Books, Non-Fiction

The story of the tour into Australia’s heart that shaped Midnight Oil

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Strict Rules, The Iconic Story of the Tour that Shaped Midnight Oil (Hachette Australia) by journalist Andrew McMillan details the 1986 tour when Midnight Oil joined the Warumpi Band to play music in remote Aboriginal communities. It was the tour that changed Midnight Oil forever and sparked the creation of the song ‘Beds Are Burning’. McMillan was on the tour with the band. The first chapter of the book is extracted below with permission of Hachette Australia. 

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We bailed out of Sydney at dawn, flying west over the mountains and drifting across the plains, touching down outside Bourke to refuel and again in Birdsville for more Av-gas and beer. Strapped into a string of light aircraft we chased the sun across the driest continent on the planet and still didn’t see Alice ’til dusk. Keyed up like schoolkids on the eve of a summer camp, we were embarking on a tour that had never been tackled before. We were heading into an ancient land where tribal law stood at odds with the modern world.

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 1788 tall ships arrived on the coast almost 1700 kilometres to the south-east, and using the legal fiction that the continent was uninhabited, white settlers claimed sovereign title to the land. The continent they’d claimed in the name of King George III was, unbeknown to the newcomers, criss-crossed with Dreaming tracks, the paths taken by the ancestral beings that had created the land and the lore. With extraordinary speed, the newcomers built dreaming tracks of their own: a network of roads and bridges and railway-lines linking their cities and farms and towns and mines.

For almost a century, the Aranda and their neighbours remained blissfully unaware of such developments. They wandered from rock-hole to rock-hole, hunting kangaroo and possum and goanna, and gathering bush tomato, sweet potato and bush banana. They travelled and camped in extended family groups and maintained a complex social order, observing the responsibilities of a complicated kinship system and ‘looking after’ the country in which they roamed. They burnt patches of land every few years to promote regeneration, and set aside conservation zones around their sacred sites, decreeing that even in the driest seasons the animals and plants within those areas were not to be harmed. Theirs was, the anthropologists now argue, part of the oldest existing culture in the world.

From the outset, the Oils had been different. Eschewing the clichéd excesses of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, they’d developed a low-key but strict code of behaviour.

In the 1860s, the newcomers moved into the region, fencing off the waterholes, clearing tracts of land and introducing horses and cattle and goats to keep themselves alive. They shot out the roos and the emus that were eating the vegetation and chased the Aborigines away from their sacred sites. In their ignorance, the pastoralists rearranged the physical face of the land, altering the delicate balance of an ecology that had been nurtured for thousands of years.

In the 1870s, a telegraph station was established within sight of the Macdonnell Ranges. It was built above a waterhole the newcomers called Alice Springs. Jammed up against a pass known as Heavitree Gap, Alice sprawls along the sandy bed of the Todd, a watercourse that’s inundated so rarely that the annual boat race is conducted on foot.

Corrugated iron glints in the noonday sun, four-wheel-drive Toyotas hum on the tar and vacancy signs peel in the heat. Alice is, the tour operators will tell you, a couple of days’ drive from the nearest beach. If you’re an asthmatic, it’s an ideal place to dry out. The Alice averages less than 250 millimetres of rain a year, which is hardly enough to settle the dust. It’s so dry that in summer, when the thermometer gets up around 42 degrees Centigrade in the shade, even the crows take an hour or two for siddown time. The town itself is a small one, with a population of just 23,000. Many of the people are public servants; others seek to make a living from the tourist trade. Like any bureaucratic country town, its social life revolves around interdepartmental rivalries and factional groupings. Everyone seems to know everybody else’s business, and the range of social opportunities is limited. Life is so slow, it is said, that the town’s inhabitants will accept you as a local just as soon as you’ve seen the Todd flow three times. Not that there are too many people who want to pack their bags and move into a town like Alice.

There’s a feeling that the newcomers are still afraid of the country they’ve conquered; that they feel belittled by its emptiness, disturbed by its isolation, and suspicious of its original inhabitants who’ve survived in its harsh environment and learned to live in harmony with the land the newcomers are still trying to tame. Since the earliest days of the Flying Doctor, Alice has held a special place in the hearts of urban Australians. The popular image has been of an outpost, a wild frontier town full of rough diamonds pitting themselves against the rigours of life in the outback: tall, bronzed men driving herds of cattle to the rail-head, hoary old Afghan camel drivers saddling up for another expedition, and drunken blacks sleeping it off in the bed of the Todd.

The first time the hitch-hiker saw Alice was in the late winter of 1978. Slipping out of the desert, the town swam through the grimy tinted windows of a Greyhound at dawn. He’d been on the bus out of Darwin for twenty-three hours, a trip that had drained his last 55 bucks. If he’d had the sense to check the weather reports, he never would’ve climbed aboard. Far better to have stayed on the tropical beaches of Darwin for another month or two and then made a run for it just before the Wet. In Alice it was minus 6 degrees and the mercury hadn’t yet bottomed out.

In the kit he had neither jumpers nor a jacket, just grubby shirts, a stack of paperbacks and the badly distorted recording of a new Sydney band called Midnight Oil. (On the road outside Charters Towers, a Queensland cop, with an air of childlike curiosity, had unravelled the cassette, dribbling shiny streamers of tape into the dust while he watched the wheels go round.)

It was Rodeo Week when he arrived, and the town was bustling with gaudily clad tourists and black stockmen in from the sprawling pastoral leases of the Centre. He’d never seen so many Aborigines before. Spilling out of the parks and the pubs in boots that squeaked on the tar, the stockmen would yell ‘Gidday’ to everyone they met, flashing broad grins beneath even broader brimmed hats. Rolling down the footpaths, they chatted and laughed and sang along to the music that leaked into the cool dry air. The loud speakers along Todd Street crackled with Elvis and Slim Dusty and Ted Egan, but mostly Elvis, his voice blistering around the edges, thin and wasted as if it was coming out of the rusty depths of a 44-gallon drum being hammered by sheets of rain.

Alice was a low-slung town then, a slow place with dusty streets and noisy bars. The cars had Commonwealth plates and roo bars and a sun-baked veneer of fine red dust. And those that weren’t so attired had left-hand-drive signs across the rear dash – big Yank tanks shipped in for the American intelligence personnel working beneath the radomes of Pine Gap.

By 1986, Alice had lost much of its outback charm. The population had almost doubled, a set of traffic lights had been installed, and what the termites hadn’t eaten the developers had bulldozed in the hunt for the tourist dollar. Fuelled by speculation that hordes of international visitors would descend on the Centre to view the passing of Halley’s Comet, the town had succumbed to a building boom. But by the time the comet had passed, many of the flash new motels had gone to the wall.

Despite the frenzied construction of multi-storey carparks and motels, Alice was still a sleepy place. Even something as disruptive as a police road-block at Heavitree Gap, which brought much of the town’s traffic system to a standstill, could escape the attention of the local media for a week or more.

Just a block from the GPO on Railway Terrace, you can scamper through the spinifex and the shattered footloose stones that grip the sides of Anzac Hill. At the lookout, you can join busloads of Japanese tourists taking in the panorama of lunchbox supermarkets, caravan parks, corrugated-iron workshops and pressed-metal fences. You can see the brick and fibro houses with air-conditioning units that bubble from their walls and roofs like warts. You can see the garish signs of the video stores and the gnarled trunks of the river red-gums hanging over the Todd. You can gaze in the direction of the town camps like Ewyenper-Atwatye, Yarrentye-Arltere and Aper-Alwerrknge – fringe settlements where the original inhabitants of the region, deprived of their traditional lands or attracted by the booze, now reside. You can look out over the golf courses and the casino and up to the treacherous bluffs of the Macdonnells. Beyond that lies the desert.

What is missing at the moment is an account of where we go from here. It may be that the present scenario is that of a people waiting for the barbarians. It may be that already some group has been out into the desert, and is about to come back with a message. But what that message will be, no one at the moment is even daring to guess.

Midnight Oil hadn’t spent much time in the desert. A powerful rock ’n’ roll band who, according to Mark Morgue of RAM magazine, ‘occupy a critical and central position as the most widely heard radical voice for young people in Australia’, they’d drawn their earliest support from the ranks of Sydney’s beachside surf culture.

Their lyrics had always had a political edge, but instead of just singing about the issues that affected them, the Oils sought solutions and backed up the rhetoric with irrefutable deeds.

They’d been around for about nine years, and in that time had transcended the boundaries of what could reasonably be expected from a bunch of rock ’n’ rollers.

From the outset, the Oils had been different. Eschewing the clichéd excesses of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, they’d developed a low-key but strict code of behaviour. While many of their contemporaries were burning themselves out in two or three years, the Oils seemed to be working to a long-term plan. Circumstances changed, opportunities arose, tactics were altered and the Oils rolled on. They maintained a low and private profile, working behind the scenes in setting things up and appearing only when they considered the contribution to be valid. And when the chits came down, they were arguably the cleanest outfit in the country.

Even as an almost unknown band, they’d steadfastly refused to play the music industry’s game. In order to break the monopoly of the established booking agencies, they booked their own gigs and blacklisted venues with heavy bouncers or high prices. They wouldn’t launch their records with extravagant media receptions and refused to appear on ‘Countdown’, the country’s most influential rock television show.

When a Sydney pub barred patrons wearing t-shirts, the band bought hundreds of collared surf shirts and gave them away at the door. The no t-shirts rule was subsequently revoked. They gave up their time and resources to play in a women’s prison on New Year’s Eve and to stage regular benefit concerts that drew attention to the issues they’d investigated. They rejected the efforts of international record companies to tame the political and overwhelmingly Australian nature of their lyrics. They turned down an offer of 70,000 dollars to play at an outdoor festival because the promoters wouldn’t give a percentage of the gate takings to a project aimed at providing musical facilities for the unemployed of Sydney’s western suburbs.

They were an ’80s band with a social conscience, an enigma in an era in which so much pop music was devoid of integrity, in which bands were manufactured and moulded for a market. By the winter of 1986, they’d sold over a million records in a country with a population just sixteen times that number.

The reason for their popularity, of course, was that they were an incredibly dynamic band. Their shows were wild and noisy affairs, bristling with tension, excitement, and an exhilarating sense of power. Their lyrics had always had a political edge, but instead of just singing about the issues that affected them, the Oils sought solutions and backed up the rhetoric with irrefutable deeds.

Through their fans, Midnight Oil was funding refuges for the homeless, rehabilitation centres and projects for the unemployed.

‘There’s a feeling in Midnight Oil,’ said their singer Peter Garrett in a 1985 interview, ‘that the band should be involved in doing these things, or lending itself to doing these things, that it should not be unaware. There’s a feeling that to have the kind of audience and long-term success that this band has had is a privilege: it’s not a right. And I believe that with that privilege comes certain responsibilities, which is to give as good as you’ve got according to your view and your vision and the sort of things that you’ve been singing about. And Midnight Oil would be a bunch of hypocrites if it didn’t jump up on its box and preach and also didn’t give out the money now. You can’t preach it and then not deliver the goods.’

Described by one journalist as ‘a one-band community service organisation’, they’d raised, by 1986, around a million dollars for those causes in which they’d developed a passionate interest. Through their fans, Midnight Oil was funding refuges for the homeless, rehabilitation centres and projects for the unemployed. They were supporting anti-nuclear campaigns, non-political peace and disarmament activities and drawing attention to environmental and conservation issues.

In late 1985, for instance, they released the EP Species Deceases. It sold 50,000 copies in two days and debuted on the national singles charts at number 1. All royalties were channelled into a trust fund for peace and disarmament activities. Coinciding with the release of the EP, the band embarked on a twenty-five date national tour that saw them performing before 130,000 fans. Profits from the sale of t-shirts, singlets and badges (90,000 dollars in all) were given to the Open Family Foundation in Melbourne for distribution to band-selected youth refuges throughout the country. The tour ended with a Wilderness Society benefit in front of 13,000 people at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. The proceeds from that show were used to finance Islands of the Green Dinosaurs, a film focusing on North Queensland rainforests that had been threatened with destruction.

The Oils’ unparalleled profile didn’t go unnoticed by the Federal Labor government. In early 1986, Garrett, a law graduate and former Senate candidate, was appointed to the committee examining the ‘Individual and Democratic Rights of Australians under the Nation’s Constitution’.

‘We’re providing the signposts the politicians aren’t providing,’ said the vocalist. ‘We’re showing kids where to put their feet.’ It was getting to the point where almost anything Midnight Oil involved itself in was guaranteed to attract some degree of national attention.

Even when their activities were centred on some place like Alice . . .

Alice Springs is so far removed from mainstream Australia that it’s more likely to host a press conference for the opening of a new car yard than the arrival of a visiting rock band. For Midnight Oil, an exception was made.

It was the first weekend in July, 1986, and the Oils were about to embark on a tour unlike any ever attempted by a white band; a tour that would see them visiting Aboriginal communities like Mutitjulu, Docker River, Kintore, Papunya and Yuendumu in the Western Desert, and Maningrida, Galiwinku, Yirrkala, Umbakumba, Numbulwar, Barunga, Wadeye and Nguiu in the subtropical wetlands of the Top End.

They were setting out on a trip that would, they hoped, ‘promote closer ties between black and white Australians’, and enable them to gain ‘a better understanding of [Aboriginal] communities’ needs, aspirations and lifestyles’.

The saga of the Warumpi Band’s on-again off-again career was littered with tales of tours that had failed to eventuate, with stories of the pressures felt by an Aboriginal band trying to make an impression with the whitefellas’ music.

Shortly before 4 pm (Central Standard Time) media representatives from around the country rolled into the Oasis Motel on Gap Road and set up their equipment. News crews from the radio and television divisions of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation planted their microphones in front of the potted palms. The Centralian Advocate sent a reporter to feed the wire services. The Melbourne Age flew in a journalist and a photographer. And the ABC’s documentaries department was represented by a four-man crew from A Big Country.

Amidst the tape-recorders, cameras and television lights lay copies of a press release issued twenty-four hours earlier by the Federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs:

Popular Australian recording groups Midnight Oil and the Warumpi Band leave today to begin an historic tour of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Announcing this today, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Clyde Holding, said he congratulated Midnight Oil on organising the tour.

‘The Government, through the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, was delighted to join with Midnight Oil and the Warumpi Band in facilitating the tour,’ Mr Holding said. ‘Thousands of people in remote Northern Territory communities will now be able to see, for the first time, live performances by Midnight Oil and the Warumpi bands.

‘But apart from the music, Midnight Oil want the tour to be a bridge-building exercise for Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal Australians. The group has already expressed its wish to help expand community understanding of Aboriginal aspirations.

‘Midnight Oil is itself meeting a considerable component of the tour’s cost, with assistance from my Department under its Public Awareness Program.’

Behind the microphones, peering into the glare of the television lights, sat two members of the band.

The first thing that strikes you about Peter Garrett is his enormous height. Then you’re caught by the clear blue eyes, the gaunt features, and maybe the way the top of his left ear sweeps up towards a point. He shaved his head in 1976 or 1977, either because of a scalp irritation or because, as a keen bodysurfer, he was tired of his long blond hair flicking into his eyes. The reasons have never been fully explained because, as far as he’s concerned, ‘it’s not an issue.’

He’s got such a striking presence that people who, having written him off as a publicity-seeking crank, see him interviewed on television and remark on the honesty in his face, the openness of his body language, and the sense of conviction with which he speaks.

He’s one of the most commanding speakers in the country, and when he’s firing in debate you almost feel sorry for his adversaries. (After a series of exchanges over the Australia Card in 1987, television critic Peter Luck was moved to describe Garrett’s opponent, Senator Susan Ryan, as ‘the Government’s sacrificial anode. She’s like a canary in a coal mine . . . they send her in to see whether she comes out alive or not.’)

In Alice, Garrett was in his fireside-chat mode:

‘I’m Peter Garrett and this is Rob Hirst. We’re from Midnight Oil. We’re talking to you today, basically, to let you know what we’re doing over the next three weeks.

‘We feel that if we’re going to truly reflect feelings and issues and matters which are of concern to Australians and are part of the Australian ethos in 1986, then we need to go out there and see them first-hand and be a part of it, if you like.

‘We’re less inclined to believe what we read and what we see on the box than we are to go out and experience first-hand, and I think that Midnight Oil’s always had a direct relationship with the people that it’s played to anyway.

‘These people out here won’t often get an opportunity to hear or see a band like this, so one way of actually overcoming that is to lob in that area, in the backyard, so to speak, and do it.’

The backyard of which Garrett spoke is a big one. The Northern Territory covers 1,346,200 square kilometres and supports a population of just 130,000, 25 per cent of whom are Aborigines. Since the introduction of the Land Rights Act (NT) of 1976, Aborigines have been granted inalienable freehold title to almost 35 per cent of the Territory: 19.72 per cent was transferred from the existing Aboriginal reserves and the other 14.35 per cent was Crown land that has been successfully claimed under the terms of the Act. The Land Rights Act, introduced by the Whitlam Labor Government and enacted by Fraser’s Liberal regime, was a radical piece of legislation, allowing Aborigines to claim Crown land from which they’d been dispossessed by the white settlers.

When claiming land, Aboriginal people have to produce evidence of their connection with the land. That involves tracing their tribal ancestry back to before the coming of the Europeans, pointing out their sacred sites and explaining their significance, repeating the songs and the stories that show their spiritual attachment to a particular piece of country, and outlining the tribal bonds, customs and beliefs that link them with that land. If successful, they win inalienable freehold title to the land, which means that while Aboriginal people can lease their land out for mining or pastoral activities, they can never sell it. Controlled by the Federal government (as opposed to an autonomous State government) the Northern Territory is, at the time of writing, the only place in the country in which Aboriginal people have been given such an opportunity.

Although aspects of their participation in whitefella society were governed and, at times, restricted by traditional Aboriginal values, the Warumpis were using the whitefella medium of rock music to address problems within their own society.

In 1983, the Hawke Labor Government was elected on a platform that included the promise that laws would be introduced allowing Aborigines in other parts of the country to lodge similar claims. Clyde Holding, Hawke’s first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, had proposed a five-point package for uniform national Land Rights legislation: inalienable freehold title; protection of sacred sites; Aboriginal control over mining; access to mining royalty equivalents; and negotiated compensation for lost land. That proposal, however, was bitterly opposed by the giant mining companies and a number of the State governments, including those of Holding’s political persuasion. As a result, the Hawke Government, much to Holding’s discomfort, put the Land Rights issue on the backburner.

Frustrated, Holding recognised the need to overcome the anti- Land Rights propaganda campaigns being mounted by the mining companies. Surveys conducted for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs by Australian National Opinion Polls showed that some of the strongest support for Land Rights rested with the under 25s. Holding felt the need to mobilise that support, hence the connection with Midnight Oil.

The Oils had long been supportive of Land Rights, of the need to recognise that land had been taken away from the Aboriginal people, though their raising of Aboriginal issues had been limited to a couple of songs (‘Kosciusko’ and ‘Jimmy Sharman’s Boxers’ from Red Sails In The Sunset), and a few statements by Peter Garrett reflecting the view that white Australians didn’t own the land and that the question of Aboriginal sovereignty needed to be addressed. In 1983 the band had their first contact with a tribal community when they were invited to perform in an Aboriginal settlement in eastern Arnhem Land. It was an experience that had a profound effect on the band and led to their interest in doing more shows of a similar nature.

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Two years later, a couple of heavyweight promoters from Melbourne started checking out the feasibility of staging a massive televised concert at Uluru (Ayers Rock). The concert, with an international satellite link-up, would coincide with the passing of Halley’s Comet. Among the acts they hoped to attract were Dire Straits, Sting and Midnight Oil.

When the Oils’ manager, 29-year-old Gary Morris, wasapproached, he sought the opinion of Aboriginal Arts Board director Gary Foley. Foley told him to can the proposal. If the Oils wanted to do something, said Foley, they should do it in conjunction with the relevant Aboriginal community – the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people of Mutitjulu.

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Keen to at least get the ball rolling for the Oils, Morris flew to Alice Springs for meetings with the Central Land Council and then headed to Uluru to meet with the community elders. At the time, the Mutitjulu community, with the assistance of Film Australia, was working on Uluru, An Anangu Story, a film celebrating the return of Uluru to its traditional owners. Perhaps, the community’s representatives suggested, the Oils would like to write a song for the soundtrack.

Morris returned to Sydney and the Oils wrote, recorded and submitted ‘The Dead Heart’, ‘Beds Are Burning’ and ‘40,000 Years Come Home’. ‘The Dead Heart’ was accepted for the soundtrack and the idea of the Oils embarking on a desert tour was floated. After further meetings with Foley, during which the idea of a tour was discussed, Morris met with Clyde Holding in Canberra and put forward the tour proposal. Holding, seeing merit in the idea of getting the Oils involved in the Land Rights debate, asked for a budget and requested a meeting with Peter Garrett.

The budget, for a tour of remote communities in which Midnight Oil could gain first-hand knowledge of the aims, aspirations and lifestyles of Aboriginal people who were living on their traditional tribal lands, came in at 85,000 dollars. Holding took the money from his department’s Public Awareness Program and loaned it to the Oils. (By November 1987, 26,000 dollars had been repaid through royalties from the Oils’ single, ‘The Dead Heart’.) The Aboriginal Arts Board contributed a further 15,000 dollars so the (predominantly Aboriginal) Warumpi Band could join the tour.

In order to televise the tour, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation set aside another small fortune so that the film crew from ‘A Big Country’ could accompany the bands. The Melbourne Age also spent 8,000 dollars to cover the costs of getting a journalist and a photographer to join the expedition.

‘In some ways,’ Neil Murray would concede, ‘I guess the other guys in the (Warumpi) band are really politically naive, in terms of the overall Australian thing; that doesn’t take away from the fact that they can grasp very quickly the issues and things and also make a statement about them, which happened a few times in Sydney.’ As the Warumpi Band’s guitarist, co-lead singer and principal songwriter, it was Neil who could claim much of the credit for that success the group had enjoyed.

The predominantly Aboriginal band had initially come to the attention of urban rockers in late 1983 with the independent release of their debut single, ‘Jailanguru Pakarnu’ (Out From Jail). Recorded in Alice Springs and produced by the Warumpis and the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA), it was the first rock 45 to have been recorded in an Aboriginal language. Midnight Oil had invited the Warumpis to Sydney on a couple of occasions, giving them the opportunity to play in front of large audiences they would not have otherwise reached. Now, as the Warumpis saw it, they were returning the favour by giving the Oils a chance to perform before small audiences that had never seen a white rock ’n’ roll band before.

Coming out of Papunya, the Warumpis were essentially a settlement band struggling for recognition; recognition that only Neil Murray and the band’s manager, David Cooke, seemed overtly concerned about. Murray and Cooke were whites from the east coast who’d reaped the benefits of reasonable schooling and, in different capacities initially, had moved into the desert to work with Aboriginal people.

The rest of the band, conversant in English only as a second or third language, had, like the vast majority of Australian blacks, been poorly served by the non-Aboriginal education system. The Warumpis’ financial position was reflected succinctly in the title of their first album, Big Name No Blankets, and their first single, ‘Jailanguru Pakarnu’, stands as testament to their familiarity with the rigours of incarceration.*

When they weren’t touring, they took jobs driving graders and mending fences, and loved nothing better than heaping hot coals over a freshly killed goanna.

The saga of their on-again off-again career was littered with tales of tours that had failed to eventuate, with stories of the pressures felt by an Aboriginal band trying to make an impression with the whitefellas’ music. The conflicts were of a variety that no city-based rock ‘n’ roller would ever comprehend: conflicts between the old ways and the new, between the traditional teachings of the Dreaming and those of Christianity, between the priorities of family life and those brought on by spending weeks or months on the road.

Despite their familiarity with such trappings of the modern world as electric guitars, videos and discs, the Warmups were still deeply influenced by ancient cultural traditions; traditions that were destined to affect the Blackfella-Whitefella Tour even in such day-to-day things as calling someone’s name. Under the laws of Aboriginal culture in the Northern Territory† when a person dies his or her name cannot be mentioned for at least a year. To mention a dead person’s name, it is believed, is to disturb that person’s spirit when it is in the process of returning, to the place of its Dreaming. In respect of that belief, in Central Australia all other people going by the same name are referred to as Kumanjayi or No Name.

Consequently, because the Warumpis’ singer, George Rurrambu 11 Burrarrawanga, shared the same Christian name as Sammy and Gordon Tjapanangka Butcher’s father, who ‘finished up’ around the time the tour was announced, he was to be called Kumanjayi or Rurrambu.

It was a custom that David Cooke first found out about when Neil Murray introduced him to the other members of the band as ‘Cookie’. When the newcomer tried to explain that he preferred being called David, he was quickly silenced. A man from Papaya called David had died, and out of respect for the dead the Warumpis have never addressed Cookie by his Christian name.

Although aspects of their participation in whitefella society were governed and, at times, restricted by traditional Aboriginal values, the Warumpis were using the whitefella medium of rock music to address problems within their own society. In songs like ‘Wima Juta’ (All the Kids) they sang, in the Luritja dialect, of the need to ensure that children were given an adequate, nutritious diet: Mangarni tjukarrurru ngalkunytjaku, (Should eat good food)/ Ngalkura tinarringkunytjaku miinta wiya, (to grow up without sickness)/Yuwara wiima tjuta mangarri tjukarurru, (If you give the kids)/ Palunyangurunya tjana palya nyinanytjaku, (proper food they will live healthy).

They used their own language within a Western rock format to highlight the benefits of people like the Pintupi returning to their traditional lands (‘Kintorelakutu’) and to emphasise the problemsassociated with the abuse of alcohol (‘Nyuntu Nyaaltjirriku’). Throughout their homelands of the Western Desert, people responded enthusiastically to the fact that the Warumpis were making it in the white man’s world. And in Alice Springs they were immensely popular.

On the eve of the Blackfella-Whitefella Tour, just hours after the Oils had held their press conference, the Warumpis took to the stage at Bazzo’s Farm, a town camp on the outskirts of Alice, to headline a show that had been organised as a major part of the ‘Beat the Grog’ campaign.

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Initiated by CAAMA, the Beat the Grog campaign was essentially an educational exercise aimed at fostering awareness among the Aboriginal community of the problems brought on by alcohol abuse. In a town that was once swamped by images of drunken blacks bottling each other with flagons in the sandy bed of the Todd, it’s a vital and successful campaign, which thrives on the high-profile support of acts like the Warumpi Band.

Throughout Alice, the streets were festooned with handcoloured,
photocopied posters:

WARUMPI BAND
Ilkari Maru & Isaac Yama
presented by
Beat The Grog

The venue for the performance was a makeshift stage that bounced all over the place and, as the band chopped through songs like ‘Breadline’, smoke billowed from the surrounding fires. Held beneath the clear desert skies, it was an open-air show that had attracted a thousand people, the sort of audience for whom the Warumpis rarely get to perform.

The Warumpis’ singer, Kumanjayi Rurrambu, was a skinny Top Ender from Elcho Island, a delightful spot off the coast of Arnhem Land. He’d studied linguistics at Batchelor College, met his wife Suzina and moved to the desert in the late 1970s. But in the desert he was, literally, like a fish out of water. He never really fitted in. He was older than anyone else in the band, but he hadn’t been through the necessary rituals of initiation to become a wati, or man, and would never, therefore, command the respect of the desert.

His idol was Little Richard and he wanted desperately to be a star. He had it in him, too. He had a way with women and could charm the socks off anyone who might help him up the ladder. And unlike his desert-bred compatriots, he loved to show off, to wear loud shirts and gyrate his hips on stage. In that regard he was the perfect foil for the other members of the band, who were so shy they’d rarely move on stage, preferring to fade into anonymity and the darkness of their amplifiers.

If it hadn’t been for Neil Murray, it’s unlikely that anyone outside the communities of the Western Desert would ever have heard of the Warumpi Band.

Out front, under the lights at Bazzo’s Farm, Rurrambu is in his element. He’s wearing a synthetic black jacket decorated with red and yellow bands across the chest. Of all the blokes who’ve passed through the band, he’s most keenly aware of the symbolism of the Land Rights struggle, wearing jeans patched with Aboriginal flags and t-shirts with a similar motif. He has wavy, shoulder-length black hair and the beginnings of a moustache. And despite the cold, he’s cutting loose. His wife never comes to the shows in Alice because, as Cookie once said, ‘If she did he’d get embarrassed and wouldn’t do any pelvic thrusts or anything like that. He’d just sort of stand there.’

Behind Rurrambu, with his back to the audience and his ear to the amps, stands Sammy Butcher. He’s wearing a Papunya‘Warriors’ windcheater in the home-team colours of green and gold, and his playing is, as always, inspired.

Sammy, like his brother Gordon, is a fine musician, but the idea of being a professional rock ’n’ roller isn’t one that appeals. They like playing and getting paid for doing so, but neither has any ambition to be in a ‘king band’. They are happy staying close to home, getting jobs mending fences and looking after their families. Getting either of them to embark on tours, even at the best of times, is invariably a difficult proposition.

Tonight, Gordon is nowhere to be seen. Yesterday morning he bought himself a car. In the afternoon he sold it. Now, from what Cookie can gather, he’s sitting out at Haasts Bluff, 200 Ks to the west, waiting for a lift to the gig. This morning Cookie gave someone 70 dollars for fuel to go out and collect him. But as yet he hasn’t made it in and, for tonight’s show at least, his drum kit’s being handled by a whitefella from Alice. Rusty after a six-month break and trying to work around a new drummer, the band is as shaky as the makeshift stage.

The boulder-strewn ridge surrounding the stage is a stunning natural backdrop that’s been brought to life with a couple of arc lights. Hundreds of Aboriginal people – the Eastern and Western Aranda of the Alice Springs region and the Warlpiri, Luritja, Pintupi, Pitjantjatjara and people of other regional language groups who’ve come into town – stand back in the shadows. They shiver under blankets and West German army jackets, garments eagerly sought because of their red, yellow and black sleeve patches that so many people associate with the Aboriginal flag.

Cutting through ‘Blackfella-Whitefella’ and bouncing across the stage, guitarist Neil Murray, himself a recent convert to army surplus clothing, is sporting a four-day growth of ginger stubble. He’s just driven from Sydney, a journey of 3,000 kilometres, in an HQ panel van laden with guitars, a Fender twin, a 38-centimetre bass bin, his swag and a pile of luggage. Since the Warumpis’ last show, supporting Midnight Oil at a Wilderness Society benefit for the Daintree Rainforest at the Sydney Entertainment Centre in December 1985, he’s been living with a girlfriend in Elizabeth Bay, an up-market harbourside suburb of Sydney.

If it hadn’t been for Neil, it’s unlikely that anyone outside the communities of the Western Desert would ever have heard of the Warumpi Band. He grew up on a property in the Western District of Victoria, headed to Melbourne to do his teacher’s training, and ended up teaching, driving trucks and sinking bores around Papunya and Kintore. It was he who, following the band’s loose formation in 1980, introduced the whitefella concepts of touring and recording and doing things of which Aboriginal people throughout the country could be proud.

In spite of his best efforts, Murray still has his fair share of detractors. Aboriginal activist Gary Foley, for example, believes that if Neil ‘hadn’t been involved with Aboriginal people he’d probably still be strummin’ a guitar on some street corner in Alice Springs.’

Tonight, he’s got a lot on his mind. He’s about to kick off an important tour with the Oils and his drummer hasn’t turned up for the first gig. He’s going to have to work with Martin Hardie, a guy he doesn’t get along with, who’s now been appointed as the Oils’ tour manager for the Blackfella-Whitefella exercise. And to make matters worse, his nose is still tender after an argument he had with Foley before leaving Sydney.

‘And if you don’t reckon you should have a nuclear target about ten minutes’ drive away from where you live then you should come out tomorrow morning to Pine Gap on the South road and have a go with us, all right!’

While the Warumpis are playing, Midnight Oil and their Sydney entourage climb into a string of hire cars and head out of town. Aware that the Oils have never performed in Alice, the organisers of the Rock Without Grog show have invited the band to make an unannounced appearance.

A couple of Ks up the Stuart Highway, out towards Mount Nancy, the fleet of gleaming Toyotas pulls into Bazzo’s Farm. As they swing into the camp, their crews are bitten for a two-dollar fee.

‘No,’ comes a voice from the glow of the dashboard lights. ‘We’re with Midnight Oil. We’ve come to give you something else.’

The last time the Aboriginal communities of Alice Springs staged a concert, a Coloured Stone gig at Amoongana in May 1985, drunken fights resulted in four stabbings and eight arrests. So tonight’s show, with its strict rules of ‘No Grog, No Drunks’, is an important one. The responsible Aborigines of Alice are out to prove that they can stage and police a family show, a concert that’s free of alcohol and violence.

And if some whitefella band from Sydney think they can just march in and upstage the whole event, then, the gatekeepers argue, they’re in for a rude shock. ‘No, we’re not going to give you two dollars,’ comes the voice again. ‘We’re going to give you a show like this place has never seen.’

Blissfully oblivious to the ill-feeling generated by such a response, unaware that the reply has been construed as predictable arrogance from a bunch of gammon whitefellas from the city, a bunch of upstart pop star blow-ins who think they can just roll into town and take over, the Sydney crowd heads towards the stage.

There, rugged up against the bone-chilling cold in jumpers and jackets and heavy boots, the Oils and their companions huddle around the fires that blaze behind the stage, cupping mugs of tea and blowing steam at the light. Beside them, the Warumpis are chugging through ‘My Island Home’ as the podium rolls like a boat at sea.

It soon becomes obvious, amidst the chaos that surrounds the stage, that some people involved in the organisation of the show are less than impressed by Midnight Oil’s gesture of turning up to give a free show. The attitude expressed at the front gate has filtered back to the powers that be, and the pervading attitude is that the Oils can go jump. So, when CAAMA director Freda Glynn climbs on stage, thanks everyone for coming, and bids them ‘good night’, Martin Hardie has to explain that Midnight Oil are here too and would like to contribute to the evening’s festivities. From the moment they climb aboard, the stage starts bouncing like a trampoline.

Since they first broke into the Sydney pub scene in 1978, climbing through the ranks with Cold Chisel and The Angels, Midnight Oil have proved themselves to be perhaps the wildest and brightest band in the country. Their shows – whether before a few hundred punters in a sweaty pub or 12,000 in a booming stadium – are intense, dramatic affairs in which the band’s stagecraft is shown to its greatest advantage.

But for the first time in years the Oils are performing without the standard life-support system of a finely tuned PA, a crack fold-back system and banks of pretty lights. Jim Moginie’s got no keyboards, and during the first song, ‘Hercules’, Rob Hirst battles on without a snare drum. To complicate matters, they’ve got a new sound engineer, a lanky tattooed character named Pat Pickett who boasts that he’s never listened to an Oils album the whole way through. With the equipment provided and the brevity of the notice, there’s little he can do to salvage the sound. But instead of degenerating into an unmitigated shambles, the gig starts working, and by the time they hit ‘Only the Strong’ the band are firing on all five cylinders. At the end of the song, the sixth is introduced.

‘Well we brought a friend along with us to play on this tour,’ says Garrett, wiping the sweat from his skull, ‘and maybe you’d like to welcome her on stage. It’s Glad from Sydney, and as you can see she plays a pretty mean violin, so just watch out and be careful. Ah, this one’s called something or other about I don’t know what.’ And with that auspicious introduction they swing into ‘Sleep’ and Glad Reed and her trombone make their debut with Midnight Oil. Shortly before the tour was announced, Glad was plucked from the relative obscurity of Just a Drummer, an inner-city band that had failed to achieve more than minor cult status, and invited to join the Oils as a guest sessioneer. For someone whose dreams were more concerned with developing her musicianship than flitting around with the stars, the opportunity came as something of a surprise.

In recent months, the Oils have spent much of their time in the studio developing demos for their sixth album. So fighting the chill factor of the bitter desert air is an enervating experience. With inadequate fold-back (the sound the band hears on stage), the playing is rough. As the crowd down the front, a curious mixture of white hippies and blanket-clad blacks, dances furiously against the cold, dust rises and mixes with the smoke to swamp the stage.

After a thirty-minute set that includes the Oils’ first live performances of ‘Dead Heart’ and ‘You May Not Be Released’ the band prepare to retire.

‘We’d like to thank the No Grog people for putting on a really good night tonight,’ says Garrett. ‘It’s been excellent. And to all you folk for coming along and making it just one of those special occasions it’s very difficult for us to describe to you, because normally we play surrounded by concrete.’ Pete keeps glancing around, marvelling at the setting while the drums keep patting out the rhythm for ‘The Power and the Passion’. ‘And if you don’t reckon you should have a nuclear target about ten minutes’ drive away from where you live then you should come out tomorrow morning to Pine Gap on the South road and have a go with us, all right!’

The band members are all grinning, the amps are teetering on the back of the stage, hundreds of Aborigines are fading into the shadows and down the front the whites are dancing in the dust.

For here, on the outskirts of Alice Springs, out here in the Dead Heart, the Oils have been reduced to the level of a settlement band, abunch of strangers in a strange land with only their wits and their songs to get by on.

THIS IS AN EXTRACT FROM ‘STRICT RULES, THE ICONIC STORY OF THE TOUR THAT SHAPED MIDNIGHT OlL’ BY ANDREW MCMILLAN PUBLISHED BY HACHETTE AUSTRALIA

YOU CAN BUY THE BOOK HERE

* According to statistics released by the Australian Institute of Criminology, although Aborigines comprise only 1.07 percent of the population they represented 10.6 per cent of the national prison population in 1985. Throughout Australia, Aborigines are imprisoned ten times more than any other ethnic group. In Western Australia the figure is twenty times higher.


† When the Muirhead Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was convened in November 1987, the names of the NT dead were deleted and replaced by the dates of their deaths. The names of the dead from other States, where the custom of not naming the dead is no longer culturally appropriate, were retained.

One response to “The story of the tour into Australia’s heart that shaped Midnight Oil

  1. If you haven’t got a copy buy it today as royalties go to the NT Writers Centre in Darwin! Plus if you nothing about that part of OZ it’s a great read, then you can go and buy another of Andrew’s books, An Intruders guide to NE Arnhem Land. It maybe out of print.

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