Midnight Oil

TrackAlbum
When The Generals TalkRed Sails In The Sunset
Beds Are BurningDiesel And Dust
Forgotten YearsBlue Sky Mining
TruganiniEarth And Sun And Moon
US Forces10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Blue Sky MineBlue Sky Mining
Put Down That WeaponDiesel And Dust
King Of The MountainBlue Sky Mining
Power And The Passion10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Short Memory10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

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Contributor: David Lewis

The Australia generally presented to the world is one of wilderness, of Neighbours, of Crocodile Dundee. A friendly, if tough place, always sunny, always rugged. A nice place to visit and a ‘lucky country’. This of course is not only the case. Australia has injustices, environmental degradation and treats some of its citizens very badly. Naturally, as is the case in many countries, its musicians, as well as its writers, comics, artists, et cetera, document this. Few rocked as hard or as passionately as the great Midnight Oil. Fronted by the tall, bald, non-practicing lawyer, untrained vocalist, Peter Garrett, the Oils pricked Australia’s conscience, all the while giving us (and later the world) some exceptional music. Music to think to while you dance? Music to dance to while you think? Either way, the Oils are intelligent musicians, with a message. Unlike many message songs, though, neither the music nor message are compromised. As usual with mine, they’re in no particular order, and as usual with everyone else’s, there are many others that might have gone in.

The Oils comprised of Garrett on vocals. Rob Hirst, one of Australia’s best drummers (making him one of the world’s best…) laid a solid foundation, and also contributed to songwriting. Jim Moginie is the other consistent member: a great guitarist and synth player. Martin Rotsey’s contributions need also be acknowledged, as well as the various bassists, Andrew James, Peter Gifford and Bones Hillman.

Throughout this list, there is a real sense of Australian historical narrative; names and concepts fly around, though always intelligently. I don’t have the space to explain everything – interested readers are directed to Stuart Macintyre’s “A Concise History of Australia” for an overview, or Geoffrey Blainey’s “A Shorter History of Australia”. Otherwise, email me via the editor, and I’ll point you in the right direction.

When The Generals Talk – it’s a little jejune by later standards, but it rocks hard. The electonica basis adds to the anger: as Garrett says, it’s not just the military generals, it’s General Motors, General Greed Incorporation and General Insurance who are the most dangerous generals of all. All done in a broad Australian accent, complete with rising inflections.

How can we sleep while our Beds Are Burning? A passionate cry for the treatment of Australian Aborigines – a sorry history, well told by the Oils. Some Aboriginal groups did say that it was not the place of whitefellas to tell a blackfellas story, but no-one doubted the passion, nor honesty of the claim.

Here’s the Oils at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000… they did Beds Are Burning – the ‘Sorry’ on their shirts (note the lack of commercial branding) was a symbolic apology to Indigenous Australians, and a not so subtle message to the Prime Minister of the time, John Howard, who’d refused to apologise to indigenous peoples. Mr Howard’s successor, Kevin Rudd, did give a very well received, if rather limited apology in 2007.

 

Forgotten Years: A song, not about history, but about the philosophy of history. (For a qualified historian … anyway…) Of course, this was not protecting the ‘great white man’ view of history, but to remember the contribution of everyone else, as well. They should not be forgotten.

Truganini: In short, Truganini was the last Tasmanian Aborigine – the rest having been wiped out. The note of hope at the end: “I see Namatjira (one of Australia’s greatest painters) in dignity” is a lovely touch.

US Forces: The stunning opening lyrics – “US Forces get the nod (acoustic guitar – you can’t hear it without the acoustic guitar…), it’s a setback for your country” – make this one of the great protest songs of all time. The way it builds to a dramatic climax is very clever and appropriate. Rob Hirst’s backing vocals were rarely better.

Blue Sky Mine: It’s a song about asbestos poisoning of mining workers. Chilling in its lyrics, driven and passionate (that word again) in its music, the protagonist hopes that the large Australian companies (Blue Sky Mines was a real company, and the sugar refining company is Colonial Sugar Refineries) will help him. If not, though – who? No answer is given….

Put Down That Weapon: Less specific than other songs, this anti-war song is far more intense than its tempo would suggest – the Oils don’t get any quieter than this…

King Of The Mountain: Few bands are as well attuned to the natural world as Midnight Oil – in Beds Are Burning, we are told the Western Desert lives and breathes in forty-five degrees. (For American readers, 45 degrees Celsius is about 110 degrees Fahrenheit) In this one, the King of the Mountain is not Jesus, despite the biblical allusions to Peter and Paul, but Garrett himself – I think he means it’s a meaningless title you can call him – at the end, he promises to follow, not lead, as would be expected of a king.

Power And The Passion: The song title says it all: the power of the band, the passion of the performance all make up one of the greatest songs they did. Typical Oils themes abound here. But it’s an arresting and compelling song.

Short Memory: The Oils don’t take excuses, nor do they approach things lightly. This is a song about the exploitation, murder and dispossession by Imperial and colonial powers – no-one gets forgotten, and the pattern is noticed. We are all guilty – why don’t we see it? As the original (ok, not really, but you know what I mean) political singer Joe Hill said, people won’t remember a 2,000 word pamphlet, but they will remember a 2 minute song.

Midnight Oil brought the passion of Joe Hill, the lyrical acerbity of Dylan, the groove of Springsteen and an Australian honesty to rock music. With Garrett’s tenure as a Federal politician at an end – although excoriated by the press here, he was one of the better Federal mInisters to have served, as a Royal Commission into one of his ministerial responsibilities found – the band may reunite again after a brief reunion in 2009. Nonetheless, their legacy as a hard-rocking, no-compromising rock band is secure and permanent.

 

The Official Midnight Oil Site

Midnight Oil information website + discography/lyrics

Peter Garrett’s website

Rob Hirst (Backsliders website)

Jim Moginie facebook

Bones Hillman’s website

Midnight Oil biography (iTunes)

David Lewis has written several posts for Toppermost. He lives in Sydney and lectures in Popular Culture and Contemporary and Roots Music at the Australian Institute of Music. You can find some of his writings on music here.

TopperPost #384

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Nov 19, 2014

    David – Great list. Saw the Oils play in Toronto in the early 90s and they were a superb live band. Garrett was one of the most charismatic front men I have seen… Reading Bruce Cockburn’s autobiography at the moment & he says that the two of the great environmentalist David Suzuki’s favourite songs are his own ‘If A Tree Falls in the Forest’ and the Oils ‘Bed’s are Burning’… The Oils and Cockburn stand out for me as artists who combine superb musicianship with genuine political commitment…

  2. Glenn Smith
    Nov 21, 2014

    Hmmm, yes this is damn fine but I’m wondering about the absence of any tracks from the first two lps and Bird Noises? Cold Cold Change, Back on the Borderline are cracking good songs and were the first couple of steps forward in terms of song writing, especially for Hirst and Moginie. Run by Night is superb and if I’d put together a top ten would have kicked off with it, predictable I know. And no Wedding Cake Island or No Time for Games? Anyway,great career overview Dave, nice work all round.

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