The Monthly music wrap: July 2017

By Anwen Crawford
Vale Simon Holmes and Dr G Yunupingu
Simon Holmes in the film clip for The Hummingbirds’ ‘Alimony’

In lieu of a news and music round-up, I want to pay tribute to two outstanding local musicians who passed away this month, both prematurely.

The first, Simon Holmes, was a songwriter best known for his work in The Hummingbirds, which became one of the first Australian bands to cross over from the underground rock scene of the 1980s to the pop mainstream. The Hummingbirds had an iridescence that matched their band name; ‘Blush’, their biggest single, released in 1989, is one of the most joyously perfect pop songs that I know, even though it’s about a break-up. The collision of musical energy with lyrical melancholy was one of the group’s signatures.

Holmes, who was from Canberra, put The Hummingbirds together in Sydney, and the band became indelibly associated with the inner-city venues of that era: the Trade Union Club and the Hopetoun, both in Surry Hills, and the Lansdowne, in Chippendale. With Holmes on guitar and vocals, Mark Temple on drums, Alannah Russack, also on guitar and vocals, and Robyn St Clare, who replaced original member John Boyce, as the group’s bass player and third singer, The Hummingbirds made fuzzy, rushing guitar songs, overlaid with sweet vocal harmonies. It was a sound that differentiated them from a Sydney scene heavily indebted to the gnarly, aggressive rock of Detroit band The Stooges; The Hummingbirds stood in the lineage of groups like Manchester’s Buzzcocks and Los Angeles’ mighty Go-Go’s, all of whom combined punk roots with pop smarts.

In a beautiful tribute to Holmes by musician and critic Tim Byron, there’s a wonderful anecdote about a teenage Holmes, newly fired up from his discovery of The Sex Pistols, destroying all his Beatles and Yes records, then later regretting it. That back-and-forth friction between the mainstream and the underground was key to The Hummingbirds’ music, and perhaps had something to do with why they struggled to capitalise on the success of their debut album, loveBUZZ, released in 1989 by the now defunct rooArt label. Founded in 1988 by INXS’s then manager, Chris Murphy, rooArt was the label for a number of breakout Australian indie groups, including Ratcat and, via a subsidiary, You Am I and, later in the 1990s, a young Augie March. The Hummingbirds were the first of them: ‘Blush’ was a bona-fide Top 20 single, and loveBUZZ was certified gold, with sales above 30,000.

The Hummingbirds broke up in late 1993, after releasing a second album, Va Va Voom (1991), and a series of EPs. This was just as the newly national, and then regional, Triple J radio station began to exert a programming power that would boost the careers of many Australian rock groups; perhaps if The Hummingbirds had stayed together then, they would have been more widely celebrated now.

loveBUZZ remains an outstanding listen, crammed with witty pop gems like ‘Alimony’ and ‘Word Gets Around’. Songwriting like this feels so immediate, so spontaneous, that one can easily overlook the craft involved. Tempo, structure, melody, harmonies: everything has to be just so for that power-pop rush to happen, and when it does, it’s hard to beat.

But it would be a mistake to remember Simon Holmes as if The Hummingbirds was all he ever did. He remained an active member of Sydney’s independent music scene, playing in a number of other groups including Fragile, The Aerial Maps and The Ark-Ark Birds. He hosted a regular show on Sydney community radio station 2SER. I remember him, like others do, as the congenial figure behind the counter at Enthusiasms, a second-hand record store located at the sunless end of Pitt Street, right around the spot where another shop, Phantom Records, once stood. It was Phantom, also a label, that first signed The Hummingbirds, and if you’re lucky you might still find one of those early 7-inches today, a remnant of a less ruthless, less overweening Sydney, which was a better city with people like Holmes in it. He was 54 years old.

The second musician whom we have lost this month is Dr G Yunupingu, a Yolngu man from Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, whose work as a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter was strikingly evocative. His acoustic guitar playing – left-handed on an upside-down instrument – was clear and delicate, and his tenor singing voice had a rare purity of tone. With songs in Yolngu languages and in English, which mixed gospel, folk and Yolngu musical traditions, Yunupingu achieved both critical acclaim and a worldwide audience.

Yunupingu is best known for his three solo albums, released between 2008 and 2015, but he began his career as a teenage member of the groundbreaking group Yothu Yindi. The group was co-founded by Dr Yunupingu’s uncle, M Yunupingu, in 1986, and its revolving line-up included both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members. Dr Yunupingu sang in the group, and played keyboards, percussion and yidaki (didgeridoo).

Yothu Yindi’s biggest hit was ‘Treaty’, co-written by band members including M Yunupingu, Dr Yunupingu and Cal Williams, with Paul Kelly . A remix of the song by dance music producers Filthy Lucre reached number 11 on the ARIA singles chart in 1991, and also charted in the UK, Europe and North America, a testament to that era’s enthusiasm for hybrid rock–electronic arrangements. More importantly, the song brought the issue of a treaty between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to a huge audience; 26 years later it’s still an idea in search of fulfilment. And to this day, the Yunupingu family remain leaders in the struggle for Aboriginal rights.

Yunupingu was also a member of Saltwater Band, whose songs combined lyrics in Yolngu languages with lilting, reggae-influenced arrangements. Seek out their albums, including Djarridjarri (2004) and Malk (2009), if you’ve not heard them. Yunupingu’s soaring voice carries songs like ‘Djilawurr (Orange-Footed Scrubfowl)’ – which he would later re-record for his second solo album Rrakala (2011) – and the springy reggae tune ‘Galiku’.

Yunupingu’s solo recordings, released by the independent label Skinnyfish Music, made him the most well known of contemporary Aboriginal musicians, and earned him three ARIA Awards, three Deadly Awards, and four Australian Independent Record (AIR) Awards. These albums, with Yunupingu’s singing and guitar playing augmented by touches of piano and vocal harmony, have a meditative quality rare in any musical genre. They are elegantly played and also beautifully recorded. The Gospel Album (2015), Yunupingu’s most recent release, moves between English-language hymns and Yolngu songs; a bilingual version of ‘Amazing Grace’ reunited Yunupingu with Paul Kelly. Yunupingu also appeared on Sheplife (2014), the second album by Yorta Yorta hip-hop musician Briggs.

 “We got to do so much together,” said Briggs on Wednesday, “we changed a lot of people’s expectations of Indigenous music.” That is true. Aboriginal musicians remain overlooked within histories of Australian music, and the life and work of Yunupingu is a sharp reminder that “Australian” is a recent category, which does not, and cannot, fully encompass the traditional knowledge, language and culture of Aboriginal people. Yunupingu’s death at the age of 46 demonstrates how much progress is left to be made in health, wellbeing and life expectancy for Aboriginal people. But nor should Yunupingu be made into a symbol or a stand-in for Aboriginal people as a whole. He was his own person, and his contributions to contemporary music have been singular.

May Dr G Yunupingu and Simon Holmes rest in peace.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Simon Holmes in the film clip for The Hummingbirds’ ‘Alimony’

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