Almanac Music: Aussie album review – Redgum “If you don’t fight you lose”

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Album: If You Don’t Fight You Lose

Artist: Redgum

Released: 1978

 

Since Richie’s passing, I had been spending a little more time reminiscing. Maybe that tends to happen when those authoritative voices of your youth, those dominant figures such as Gough and Malcolm (and indeed Richie), all start slipping off this mortal coil. Your mind tends to drift back to those years in which your political views, social and religious beliefs, sporting affiliations, and musical tastes and distastes were taking shape. For me, this meant gravitating back to Redgum’s debut album “If you don’t find you lose”.

I can still recall the first time I brought the record home. And John Schumann’s distinctive, angry voice: yelling at me, scalding me, shaming me, urging me into action, just saying “Think!” My dad was listening on with wonder and exclaimed “Boy, has this bloke got a chip on his shoulder!” Yes, it is from a lifetime ago.

The guitar, fiddle and flute have that quaintness of feeling, like the time you entered your great-aunt’s house, marveling at how she had managed to preserve all her 1960’s trinkets like brand new. “If you don’t fight you lose” is a time capsule, all right. (Some of the lyrics scream that at you: “Doesn’t Ernie Sigley bring you down, don’t you think Mike Willesee’s a clown”). But it is a wonderful time capsule nonetheless – because many of its political and social messages, whilst being broadcast to an Australia of 1978, are still very relevant.

Long before most of Australia was taking any notice, Redgum were railing against the treatment of indigenous Australians “It’s probably too painful for us to understand, but two-hundred years ago we over-ran their land” (Carrington Caberet). In an echo of an issue eerily familiar down the years, they questioned Australia’s social policies “We never take on passengers but we seem to have lots of room” (HMAS Australia), and mercilessly poked fun at the establishment “I voted for Mal Fraser, it was the decent thing to do” (Beaumont Rag). But just when it stood on the precipice of being too self-important, too clever by half, or taking on too hectoring a tone, to reel us back in there would be moments of humour “Malcolm’s…got the biggest election that Tammy’s ever seen” (Critique in G), and “We think Jimmy Carter is a real good bloke, We’ll sell him our country for a Ford and a Coke” (Servin’ USA). There is also a bush ballad to lighten the tone (Poor Ned).

Amid the maelstrom of swirling messages, however, there is one underlying theme: the question of Australia’s social inequity. Peter the Cabby, the tale of a taxi-driver who plies his trade on Adelaide’s mean streets, could easily be applied to a contemporary setting. In So Goodbye, Schumann farewells a wealthy girlfriend who fails to understand the causes of the class divide “It’s not because you’re rich, Because you’re not prepared to think, The higher daddy rises, the more his workers sink”.

The inequality theme is driven home on the album’s title track – sung by Michael Atkinson – which remains a masterpiece. It is a story of hardship, mateship, and the migrant experience:

            Joe spoke no English but he had a dream

            And he saved up most of his pay

            To bring his wife and six kids from Lebanon

            And settle down here to stay

intertwined with a prescient commentary on the fate of the blue-collar worker

            It was only rumour ‘til the foreman came

            And hiding his shame with a cough

            He said we’re cutting back down to one shift now

            We’re going to have to lay you off.

The truth, poignancy and sadness of this song ensure that it retains its power almost 40 years on.

Of course, Redgum were to rise to national prominence some five years later with Schumann’s I was only 19, a moving account of the experiences of a Vietnam veteran. And Schumann’s own politics changed from the “red ragger” on display here; he joined the Democrats and almost stole Alexander Downer’s seat of Mayo.

It is this album, more so than any teacher, lesson, book, or movie, which helped shape my political and social beliefs. And, for that, I owe If you don’t fight you lose so much. I have it on the iPod now, so that means it is there at the touch of button. I don’t play it all that often because I don’t have to – hell, I know every searing word, every passionate line, every phrase, every riff. But when I do have a mind to play it, the opening chords of One More Boring Night in Adelaide transport me back to a time when I was still working out who I was.

The Australia to which Redgum were singing is now long gone but really is it so different? Today’s uninspiring political discourse has me fearing for Australia’s future, just as Redgum were urging us to consider the future back in 1978.

About Darren Dawson

Always North.

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Smokie, when this first came out, I gave it a listen or two.

    But, being even less worldly and aware than I am now, I put it to one side as its musical style didn’t fit my punk/new wave leanings.

    Like you, I can still remember whole slabs verbatim, e.g.

    I love to read the Bulletin and watch the ABC
    I love to air my well-informed opinions constantly
    All my friends are professionals from polite society… (Beaumont Rag)

    (Hmm, that would make a good theme song for the AUFC Greys)

    As I tweeted, there was an Adelaide and an Australia before Paul Kelly. I feel slightly ashamed that I’d forever consigned these universal themes portrayed as Adelaide observations, to a remote part of my consciousness.

    Your words have reopened that part. Thanks Smokie.

  2. Jim Johnson says

    Your Music references reminds me of Col Joye and Bye Bye Baby Good Bye, which Cole performed on the combined “In Melbourne – In Sydney Tonight Show” which was on Early Coaxial Cable in the 1960’s. I remember this because I performed on the same program singing a little Irish number entitled” Leprechaun Lullaby”.
    At the same period of time I was Vocalist for a Swing – Jazz band, entitled “The Gold Tones Orchestra” of Terang, that played for a Sunday Night Dance at The Warrnambool Surf Club. At this same period of time I was a member of The Squadronairs Concert Party that “Entertained” at Elderly Citizens Clubs around Melbourne including The Newport Elderly Citizens Club, a few Stab Punts away from Vin Maskell’s Williamstown music event. It was at this Newport Elderly Citizens Club that I met my wife 50 years ago. It is amazing how Music can control some of our steps along the way of life. End of very short story. I wish you well in your future.
    Kind Regards, Stab Punt Jim Johnson.

  3. That was a terrific album for its time and, Smoke, you’re right that they poked fun at society and landed some jabs…they were great live early doors but soon after started to take themselves too seriously and lost that spark – this was clearly the peak of Redgum.

  4. Dave Nadel says

    Redgum live were a great experience because while John Schumann could be passionate, angry and politically hard line he could also be very funny and his patter between songs was always great entertainment.

    Michael Atkinson’s “If You Don’t Fight You Lose” was apparently based on the closing of the night shift at Chrysler in Adelaide.

    I don’t agree with Crio that they started to take themselves to seriously. “I’ve been to Bali, too,” which was their last song with Schumann as lead singer was an excellent piece of satire and hardly self important.

  5. Saw them way “off Broadway” in the back bar of a pub in a backstreet of Geelong circa 1980. Wish I could remember the name. Can’t forget the sticky carpet, beer flying everywhere. Great night and the band flew

  6. Thanks for all the comments.
    Many of the themes in this album are still relevant, which is why it still resonates with me when I play it.
    Swish, the album is definitely of and about Adelaide, but its themes were relevant to all Australia – still are!
    Dave, how prescient is that – “the closing of the night shift at Chrysler”?
    Crio, I don’t know that they took themselves too seriously, but they definitely became more polished. “Brown rice and kerosene” was released only 3 years later, but it sounded a world away from this. “The last frontier” is Schumann’s finest.
    Chalk, I saw them many times, including a great, packed out show at the Armadale Hotel, which was a corker – including “Letter to BJ” in the encore.

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