Black protest album revived for festival

19 August 2014
The Painted Ladies. Credit: Dane Beesley.
The Painted Ladies. Credit: Dane Beesley.

This year's Brisbane Festival will see the world premiere of The Painted Ladies reworking of Vic Simm's The Loner, an Australian black protest album made in 1973 that has a very interesting story behind it.

Vic Simms grew up with his seven siblings on an Aboriginal mission in La Perouse, Sydney, the traditional home of the Bidjigal people. When he was just 11 he was discovered at a talent contest by the rock singer Col Joye who recruited him to play as a support act for his band The Joy Boys.

At 15, the youngest recording artist at the time for Festival records, he released his first single Yo-Yo Heart. Simms' childhood success was short-lived, he slid into alcoholism, and in 1968, at the age of 22, he was sentenced to seven years at Bathurst Goal for robbery.

Early on in his time in prison, he traded two packets of tobacco for an acoustic guitar. He learnt to play it while writing songs about his life and the injustices of prison at the time.

In 1973, a charity heard his songs and passed a tape to RCA records who came to the prison with a mobile recording studio and band.

In just one hour they recorded a 10-track album, The Loner. At the time, to be an Aboriginal in prison meant facing both the lack of basic human rights of prison life, plus the added problems of institutional racism.

Simms was used for publicity by the prison touring Sydney Opera House, prisons and random malls before refusing to perform after the events of the 1974 Bathurst prison riots.

His lyrics on The Loner really shine a light on the problems of the time, but they are delivered in a funky, soulful and upbeat way.

"If you're brown, stick 'round. And if you're white, he said it's alright. And if you're black, you get back into the shadows" -Vic Simms' lyrics in Get Back in the Shadows.

The Loner album cover. Credit: RCA.

 

Fast forward nearly 40 years to Luke Peacock, a musician based in Brisbane and part of the band Halfway. He is a Q Song award winner and was also a finalist in the APRA Professional Development Awards.

In 2011, he came across a rare Digital Audio Tape of The Loner while working for Brisbane radio station 98.9fm.

The music "blew my mind completely," said Peacock. "The thing about Vic Simm's songs is that they work on so many levels...as a First Nations man, they give me an instant sense of identity," he said.

Peacock contacted Simms to ask him about the album and ask permission to record the song Poor Man's Happiness.

Peacock and Simms in the studio. Credit: Dane Beesley.

 

Simms was so impressed after hearing the recording that he gave Peacock permission to rework the whole album. "He is a great little performer, he has a way with his audience" said Vic on ABC's 7.30 Report. Peacock said that he is grateful for having Simms as a mentor.

 

With the help of musicians from The Medics, Rusty Hopkinson from the band You Am I as producer, and Paul Kelly featuring on some of the tracks, Peacock is reworking The Loner for a new generation. An EP will be released soon.

Brisbane Festival Artistic Director Noel Staunton said that the close relationship between Simms and Peacock has meant that none of the musical or historical importance of the original songs have been lost.

“Now, thanks to some of Australia’s most talented contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, Brisbane will be able to experience the latest incarnation of this compelling classic. The concert will be a feast for the eyes and the ears, and proves great songs can stand the test of time,” said Mr Staunton.

The Painted Ladies Cover. Credit: Plus One Records.

 

Simms, Peacock, The Medics and a range of guest artists will come together for Brisbane Festival to bring the audience a powerful live music experience of The Loner reworked. The performance will also be accompanied by a documentary.

 Brisbane Festival will host The Painted Ladies at the Judith Wright Centre in Fortitude Valley on September 19-20. Tickets start at $23.