David Byrne – American Utopia: Gold Coast concert review

Talking Heads emerged from the New York scene in 1975 and were one of my favourite bands from the early eighties. I particularly loved their trio of albums Fear of Music (1979), Remain in Light (1980) and Speaking in Tongues (1983). The band was dominated by the brooding presence of David Byrne and his 1981 collaboration with Brian Eno (who was a big force behind Fear of Music) My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was a seminal influence on later sampling and still one of my all time top 10 favourite albums.


Living in Ireland at the time I was always on the lookout to see if they were playing anywhere close live but in those pre-Internet days I don’t recall ever having the opportunity. The closest I came was Jonathan Demme’s film version of their live album Stop Making Sense with David Byrne’s Big Suit the showstopper of that performance. Though I liked the singles from Little Creatures (1985) “And She Was” and “Road to Nowhere” I didn’t think the band was as interesting in the late 1980s and apparently neither did they breaking up in 1991.


I thought then I would never see Byrne or the band in all their glory. It wasn’t until just after I posted my piece about Eno-Byrne earlier this year did a friend point out that Byrne was touring Australia in November. Though he missed out Brisbane, he was playing the Gold Coast Convention Centre and that was close enough for me. I’d been looking forward to the gig ever since and I was not to be disappointed.


From the moment Byrne comes on stage and sits at a table to pick up a sculpted skull, it was captivating entertainment on many levels. I half expected him to break into Shakespeare with “Alas poor Yorick” but instead it was the song Here from his latest album American Vertigo. “Here there is something we call hallucination / Is it the truth or merely a description?” Who knows, but it was a tantalising opener.


For that song the band was off stage but they soon joined him in similar-suited splendour (all minus footwear) as he turned back the clock to Fear of Music with the classic I Zimbra. It was the song that launched Byrne on a career-long fascination with African music and it was the first excuse for the seated audience in the Coast to get out of their chairs and start rocking the arena. It was American Utopia with African roots.


The stage set was minimal but with 12 performers on it, it didn’t matter – there was always something interesting going on. Sometimes it was the two fabulous dancers with their elaborate choreography that Byrne would either join or just look on in delight. Sometimes it was the six-piece percussion group setting a pounding beat as they strutted across the stage. Sometimes it was the keyboardist carrying the music all by himself. db5

But mostly it was Byrne himself, now 66 years old, but careering across the large set with the energy and intensity of someone half his age. American Utopia released in January was his first solo recording in 18 years. He played several tracks from the album including Everybody’s Coming to My House. He told the story that when he sings it he worries about everyone being in his house, but when he heard a choir sing it, they infused it with positivity and a genuine sense that everyone was welcome in the house. It fits in with a larger project Byrne is putting together called Reasons to be Cheerful.  I was expecting a morose artist but he was surprisingly upbeat and funny.


I also expected a performance infused with art – and Byrne did not disappoint. It was part stage show, part dance routine, part theatre, part performance and all captivating. At one point all 12 of them pirouetted perfectly like a marching band and it was glorious to watch.


The performance was enhanced by terrific use of lighting and shadows. The group bounced around untethered by wires or standing instruments but there was always method in their madness. Byrne was the star but each contributed to a dazzling whole.

This photo by Glenn Mead. All others by the author.

The new music was great. But what everyone there wanted to hear – and I was no exception was the classic Talking Heads tracks. And Byrne was more than happy to oblige. Born Under Punches, Once in a Lifetime, Slippery People, Burning Down the House, This Must be the Place, and Blind, all had people racing to the front of the stage and getting their boogie on. Who could resist such great dance music?


Byrne and the band played two encore sets and finished with a modern day protest song Hell You Talmbout. Written in 2015 by Janelle Monáe it asks what the hell are you talking about and lists the names of black Americans killed by police or in race-related violence, asking people to say the names of the dead. It wasn’t Talking Heads but it was a powerful conclusion to a great concert. Hell you talmbout – this was one of the best gigs I’ve ever attended and like nothing I’ve seen before and likely ever again. He’s still alive but, David Byrne, won’t you say his name.

The $50 notable David Unaipon


Almost 150 years after his birth, one of the great Australians has had a facelift. David Unaipon has long featured on the $50 note but there is an updated portrait of the Ngarrindjeri inventor on the new note released into circulation last month. Muriel Van der Byl’s note’s design also includes Ngarrindjeri shields, a black swan, Unaipon’s totem animal, and “miwi” and navel cord exchange, Ngarrindjeri cultural practices written about by Uniapon.

The note still shows Unaipon’s South Australian church in Raukkan though the blueprints of the shearing mechanism he invented and a quote have been removed. The quote “As a full-blooded member of my race I think I may claim to be the first – but I hope not the last – to produce an enduring record of our customs, beliefs and imaginings”, is proud but its talk of race and blood is too jarring these days.

Unaipon was a remarkable polymath, as the book Remembering Aboriginal Heroes by John Ramsland and Christopher Mooney points out, a man of many roles including philosopher, inventor and musician. He was Ngarrindjeri-born and raised on the Port Macleay Mission School in South Australia’s Coorong, where he was studied many fields.

As a boy he learned how to track animals and inherited the cultural ways of his forefathers. As an old man he recalled the first conflicts with white people and although spears were thrown the superior weaponry of the whites were used “with deadly effect”. He said neither side “had the grasp of language necessary for a proper understanding between them”. White settlers invaded the Lower Murray and blacks that survived massacres were corralled on a mission at Point Macleay, Lake Alexandrina. When missionary George Taplin arrived the blacks felt they had someone who understood them.

David’s father James was one of Taplin’s first converts and he became a deacon at the church. The Mission established vegetable gardens, fruit trees and vines, introduced cattle and sheep and workshops for blacksmiths, carpenters and shoemakers.

David loved hearing visiting lecturers talking about the wonders of science. At Taplin’s school he became interested in all things mechanical and read about “the wonderful progress of science” during the Industrial Revolution. Unaipon was self-taught and registered nine patents for inventions, earning him a reputation as an Australian Leonardo Da Vinci. He predicted the development of the helicopter based on the aerodynamics of the boomerang. One invention was a mechanical curvilinear device praised by engineers which had potential applications in the shearing industry. Another was to do away with the crank motion on steam and internal combustion engines. He had no capital to commercialise his ideas though many were picked up – including the basis for modern handheld shears – and implemented by later scientists.

Unaipon was a musician of rare ability and interpreted Mendelssohn’s masterpieces on the organ of Adelaide churches to appreciative European audiences. He studied philosophers and scientists and was an accomplished public speaker. Unaipon was a Christian following his father and by 1917 he was well known across Australia appearing in newspapers and magazines.

Unaipon was proud of his Aboriginal upbringing but also believed in the power of his faith. “Do not despise the aborigine,” he told a Methodist audience. “He needs Christianity and the development of the Northern Territory may be accomplished through him, if prompt measures are taken to bring out the best that is in him through the influence of education and Christianity.”

Unaipon is recognised as one of the earliest Aboriginal writers published in English thanks to a manuscript of traditional Aboriginal stories from South Australia – Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines published in 1925 and his pamphlets from 1927
onwards. However neither Legendary Tales nor the pamphlets were ever published under his name during his lifetime. They were published under the name of anthropologist and Chief Medical Officer for South Australia, W. Ramsay Smith by Angus and Robertson in 1930.

Unaipon believed in sympathetic cooperation between black and white and said the former needed “the inner power” to reconstruct lives shattered by contact with the latter. He was the victim of occasional racism but never became bitter and gave evidence to two Royal Commissions into the treatment of Aborigines. He lectured widely throughout his life until well into his eighties. He received the Commonwealth Medal in 1953 and died aged 94 in 1967 at Tailem Bend. He was buried at Point McLeay.

In 1989 the University of Queensland Press inaugurated the inaugural David
Unaipon Award for an unpublished Indigenous writer. His own writing reputation was restored in 2001 when Unaipon’s descendants and scholars retrieved the original manuscripts from the State Library of New South Wales and finally published them under Unaipon’s name. His overriding aim, he said in the Legendary Tales, was “to produce an enduring record of our customs, beliefs and imaginings.”

In 1995 his portrait was included on the new $50 note. As John Alexander noted in Following David Unaipon’s Footsteps: “Unaipon is now close to our hearts in our pockets…After a hiatus of 50 years he had become a symbol of the quest for Aboriginal reconciliation.” The Aboriginal School at Raukkan is still going strong and will celebrate its 160th anniversary in 2020.

Big Coal: promoting Australia’s dirtiest habit

9781742233031Australia is beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists. Coal remains the nation’s second largest energy source. According to the Energy Update 2017, in 2015-16 coal was the source of 32 per cent of Australia’s energy, just behind oil at 37 per cent but well ahead of natural gas (25 per cent) and streets clear of renewables (6 per cent). In fact coal consumption grew by 3 per cent in 2015–16, although consumption was still 17 per cent below the peak in 2008–09. All the growth in 2015–16 was black coal, with brown coal consumption falling by 4 per cent. Over 60 per cent of Australia’s electricity generation remains coal-fired.

There has been conflicting news for Australia’s troubled but still profitable coal industry this week. China announced it was banning all coal imports until at least next year backing up a ban imposed earlier this year due to over-supply and it is not expected to be lifted until early 2019. Despite this, demand from other Asian markets – especially South East Asia is pushing prices for both thermal and coking coal up and there are huge queues in Australian coal harbours  with Australia’s total thermal coal export level expected to triple from 2017 to 2030.

The latter news is music to the ears of Australia’s Resource Minister Matt Canavan whose Rockhampton office is Queensland coal production heartland. In an op ed for the Australian Financial Review Canavan said coal has once again become Australia’s biggest export and he welcomed last week’s International Energy Agency forecast that coal demand is set to grow by 492 million tonnes in the Asia Pacific region by 2040. “The biggest opportunity lies in India,” Canavan said. “With coal demand there set to grow by over 600 million tonnes by 2040. Last year, India imported 160 million tonnes of thermal coal but Australia accounted for just 3 million tonnes of that.”

Canavan is pushing for the approval of the Adani Carmichael project in his region which is still awaiting financial approval. In its latest media release Adani pushed the project’s job creation “In the initial ramp up and construction phase there will be more than 1500 direct jobs on the mine and rail project,” they said. “Economic modelling, such as that used by the Queensland Resources Council in its annual resources industry economic impact report, shows that each direct job in the industry in Queensland supports another four and a half jobs in related industries and businesses, therefore we can expect to see more than 7000 jobs created by the initial ramp up of the Carmichael Project.”

But as Guy Pearse, David McKnight and Bob Burton, the authors of Big Coal (2013), point out the question needs to be asked: is our increasing dependence on coal a road to prosperity for Australia or a dead end? They acknowledge coal is a $48 billion export industry employing 46,000 people however with 80 per cent foreign ownership most of the profits go overseas. Any investment that stays in Australia does not go on employment as the industry is increasingly automated but on equipment, mining camps, railways and ports which are exclusively used by the industry.

And this does not begin to touch on the matter of climate change which Canavan and Adani studiously ignore. As the IPCC latest report Global Warming of 1.5 °C makes clear 1.5°C is a best case estimate and under that scenario coral reefs, for example, are projected to decline by a further 70–90% with larger losses (>99%) at 2ºC. These are the same coral reefs that lie off Matt Canavan’s shoreline and employ thousands of locals in tourism-related industries but there is no hue and cry from him (or the local daily papers that dot the Reef) about a best case losing 70 per cent of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.

The IPCC has little to say about coal other than “a steep reduction in all (coal) pathways” is needed to even make 1.5°C. It takes it as read that coal is simply not part of the planet’s energy mix of the future. Studies by the Post Carbon Institute and others identify coal as the greatest threat to civilisation and its continued unfettered use will lead to catastrophic climate change. Yet the pace of change is ineffectual. The global coal industry represented by lobby groups such as the World Coal Association trumpet the growing demand for its product despite also claiming they are “about obtaining those strategic benefits of coal while addressing the environmental challenges that come with it.”

Yet despite many magic pudding statements about “clean coal” there has been almost zero attempt to sequester any of the vast amount of carbon generated by the industry. And attempts such as Australia to impose the costs of these have met fierce and politically well-connected resistance. When the Rudd government tried to impose an emission tradings scheme in 2009 the coal industry fought the provision to tax fugitive emissions from methane released by mining and launched an alarmist ad campaign claiming thousands of jobs would be lost. They did the same when the Gillard government brought in the carbon tax supported by an opportunistic political opposition.

The Abbott government did not take long to remove the carbon tax, a short-sighted decision it was always clear Australia was going to repent at leisure. Now even previous supporters of the axing, such as BHP, Rio Tinto and Woodside, the country’s largest oil and gas producer are calling for market mechanisms. Woodside CEO Peter Coleman said a carbon price was needed to “ensure that the most effective energy gets into the system”.  Disappointingly but unsurprisingly, the federal government has dismissed the call as Woodside “wanting to sell more gas”.

It’s true that Woodside would prefer more investment in oil and gas rather than coal, but it is also true that coal is by far the biggest contributor of emissions. As the Big Coal authors say, we need to view coal as the new tobacco or asbestos, “a dangerous product whose use is strongly discouraged by the government and ultimately abandoned.” That will be incredibly difficult for the world’s second largest exporter that was for many decades a cheap source of energy that powered Australia’s manufacturing industry. As in the UK the coal industry was a constant battle between employers and employees over safety, pay and conditions and today’s international corporates are just as ruthless in fighting off any attempts to price carbon, tax their profits or regulate their actions.

They are assisted in their greed for Australian resources by state governments dependent on their mining royalties. Big projects are routinely fast-tracked past environmental impact assessments by being of “state significance”. Prime agricultural land is regarded as “overburden” by the industry, workforces are fly in fly out contributing little to local towns, the valuable water table is something to be drawn down, while massive profits accrue to mostly overseas mining barons.

It is unlikely the current federal government will see much problem in this. Last year the then-Treasurer Scott Morrison infamously brought a lump of coal into parliament saying “don’t be afraid, don’t be scared”. He is now prime minister so perhaps we should be scared. Last month he proposed government subsidy for the industry in the form of  discounted loans for new baseload power generation — ­including for new plants fed by “clean coal” (an unviable nonsense that really should be labelled for what it is – “slightly cleaner coal“).

Sadly it is not just Morrison. Labor has been ambiguous when it comes to dealing with coal. Bill Shorten said their decision on Adani would be made on the “best science available“.  It is not clear what that science is if it not the IPCC unambiguously saying coal was cooking the planet. The best Big Coal’s authors can see is making the shift “will have to come from citizens making it clear that Big Coal’s time is up.” Over four in five of Australians now believe that, but it will be easier to prosecute this case in Melbourne than Mackay.  The mercury is rising, but does the Mercury care?