In this story
A nervy electric guitar picks out a series of rising triads, accompanied by the sound of Aboriginal clapsticks. As the pattern repeats, a chorus pedal exaggerates the sound of the open strings. The bass guitar shadows the riffs as a second guitar adds to the rising tension. A suspended chord. A burst of drums. And then a straight-ahead rock groove yanks the song into forward motion. The singer joins in enthusiastically:
Gurtha maynmak, gurtha yatj
Bili ngayi nguli wanganha yatjuma
Wiri buntja ngayi maynmak mirithirri
“Waru” is the rousing opening song on Big Name, No Blankets, the 1985 debut album by Warumpi Band. A two-CD retrospective, Warumpi Band 4 Ever, just released contains all three of their landmark albums as well as a raft of rare and unreleased recordings. As a longtime fan, I knew I would enjoy reacquainting myself with their classic material, but listening to this set has been a revelation. The music made by this pioneering mixed-race band still packs a powerful punch.
“Waru”, which means fire in English, was a perfect opening song for their debut album and hence this reissue. It’s a musical declaration of intent that tells us everything we need to know about its creators. Its lyrics deal with the way fire is viewed by two vastly different Australian cultures, European and Indigenous:
Is fire good? Is fire bad?
Because it destroys the home and the country
But sometimes this may be good
Grandfather, grandmother, mother and father
Have always used and been dependent on fire
For them it is very important
The duality goes even deeper as the song’s lyrics are in two distinct Indigenous languages – Gumatj for the verses and Luritja in the chorus. Luritja is a dialect spoken around Papunya in Central Australia, where Warumpi Band was born; Gumatj comes from Elcho Island, birthplace of George Rrurrambu, the band’s charismatic lead singer. Contrast and harmony were a part of the band’s DNA from the get-go.
In 1980, five years before that first record, Neil Murray arrived in the remote community of Papunya, 240 kilometres to the north-west of Alice Springs. Murray had been raised on a farm in western Victoria and was in Papunya to take up a job with the Northern Territory’s outstations program. “I just felt very strongly I needed to go and work with Aboriginal people,” Murray told me last week. “I felt very strongly I needed to learn from them. I felt that they were the key to understanding and a greater sense of belonging in this country that I yearned for.”
Murray took along his electric guitar for company and less than a week after he arrived Sammy Butcher Tjapanangka dropped by. Butcher takes up the story: “As you know, when you come to a community, it’s small and word is like a fire – everyone knows everybody. So someone told me there is a white guy who plays guitar and I said to myself, ‘I’m a guitar player, I might go have a jam with him.’ ” Completely self-taught, Butcher’s brilliant playing impressed Murray. Soon the two were jamming regularly with Sammy’s equally talented brother Gordon on drums. Now they just needed a singer.
George Rrurrambu had been working for the education department at the nearby community of Yuendumu. When he brought his own band to perform at Papunya, Butcher knew they’d found their man. “Oh, he was something different. He was really like Mick Jagger.” Rrurrambu didn’t take much convincing and soon the newly christened Warumpi Band were packing their gear into a ute and playing shows at other communities. “In those days there was no mobile phones,” Butcher says. “We just went to places and turned up and said, ‘We’re the band here, we wanna play!’ ” Warumpi Band 4 Ever gives an amazing glimpse into this magical time in the band’s early career. Three of the bonus tracks, released for the first time, have been taken from a homemade recording produced at Papunya in 1981. Straightforward and naive, there’s a refreshing spirit and honesty about the music that is all too rare, but which the Warumpi Band never lost.
They made a more professional recording a year later, which found its way into the hands of Russell Guy – previously an announcer at the old 2JJJ and by then the manager of another seminal Aboriginal group, Coloured Stone. He put the Warumpis in touch with Sydney’s Hot Records, an independent, alternative-minded label, which eventually issued the band’s first single, “Jailanguru Pakarnu (Out of Jail)” in 1983. This marked the first time an Australian rock song had been recorded in an Indigenous language, extraordinary in itself, but the catchy 12-bar foot-tapper also became a surprise hit with listeners of Triple J. The homespun energy that had proved irresistible to audiences in the outback was winning over jaded city folk.
“Jailanguru Pakarnu” won them influential fans in one of Australia’s biggest bands, Midnight Oil, who signed the Warumpis to their Powderworks label, and in 1985, Big Name, No Blankets was released to widespread acclaim. Recorded in only four days at Sydney’s Trafalgar Studios, the album lacks a little polish but succeeds admirably in capturing undiluted what is probably their strongest set of songs, including the one that came to define their career, “Blackfella/Whitefella”.
It doesn’t matter what your colour
As long as you a true fella
As long as you a real fella.
The song’s chugging groove and anthemic call for brothers and sisters to “stand up and be counted” resonates just as strongly today as it did then. “Warumpinya” is another rocker cut from the same cloth as “Jailanguru Pakarnu”, with Rrurrambu using two boomerangs as click sticks while singing Butcher’s Luritja lyrics, extolling pride in their Papunya home. “Breadline” has a snappy swing feel and honking sax as Murray sings about the joy of sleeping under the stars and other non-materialistic pleasures. Murray steps forward again as lead vocalist on “Fitzroy Crossing”, a sublime country song about the Kimberley town. It features outstanding playing from Sammy Butcher, betraying the many hours he spent studying Chet Atkins and Hank Marvin. He couldn’t have chosen two better teachers. Butcher’s playing is always soulful and tasteful, even when he’s blazing away on rockers such as “Mulga And Spinifex Plain”. He’s a dab hand on bass, too, as he demonstrates on “Waru” and the album closer, “Gotta Be Strong”. This last one also gives us a taste of Rrurrambu’s larger-than-life stage persona as he exhorts us all to get it together and face the future. That’s a stance the Warumpi Band have clearly taken to heart.
Midnight Oil took a leaf out of Murray’s book and went to see traditional Aboriginal Australia for themselves. They hitched a ride on a Warumpi tour of outback communities and opened for them in their heartland. From some accounts I’ve heard, they found it a chastening experience at times as the Warumpi’s audience was totally unfamiliar with their work and weren’t particularly impressed by stagecraft honed in the sweaty pubs of Sydney’s northern beaches. The Oils themselves admitted afterwards that they slipped in a couple of country songs for the punters to leaven their heavy musical loaf. Still, the tour was a life-changing event for the Oils, inspiring them both spiritually and musically, and it directly led to them writing the Diesel and Dust album that was their breakthrough in the US.
Just before Warumpi Band were due to record its second album, the Butcher brothers’ father passed away. Family obligations and “sorry business” meant that they would not be able to rejoin the band for some time. Rrurrambu and Murray pushed ahead with the album anyway. Go Bush! was released in 1987 and had a much fuller sound than their debut. “We did a lot of shows with the Oils and we were very much influenced by the power in their music. Just their stage show, you know, it was just awesome,” Murray says. “And that kind of encouraged us to toughen up a lot more.” Go Bush! had some songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Oils album – “Secret War” and “From the Bush”, in particular. However, it is the wonderful “My Island Home” that people most remember. Written by Murray, it is Rrurrambu’s personal story but its wistful lyrics and beautiful melody deeply touch anyone who hears it.
If Warumpi Band were blessed to have a talented songwriter such as Murray and as gifted and natural a musician as Sammy Butcher, George Rrurrambu was their trump card. The man was a true star. Onstage, you couldn’t take your eyes off him; on record, he was an imposing presence. Simply put, he was one of the best rock stars we’ve ever produced. When he was sober. If not, all bets were off.
“Honestly, I’ve never met anyone who was so wild as that guy!” says fill-in bass player Murray Cook. “I remember the last gig we ever did, at Jabiru, and George’s wife showed up and she just nagged him all night and he went absolutely berserk. He threw his didjeridu at [our manager] Cookie, and he asked Allen Murphy to go and buy him a knife so he could kill us all! Then the last I saw of him he was swimming across the Alligator River with his wife and two kids with a knife in his mouth. And he walked 400 kilometres through Arnhem Land back to Elcho Island barefoot, wearing a pair of shorts.” He also recalls Rrurrambu onstage having to dodge a deadly hunting boomerang hurled at him by an audience member who suspected the singer had been with his girl. Not even Mick Jagger can claim that.
Unsurprisingly, the band broke up for a few years after the knife episode, but their musical bond proved too strong. You just can’t keep a great band down.
After the success of Christine Anu’s cover version of “My Island Home”, and a whole lot of enthusiastically received reunion shows, Warumpi Band made a third album, Too Much Humbug, recorded under the guidance of Mark Ovenden, who’d previously worked with You Am I and Yothu Yindi. It was the first time they’d had a healthy budget and a “name” producer and the results were superb. Sammy Butcher was back and together they’d written and recorded another great batch of songs. There was more muscularity to their sound, with songs such as “Stompin’ Ground” and “Koori Man”, which captures Rrurrambu’s I’m-black-and-I’m-proud defiance perfectly, sounding like a cross between The Angels and AC/DC. Though Rrurrambu was often compared to the Rolling Stones frontman, Murray reckons Bon Scott would be more apt. “He wasn’t a toff like Mick Jagger. He was a bit more of a party animal and rock’n’roll, like Bon.”
Ever the showman, Rrurrambu had around this time assembled a stage outfit of matching leather pants and vest, stitched together in the colours of the Aboriginal flag. To eliminate any doubt, the back of the vest was a replica of the flag itself. He matched that with a black scarf with two more flag symbols crocheted at the ends. He looked shit-hot. Backstage, his bandmates would take the piss. “Sammy just said, ‘Look at him! Super Koori!’ ” Murray laughs. “And George wouldn’t be fazed. He’d sorta look at us: ‘You mob don’t know.’ ”
Warumpi Band last played together in 2000, but George wore the flag costume at his final live appearance in Melbourne in 2007. Shortly afterwards, he succumbed to bone cancer. In his will he requested that no mention of his name be made for five years, according to tribal tradition, and for family reasons he is now referred to as George Burarrwanga.
Warumpi Band started out life on the back of a ute and ended up kicking a door open into the whites-only world of Australian rock’n’roll. They did it with music that was joyful, rambunctious, heartfelt and inspiring. They generously shared their spirits with us and that energy is still just as powerful and palpable today as when their music was written and recorded. Sammy Butcher sums it up best: “We’ve showed we can do it, others can do it. The music carries on. I think it lives.”
I’ve enjoyed listening to these albums as much as I have anything this year.
POSTSCRIPT: I’d like to mention two other must-have Indigenous albums that are also coming out this week.
Archie Roach, Charcoal Lane: 25th Anniversary Edition (2CD set)
Archie Roach’s classic album from 1990, produced by Paul Kelly and the late Jeff Connolly, is being reissued next week (November 6) in a deluxe 2CD edition. “Took The Children Away”, “Down City Streets”, ‘“Munjana”, “No No No” – every song on Roach’s debut is a gem. The second CD of this 25th anniversary edition features new versions of the songs by contemporary artists like Gurrumul, Courtney Barnett, Paul Kelly, Emma Donovan, Briggs and Dan Sultan. Also included is the magnificent “2JJJ Live at the Wireless” session Archie Roach recorded with the late Ruby Hunter in 1990. Previously unreleased, this is worth the price of admission on its own. In 2013, Roach’s recording of “Took The Children Away” was added to the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia registry, one of only 90 recordings to be so honoured.
Various artists, Buried Country 1.5 (2CD set)
Long out of print, Clinton Walker’s book documenting the history of Australia’s diverse Indigenous country music scene was republished earlier this year in a revised, expanded edition. Walker has also revised his Buried Country compilation album that came out with his original book. Twenty-nine of the 43 songs on this 2CD set are new (hence it’s designation as Buried Country 1.5), and Walker has included a brace of recent recordings by Indigenous artists like Tom E. Lewis, Painted Ladies and Broome’s amazing Pigram Brothers. Released yesterday, October 30, it’s a great mixtape. Both the book and the album are a fascinating look at a long-neglected part of our rich, Indigenous musical heritage.
OPERA Seven Deadly Sins
Hamer Hall, Melbourne, November 6
MUSIC CONFERENCE Listen
Northcote Town Hall, Melbourne, October 31-November 1
ARCHITECTURE Sydney Open
Various venues, Sydney, November 1
MULTIMEDIA Proximity Festival
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until November 8
VISUAL ART Blue: Alchemy of a Colour
NGV International, Melbourne, November 6-March 20
MULTIMEDIA David Bowie Is
ACMI, Melbourne, until November 1
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 31, 2015 as "Outback out front".
This month marks 10 years since the first edition of The Saturday Paper. The paper is as audacious now as it was then: a rejection of conventional wisdom about what makes the news and who will read it.
To celebrate those 10 years - and the issue-defining journalism produced in them - we are offering all new subscribers a two-year digital subscription for the price of one. That's $298 worth of journalism for $109.
Get more of the best journalism in the country - and celebrate the success of a newspaper built on optimism.
Select your digital subscription