Today’s post is a treat for me, John is one of my favourite songwriters. If you do not know his work then you are also in for a treat. There is passion, humour and most of all humanity in his writing. His belief in the essential dignity of humankind shines through, as does his anger at injustice. The easiest description I can give to John’s music is consciousness music- a term coined amongst reggae artists to describe those who sing of injustice. It’s a good phrase and it describes John’s work.
I didn’t coin the title of today’s post, I stole it from John’s website (http://www.schumann.com.au/john/john.html). Those of us who do not live in Australia may not be familiar with John’s work , it is our loss. In his homeland John’s lyrics are on the school curriculum, a tribute to the fact he has always worked towards authentically describing what it is to be Australian.
In 1982 I was given a bootleg cassette from Bali, it contained half of a live album by a band called Redgum. The first song was called I Was Only 19, a walk in the light green, it blew me away. I have never heard a song that so described the Vietnam experience. The song haunted me for years, I pestered Australians I met for tapes of Redgum and with the advent of the internet slowly collected every cd I could get (at the time the whole of the Redgum catalogue was out of print and apart from two best of releases is still unavailable).
Before I go any further here’s the spoken intro from the live album recording:
It’s a song about two mates of mine who went to Vietnam and came back Agent Orange victims...the tile a walk in the light green stems from the fact that when the Australian soldiers in Vietnam were given their missions they looked at the areas they’d be working in on the map and if it was dark green on the map then there was cause for some consolation as dark green meant thick jungle, lots of cover and there were no mines. If they were working in areas that were light green on the map that meant light jungle, not much cover and heaps of mines. This is a song for Mick and Frankie...
John was by no means a one trick pony, Redgum produced many fine songs and I am fighting the urge to list them all as I write. John released two solo albums after leaving Redgum and they are now available on his website.
In 2004 John released Lawson a celebration of the poet Henry Lawson, it is such a good album, the recording is warm and it seems like John and The Vagabond Crew are there singing in the room. I think I wore out my copy through repeated playing.
Anyway, enough preamble let’s hear the man himself.
It’s rumoured that your band Redgum submitted a song instead of an essay when you were students (I heard this from James Fagin just before he played your song Peter The Cabby)?
When Brian Medlin, convenor of the Politics and Art course in 1975, suggested that some people might like to co-operate on a music project, three people raised their hands - Michael Atkinson, Verity Truman and me.
We performed the songs to the class and met such a strong and positive reaction that we decided to accept some of the invitations that followed to play at various gatherings.
At a function held by the Progressive Art Movement, Chris Timms, a former student of Flinders University Philosophy, offered his services as a violinist. A friend from university, Steve Brown, suggested the name Redgum and for want of anything better we adopted it.
Redgum started on the South Australian campus circuit. The strikingly original material and the uncompromising delivery won us a small but very supportive following. A campus tour of
The band returned to
It was shortly after this, and numerous enquiries in
The sales of the album "If You Don't Fight, You Lose" surprised everyone concerned. It became Larrikin Records' best seller and received airplay on most on the non-commercial stations around the country.
On the strength of the album, Redgum ventured to
It is interesting to note that all this time, Michael, Chris, Verity and I all held full time jobs in Adelaide. Michael was teaching part time and studying, Verity had disappeared into the bowels of the Public Service,
Chris was Academic assistant at the
The bands trip to
During the middle of 1980 Redgum began work on 'Virgin Ground', our second album. It was released late in 1980 and, like its predecessor, it met strong critical acclaim.
Michael, Chris, Verity, Chris Gunn and I made a number of important decisions regarding the bands future in 1981. We decided to give up full time employment in favor of Redgum. Tom Stehlik, an
The band's third album, 'Brown Rice and Kerosene', introduced the single '100 Year On/ Nuclear Cop'. The Redgum Songbook 'Stubborn Words, Flagrant Vices' was also published in 1981.
In May 1982, long-serving member Chris Timms left the band to be replaced by
By 1983 we were one of the biggest crowd-pulling bands on the Australian scene. The live album 'Caught in the Act' produced the classic song 'I was only Nineteen (A Walk in the Light Green) which reached #1 and stayed in the top 40 for four months.
Caught In the Act was produced by former folk musician Trevor Lucas (author of Poor Ned). By 1984, the Redgum line-up comprised Truman, Atkinson, McDonald, Stephen Cooney (bass,didgeridoo, mandolin, banjo), Michael Spicer (piano), Brian Czempinski (drums) and me.
Our fifth album, Frontline, was released in August 1984. A compilation album 'Everythings Legal Anything Goes' was released in November 1984.
We toured the
In May 1986, I surprised fans by leaving the band. I signed with CBS as a solo artist and I recorded the album 'Etched in Blue' at the Music Farm in
In 1989 I produced a childrens' record, 'Looby Loo', for CBS. In September 1992 I recorded the single 'Eyes on fire' on the Sony label. This was the first of two singles released from the 1993 album 'True Believers'.
How did you start writing?
I started writing for the Politics and Art assignment. To that time I’d never written a song. Politics and Art examined the nature of the relationship between art and politics. The central tenet of the course was that, unless specifically created to do otherwise, art in all its forms serves the interests of the dominant social and economic class - either by commission or omission. The course allowed students to present work for assessment that was either theoretical and/or practical. Practical work involved the creation of artistic products in any medium by an individual or group. These works were assessed and criticised by the class.
What comes first the lyric or the tune?
How do I start writing? With an idea, a drum feel, a hook line, some peace and quiet and a 44 gallon drum of coffee. Sometimes the lyric comes first, sometimes the tune but generally I start with a few words, a few chords and I just tease what I have out from both ends until it’s long enough for a song.
Who are your influences?
Musical influences were what I was listening to when I was a kid - Neil Young, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne. Nowadays, I listen to anything and everything and my inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere
What would you say to someone starting out?
What advice would I give to someone starting out? Just start. Don’t listen to what anyone else says about your work and for God’s sake, don’t listen to or read what dipshit music journalists think. If they could do it they’d be doing it, not writing about other people.
What’s in the pipeline?
The pipeline? My band the Vagabond Crew – look us up on Facebook and Youtube – have another album to make and some gigs in the pipeline. We toured
Sept/Oct 2011 to play for the Australian Forces there. We played similarly in Afghanistan East Timor in 2009.
Will a complete set of Redgum cds ever be released?
A Redgum complete set? It would be good and I get asked all the time – but the question is more properly addressed to
They have our catalogue. Sony- BMG Australia
If you were a colour what colour would you be?
I would be blue – like the sky … Or red, like the South Australian desert.
As the man says check him out on YouTube, it's well worth it.