Reviewed by Ian McFarlane.
Warumpi Band – Warumpi Band 4 Ever (Festival/Warner)
To have all three Warumpi Band albums combined on one Double CD set is quite a revelation. Warumpi Band 4 Ever brings together Big Name, No Blankets (1985), Go Bush! (1987) and Too Much Humbug (1996) plus the addition of early demos and non-LP singles as bonus tracks. Hearing the transition from the ragged yet authentic roots rock of the debut to the slicker, modern rock sheen of the third album puts the band’s story into sharp focus.
Led by the charismatic yet volatile George Rrurrambu, along with Neil Murray’s song writing skills and Sammy Butcher’s tasteful guitar playing, Warumpi Band was a mixed race band of seemingly disparate elements. Yet the whole was always greater than the sum of its parts. The bottom line is that this was just a classic rock band with a powerful presence and resonating message. The group was such a potent force that none other than Midnight Oil linked up with them to tour remote Aboriginal outback communities. The life-changing Blackfella/Whitefella tour inspired the Oils to write their landmark Diesel and Dust album.
Formed in 1981 at Papunya, a remote Aboriginal community 150 miles west of Alice Springs, the Warumpis started out playing covers of vintage rock ’n’ roll songs before writing original material that reflected their own experiences and celebrated Aboriginal cultural values.
Their 1983, independent debut single, ‘Jailanguru Pakarnu (Out From Jail)’ was the first rock song sung in an Aboriginal dialect (Luritja). Big Name, No Blankets appeared on the Oils’ Powderworks label in April 1985. Grounded in early American R&B and boogie as it was, the album was nevertheless an honest, bare-boned and enduring slice of indigenous country music, or desert rock if you will. Most importantly the songs are brilliant, from the chiming ‘Waru (Fire)’ and the sprightly ‘Breadline’ to the prickly rocker ‘Mulga & Spinifex Plain’ and the epochal ‘Blackfella / Whitefella’.
‘Blackfella / Whitefella’ remains the most engaging song, Rrurrambu’s message as relevant as ever: “Blackfella, whitefella / It doesn’t matter what your colour / As long as you a true fella / As long as you a real fella”.
With the line-up of Murray, Rrurrambu, Kenny Smith (bass) and American Allen Murphy (drums) the Warumpis recorded Go Bush! in late 1986. It’s a tougher sounding work overall (‘No Fear’, ‘Secret War’, ‘From The Bush’) although the archetypal track is the deeply melodic ‘My Island Home’. It features Murray’s lyrics yet it’s Rrurrambu’s own story and he delivers the words in a truly spectacular manner. Christine Anu later won an APRA Song of the Year Award (1995) for her version of the song.
Murray left at the end of 1988 to pursue a solo career which effectively meant the end of the Warumpi Band. Nevertheless, they reunited in 1995 for a successful European tour and new album Too Much Humbug (April 1996). It boasted slicker production values, courtesy of producer Mark Ovendon (You Am I, Yothu Yindi). Standouts are ‘Wayathul’ (epic and expansive), ‘Djulpan’ (sparse and twangy), ‘Stompin’ Ground’ (sinewy and hard rocking) and ‘Holdin’ You In My Arms’ (sweetened by the voices of Amy Saunders and Sally Dastey from Tiddas).
Rounding out the set are the non-LP singles ‘Sitdown Money’ and the aforementioned ‘Jailanguru Pakarnu (Out From Jail)’, plus the four tracks that made up their first cassette release from 1983. While covers of ‘Route 66’, ‘It’s All Over Now’ and ‘Promised Land’ are perfunctory, it’s the self-referring ‘Warumpi Rock’ that points the way forward. George passed away in June 2007.
Also worth getting hold of is Archie Roach’s Charcoal Lane 25th Anniversary Edition (2-CD).