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To commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the iconic song ‘I Was Only 19’, ABC Music is releasing an unplugged version of the song on iTunes, taken from John Schumann and The Vagabond Crew’s album ‘Behind The Lines'.
‘I Was Only 19’ has sold over 150,000 singles and propelled local band Redgum’s live album ‘Caught in the Act’ to Gold sales accreditation before the disks had even left the factory. “19” reached Number 1 on the Kent Music Report (which would later become the ARIA Chart) and remained in the charts for 40 weeks.
The iconic Australian song has earned almost every award the music industry had to offer, including two Golden Guitars for APRA Song of the Year and Top Selling Single, Pater Award, MO Award and AMPEX Golden Reel Award. It’s quoted on the Vietnam War Memorial in Canberra and features on every song list of note, including the Top 25 Australian Songs of All Time and 100 Songs That Changed The World.
I Was Only 19 – Thirty Years On
How an iconic song was almost felled by friendly fire
Thirty years to the month after its release, John Schumann, the man who wrote and sang the iconic Australian Vietnam War anthem, reflects on how the song that changed the way our nation thinks almost didn’t make it into the recording studio.
“So many things have been written and said about this song, it’s ironic to think that “19” was almost felled by friendly fire,” said John Schumann.
“Redgum had only been playing “19” live for a little over a week and it was knocking people sideways. We’d just played Tathra on the south coast of New South Wales and, at the request of Mick Storen, through whose eyes the song was written, I went to see out Frankie Hunt who was living in nearby Bega. I played him the song and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history”.
“I think the next town on the tour was Bateman’s Bay. Michael Atkinson came into my motel room and told me that the band had met and he was deputised to tell me that the others didn’t want to record it as a single. At the time we were touring to pay off the production costs of our third album “Brown Rice and Kerosene” - our least successful album. We didn’t have any new songs and no money to record them anyway so if “19” was going to see the light of day, it was going to have be as a single,” John said.
Schumann said that Redgum was a “pretty democratic band in lots of ways” but, despite the view of some others in the band, he was convinced of the song’s power and potential.
“I was determined to record “19” anyway – and I did. Even though it was released in Redgum’s name, the only other band member to play on the song was Hughie McDonald. Peter “Brolga” Coughlan from Goanna played bass, Brian Czempinski, who joined Redgum later, played drums and producer Trevor Lucas played some acoustic guitar and sang.”
“When I released it, Frankie Hunt worked tirelessly to promote the song to draw attention to the plight of Vietnam veterans. At the same time I met Phil Thompson, Graham Walker, Tim McComb and Terry Loftus of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia.
“Until I got to know them, those blokes terrified me but we soon became mates. I learned more about the work of the VVAA and it became clear to me that they were trying to defend veterans with almost no money. The VVAA was up against the financial might of Monsanto at the Royal Commission into the effects of herbicides and insecticides on veterans. It was a real Samson and Goliath scenario so I decided to direct the artist royalties to the VVAA to help.”
Graham told me years later that the veterans got about $70,000 from the song. It was a lot of money in those days - still is, really,” John said.
“The CEO of CBS, our record company, was a Yank by the name of Bob Jamieson. Along with Denis Handlin and Chris Moss, they threw everything they had at the song. You couldn’t fault those blokes – they were great.”
“Jackson Browne sang once that a good song takes you far. It’s true. “19” has taken me to some amazing places and, with Hugh McDonald, I’ve done things other people only dream about, including entertaining our forces in East Timor and Afghanistan.”
John said that Australians are fundamentally decent and fair and that “19” provided an “I get it” moment for those of us who hadn’t stopped to think what our Vietnam veterans had been through.
“I think that for the hundreds of thousands of Australians who bought the record in some form, it was a way of saying sorry to the veterans of war: sorry for not welcoming them home, sorry not believing them when they tried to tell us they were crook and sorry for not supporting them as we should have.”
Australian publishers Allen & Unwin are to release an illustrated book of “I was only 19” in 2014.
“A songwriter gets to write a song like “19” once in a lifetime - if he or she is very, very lucky. I’ve been very, very lucky,” concluded John Schumann.
JOHN SCHUMANN | ‘I WAS ONLY 19’ | SINGLE AVAILABLE NOW