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.
Glenn Wright had sworn not to get involved with musicians again. He’d spent close to 20 years booking Sydney’s Harbourside Brasserie, before relocating his family just outside the town of Mullumbimby, an hour shy of the Queensland border. “I live on a farm, grow avocados and breed ducks,” he says determinedly. “I’m happier with that than trying to make a fortune out of promoting.”
He soon found he couldn’t help himself. Mullumbimby, he noticed, had many venues to play music, but they were underutilised, and while northern New South Wales already boasted the Byron Bay festivals Bluesfest and Splendour in the Grass, there was room for something more boutique. “I had a lot of contacts and artist connections – and I was short of cash,” he confesses.
The result is the Mullum music festival, now in its ninth year. The festival stretches across four days and half a dozen halls, including the RSL, bowls club and high school, spanning either end of the town’s main street. It’s an easy stroll – maybe 20 minutes – but if you’re in a hurry, you can catch the double-decker “Magic Bus”, which trawls up and down the strip in obvious homage to Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.
“In smaller venues you can have more intimate contact with the audiences,” says Wright. “There’s no VIP areas; there’s no backstage. The artists stay in the town, they get restaurant vouchers and mingle with everyone. I try to program artists that know each other, or there’s some similarities, so they end up collaborating. We develop relationships.”
The Mullum vibe is comfortably relaxed. Ticket sales across the festival’s four days are tightly capped, so while the town is bustling – especially on the Saturday – there’s no need for pushing or shoving. And while there’s a diversity of musical styles on offer, it’s mostly acoustic, roots, folk, world music and alt-country. There’s not a lot of rock & roll.
Wright says he quickly realised the festival had no room for growth. “I try to make sure that it’s always comfortable and go for the longer-term goals rather than how many people can I fit in the venue.”
Around the music, there’s yoga and forums on sustainability and renewable energy. A major theme at this year’s event is reducing plastic waste; there’s even a weaving workshop to “jazz up” your water bottle carry cover through recycled materials including packing tape and festival armbands to “bring style, ease and self-responsibility to your carry wears”.
Of course, there are other ways to jazz things up. “I see we’re coming into jazz territory,” notes a visitor wryly on the Saturday night. He’s not talking about the music. Melbourne songwriter Henry Wagons, who headlines on both the Friday and Saturday nights, is impressed. “I’ve just walked past a sea of dreadlocks with open bags full of herb,” he says with a grin. “This town is gonna get fucked up.”
Wagons is a born entertainer who will do anything it takes to win over a crowd, including jumping into the lap of a septuagenarian audience member, but others can’t help but be a little more cynical. “So whaddaya farm up here? Healing?” asks the Drones’ Gareth Liddiard, before pausing to shush a particularly vocal local. “Hey, pipe down, I’m trying to create some atmosphere here.”
Similarly, Melbourne singer Olympia – who provides a welcome splash of glam-pop colour in a pink, shoulder-padded pantsuit – seems disconcerted by the local freestyle. “You guys are gonna have to dance in time to this, your bad rhythm is depressing me,” she tells the kids in the school hall. “I’m gonna have to get the metronome out.”
Other acts are treated with more appropriate levels of respect. Indigenous singer-songwriter Yirrmal, a young Yolgnu man from north-east Arnhem Land and son of a Yothu Yindi dancer, has an enormous voice and appeals to the older crowd. Another Indigenous performer, Tash Sultana, can play seemingly anything and attracts a much younger but equally devoted audience to her high-energy show.
But the emphasis is on fun rather than earnestness, typified by Dustyesky, the punning result of Wright bemoaning his inability to afford a Russian folk choir. “I suggested to him in a drunken moment, why don’t we start our own?” says his friend Andrew Swain, who assembled a cast of local doctors, nut farmers, chefs, builders and Wright himself – none of whom speak a word of Russian – to learn the songs.
Dustyesky, coached in the lyrics by a Russian friend of Swain’s, are now a Mullum staple. “It’s just for fun, but we do get a lot of people coming to the gigs, and you can always pick the Russians because they’re the ones crying in the audience,” Swain says. “Because they know all the songs! They come up to us afterwards and say things like ‘These are the songs from my childhood.’ It’s unbelievable.”
In the nascent Sydney punk scene of 1976, the Oxford Funhouse on Taylor Square was ground zero. The venue had been established by Radio Birdman who, along with Brisbane’s the Saints, can lay claim to the title of Australia’s first punk band.
Peter Garrett, who was leading an embryonic band not yet named Midnight Oil at the time, checked them out early and came away a changed man, marvelling at how the hipsters in the crowd kept their sunglasses on amid the mayhem. “The sound was laser-bright and ferocious, and frontman Rob Younger was riveting, stalking the tiny stage with a leonine fury,” he wrote in his memoir, Big Blue Sky, released late last year.
If you want an idea of where Garrett got the unique dance step that captivated audiences for over 20 years, watch Younger in action. Garrett wasn’t informed by his movements so much as the idea of performance as an altered form of consciousness. “I like to get myself into a state where I’m not aware of what I do at all, yet somehow I get it all out,” Younger said at the time. “I don’t know, I try not to think about it.”
Garrett similarly deflects questions about his dancing, as if talking about it might cause him to freeze. “You’re suspending rational thought, as you should when you go into that zone,” he says. “When you start to move and feel the energy around you, if you think about it for one second you become a clichéd plastic statue. Which we’ll try to avoid for a little bit longer.”
Garrett – as he proclaimed on Tall Trees, the first song and single from his first solo album, A Version Of Now – is back, and he remains a man of formidable energy. If his 63 years have slowed him somewhat, he won’t be merely treading the boards on an upcoming promotional tour, either. Later in the year Midnight Oil will reconvene, with the band planning to spend much of 2017 on the road. Again.
There are two public sides to Garrett: the whirling dervish on stage, and the highly organised figure who, years before he left Midnight Oil to join the Labor party, served his first term as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation between 1989 and 1993, at the height of the band’s success. He then served a further two years on the international board of Greenpeace.
“They’re both the same person,” Garrett says, lounging in a community café in Redfern, where he’s just done an interview for Koori Radio. As distinctive as ever, he doesn’t escape without shy requests for selfies and signatures. “You might discover different sides of the same person when you go on holidays with them, or sitting around a campfire, or if you have a big night in a karaoke bar.”
Garrett is used to being reduced to a caricature. So was his band. “[Midnight Oil was] misunderstood in terms of being seen as specifically constructed to deliver a political philosophy,” he says. “Misunderstood in being seen as very blokey and pub-ish, which we weren’t at all, certainly not as people. Misunderstood overseas, because no one knew where the hell Australia was, or what we were writing about.”
That didn’t stop Beds Are Burning – a pointed call to white Australia to return the land to its original inhabitants – from becoming the band’s biggest hit in America. Still, there was always more to Midnight Oil than slogans. “I thought there was some abstraction in what we were doing,” Garrett says, before conceding: “Probably not a lot of humour, it’s fair to say. Not my strong suit. Humour ain’t Oils!”
A Version Of Now isn’t played for laughs, either, but it’s often unexpectedly tender and sweet. There are love songs to Doris, his wife of 30 years, which are as direct as anything he’s ever written. Their three daughters, Emily, May and Grace, sing harmonies; May even plays drums on one track.
And while it features the Oils’ guitarist Martin Rotsey, it sounds like a genuinely personal solo project. There was no thought of bringing the songs to rest of the group, he says: “They came so quickly, and then I knuckled down and tried to knock them into shape and get people to play them as quickly as I could. They sounded like Peter Garrett songs.”
What it does share with his old band is some of the rawness that marked their early records. The approach was basic: “We’re in a room, we’ve learned the chords – or maybe we haven’t quite learned them – and we’re going to grab the moment.” The album was produced by Burke Reid, who has worked with the Drones and Courtney Barnett. Garrett was inspired by the unvarnished sound of both.
“The Courtney record [Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Think] was like being on a skateboard, rolling down a hill – ‘This is what I am, this is what I sound like, this is what I talk about’,” he says. “It had a spirit of music that I love that is timeless in some ways, because it was so gritty, real and without pretension.”
People often ask who dares to talk about big issues in popular music these days and it hasn’t escaped Garrett that the Drones and Barnett are among them. “There’s plenty of it out there [and] I was interested in what they had to say, but I also liked the sound.” The music, he insists, always comes first. “If it doesn’t have that internal combustion, you’ve got nothing.”
None of which means that Garrett has nothing to say. I’d Do It Again, the album’s second song, should stay a thousand journalists’ questions: “I didn’t jump, I wasn’t pushed / I went on my own, I’ve got to do what I could / I got my hands dirty and had a go”. Garrett’s rejection of the purity of activism for the messy compromises of high office remains unapologetic.
But those words “I’m back” also suggest he’s nothing if not happy to be making music again. “And who wouldn’t be, really? It’s not that I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, but they’re very different kinds of vocations and there’s not a lot of blend. I guess my starting point is that I think we can have a go at more than one kind of thing, and many people do.”
He concedes he “sometimes” felt like an outsider in politics, and in the Labor party too, partially because he wasn’t part of any faction. But neither was he a career politician. “The fact of the matter is, and most politicians would recognise it, that to some extent the lives that they’ve lived prior to entering the parliament are quite narrow.”
The result, he says, is an entrenching of the political classes, in which he includes advisers, lobbyists and various apparatchiks and insiders, including the press gallery. “The ultimate result of that confection is that it’s very difficult to break out from stasis or antipathy and the never-ending striving for short-term political advantage.”
Political progress is an illusory thing. Sometimes we go backwards; at others, around in circles. After the 2010 election, he remembers, suddenly “there was a row of younger, seriously hardline right-wing climate sceptics sitting on the other side of the parliament. It makes you pause for a second to think, and it also makes you demand of someone like the current prime minister [Malcolm Turnbull] that they do live up to their convictions.”
But the intractability of issues such as refugee policy, for example – which Garrett admits was “deeply, deeply challenging” – often meant personal convictions came a distant last in the same political machinery he has just described. Part of our disenchantment, he says, is driven by a skewed view of what politics can realistically deliver. And when it doesn’t, “there’s no shortage of people howling it down”.
No one, at least, could accuse Garrett of not having experienced life before entering politics. Two high points he names from Midnight Oil’s career were playing the first multi-racial concert in South Africa in 1994, following the election of Nelson Mandela as president, to roughly 80,000 people in Ellis Park, Johannesburg; and playing Beds Are Burning at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, with the band wearing “Sorry” suits.
That – like the band playing on a flatbed truck outside the Exxon building in Manhattan in 1990, in a guerrilla-style protest after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill the previous year – was essentially a prank but it was also extremely effective political theatre. And very punk. “It was agitprop,” Garrett says. At such times, “we felt we were part of something bigger that was at play”.
Whether the band will enter the studio again remains to be seen. “I think [the band members] obviously are still creative, [we’d] like to be creative. You’ve got to do it for the right reasons.” He notes the band’s contemporaries Cold Chisel have had a second life, “and they’ve made a fair fist of it. It’s been good, the stuff that they’ve done, I’ve enjoyed it.
“There’s no reason why not. We’re not bound temporally; we’re only bound by how fearful, how brave, how imaginative, how hard we’re prepared to work, and I think if we continue to bring the love of music and making music together then maybe we’ll see something come out the other end. Whatever it is you do, if it’s still moving you, then try to do as much of it as possible, before it’s too late.”
But, always, it’s the live shows that will come first. Midnight Oil became effective users of the studio as an instrument – particularly on their 1982 breakthrough album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. But the studio is a bit like the parliament: sounds are negotiated, compromised and brokered. It’s on stage, in front of an audience, where Midnight Oil made its reputation.
Garrett’s upcoming solo tour will give him the chance to splay his hands and wave those long arms around again, in those inimitable jerky movements that somehow work with the jagged angles of the music. But really, it’s a prelude to the main act next year, when the Midnight Oil juggernaut rolls back into action. It’s also a test. Can they do it again, or will they be, in Garrett’s words, clichéd plastic statues?
“It’s not like we can go out every night, [whether] it’s a club show or a theatre show, and just switch it,” he says. “We’ve got to suck the music out of the marrow of our bones and spit it back out over people, with all the sense of no tomorrow that we can muster up.”
The cover of Witch Hats’ third album Deliverance is an 1861 sketch by Ludwig Becker, the German artist and explorer who died as a member of Burke and Wills’ ill-fated expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Titled “Border Of Mud Desert” and drawn in the last weeks of the artist’s life, it’s a desolate, despairing image, catching a blinding reflection of light across a dead, treeless plain.
It’s a suitable accompaniment for the music. There’s a wildness and a barely contained sense of desperation across Deliverance, and also something defiantly Australian – although that’s probably just the phlegmy sneer of singer/songwriter Kris Buscombe, who recalls a young Chris Bailey circa the Saints’ masterpiece, Prehistoric Sounds.
It’s also tempting to read into these eight taut tracks some of the same sense of mortal dread that imbued Becker’s imagery. Like the Drones’ Feelin Kinda Free, Deliverance paints contemporary Australia as a dystopian nightmare, a paranoid surveillance state where incest occurs behind closed doors while peeping toms keep watch from the bushes outside.
But whereas Feelin Kinda Free distorted the Drones’ sound into something barely recognisable from their past, Witch Hats have perfected theirs: rough-hewn but intelligent, intense blasts of mid-paced post-punk and pop. It’s not new, but they don’t sound much like anyone else, either, and the songs – most of them a classic three and a half minutes – stick like glue.
Weekend Holocauster opens the album with a sledgehammer beat and a lyric to match: “If you’ve got something to say, you’d better mean it,” Buscombe hollers over an ascending bass line. He means it, alright. These are outsider songs: “Collecting coins from the drain that missed the meter … We spit and wipe the floor with you, in a conventional world.”
Trying To Forget tells of how the frailties of human psychology compel us to inevitably repeat our own mistakes. “Bloodied is our mind / Distorted our vision / We’re going to war now / In an endless revision.” The song’s coda drifts ironically into what sounds like the distant, nostalgic sound of AM radio, the band briefly playing their own warped take on ’60s pop.
It betrays a melodic sense that lifts this Melbourne band above the pack. The hooks of Peeperman and Religious Sickness are subtle but insistent, even when they’re buried under clouds of guitar squall. Recorded almost live in the studio, Deliverance is beautifully mixed: the guitars of Buscombe and Rob Wrigley alternately pan and dovetail across the spectrum without ever losing clarity or punch.
Buscombe continues to exhibit a fascination with disturbed characters. On the band’s previous album, The Pleasure Syndrome, the subject of the single Hear Martin was Port Arthur killer Martin Bryant. Here, on Insecure Fear, it’s Jihadi John, the British Arabic man who gained notoriety as a puppet for the so-called Islamic State. If Buscombe finds empathy for them, it’s only as marginalised figures desperate to make a statement.
The highlight, though, is the transcendent finale, Strange Life. Here, Witch Hats reveal one clear debt: to Neil Young and Crazy Horse, particularly in the long, ecstatic solos that dominate Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Locking into a mesmerising groove, the song ends in a splatter of guitar that’s more Jackson Pollock than Becker. It could theoretically go on forever, and it’s so damn good I half wish it did.
Widely regarded as one of the finest Australian albums ever made, the Triffids’ second album Born Sandy Devotional turns 30 this month. Most famous for its beloved single Wide Open Road, the album uses the empty desolation of the Australian landscape, and particularly the band’s native Western Australia as a metaphor for loss and loneliness. To gauge its enduring influence, The Guardian asked 10 Australian musicians – both peers of the Triffids, and those that have grown up in the band’s shadow – to discuss one song each from Born Sandy Devotional’s 10 tracks.
Ben Salter (solo artist) on The Seabirds
“David McComb’s tempestuous holler kicks in immediately: ‘No foreign pair of dark sunglasses will ever shield you from the light that pierces your eyelids, the screaming of the gulls…’ That thousand-yard stare sensibility, that Australian feeling which permeates the entire album is firmly established. There’s a devastating electric guitar refrain which finally flattens out to one plaintive, repeated note, and the song ends with McComb’s anguished cry: ‘So where were you / Where were you / Where were you?’”
Robert McComb (guitar/violin, the Triffids, older brother of David McComb) on Estuary Bed
“Sometimes I feel like it’s my life, growing up in Perth. Which is why [David McComb] got some credit as an Australian songwriter, because he used those images – the hot sand, the salt on the skin, the sun on the sidewalk, burning their feet. It’s just my childhood, as it was his.” (From The Great Australian Albums documentary series)
Lindy Morrison (former drummer, the Go-Betweens) on Chicken Killer
“From the first snare beat at the end of the first line – ‘I knelt, I aimed, I missed, I ran’ – Martyn P Casey and Alsy Macdonald set a cracking, rolling rhythm that carries this wild tune to the finish line. Nick Mainsbridge was the engineer on the album, and I swear you hear his touch – ‘Just let them go,’ he would have thought. And David is as big and blustery and confident as ever as he sings for his lost love, with gorgeous imagery. It’s a shocking, sad, violent song of love and revenge.”
Sarah Spencer (keyboard player, Blank Realm) on Tarrilup Bridge
“Is this a live song? No, that’s spooky-as-hell canned applause at the start. So weird. Then a xylophone that mirrors the strange and beautiful elocution of Jill Birt’s vocals. Is she singing from beyond the grave? Yes, she drove off the bridge: “They say I’m going to be a big star. They’re making a movie about my life. And you’re going to play the starring part.” It’s the most gothic song on a goth album. Perhaps it’s a love song, or a dedication, to those driven over the edge.”
Steve Kilbey (the Church; solo artist) on Lonely Stretch
“You could not find a more Australian song than Lonely Stretch. Have you ever been lost at night in the bush? It all looks the same. The imagination starts to play its tricks. Ghosts of your former darlings seem to appear and your headlights pierce the night to reveal … Nothing! A monstrous epic of a song, Martyn Casey’s engine-like bass propelling it all along. Dave McComb, if you’re out there listening somewhere, I declare this to be the most vivid, crucial, exciting Aussie song of all time. Oh man, one that I really wish I could have written myself. An absolute masterpiece.”
Mia Dyson (solo artist; Dyson/Stringer/Cloher) on Wide Open Road
“I heard Wide Open Road as a kid, totally free and dancing around the living room. Years later my dear friend Jen Cloher re-introduced me to it and I fell in love all over again. It’s timeless, even though the production is very much of its time. It gives me the feeling that anything is possible and there’s a strength and defiance that I can carry with me as I navigate the endless forks in the road I encounter in my own life.”
Tamara Bell (guitarist, HITS) on Life Of Crime
“This aches, musically and lyrically, with those first young dalliances with lust – of desire’s convincing reassurance that giving in to it will reward a future brighter than any punishment. ‘I believe you will lead me to a life of crime’ is the utterance of the consentingly doomed. The lyric ‘My chest burning, rising, falling’ just stabs me – they speak of involuntary propulsion, addiction, and a lover’s regretful, inexorable abandonment of their better selves to whatever prize desire will yield, at whatever cost.”
David Bridie (Not Drowning, Waving; My Friend The Chocolate Cake) on Personal Things
“It’s not my favourite track off the record, but it has that Jacques Brel/Bertolt Brecht vibe that the Triffids occasionally tapped into, which I like – a slightly theatrical German cabaret feel. It’s got the cheesiest organ sound I’ve ever heard in my life, but the drums really kick it along. It’s like a waltz. I like the line ‘Some secrets of love you take to your bed, and others you take to your grave.’ The album works as a whole; there’s all these characters and short stories that made up the whole collection.”
Gareth Liddiard (the Drones, solo artist) on Stolen Property
“I sang this song for the Triffids gig [at the Perth International Arts Festival on 15 February]. It’s quite similar to what we would do because it runs on about three chords and then gets really abstract at the end. There’s a shift halfway through that always sends chills down my spine, where Dave sings, ‘Maybe lost possessions, maybe stolen property.’ It’s Dave losing someone, but regaining himself – like he’s had to steal himself off someone. He’s not lashing out aggressively, but he’s taking a stand – he’s sort of telling this person off, saying, ‘You know what – you’re fucked!’”
“Evil” Graeme Lee (keyboards, pedal steel, the Triffids) on Tender Is The Night (The Long Fidelity)
“I love the final part of that song, where he says, ‘Where you are, it will just be getting light.’ Which is an amazing way, in so few words, to say you’re not here, and I miss you.” (From The Great Australian Albums documentary series)
When right-wing columnist/performance artist Andrew Bolt heard the Drones’ single Taman Shud, he wrote that the band was “stamping on the ashes of the West’s musical traditions”. Supposedly offended by the thought that singer Gareth Liddiard didn’t give a toss about anything he said, he added: “critics like these make me feel like I’m offending exactly the right kind of people”.
Naturally, the Drones were delighted. First, they would no doubt feel exactly the same way about offending Bolt and his tabloid constituency. Second, the group has taken a serious left turn with their seventh album, Feelin Kinda Free. “We said ‘fuck it’ and went spaz,” Liddiard toldThe Guardian last October. He couldn’t have dreamed of a better critical endorsement than Bolt’s “stamping on the ashes” line.
“It’s a pretty weird record and you can dance to it,” Liddiard said of the album. “It’s time to have a groovy Drones record. We’re sick of being a bunch of drags.” With respect, Bolt’s description was pithier, more accurate and more complimentary. Taman Shud was one of the most compelling singles of last year, but good luck to anyone who hit the dance floor to its skittish rhythms.
Boredom, the sixth track on Feelin Kinda Free, is in a similar vein. If the Drones once came on like the mutant, brawling blues-punk offspring of the Birthday Party and the Beasts of Bourbon, this sounds more like the mostly forgotten Australian post-punk of Pel Mel and Sardine v. Frankly, it’s a lot more interesting and original, stamping all over the Drones’ own musical traditions.
“The best songs are like bad dreams,” mutters Liddiard in Private Execution. It’s a fabulous opening line – and what follows is a succession of nightmares. Always fascinated by Australian history, the Drones were once the musical equivalent of a McCubbin painting; pioneers trapped in foreign landscapes. Here they take a step into the avant-garde world of the Angry Penguins, Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan.
The Angry Penguins movement was an interrogation, and rejection, of an earlier kind of Australian nationalism represented by the bush balladeers. Feelin Kinda Free is as decisive a repudiation, both of the Drones’ past and of the mythic, monocultural Australian vision of John Howard, Tony Abbott and, yes, Andrew Bolt: “I don’t give a fuck if you can’t stop the boats,” Liddiard sneers in Taman Shud.
The dominant themes here are immigration and its attendant cousin, paranoia. And Then They Came For Me finds Liddiard “feeling like I’ve overstayed”. On the album’s final track, Shut Down SETI, he imagines Fortress Australia overrun by aliens: “Do we need an overlord that finds us underwhelming? You don’t defend your house and home by jumping down a rabbit hole.”
Taman Shud and Boredom aside, Feelin Kinda Free slithers by like a serpent in search of its next meal. The feel is unhurried, but menacing. While the songs still stretch out like elastic, there are only eight of them, so at 41 minutes, the album doesn’t outstay its welcome. The emphasis is mostly on bass and percussion: guitars are heavily treated; frequently, you’d be forgiven for thinking there are no guitars at all.
The closest thing to anything from the Drones’ past is the agonised To Think I Was In Love With You, which sits squarely in the album’s centre without dragging it down. Otherwise, Feelin Kinda Free sounds like the work of a less dour and far more subversive band. Despite the subject matter and often funereal pace, it’s anything but a drag.
South-east of Stanthorpe, in the granite belt that straddles the border of the apple-growing country of Queensland and New South Wales, there’s a small property, once part of a much larger orchard, with a classically rustic farmhouse and a huge insulated shed where the produce used to be stored.
The shed is now a musical Aladdin’s Cave. Rare gig posters from the 1980s and ’90s festoon the walls. There’s a drum kit set up for occasional gigs in a room that could comfortably fit 200; another in a smaller studio anteroom, and practically everything else inside – from butter knives to oil drums – is an instrument waiting to be played.
This is where Kev Carmody – most famous for his iconic song co-written with Paul Kelly, From Little Things Big Things Grow – recorded his first music in a decade. This is how he describes it: “It’s a good little bloody space. Crikey, better than those bloody sterile bloody huge bloody studios they have in bloody major cities!”
A conversation with Carmody is invariably long and liberally peppered with such vernacular. Born in 1946 to an Aboriginal mother and Irish father, he grew up droving on the Darling Downs, and remained illiterate until finding his way into university in 1978. He has since become one of the most revered songwriters in the country.
But the staggering depth of his catalogue has only just been revealed. The result of several years of off-and-on sessions at the apple shed, Recollections … Reflections (A Journey) isn’t an album; it’s an avalanche: 41 songs on four discs, with songs dating back to 1967 – none one of them previously recorded or released.
It was Kelly who spotted what had previously been hidden away, on one of his visits to the property: folders full of lyrics, dating back decades, that Carmody had finally transcribed after years of having the songs only in his head. “He spied ’em one day when I pulled ’em out looking for a song,” Carmody says.
“In his quiet way, he’d always mention when he’d come and stay – ‘What about the back catalogue Kev, have you done anything on that yet?’” He says he’s barely scratched the surface: “There’s bloody drawers full of them still at home!” Many more songs, according to co-producer Andy Wilmott, were rejected.
Carmody first picked up a guitar in the late 1960s, teaching himself to play with the aid of a book he found at a local dump. “They were just open-air supermarkets. I found a wet bloody book that said Teach Yourself Guitar, so I brought it thing back to the camp, dried her out over the flamin’ fire and started to work through it.”
His first album, Pillars Of Society, was recorded to coincide with the Bicentenary of 1988, by which time he was 42. It was a radical release, hailed at the time by critic Bruce Elder as “the best album ever released by an Aboriginal musician and arguably the best protest album ever made in Australia”.
One song especially, Black Deaths In Custody, remains shamefully relevant: “Show us blacks 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.”
Growing up Aboriginal in Queensland during the worst excesses of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years gave Carmody more reason to be angry than most. He knew there was little appetite for such sentiments. “That’s why I didn’t record for so long, because I knew bloody well that what I was doing, no way did it have any commercial value.
“I had one of the top record companies in Australia say ‘Oh, we really like the Pillars album; we’d love to put out an EP.’ We met around a big boardroom table. I said, well, which ones have you picked on it? And you knew straight away, they’d just depoliticise it, they took the bloody guts out of it.”
But while his records sold only to a rusted-on audience, his reputation among his peers – from Billy Bragg to Bono – began to soar. His collaboration with Kelly cemented his status; in 2007 a tribute album and concert featuring the Drones, Steve Kilbey and Missy Higgins elevated his standing further. A documentary, Songman, will premiere ahead of Carmody’s appearance at the upcoming Sydney Festival.
While others paid tribute, Carmody retreated after the release of his fifth album, Mirrors, in 2005. He spent his time helping to raise his grandchildren and conducting workshops for kids in the remote communities of New South Wales and Queensland. “They were a bit like me in some ways; fairly illiterate but the creativity was there.”
He says he was “jack of the music industry”, with no love for the touring life of a song-and-dance man. “Who wants to be travelling around in bloody Tarago cars and getting up in motels, late nights, singing karaoke to your own bloody songs every bloody night, turning up at festivals with the same old faces?”
Most of all, he resented the music business’s tendency to pigeonhole his creativity. Mostly, Recollections And Reflections is in the spare acoustic-blues vein of Pillars, but that’s just one side of Carmody’s oeuvre. “It’s just bizarre to be stuck in this one bloody box. It’s all to do with consumerism and marketing the product,” he says.
“[We] could have put together a whole country album, with Hometown and all these other ones, and then [we] could have put together another more folk-based one, and then we could have gone right through to electronics and electrified bloody Marshall amp-type stuff!” He says he would love to make a punk record. “Bloody oath!”
“But with this one we thought, no, let’s keep it acoustic and absolutely basic. The next thing we do I reckon will be a combination of John Cage experimental music, Beethoven and Charley Patton. Let’s see if we can get that happening. Something creative that pollinates it-bloody-self.”