John Schumann (ex-Redgum lead singer/songwriter) and the Vagabond Crew return to Brisbane with “The Redgum Years” in August. He reflects on gigging in the dark days of the Bjelke-Petersen regime and finds Redgum’s protest songs from the 70s and 80s still apply today.
It was September 1979. We were staying in some crappy three-star holiday units in Tweed Heads, and Tim Woods, our tour manager, assembled us in one of the kitchens after breakfast.
Redgum was very much a part-time band then. Two of us were high-school teachers, so touring opportunities were confined to school holidays. Tim, now a successful concert promoter, was the only member of the touring party who had the faintest idea about the music industry - and Queensland.
“Okay, anyone with any drugs at all - I mean at all - put them on the table now.”
People shuffled uncomfortably, and little by little, small quantities of marijuana in tobacco tins and Glad bags and the odd morsel of crumbly black hash in tinfoil appeared on the Laminex table. It was pretty pathetic, really. These days the combined stash would be considered well within the “personal use” limit for one person.
“Right. We’re going to Queensland. We’re Special Branch targets, so we need to be as clean as a bottle of Dettol. Smoke it now, flush it, bury it somewhere - I don’t care. But it’s not coming across the border.”
We’d released our first album, If You Don’t Fight You Lose barely a year before. One of my contributions was a strident song delivered in my strangulated, nasal tones called Letter to BJ. It was addressed to Queensland’s notorious Premier, and it had garnered a fair bit of attention on both sides of the civil liberties argument. Plenty of Queenslanders were dying to see us play it live. Plenty more would have been just as happy to see our heads on pikes lining the road out of Tweed Heads.
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I was 26 years old, and I’d never been to Queensland. As a red raggin’ South Australian nurtured under the progressive umbrella of the Dunstan Government, I was less than enthusiastic about engaging with Joh’s jack-booted coppers.
Given a culture of robust redneckery in the Queensland Police Service, rampant corruption and a moral rectitude rarely found outside a congregation of happy clappers, Queensland was a great place not to be.
In those early years, Redgum was trafficked around on the Australian Union of Students’ extensive campus touring circuit. Our brash, unashamed left-wing political stance earned us a large, fervent following among students, activists, and counter-cultural people across Australia, including Brisbane.
The biggest and rowdiest Brisbane gigs by far were in the University of Queensland’s Mayne Hall in the 80s when the anti-Joh movement was starting to really peak. It was so crowded one night that I had my first taste of oxygen deprivation on stage. I couldn’t breathe, and my legs' muscles were twitching uncontrollably. As well as a heaving mass of students and activists pressed up against the stage, there were people sitting in the open windows, effectively blocking any inflow of air from outside. Yes, well, that would explain it.
We were certain Special Branch officers were sprinkled through the crowd, and I would issue loud warnings from the stage. Recently, I had a conversation with a Queensland copper mate who loved the band. As a younger officer, he was tasked with attending our Brisbane concerts in plain clothes. “How does he know we’re here?” he told me he’d asked his partner anxiously. I didn’t know. I just assumed.
Unmarked Ford Falcon XDs would lurk outside our Indooroopilly accommodation. It was unsettling – but as our profile and popularity sprouted new shoots and grew, so did our confidence that the Queensland establishment had to leave us alone.
Thinking about it now, Redgum’s popularity in Brisbane was a testament to the courage of hundreds of thousands of Queenslanders who refused to back down in the face of corruption, gerrymandering, ignorance and arrogant entitlement.
I left Redgum in 1986 to be an on-site husband and father. After a long hiatus in 2005, I recorded an album of songs I wrote based on the poems of Henry Lawson. I was back in the industry, this time with my own band, the Vagabond Crew. Since then, we’ve recorded albums, toured overseas for the ADF five times and performed at festivals and special events. However, until now, I only ever played the Redgum songs that I wrote. But the legend dies hard. I still get emails and Facebook messages from fans around Australia.
“I’ll never forget the 1980s in Brisbane. Brave people stood up against the notorious Joh Bjelke-Petersen, marching for their civil rights behind banners proclaiming ‘If You Don’t Fight You Lose’. I wonder how many people know it was Redgum who coined that phrase?”
And another: “Hi John, just a quick note to let you know that I’m sitting on my veranda, listening to Redgum. Those songs still touch my heart and my soul.”
As a musician and songwriter, I’ve always moved forward, not backward. Occasionally, Redgum would talk about reforming for a tour, but we never got around to it. But these conversations made me stop and reflect. With distance and the wisdom that comes with years, I’ve come to understand we were in the vanguard. At that time, most other artists were yet to discover politics in music.
However, despite plenty of approaches, I wasn’t going to pretend to be Redgum. That wouldn’t have been right. Nonetheless, the Vagabond Crew love those Redgum songs and eventually persuaded me that we could do a concert set: “John Schumann and the Vagabond Crew: The Redgum Years”. I agreed. It would be a tribute to Redgum rather than us pretending to be Redgum.
In rehearsals, I worked my way back into the heart of songs I hadn’t performed for over 35 years. Initially, I thought the songs would be little more than timepieces. However, I came to realise that most of the stories, geographical contexts and social and political observations are as relevant today as when they were written. Plenty of the lyrics were quite prescient: The Long Run, Where You Gonna Run To, Killing Floor and more. It’s as if we were peering into the 21st century.
We’ve performed “The Redgum Years” to sell-out audiences in South Australia and Melbourne about seven times now. This year we hope to do one or two Redgum Years concerts in the major centres of Australia before we move on to other projects, including a narrated performance of the Lawson album.
So, Brisbane, we’re performing at the Tivoli Theatre in August. And, no, Joh’s Special Branch won’t be in attendance.
John Schumann and the Vagabond Crew play at the Brisbane Tivoli Theatre on 26 August 2023. For tour details, check out www.schumann.com.au.