Goanna chasing political engagement not nostalgia on Spirit Of Place tour

SACRED GROUND: Goanna are back to celebrate their 1982 classic album Spirit Of Place. Picture: Martin Stringer

SACRED GROUND: Goanna are back to celebrate their 1982 classic album Spirit Of Place. Picture: Martin Stringer

THE original implosion of folk-rock band Goanna in 1987 was "brutal" for frontman Shane Howard.

So much so, he says "it nearly destroyed" him.

The trauma and financial pain caused meant it was always difficult for Howard to reconcile with the tremendous success of the band's 1982 debut Spirit Of Place, with featured their era-defining political hit Solid Rock.

In 1998 Goanna reformed to release their third album Spirit Returns, but the comeback was brief. Howard and other Goanna originals, Rose Bygrave and his sister Marcia Howard, only did a handful of shows before again going their separate ways.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Spirit Of Place, an album that went four times platinum and ushered in a new era of Australian songwriting - much like Midnight Oil and Paul Kelly - that aspired to tell truly Australian stories and elicit positive change.

Howard was happy to let the anniversary past. He's not one to wallow in nostalgia.

But when Love Police promoter Brian Taranto approached Howard with a plan for a reunion tour, his infectious enthusiasm compelled Goanna to get back together.

"BT [Taranto] was a Goanna fan, he was in that demographic and he wrote to Goanna when he was 15 and he's still got the letter, which he read out at our first rehearsal," Howard says.

"So it was really lovely to have that kind of circular connection, and in a way, it was his real love and desire that pushed us into action."

The reformed Goanna features Bygrave and Marcia Howard, plus guitarist Graham Davidge (Little River Band), who has rejoined the fray for the first time since 1983.

Goanna - Solid Rock

"All of us have matured and developed as musicians," Howard says. "The problems you had 40 years ago in terms of personality differences are the same problems you have 40 years later.

"But we're old enough to let things go. This is a moment in time. This shouldn't even be happening, but it is."

The sands of time also mean Goanna is missing several old faces. Spirit Of Time-era drummer Robert Ross was unable to recommit due to bone spurs in his hip and guitarist Warrick Harwood and keyboardist Mick O'Connor both died recently.

We were dismissed as crazy lefties, hippies, whatever. Guess what, 40 years later I'm proud to say we were right, actually.

Shane Howard, Goanna

"Goanna's demise was brutal and it was a crash landing and we finished up in debt," Howard says.

"But here we are, we made it through and survived. We're able to come back together and laugh in the face of it and let's pay homage to that great record and thank everybody who supported us."

Goanna formed in Geelong in 1977 during an era of great economic and social upheaval in Australia.

Howard was a young man with two kids to feed and worked on the railways. He had also travelled widely throughout Australia, including a life-changing camping trip to Uluru where he met Aboriginal people and formed the initial idea for Solid Rock.

"I wanted to write about Australian subject matter," he says. "I didn't want to sing about trivial things or about America or England. I wanted to sing about this country and what mattered to us."

Howard sees various parallels between the early '80s and modern Australia. At the time Solid Rock was the first hit single to feature didgeridoo and it's message of Indigenous recognition helped expand knowledge of Aboriginal issues.

The album's second single Razor's Edge focused on the financial struggles of rural people. Goanna's other hit single, Let The Franklin Flow, released shortly after Spirit Of Place, articulated the environmental fight to protect Tasmania's wilderness.

Howard says the song's messages of social justice and progressive politics still need to be heard as the newly-elected Albanese Government look to tackle climate change and legislate Indigenous recognition into the constitution.

"Half a million people bought that album at the time," he says. "We had a lot of great supporters, but we had a lot of critics and cynics. We were dismissed as crazy lefties, hippies, whatever. Guess what, 40 years later I'm proud to say we were right, actually. We weren't wrong.

"Those things that we fought for back then do matter and they did matter. We're still here and we're here to remind those cynics, as well as celebrate with the people who supported us, to remind them they were wrong."

Goanna bring their Spirit Of Place 40th anniversary tour to the Civic Theatre, Newcastle (September 17); Shoalhaven Entertainment Centre (September 21); Canberra Theatre (September 22); Princess Theatre, Launceston (October 7); Lighthouse Theatre, Warnambool (October 27, 28); Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo (November 5) and Wendouree Centre, Ballarat (November 6).

This story Goanna rediscovers their Spirit Of Place first appeared on Newcastle Herald.