When Midnight Oil announced their final tour last November – a once-more-with-feeling run of dates around the country to support their 13th studio album, Resist – founding guitarist Jim Moginie was typically met with three responses. The first was a scoff of disbelief, usually with a reference to John Farnham’s never-ending farewell shows. The second, more humorous, was that the group should have quit while they were ahead in 1981 – “and that was from some of my friends,” Moginie says.
But the third response was a shrug of acceptance. Moginie, 66 in May, is the youngest surviving member of the band; the eldest, singer Peter Garrett, is 69 in April. There will be no long goodbyes.
“We’re more like Johnny Rotten [than Johnny Farnham] — we mean it, man!” Garrett says, invoking a line from the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen. In their early years, tour handbills promised “The Oils are coming”. Now, 50 years after their rough beginnings, they’re leaving: the stage, at least.
More than any other band, Midnight Oil have remained part of Australia’s cultural conversation. Their breakthrough classic from 1982, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – with its indelible hits Power And The Passion and US Forces – spent 177 consecutive weeks on the Australian charts.
It opened the doors to a global audience. Their 1986 album, Diesel And Dust, preceded by a tour through remote Indigenous communities, sold 4m copies worldwide. Its opening track, the land rights anthem Beds Are Burning, is listed in the US Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as one of 500 songs that shaped the form.
But it was in the live arena where Midnight Oil built their reputation, not just for galvanising shows, but headline-grabbing protest actions: stopping Manhattan traffic with a gig outside the Exxon building in 1990; playing to a global audience of billions at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games in “Sorry” suits, campaigning for a government apology to the Stolen Generations.
After a long hiatus caused by Garrett’s pursuit of a second career in federal politics, the band’s resumption for the Great Circle tour in 2017 saw them play across 16 countries to an audience of half a million. They remained a visceral experience, where the extreme physicality of the performances (including Garrett’s unique dance step) was an extension of the sharp angles and energy of the music.
To continue, he says, would be testing not only fate but the band’s reputation. For Garrett, it is a relatively easy call. “Only a fool would go on believing that they can bring the same level of effort to it – when they were born in 1953 – as they did 25 years ago,” he says.
Moginie won’t name them, but he shudders at the memory of some older groups he’s seen. “You don’t want to be up there, playing the song you did 40 years ago, and everyone’s heading for the hotdog stands,” he says.
Hovering over the conversation is the ghost of Bones Hillman, Midnight Oil’s bass player since 1987. Hillman died on 7 November 2020, one week after the release of The Makarrata Project, the band’s first album for nearly two decades and the first to go to No. 1 since Blue Sky Mining in 1990.
Hillman was the youngest member of Midnight Oil, and therefore in theory “the least likely to be leaving first”, according to Garrett, whose grief at the loss of his bandmate is still palpably raw.
But Hillman, who hid his illness from the band, was a road hog. “He never saw a leaf of lettuce he didn’t run a mile from, he never met a beer or hamburger he didn’t fall in love with, and he smoked right through to the end,” Garrett says.
Garrett tends to the view that even if Hillman were still alive, the band would have come to the same decision to retire from touring. But for Moginie, his death was “right at the heart of it”. When he listens back to Resist and The Makarrata Project – both recorded in a six-week recording session in late 2019, with Resist’s release shelved for more than a year due to the pandemic – it’s Hillman that dominates.
“All I can hear now when I hear it is him – his playing, his sweet voice, his driving bass,” Moginie says. “It’s funny. We’re all very co-dependent; I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t in the band, even though we had two bass players before him.”
On stage, Hillman has been replaced by Adam Ventoura, who has a more rugged edge to his playing, reminiscent of Hillman’s predecessor Peter Gifford. To compensate for the loss of Hillman’s harmony vocals, the band recruited singers Liz Stringer and Leah Flanagan.
Their presence softens the band slightly, and is in keeping with the sound of Resist, which leans into the folk-rock tradition of protest singing. A few songs summon some of their old crunch, but mostly this is a kinder, gentler, more sombre Midnight Oil. Nearly a decade after he left behind a second career in politics, including various stints as environment, arts and education minister in the Rudd and Gillard governments, Garrett confesses he has struggled to hold on to his natural optimism.
Resist’s cover art is styled like a temperature graph; most of the songs deal with the climate emergency and environmental collapse. The new single, At The Time Of Writing, damns what Garrett labels “inconsequential leadership, the lack of serious adults in the room”.
“I still retain my optimism underneath, and I firmly accept that within the time zone of the decade or so [we have left] to hold warming to tolerable levels, that we won’t necessarily end up consigning our successors to an absolute living inferno,” he says. “But there’s every chance we will, if we don’t get on with things and get serious about change, and that’s a very sobering thought for someone who’s got kids – I haven’t got grandkids, but the others have.”
And while careful to keep the band’s frustration at being unable to perform in perspective of the human catastrophe of the pandemic, Garrett reserves special venom for the abandonment of the live music sector. “The pandemic showed once and for all that the political classes neither understand nor have a great deal of empathy for the performance industry and the arts in general, even though eventually some money was wheedled out of them,” he says.
“How is it that we were visibly discriminated against, while the Barmy Army could slobber over one another together, drinking beer and rubbing their tummies together [at the cricket]? It wasn’t lost on any performers, and hopefully it wasn’t lost on our audiences that we were at the very bottom of the pecking order.”
The band is adamant that they will continue in some form, that they have only retired from live performance. Moginie, always the studio boffin of the band, jokes that they may yet write their version of Sgt Pepper – before clarifying it’s his least favourite Beatles album.
“I don’t think we’re going to be sad about it at all. I don’t think we’ll all be in tears hugging each other on stage, although that might happen. But I know we’ll all be doing stuff together, it’s just what we do,” Moginie says.
But it will be different. “This is a band of musicians and writers and performers who will all continue to do that in different guises, so long as we can breathe a breath,” Garrett says. “What shape and form that takes, that’s anybody’s guess.”
First published in the Guardian, 18 February 2022