HomeNo Fixed Address: How Australia’s first reggae-rock band blazed a trail for Indigenous artistsArtNo Fixed Address: How Australia’s first reggae-rock band blazed a trail for Indigenous artists

No Fixed Address: How Australia’s first reggae-rock band blazed a trail for Indigenous artists

By Al Newstead and Caz Tran

members of No Fixed Address pose outside the laneway named in their honour
Ricky Harrison, Mick Thompson, Bart Willoughby, John John Miller and Les Graham at the No Fixed Address Lane launch in Adelaide/Kaurna Country, 2020  (Supplied: Donald Robertson)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this article contains names, images and voices of people who have died.

Yothu YindiWarumpi Band, Coloured Stone, Archie Roach, Ruby Hunter, Kev Carmody. They’re all considered irrefutable greats of Australian music.

But there’s one group who predates them all and doesn’t always get the same level of recognition.

No Fixed Address – Australia’s first and arguably greatest First Nations reggae-rock band, and most certainly its most influential.

Listen to the No Fixed Address J Files

Tune into Double J this Thursday (6 July) night from 7pm (and in your podcast feeds at the same time) and join Caz Tran as she opens the J Files on this influential rock-reggae group.

No Fixed Address

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Their career is an unprecedented journey that involves a pre-PM Bob Hawke, Tina Turner, touring behind the Iron Curtain, and sharing stages with INXS, Cold Chisel and early Australian tours by The Clash and Ian Dury and the Blockheads.

Trailblazers who, with only a handful of recordings, were the first Aboriginal band to sign with a major label, appear on Countdown, and tour overseas.

But being pioneers wasn’t easy and sadly, No Fixed Address didn’t achieve the rags-to-riches pay-off of so many classic rock ‘n’ roll narratives.

Instead, they paved the way for future Indigenous artists to stand up and speak out, bringing wider public attention and understanding to Indigenous struggles: racism, land rights, incarceration, genocide, police harassment.

From having their gigs shut down or cancelled because of the colour of their skin, the members of No Fixed Address were living the tough experiences they sang about in their music.

‘We have survived the white man’s world, and the horror and the torment of it all’ sings Pitjantjatjara man Bart Willoughby – No Fixed’s singing, drumming leader – on ‘We Have Survived’.

The song became the band’s signature anthem and a landmark protest song enshrined in the National Film And Sound Archive of Australia

Willoughby, one of the Stolen Generations, wrote the song at 18 years old after being taken from his parents at the Koonibba Aboriginal mission near Ceduna on the SA border near the Nullarbor Plain and raised in Adelaide institutions.

“It was just how I felt because I’m still here,” he told ABC in 1991. “Confusion, frustration… that song’s just about – with all other blackfellas too – how I was brought up and explains everything about how I feel.”

https://www.youtube.com/embed/ZVI2CxvqtII?feature=oembedYOUTUBENo Fixed Address – We Have Survived

Origins and discovering reggae

Willoughby, fresh out of juvenile detention, would go on to study at the South Australian Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) at the University of Adelaide.

There, in 1979, he’d meet and form No Fixed Address with teenage members Ricky Harrison (guitarist, songwriter and Gunai man from Morwell, Victoria), Ngarrindjeri lead guitarist Les Graham (aka Les Lovegrove Freeman), bassist John John Miller, and late saxophone player Veronica Rankine – a pioneering presence in an Indigenous band of blackfellas.

“She could play piano, flute, clarinet. She was really talented,” Willoughby tells Double J’s Caz Tran in 2023 for The J Files. “She’d work out all her parts and the harmonies were just really beautiful. We taught ourselves to be a good band.”

black and white photo of five Indigenous members of No Fixed Address walking down the street
No Fixed Address members Ricky Harrison, Veronica Rankine, Bart Willoughby, John ‘John’ Miller, and Les Lovegrove Freeman in 1980.(Facebook: Ian de Gruchy)

Initially, they were influenced by country and western and hard rock groups.

“My first album was Creedence Clearwater Revival; I was a Kiss and Deep Purple fan, I loved that type of music,” Willoughby says.

At CASM, the group were introduced to the reggae sounds of Bob MarleyBurning Spear, and ex-Wailer Peter Tosh, who No Fixed Address eventually toured Australia with in the late ’80s – a highlight of their career says Willoughby

“His music was beautiful, really beautiful. You just go, ‘Wow!'”

Interestingly, Bart was confounded by reggae when he first saw Jimmy Cliff’s 1972 crime film The Harder They Come. He nearly up and walked out of the cinema.

“Yeah but I couldn’t because there was too many people and I was up the front,” he chuckles. “Didn’t have a clue what I was about to see. I think my friends tricked me… Bob Marley starts playing and my curiosity started going, ‘What’s the drummer and bass player doing!?'”

Nevertheless, it became a watershed moment, discovering the space and rhythms of a genre that was as rare to Australian ears back then as First Nations bands were in the public eye. 

“It’s one of the magic bits in music, is the space in-between each different instrument. [It] showed me that you can relax and give it the same amount of energy, which I thought was cool.

“If you do it right, there’s a lot of energy going on but you’re not really doing too much.”

“It was teaching us feel, so to speak, and you’re also creating a different technique of playing reggae, which you don’t set out to do but it just sort of happens.”

In a 1983 interview with ABC, Willoughby noted: “Listening to the albums of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff — They give us the inspiration of saying truthful things in the music and gave us the form of music to say it in.”

Harrison added: “In true reggae, I feel there’s a better way to express our feelings. Political feelings and tell people about the way we been brought up.”

A pioneering legacy

No Fixed Address mixed reggae and rock with traditional Indigenous instruments, such as didgeridoo, while relating their honest everyday experiences of living in White Australia that, to non-Indigenous audiences, came across as fiercely political.

“I think we’re that mob in our family tree that went ‘enough’s enough’,” Willoughby says in 2023. “Simply because we had a gift to back us up, which is music and each other.”

Songs like ‘We Have Survived’, ‘Pigs’ and ‘Stupid System’ didn’t pull punches and hit all the harder in an era where most white Australians were oblivious to the horrors of the Stolen Generations, raised by a public school system that taught them Aboriginals were a dying race.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to measure the shocking impact of seeing and hearing this band blending a relatively new genre with deeply personal and piercingly direct messages. 

‘I am a black, black man/And I need to be recognised in this wretched world,’ goes the refrain of ‘Black Man’s Rights’, one of several songs that were adopted by Aboriginal protest movements of the ’80s.

‘So all you black people, you gotta fight for your rights
There’s a lot of things that are trying to stop you
And that’s racism, and the cops
And the government which is buggered.’

‘Black Man’s Rights’ the “greatest Australian reggae song of all time” according to Rick Howe, who presents Island Music on ABC Radio Australia. “It’s a sufferer’s anthem which I proudly play alongside the greatest international reggae artists.”

“I just love Bart’s voice. His delivery, so much power, history and meaning to his vocals. When this song came out in 1981, it was lyrically on point. And sadly, the lyrics are still relevant today.”

https://www.youtube.com/embed/zverAa1EJf8?feature=oembedYOUTUBEYouTube: No Fixed Address – ‘Black Man’s Rights’ audio

Howe adds: “They released it independently during a time when record companies weren’t willing to take a punt on bands like No Fixed Address.”

When the group couldn’t catch a break, they decided to make their own, starring in the 1981 film Wrong Side Of The Road.

Directed by Ned Lander and produced by the band’s CASM mentor Graeme Isaac, the ground-breaking documentary charted the band’s attempts, alongside fellow Indigenous act Us Mob, to strike it lucky touring the dusty outback regions of South Australia after being rejected by record labels for being ‘too radical’.

No one would give No Fixed Address and Us Mob a break, so they made their own

A compelling insight into the harassment and hostility Aboriginal bands and their communities endured.

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Opening with police raiding a gig and arresting a band member, it’s an unflinching document of the prejudice and racism that confronted the two bands as they tried to build their careers and audience in a hostile system stacked against them.

For many non-Indigenous Australians it was their first real glimpse into the reality of Aboriginal Australian life. And it wasn’t always warmly received.

The film was banned in some regions and South Australian Police, who’d helped in producing the doco and unhappy with their on-screen depiction, further intimidated the band. 

“A lot of this stuff was happening out in community, so hearing it or seeing it on the movie was really something,” Harrison tells Double J’s Caz Tran. “I guess the response from the community at the time was a bit mixed.”

However, Wrong Side Of The Road beat frontrunner Gallipoli to win the jury prize at the AFI Awards (now known as the AACTAs) in 1981.

A year later, in October 1982, No Fixed Address were the first ever First Nations band to perform on Countdown, where they were introduced as “one of Australia’s most controversial groups” and exposed to an even wider national audience.

They also made a fan out of the late, great Tina Turner, who was guest hosting the program.

“It seems she specifically asked for an Indigenous act, which is most likely how we got a guest spot on the show,” Willoughby told ABC in 1991, following concerns from Molly Meldrum the band were ‘too political’ for Countdown.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/hxD2eSJnYLk?feature=oembedYOUTUBEYouTube: No Fixed Address – ‘From My Eyes’ live on Countdown in 1982

Launching an album with the future PM

Another celebrity supporter was none other than Bob Hawke.

In 1982, the burgeoning Labor leader and future Australian Prime Minister accepted the invitation to launch No Fixed Address’ debut mini-album From My Eyes at he Hilton Hotel in Melbourne.

“His daughters were really great fans of ours,” Willoughby explains. “They’d come to our concerts, so we always made them feel welcome. They were really, really beautiful friends to have known back in the early days.”

Hawke understood the cultural significance of the release and the weight of a non-Indigenous politician’s endorsement. But his daughters had perhaps neglected to fill the soon-to-be leader of the country in on all of the band’s confrontational lyrics.

“He was going on there, talking real nice about the album until it got to ‘Pigs’,” saysHarrison, referring to the punk-leaning track he’d written featuring the lines:

‘They’re always on the move
They call them the boys in blue
They’ll kick you in the head
Until they leave you dead’

“He turned around – I think he [was looking] at me – and said, ‘That’s not to say that every man and woman in a blue uniform is a thorough bastard’,” Harrison says. “It was like, yikes!”

At the launch, Willoughby was quick to seize on the moment, reportedly offering a snappy retort to Hawke. “Yeah, there are good police out there. We just haven’t met any yet.”

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It’s one of many gripping yarns that features in a new book on No Fixed Address, written by one of the band’s earliest champions, Donald Robertson. He first encountered the group in the early ’80s as the editor of Adelaide-based music publication Roadrunner, and tells Double J:

“I felt that the band’s role in breaking open the Australian music scene for Indigenous artists had not really been acknowledged, not really recognised.”

“Artists like Warumpi Band, Yothu Yindi, Archie Roach, were generally seen as the pioneers of Aboriginal rock.”

“I felt it was a story that should be told… The more I spoke to [the band] and more I heard the stories of the ups and downs of their career, the more I thought it was a great yarn as well as an important story.”

No Fixed Address members John Miller, Bart Willoughby and Ricky Harrison sit in the back of a car.
No Fixed Address members John Miller, Bart Willoughby and Ricky Harrison in 1980.(Supplied: Carol Ruff)

Among the most fascinating tales are No Fixed Address’ adventures overseas, including a European tour in the late 1980s that took in the Eastern Bloc and playing behind the Iron Curtain. 

On a German leg, the group were opening a multicultural bill featuring groups from Cuba and Madagascar but were bumped up to being the tour headliner.

“We knew something was going on but we just didn’t know how big it was. We started noticing touring from Berlin to Rostock,” remembers Willoughby. “They had us playing first and then by the second show, they had to make us play last because everybody was turning up to see us.”

“These other musicians were really, really great, it’s just that I think that we had something and the Germans really loved it.”

But there were also hairy moments, including having to abandon a custom-built drumkit.

“When the war broke out in Yugoslavia, we just went ‘get us out of here!’ The pilot came up and said, we don’t have enough room for your drum set, I said ‘oh, we’ll just leave it’,” says Willoughby.

“Actually I said, ‘What about the Australians, they left a Foster’s in the bloody fridge. Could’ve gone back there and grabbed that!’ But that’s how quick they had to get out. No Australians leave no Foster’s in the fridge.”

five members of No Fixed Address stand in the snow on tour in Berlin 1987
No Fixed Address members Mick Thompson, Bart Willoughby, Ricky Lovegrove, Les Graham, and John John Miller on tour in Berlin, February 1988.(Facebook: Gabriele Senft)

Earlier, a 1984 tour of the UK made No Fixed Address the first Aboriginal band to tour internationally.

As the band’s biography details, guitarist Harrison travelled Great Britain under the adopted name Chris Jones because of run-ins with Victorian police.

“Mainly stealing cars. When you’re young, it’s like stealing the horse, the white man’s horse. It’s like a initiation for blackfellas … to prove your manhood,” he explains in the memoir.

“We used to get into a lot of different activities when we were young to stuff the system up, to get back at the system, to try to even the score.”

Instead, he and the rest of No Fixed Address found an outlet through the revolutionary spirit of reggae and rock music.

“It’s our form of justice because we haven’t had justice for a long time,” as Willoughby put it to ABC in 1991.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/QNRW_gKc3bo?feature=oembedYOUTUBEYouTube: No Fixed Address documentary on 1984 UK Tour

Too radical for mainstream Australia

Early on in a documentary on the band’s 1984 UK tour, Willoughby is squished up into his Singapore Airlines window seat and laments: 

“It’s a pity that you’ve got to leave your own country to make it somewhere else,. I think that’s part of the business – can’t work here, try it over there.”

Juxtaposing the trio performing to predominantly white British audiences with footage of Aboriginal land rights protests back home, the same doco has No Fixed Address manager Michael Fisher declaring: “In my opinion, they’re saying more than any other band does say.”

“There are other Australian bands – Midnight Oil, Redgum – but none of them have quite the depth or conviction that No Fixed Address has because none of them are directly affected as much as No Fixed Address is.

“With No Fixed Address, it’s an everyday threat they’re coming up against and what they’re fighting against.”

Bart Willoughby with didgeridoo live at Festival Theatre, Adelaide, 10 February 1981.(Supplied: Eric Algra)

Despite their popularity with both white and black audiences, the band came up against obstacles time and again. Financial struggles, rotating line-ups, and in retrospect, the biggest hurdle of all – changing the perception of a music industry that simply wasn’t ready to embrace a group like No Fixed Address.

“Nobody wanted to hear a black man singing about blackfella issues,” Harrison told Sydney Morning Herald in 2017.

“They liked to hear whitefellas singing about blackfellas, ’cause it made them feel more comfortable. We were black and in-your-face and they couldn’t handle that.”

“Record companies were reluctant [to support us] because they didn’t think we would sell enough records. So they brought in Goanna and ‘Solid Rock’ for the mainstream, and Midnight Oil.”

There’s little animosity however, with many of those same groups lining up to offer glowing praise in the No Fixed Address biography, including tourmates Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil, Men At Work, Redgum, and Goanna’s Shane Howard.

Author Donald Robertson is satisfied he’s managed to “capture the quite incredible story of this band; teenagers starting out in Adelaide and all the adventures they had in the ’80s and the fact they’re still performing, still singing those songs which resonate with audiences as strongly now as they did 40 years ago.”

Still going strong

Through the ’80s, Willoughby would establish himself outside of No Fixed Address, playing drums for Coloured Stone and even Yothu Yindi. He’d leave the latter to form a new group in 1989 called Mixed Relations, who have the distinction of being the first song played on triple j when it went national in October that same year.

“We commissioned them to write a song,” then-triple j station manager Andy Nehl said in 2015. Willoughby turned to ‘Take It Or Leave It’, a song he’d written and performed with No Fixed Address on their 1984 UK tour and recorded at triple j’s studios.

“That was the first song broadcast on triple j when it rolled out to the capital cities and Newcastle. It was triple j making a statement that we were also committed to Indigenous music and diverse Australian music.”

https://www.youtube.com/embed/9Axnu1l8jPw?feature=oembedYOUTUBEYouTube: Mixed Relations – Take It Or Leave It audio

Despite disbanding in 1985, reuniting and breaking up again in ’88 after their European tour, No Fixed Address got back together for a handful of shows in 1996 and has been performing on-and-off ever since.

In 2023, the live line-up consists of Willoughby and Harrison, joined by Tjimba Possum Burns on bass and Sean Moffat, Harrison’s nephew, on lead guitar.

“The first time I played with him was back in 1995, had a family band called Bloodlines… He was only 15, 16 at the time,” Harrison explains.

He says Moffat was “rapt” to join the group. “He’s been a big fan since he was a kid.” And now gets to regularly play ‘Time Before Me’ – a song Harrison wrote back in the day which Moffat originally recorded guitar for. “It’s surreal in a way, I guess.”

And what do the modern-day audiences look like?

“I don’t see wheelchairs and walking sticks,” Willoughby deadpans. “The crowds are an extension of family members that used to see us. The fans are really hard to describe… from our point of view. That’s why we brought the book out.”

The four touring members of No Fixed Address pose backstage in a locker room at Marrickvill Bowling Club
No Fixed Address members Tjimba Possum Burns, Bart Willoughby, Sean Moffat, and Ricky Harrison at the Marrickville Bowling Club in 2023.(Facebook: John Jansen Moore)

After years of being overlooked and undervalued, No Fixed Address are now getting their due appreciation. They were inducted into the National Indigenous Music Awards Hall of Fame in 2011, then into the SA Hall of Fame in 2016.

In 2020, Adelaide named a laneway off Rundle Mall in the band’s honour, joining the ranks of landmarks recognising the city’s artists, such as Paul Kelly and Sia.

As Harrison noted at the time No Fixed Address Lane was unveiled:

“Australia has a long way to go in terms of recognising First Nations people and providing equality but this means the message and the music of No Fixed Address is still relevant.”

https://www.youtube.com/embed/_xKGD8KbX_g?feature=oembedYOUTUBEYouTube: No Fixed Address inducted into the SA Music Hall of Fame

The potency of the band’s reggae-fuelled protests still resonates precisely because the wounds of discrimination and colonisation have not been healed. Topics that still remain relatively taboo in 2023, as we inch towards a referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Though they were born of a different era you can’t fault the importance of No Fixed Address for paving the path for contemporary First Nations artists to flourish.

From the confrontational edge of A.B. Original, Barkaa and Baker Boy’s ‘Survive’ through to the empowering truth-telling of songwriters like Thelma PlumEmma DonovanMiiesha and the award-winning fusion of rock and Yolŋu songlines of King Stingray, the legacy of No Fixed Address endures.

“We’ve influenced a lot of people,” Willoughby says. “We just said, it’s alright to play whatever type of music you want to play.”

It’s the same lesson he learned after falling under the spell of reggae’s spirit in a darkened cinema over four decades ago, the power of music to transcend boundaries and borders.

“I think what happened in Jamaica, because they were slaves, they never really grew up or they weren’t allowed to. And just like the blues, they started to create their own music. The blues created a lot of different techniques of playing music and reggae is still reggae. They both actually changed the universe…

“It gives you the idea of the brilliance of simplicity and if you use it right, it changes the universe.”

MORE = https://www.abc.net.au/doublej/music-reads/features/no-fixed-address-story-reggae-rock-aboriginal-band-j-files/102563512

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