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.”
Released in 1986, this was the album I had most trouble with though its place in the top 10 was never in doubt. The rest of the list is in order when the albums made their biggest impact on me and perhaps because the Queen is not yet dead 32 years later, I’m not sure when that was. So here it is, blandly in the middle of the list. In their short five year life The Smiths put out some great material and I enjoyed their music from when I first heard them in 1984. Yet at the time I felt their later albums were too similar to their earlier stuff and it took a while to appreciate this classic for what it was. The Queen is Dead is peak Smiths.
I always found The Smiths hard to categorise and I’m not alone. When John Peel first heard the band he said “I was impressed because unlike most bands… you couldn’t immediately tell what records they’d been listening to”. I did not have Peel’s musical knowledge but I got what he was on about – the Smiths weren’t like other bands of the era. The Mancunian melding of Morrisey’s campy lyrical style and Johnny Marr’s jangling guitars were a creative match made in heaven (neither proved much good subsequently without the other). I picked up their debut album The Smiths (1984) which I loved and even though I was disappointed some songs were re-released for Hatful of Hollow (1984) it still had some great new material, none better that How Soon is Now.
I was left a bit cold by Meat is Murder (1985) so I wasn’t immediately inspired to pick up The Queen is Dead when it was released a year later. I heard the album’s first single on the radio The Boy With the Thorn in His Side and might have dismissed it as Morrisey’s gay ramblings but I did like the second single Bigmouth Strikes Again. As usual Morrisey’s lyrics were memorably ludicrous “I was only joking / When I said by rights you should be / Bludgeoned in your bed” – well thank god for that, but it was a rattling good song for all that. Yet despite all the good things I was reading and the various lists it topped for 1986 and indeed the 1980s I was not convinced to invest deeply in the album or in Strangeways Here We Come which followed a year later.
The Queen remained a sleeper in my musical consciousness until at least ten years later, when I was browsing a Melbourne musical store and stumbled on a compilation album called The Smiths Is Dead. A bunch of Britpop bands I was listening to at the time like Supergrass, The Boo Radleys, Placebo plus an unlikely contribution from Billy Bragg came together to do their take on The Queen Is Dead. Though the compilation by French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the release of the originally was widely derided, it was an original take and I liked it. I played it so often I forgot what the original sounded like and until curiosity dragged me back. What I was thinking, it was clear after a few listens the remake was a pale imitation of the original.
Now it only takes me the transition from the war tune “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” to the title track The Queen is Dead to get me back into the serious Smiths swing. It was Morrisey in full camp mode but I loved it. “No one talks about castration,” well yes, there’s a reason for that. It sounded silly but also witty and allied to Marr’s pounding music it appeared fresh in a way it didn’t seem two decades earlier. “Oh has the world changed, or have I changed?” Probably both, but it’s a crackerjack song that sets the bar high from the beginning.
Frankly Mr Shankly, I could take or leave but I Know It’s Over spoke to me directly “If you’re so very entertaining / Then why are you on your own tonight?” It was harder to believe even the morose Morrisey Never Had No One Ever but it was still another cracking song. Cemetry Gates with its childish mispelling could have come straight off the debut album but then there was the “blistering sight” of a Vicar in a Tutu.
Morrisey’s morbidity returns in There is a Light That Never Goes Out with its heavenly ways to die, but there is that airy music in the background undermining the grimness. The contrast is there again in the final track Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others. The Carry On wink-nudge nonsense of “As Anthony said to Cleopatra / As he opened a crate of ale” is almost sacrilegiously superimposed on one of Marr’s most alluring guitar melodies, as Simon Goddard wrote.
In a 2017 review of the album Pitchfork said what endured was the peal of exile in Morrissey’s voice, “a timeless plaint of longing and not-belonging”. He brought the “tart wit and strange mind” to the partnership while Marr brought the beauty of serene, synthesized strings and guitarist golden cascades. “It was a great musical tragedy that barely a year after releasing The Queen Is Dead, this odd couple went their separate ways, for reasons that still feel not fully explained, Pitchfork wrote. “These boys were made for each other—and surely deep down they still know it.” They would also know they were never better together than on this album.
When I moved to England in 1985 I lost the urge to seek out alternative bands though I loved the work of the Pogues. I remember a particularly anarchic St Patrick’s Day concert in Hammersmith with fondness and their album If I Should Fall from Grace with God was desperately close to making this list. But I also liked the softer touch of women like Suzanne Vega and KD Lang and I was quite happy to get into the stadium rock of U2 and Simple Minds. The Waterboys, at least in the mid 1980s, were in the same epic genre as those two bands.
Like The The, The Waterboys was the creative genius of one person, Edinburgh-born Mike Scott. Scott had an extensive range of influences he displayed through his contribution to fanzines at university but eventually wanted to play music not write about it.
He took the name for his band from Lou Reed’s The Kids “And I am the Water Boy, the real game’s not over here”. His first two albums The Waterboys” (1983) and A Pagan Place (1984) signified their approach to “Big Music” with even a song of that name on the second album. This Is The Sea (1985) was the third and final album of that phase and my introduction to their music, probably sometime in 1986.
From the opening trumpet fanfare on Don’t Bang The Drum that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Morricone-themed western I fell in love with it. “It could be deliverance, or history” Scott screamed out when the vocals finally arrived. I didn’t know which but it set the album off at a breathtaking pace. A recent reviewer in the Irish Times says that opening track takes him back 30 years to a train in Tipperary. For me it takes me back to my flat in Chester dancing away a cold winter’s night or to a road in Scotland, heading towards a football game with the song on full blast in the car. It was loud and joyous, and a template taken on by Arcade Fire among more recent bands.
Yet Scott somehow manages to top that with the second song The Whole of the Moon. It became the album’s signature song, its best selling single and the one played in every Waterboys concert since. There was speculation the contrasts in the lyrics were inspired by his girlfriend or CS Lewis or Prince but Scott said it was not a single person but a type. ” I wrote the song when I was 26 years old,” he told Songfacts. “I was discovering that there was so much more than I had ever known… I had a strong sense of wonderment about that, and I realized there were people who had vastly more information in their imaginations and experiences than I had.”
The next crucial song on the album was The Pan Within with Scott inviting Irishman Steve Wickham to join him in the studio. Wickham had played violin on U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday and brought his fuzz fiddle style to the song, eventually joining the band full time. The trumpet work of classically-trained Roddy Lorimer is also a joy on the first two tracks and of course, when Scott sings “your love feels like Trumpets.” Scott ends on a joyous note in the title track: “Once you were tethered / Well now you are free” reminding us again we don’t have to bang that drum.
As Mick Fitzsimmons says in his BBC review the album is Scott’s defining moment “literate, majestic and strangely moving music which wears its savage heart proudly on its sleeve.” After The Sea Scott had the rock world at his feet and could bang what ever drum he liked. But as the first line of the first song of the next album revealed all he wanted to be was a fisherman. Influenced by Wickham, he moved to Ireland and like Dylan in reverse turned towards a more rootsier recording tradition with Fisherman’s Blues. Just like Dylan, critics were divided about the move. Initially I found Blues a harder album to like but these days, I play it as often as its predecessor. Yet though I could take or leave its spiritual elements, for its effect in a time and a place This Is The Sea remains in my top 10.
The The’s Soul Mining (1983) is my all-time favourite album. I didn’t put it at number one, so the sensible thing would have been to grow the suspense and keep it to ten. It appears at three because it affected me after the first two.
The The was the project of Englishman Matt Johnson and I first heard of him a year or so earlier. I was living in Dublin and it didn’t take me long to be drawn to the city’s two independent record stores Freebird on Grafton St and the edgier Base X on the Northside where I regularly emptied my wallet on new music and the fanzine Vox. Printed in cheap black and white it helped me learn about Irish post-punk bands like the Virgin Prunes and Microdisney and there was also a hefty amount of interesting new English product.
They promoted a record label called Cherry Red, which occasionally pulled its bands together for a compilation album, most successfully in the brilliant Pillows and Prayers which I loved and for which I “paid no more than 99p” for as the sticker on the cover suggested when it came out in 1982. Pillows featured their top bands like The Monochrome Set and Everything But the Girl, but not Johnson who featured in Cherry Red’s earlier compilation.
Called Perspectives and Distortion (1981), the earlier album was mostly inaccessible and up itself. There was one quirky tune on Perspectives which did quicken the pulse. That song What Stanley Saw recorded under the name Matt Johnson never made the debut solo album that followed later that year, because by then he had moved to 4AD. That album Burning Blue Soul was patchy post-punk but marked Johnson out as a serious talent and it had at least threeclassictracks.
The Soul went from Burning Blue to Mining in 1983. This second album was released under a new name The The, but it was still mainly Matt Johnson, and it was brilliance of a whole new order, even if that order was mostly early 20s male angst. I was just two years younger than Johnson so he spoke to me. From the butchered countdown opening I’ve Been Waitin’ for Tomorrow (All of My Life) Johnson unleashes all his problems in a pounding song that builds up to the polluted/diluted finish.
Then just as quickly Johnson pulls us out of misery in This is The Day “when things fall into place.” But don’t get used to that either because the Sinking Feeling is never far away. “I’m just a symptom of the moral decay / That’s gnawing at the heart of the country”. It was manic depression writ large and his lyrics had “histrionic gaucheness” as the Guardian said, but it was also strikingly precocious and they held together “a kaleidoscopic array of musical influences.” Those influences came out in the album’s best track: An Uncertain Smile which ends side one. Smile stared down some serious demons but it also contained a brilliant Jools Holland piano solo that occupies the entire second half of the song. It is as the Guardian said “a genuinely astonishing performance” by Holland, though actually two separate pieces that Johnson weaved together over an older song of his.
The second half is more in Johnson’s moody vein. The final track, the ten minute epic Giant screamed “How can anyone know me / When I don’t even know myself.” I assume Johnson knows himself well these days. He hasn’t recorded prolifically since Mining (Dusk and Infected are both worth a listen) and I was privileged to see him play live in Brisbane in the late 90s. The handful of Soul Mining songs he played got the best reception. As Melody Maker, this album is great pop, “a barometer to your day” that will enhance whatever mood you are in. There is a reason it appears in countless lists of best albums of the 80s or beyond. Soul mining goes on forever.
If Horslips – along with the likes of Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy – opened up the possibilities of Irish music in the 1970s, I was seeking new influences as the 1980s began. I already had discovered David Bowie (and I’m still grappling with the question of my favourite Bowie album) and while I loved the early 1970s personae I was particularly intrigued with stripped back brilliance of his Berlin era work with its cute songs interspersed by lavish if depressing electronica.
The curious name Brian Eno haunted the sleeve notes of albums like Low, Heroes and Lodger but in this pre-Internet era I had no idea who he was (or his links to the very well known Roxy Music). Another band Talking Heads was also simmering at the edge of my conscience though it would be another year or two before albums like Fear of Music and Remain in Light would become lifelong favourites.
In the early summer of 1981 I was not quite 17 years old and preparing to do my school Leaving Cert and examining options what to do next. One option was to study maths and science at then Limerick NIHE (National Institute of Higher Education – now the University of Limerick). We did a family excursion to Limerick to check out the campus and spend a day in the city, 80 miles (everything was in miles those days) from Waterford.
I don’t recall much about the NIHE and never seriously explored the Limerick education option but the trip had one lasting consequence. While left alone to wander the streets I found a record shop and found this mysterious LP with its abstract but intriguing cover and odd title. With five quid burning a hole in my pocket money I bought it on impulse.
I couldn’t wait to get back to Waterford to play this new record. From the first listen I was hooked. I was expecting to hear possibly Eno’s voice and definitely Byrne’s voice on the songs but neither were there. I had no idea I was listening to one of the earliest albums ever to use sampling and I loved this idea of using “found voices” to overlay on great music.
German musician Holger Czukay, co-founder of the Krautrock group Can had experimented with the technique in the 1970s but as Byrne later said in an interview the difference was they decided to make it the lead vocal on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The title comes from a 1954 novel by Amos Tutuola who wrote folk tales of his native Yoruba people in south-west Nigeria in dangerous pre-end colonial times. The bush of ghosts are different towns, inhabited by a different type of ghost, each representing a different problem in life.
Byrne had long adapted African influences for Talking Heads and the politics of America in the 1970s were rich fodder for the vocals. The opening song has a radio shock jock screaming “America is waiting for a message of some sort or another.” He reminds us “we ought to be mad at the government not mad at the people.” The music rushes us on to be mad about something.
Another radio voice provides the Mea Culpa of the second song, with an Irish bodhran providing another cross-cultural percussive pulse. Eno said the lo-fi song was about inner-city oppression and political powerlessness. Maybe. For me it was simply another aural experience I’d never encountered.
The novelties continued with song three Regiment. It was one of two songs on the album sampled from The Human Voice of Islam attributed to “Lebanese mountain singer Dunya Yunis”. It wasn’t until recently I heard Dunya Yunis was a woman, I always assumed it was a male voice. Her Arab airs suddenly veered the album off in a new direction.
Then the album was yanked back into the growing power of Christian fundamentalism with two tracks sampling American preachers. In Help Me Somebody a revivalist black padre asks us to “take a good look at yourself / And see if you’re the kind of person that God wants you to be”. The next track The Jezebel Spirit samples an exorcist at work, laughingly creepily before launching into his spiel: “Spirit of destruction / Spirit of grief / I bind you with chains of iron.” It was powerful nonsense (no surprise The Exorcist was one of the most memorable films of the era). It was also great music and electrifyingly liberating to a teenager losing his faith in Holy Catholic Ireland. All this just in side one.
Side two is the weaker side. Because I have an early version of the album I still have the song “Qu’ran” – which features samples of Qur’anic recital- as the opening track on that side. When the album was re-released a year later it was removed at the request of the Islamic Council of Great Britain. If Eno/Byrne’s warning about the dangers of Christian Fundamentalism were ahead of its time, so was the dangers of Islamic Fundamentalism, with Islam still a weak force in England at the time. Nonetheless the artists agreed to the Council’s request. The two Yunis songs Regiment and The Carrier stayed as did A Secret Life, more Arabic sampling from Samira Tewfik, another Lebanese woman better known for her specialist singing in Jordanian Bedouin dialect. All the while Eno and Byrne superimpose their own version of Western electronica on these samples of world music.
Ghosts became a hugely influential album on musicians that followed. Today the album seems unremarkable because sampling is so much part of musical culture. As one recent review said with today’s advanced technology, a child could create music based on samples and loops. “But back in analog 1981, Byrne and Eno had to do things with scissors and tapes and to play samples in real time.” Analog or not, the music has not dated and remains a deeply rewarding way to pass three quarters of an hour. My tastes in music were never the same again.
There’s this game doing the rounds on Facebook about people naming their ten favourite albums. The viral nature of the game is exposed with the second half of the rules. With each album you must tag a friend to do the same. In theory each person playing the game spawns ten more. Unsurprisingly sooner or later a friend nominated me to do it but it’s not something I use Facebook for so I ignored the request (possibly a feeble attempt to stick it to Zuckerberg, but there you go).
Nonetheless I couldn’t get the question out of my mind. Love of music is so personal and so changing listing a top 10 seemed an impossible task. But I am a sucker for a good list and I felt I had to give it a go. A top 10 is hard, though I have an all-time favourite album and that will make the list in due course. I also have favourite artists and bands (Bowie and Radiohead) but which albums to choose from them? I’ve scribbled down a provisional top 10 but that may change as I get through it.
You can all relax, however. I’m not nominating anyone else to do the same. You don’t need my permission.
1. Dancehall Sweethearts, Horslips
My memories of Ireland in the 1970s, like the TV of the time, are in black and white. The country was grim, poor, and inward looking – still gradually emerging from fog of war in the 1920s that kept the nation looking awkwardly back into its history rather than into the future for inspiration. By the mid 1970s most of the De Valera generation that dominated Ireland since those war times were finally dead and although war was still front of mind of those in the north of the island, the Republic of Ireland was slowly finding its feet, albeit at a time when the world was reeling with the effect of the Oil Shock. The sixties zeitgeist had left a small mark on conservative Catholic consciousness. Art was always an Irish stronghold. The great literary figures of Joyce, Shaw, Yeats and others had long lampooned Irish hypocrisies but left the masses cold. What could inspire as well as teach was Irish music.
Traditional music always had a place in Irish culture but in his short lifetime Sean O’Riada was in the vanguard of a new experiment placing Irish music firmly in the world canon leaning on other folk cultures such as middle Europe. Traditional music exploded in Dublin in the 1960s as younger artists began to see the possibilities of merging trad, folk and other new genres. Planxty (some of whose members will also appear later in my list) were a pivotal band bringing traditional music bang up to date with alternative arrangements and instruments and provocative ideas to go with older songs.
The band Horslips founded almost by accident in 1972 as a straightforward Irish rock band. But several of its members such as Jim Lockhart were university-educated and had studied O’Riada. Their first singles mixed rock and trad and had good radio airplay and their debut album “Happy To Meet, Sorry To Part” with its Gaelic motifs and octagonal cover was full of traditional airs that pretty much invented a new genre “celtic rock”.
Their second album a year later The Táin took that idea one step further – a concept album based on the early Irish legend of Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), about a war between Ulster and Connacht over a prize bull. The album featured what would become their signature track Dearg Doom and was a critical and commercial success in Ireland, though with limited exposure elsewhere due to its presumably esoteric subject matter.
It was this matter of how to sell Horslips in 1974 that convinced record company RCA (which marketed its material outside Ireland) to come up with the cliched rock band cover photo for Dancehall Sweethearts. Suspicious of matters celtic, they wanted Horslips to be seen as firmly in the 1970s rock canon. But the material remained stubbornly Irish. The title of their third album spoke to the Irish musical tradition of large country dancehalls where “showbands” (such as one my own father performed in) dominated in front of large audiences with their Irish interpretation of pop and country classics. The dancehalls were dying off by 1974 as the showbands lost their lure (and were put almost out of business by the nasty business of war as the Miami Showband Killings showed a year later).
Horslips were “nighttown boys” who played in dancehalls but were sweethearts of a different nature. Despite the cliched Spinal Tap cover, they were constantly reinventing, this time adding splashes of brass and blues to their Irish melodies. There was another concept too this one riffing to the great 18th century blind harper, Turlough O’ Carolan and the word “blind” featured in two song titles. They also played homage to the Beatles when they performed their traditional instrumental King of the Fairies on the roof of the Baggot St Bank of Ireland in Dublin. The album was a vision of a new Ireland proud of its past but reaching out experimentally to a confident future.
Horslips made three more albums in this new genre peaking with the Book of Invasions in 1976 (widely considered their best record) before becoming more mainstream rock as they tried to make it big in America. Those later albums were not as good and they eventually broke up around 1980.
I was 10 when Dancehall Sweethearts came out and first came across the album probably a year or two later alongside the Book of Invasions in the record collection of older cousins. Maybe it was because prog rock was my thing at the time I was hooked more by the rock-like cover of Sweethearts. But it didn’t take long to get into the music. Nighttown Boy was a cracking opener but I was transfixed from the moment I heard the haunting choir singing Fear a Bhata as the opening to the Carolanesque The Blind Can’t Lead the Blind.
This was a new Ireland, haunting the consciousness of all who call – or once called – her home.
Well you can move to Boston
Take a job in a small hotel.
But that won’t be the answer
You’ll still hear St. Patrick’s Bell
Even now in far away northern Australia, I still hear St. Patrick’s Bell whenever I listen to Horslips.
A dark and shameful episode in Queensland history has come to end with the news the Queensland government has agreed to pay a $30m settlement and deliver a formal apology to the people of Palm Island. It comes as the federal court found police officers breached the Racial Discrimination Act and acted unlawfully in responding to riots over the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee (known as Mulrunji) in 2004. The settlement, subject to approval by the federal court, resolves a class action involving hundreds of claimants, lead by Lex, Cecilia and Agnes Wotton.
Palm Island was a Queensland gulag, a concentration camp for Aboriginal people or an “island Siberia” as historian Henry Reynolds called it. Wotton would not have been old enough to remember the last time locals rioted against injustice in 1957. But he would have known the story and heard about the heavy-handed police response on that occasion. The police attitude has not changed with police union boss Ian Leavers claiming they did nothing wrong in 2004 and the settlement was made to “criminals”. Leavers is paid to defend his members but would have been advised to have kept his mouth shut this time rather than add to a flagrant injustice.
His officer Chris Hurley has been the centre of attention since the coroner found him guilty of killing Mulrunji with three fatal punches, a death compounded by the casual treatment of the body and the lies police told the family after his death. Fourteen years later no one has been convicted of his death despite numerous court actions. Mulrunji stupidly taunted police as they made an arrest but his subsequent arrest was needless as was Hurley’s punches which left him dying in the cells.
When his family came calling, worried for his health, Hurley lied to them that he was sleeping and then colluded with other officers to cover up the death. When the truth did come out about the death of a popular local man, anger quickly seethed in a community used to being discriminated against, but had never accepted it. When they surrounded the police station, the police response was to send in the riot squad. At 5am they broke into the home of community leader Lex Wotton – who was never implicated in the riots – and arrested him at gunpoint in front of terrified relatives. In 2016 Federal Court Justice Debbie Mortimer ruled police had breached the racial discrimination act as they responded to the riots. It’s hard not to agree with the Palm Island mayor it is the police who need to apologise not the islanders.
Ultimately police are state government employees and it was the state government that overstepped the mark in 2004 as they did in 1957. Back in 1957, Palm Islanders had almost no rights at all. Their movements and almost all aspects of their life were controlled by Queensland’s infamous Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897. Palm Island reserve was created as a penal settlement for Aboriginal people across northern Queensland, and many were jailed for trivial offences. Saxby Downs stockman Albert Hippi was sent there because he “frightens women and tries to get liquor” while in 1924 Paddy Brooks of Millaa Millaa was exiled for causing “discontent”.
On the island they were ruled by a succession of harsh administrators such as Robert Curry. Curry arrived when the settlement started in 1918 and he ruled with a rod of iron for 12 years. Floggings were frequent as well as summary removals. In 1929 Home Department recommended a police magistrate inquiry into Curry ‘s alleged assault of a woman with a whip until “she fell senseless to the ground”.
After his medical officer reported him for flogging, Curry lost the plot. In the early hours of February 3, 1930 he ran amok with a gun shooting and injuring the medical officer before smashing the officer’s wife skull with the butt of his rifle. He then set fire to his own house killing his son and step-daughter inside. After he fled to another island and then returned, the medical officer ordered Aboriginal man Peter Prior to shoot him dead. Prior was charged with murder but the Supreme Court judge threw the case out saying it only made it this far because Curry’s killer was not a white man.
In the war years the US Army posted black American soldiers to the island to protect white Australian sensibilities from seeing black men on the streets of the city (the paranoid fear was they would have sex with white women). These soldiers gave the islanders a powerful new sense of their own identity and the Second World War was a time of political awakening for Aboriginal people. But islander hopes were brutally quashed with the arrival of a new supervisor in 1953 named Roy Bartlam.
Bartlam was an ex-policeman obsessed with control. He believed Murris could not think for themselves and used intimidation and police brutality to cement his reign. Locals were punished if they did not salute all whites they passed in the street. If they were late for roll call or curfew, they were imprisoned. People faced seven day’s jail for laughing or whistling. Blacks were jailed for being untidy or not having their hair cut. Women were sent to prison for not having skirts below knee-length.
Bartlam’s ridiculous rules led an all-out strike in 1957 with eerie foreshadowing of the 2004 riots. A Murri man was charged with threatening Bartlam, but broke away and was joined by demonstrators who attacked police and abused settlement officers. As Bartlam hid in his office, Aboriginal people went on strike and controlled every corner. They sent a letter to Brisbane authorities demanding “adequate meat supply, increased wages, better housing and for Bartlam to leave the island.”
Just as in 2004, authorities over-reacted. RAAF planes rushed 20 police to the island, greeted by 250 demonstrators. After several days of siege, Bartlam’s men arrested the strike leaders in the middle of the night and the strike was ended. The leaders were exiled and Bartlam stayed but the strike had some success. There was immediate improvements in diet and conditions.
Yet as late as 1969 blacks were still banned from the main street, Mango Avenue, and new Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen equated Aboriginal activism with black terrorism. When local leader Fred Clay and union organiser Bill Rosser started a newsletter called Smoke Signal to document life under the Act, they were legally thrown off the island.
Though some land rights and an Aboriginal council were established in the 1980s, the island was still home to inadequate housing, poor sewerage and infectious diseases. Easier access to alcohol led to an upsurge in violence and suicide. While regulations were introduced in 1972 which declared all Aboriginal workers must be paid an award wage, these regulations did not apply to workers on government reserves such as Palm Island, where payment was labelled a “training allowance”, despite many employees having worked for decades. In the 2000s Palm Island remained a deeply troubled and desperately poor place hidden from view from mainstream Australia. Some locals called the place “Fallujah” but this Fallujah never made the national news until the 2004 riots.
In Mulrunji’s inquest report the Deputy Coroner found Hurley had contributed to his death. The police union were furious, the government backed off, and Hurley was never stood down. The largest police awards ceremony in Queensland history issued bravery awards for the cops involved in quelling the riot. Premier Beattie refused a call for a Royal Commission. In 2009 Lex Wotton was jailed for seven years for his part in instigating the riot, though he was released on parole in 2010. In 2013 his family filed the class action and the Federal Court found in their favour in 2016.
As Justice Mortimer said about police in his scathing judgement: “If content is to be given to the obligation, contained in the QPS Operational Procedures Manual to consider ‘cultural needs’, then in the case of Palm Island those cultural needs could not possibly be understood or met in any genuine way without a good working appreciation of the racism and oppression that characterised the island’s history.” Something that Leavers would do well to understand.