Four days in Darwin

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In my last post I wrote about the two days it took me to get 1600km to Darwin from Mount Isa. Now I had four days where I planned to do no driving at all. The name of my motel was City Edge and that described it perfectly, nowhere was too far to walk to. Darwin Harbour had surprisingly high cliff faces with a large tidal range and there were great views over the harbour and out to the Arafura Sea.

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There is a long and pleasant path along the cliffside promenade. From where I stood to Cox Peninsula on the other side of the harbour was a long 120km journey thanks to the harbour’s many channels. So perhaps too far to walk.

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It didn’t take long to find a reminder of the Second World War. I’ve written before about the bombing of Darwin, based on the book An Awkward Truth. The book was critical of the lack of preparation and secrecy that hamstrung recovery efforts but there was also great courage. The Japanese bombing raid took place February 19, 1942 with the sinking of the US destroyer Peary the biggest loss of life. In the 1950s a diver salvaged this four-inch gun from the ship and the Australian Navy restored it for the 50th anniversary in 1992. The gun points to Peary’s final resting place.

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Further along the promenade was parliament house, the seat of the Northern Territory’s unicameral Legislative Assembly. Building work commenced in 1990 and it opened in 1994. According to the NT parliament website, the building was designed for Darwin’s tropical climate. “Its facade diffuses 80% of direct sunlight.  Visitors are invited to note the top of each of the corner columns of the building, which represent an architectural salute to the site on which Parliament House stands.”

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I moved on to give architectural salute to another building celebrating a different branch of government. The Supreme Court lies just south of parliament house and the building in Darwin was officially opened in November 1991 when it was proclaimed that it “shall be surrendered and delivered to the Judges of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory for the purposes of the administration of justice in and for the Northern Territory of Australia”.

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The trifecta of government buildings in the area is completed by government house. Of distinctly older vintage, the home of the NT Governor dates from 1870, the oldest surviving European building in the city. The mid-Victorian Gothic villa, has been adapted for the local climate with shaded verandahs and porches and has survived earthquakes, cyclones and Japanese bombing.

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Moving along I get my first view down to the revamped portside. Raised stairwells and lifts offer a quick way down but I want to detour to a museum dedicated to part of the city’s Second World War story.

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My destination is the underground oil storage tanks. When the Japanese bombed in 1942 a major target was the open air fuel oil storage tanks at Stokes Hill. As a result engineers began looking at designs to put the tanks underground tunnels. In 1943 contractors began work on a series of tunnels running 15m under the escarpment.  The longest tunnel was 200m long and pipe headings connected to an underground pumping station. The tanks were designed to hold distillate, diesel and furnace oil. Work was hard and slow but the tunnels leaked and corrosion set in as water seeped between the steel lining and the concrete walls. The tunnels were kept secret after the war and stored fuel for the RAAF until heavy rain made the system inoperable. It was reopened to the public in 1992.

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The Darwin portside area has been used for thousands of years by the Larrakiah people who traded sea cucumbers with Macassan sailors. In 1865, surveyor, W.P. Auld, named Stokes Hill after the Commander of the Beagle, (of course the port was named for the Beagle’s most famous passenger) who had visited in 1839. The first of three wharfs was built in 1885. With an 8m tidal range the jetty stood high on timber piles. Cyclone damage in 1897 and worm infestation weakened the structure and the second, Town Wharf, was completed in 1903.  It severely damaged in the first Japanese bombing raid. The third and current Stokes Hill Wharf was built in 1956 of steel and concrete with timber decking. It served as the main port of Darwin until facilities were transferred to the new Port at East Arm in 2000. The Wharf has been transformed into a tourist precinct of bars and cafes.

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Another tour of Darwin took me towards the northerly bays. Above is Doctors Gully, home of the fish-feeding establishment Aquascene (feeding times are related to the tides so it was closed on low tide as I arrived). The area is named for Dr Robert Peel, the medical officer with Goyder’s survey party in 1869. This was an important site of Chinese market gardens and in the war was a base for Catalina Flying Boats.

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Continuing north I ended up at Cullen Bay, home of the Marina and ferries out to the Tiwi Islands and Mandurah on the Cox Peninsula. It was also the home of a lovely pub called Lola’s Pergola where I stopped to soak in the seaside atmosphere.

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It being a Thursday I kept on the northward journey towards Mindil Beach and the Mindil night markets. The markets date back to 1987 and they moved from their original location at Darwin Mall after local businesses complained. They have been under the coconut palms of Mindil Beach ever since and now hosts 300 stalls every Thursday and Sunday evenings, not to mention thousands of visitors looking for bargains, live music and great food.

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Meanwhile there was a film crew on the beach. A close-up of the clapperboard revealed it was a scene in Top End Wedding. According to Screen Australia, this new feature film co-written and starring Larrakiah local Miranda Tapsell and directed by Wayne Blair is a “hilarious and heart-warming comedy of successful Sydney lawyer, Lauren, and her fiance Ned. Engaged and in love, they have just 10 days to find Lauren’s mother who has gone AWOL somewhere in the Northern Territory, reunite her parents and pull off their dream Top End Wedding.” Not sure about the movie but I was told off about the clicking of my phone camera on set.

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What the filmmakers and everyone were here for was to watch the famous Mindil sunset. Mindil comes from the Larrakiah word ‘Min-deel’, meaning sweet nut grass. The beach has always been a popular place to camp, and swim and was a significant cultural site.  In the war years it was a rest site for military personnel. Cyclone Tracy destroyed a caravan park on the site in 1974.

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Another day, another beach. Fannie Bay Beach is further north of Mindil Beach and part of the East Point Reserve. Behind the beach is Fannie Bay Gaol, site of the NT’s last execution and these days home to a museum. The water looks inviting but the “danger: crocodiles” signs are everywhere. Best to stay out and admire the view.

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Also at East Point Reserve is a monument (and empty beer bottle) commemorating the arrival of the first flight from England to Australia in 1919. After the First World War the Australian government offered £10,000 for the first Australians in a British aircraft to fly from Britain to Australia. Six entries started the race and the winners were pilot Ross Smith, co-pilot brother Keith Smith and two mechanics in a Vickers Vimy bomber. The Vimy left Hounslow Heath on November 12. It flew 17,911km via Lyon, Rome, Cairo, Damascus, Basra, Karachi, Delhi, Calcutta, Akyab, Rangoon, Singora (Songkhla), Singapore, Batavia and Surabaya, reaching Darwin on December 10.

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A friend alerted me to the fact that Shellie Morris was playing in Darwin that night. Sadly I was already booked in that night but found that the Garrmalang festival where Morris was playing did have a free opening event I could attend. Garrmalang is the Larrakiah word for Darwin and the Festival showcases Indigenous talent and celebrates song, dance, language, knowledge, heritage, family and country.

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But the reason I couldn’t hang around to watch Morris was that I had a date with the Deckchair Cinema, the cinema under the stars on Darwin’s tropical waterfront. There I sat in one of the deckchairs, enjoyed a beer or two and watched an excellent movie (The Death of Stalin) in balmy surrounds with only the occasional bat reminding me I was outdoors.

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On my last morning I walked out past Mindil Beach again to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. NT’s premier cultural organisation has been at Bullocky Point since 1981, and is home to internationally renowned cultural and scientific collections and research and exhibition programs. These include Sweetheart, the legendary 5m crocodile which was caught and accidentally killed in 1979. The body was presented to the Museum where the taxidermist prepared Sweetheart as a skin mount and a skeleton.

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The Cyclone Tracy exhibit tells the story of the weather event that ripped through Darwin on Christmas Day 1974. It features the sound booth which captures the spinechilling howling gales that caused so much destruction that day. The Category 4 Tracy is the most compact cyclone ever in the Southern Hemisphere, with gale-force winds extending only 48km from the centre. Tracy killed 71 people, caused $837 million in damage, destroyed more than 70 percent of Darwin’s buildings leaving half the city’s 47,000 inhabitants homeless and required the evacuation of 30,000 people.

 

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The museum’s most interesting exhibit was by artist and cartoonist Franck Gohier. His exhibition “A thousand miles from everywhere” brings together works that cover the major themes of Gohier’s work from the global influence of Pop art and capitalism through to the bombing of Darwin, Cyclone Tracy and the city itself. Inspired by the anarchic spirit of punk, Gohier has been making art since the 1980s since studying at Charles Darwin University. Importantly, Gohier has made a career in Darwin, with regular exhibitions in Sydney and public institutions in the southern states.

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On my way home I popped into the peaceful George Brown Botanic Gardens (named for a former Darwin mayor). The gardens cover 42 hectares with a notable collection of north Australian and tropical species. The gardens are a popular exercise spot and often combined with a visit to the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. The gardens have been in Darwin for over 130 years, surviving bombs and cyclones. This is one of the few botanic gardens in the world with marine and estuarine plants growing naturally.

 

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A drive from Mount Isa to Darwin

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About 16 years ago I drove from Brisbane to Alice Springs and Uluru with a couple of friends. I’d never been back so I was looking forward to two weeks on the road to renew acquaintance with the Red Centre. But the Red Centre is not really part of the Northern Territory’s Never Never, and I’d never never been. So I was also looking forward to a week in Darwin and Katherine checking out the top end of the Top End. That meant a lot of driving, but something I was well used to in my time in Mount Isa. Isa to Darwin was first up, a journey of 1600km, so I planned to do it over two days.  This first photo is from the Queensland side of the border (I think, though I can’t exactly remember where) but I’ve covered the Isa-Tennant Creek stretch in another blog post about a trip to the Devils Marbles so won’t dwell on it too much here.

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About 50km across the border, just past Avon Downs, I bumped into “world walker” Tony Mangan. The 61-year-old Dubliner is walking his buggy named “Karma” around the world. The former ultra-marathon runner is well used to world travel and has been on this journey since 2016, relying on the generosity of locals while he spreads his message of awareness that “early cancer screening saves lifes”. I’d met him in Mount Isa a week earlier and written about him. I knew I’d pass him somewhere on the highway. After a brief chat I agreed to hide one of his large heavy water bottles at the Stuart Highway 300km marker (about 90kms down the road) which he would find a few days later. We both continued on to Darwin but I would beat him by about one and a half months.

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About seven hours into the journey I got to the Three Ways. This roadhouse is at the junction between the Barkly Hwy which heads to Isa and the Stuart Hwy which links Alice Springs and Darwin. I had never been north of this point before and Darwin was another 1000km away. I did consider staying at the motel here but it was expensive at $170 a room. With an hour or two of daylight left I decided to take my chances further north.

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This beautiful clump of rock was about 100km north of the Three Ways. Called Lubra’s Lookout this flat topped rocky outcrop is at Pamayu. As the name of the lookout would suggest it was an Aboriginal women’s meeting place. There was a climb there which affords great views but with no internet around these parts, I didn’t know at the time. Besides, I was starting to get anxious about finding a bed for the north.

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Renner Springs Desert Hotel was in the right place at the right time for me. Situated just 5km north of Lubra’s Lookout, I approached it near dark and the cost of a room was considerably cheaper than Three Ways. It was a nice pub, though no Internet as I said. It was a good place with simple food and I chatted over a beer with a camping cyclist who was taking his two wheels from Swan Hill in Victoria to Broome in WA. I certainly wasn’t going to complain to him about any distances I might be doing in the comfort of my car.

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Renner Springs is named after Dr Frederick Renner who tended the workers on the Overland Telegraph Line in 1871. Dr Renner’s diary records a large gathering of birds and while investigating he discovered the nearby Mud Springs. The Mud Springs and the large Lagoon still support a large range of birdlife. It was also a pleasant walk around the property at dusk.

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A beautiful Northern Territory sunrise greeted me the next morning on a ridge just north of Renner Springs. I was out at first light around 7am but still well beaten by the cyclist who had already cycled an hour in the dark. I didn’t tarry – I still had around 900km to get to Darwin, though with the 130km speed limit, I expected to make it by mid-afternoon.

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This monument, 50km south of Daly Waters celebrates where those working on the telegraph line from the south met those working from the north. Called the Sir Charles Todd Memorial or simply the Telegraph Memorial, it commemorates Todd, the Post Master General, Superintendant of Telegraphs and Government Astronomer of South Australia. The monument is near the spot where the final join of the Overland Telegraph Line was made on August, 22 1872. The monument also pays tribute to those who built the telegraph line and the explorer, John Ross. The Line was a great civil engineering feat and Todd drove through the project to its successful end. He sent the first telegraphic message: “We have this day, within two years, completed a line of communications two thousand miles long through the very centre of Australia, until a few years ago a terra incognita believed to be a desert…”

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Another human-made monument, though it was not obvious at first glance. This is the talking termite mound in Mataranka, 400km south of Darwin, apparently the “largest man-made termite mound in the world”, though you wonder what competition might be for that title. Mataranka is home of the “never never” from Jeannie Gunn’s book “We of the Never Never” about her life on the land at nearby Elsey Station.

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Mataranka also had hot artesian springs but getting close to lunchtime it was food I needed not a spa bath so I drove 100km further north to Katherine. With a population of over 6000 it was easily the biggest settlement between Mount Isa and Darwin, though a lot closer to the former. I found a lunch spot but didn’t hang around. I still had two and a half hours driving to Darwin and I would be back in Katherine later in the week to check out its beautiful Nitmiluk Gorge.

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I kept going to the end of the Stuart Highway, After 1600km and two days driving I was glad to get to Darwin and luxuriate in its above 30 degree winter warmth. After checking in to my motel I immediately set out to check the lovely view over the harbour and out to the Arafura Sea. I had four days to explore Darwin city and was looking forward to getting to know her.

Ten Favourite albums: 10 Andy Irvine / Paul Brady

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When it came down to deciding on my ten favourite albums there were some that picked themselves and some that came down to decision making that was fine-tuned (literaly and figuratively).  In all I picked nine albums but wanted to leave one spare for what my favourite album is of the moment (so this list may change if I do it again – and I’m already half regretting plumping for This is The Sea ahead of Fisherman’s Blues in the Waterboys choice).

I grew up amid Irish music but Horslips aside – it mostly passed me. And even then I liked Horslips (and the later Moving Hearts) for their modern slant on traditional airs. Another band was doing similar innovative things in the early 1970s, a band called Planxty. But at the time I probably dismissed it as “diddley-eidley” music without understanding the brilliance that went into it.

It was only in recent years I’ve come to back to their music through the extraordinary body of work of Christy Moore, a dominating presence in Irish music for almost 50 years, and a founder of both Planxty and Moving Hearts. I can’t find the Youtube link now but there is live footage of Moore introducing the members of Planxty, saying three of them (Moore, bouzouki player Donal Lunny and the world’s best uillean pipe player Liam O’Flynn, who sadly died this year) came from the same Irish county – Kildare. The fourth member, Andy Irvine, joked Moore, was from “god knows where”.

Irvine was London-born to Irish and Scottish parents, and a classically trained musician who switched to folk after discovering Woody Guthrie. He moved to the Dublin in the 1960s but an abiding influence was a trip to the Balkans in 1968 where he was enchanted by Bulgarian music. Irvine invented the Irish bouzouki tuning his instrument one octave lower than the open-tuned mandolin. He introduced Lunny to bouzouki while he mainly played mandolin in Planxty.

The band was hugely successful in its early days but the success and the associated touring took its toll on members with Lunny and Moore both dropping out. However Lunny still continued to work with the band and Moore was replaced on vocals by the brilliant young Northern Irish talent Paul Brady. Brady and Irvine struck up an instant liking and enjoyed each others work.

It didn’t take long for the idea of them making an album as a duo. The album simply called Andy Irvine/Paul Brady was released at the end of 1976 after Planxty finally broke up – though with Donal Lunny also involved it seemed like another Planxty album in exile. Irish master fiddler Kevin Burke also contributed playing violin.

The album opens with Irvine’s arrangement of the traditional English ballad Plains of Kildare (somewhat ironic as the only non-Kildare man in the original Planxty) about the 18th century horse Skewball and its race presumably at The Curragh (though not mentioned). Irvine’s jig in 3 4 time elegantly transitions to an instrumental middle eight in Bulgarian rachenitsa rhythm of 7 8 time to suggest the gallop of racing horses, before slowing down for the final verse.

Irvine’s musical invention shows also on the second song, the Ulster love song Lough Erne Shore sung by Brady.  Irvine played hurdy-gurdy making it seem the instrument’s drones are capable of playing chords.  “I recorded three different drones on the hurdy-gurdy,” Irvine said. “We cross faded them on the mix to fit the chords. It’s very subtle and you may not hear it but I thought it gave it a great feeling.” The effect is almost Oriental and it remains my favourite song on the album.

According to the sleeve notes Fred Finn’s Reel/Sailing into Walpole’s Marsh” are reels learnt from a northern Irish trio Deirdre Shannon (fiddle), Brian Bailey (flute) and Trevor Stewart (uilleann pipes). Bonny Woodhall is Irvine’s interpretation of Scottish folk song Bonny Woodha, the poignant story of a miner who must leave his true love, Annie, to fight in the king’s war.

The anti-war theme steps up in the next song Arthur McBride and the Sergeant, an Irish anti-recruiting song that dates back to 1840 and one which Irvine had early recorded with Planxty. However Brady makes it his own with this stirring rendition. The Jolly Soldier, continues the martial theme, Brady singing of the love-lorn soldier, a variation of an old English ballad Earl Brand but without its grim death tally. “Don’t despise a soldier just because he poor / He’s as happy on the battlefield as at the barrack door.”

Autumn Gold is Irvine’s song about his experiences in Eastern Europe.  The sadness of departure and the changing seasons are reflected in the lyrics. “Time to leave my friends behind / I leave this town with you on my mind / The dead leaves are burning, the year is decaying / Winter returning, no use in delaying.”

The Troubles in Brady’s native Northern Ireland were likely in his mind as he sang the love song Mary and the Soldier. “For when you’re in a foreign land / Believe me you’ll rue it surely / Perhaps in battle I might fall / From a shot from an angry cannonball.” The same gloomy sense pervades The Streets of Derry, a traditional air sung by Irvine, just three years after the terrible events of Bloody Sunday. “As he was a-marching through the streets of Derry / I’m sure he marched up right manfully / Being much more like a commanding officer / Than a man to die upon a gallows tree.” Martinmas Time is more of the same – trenchant commentary disguised by an ancient ballad. “It fell out upon one Martinmas time / When snow lay on the border / There came a troop of soldiers here / To take up their winter quarters.”

The effect of the album is inescapably political. Great traditional music played by dazzling musicians at the peak of their powers but with a message that was bang up to date. It still resonates with great power four decades later. No wonder they have often re-played the entire album in concert. Musicianship with a message at its finest and deserving a spot in my Top 10.

The full list

1: Horslips – Dancehall Sweethearts (1974)

2: Brian Eno David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981)

3: The The – Soul Mining (1983)

4: The Waterboys – This is the Sea (1985)

5: The Smiths – The Queen is Dead (1986)

6: Mercury Rev – Deserter’s Songs (1998)

7: Cat Power – The Greatest (2004)

8: Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)

9: Iggy Pop – The Idiot (1977)

10: Andy Irvine / Paul Brady (1976)

 

Ten favourite albums: 9 Iggy Pop The Idiot

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I needed to acknowledge the incredible talents of David Bowie somewhere in this list. Bowie’s work is a consistency over a lifetime achievement -especially the 70s and early 80s – and while I think Aladdin Sane (1973) and Low (1977) are his best with a nod to Blackstar his final album released days before his death in 2016, none are individually quite good enough for my top 10. Eventually I realised my favourite Bowie record wasn’t released under his name at all.

I wasn’t a huge fan of James Newell Osterberg Jr or Iggy Pop as he preferred to be styled but I did buy one of his albums when I was busily adding to my Bowie collection around 1980. That was the live album TV Eye (1977) which I was intrigued with because Bowie’s paw prints were all over it. Bowie co-wrote most of the songs and also provided keyboards and backing vocals in the Cleveland gigs the album was recorded from. It would have been some concert to attend.

David Bowie first met Iggy Pop in New York in 1971. As Pop recalled in an interview after Bowie died, “David had said something in Melody Maker about his favorite songs, and he said he liked the Stooges, which is something not a lot of people would admit at the time.” The song TV Eye was from the Stooges period as was the best song on the live album: Dirt. But the rest of it was from a fruitful artistic collaboration in 1977 in Germany just as Bowie was starting his own Berlin residency.

The Idiot (1977) was the first album Pop recorded without the Stooges but it has Bowie imprints everywhere. So much so, that many traditional Iggy Pop fans say it is his least typical album. Indeed there is a good case for calling it Bowie’s first album of could be called a Berlin quartet (with Low, Heroes and Lodger).

Pop said he learned a lot from Bowie. “I first heard the Ramones, Kraftwerk and Tom Waits from him,” he said. Bowie had an important effect on the third Stooges album, Raw Power. “We did some sessions at Olympic Studios in London and sent the tapes to David,” Pop said. “He came back to me: ‘You can do better than that.’ So we did.” Pop said Bowie never wasted a piece of music or an idea “I first heard his 1980 song ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ when we were in a house on Sunset Boulevard in 1974. It was called ‘Running Scared’ at the time. He was playing it on the guitar and wanted to know if I could do something with it. I couldn’t. He kept it and worked it up.”

The Idiot also showed they both absorbed the lesson: Don’t throw stuff away. The opening track Sister Midnight was written by Bowie, Pop and guitarist Carlos Alomar and Bowie would later rework the song as Red Money on his 1979 album Lodger. Frankly the Idiot version is better. The second song Nightclubbing is another Pop / Bowie classic (most brilliantly later reworked as the title song of a Grace Jones album of covers). It also featured on the classic soundtrack of Trainspotting alongside the title track of the second Pop-Bowie collaboration that year Lust for Life.

The Idiot is named for Dostoyevsky’s novel that both men and producer Tony Visconti liked. In it Prince Myshkin is a young man whose goodness and lack of guile lead people who meet him to assume he is an idiot. Whether Pop and Bowie liked that conceit or just liked the read is hard to say but there is a disarming simplicity about the album that hides more than it reveals.

The Idiot was recorded in Munich and Berlin and the third song Funtime, another Pop/Bowie composition, reflected their fascination with the German music scene and resembled krautrock band Neu!’s 1972 song “Lila Engel“. Guitarist Phil Palmer enjoyed working with Pop and Bowie but called the recording “vampiric” as he never saw either during the day, a fact alluded to in the lyrics of Funtime “Last night I was down in the lab / Talkin’ to Dracula and his crew.”

The song China Girls was another Bowie/Pop song reworked by both artists, though again The Idiot version just shades Bowie’s later recording on Let’s Dance. Bowie biographer Paul Trynka said the song was inspired by Iggy Pop’s infatuation with Vietnamese Kuelan Nguyen, who was staying at the studio. But “China White” is also slang for heroin and both men had serious drug addiction problems at the time, so they were probably having a bob each way.

Side two opens with Dum Dum Boys, another Bowie/Osterberg composition. Reviewing the album in ClashMusic Amanda Arber said it was the best song on the album: “an ode to The Stooges’ glory days, is a disturbing insight into Pop’s internal monologue of how he saw their rise and fall.” Pop admitted “Things have been tough / Without the dumb dumb boys” but now there was always Bowie to fall back on.

It’s a great song but my favourite is the last song the brooding eight-minute long Mass Production (Pop/Bowie). In Jim Ambrose’s biography of Pop Gimme Danger, Iggy said he would always talk to Bowie about how much he admired the beauty of the Northern American industrial culture that was rotting away where he grew up (Muskegon, Michigan). The BowieSongs blog says it is draining to listen to and willfully abrasive “Mass Production offered the future: Joy Division, among others, starts here,” the blog said.

Arber’s assessment 35 years after its release of The Idiot was that it was bleakly revolutionary then, and it is now. “The Idiot stands as a dark, dense and desolate display of an artist confronting his demons head-on, and growing up in the process,” she wrote in 2012. I’d agree with one proviso – it was about two artists and their demons – not one.

Ten Favourite Albums: 8 Radiohead In Rainbows

81KWYrlOt7L._SL1254_Conventional wisdom is that the best Radiohead album is either OK Computer (1997) or Kid A (2000) with the latter usually shading it in most verdicts. These ranking lists are more meaningful than most with Radiohead by most measures the most influential band in the world for two decades and my personal favourite. I certainly loved OKC from the moment it came out and played it on high rotation for at least 12-18 months in the time that followed. Perhaps because I played it so much, I listen to rarely these days though several songs on the album still have the ability to enchant. Kid A I liked less from the off though has been growing on me over the years. But the Radiohead album I most often turn to these days is the album usually listed by critics as their third best album In Rainbows (2007).

I still remember the buzz around OK Computer when it first came out 21 years ago. I didn’t like their 1993 debut Pablo Honey (and was possibly the only person in Australia who hated the single Creep) so was uninspired to pick up the second album The Bends (I would later grow to appreciate that album). But OK Computer touched me in ways I did not expect, despite its nerdy off-putting title. As a Pitchfork review said it combined “delicious melodrama with frenzied crescendos of massed guitars massaged into busy, buzzy orchestration which perfectly contrasted with the wounded innocence of Thom Yorke’s choirboy cry.” Radiohead were certainly feeling Lucky “I’m your superhero /
We are standing on the edge.”

Their pre-millennial tension gave way to Kid A three years later, an album Rolling Stone said “was the pinnacle of their trying-too-hard genius (which loomed) over everything else they’ve done before or since.” While the critics agreed it was their best and it had three or four great tracks, it strangely left me cold. It seemed to forgetfully blur into the off-takes that followed, appropriately called Amnesiac (with Morning Bell linking both).

Hail to the Thief (2003) was released in the aftermath of the Iraqi War and like most political albums failed in its over-earnestness. Radiohead being Radiohead it still had some great tracks like 2 + 2 = 5 and Go To Sleep.

The hype around any new Radiohead album was enhanced with In Rainbows over the band’s decision to introduce a pay-what-you-want model including getting it for free, after the band has broken up with record label EMI. It was worth every penny people didn’t pay for it. 15 Step got the album off to a cracking start “You reel me out then you cut the string.” The rocking Bodysnatchers was released as a single, while Nude sounded lushly romantic with its strings and swooning guitars.

I have no idea what Weird Fishes/Arpeggi is about, but its pulsating rhythm makes it one of the best tracks on the album. All I Need slows down the pace but is just as good. “It’s all wrong, it’s all right.” It sure is. Reckoner is an instant classic and is voted by many as the best song of the decade. “We separate / Like ripples on a blank shore / In rainbows.” And if that wasn’t enough there is still room for another great song Videotape, with a secret reason as to why is a deceptively difficult song to record for such as great earworm. As Open Culture said about the song’s structure “the chord sequence is not on the downbeat, but shifted a half-beat earlier. Hence, it is a heavily syncopated song that removes all clues to its syncopation.” For some it was Thom Yorke’s way of saying goodbye “because I can’t do it face to face.”

Radiohead are still producing great music today – A Moon Shaped Pool is a fine album but as the Guardian wrote In Rainbows flows seamlessly along. “It sounds supremely confident, like a band who know they’re at the height of their powers,” the Guardian wrote. “Whatever you paid, it’s hard to imagine feeling short-changed.”

Ten Favourite Albums: 7 Cat Power The Greatest

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It is quite the risk to call one of your albums The Greatest – even if the name is a tribute to Muhammad Ali – but Cat Power pulls it off with her 2006 album. Cat Power is the stage name of Atlanta musician Chan Marshall, daughter of blues musician Charlie Marshall. A move to New York aged 20 introduced her to the Big Apple experimental music scene and there she recorded her first two albums, the second of which Myra Lee (1996) got a 5/5 review from Rolling Stone. Her third album What Would the Community Think (1996) was produced by Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and featured styles ranging from alternative rock to folk and blues.

She moved to Oregon and spent time in Melbourne where she recorded Moon Pix (1998) and then after releasing a covers album followed it with You Are Free (2003) which received widespread critical acclaim. The Greatest came out a year later, recorded in Memphis. As Pitchfork said in its review The Greatest resembled all her previous records as “a mostly sad, heartbroken, hopeless, rainy-day affair.” Pitchfork noted several veteran Memphis studio musicians served as her backing band, including Mabon “Teenie” Hodges on guitar, his brother Leroy “Flick” Hodges on bass, and Steve Potts on drums. “These soul legends have played with Al Green, Booker T. and the MG’s, Aretha Franklin, Neil Young, and more; in other words, they don’t seem like the kind of dudes who’d stand much tortured diva bullshit from some no-name white girl off Matador Records,” they said.

The quality is evident from the opening title track. “Once I wanted to be the greatest / No wind or waterfall could stall me.” It is bleak but beautiful. Following on is the breezy Living Proof. The Guardian review said about this song her band get to stretch out and kick back in their signature fashion, “but there is something about Power’s vocal drift, and her almost abstract lyrics, that makes the conjunction strangely inconclusive.” My conclusion: my favourite song on the album.

Could We takes off in another intriguing musical direction while the brief but beautiful Islands is perfect Nashville country in Memphis. The final two songs end the album on a perfect note. Hate is hard and you can feel Power’s power “They can give me pills / Or let me drink my fill / The heart wants to explode / Far away where nobody knows.”

Hate can be great but love is better and Love and Communication is a great way to finish a great album. “Drawn to the party like a spider filling up your guts / Don’t hate the night with what you shouldn’t have.” As Pitchfork said Power turned the tables on the final track “Instead of the Memphis crew welcoming Marshall into their world, the closing track sees Marshall luring the studio vets down her dark, claustrophobic alley. ”

There may not be much room to move and it may be hard to see but The Greatest is a rich and rewarding journey still paying itself off a decade later.

Ten Favourite albums 6: Mercury Rev Deserter’s Songs

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A few years ago I attended a gig at the Zoo in Brisbane. The American band playing was Mercury Rev and the venue was sparsely attended. But those few there got a terrific performance from Jonathan Donahue and his crew and the small crowd lapped it up especially when they played any song from their hallmark album Deserter’s Songs (1998).

I bought that album not long after it came out, most likely on the recommendation from my brother who was also telling about similar great American music being made by bands like Grandaddy and the Flaming Lips. Donahue, the founding member of Rev used to be a member of the Lips and his vocal style was not dissimilar to Wayne Coyne. Indeed the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev were recording in the same studio at the same time and while Rev produced Deserter’s Songs, the Lips came out with The Soft Bulletin, an album almost as good.

Formed in Buffalo, New York, in the late 1980s Mercury Rev experimented with a psychedelic rock sound on their debut album Yerself is Steam (1991) and Boces (1993). Their third album See You on the Other Side (1995) crashed and burned and the band found themselves deep in debt. Donahue slipped into a deep depression and cut off all communication with his fellow bandmembers. Donahue began listening to albums he loved as a child, including “Tale Spinners for Children” which inspired him to compose  simple melodies on a piano. He began to recover and set a new musical direction for Mercury Rev.

Though without a manager, lawyer or label, the band got back together. Deserter’s Songs was written and recorded in the Catskill Mountains (where Donahue grew up) in six months, helped by Catskill residents, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band. Donahue admitted the world “wasn’t exactly waiting for another Mercury Rev record” but as the Guardian said the end product was “near flawless, one of those records on which not a second is wasted and every track could be a single”.

The song Holes gets the album off to a terrific start. According to Pop Matters Holes “is a swirling melancholy dream, a Grimm’s fairy tale with pain and darkness coursing just under the surface of an elegant and ornate reverie of beauty and wonder.”  Yeah whatever, but great music. Tonite It Shows has Donahue at the top of his power vocally “with spine-tingling power, his voice catching at the edges like a man overcome with the force of memory.”

The next classic on the album is Opus 40, named for a large environmental sculpture in Saugerties, New York, created by sculptor Harvey Fite. Keyboardist Adam Snyder told Uncut in 2015: “I remember Jon (Donahue) and I were sitting in a room in Kingston, which is like the gateway to the Catskills. I started tinkering around with a Wurlitzer, and that’s how ‘Opus 40’ was born.” Guitarist Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak said it was a place Donahue used to hang out.

Goddess on a Hiway was the first single from the album and a personal favourite. As NME wrote Goddess was “the biggest pop moment of the record, like a Disney theme tune if it had been fucked up by a cult US indie band.” If that doesn’t sound like praise, they concluded: “It still sounds awesome.”

It’s followed by another classic The Funny Bird which as one reviewer (appropriately named Deserter’s Songs) says “takes Neil Young’s ‘Like A Hurricane’ and significantly ups the paranoia levels: Grasshopper wrestling great squalls of unholy terror from his instrument, which seems to dissolve in on itself by the song’s climax.” I agree with that reviewer’s take on the entire album: “It remains full of secrets I can’t begin to fathom, and depths I haven’t even begun to explore. The funny bird still refuses to come to earth.”