It was October 1984 and Peter Garrett, the frontman for Midnight Oil, should have been riding high. The band’s fifth album, Red Sails In The Sunset, had just topped the Australian charts – the band’s first number one.
Instead, he was restless and preoccupied. In his memoir, Big Blue Sky, he admitted he hadn’t contributed much by way of music to the album, recorded in Tokyo. When it was complete, he and his partner Doris visited Hiroshima.
No book or documentary, he said, could have prepared them for the photos and testimonies when they got to the site where the the first atomic bomb was dropped. “It’s literally a searing experience that leaves its imprint on you and never quite leaves,” Garrett said.
“We met with the Hibakusha, who are survivors and friends and families of the survivors of the initial detonation, and seeing the wreckage at first hand, hearing people’s accounts about what happened and what it meant to them subsequently, really brought it home.”
The experience left him questioning the line between activism and direct political involvement. “I was pretty energised and agitated by the politics of the time, and wanted to be useful – and how useful are you in a rock band?” he asked himself.
In December 1984 Garrett took his first tilt at politics in the federal election, joining the newly formed Nuclear Disarmament Party and heading the New South Wales senate ticket. He fell just short of a seat – squeezed out, ironically, by Labor preferences.
It was a fascinating chapter in Australian political life, as well as the life of Midnight Oil, dramatically captured by filmmaker Ray Argall’s documentary, Midnight Oil: 1984, which was filmed against the backdrop of the Cold War.
Argall’s film had been a long time in the making. That year, Garrett had joined the band on tour, shooting thousands of hours of footage. The film is fleshed out by period news footage and contemporary interviews with the band and associates.
It also captures a driven man running on what seems like combination of adrenaline and fumes. Garrett would arrive at rehearsals or soundchecks with folders full of briefing notes – between his meetings and interviews – before playing high-octane shows in the evening. Then he’d wake up the next day and do it all again.
“When I looked at the film rushes it did come flooding back,” Garrett said. “I guess my strongest sense was the sense of solidarity of the band, who were essentially signing off on the extracurricular activity of their singer.
“My memory of it is more about this upwelling of energy that was driving us, which meant when you got on stage at night – even though you’d been up really early in the morning and going on morning telly – there was still a lot of juice in the tank.”
It was a sliding-doors moment for the iconic singer. Could the band have continued? “I think probably we could have,” Garrett said, before conceding that maybe they would have gone into hiatus “like they did 15 years later and played surf music” – as several members of Midnight Oil did with the band, the Break, after Garrett eventually joined the Labor Party and left the band in 2002.
That move saw Garrett labelled a turncoat by many activists, but he pointed to the many gains made by the disarmament movement as evidence of its incremental success. He says Midnight Oil: 1984 captures a sense of the energy of that movement in its earlier days.
“There were a bunch of different actions and actors breaking out of the conventional narrative,” he said. “At the beginning, of course, we were dismissed as silly fringe-dwellers, and then there was the attempt to completely destabilise us and dirty us up.
“And yet through all of that, there was this other energy – this other, younger Australia saying well hang on a sec, this is something that is important to us. It was idealistic … But they’re ideals that I was proud of and I’m still proud of them.
“If you consider the international campaign against nuclear weapons now, and the ICAN [International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons] group who won the Nobel peace prize last year – some of those people were people in the Midnight Oil audience.
“Is it naive? I don’t think so; I think we’re closer to resolving that issue than we’ve been for a very long time, with a new treaty [on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons] getting ratified around the world.
“It’s not as though the issue just disappeared from sight once we’d done our bit, everybody else has picked it up and done fantastic things since.”
As for Midnight Oil, who reformed last year for their first tour since 2001, Garrett said they would be reconvening soon, and while there were no firm plans, it seemed likely the band would work together again.
“I think we were pretty blown away by the Great Circle [tour] and the level of response both here and overseas, and even though people have sort of scattered to the four corners, we’re all coming back, so that in itself is a positive sign.
“I’d like to think we can do some more songs. I know I’m writing; I suspect the other boys are writing. At this stage of the game you just literally thank your lucky stars that you can be in a band like this.”
First published in The Guardian, 1 September 2018