appetite for it, means that “what is fact right now can be proven to be fiction 20 minutes later … Obviously there are some things we are going to, with all good intentions, publish that in an hour or two, or the next day, [are] going to be found to have been incorrect.”

Social media, of course, only stokes the blaze. Journalists, now trained to embed tweets in their stories, can find themselves updating reports from what is often little more than a rumour mill in close to real time, with precious little opportunity for fact-checking. “It’s one thing if we know that a Facebook post has come from an organisation and that’s their statement; it’s another if you’re getting a bunch of random strangers speculating or making comments that we don’t know are true and then turning that into a story,” Davey says. This is exactly what ensued in my own case: without wishing to diminish anyone’s genuine care or concern, the effect was to turn smaller players into heroes while central ones, including my former partner, remained mute.

“If a person has disappeared, you’ll be updating it by the hour,” says Simons. In the case of the missing Victorian family, she says, “There were a lot of people reporting episodically, and gradually everybody became aware there were mental health issues involved. I think the tenor of the reporting did change a bit. But they were already a long way down the rabbit hole by then, and that’s partly the rolling deadline issue.”

IN AN essay for The Saturday PaperMartin McKenzie-Murray explored in further detail the rare phenomenon of the folie à famille raised by Marnie O’Neill. He noted the police had refuted the wilder suggestions in relation to the family: of mob debts, drug-induced psychosis or cult membership. “What remained was a curiosity so intense we somehow felt entitled to resolution.”

We only had questions, McKenzie-Murray said, questions mostly responded to with speculation, which he then only added to. Eventually he admitted: “All of which is to say, we do not know. And perhaps that’s fine.” His conclusion is freighted with guilt: “Our curiosity turns people into puzzles to be solved, and people like me assume the role of solving that puzzle for readers’ entertainment.”

Johnston notes that the case was an extreme one, and it’s unfair to generalise about the reporting of mental health based on it. In many respects this is true. But it also serves as a perfectly distilled example of how the institutional and structural pressures on journalists can very quickly lead them, and their readers, into places they may never have intended to go, and to things that were no one’s business to ever know.

Johnston acknowledged as much in a follow-up opinion piece. Stories about the family, he said, all “rated through the roof online”. And because there were few facts to go on, “the fantasies took hold”. Again, the piece was accompanied with a photo of the man at the centre of the mystery leaving the police station, protecting his face from view, proffering only a middle finger to the camera.

Leave me alone, it says.

Johnston was sympathetic. “They’ve had reporters – including us – knocking on their front door every day since last Thursday, but they were patient and understood they needed the media to help find their dad as much as the media needed them to try to explain to a growing mass of confused, engaged readers what had happened.” I respectfully disagree: while the media might have needed the clicks, the family owed readers no explanation whatsoever.

And did the family need the media? “With all due respect to journalists, it’s not their job to solve a missing persons case, other than if they’ve been asked to support the police,” Carbone says. “If you’re already half out of your mind with worry, the last thing you want to deal with is questions from complete strangers who obviously don’t really care about the person; they’re just after a story.”

Simons takes a more pragmatic view. “The police regularly turn to the media for help in finding missing people. I’ve been a journalist for 35 years; one of the main ways in which police look for missing people is to cooperate with the media in getting pictures and descriptions out there, and sometimes that can be very beneficial.”

The problem arises when such stories take on a life of their own. “It became clear part-way through the saga that it was a very domestic, very intimate familial build-up of psychological issues that got the better of them, possibly briefly, in the end. Now it is up to the family to figure out how to go on,” Johnston concluded. I can relate to this. Psychological issues can get the better of any of us briefly, sometimes in terrifyingly destructive ways.

Such episodes, once experienced, become an inescapable part of one’s history: to be navigated; learned from; hopefully avoided; eventually accepted. If we’ve become the subject of wider attention along the way, we return to the world in the knowledge that it knows more about us than we might ever have wished it to. We put on our mask and get on with our lives, trying to resolve our inner battles behind closed doors.

We are all puzzles. Few people are as consistent as they appear, or would have others believe. We shapeshift; we project different versions of ourselves to our bosses, colleagues, partners and friends. Sometimes we lose sight of ourselves along the way. The puzzle of who we really are when we are most vulnerable is the missing piece of sky in the jigsaw that is hardest to complete. It’s also the most intensely private.

First published in Griffith Review 57: Perils of Populism, 1 August 2017; extracted in The Guardian, 13 August 2017

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Paul Kelly: Life Is Fine review

In the A–Z of Paul Kelly’s career – something he spent some 550 pages discussing in his excellent “mongrel memoir” How To Make Gravy, which obliquely discussed in alphabetical order the inspirations, motivations and memories lurking behind more than 100 of his songs – attention always turns back to his third album, Post, the one where he found his true songwriting voice.

Post was recorded as a solo album in 1985 but it featured the core of his band the Coloured Girls, later renamed the Messengers. It was this album and the ones that followed (Gossip, Under The Sun, So Much Water So Close To Home and Comedy) which cemented Kelly’s stature. Gossip, especially, was towering, packed with an astonishing 24 songs that never flagged.

Those albums were made a long time ago, and Steve Connolly, the guitarist whose stinging, economical leads were the linchpin of the Messengers, died tragically young in 1995. Kelly has made more than 20 albums since then, all of them studded with gems – but while he has surrounded himself with great players, he has never had a band with quite the same chemistry.

Life Is Fine is an unabashed attempt to recapture the feel and energy of some of those early records. Restlessness has seen Kelly take some odd detours of late: his last album was a collection of songs he’d been asked to perform at funerals; before that, a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music.

This time there’s no concept weighing the songs down. It’s just a Paul Kelly album, and a very good one at that.

Kelly has learned to play piano in recent years. Playing a new instrument can invigorate a songwriter; it takes things back to basics (in a reversal, Nick Cave, who’d previously composed on piano, learned to play guitar for his albums with Grinderman). Simplicity is at the heart of Finally Something Good, My Man’s Got A Cold and I Smell Trouble. The latter, especially, is one of Kelly’s best songs in years.

He’s also in good form lyrically. The stomp-and-grind of My Man’s Got A Cold is sung with relish by Vika Bull, who’s fed up with her lover’s pathetic man-flu: “He’s off his wine and bread / He even said no to head!” Vika’s sister, Linda, gets a turn too, singing an old song, Don’t Explain. It’s a kiss-off from an older woman to a younger man: “If one night you’re lonely, and I have other company, don’t complain.”

Their contributions, singing songs written from a female point of view, are welcome. But Kelly’s voice is at its sweetest on the lovely Petrichor, with not much more than a little steel guitar for company. On I Smell Trouble, he’s riddled with anxiety, the song building on a minimalist piano line, with Peter Luscombe playing his ride cymbal as though he’s skipping rope and could stumble at any moment.

Firewood And Candles is another gem. Ashley Naylor, stalwart guitarist for Even and the RocKwiz house band, plays a riff that instantly recalls Connolly’s snaking line on one of Kelly’s greatest rockers, Sweet Guy. But where Sweet Guy was bitter in its irony – a dead-eyed story of domestic violence – Firewood And Candles is exactly as its title suggests: a warm song of home and hearth.

Kelly’s in a good place here – but if that makes Life Is Fine sound glib, it’s not. In what could be a reference to Courtney Barnett’s Elevator Operator, the narrator of the closing title track finds himself 16 flights up, contemplating suicide, only to step back. Life, as Connolly’s premature death showed, can be as fine as those thin, wiry leads which the guitarist threaded through classics like Before Too Long. And it comes at you fast.

First published in The Guardian, 13 August 2017

Jen Cloher: Jen Cloher review

There’s an old, inconclusively attributed aphorism that talent borrows and genius steals. Genius is a word used far too loosely, particularly in the arts, but there’s no doubting this: Melbourne singer–songwriter Jen Cloher is a thief of the highest order. Or this: that her fourth, self-titled album is a work of real brilliance, a brave, ambitious and moving follow-up to 2013’s outstanding In Blood Memory.

Cloher is, as anyone paying attention to these things knows, Courtney Barnett’s partner. We can’t ignore the elephant in the room, because Barnett’s guitar playing is a key component of Cloher’s band, and the pair have already written extensively both with and about each other. They are, however, completely different stylists. Where Barnett will use 300 words per song, Cloher might use 30 and be equally profound.

Cloher has stated the lyrics are crucial to understanding this record, and the melodies and song structures are secondary. On one hand, this is true – but it also sells the music, and her incredible band, somewhat short.

But let’s get back to Cloher’s light-fingered tendencies. On the opening track here, Forgot Myself – a song about what happens when you lose sight of your own needs in service of your lover’s – she quotes one of rock’s totemic songs, Satisfaction: “You’re riding around the world / You’re doing this and signing that … I’m driving in my car / Your song comes on the radio / And I remember what I always forget – loneliness.”

In between, Barnett – clearly the subject of the song’s helpless devotion – bends a repeated two-note refrain that bottles up both the song and Cloher’s frustration, creating an explosive push–pull tension. Throughout the album, Cloher’s combination of envy and admiration at seeing her younger partner shoot past her to global fame is expressed with extraordinary emotional candour.

The thieving doesn’t stop there. “I don’t wanna / I don’t think so,” she murmurs on Kinda Biblical, a lift from Sonic Youth’s Kool Thing. It’s a songwriting trick Cloher frequently played on In Blood Memory, too. Both albums are stuffed with instantly recognisable references to rock history that have shaped this otherwise idiosyncratic talent’s worldview. But Cloher has developed a style that’s entirely her own.

The themes of the album are physical and emotional distance. Cloher takes direct inspiration from the Triffids, specifically their 1986 album Born Sandy Devotional, to paint her own vast landscape of Australia circa 2017 through the fish-eye lens of her relationship. The brushstrokes are broad, but Cloher has a poet’s eye for telling, tiny details and the musical ear of a life spent wallowing in the finest rock & roll.

The Triffids’ connection is made explicit on Great Australian Bite, a nod to Australian artists who had to leave home to find an audience: the tyranny of distance is what proves our own existence to ourselves. But, as the late David McComb once observed, we’re on stolen property: “Let’s hope Uncle Archie [Roach] can pay the rent,” Cloher says.

Like McComb, Cloher has developed a facility for lyrics so evocative that they could only have come from here. Regional Echo ghosts in on a shimmering Bones Sloane bassline and slowly expands into a sound grand enough to fill a cathedral, with an unsettling Christ-like metaphor to match: “Bat swaying on the power lines / Wings open in surrender, this is how you die.”

It’s followed by Sensory Memory, an almost unbearably intimate portrait of domestic discord following a lengthy separation. A breakfast of tea for two and soldier toast masks the tension “Of the things we never say / Distance has a funny way of slowly making you someone that I don’t know.” Barnett’s guitar elaborates on an exquisite vocal melody, spiralling over and around drummer Jen Sholakis’s martial rhythm.

On Analysis Paralysis, Sholakis is superbly nuanced as she and Sloane lock into cruise control for seven minutes. Here, the motorik groove and Barnett’s deceptively aimless noodling captures our national stasis over same-sex marriage: “I pay my fines, taxes on time / But the feral right get to decide / If I can have a wife. If I can have a wife?” The question is repeated and left hanging, shot through with disbelief.

Then there’s Shoegazing, which sounds like Patti Smith fronting the Rolling Stones – a sexy mid-paced swagger with a venomous bite: “Most critics are pussies who wanna look cool / Those who can they do, those who can’t review / What’s hot today is forgotten tomorrow / All that you’ve got is your joy and your sorrow.” (Hey, it’s a fair cop.)

Strong Woman, meanwhile, is the kind of song PJ Harvey hasn’t written since Rid of Me: all knotted guitars and bolts of feedback, driven at a tearaway tempo by Sholakis. Cloher touches on her childhood – of gender indeterminacy and discovering her sexuality – and finishes by paying tribute to her late mother, casting her as a Maori warrior: “Kia kaha, be proud, stay strong, go on.”

This is a more challenging album than In Blood Memory, which was brief at 33 minutes and seven songs. At 50 minutes, more is demanded of the listener this time around, and the songs take longer to stick. The rewards, though, are deeper. It’s a less visceral, more subtly hued record: the band can billow big clouds of noise, or hold back as the song demands. Nothing is wasted; everything is played for effect.

It finishes with just Cloher and a few plucked acoustic guitar notes on Dark Art. It is the simplest and saddest of love songs, and beautiful in its selflessness. “The other side of love’s joy is shadow / Jealousy, fear, loss, anger, sorrow / If you never stay to sit in love’s shadow / A part of you will always be hollow.” Cloher, though, has surely sat in her love’s shadow long enough. This album is a masterpiece.

First published in The Guardian, 11 August 2017