I had this dream that this band could write an Australian music which people overseas could get onto and understand, which would enlarge their view of Australia beyond Vegemite sandwiches and kangaroo hops.
- Rob Hirst
Although relatively unknown beyond their own country's borders, Midnight Oil were considered to be the most environmentally and socially aware band in the history of music. A bold statement, maybe; but it is clear from their words and actions that this was very special group indeed. The US Rolling Stone magazine described them as 'one of the most significant bands ever to emerge from Australia.' With album releases spanning four decades, they often made their contemporaries appear little more than shallow tune-peddlers. To detractors who labelled them as rabble-rousers, they were veritable foes whose sense of morality and simple sloganism endeared them to many, particularly within the environmental movement. This is the story of one of the greatest bands you've never heard of1.
In 1975, a blond-haired Sydney law student called Peter Garrett was reading the Sydney Evening Post and spotted an advert placed by a local band, touring the east coast, called The Farm. He went to an audition and was impressed by the raucous, aggressive style of the drummer, Rob Hirst, and Jim Moginie's guitar style. However, he felt the band's pub rock tradition of Led Zeppelin covers and hippy-style original songs was not quite what he was looking for, and let the band know he was more impressed with British punk rock, as being played by the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Hirst and Mogonie, realising the potential of the enigma with the microphone, agreed to an immediate change of musical direction. The additions of Andrew James, on bass, and Martin Rotsey, on guitar, completed the new line-up. The Farm were no more2, and Midnight Oil were born.
The band toured incessantly and soon developed a big reputation, particularly among the surfers of the east coast. To help his brother who took surfing photographs, Garrett shaved off his blond hair as it looked strange in a lot of shots, and his shaven-headed, intense stage presence soon became one of the elements of the band that drunken surfers remembered. They were primed for a record deal, but it was slow in coming. According to Garrett, every record company executive told them they should change their singer, or play music in this or that style, or change their image. Their refusal to do so, to 'kiss no bum, tug no forelock', would become a theme in their future career. After being passed over 'at least twice each' by record labels, in 1978 they decided enough was enough. They would make their own record.
The first three albums
I'm breaking all the rules now
- 'Used and Abused', 1978.
Finances were a problem. The Oils couldn't just take time out from touring to cut a record, so would go straight from gig to studio, often emerging blinking into the early morning light after a twelve hour stint of gigging then recording. The result, the eponymous Midnight Oil, was more of statement of intent and 'a faithful representation of what the band was like' (according to Hirst) than a timeless classic, but, backed up by appearances on TripleJ radio station, they were to soon confound critics that claimed the band would disappear after selling 'less than 5,000 copies'. The raw sound is best heard in early gems like 'Powderworks' and 'Used and Abused', but although the band sounded subtly different, their full potential was largely hidden.
The second album, Head Injuries, with the band newly signed to Columbia Records, showed much refinement in terms of the sound and lyricism. Far from being a 'difficult second album', the band was clearly learning. Songs like 'Back on the Borderline' and 'Cold Cold Change' would be live mainstays for years to come. The release of the Bird Noises EP3 showed a relaxing of the former intensity in some ways; the music was no longer at full-pelt all the time, but lyrically the band were finding a voice. With each release, however, it seemed the band were struggling to capture the intensity of the live shows4. The pure adrenaline and aggression of the working band wasn't translating to quality records.
'Place Without A Postcard', though blessed with a wonderful title evoking their growing environmentalism, is as guilty of this as any of the early albums. A tried and tested live song like 'Armistice Day' just didn't come across as it should. The band had flown to London to record this album, were growing deeper in debt and were not progressing quickly enough for their paymasters, who cancelled the record deal. It was a troubled time for the band; Andrew James had left and been replaced by Peter Gifford on bass, and as Rob Hirst says 'it seemed we were destined to be the eternal pub band.' It was now or never.
With a point to prove, the Oils booked a four-night stay at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney, knowing that they would either make it or break. Footage from these concerts shows a band with a new energy, a new passion; supercharged performances from a band playing for their musical lives. Garrett's caterwauling in front of a manic Hirst with Mogonie, Gifford and Rotsey bobbing in and out of the foreground seemed to do the trick. The fans went wild, the executives were impressed, and an invigorated band, re-signed to their label, went back into the studio to try again.
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees
- The Power And The Passion, 1982.
10, 9, 8.... was the first album that suggested there was something unique going on. Against a backdrop of music that, in the wider world, meant little at all, here was a band that stood for something. The band's small-scale protesting had meant something to the surfer and punk communities around Sydney; now, however, they were taking on US foreign policy and political apathy. The music had developed, too. No longer a pub band, Midnight Oil had developed a sense of pace and timing that was missing from earlier releases. Suddenly, they were capable of being the powder-keg to Garrett's explosive voice.
Red Sails In The Sunset
The real world is not as calm as it appears to be from here
- Best of Both Worlds, 1984.
Recorded in Japan, Red Sails... reinforced the growing strengths in the group and proved that 10, 9, 8... wasn't a one-off. But in terms of the band, the recording was far more significant for its location. Garrett travelled with his girlfriend to Hiroshima, where he was incredibly moved by the sight of people gathering from round the world to show solidarity for the victims, and also, Garrett stated, by the impact that 'military decisions can have on people's lives in the long-term.' On his return to Australia, feeling he needed to be doing something else, he joined the Nuclear Disarmament Party as a candidate for the 1984 elections. He won more first preference votes that any other minority party candidate, and narrowly missed out on a seat due to not getting enough second preference votes.
It was big news, the charismatic, shaven-headed singer of a cult band almost making it into the government. Politicians were forced to recognise the growing voice of discontent, and Midnight Oil would spend the rest of their musical careers as the band to contact if the press wanted an opinion. They were about to find themselves as the outsiders' voice in the mainstream.
Species Deceases EP
Humanity drifts towards a complete loss of identity with the earth. Wilderness, where earth's wild face remains wholly intact, gives us one precious, precarious hold against that drift. For it is a link between ourselves and all that has ever happened on this planet.
- Dr Bob Brown, the long-standing leader of Australia's Green party.
This is the poignant close to the video accompanying the song 'Pictures.' Midnight Oil were building a reputation for sticking their necks out and the song and video highlighted illegal rainforest logging in Tasmania and pushed the band firmly into the spotlight. As well as being a fantastic pseudo-punk rock song, 'Species Deceases' helped to push the environment onto Australia's political scene for the first time. Suddenly, Australia's front rooms were confronted with an incredibly catchy tune backed up with images of environmental destruction and some statistics; suddenly the fact that 'one animal and one plant species disappear from Australia's rainforest each day' began to mean something. The intended effect was to make the viewer want to remortgage the house and spend a few weeks protesting in a remote part of the country about what was going on.
They put their money where their mouths were, too. All the royalties from this single were donated to Australian environmental groups.
The Dead Heart EP
We don't serve your country, don't serve your king, white man listen to the songs we sing, white man came took everything
- The Dead Heart, 1987.
Ever eager to make a point, Midnight Oil, noting that no white band had ever been on tour with an Aborigine band, hit the road with the Warumpi band on the Blackfella/Whitefella tour. While this may sound like a minor affair, the suggestion that Australia might somehow be a nation divided between wealthy whites and downtrodden Aborigines did not go down in some circles, and the tour became big news. The debate became more and more polarised, especially when it was revealed that Midnight Oil had written the song that would accompany the handover of Uluru5 back to the Aboriginal people. The band originally turned down the offer, feeling that perhaps it would be more appropriate for an Aborigine band to come up with a song, but the organisers felt that a white band renowned for their interest in minority interests would reach more cynics in the Anglo-Saxon cities. After discussion with the Aborigine community Midnight Oil agreed and, building on songs they had been playing on acoustic guitar when on tour with the Warumpi band, unleashed 'The Dead Heart.' It proved to be the perfect backdrop to the handover. A radical departure from the punk-pub era, the song was key in not only fulfilling Hirst's dream of a band that sounded like Australia, but also built on the idea of standing up for minorities with music that would become mainstream. Whites in Australia were beginning to realise that maybe there was something in the hitherto uncool area of Aboriginal land rights, began joining in the marches and put liberal politics on the agenda for the first time. Through the songs written in the outback, the band musically were about to put out their most critically-acclaimed album of all.
Diesel and Dust
If the sea goes boiling black, can you tell me what you'll do about that?
- Put Down That Weapon, 1987.
Musically, there has never been an album that has such a sense of place or unique Australian sound as Diesel and Dust. It actually sounds like hot days in the outback, the space in the music reflecting perfectly the wide, hot, rocky plains and rainforests. 'Beds Are Burning' became the band's only real worldwide hit, a hit that was never followed up as the band focussed on issues closer to home. This song, with its chorus 'How can we dance when our earth is turning; how do we sleep while our beds are burning?', soon became an anthem - particularly among those in the Aboriginal movement who had been protesting about their land rights with little success. 'Put Down That Weapon,' though written to confront the issue of French nuclear testing in the Pacific, could as easily relate to chainsaws or smokestacks. In 'Dreamworld', the band appealed to anyone with a special place they cared about to get involved in protecting someone else's community. The 'desert songs' theme was, according to the band, best summed up in the lusciously spacious 'Warakurna', which evokes distant memories of an Aboriginal heartland lost to the white man ('the law is carved in granite, it's been shaped by wind and rain; white law could be wrong, black law must be strong').
Midnight Oil spent the next three years on the campaign and touring trails, an exertion that took its toll on Peter Gifford, who left the band through ill-health in 1989. The wonderfully-named and no less able Bones Hillman took over on bass, just in time for the band's most controversial period yet.
Blue Sky Mining
You remember the flood and the fall, we remember the light on the hill; there should be enough for us all, but the dollar is driving us still.
- River Runs Red, 1990.
A sense of place, man's attachment to his land and a kick in the teeth of big polluting businesses were the main themes of this album. The world's largest-ever pollution incident, involving the supertanker Exxon Valdez off Alaska's pristine coasts, had sent shockwaves around the world. Midnight Oil's response, by playing a guerrilla gig on a flatbed truck outside Exxon's headquarters in New York, brought areas of the city to a standstill and was hailed by environmentalists trying to put as much pressure on big business as possible. The video to 'River Runs Red', which mixes footage of the disaster with the band playing this legendary gig, is still one to bring a shiver to the spine of the viewer. Back home, 'Blue Sky Mine' was a song for asbestos miners in Wittenoom6 where the local cemeteries were filling up with miners' bodies. The company was cynically stalling on pay-outs to the victims, who had developed a range of cancers and respiratory diseases, knowing that every day that passed would leave less people to pay out to. It seemed that anywhere there was environmental or social injustice (particularly within Australia), Midnight Oil would find it and add their voices.
In 1992, Scream In Blue, the band's first live album, was released. Including tracks from the Capitol Theatre and Exxon gigs, the album added a new ferocity to the older songs. Renditions of songs like 'Powderworks' and 'Only The Strong' brought into sharp focus the poor recording quality of much of the early material and highlighted Midnight Oil's reputation as one of the best live acts around.
Earth and Sun and Moon
Blue collar work, it don't get you nowhere; you just go round and round in debt - somebody's got you on that treadmill mate, and I hope you're not beaten yet, no not yet.
- Truganini, 1993.
The band's sound was mellowing and maturing with each release, and Earth and.... was no exception. On 'In The Valley', Garrett's lyrics recall his family's turbulent history in Australia, and the title track is as close as the band ever got to their hippy beginnings. The attitude was still there, however; 'Truganini' is a song about aboriginal rights perfectly in keeping with previous releases, and the titles of songs like 'Feeding Frenzy' and 'Tell Me The Truth' show an intent often belied by the relaxed nature of the music.
It's hard to stay human and stand in the ring.
- Common Ground, 1996.
Up to this point, Midnight Oil's most successful albums had been produced either by Warne Livesey or Nick Launey; this time, looking for a more sophisticated sound, Malcolm Burn took charge of proceedings. The result was mixed; tracks like 'Underwater' and 'E-Beat' were in the classics Midnight Oil tradition, but the general consensus was that to drop two or three from the 13-track album would have resulted in a stronger release. It was largely an experimental album, with bigger production and a greater blues-rock influence than previous releases and, though the results would have pleased most bands, it ultimately failed to build on the new sound of Earth and Sun and Moon..
1997 saw the release of Midnight Oil's Greatest Hits collection, named 20,000 Watt RSL. It would always be difficult to release a selection from a band with such a pantheon of tracks behind them, but this collection makes a decent stab at it. The idea of simply releasing their 20 best songs together was abandoned in favour of covering each era more or less equally7, and it remains a good starting point for people listening to the band for the first time.
In the city, the sound is biting, cement fingers they are clutching; the emissary of trash decorates the way, no wild acres you can see, yearning to breathe.
- Concrete, 1998.
With Livesey back producing, Midnight Oil went back to plan A and produced an album that was nothing if not angry. The wonderfully-titled Redneck Wonderland began with a sensory assault in the title track and in 'Concrete' before settling down into a relatively mellow air of passion. Rather than, as previously, writing songs about specific issues, the band made this album a vitriolic attack on what the perceived as backwards attitudes among many in Australia's cities and outback towns. The music is tight and together, and Garrett's vocals in particular stand out in a kind of controlled anger that the listener feels could spill over into rage at any moment.
In 2000, Midnight Oil released their second (mainly) live album, The Real Thing, featuring old classics, recent releases and three brand new songs. The album was, for the most part, acoustic, and particularly enhanced the lyrical power of early material like 'US Forces'. It was another clear demonstration of the band's live power; those that had never heard the band live would have few more chances to experience it.
2000 was also significant as it was the year of the Sydney Olympics. As a truly international, and uniquely Australian, band, Midnight Oil were the perfect choice to play at the closing ceremony. They used the opportunity, and global exposure, to highlight what they believed was a series of broken promises from right-wing politicians in relation to the Aboriginal community. Backstage, the band wore overalls, having assured organisers they would pull no 'silly stunts'. When the time came, off came the overalls and they went on stage wearing black clothing daubed with the word 'Sorry'; a bold statement backed up by the choice of song, 'Beds Are Burning', the very song that had helped put Aborigine rights on the agenda in the first place.
I've got the cure for compassion fatigue; spend a week with the Timorese
- Say Your Prayers, 2001.
Time had moved on. Garrett had decided to make the move into politics; in a poll of Australians under the age of 40, over 50% would have chosen him as President of an Australian republic given a free choice of anyone, and clearly he felt his voice would be heard more powerfully in other ways. Capricornia would be Midnight Oil's last album. The sound is that of a band with nothing left to prove, relaxed and comfortable in what they have achieved, and uncomplicated and lo-fi in sound. That is not to say that the music wasn't of a high quality, although 'Under the Overpass' and the title track complete the pursuit of a more melodic sound. 'Too Much Sunshine' is a thinly-veiled attack on apathy set to a basic, loud guitar track and 'Been Away Too Long' is a passionate ode to homecoming. It was a final, and fitting triumph.
In 2002, Midnight Oil called it a day and Garrett became an Australian Labour Party MP in 2004. The rest of the band are still playing together in various guises, and rumours of the band reforming to play 'one last gig' are likely to persist. Having been booked to play at WaveAid, a Sydney Tsunami relief concert in January 2005, it seems they will still come together if the circumstances demand. For the moment, however, a full-time reunion appears off the cards.
Bombers keep coming, engines softly running, the stars and stripes are running for their own big show; another little flare up, storm brewed in a teacup, imagine any mix-up and the lot would go... Nothing ever happens, nothing really matters, no-one ever tells me so what am I to know... You wouldn't read about it...
- 'Read About It', 1982
There are two official Midnight Oil sites worth a look, one at midnightoil.com and another on the ABC Website. The first is written and maintained by longtime fan Mark Dodshon, who has written the Midnight Oil biography Beds Are Burning: Midnight Oil, The Journey, and is less active now for obvious reasons. The second consists mainly of a series of links, but is notable for some fine audio tracks of the band describing various eras in their history.
A British fansite is also maintained, at The Dead Heart. It contains more information, with a different slant as it is written from a fan's point of view.
Hardcore fans can discuss 'The music and politics of Midnight Oil' by subscribing to the mailing list hosted by Colorado University in the US. It's also a good place to hear rumours of reunion gigs and retrospective releases.
Peter Garrett's extraordinary political life, including various conservation awards and important roles he has played in organisations like the Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace, is covered briefly at The ACF Website, or more specific details at Parliament of Australia which features Garrett's inspirational maiden speech and which is worth a look just to see him in a tie.