Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images and voices of people who have died.
In 1980, a young man from Western Victoria arrived in Papunya, a settlement 260 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs. Neil Murray had a breeze behind him, a guitar in hand and was looking for adventure.
“I had a wanderlust,” he told Double J in 2015. “I was looking for something and I felt that it was something to do with finding out who I was, and also what this country was all about.
“I felt a lot of that was inextricably tied up with Aboriginal people. I felt that intuitively and I wanted to go and work and live with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. I’d always been fascinated by the Northern Territory because a lot of it was still a wilderness area.
“It was partly a reaction to my peers that I went to art school with, who were hell bent on getting to Europe as soon as they could, and I just reacted to all that. I always had this desire to head bush, I felt there was something of the real Australia that was out there.”
Sammy Butcher, a self-taught and gifted guitarist in Papunya, had heard that the town’s new arrival had a guitar in tow and turned up to see if they could get a band going, with his brother Gordon on drums.
A few months later, a charismatic Yolngu man from Elcho Island, George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga, turned up in town. He loved Chuck Berry, Elvis and Little Richard. He was going to marry Sammy’s sister and, as Neil says in the 2013 documentary Big Name, No Blankets, “There was no way he wasn’t going to be in the band!”
The new group wasted no time getting themselves out on the road playing wherever they could, like the backyards of kindergartens, community halls or outdoor basketball courts in between the pub gigs they could secure.
They had ambitions, not just to play their rock n roll, but also to spread a message. Their first song, ‘Jailanguru Pakarnu’, Luritja for ‘Out From Jail’, was the first rock song to feature Aboriginal language. It scored them airplay on 2JJ and the video aired on Countdown and brought about the inspiration for the title of the band’s debut record.
“We were playing in Halls Creek the evening that it ran, so all the mob saw it and saw us on the TV that night and thought, ‘gee, you must be rich you blokes,’” Neil Murray recalled to Deadly Vibe. “And our lead singer, Kumunjay said, ‘no, we only got big name, no blankets.’ So that’s where it comes from. We might be well known but we’re still living on CDEP” (the government’s Community Development Employment Projects scheme).
Recorded in under a week, their debut captures a rollicking desert rock band in electrifying form. Its raw energy ensured it stood out sonically from much else on offer in the early-80s. The fact that it featured songs sung in English, Luritja and Gumatj, telling stories of contemporary Aboriginal issues, makes it a significant document.
Opener ‘Waru’ means ‘fire’ and is about “how differently black fellas see fire to the way white fellas see it,” Murray explained to Deadly Vibe. “We sort of taught everybody in Australia an Aboriginal word for fire. It had a lot of power and we felt it was a great expression of the band’s energy. Yet our music was also promoting Indigenous language and culture.”
Other tracks like ‘Sitdown Money’ and ‘Breadline’ speak of the despair of welfare dependency, problems of alcoholism in ‘Nyuntu Nyaaltjirriku’ (What Are You Going To Do?) and an ode to hometown pride in ‘Warumpinya (Papunya)’.
Even though the band were keen to inspire their community and broader audiences through sharing language and culture, there was care and consideration in their approach.
“I think the sound of the language is good and there’s some influence in some of the shouts which may come from traditional music,” Murray explained to RN’s Awaye in 2000. “But we were always very careful not to have songs sounding like traditional stuff because we didn’t want the old people to get offended.”
“In language, we have to be careful what we are saying,” George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga added. “Because me, Sammy and Gordon, we all know our own law.”
This album also gave us two Australian rock classics. ‘Gotta Be Strong’ is a positive plea to take responsibility for a better future, and ‘Blackfella Whitefella’ is a rousing anthem for unity and reconciliation.
Guitarist Sammy Butcher, now a prominent leader, community elder, mentor and music teacher to kids in Central Australia, reflected on its continued impact in a recent interview with ABC’s Jacinta Parsons.
“It’s a good song because when we play it, everybody sings, gets up, everybody, doesn’t matter, black, white, colour doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “The music just brings everybody together.”
For those of us who weren’t lucky enough to witness the energy of this band, the documentary Big Name, No Blankets gives you a sense of what they generated in a live setting.
“They could reach out and touch people in the audience and open their hearts to make them celebrate and embrace Aboriginality,” filmmaker Rachel Perkins said.
“I always like the image of mixed crowds at our concerts, having a really good time,” Neil Murray told Awaye of his highlights of the band’s career. “People, white and black, holding each other, embracing, dancing.”
The band’s success meant significantly sacrificing their family life though.
“I’ve been working hard with this band since young fella, and I got kids growing up, I used to leave them back there, with their mother, just singing for you mobs sake, for all my fans,” George Rrurrambu Burrarrwanga said.
“I was working for you mob, not for myself, just to make you proud, to tell you where you are.”
There’s a fair way to go yet before we reach that harmonious, shared future, but Warumpi Band, gave us a taste of just how good it could be.