A flimsy pretext for a post: drones and The Drones

The Drones are a powerful band on many levels.  One of their powers in my case, is that they helped me get over my case of cultural cringe (the belief that Australian cultural products are inherently inferior to those produced overseas, particularly in Europe and the United States).

The Drones in the bush

The Drones aren’t great and cool despite being Australian, but because they’re Australian.  Their Australian-ness is itself a crucial part of their shtick and of their attraction.  Lead singer Gareth Liddiard’s accent is almost comically ocker (I said almost).  And although their sound, at least on the first couple of albums, harks back to many non-Australian forebears like the swamp-rock psychobilly of The Cramps and the noisy punk-metal sounds of bands like Black Flag, there is still something quintessentially Australian about the music, beyond Liddiard’s vocals.  It sounds like isolation, dirt and big, empty space.  A prime example of this Australian sound is ‘The Island’ from their first album Here Come the Lies.  “By day the flies came, by night the mosquitoes” has to be the best nine-word description of Australia ever thought up.


The United States first conducted experiments with auto-piloted planes, aka drones, during World War I.  But it is only since Obama assumed the Presidency in 2008 that they have been used regularly.  Under the Obama administration, drones have become a significant element of the US military machine.  Most famously used in Pakistan, they are also deployed in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.  The US is not the only user of drones: the UK and Israel have some too.  Drones’ most controversial function is their ability to launch missiles, although only five per cent of the US fleet actually has that capability.  Most drones are in fact used for surveillance.

The debate over the relative merits of unmanned and manned aircraft is so hot right now.  There are those who claim that drones are morally preferable to manned aircraft because they do not endanger a pilot’s life.  Proponents also argue that drones are more precise than their manned counterparts meaning that, despite perceptions, they result in less civilian casualties.  On the other side of the debate, there are those that say that the complete removal of risk to one side of the human conflict is unfair, that the rules of war are based on the precept of mutual mortal risk, and that drones are hence morally reprehensible.

One particular worrying aspect of drone warfare is that they may make it easier for governments to give the go ahead to acts of violence or even war.  The removal of direct peril to aggressor governments’ citizens may make those governments feel less answerable to those citizens (although they would still be spending huge amounts from the public purse).  In this way debates about whether to enter a conflict could be short-circuited.  Despite the current debates in foreign policy circles, unmanned warfare certainly gets less public attention than conflicts in which American troops are serving and dying on a daily basis.  That gap has been recognised but not yet addressed.  An effort to increase the public visibility of drone warfare, an app that maps drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, was recently rejected by Apple.

Drones app?

The Drones deal with Australian history a lot, but given the entirely flimsy premise of this post is the fact that their name coincides with a controversial weapon of war favoured by the Obama administration, we’ll turn instead to their songs concerning war on terror politics.  Discussing his 2010 solo album Strange Tourist, Liddiard questioned why no musicians were writing about the politics of terrorism: “No one else seems to write about anything like that. Even though there’s all this bullshit, terrorism, things like David Hicks.  The shit’s everywhere, but why does nobody take it up apart from journalism?  It’s fucking bizarre… I just think that its fucken weird that no one else does it. So this is kind of like ‘hello! What are you fucking doing?’”

The opening track to The Drones’ third album Gala Mill is the eight-minute long ‘Jezebel’.  The song drones on and on, hurling horror and despair about a world that “prefer[s] a civil war” to a tyrant.  The long, repetitive verses are interspersed with a simple, strangely sweet chorus, composed of just one line “I….I would love to see you again”.  The lyrical highlight of the song comes though when the narrator shoots “a woman in a headscarf” who asks, “does my bomb look big in this?”

Drones were first used in Pakistan in 2004.  The South Asia Terrorism Portal database has recorded 251 such attacks, with at least 2,371 killed.  The New America Foundation counts 330 strikes and 3,171 deaths.  The drone attacks in Pakistan target members of the Haqqani network, Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.  They have been highly successful.  Since June this year drones have killed Al Qaeda’s 2nd in command and the Haqqani network’s 3rd in command.

Drones are, unsurprisingly, deeply unpopular in Pakistan.  A survey conducted in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in 2010 found 90 per cent of respondents were against US army activity in their region and over 75 per cent opposed US drone strikes.  As The Atlantic points out, drones are helping the US lose the “war of perception” in Pakistan.

An airstrike doesn’t need to be unmanned to be controversial though.  By far the most controversial attack in recent times was the November 2011 NATO air strike that killed 28 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan-Pakistan border.  In response to the attack Pakistan closed its Afghanistan supply route to ISAF forces, stating it would not reopen it until receiving an apology.  And a guarantee that the use of drones on its territory would be stopped.  US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton finally gave the apology in June this year and the supply route was promptly opened.   US drone strikes on Pakistani soil have however continued unabated since.

The final song on Liddiard’s debut album is ‘The Radicalisation of D’.  D is for David. David Hicks, convicted Australian terrorist who spent six years in Guantanamo after being picked up by US forces in Afghanistan.  Actually Hicks’ story is just a springboard for the story of D.  The song is not really political at all, instead it’s a compelling portrait of a young, lost, impressionable, empty, lonely boy, and an attempt to explain why ordinary people are pulled into strange pursuits in the search for belonging and meaning.  It is eminently relateable and that, in the end, is its message.

Drones have been so successful in Pakistan that it is running out of high-level targets.  Yemen on the other hand is “target-rich”, with the White House declaring earlier this year that the country’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) is the biggest terrorist threat to the US.  The Brookings Institute warns not only that the US has no clear strategy for its undeclared drone war in Yemen but that it risks entanglement in brooding civil unrest in that country.  Yemen’s insurgents are closely allied with Yemen’s terrorists – by attacking them the US implicitly supports the current Yemeni regime.  It may be that supporting the Yemeni regime is something the US is comfortable with, but that is a conversation that has not yet taken place.

Some suggest US drone activity also encourages sympathy towards Al Qaeda among Yemen’s population: although drones may have reduced AQAP’s leadership ranks, it has not had the same effect on the rank and file.  AQAP membership in Yemen is said to have more than doubled since drones started to be used in 2009.

As a postscript, there are Australian dimensions to this story: the ABC recently ran a sensational report on the use of a South Australian airbase by US drones, a fact only made public after being spotted by amateur aviation enthusiasts.  It has also been revealed that the Australian Defence Force deploys unarmed Israeli-owned drones in Afghanistan and that it may have intentions of buying its own.

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Fortnightly(ish) review: Albright, Obama, Hankx3

Madeline Albright is to receive a Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz award for her “jazz diplomacy” next month.  Read about that diplomacy, and Bill Clinton’s saxophone skills, in this article from the Washington Post.

Hank Williams Jr recently called President Obama anti-American.  Jr told an 8,500 strong crowd at a concert in Iowa that “we’ve got a Muslim president who hates farming, hates the military, hates the US and we hate him”.  This review of his latest album calls it a “well-produced parody of Southern culture and Tea Party politics”.  Hank Williams Jr is my least favourite Hank, even just from a musical perspective.  We all know his Dad, so here’s something from his son, Hank Williams III, an interesting character I recommend checking out.

Who knew Insane Clown Posse were still a thing?  Their fans identify as Juggalos.  Genius.  Problem is, the FBI classified Juggalos collectively as a “loosely organized hybrid gang” and “criminal organization formed on the street” in its 2011 Gang Threat Assessment.  The Posse has decided to hit back and is suing the FBI for defaming its fans.  Those insane clowns.

Back to Obama, apparently hip-hop has given up on the once hip-hop President.  Perhaps to compensate, Obama’s campaign office has put out a video showing his support from DJs.

And so from America to the rest of the world.  Well at least South and Central Asia…Goths in Uzbekistan are having a hard time. Read about their travails, including government clamp downs on the “alien” musical genres of rock, rap and metal in this BBC article.  A recent edition of ABC Radio National’s Correspondents Report visited Afghanistan’s rock school.  And, finally, read about Sufi music and sectarian politics in neighbouring Pakistan in the cleverly but misleadingly titled ‘Peace, Love & Pakistan‘ on the Global Mail.

Fortnightly review: grungy ambassadors, immigrant songs and various metals

A Chinese band in Mongolia

Last week was Mongolia’s biggest festival – sporting and cultural – Naadam.  In the middle of the festivities a big concert was held in Ulaanbaatar’s central Sukhbaatar square.  Unfortunately I only saw half a song from the infamous Gee before his set finished and a dull boy band took the stage.  I missed Chinese rock band Banana Monkey altogether.  The Wall Street Journal have dubbed them China’s grungy ambassadors to Mongolia (luckily we did catch them at another gig the night after – they were a lot of fun).

Immigrant songs

It was recently the 100th anniversary of Woodie Guthrie’s birth.  Denise Sullivan writes how Woodie was “the first contemporary singer to take on the dignity of the immigrant as the subject of a song”.  She draws parallels between that song, ‘Deportee’, and The Clash’s ‘Straight to Hell’.  The latter was famously sampled by M.I.A. in her breakthrough hit ‘Paper Planes’, another song concerned with immigrant experience.

Sludge metal in Georgia (USA) and Death Metal in Iraq

I’d never heard of sludge metal before reading this great article about Savannah band Baroness.  The author reckons sludge, “where the workaday southerner’s music—the blues, country, jazz, and southern rock—melts together in metal’s crucible”, is a response to the conservatism of the southern bible belt.

In other metal news, The Atlantic has an article on death metal in Iraq, where that genre’s traditionally anti-Christian messaging is being adapted to rail against Islam.

Pashto Popstar Murdered

A 24 year old female pop star was shot dead, along with her father, in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (previously North West Frontier) province on June 18.  Ghazala Javed was a member of the Pashtun ethnic group that straddles the Afghani-Pakistani border.  She was popular with Pashtuns in those two countries and the diaspora in the Middle East.  Read about Ghazala and the risks that musicians in Pakistan take in this article from the Pulitzer Centre.

A catchy tune from North Korea

The Atlantic has a translation of North Korea’s newest propaganda song, for its new leader, Kim Jong Un.  The male choir sings lines such as “by exploding the mental strength of the united heart of our million citizens, Joseon resounds the marching drums of the powerful, prosperous nation”.

Peter Garrett

I’ve previously written about Australian musician politician Peter Garrett.  This detailed and interesting profile of the man by BBC correspondent Nick Bryant manages to simultaneously talk up Garrett and dismiss his political efficacy (the publication requires subscription but you can do a 30 day free trial).

Burma, Iran and Pakistan via Queens of the Stone Age

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Goin’ Out West‘, ‘Go With the Flow‘, ‘Leg of Lamb‘ and ‘The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret‘ by Queens of the Stone Age.

There’s been an unrelenting parade of good news streaming out of hitherto pariah state Burma/Myanmar over the last twelve or so months.  In November 2010 a widely discredited election was held and, days later, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from detention.  Many figured her freedom would be limited and short-lived.  But in the last quarter of 2011 there were a number of surprising developments.  President Thein Sein, seemingly responding to the concerns of the Burmese populace, put the kybosh on a Chinese plan to produce hydroelectricity for Yunnan province by damming the Irawaddy.  Then in October around 200 political prisoners were released from the country’s jails.

Burma observers are much too cynical to imagine such moves don’t have an ulterior motive, and the motive generally agreed upon is a desire to move away from Burma’s utter reliance on China.  Burma is ‘Goin’ Out West’, as in this Queens of the Stone Age take on the Tom Waits song.  West in terms of making concessions to tempt – or allow – Western countries to soften and/or remove sanctions; and west in its immediate neighbourhood, by looking to India to balance China (the Chinese hydro snub was closely followed by a state visit to India).  This new turn has likely come from the realisation that a great line in this song, “I’m gonna do what I want, and I’m gonna get paid”, just ain’t true.

The reason Burma gets the ‘good’ mantle this week in particular is because the positive announcements have just kept coming.  Pessimists have pointed to the parlous states of relations between the central Burman administration and various ethnic minority rebel groups as reason for caution about Burma’s progress.  If anything, things had deteriorated in this arena (they were already pretty bad) since the change in government.  The announcement just over a week ago that the government had signed a peace pact with the Karen rebel group was therefore particularly significant, particularly when combined with other developments – all of them happening just this week: more political prisoners released, the United States to reinstate diplomatic ties and Aung San Suu Kyi’s registration to run in April by-elections.

Although a cover, ‘Goin’ Out West’ is, to me, a prototypical Queens of the Stone Age song with its driving rhythm, angular guitars and swagger to burn.  The subject matter also fits in well with their macho-druggy desert aesthetic (refer ‘Go With the Flow‘ – both song and video).  I think of Queens of the Stone Age (Queens to their friends) as the thinking male teen’s dream band.  They scratch a particular itch, often associated with pubescent masculinity, to lose yourself in mindless, relentless, heavy head-bangery.

Speaking of mindless machismo…Iran and Israel/American continue to ramp up their stand off.  Things are tense now, but they could get really bad after the Europeans meet on Monday to rubber stamp their Iranian oil embargo (in response to Iran’s nuclear program).  We will then see how genuine Iran was when it threatened to retaliate by closing the Straight of Hormuz.  That threat has been described as a kamikaze one, a concept that doesn’t really work at the country level.  The stand off is also proving damaging on the domestic front for Obama.  All in all, it’s looking to be a lose-lose.

I don’t know about you, but all these protestations that no one’s about to attack Iran are starting to make me nervous. The Queens song ‘Leg of Lamb‘ is not easily interpreted, but talking as it does of head cases, truth freaks with lies and not wanting to follow the laws of man, it seems fittingly downcast and cynical.  Oh and it has the line “It’s so hard to win, when there’s so much to lose”.

The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret‘ is another wonderfully enigmatic song, shrouded in Machiavellian secrecy and distrust.  Pakistani politics is similarly murky.  At the moment it is like a grizzly car wreck: ugly and totally compelling.  Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appeared in the country’s supreme court this week in the latest installment of civil-military wrangling that has beset the country since its independence.

Pakistan’s military has historically opted for straightforward coups rather than the current judicial theatrics.  Following last year’s ‘memogate’, wherein President Asif Ali Zardari reportedly sought US support to forestall an impending military coup, perhaps they are looking for more sustainable and internationally acceptable modes of dominance.  Many believe the current pressure will force the government to call early elections.  Military man and former President Pervez Musharraf is lined up to run in those elections, and has announced an alliance with popular ex-cricketer Imran Khan.  Mysterious memos, shady dealings…the art of secrecy is alive and well in Pakistan.

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