IN May 1981, a 26-year-old Dennington-born musician hopped on a train out of Melbourne bound for Uluru.
It would be one of the most important trips in Australian music and spark the creation of one of our most important songs, Solid Rock, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of its release this year.
In ’81, Shane Howard was, by his own admission, “a neurotic house husband”, run ragged by the combination of nightly gigs across Victoria and the daily duties of bringing up a young family.
On doctor’s orders, an ill Howard called ‘time out’ on his band Goanna and his family and headed for Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it was then known.
“I was reading a book by Bill Harney, who was the first National Parks ranger at Uluru in the ’50s,” he explained.
“That really inspired me. It showed me there was a deep (Aboriginal) culture at work and I wanted to go to see it for myself.
“All I’d seen around Warrnambool was the wreckage and destruction colonisation had caused — you didn’t hear the language spoken and didn’t see the culture practised.”
Uluru was “just a tourist attraction” in the early ’80s and bore little resemblance to its current landscape. There were no resorts, just a camping ground in the middle of the local indigenous community, the Mutitjulu people. The road from the highway to the rock was still dirt.
“I went to the Ininti shop — the local store — the night I got there and asked the people there (where I could go) to pay my respects to the local people.
“They said ‘go see the old fella over there’, and so I went over to a house across the road and there was an old fella … sitting there behind the fence with a little fire going.
“I asked permission to walk in that country. I think he was a bit surprised someone had asked. He was really lovely. He said the areas where you were not meant to go were marked. And he said ‘thank you for asking’.”
During his time at Uluru, Howard witnessed an inma, or corroboree, after seeing a poster saying one was being held “on the other side of the rock”.
“After the inma I was invited to sit with the mob. We camped out under the stars by the fire. I sat there, hearing the people talking in their language, with the voices dropping off, one by one ’til there was silence. That was as close as I could get to a traditional experience.
“After that beautiful, spiritual experience, I came back to Alice Springs and saw the vulgarity of colonial imposition and what we’d done to this beautiful culture.
“I felt ashamed to be one of the usurpers. But I couldn’t do anything about it. I was just a kid from Dennington. All I could do was write a song.”
From his first day at Uluru, Howard was writing. The opening lines of Solid Rock (“Out here nothing changes/not in a hurry anyway”) were penned within a matter of hours of his arrival, he said.
The rest took a bit more of what the poet W. B. Yeats called “hammering your thoughts into unity” and what Howard calls “spot welding and panelbeating” — the third verse took shape slowly after Howard’s return to Alice Spring and in a first for white Australian music, dared to tell the story of our nation’s founding from the Aboriginal perspective.
“(I wanted) white fellas to juxtapose themselves with black fellas and to imagine what it was like to be standing on the shore when the aliens landed,” he said.
Back in Melbourne, Goanna rehearsed the song and it was ready in time for their first national tour in September ’81, which was in support of US singer James Taylor. It was on that tour Howard realised Solid Rock might be something special.
“We were in Adelaide at the Festival Theatre as the support act for Taylor and Solid Rock got a standing ovation,” he recalled.
“That’s when I knew it was connecting.
“I felt strongly that it should be the first single to be released from the album, even though the record label didn’t want it. They wanted Cheatin’ Man, which is track one on the record.”
The label, Warner, was wary of Solid Rock. Not only did it feature the radio-unfriendly sounds of didgeridoo and liken the colonisation of our nation to genocide — “how we got away with that in a commercial song I’ll never know,” Howard said — but it was also “too heavy and political” in the eyes of Warner.
Warner relented and, to its credit, threw its marketing muscle behind promoting the song. Howard readily agreed Solid Rock might not have had the impact it did without Warner’s promotion.
He didn’t foresee the song going to No. 2 in Australia, nor it charting in the US and about 30 other countries. Howard thought he had written a song about a specifically-Australian experience and it was only years later that he realised he had created a universal anthem about colonisation.
Goanna would live in the shadow of the song, struggling to replicate its success and breaking up in 1987, leading Howard to resent its popularity for many years.
“The time after Goanna collapsed in the late ’80s, I tried to outrun Goanna and Solid Rock. Eventually I had to face up to the fact it wasn’t about me — people had a genuine love of Goanna and those songs and it wasn’t my job to outrun it. It was my job not to be trapped by it and to honour it properly. The song is far beyond me now.”
Thirty years on, Howard returned to Uluru for the Other Side Of The Rock concert in October, bringing him full circle. The concert was many years in the making and only happened on Mutitjulu land after lengthy negotiations.
“When they finally said OK, the senior people said they would try this as part of a new way,” Howard said.
“They have lost so many young people in the last few years they saw the old way is not working. They saw this as the start of a transforming time. But they agreed to open up and let white fellas in because of that song.
“But when they said it was going to be transforming, I though they meant for them. But it was transforming for us as well. Because it’s not about us and them any more. It’s about all of us, as Australians … and I guess this song provides the catalyst to advance the conversation.”
It will continue with a second Other Side Of The Rock concert on December 8 at the Forum in Melbourne featuring a host of special guests.
Howard will also perform with his band at the Woodford Folk Festival in late December and there have been requests to take the all-star anniversary show to the rest of the nation in the new year.
But beyond that, Howard said it might be time “to leave (Solid Rock) behind”.
“I think I have to stop and leave it to other people to do,” he said.
“I’ll never say never, but as an artist you’ve got to keep moving. I want to honour the past but I don’t want to be trapped by the past.
“It’s been such a beautiful journey and it’s taken me into Aboriginal Australia, deeper and deeper. The meaning of the song goes way beyond words now.”