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Rock's radical Australia Day message


As a social and political activist since my teens, people often ask me what motivated me so early on. A few factors shaped my values: my Irish Catholic background; my public housing upbringing by a widowed mother on welfare ; and, later, my discovery of a radical message about love and stuff.

But it was a rock song that brought it all together. It was 1982 and I was 14. I was watching Countdown with my brother, when the song came on. It was catchy, had a haunting chorus, rich harmonies, and a great guitar riff. But there was something more. It gave me goose-bumps, though I couldn't explain why.

'That'll be a hit,' my brother predicted.

The song was 'Solid Rock' by Australian band Goanna. It is now 30 years since I first saw that clip, but when I hear the song today, I still get goose-bumps, and the chorus still haunts me.

I couldn't wait until the repeat of Countdown the following week. As soon as I had saved up $9.99 I took a bus to town and purchased my first record with my own money — Goanna's Spirit of Place. I soon memorised the words to 'Solid Rock' as well as every 'ooh',' ah', and grunt — but it was a simple phrase, sung almost under the breath of lead singer Shane Howard, that had me mesmerised.

'Someone lied ...'

'Solid Rock' by Chris JohnstonWhat? Someone lied? As a teenager, already angry about a few things, I wanted to know who lied, what did they lie about and why did they lie about it.

But Howard went further.

'Someone lied,' he repeats, and then whispers: 'Genocide.'

Genocide? Wow. At that point to link genocide to Australia's Aborigines was not done on prime time television — but there it was on Countdown and repeated countless times on radio for the next 30 years.

'Solid Rock' has moulded itself into the consciousness of many Australians like myself. As a schoolgirl it prompted me to ask questions, to challenge the narrative of history I was receiving at school, to think. I wrote to the band — the only fan letter I've ever written — and received a reply, which I've treasured. It encouraged me to read further about Aboriginal issues and politics. I followed Goanna, and later Howard's solo career.

In 2006, I was thrilled to meet Howard (I approached him during a break at a concert) and tell him of the influence his songwriting had on me. At the time I was in the midst of a legal trial for breaking into Pine Gap military base to draw attention to its war-making functions, which I mentioned to him.

He listened intently, went back on stage, re-told the story to the audience and dedicated a song to me (I almost fainted!). He supported the Pine Gap action by donating a song, 'Rise Up', to a fundraising CD for the trial.

I was delirious at making the connection to a childhood hero and realising he was as authentic and committed as I had perceived all those years ago.

And so it is that as Australia Day approaches I want to pay my tribute to 'Solid Rock', for it was this song that taught me, as a teenager, to question the narrow, white, European narrative that accompanies the flag-waving on this day. It encouraged me to begin to dig deeper and challenge the well-spun myth that Australia Day is something to celebrate when in reality it marks an invasion, occupation and attempted decimation of a culture.

Indeed 'someone lied', and the lies continue.

Donna Mulhearn headshotDonna Mulhearn is a freelance journalist and peace activist. She will return for her fifth visit to Iraq this year. Follow Donna on Twitter

Topic tags: Donna Mulhearn, Solid Rock, Goanna, Shane Howard, Indigenous Australia



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Existing comments

Thanks Donna! Your article reminds me of many other lies I believe authorities are telling, inclulding the following:
- that Australia is meeting its international obligations to refugees. Some refugees are being sent to Nauru indefinitely. The result will be depression and long term mental health problems.
- that it is safe for 'boat people' to be sent back to Sri Lanka. The truth is that this government has a bad human rights record and returing refugees are being treated harshly.
- that climate change is 'crap'. The truth is that human-caused emissions are largely to blame for current climate change, which is already killing over 150 000 people annually, according to the UN Human Rights Commission. If you think it's hot now, what will it be like with a rise of 4 to 6 degrees, expected by 2100.
- that a politician could live on the Jobsearch allowance. The truth is that Australia's rich are getting richer and our poor are staying poor. Both sides of politics are to blame! I once thought the ALP stood for a fair go for battlers. I now think the ALP may be beyond redemption and we may need a new workers' party!

George Allen | 21 January 2013  

Had not heard the song, Donna before you wrote, but it is inspiring. Inspired to action? this year I'm not sure. Last year a letter I wrote to the Southern Highland News along similar lines to the song had me verbally attacked by members of the Bowral Mens' Shed. Thanks for keeping the matter alive. Until we form an honourable official and informal relationship with Aboriginal people we cannot rest here.

Michael D. Breen | 21 January 2013  

I loved your article. This song was a big influence on me, and it still is; as were Redgum's "Long Run", "Nuclear cop", "ASIO", "It doesn't matter to me". Paul Kelly's "From Little thing big things grow" is fabulous too.

Of course I was also influenced by Midnight Oil: "The Dead Heart", Blue sky mine, "US Forces" etc, but that's sort of redundant now thanks to Peter; a conservationist and former leader of the Anti Nuclear Disarmament Party, becoming a Labor Politician whose government is now pro Uranium mining and pro everything he stood against. His action in that respect also had an impact on a generation. Thanks again for a great article.

Pam | 21 January 2013  

Thanks Donna. Like you, music has been an inspiration and challenge that formed so many of my values and action. I grew up in a pretty traditional Catholic, DLP voting family. However in one of those amazing moments of grace,my parents gave me a Christmas gift in 1965 of The Weavers In Carnegie Hall. The anthems and songs of justice struck a chord in my imagination and my heart. The first EP I ever bought was Pete Seeger's "We Shall Overcome" and it was his songs as well as the poetry of people like Bob Dylan that were the tunes I first loved to play on my guitar as a young teen. Many songs have been sung now for almost 60 years of my singing life. The great Aussie social songs of Goanna and Redgum also became favourites and then I found the haunting sounds of Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter.My "music moment" happned a few years ago here in Brisbane when Archie and Ruby performed at our local Musgrave Park Family Day during NAIDOC Week. I had taken a few photos of them on stage and after the show was backstage when Ruby was with some of her "mob" I got some wonderful images that day. The following year Ruby passed away and now these images are my Icons of justice and struggle. To this day my "spine tingling" moment is playing Ruby's version of "O Breathe on Me Breath of God" from One Night the Moon. The litany of songs and writers who have inspired me to to live justly are not great religious leaders in the popular imagination. They are women and men who have walked the hard raod and tasted the bitter pain of the journey. They are the women and men to whom I am ever grateful for their tunes and lyrics sit deep in mmy heart and stir my passion for a world where everyone can sing a song of fredom.

Tony Robertson | 22 January 2013  

That's a lovely piece about how music moves nations and hearts; I much admire your Paul Kelly and Archie Roach in the same vein, and sportsmen like Doug Nicholls, who used the language of the graceful body to deliver mesaages also. Howard, I note, has a book of lyrics from One Day Hill in Melbourne.

Brian Doyle | 23 January 2013  

Bravo Donna! Beautifully written - clear, concise, well-constructed,and truly inspirational because it came from a compassionate heart as well as a discerning and logical mind. You are a brave woman as well as a brilliant journalist.

Annabel | 23 January 2013  

Too right mate! Hope we can do that song in my a'capella choir. Don't thnk they'd let us sing it for Australia Day ceremonies though! There are two things I'm proud Kevin Rudd did. He told the Japanese off for killing the whales and he appologised to the Aboriginal people. It's been mostly downhill since then.

Bernadette | 23 January 2013  

@Bernadette: the South Australia Trade Union Choir used to do it, so it has been arranged for 4 part harmony. Great song to sing. At the other end of the spectrum, I saw a bumper sticker yesterday with an Australian flag on it saying "If you don't love it, leave". Shame how the Australian flag has been almost 'appropriated' by the right.

Mike H | 24 January 2013  

Inspiring, compassionate and well written words Donna. We should always respect the ancient caretakers of this diverse land, and yes, always be aware the lies, deceit and abused power by governments supposedly representing our Nation. I wholeheartedly believe in the power of the People. It is we who elect representatives to govern our Country, not a dictatorship; we are suppose to be a democratic society. We need to rejuvenate our political system/government representation and make them accountable for their actions. It's passionate, ethical people (a growing collective) speaking with truth and integrity who inspire us in moving forward. Acknowledging the past and nurturing the multiculturalism here, now and in our future. It's a day where we all can celebrate the uniqueness and beauty, protect it, stop the raping of its resources, embrace each other's positive ways. We should regard ourselves privileged living in this part of the world, rich in culture if we look (and listen). We have a unique, friendly "yep no worries, we'll help" culture that just IS the Aussie way. Give Respect, be Grateful, live with Care and Compassion.

Anna *^A^* | 24 January 2013  

Would the Aboriginal people prefer that things had never changed? Of course we should know the Aboriginal story - pre 1788 as far as that is possible, and the often sad story post 1788, but there is far more for all of us to celebrate on the 26th. I remember how wonderfully Australia Day was celebrated in 1788 despite the minor protests, and I suggest you walk about Sydney tomorrow to how people celebrate it still. But there you are, I am C.of E., Anglo-Scot (with a touch of Maori or Jamaican), and sick of the negative comments of the chattering classes - a small minority - every time the anniversary comes round. The coming of the First Fleet on the whole has led to a country which, for all our faults, most Australians are proud to celebrate on the 26th (also my own birthday).

Fr John Bunyan | 25 January 2013  

yes great article, and something I hve been espousing for years... I find Australia Day an alienating concept which promotes racist nationalism.... but I am fascinated (for want of a better word) about the final 'comment' by FR JOHN BUNYAN' claiming "I remember how wonderfully Australia Day was celebrated in 1788 despite the minor protests," (um, minor, according to whom AND were you alive then?) "and I suggest you walk about Sydney tomorrow to how people celebrate it still.

Dawn Whitehand | 25 January 2013  

Brilliant as always Donna... this article gives me much inspiration, hope and courage to try to make a difference in the small ways I can, to make Austrlaia an even better place.

Go girl!

Valerie | 27 January 2013  

Tony Roberson I woke up thinking about Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter today and remembering the time I met them both out west a decade or more ago and got to spend a little time with them... wondering how Archie is going without his "soul mate". Two very special people with such an inspiring story of overcoming such tragedy of being truly "stolen" in every sense of the word and then to rise above it all and make beautiful soulful music...alchemy... awe-inspiring!

Valerie | 27 January 2013  

If only the article referred to some of the trailblazing Indigenous songwriters and musicians who influenced the writing of Solid Rock. If only their songs and music that tell of the struggle for equality got the same publicity and air time - a more honest history would emerge. Where is their recogntion?

Lyn Baird | 27 January 2013  

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