I first discovered Shane Howard’s music in 1982 when, as a student at Hamilton College, I worked at the college radio station WHCL. I received an imported copy of the Australian band Goanna’s Spirit of Place album, and proceeded to play the LP on air as often as I could – including playing the LP’s biggest hit, the international track “Solid Rock.”
As an American, I initially enjoyed “Solid Rock” as a really great pop song. In hearing the lyrics, however, I understood the song to be a referendum on the invasive and destructive policies of the Australian government towards its aboriginal people. That’s the seductive message of popular music – you think you have the meaning figured out, only to discover you’re learning something deep. And once you learn, you can’t un-learn.
Those were lead singer Shane Howard’s lyrics and words – to use pop music to show a different, darker side of Australia, a side that didn’t involve kangaroos and beaches and shrimps on the barbie.
Over time, Howard’s music brought to light everything from environmental damage in Australia’s waterways (“Let the Franklin Flow”) to the horrifying plight of the Stolen Generation (“Sorry”), to even his own history as a descendant of the miners of the Eureka Stockade uprising.
Today is Australia Day, and on this day Shane Howard has received the title of Member of the Order of Australia for his work in popular music and for his tireless efforts to improve the world of Indigenous people. “It’s lovely and ironic in a way that you are recognised for a song that criticises government policy,” Howard said in a news story to The Guardian about his award.
Australia Day is a holiday with different meanings to its people. Australia Day commemorates the first British residents to colonize the continent – albeit those “colonists” were actually prisoners of a new penal colony. And for Indigenous people, Australia Day serves as a bitter reminder of their homeland being invaded and corrupted by the white man.
If you’ve never experienced the words and music of Shane Howard, I’m going to take a moment here and introduce you to his songs. You’ve heard “Solid Rock” above, here’s some more.
This is “Let the Franklin Flow,” a track written to stop the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania.
He also wrote the international hit “Flesh and Blood” for Irish singer Mary Black; here’s the two of them performing it as a duet on the Australian TV show RockWiz.
“This Old World” came from his solo LP Beyond Hope’s Bridge, comprised of stories from Howard’s own history as the descendant of an Eureka Stockade miner.
And Shane’s biggest song, “Solid Rock,” has taken on a life of its own. This version of the song, a collaboration between Australian Idol runner-up Shannon Noll and the rap group Street Warriors, is a helluva track.
And today, a music video was released featuring Howard collaborating with the Australian group Darlow, as Australian sports figures and politicians and musicians all hold up an Indigenous flag as the symbol of a unified nation.
Once again, congratulations to Shane Howard, Member of the Order of Australia. This award symbolizes the works and deeds of a man whose strong and sincere messages can bring a divided nation together on common ground.