Birds find me in my happy place

On Saturday morning I boarded a fishing boat on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and, along with 15 or so others, chugged more than 40 nautical miles out to sea, where the Australian continental shelf drops off into deep water. But we weren’t out there for the fish: everyone was carrying binoculars and camera gear. We were looking for pelagic seabirds – shearwaters and petrels that spend most of their lives on the wing.

Conditions had been perfect all week, with south-easterly breezes to help push the birds closer inshore. “We’ll see a Cook’s Petrel today,” I predicted, feeling cocky. Not that I had good reason to be: only one Cook’s Petrel has ever been officially recorded in Queensland waters. It’s a small, graceful grey and white seabird with a black eye patch that breeds in New Zealand. The boat stopped and a trail of foul-smelling berley was throw into the water.

Twenty minutes later, to everyone’s delight, a Cook’s Petrel came bounding in over the waves, investigating our berley trail without pausing as camera shutters whirred with excitement. Within a minute, the bird was gone. It turned out to be one of the few highlights of an otherwise surprisingly quiet day, but I live for moments like this. For a few hours, as the waves rolled beneath us, I was in my happy place.

Along with music, birds have been the magnificent, consuming obsession of my life. It started when I was eight. Memories get hazy here, and possibly unreliable, but the first flash was a chance sighting of an Azure Kingfisher on the Ovens River, in north-eastern Victoria, a few metres from where my father actually was fishing. I revisited that place with him a couple of months ago, where he’d been dropping a line in since he himself was a boy.

The kingfisher was what hooked me. I stared at it, dumbstruck. It was a very small bird, brilliant blue and orange, and it was perched motionless on a dead branch protruding above the waterline from a red gum that had collapsed into the river. Abruptly it plunged headfirst into the water, emerging with a yabby, which it whacked against the branch before swallowing it whole. And then, in another flash, it was gone.

For me, watching birds – or birding, to use the more active verb – was and still is an escape and a refuge. Earlier this year, a University of Exeter study found that it was associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression, conditions with which I am unfortunately all too familiar. Research fellow Dr Daniel Cox said that having birds around the home had a role in preventative health care, making cities healthier, happier places to live.

This is where Guardian Australia and Birdlife Australia’s Bird of the Year poll comes in. One of the best things about birding, as hobbies go, is that you can do it anywhere: it doesn’t matter what species you’re looking at, whether it’s something as unglamorous and largely unloved as a bin chicken (ibis) or as obviously charismatic as a lorikeet. A life of birds is never boring.

Take for example this brief video taken at my local cafe of an Australian magpie and pied butcherbird, two of our finest songbirds, in a glorious duet. It’s the sort of thing that can change the entire tenor (pun unintended) of my day. I haven’t actually voted in the poll yet, mainly because as a lifelong birder I find it hard to choose, but musical leanings make it hard to go past the butcherbird especially.

Behind the frivolity of the poll is a serious message: even our most familiar and beloved birds, like the Laughing Kookaburra, are in decline. Part of the #teambinchicken push is motivated by sympathy: this scraggy, smelly bird was a natural denizen of the swamps of our Murray–Darling system, generally only reaching the coast in drought years. As the swamps were drained and the land irrigated, the ibis came to visit our cities and eventually decided to stay.

So birds have much to tell us about the country and our changing environment. The early arrival of summer migrants are clues to climate change, as is the expansion southwards of tropical species. Sometimes, this added level of environmental awareness has been heartbreaking to watch: over the last 35 years, I’ve watched once abundant species like the Regent Honeyeater slide towards the cliff of extinction.

But mostly, a life of birds has meant adventure and opportunity. It’s taken me to every corner of Australia, chasing down everything I could from the Kimberley to Cape York. Searching for brilliantly coloured pittas in the rainforests of Borneo. And most memorably, two voyages south on Australia’s Antarctic flagship the RSV Aurora Australis, counting seabirds for what was then one of the longest-running wildlife surveys anywhere in the world.

And yes, I’m a twitcher. I once flew to Perth, then drove flat out to Whim Creek, a mining camp in the Pilbara, to see Australia’s second ever Red-legged Crake, a small waterbird, only to find it had been eaten by a cat. That’s birding – things don’t always materialise on cue like that Cook’s Petrel. But it’s not about the numbers. Whether it’s on my block or out to sea, I prefer to think that I don’t find the birds, they find me: in that happy place.

First published in The Guardian, 30 November 2017

A mic drop on the nation

Archie Roach is normally the gentlest of our Indigenous protest singers. He writes songs of great moral force and clarity but his voice, even after the ravages of age and illness, is quiet and hymnal, giving his work a bittersweet quality that allows him to connect easily with a broad audience.

The song that introduced him to most Australians, Took The Children Away, remains the one for which he is most famous. Its opening lines are:

This story’s right, this story’s true
I would not tell lies to you.”

The song was released in 1990, when few of us knew about the stolen generations of Aboriginal children. Its impact was profound, on both Indigenous people, who finally heard their intergenerational trauma being articulated with such grace on a national stage, and on white Australia. By itself, it may not have precipitated the royal commission that produced the Bringing Them Home report, or then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s national apology in February 2008. But its resonance was crucial. Like Yothu Yindi’s Treaty, released the following year, it did what great protest songs do: it started a conversation.

Uncle Archie is an elder now and, on AB Original’s album from last year, Reclaim Australia – which won two Arias on Tuesday night – he brought his considerable gravitas to the album’s opening monologue. It is arresting because Roach recognises that being quiet doesn’t always cut through: not now and not when he marched with his people for land rights in the 1970s and 1980s.

Indeed, he boasts of bringing Melbourne to a standstill. “Because you had to be in their face,” he says. There’s a silence, then he repeats the words with greater emphasis: “You had to be in their face.”

AB Original’s song January 26, featuring Dan Sultan, has similar moral force to Took the Children Away but it is no hymn. Instead, Sultan’s soul vocal is offset by a caustic tirade from rappers Adam Briggs and his production partner, Trials (Daniel Rankine).

Hip-hop is the perfect modern vehicle for Aboriginal Australia’s tradition of oral history and, as Briggs pointed out to Guardian Australia yesterday, the only reason they could make this album now was because it still didn’t exist: “Australia didn’t have its Public Enemy … Australia didn’t get its NWA moment.”

The release of January 26 was that moment. The song is totally uncompromising in its directness – an Indigenous equivalent to Public Enemy’s anthem Fight The Power:

Fuck celebrating days made on misery
White Aus still got the black history
And that shirt’ll get you banned from the parliament
If you ain’t having the conversation, well then we’re starting it”

I’d call that more of a mic drop on the nation than the start of a conversation. You can try to argue with it if you want but good luck when Trials tells you that, to him, celebrating Australia Day on the anniversary of the First Fleet’s arrival is like pissing on his nan’s grave.

At any rate, when Triple J put the track on rotation last year, it connected, hitting #16 on the Hottest 100 – a music poll that is “traditionally” broadcast on 26 January.

It’s important to remember that it wasn’t always so. The original Hot 100 (a concept and name which had been used by Brisbane community radio station 4ZZZ since 1976) was first broadcast on Triple J on 5 March 1989 and didn’t settle on 26 January as the semi-official broadcast date until 1998 – only four years after the gazetting of that date as a national public holiday.

As former Triple J host Lindsay McDougall pointed out to Guardian Australia, “I’ve been coming to the Arias longer than the Hottest 100 has been on January 26.”

Triple J has been very careful with its language surrounding their decision to change the date of next year’s poll to 27 January. It acknowledges the national debate around changing the date of Australia Day itself, then says (quite reasonably, in my view) that the Hottest 100 shouldn’t be a part of that debate.

After putting it to an online survey, in which 60 percent of respondents opted to move the broadcast, it concluded simply that it should be held on a day “when everyone can celebrate together”.

It’s clear that Triple J is mindful of the difficult political climate in which it is operating and doesn’t want to be drawn into culture wars around the issue. But it needs to hold firm in ignoring the views of the communications minister, Mitch Fifield, who in one breath accused the ABC of responding to the controversy surrounding Australia Day and in the next said there was nothing controversial about Australia Day. We all know Canberra is a bit of a bubble but surely Fifield has bigger problems to attend to.

What can’t be denied though – even if Triple J wasn’t mentioning it – was the impact of AB Original’s song.

The debate around moving the date of the Hottest 100 was well under way by the time of January 26’s release but the station would have known that playlisting the track would be like lobbing a grenade into the discussion. “People always ask us whether we dropped it [January 26] on purpose because we felt it coming or something,” Trials said on Tuesday. “But these are all very old issues, it’s all old hat.”

Still, it’s impossible not to see the track as a crucial intervention. It certainly was a hit with announcers: last week at the J awards, Reclaim Australia was named the station’s album of the year.

More importantly, the song reached a huge proportion of the station’s young audience, giving them a history lesson they mostly won’t have been taught in schools, in a language that they understood and wouldn’t quickly forget. Other than to those who seek to rewrite white Australia’s black history, its story is right and true. And it’s in your face. Because it has to be.

First published in The Guardian, 29 November 2017

Mixed environmental messages in Queensland

On Friday, 3 November, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk dropped what sounded like a bombshell. Palaszczuk, at the tail of the first week of a desperate re-election campaign, said she would veto a $1 billion loan to Adani from the federal government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) after it emerged that her partner, Shaun Drabsch, had assisted the Indian conglomerate’s application for the loan in his role as a director for PwC.

Palaszczuk said she was acting to remove any perception of conflict of interest over the loan, intended to fund the construction of a rail line from Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine to its terminal at Abbot Point, north of Bowen. The response was immediate. The next day’s Courier-Mail went with a screaming headline: “Mine shaft”. Queensland’s only statewide newspaper claimed thousands of jobs were at risk.

It’s a well-worn trope. The newspaper has long followed the Adani line that as many as 10,000 jobs would be created by the mine, despite the group’s expert witness, Jerome Fahrer, admitting in court in 2015 that the number was fewer than 1500. Buried at the bottom of the copy was an admission: under the caretaker convention, Palaszczuk needed the support of opposition leader Tim Nicholls to veto the loan. Needless to say, she wasn’t about to get it.

In the interim, there’s nothing to prevent the NAIF from issuing the loan, enabling Palaszczuk to say her government gave it no active assistance. When Liberal National Party leader Nicholls described the premier’s threat as a “stunt”, he wasn’t wrong. Since her government’s unexpected ascension to power, Palaszczuk’s minority government has been walking a tightrope between its urban base and regional Queensland over the mine.

On the same day as Palaszczuk’s unexpected announcement, news broke that should have sent a real chill through the muggy climes of north Queensland. The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecast the possibility of a third consecutive bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef this summer. Its modelling predicted the southern section of the reef, which had hitherto escaped relatively unscathed, was at greatest risk.

The NOAA was careful to note that its forecast was early, and therefore at the limit of its technical capacity. Nonetheless, the potential gravity of the situation can’t be underestimated. Last summer, the worst-hit section of the marine park was in the tourist-clogged area between Cairns and Townsville. It resulted in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority engaging in talks with the tourism industry to help it redirect visitors to relatively unaffected areas.

The Barrier Reef is the elephant in the room of the state election. It was certainly a bigger issue in 2015, when the then Labor opposition pledged that no taxpayer funds would be used to fund Adani’s mine. “The reef was much more prominent in discussions at the last Queensland election, but it’s in a much more dire situation now, so the need for action’s even greater,” says the World Wild Fund for Nature’s Sean Hoobin.

The Labor government has released two substantial policies to shore up its credentials on the management of the Barrier Reef. The first was the reintroduction of land clearing legislation, which failed to receive the support of crossbenchers in 2016 after an estimated 400,000 hectares had been felled in the preceding 12 months. Forty-five per cent of the increase in clearing had been in Barrier Reef catchment areas.

The second, released on the eve of the election being called, had the government belatedly following through on its 2015 commitment to ban the loading of coal ships at sea in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The government also has a target of 50 percent renewable power generation by 2030. Earlier this year, it held a carbon farming summit, with the intention of providing a road map for the growth of the nascent carbon offset industry.

But the government has struggled to gain any clear air to spruik its environmental credentials in the shadow of the Carmichael project, with the premier’s campaign itself being shadowed by anti-Adani protesters. Support for the mine within the government’s ranks is soft, and Adani’s brand is positively toxic in urban electorates of Brisbane, but with Labor ruling out any possible deal with One Nation, it is desperate not to alienate regional support.

The LNP, for its part, has given its unqualified backing for not only the Carmichael mine but the construction of another coal mine in far north Queensland. At the same time, shadow environment minister Dr Christian Rowan said an LNP government would maintain all currently allocated state funding for reef protection, and that when last in government it had invested $35 million a year to help farmers reduce sediment runoff into reef catchments.

But the focus on water quality ignores the other elephant in the room. The northern section of the park, which was so ravaged by bleaching in the summer of 2015-16 that up to 67 percent of the coral died, was previously regarded as the most pristine and undisturbed section of the reef – that is, the least affected by soil runoff, the proliferation of crown-of-thorns starfish and other factors affecting the reef’s overall health.

The cause of the catastrophe was simple: the coral was cooked by above-average water temperatures due to a combination of climate change and an accompanying El Niño. The bleaching was repeated the following year, even after El Niño’s abatement. The combined impact left a full 1500 kilometres of the reef badly affected.

“There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance that we have now where political leaders are signing on to the [Adani] mine while at the same time talking about wanting to deal with climate change and save the Barrier Reef,” says Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, deputy director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. “You can’t have both.

“You think about the idea that this ecosystem that has been with us for thousands of years and is so much loved, and we’re contemplating its disappearance … We are in extremely worrying times, because these things are coming faster, much faster than we thought. My predictions in 1998 were that we’d see this sort of thing happening in 2030, 2040. It’s happening now.”

For this election, the LNP has also pledged a further $300,000 to support the “Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef” initiative, which according to a policy statement aimed to “raise awareness and funds to protect the Great Barrier Reef now and for future generations”.

Pushed for detail, Rowan said: “Protecting the reef is too important to leave to one organisation or local group. The LNP’s Great Barrier Reef Alliance will work closely with the federal government, [an] independent expert panel and Reef 2050 advisory committee and other key stakeholders to deliver real, independently measurable outcomes.” He also said, “We need to get the balance right on clean energy targets, as highlighted in the Finkel review.”

That’s despite the federal government declining to adopt the clean energy target recommended by Finkel. And the opposition, like the government, is doing some mixed messaging of its own: while Rowan says the LNP will follow the recommendations of the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce, on October 1 Andrew Cripps, the spokesman for natural resources and mines and northern development, ranted against those recommendations in a piece for Queensland Country Life.

In the meantime, neither party seems to regard investing in new coal-fired power generation as in any way incompatible with the future of the Barrier Reef – or is willing to admit it. As for One Nation, Pauline Hanson and then-senator Malcolm Roberts famously made a trip to the decidedly unbleached Great Keppel Island off Yeppoon in November 2016, held aloft a piece of coral, and declared that everything was fine. Roberts is now running for the state seat of Ipswich.

Earlier this year, a Deloitte Access Economics review valued the reef at $56 billion. An earlier Jacobs review – co-written by a partnership between the Queensland Farmers’ Federation, the Queensland Tourism Industry Council, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators – concluded that if the reef was treated as a piece of infrastructure of similar value, it would receive up to $830 million a year in funding.

All of this, to say nothing of the estimated 65,000 people whose livelihoods depend on the Great Barrier Reef, suggests its ongoing health is far from just an environmental or moral challenge. But in this election campaign, with everything filtered through the muddy waters of Adani and a resurgent One Nation, it’s a challenge that neither of the major parties is game to face.

First published in The Saturday Paper, 11 November 2017

Postscript to this story: With the narrow re-election of the state Labor government, Premier Annasticia Palaszczuk has followed through on her promise to veto the NAIF loan to Adani. One Nation won only one seat in the poll, with Malcolm Roberts, after being disqualified by the Senate by the High Court, failing to win the seat of Ipswich. The LNP’s Andrew Cripps also lost his seat of Hinchinbrook.

(I want my) music on TV back

For two hours on Sunday night, it felt like a good proportion of Australia was gathered around a gigantic campfire. That campfire was burning on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, where Paul Kelly and his band were holding court – not just for the tens of thousands of people lucky enough to be there, but for hundreds of thousands more tuning in around the country, watching the ABC livestream and tweeting simultaneously.

Some say it’s rude to talk at gigs, but for me, watching from home, the excited chatter about what we were seeing added to the communal feel as #PaulKellyLive became the top-trending hashtag in the country. There was a collective awareness that we were witnessing a celebrated songwriter at the top of his game, and at a peak of popularity – at the age of 62, Kelly’s most recent album Life Is Fine was his first No. 1, a richly deserved success for a recording that’s up there with his best work.

Then someone said on Twitter: “We should have live music on the ABC every Sunday night.” Funny he should mention it: only two hours earlier, the ABC had screened its latest instalment of Classic Countdown, a restored best-of the vintage program which has also been a big hit for the national broadcaster. Cannily, it screened in Countdown’s original time slot of 6pm Sunday, adding to the nostalgia of a sizeable audience who grew up on the show between 1974 and 1987.

Of course, the music on Countdown wasn’t strictly live, and the warm glow of nostalgia helps us forget the reality: at the time, great Countdown moments (last night’s highlight was Divine performing You Think You’re A Man) could sometimes be a bit like finding diamonds in dog turds. Such moments, though, were miracles of Australian television that probably wouldn’t be allowed to happen today.

So it’s reasonable to ask why we don’t have a dedicated live music program, the endless parade of canned karaoke quests aside. If we did, perhaps we wouldn’t be wallowing in nostalgia for shows like Countdown and Recovery, at least not to the same degree. Australia has a rich history of music on television going back to TV Disc Jockey in 1957, which evolved into Australia’s version of the American program Bandstand.

In other words, Australia has had rock & roll on television pretty much as long as we’ve had both television (which launched in this country in 1956) and rock & roll.

After Bandstand, we had Six O’Clock Rock hosted by Johnny O’Keefe, The Go!! Show, GTK (Get To Know), and the Seven network’s Sounds, on to Rock Arena, SBS’s Rock Around the World (whose host Basia Bonkowski was the subject of a memorable tribute by Melbourne’s Painters & Dockers), Beatbox, The Noise, Studio 22 and Nomad – the show which introduced us to a trio of teenagers called Silverchair.

Variety shows gave priceless additional exposure to Australian artists. Even Hey Hey It’s Saturday had its moments: other than that time Iggy Pop greeted Molly Meldrum with “Hiya Dogface!” before terrorising innocent teenagers with a microphone stand, not even Countdown threw up anything to match TISM’s performance of Saturday Night Palsy, the like of which has not been seen before or since.

Perhaps that’s the problem. Even mimed performances on live television carried that tantalising possibility of a few minutes of anarchy. All it took was a performer, or group of performers, willing to break the format’s fourth wall and strip the carefully constructed reality of television away – at which point things perhaps got a bit too real for executive producers to handle.

Which brings me to the events of 2 November 1988.

On that evening, a Sydney noise-rock group called Lubricated Goat, led by one Stu Spasm, performed the lead track from their just-released album Paddock Of Love on Andrew Denton’s program Blah Blah Blah. The song was called In The Raw, and in the raw was exactly how the group played it – much to the horror of sensitive viewers who jammed the ABC switchboard, not to mention tabloid editors and talkback radio hosts.

Eleven years after punk, it was Australia’s version of “The filth and the fury” – that Daily Mirror headline that followed the Sex Pistols’ infamous appearance on Bill Grundy’s Today program in December 1976. Tim Bowden, the genial host of the ABC’s popular feedback program Backchat, responded to the moral panic by appearing shirtless behind his desk while reading outraged letters to Aunty aloud.

An ABC spokesperson told Guardian Australia the network hoped to build on the success of the AusMusic Month broadcasts: Paul Kelly last night and Crowded House last year. They said music programming, including live concerts, “is something we continue to be very committed to … the upcoming reorganisation of our content teams will provide more opportunities for our music and entertainment teams to work closely together”.

I hope they’re right. It has been far too long since live music was a regular part of our Sunday evenings, not to mention our Monday water-cooler discussions. Sure, it carries an element of risk – but as Paul Kelly showed, it has the potential for joy as well. And without the risks, we’d have none of those classic moments that we continue to celebrate today.

First published in The Guardian, 20 November 2017

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:


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