Tagged: Yothu Yindi

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

The power and the passion of Midnight Oil still burns

I’m at home and listening to 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1; Midnight Oil’s apocalypse-themed fourth album. Fucking loud – there was never any other way to listen to them, really. I haven’t listened to the Oils for maybe 10 years, though, because I haven’t needed to. They’ve always been there. I’ve just caught myself singing quietly along to the opening track Outside World as I’m writing: every lyric is embedded in my skull.

Now it’s Only The Strong. “Speak to me, speak to me / I’m at the edge of myself / I’m dying to talk.” Midnight Oil were a deeply political band, but earlier in their career they could do post-punk existential angst with the best of them. They were everything you remember them to be, but also more than maybe you’ve forgotten, or perhaps ever realised.

To call Midnight Oil a pub rock band is, as Nick Kent once famously observed of Televisionakin to calling Dostoevsky a short-story writer. They merely played in pubs before graduating to arenas and stadiums. Their closest peers were the Clash, Gang of Four, and early Elvis Costello; the Who their direct forebears. And they were genuine radicals. Time and again, they put their money where their mouth was, in benefits and donations, to the many causes they championed.

The music on 10, 9, 8 was immensely powerful, attacking, and as complex as it was memorable. Being complex and memorable at the same time is a damn near impossible thing to do in popular music. Get the balance wrong and you end up in the pretentious mire of ’70s progressive rock. But Midnight Oil had a different ethos, emerging from the northern beaches of Sydney as a high-energy surf-punk band.

They changed my life irrevocably. I was a skinny kid growing up in Melbourne’s outskirts in the early ’80s. The Cold War was in full swing: “In the shadow of ban the bomb we live,” Peter Garrett sang, on US ForcesAnd we did. It’s easy to forget we still do. Midnight Oil were a political awakening, as well as a musical one. Countdown was Duran Duran and Madonna at that time. Midnight Oil never played Countdown.

The news that they’re reforming next year makes me both happy and apprehensive. Will I see them? I’m not sure: I’ve done that maybe 30 times already, and I saw them at their thrilling peak. A show at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre in 1987, on their Diesel And Dust tour, still looms large in my catalogue of greatest-ever gig memories. Midnight Oil were a force of nature live, even more so in their early years.

10, 9, 8 has finished – in a locked-groove scream, for you vinyl junkies – so I’ve put on Diesel And Dust. Forget about Peter Garrett’s political career for a moment; focus on the music. On that album, the Oils stripped their sound back. They became kinder and gentler, but the lyrics on Beds Are Burning were as bald as Garrett’s head: “The time has come to say fair’s fair / To pay the rent, now / To pay our share.”

Truthfully, angst-ridden teen that I was, I missed some of their earlier brushes with alienation and ambiguity. But the late ’80s was not a time for subtlety or navel-gazing; if you wanted to make a point, you needed to get straight to it. And in Garrett – who at his full six feet, six inches was one of a handful of seriously tall men in rock & roll – the Oils had a messianic spokesperson, with a unique dance step to boot.

Many, including friends who introduced me to the band, have never forgiven Garrett for his move into politics. I deeply admired it. Say what you will, but the man is no fool: do you think he answered the call not knowing that every lyric he ever sung would be hurled back at him, both in newspaper headlines and across the chamber? That he would be a party to decisions he deplored, because he was bound by party rules?

Garrett may have been a more effective advocate than a politician, but as he once sang (on Arctic World), “Don’t wanna be an advocate / Don’t wanna be a monument”. He became an insider because changes get made on the inside, by increments, more often than they’re forced from outside by revolutionary means.

That’s a brave and, dare one say, mature call to make when you’ve just entered your 50s, as Garrett had when he joined the ALP, 20 years after coming within a dodgy preference deal of being a senator for the single-issue Nuclear Disarmament Party.

He didn’t write most of the music, anyway. Rob Hirst, the drummer, and Jim Moginie, the band’s guitarist, keyboard player and resident evil genius, did almost all of that. Garrett mostly added finishing lyrical touches (as he also did on Yothu Yindi’s Treaty: “This land was never bought and sold”). The singer’s profile has obscured Hirst and Moginie’s status among this country’s finest ever songwriting teams.

Could Garrett sing? Not really. Did it matter? Not at all. It’s called a character vocal, where technique is less important than how it speaks to both the music and the audience. Gauging their influence on contemporary Australian bands, Eddy Current Suppression Ring remind me inescapably of early Midnight Oil, not least for singer Brendan Huntley’s irresistible charisma, combined with his endearing inability to carry a tune.

If there’s anything I’m nervous about, it’s the prospect of a Garrett solo album. He’s not a man given to public introspection (he dedicates two pages in his 443-page memoir Big Blue Sky to his bearing witness to his mother’s tragic death in a house fire), and some introspection is crucial to the writer’s craft. But the rest of the band have pursued their own creative paths post-Oils, and Garrett is every bit as entitled to his.

Diesel And Dust is finishing as I write this, and the last lines are ringing out. “Sometimes you’re beaten to the core, sometimes / Sometimes you’re taken to the wall / But you don’t give in.” I might not need to listen to it for another 10 years: the music we grew up on is always with us. Sometimes when we need it the most.

First published in The Guardian, 6 May 2016

The hitch-hiker: Andrew McMillan, 1957-2012

I first met Andrew McMillan in July of 1999. The place was Gove Airport, which services the north-east Arnhem Land mining town of Nhulunbuy. Andrew was acting as a media liaison officer for the inaugural Garma Festival, an annual cultural exchange program between the local Yolngu people and Balanda (whites) established by the Yothu Yindi Foundation. I was working on a story for the Australian edition of Rolling Stone. I spent nearly a week in Andrew’s company and only caught up with him on one other occasion, but he certainly left a mark on me.

I was already familiar with his work. When I was a teenager, growing up in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne before my family relocated to Brisbane, Midnight Oil was the band that changed my life. They were a rock & roll awakening, and a political one, too. McMillan’s book, Strict Rules, was a document of the Oils’ tour through the Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, an experience that led to the ground-breaking Diesel And Dust album in 1987.

Before that, Andrew had begun his writing career in Brisbane in the late ’70s. He’d been turned on by punk and had started Australia’s first fanzine (the horribly named Suicide Alley, quickly re-christened Pulp) with Clinton Walker. But his trip into the Dead Heart of the country changed his life, and he became one of the keenest and most honest observers of the tortured relationship between this country’s original inhabitants and their colonisers. In Strict Rules, he refers to himself as “the hitch-hiker”, marking himself as an interloper in a country that’s not his own. Yet he also had an affinity with the landscape that shone through in his frequently luminous prose:

“Out in the deserts of Central Australia, the razorback ridges of the Macdonnell Ranges split the plains like a wedge, splintering the earth with shards of granite and sedimentary deposits. A glowing, primeval spine from the air, they crease the desert like the ceremonial scars on an old man’s chest.

For thousands of years the region was the domain of tribes like the Eastern and Western Aranda, nomadic hunters and gatherers whose relationship with the land was so deeply spiritual that to harm the country of their ancestors would have resulted in unspeakable retribution.

In person (and I stress that I did not know him well), he seemed quiet, a listener. He was a slight, Livingstone-esque character with a mop of curly hair under a pith helmet and a severely cleft palate which left him with a slight lisp. Whether out of shyness, reserve or unusually good manners, he spoke quietly, and seemingly only when he had something genuinely useful to say; a quality to aspire to.

At the airport, I noted a bunch of Yolngu kids kicking around a football. Australian Rules is close to a Territory religion. Andrew noted my interest.

“Who do you barrack for?” he asked slyly. Among AFL fans, it’s a potentially incriminating question.

“Collingwood,” I replied. It’s the most incriminating of answers.

He regarded me sidelong, nodding. There was a pause. “We’ll be mates,” he said, unsmiling, but with a warm twinkle in his eyes. Remembering it is something that makes me wish I’d done better at keeping in touch with him.

But Andrew could be irascible. He certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly. And he liked a drink: on the last night at the bone-dry Garma festival, I found him swigging from a flask in his swag, earning him a rebuke from a Yothu Yindi backing singer. Of course, he was hardly Robinson Crusoe that evening. A couple of years later, I cold-called him at his home in Darwin in the hope of interviewing him about Brisbane for my first book, Pig City. I should have found another means of getting in touch first, for I fear I caught him on a bad night.

Many years later we reconnected, as he swung through Brisbane for a writer’s festival, plugging his Intruder’s Guide To East Arnhem Land, for which he’d won the inaugural NT Chief Minister’s Book of the Year award. I don’t think he’d been back here for a long time. He autographed a reprinted version of Strict Rules for me to replace my long lost original, and I had the pleasure of doing the same for him with a copy of Pig City. I never did find out what he thought, or even if he got around to reading it, but it doesn’t matter. It was a pleasure to meet and speak to him again.

I didn’t know he was sick until just before Christmas, when another Brisbane writer called Andrew McMillen came calling to borrow Strict Rules ahead of a planned trip to Darwin. The prospect of interviewing his near-namesake was too tantalising to resist, and apparently Andrew was intrigued too, as he’d been getting confusing calls and emails for a couple of years from people inquiring about new pieces they’d read which he hadn’t actually written.

Unfortunately, the two Andrews with only a vowel between them didn’t quite get to make the connection. Andrew McMillan died in a Darwin hospital on Saturday night, the result of a battle with bowel and liver cancer. He was 54. A bit over a year earlier, he’d attended a living wake in his own honour; he did well to make another 14 months, and he was apparently working up to the end.

To me, he’s a great example of how the briefest of encounters with individuals can leave lasting impressions on us. Andrew took the traditions of New Journalism and put a dry, dusty and uniquely Australian twist on it that I doubt anyone has matched before or since. I don’t think my friend Andrew McMillen will mind my saying, with affection to both, that there was only one Andrew McMillan.

The Great Australian Songbook III (30-21)

Following on from the previous thread, as the title suggests, here’s tracks 30-29.

30. YOTHU YINDI – Treaty (1991)

Did this song start a national conversation, or just get people dancing? Actually, scarily, it managed to get politicians dancing, spurring some very awkward shuffling by certain members of the ALP after Paul Keating’s famous “victory for the true believers” in 1993. I’m sure there’s incriminating evidence of Ros Kelly and Gareth “Gareth” Evans out there somewhere. But buried under the Filthy Lucre dance remix is a great song sung in both English and Yolgnu/Matha, written by Mandawuy Yunupingu with help from Paul Kelly and Peter Garrett. It was the first song by a predominantly Aboriginal band to chart in Australia (reaching number 11), and peaked at number six on the Billboard dance charts in the US. In 2009, the song was added to the National Film and Sound Archive.

29. DADDY COOL – Eagle Rock (1971)

I’m nowhere near as crazy about this song as those who routinely put it in the top 10 of these kinds of lists (APRA had it right up there at number two, behind Friday On My Mind), but I’m not about to deny its charms either, from Ross Wilson’s opening exclamation “NOW LISTEN!” down. Word is that Sir Elton John was so inspired by the song after an Australian tour that he wrote Crocodile Rock in response. It’s also considered traditional at the University of Queensland to drop your daks when it’s played on the local campus bars. Maybe that’s why it, too, is in the National Film and Sound Archive. You just can’t argue with that level of cultural significance, can you?

28. RADIO BIRDMAN – Descent Into The Maelstrom (1977)

Ann Arbor, Michigan native Deniz Tek isn’t solely responsible for bringing the Detroit rock action of the MC5 and the Stooges to Australia when he founded Radio Birdman as a medical student in Sydney in the mid 1970s – there were many other record collectors who had already picked up on it, not least a guitarist from Brisbane called Edmund Kuepper. But Tek still deserves a huge amount of credit. This song, for me, is their finest four minutes. It’s pure excitement, from the rolling thunder of Ron Keeley’s opening drum salvos to Rob Younger’s adrenalised vocals, telling a Tek tale about a surfer dragged out to sea. It’s a pretty good metaphor for the song itself: you think you can ride this monster wave, then Tek’s extended pipeline lead break sucks you under. (Check out the video – half the audience at the Marryatville Hotel in Adelaide is going bonkers, while others can be seen covering their ears!)

27. EDDY CURRENT SUPPRESSION RING – Which Way To Go (2008)

There’s something about Eddy Current Suppression Ring that reminds me, inescapably, of Midnight Oil. Like Peter Garrett, Brendan Huntley really can’t sing. Nonetheless, he’s a great frontman, with a unique dance step to boot. And like the Oils, each member of Eddy Current perfectly complements the other. You won’t get a better example of their chemistry than this seamlessly constructed song, where the bass carries most of the melody, the guitar adds texture (until Mikey Young drops in the most exquisitely logical of solos) and the drumming matches Huntley for urgency. There’s something both universal and comic about the singer’s inability to make up his mind, and the fact that he can barely keep time with a band that’s otherwise in perfect lock-step somehow only adds to the charm.

26. KYLIE MINOGUE – Can’t Get You Out Of My Head (2001)

Like Which Way To Go, the beautiful symmetry of this song’s arrangement is the key. Like Giorgio Moroder’s production on Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, its strength is its minimalism, reducing dance music to a pulsebeat. At just the right tempo, with just the right amount of melody, and a lyric that seems to be about pop music itself, it’s a song that lives up to its name – but in that good way.

25. THE AVALANCHES – Since I Left You (2000)

A sound collage composed entirely from samples, it’s hard now to divorce this song from its iconic accompanying video – a story of two trapped coal miners which perfectly captured this wistful song’s odd, ineffable beauty. But it still works a treat on its own. Moving away from the late 1990s Big Beat electronica/plunderphonics of the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, the sound of Since I Left You is gentle and nostalgic, conjuring the Beach Boys and obscure French pop records. The song reached number 16 in the UK charts, with the album of the same name featuring high up on end-of-year (and end-of-decade) lists around the world. Oz rock didn’t end here, but Since I Left You finally forced the local industry to recognise dance music’s artistic legitimacy.

24. GOD – My Pal (1988)

Teenager Joel Silbersher had this song’s circular five-note riff in his head for years before one day, in the shower, the lyric came in a rush: “You’re my only friend / You don’t even like me!” Recorded when most of the band were 17 (the video above captures Silbersher with braces still on his teeth), My Pal was GOD’s first single, and it was such a towering feat that, unfortunately, it overshadowed everything else they ever did. Tim Hemensley joined Bored! before going on to form the mighty Powder Monkeys; he died in 2003. Guitarist Sean Greenway, who went on to the Freeloaders and Yes Men, died in 2001. Both barely made it out of their 20s.

23. ICEHOUSE – Great Southern Land (1982)

Iva Davies has always sounded like a poor man’s David Bowie to me, but this song still puts me under a spell wherever I happen to hear it. Like some Antipodean Born In The USA, it’s often mistaken for a cheesy patriotic anthem, but in actuality it’s no more nationalistic than any of Sidney Nolan or Russell Drysdale’s more nightmarish landscapes. Perfectly paced and executed, Great Southern Land’s sparse arrangement and echoing vocals add to the impression of vast, empty space, giving the track a panoramic feel. A few years later, the Triffids’ Wide Open Road replicated this song’s single-note, droning keyboard intro to similar effect.

22. INXS – Original Sin (1984)

For INXS, this was the track that launched them from Australia’s beer barns onto the world stage. Produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, it’s a muscular funk track, underpinned by Andrew Farriss’ opening keyboard hook and with Michael Hutchence’s voice at its best – his falsetto leap at 3.12 remains startling and spine-chilling. This is a song where every part serves the whole, right down to Kirk Pengilly’s excellent closing saxophone break. Check the video for the best collection of mullets the 1980s ever tossed up.

21. NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS – The Mercy Seat (1988)

In a word: epic. Nick Cave’s tale of a man facing the electric chair for a crime of which he’s “nearly wholly innocent, you know” is his Like A Rolling Stone, tackling the big questions: life, death, good, evil, truth, guilt and innocence. Sonically, it’s an overpowering assault: leading off the album Tender Prey, the song is seven minutes plus; the single is more powerful for being slightly condensed. Later covered by Johnny Cash, leading Cave to proclaim something along the lines of “Johnny Cash has covered one of my songs, so the rest of you can fuck off.” Fair enough.