Thursday, September 4, 2008

Goanna Build Common Ground On Solid Rock

There are some songs which clearly represent an era in music in your mind. Goanna’s ‘Solid Rock’ is one such song for me. It stood tall as not only one of the best songs of 1982, but still reigns among the premier Australian rock songs of arguably the most prolific period in Australian popular music history.

The Goanna Band formed in the Victorian city of Geelong during 1977, surrounding the heart of the band Shane Howard. Howard was already an established singer/songwriter on the local folk-rock scene. The original line-up comprised Howard (vocals/guitar), Mike Biscan (guitar), Richard Griffiths (bass) and Rod Hoe (drums). Over their first couple of years the line-up changed numerous times, with Howard remaining the constant rock around which other members anchored themselves.

A future key member Rose Bygrave (vocals/ keyboards) joined Howard during 1979, along with Warwick Harwood (lead guitar/vocals), Ian Morrison (vocals/harmonica), Carl Smith (bass) and Gary Crothall (drums), to establish the line-up of the Goanna Band which would record their first material in the studio. Country/blues singer Broderick Smith produced the four track EP ‘Livin’ On The Razor’s Edge’, which was released on the EMI subsidiary label Custom Press.

The band were quickly establishing a strong fan base on the live circuit, and were becoming well known for songs that featured a strong social voice. By 1981 the Goanna Band had become just plain Goanna, soon after signing with WEA and scoring a support slot on James Taylor’s Australian tour. Goanna were clearly a group that wore their hearts on their collective sleeves. They were every bit as overtly politically and socially expressive as Midnight Oil, though they had never quite commanded the same profile in the media or public consciousness. One song was about to change that balance.

In October 1982 Goanna released the single ‘Solid Rock’. Musically it was a surging anthemic pop-rock song, featuring a relentlessly thumping drum track, overlaid with searing guitars, sublime vocal harmonies and haunting didgeridoo. Lyrically it was a damning indictment that poured scorn upon the European ‘invasion’ of Australia, and subsequent mistreatment of its indigenous peoples. The record label WEA was suitably cautious in backing it as the band’s first major single, and in fact some of the band itself thought it lacking in mainstream commercial appeal. But writer Shane Howard was committed to both the strength of the song itself and the importance of the message behind it. The inspiration behind the song came to Howard whilst on a ten day camping trip at Uluru during 1980. It was a spiritual awakening of sorts for the songwriter, and brought to the surface, as Howard himself put it, the “fire in the belly” he felt regarding some of the injustices to have occurred to Australia’s indigenous peoples.

Howard’s fervent passion and commitment was well founded as ‘Solid Rock’ made a rock solid debut on the charts almost immediately following its release. I can recall seeing the promo video for ‘Solid Rock’ on Countdown at the time. It was a standard performance based clip but with brilliantly animated Aboriginal artwork weaved throughout. I also remember the drummer wearing an Essendon Australian rules football jersey. I was a mad keen Essendon supporter at the time (still keen, hopefully not quite as mad), and one of my favourite players of that era was ruckman and Essendon captain Simon Madden (the drummer was wearing the same #27 jersey as Madden) - but I seriously digress. Back to the music, which soon saw Goanna with a #3 hit on the Australian singles charts (going on to chart for 26 weeks - also #31 U.S. Mainstream Rock Chart). Goanna released their debut full length album ‘Spirit Of Place’ in December 1982. Produced by Trevor Lucas (ex-Fairport Convention), the album debuted at #1 on Melbourne’s charts, going on to reach #2 nationally within two weeks of its release (US#179), rivalling Midnight Oils’ ‘10 to1’ as being one of the biggest Australian album releases of the year. The line-up for Goanna on that album featured Howard, Bygrave, Harwood, Marcia Howard (Shane’s sister on backing vocals), Graham Davidge (ex-Little River Band on guitar), Mick ‘The Reverend’ O’Connor (keyboards), Peter Coughlan (bass), and Robert Ross (drums/Essendon supporter). Billy Ida played the didgeridoo on ‘Solid Rock’. ‘Spirit Of Place’ won ‘Best Album of the Year’ for 1982, whilst ‘Solid Rock’ took out ‘Best Single’.

The follow up single ‘Razor’s Edge’ (a reworking of their EP title track) was released in April ‘83. The more acoustically based folk-rock track reached a respectable #36 on the national charts. Around the same time a major political/environmental controversy was in the headlines, concerning the proposed damming of the Franklin River by the Tasmanian government. The dispute made headlines, not just around Australia, but across the world, drawing support from Greenpeace and other global environmental groups. Goanna, and in particular Shane Howard, showed once again they were a band with strong beliefs and social conscience, and a commitment to expressing those beliefs through their music. They recorded the single ‘Let The Franklin Flow’ under the pseudonym artist name of Gordon Franklin and the Wilderness Ensemble. The song itself musically wasn’t that great, but it was catchy and once again anthemic enough, which I suppose is the pre-requisite for any worthwhile protest song. The Australian public certainly expressed their collective opinion on the Franklin River issue through sending the song to #12 on the national charts, and though there were many other factors involved, the song can lay claim to playing its part in the eventual outcome not to dam the river.

By late 1983 Goanna’s line-up had once again morphed to include new guitarists Ross Hannaford and Russell Smith (seems like anyone who played guitar professionally during the 80s would likely have Goanna listed on their C.V.), while Robert Ross was replaced by Geoff Bridgeford on drums. In December 1983 the third single from ‘Spirit Of Place’, ‘That Day (Is Coming Sooner)’ peaked at #67 on the charts, but Goanna then retreated from view to begin work on their follow up album.

The much anticipated ‘Oceania’ (#20) was released in April 1985. Shane Howard once again handled most of the song writing duties, giving the set a folk-rock flavour, but in places Goanna dared to incorporate elements as diverse as funk, reggae, and orchestral arrangements. The finely crafted ‘Common Ground’ was the lead out single in late ‘84 and climbed to #42 nationally, but the follow up ‘Dangerous Dancing’ was a disappointment (#91). Whilst Midnight Oil were continuing to build to greater commercial heights, Goanna’s career seemed to be teetering on shaky ground, rather than solid rock. Throughout 1985, the band toured relentlessly in support of the album, with a constantly revolving line-up of members along the way, including at one stage ex-Little River Band drummer Derek Pellici. But whilst ever Howard was in the driver’s seat it seemed that Goanna had a future. That all changed during September 1985 when Shane Howard was reported missing, resulting in the cancellation of over $20,000 of concert bookings. Having become disillusioned with the relentless touring schedule and commercial demands of the band, together with the incessant fragility of the band’s roster, Howard had taken off to parts unknown along with didgeridoo player Bart Willoughby. With Howard out of the mix, Goanna immediately folded.

After an extended sojourn from the mainstream music scene, Howard re-emerged refreshed and reinvigorated as a solo artist. He put together the Shane Howard band during 1987, including several former Goanna members, and embarked on establishing himself on the folk-rock scene, a return to roots of sorts. Howard had spent a large period in 1987 living in an Aboriginal community in Australia’s Gulf Of Carpentaria, playing with local band Coloured Stone for a time. In May 1989 Howard emerged from the recording studio again with his debut solo album ‘Back On Track’. The album was initially released on Howard’s own ‘Uluru’ label, before RCA offered a long term distribution deal. I purchased the title track on vinyl 45. It was a strong acoustic-rock track, that lyrically spoke volumes about the personal journey Howard himself had taken to that point.

The follow up album ‘River’ (OZ#74) was a more commercially accessible set, yielding the minor hits ‘Walk On Fire’ (OZ#46) and my favourite Howard track ‘If The Well Runs Dry’ (OZ#67), which once again espoused Howard’s strong environmental concerns (over a decade before it became fashionable for musicians to do so). It’s slicker sound owed something to the production work of Mark Moffatt, and backing musicians like Ricky Fataar (drums). Howard continued to tour (for a time with ‘The Big Heart Band’ in tow) and record regularly throughout the 90s, resulting in the albums ‘Time Will Tell’ (1993 - which included two Bob Dylan covers), ‘Live In Ireland’ (recorded on his 1995 tour), and ‘Clan’ in 1997. He has continued his strong association with Australia’s indigenous musical communities and collaborated with acclaimed Koori artists Archie Roach and Kev Carmody. Howard also revived his role with Goanna with the 1998 album release ‘Spirit Returns’, featuring Rose Bygrave and Marcie Howard on vocals, touring Australia in support of their new work.

In February 2003 I was fortunate enough to see Shane Howard play an acoustic set live at the Melbourne Music & Blues Festival. He played an acoustic version of ‘Solid Rock’ which was simply brilliant to experience. In many respects Shane Howard could rightly be regarded as Australia’s answer to Bob Dylan (perhaps alongside Paul Kelly), steadfastly committed to his own musical voice and personal beliefs, unwilling to compromise either for commercial gain (though I’m not certain Dylan has always remained so steadfast in either respect). His latest album is 2006’s ‘Songs Of Love And Resistance’.

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