Tagged: AB Original

Archie Roach: Tell Me Why

For the Gunditjmara people of south-west Victoria, the Kneeangar – what white Australians call the Wedge-tailed Eagle – is the creator of the landscape. For the Bundjalung of north-east New South Wales, it is the Gunggayay, or red-bellied black snake.

On the spine of Archie Roach’s memoir, Tell Me Why, the Gunggayay encircles the Kneeangar, a logo that encapsulates the Indigenous songwriter’s heritage: his Bundjalung father Archie Senior, and his Gunditjmara mother Nellie Austin.

But Roach, who first came to national attention in 1990 with his celebrated song Took The Children Away and accompanying debut album Charcoal Lane, is also the foster son of Alex and Dulcie Cox: Dad Alex and Mum Dulcie, as he calls them.

The Coxes were told that Archie’s birth parents had died in a house fire. In fact, he had been stolen from them in the late 1950s at Framlingham mission, near Warrnambool. “They were used,” Roach, now 63, says when we meet, as he rests in a Sydney hotel room. “They’re blameless, as far as I’m concerned.”

Alex and Dulcie cherished Archie but, he writes, “there was always a restlessness in me, like a faultline waiting to rupture”. When he was 15, he received a letter from a hitherto unknown sister, Myrtle – one of six siblings – telling him Nellie had died.

The faultline ruptured. Roach writes that before leaving to find his brothers and sisters, Dad Alex – a Glaswegian immigrant who also yearned for his homeland – told him: “Bifay ye leave me and Ma, I jes wanted tae say … Well, we hope ye fin what ye lookin for, Archie.”

He never saw them again.

The title of Tell Me Why – which is being released alongside an album of new songs and re-recorded versions of many of his classics – is both rhetorical and a plea. “It’s trying to come to terms with it happening, rather than denying that it happened or just pushing it aside and thinking, ‘Oh, something happened to me as a kid, but it doesn’t really matter.’

“It was more than that. You want to assure people, or reassure people, that this actually happened. And yourself as well.” Roach frequently slips into the second person, talking about “yourself” when he’s actually referring to himself, preserving a kind of distance.

In his concerts, Roach has taken to introducing Took The Children Away by saying that every time he sings it, he lets a little bit of pain go. One day, he says, that pain will be gone and he will be free.

Similarly, he tells the Guardian that the process of writing Tell Me Why helped heal some of his grief for his estranged, now deceased adoptive parents. “I’d never talked about them before, and I was able to do that, so I was able to let that go.”

He also wanted to acknowledge their pain. “People need to understand that as well, that some of the families, maybe a lot of the families: what they did [was] out of the goodness of their hearts, and out of love.”

Tell Me Why reveals much more of Roach than was previously known. Nearly half the book is taken up with his years of drinking in the parks and pubs and “empties” (vacant buildings) of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, as he reconnected with his surviving family members.

Roach’s street years are recalled with fondness. “There was a real sense of community with those people, and nobody [outside of it] heard that conversation, so I wanted to take people on that journey,” he says.

Naturally, those years also took a terrible toll. Roach suffered from epilepsy as a result of his alcoholism, and there’s a shockingly raw description of a suicide attempt at the end of a bender, after an attempt to dry out. There are stints in hospital, and prison too.

Roach has also survived a stroke, has had half a lung removed due to cancer, and gave up a kidney to his late brother Lawrence. The transplant wasn’t a success.These days, Roach needs a wheelchair to get around, and has a tendency to speak with his eyes closed. But when he fixes them on you, they’re full of light.

Of his attempt on his life, Roach says it’s something he “probably should have mentioned before”, with suicide rates among Aboriginal people, including children, at epidemic levels. “You can reach the darkest point in our life and come back, and come good, even better.”

But Tell Me Why is also a love story for Roach’s partner Ruby Hunter, who died in 2010. Hunter, too, had been stolen; she and Roach referred to each other as “dad” and “mum” respectively.

“It was a term of endearment,” Roach chuckles. But there was also more to it: “It’s good to use those words ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, they’re very powerful words when you’re a stolen kid. I suppose they take on deeper meaning when you’re a bit older, as well.”

It was Hunter who kicked Roach up the backside when, on the cusp of his first album and record deal, Roach nearly walked away from music entirely. It was 1990, and Paul Kelly and guitarist Steve Connolly had billed the almost unknown artist on a gig at what is now Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, to a dumbstruck audience.

Roach played just two songs, Beautiful Child and Took The Children Away. The latter song, sung in Roach’s pure, earnest voice, starts with the words, “This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.”

Both songs were met with complete silence. Then, as he left the stage, the applause began: “It started slowly and then it came down hard. I turned around and held my guitar up in the air, like this” – he raises his arms – “yeah!”

He had first played Took The Children Away in Sydney in 1988, at a Bicentennial protest. On that occasion, too, the crowd had been left stunned and weeping. When he later played the song on a community radio station in Melbourne, the switchboard lit up.

The term “Stolen Generations” didn’t exist in the popular consciousness back then, and Roach, a shy man, was uncomfortable being a spokesman for them. “I was reluctant, I think, to put myself out there and have that sort of scrutiny,” he confesses. “It frightened me a bit.” He told Hunter he’d quit.

Hunter, Roach writes, drew herself up to her full height – which admittedly was not very much – put her hands on her hips and said, “It’s not all about you, Archie Roach. How many blackfellas you reckon get to record an album?”

Other Indigenous singer-songwriters followed. One, Adam Briggs, recorded a sequel to Took The Children Away, and invited Roach to guest on AB Original’s album, on which Roach spoke of bringing Melbourne to a standstill during land rights marches in the 70s and 80s.

While his songs are quiet – he writes that “empathy was my impetus” – he reserves a place for anger and direct action. “A lot of people are getting upset about young people in the street disrupting traffic, especially these climate protesters,” he says.

“I’m thinking, well, what’s a day’s disruption compared to the total annihilation of the planet? What’s wrong with you people? You need to make a racket! You need to be in their face.”

Before he left the Cox family, Roach worshipped at a Pentecostal church in Melbourne, and even spoke in tongues. He drew comfort from the hymns that informed his own songs, and from Jesus’ words: “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not.”

Roach eventually reconciled his Christian upbringing with his own heritage. “I found my own culture, which is not so much about religion but it’s about being a spiritual person, in our connection to the earth and the cosmos.”

Around his neck hangs a necklace, at the end of which flies a Wedge-tailed Eagle.

First published in The Guardian, 6 November 2019

Here are all the great Aussie protest songs

On Tuesday an Australian newspaper of repute published an earnest think-piece asking the question: where are all the great Aussie protest songs? Where oh where – in this, our Age of Unreason – are the new Midnight Oils, Goannas, Redgums and Chisels, the author, Jeff Apter, asks?

“Why do the musos of today … seem more concerned with navel-gazing and their fragile broken hearts than weightier, more universal issues?” he writes. “Why the resistance? It’s not like there’s a shortage of subjects to rail against.”

Indeed there isn’t: asylum seekers, Australia Day, violence against women, Aboriginal deaths in custody, marriage equality. And if you spare a moment to actually listen to the musos of today – particularly women, who don’t rate a mention in the piece, and people of colour – you’ll find each of those subjects feature in some of the best new Australian protest music around.

So, where are all the great Aussie protest songs? Well, a lot of them are on Spotify, where it took us about 10 minutes to make a playlist. Feel free to make your own!

AB Original: January 26 (2016)

mic drop on the nation. If the mark of a good protest song is to start a conversation, this song applied a set of jumper leads to the question of when we should hold our national day of celebration – and got voted to #16 in Triple J’s Hottest 100, before Triple J decided to change that date too. In Briggs’s words, holding Australia Day on the day of the invasion of the first fleet in 1788 is about as offensive as “[doing] it on my nan’s grave”.

Camp Cope: The Opener (2018)

Stella Donnelly: Boys Will Be Boys (2017)

More specifically in this vein, Perth musician Stella Donnelly’s wrenching Boys Will Be Boys (an old phrase, and now also the title of a new book by feminist commentator Clementine Ford) cuts to the bone: “Why was she all alone / Wearing her shirt that low? / They said ‘Boys will be boys’ / Deaf to the word ‘no’.”

Jen Cloher: Analysis Paralysis (2017)

Before last year’s marriage equality postal survey, Jen Cloher wrote this song about our parliament’s inability to resolve a matter entirely within its own purview to legislate. She took no prisoners in this evisceration of both the “feral right” and hashtag activist left: “Devoted to the show, not deeds of compassion / Full of good intentions but never any action.”

Cash Savage & the Last Drinks: Better Than That (2018)

Released only last week on her brilliant new album Good Citizens, Savage artfully documents the emotional and psychological impact of that risible and unnecessary survey on the LGBTIQ community, explaining how it feels for an entire country to have its say on your identity and humanity: “Every day brings another intrusion.”

Courtney Barnett: Nameless, Faceless (2018)

Barnett has sold quite a lot of records in the past five years, and is the darling of the American chat show circuit. She writes brilliant pop songs that often have a snarky edge, like this one about her wish to walk through a park after dark without having to hold her keys between her fingers. The song took on more potency weeks after its release when young Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon was murdered walking through a park in Carlton.

Kudzai Chirunga: 4 Deep in the Suburbs (2018)

Kev Carmody: Pillars Of Society at 30

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.

David Bridie

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.”

Briggs

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.”

Peter Garrett

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.

Paul Kelly

“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.

Missy Higgins

“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.”

Caiti Baker

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

Emily Wurramara

“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

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

Bad//Dreems: Gutful

I WISH I had a buck for everyone who’s ever asked me who sings political songs these days. With the reformation of Midnight Oil and, especially, the rise of Donald Trump, it’s a refrain that’s only gotten louder. Where oh where, these people moan, are the musicians addressing the temper of the times? The complainers are, of course, invariably white and stopped listening to new music in approximately 1988.

In fact, we are seeing exactly the kind of revival of protest music that the era should demand. Much of it is happening in hip-hop, and Kendrick Lamar is the current standard-bearer, but he’s hardly alone. In Australia, AB Original – the logical, local hip-hop extension of revered Indigenous folk singer Kev Carmody – deservedly won last year’s Australian Music Prize.

And while these are lean times for guitar-based rock music, you can find it in that shrinking genre too: in recent releases by the Peep Tempel, the Drones and looking back a bit further, the sorely missed Eddy Current Suppression Ring. It’s also much more subtly and subversively evident in the work of Courtney Barnett, whose songs are rarely as they appear on first listen.

There is nothing subtle about Bad//Dreems. For their second album, Gutful, they’ve once again called upon the services of 1980s Oz rock titan Mark Opitz to produce, and it’s a straight-up-and-down rock record with a lot less jangle and a lot more crunch. Pub rock? Guitarist Alex Cameron says the description was “not particularly welcomed but not something we shied away from either”.

Whatever you call it, two things are undeniable: the songs are catchy, and they’re memorable, with big choruses that stick in your head whether you might want them to or not. On a few songs – the opening Johnny Irony, Gutful and especially Nice Guy, a song about male rage, the influence of Eddy Current is palpable – except that band’s best work was recorded for maybe less than $1000.

Gutful, on the other hand, sounds big and meaty. Mob Rule, the first single, instantly recalls the Living End minus the rockabilly influence: a tub-thumping drum intro leading into a shouted chorus purpose-built to be shouted back at the band from the mosh pit. Lyrically, the song speaks of populism and nativism: “I see flags on the sand / I see blood on your hands.”

Then there’s the title track (and what a marvellously “Oz” title it is too): “Had a gutful of your speed and coke / Had a gutful of your racist jokes / Had a gutful of Australia Day / Had a gutful of the USA / Had a gutful of Donald Trump / Had a gutful of your baby bump.” No one can accuse Bad//Dreems of not getting to the point.

But this is not entirely an issues album: there are spoonfuls of sugar helping the medicine go down. By My Side and Make You Love Me take on more classical pop themes and win. 1000 Miles Away harks back to the power-pop of the Hoodoo Gurus, who had a hit with a song of the same name and whose 1987 album Blow Your Cool was also produced by Opitz (reportedly an unhappy experience for all involved).

It’s a solid album, and at 38 minutes it flies by. It showcases the band’s knack for classic rock anthems. But several bands have deliberately been name-checked in this review, and there’s a nagging sense that Bad//Dreems haven’t fully outgrown their reference points. Put them in a beer barn, though, and they might yet be the band most likely to blow up the pokies.

First published in The Guardian, 21 April 2017