The pioneering legacy of No Fixed Address

Picture the scene. It’s 1982 and Australia’s future prime minister Bob Hawke – then the shadow minister for industrial relations – has accepted an invitation to launch a mini-album by an emerging Indigenous rock-reggae band called No Fixed Address. Hawke’s daughters are fans, and he recognises the importance of both the release and the symbolic gesture of a white politician endorsing it. There’s just one sticking point: the final song is called Pigs.

They’re always on the move

They call them the boys in blue

They’ll kick you in the head

Until they leave you dead

It is difficult to imagine even the current prime minister – a self-confessed music tragic – launching such a provocative release today. But Hawke goes ahead with it, saying the album is great – “but that’s not to say that every man and woman in blue is a thorough bastard”. The band’s drummer and leader, Bart Willoughby, turns around. “Yeah, there are good police out there – we just haven’t met any yet,” he shoots back.

The story of this radical group is told in a new book of the same name by Donald Robertson; on the back cover, Goanna’s Shane Howard describes No Fixed Address as “the tip of the spear” that plunged into the dead heart of middle Australia. As a story, it’s got everything – starting with a fiery truck crash on the Nullarbor Plain while the band were returning from an ill-fated trip to Perth in 1982.

But Robertson – an early supporter and the former editor of Australian rock magazine Roadrunner – says No Fixed Address were for too long overlooked. “They were the first Aboriginal band that I’d seen,” he says, “and in some ways No Fixed Address opened doors [for] other performers like Warumpi Band, Yothu Yindi, Archie Roach and Kev Carmody.”

No Fixed Address formed at the South Australian Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) in the late 1970s. Willoughby, a Pitjantjatjara man, grew up on Koonibba mission west of Ceduna. Lead guitarist Les Graham and saxophonist Veronica Rankine are Ngarrindjeri, from the state’s south-east; bassist John John Miller was from Port Lincoln. Graham recruited Kurnai man Ricky Harrison – author of Pigs – from Morwell in Victoria.

More than four decades later, these are difficult times for the group. Harrison’s cousin Nicky Moffatt, who replaced Miller on bass, died suddenly on 28 April, at the age of 59. Graham is in hospital in Adelaide with a chronic illness. Before being interviewed by Guardian Australia, Willoughby was also in hospital; later, he was readmitted with a throat infection, forcing the cancellation of a planned performance to celebrate the launch of Robertson’s book.

Despite releasing barely an album’s worth of material across 1981–1982, No Fixed Address left a heavy cultural footprint. They were the first Indigenous band to play Countdown and the first to tour overseas (to the UK in 1984, then behind the iron curtain in 1988, in a rare visit initiated by the Soviet Union). In Australia they toured relentlessly, playing with Cold Chisel, the Clash, Ian Dury and ex-Wailer Peter Tosh.

They were also the subject of two films, Wrong Side Of The Road and a documentary of their UK tour. Wrong Side Of The Road won the jury prize at the AFI awards (forerunner to the AACTA awards) in 1981, beating the overall winner, Gallipoli. An unnerving piece of cinéma-vérité, it juxtaposed performances by No Fixed Address and another Indigenous band, Us Mob, with footage of police harassment and unvarnished racism.

Appearing on Countdown in October 1982, announcer Gavin Wood introduced them as “the most controversial band in Australia”. But the show’s guest host, Tina Turner, thought they were the best. “She was a beautiful survivor,” Willoughby remembers. “To be in the presence of a power like that was uplifting. I remember her saying, ‘Go for it, boys!’”

CASM was where they were introduced to reggae. “Bob Marley was the only one that made me dance, and I can’t dance for shit,” says Willoughby. “It was very hard back in 1979, 1980 because there was a lot of strict rules in how you were supposed to play music in Australia.” At the time, the pub rock circuit was ruled by hard rock. Harrison says, more bluntly: “We held true to reggae, because playing straight rock & roll was so boring.”

No Fixed Address’s brand of reggae was as righteous and militant as anything made by the early Wailers. Harrison’s songs were especially direct, but it was Willoughby’s We Have Survived, which he wrote when he was 18, that became the band’s signature, as well as an anthem of the land rights movement in the 80s. “Did I know what I was doing? No, I was just feeling my way – but it looks like I was getting it right at the beginning,” he says.

Willoughby is a member of the Stolen Generations; before studying at CASM, he was institutionalised with other boys. We Have Survived came directly from that experience. “I was a good storyteller, I’ve been telling stories since I was a kid, to other kids,” he says. “I used to tell them stories in the dormitory, and they’d all fall asleep. I’d think about what I’d dream about, and it would happen.”

We have survived the white man’s world

And the horror and the torment of it all

We have survived the white man’s world

And you know you can’t change that

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