Kev Carmody’s debut album, Pillars Of Society, recorded as a conceptual excoriation of the Australian bicentenary in 1988, is now 30 years old. On release, it was described by critic Bruce Elder as “the best album ever released by an Aboriginal musician and arguably the best protest album ever made in Australia”.
There have been many brilliant records made by Aboriginal musicians since but with the exception of AB Original, none of them has produced such a sustained polemic, and only Archie Roach rivals him for poetic eloquence.
Born in 1946, Carmody grew up on the Darling Downs, west of Brisbane, born to an Aboriginal mother and Irish-Australian father. He is a member of the Stolen Generations, taken along with his brother from his parents when he was 10. Emerging from school illiterate, he now has a PhD in history and is a member of the Aria Hall of Fame.
His first public musical exposure was on the Murri Radio program of Brisbane community broadcaster 4ZZZ. His song Thou Shalt Not Steal, which brought him to national attention, contained the following portrait of black life in Brisbane:
Well Job and me and Jesus, sittin’ underneath that Indooroopilly bridge
Watching that blazin’ sun go down beneath the tall-treed mountain ridge
The land’s our heritage and spirit here, the rightful culture’s black
And we’re sitting here just wonderin’ – when we gonna get that land back?
What follows is a series of appreciations and reflections by other artists who have drawn inspiration from Carmody’s extraordinary debut, recorded when he was 42.
Not Drowning, Waving, My Friend the Chocolate Cake, solo artist
“I had to be reminded that Pillars Of Society was Kev Carmody’s debut album. It wasn’t like he was young when he made it. Here was a voice with oral history leanings and a street fighter attitude. It had as much to do with the Clash as Bob Dylan, but was way better, because this was an authentic Indigenous voice.
I was a young man when I heard it, and it schooled me. The lyrics are dense, the vocals passionate, he doesn’t waste a word. You can tell he was on a roll when he was writing it. It’d be very interesting to see the reaction if it was released today – it would have been lauded in the same way Briggs is; a refreshing voice that is not to be messed with.”
AB Original, solo artist
“There were a few records around at the same time when I was researching, in my own way, what was going on in music in Australia. Kev Carmody was one, Archie Roach was another, Yothu Yindi. Pillars Of Society was part of the tapestry for me – one of the pillars of artistry that we could look to for how to share our stories. It’s like the foundation on which all these new and upcoming artists, and established artists like myself, get to live and breathe.”
Midnight Oil, former Labor Party minister
“This was a very powerful record by someone who’s the Aboriginal poet laureate of his time, and it’s as pungent and as stirring and as evocative and as absolutely ‘on’ today as it was when it was first written. The triumph is that Carmody could get it down in songs that were accessible, and the tragedy is that not enough of us have listened so far. It’s also about the power of art, even when the things that it’s writing about are still tearing people and communities apart.”
Almost everyone Guardian Australia spoke to, like Garrett, mentioned the ongoing relevance of the material. One song, Black Deaths In Custody, anticipated a royal commission into the issue – the findings of which have been largely ignored:
I say, show me the justice, to be had here in this land
Show us blacks the justice for every black human being
Show us blacks the justice, in this white democracy
When you can execute us without a trial while we’re held in custody
Paul Kelly was an early supporter of Carmody, with whom he later co-wrote From Little Things Big Things Grow, the story of the Gurindji uprising.
“Kev Carmody’s songs combine anger, humour, oral history, polemic, poetry and prayer. His body of work, spanning over 40 years, is one of Australia’s great cultural treasures. Cannot Buy My Soul [from Carmody’s second album, Eulogy (For A Black Person)] is a hymn that breathes with steely rage.”
Pillars Of Society has also inspired newer female artists, both white and Indigenous.
“Kev is one of the sweetest, most humble geniuses I know. Paul [Kelly] introduced me to his music years ago, and the first thing I thought when I listened to Pillars Of Society was “Whoa, how come I haven’t heard of this guy?” He’s one of the hidden treasures of the Australian music scene. Being a part of his tribute tour was a real career highlight for me.”
Sietta, solo artist, collaborator with AB Original
“I didn’t grow up on any Australian music, because my dad’s a hardcore blues fanatic, but I feel like if we were going to listen to any Australian music that album would have slotted in quite nicely, because it is really quite bluesy, and that genre really lends itself to the content that he’s talking about, which is sadly still on the forefront of this nation’s circumstances. It’s a great album that should be used in our school systems.”
Malcolm’s got a razor
And a jack-knife up his leg
He’s a friend of crooked Louis
Who can’t lay straight in bed
Life can be hard trackin’
When you’re runnin’ out on a twisted rail
I keep hoping that the mornin’ wind
Come blow my blues away – Twisted Rail
“When I was in primary school [in Brisbane], I went to Zillmere state school, and our main theme song was From Little Things Big Things Grow. We sang that every Friday at assembly, which was awesome. Uncle Kev wrote a letter to the school, asking if we wanted to join him at Parliament House to sing it. And so the school choir went to the Parliament House and sang it. It was beautiful.
Then, when I was in grade nine, we were doing a project on Indigenous music, and we had to listen to that album because of the lyrics, [which were] gentle but confronting and powerful. To be able to capture that much authenticity in a song is so rare. It was beautiful to see an Aboriginal man capture that – it’s so inspiring as a young Indigenous woman to hear those songs and to be influenced in some way by the songwriter. His music is healing.”
First published in The Guardian, 15 September 2018