For those old enough to remember it, 1984 was a year full of dread and apocalyptic overtones. It wasn’t just the paranoia of George Orwell’s dystopian novel of the same name: in some ways, the current age of mass corporate/state surveillance and black-is-white propaganda makes 1984 feel closer at hand today than it did at the time. What’s easily forgotten is a fear that has only recently been truly reawakened: of nuclear terror (or error) and mutually assured destruction. The cold war could have turned hot and melted us all at any moment.
The mid-80s was also an interesting time in pop and rock music: everybody wanted to either rule the world or save it. Midnight Oil were very much in the latter category and 1984, a documentary by Ray Argall, focuses on a pivotal year in the band’s career. Their fifth album, Red Sails In The Sunset, was a continuation of the Armageddon-themed 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1: the cover featured a drained and cratered Sydney Harbour after a nuclear strike (with the Harbour Bridge and Opera House remaining eerily intact).
The album was released in October and became the band’s first No. 1 in Australia. At the same time, Peter Garrett was having his first tilt at politics, as a Senate candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the federal election of 1984. He very nearly won a seat, only being squeezed out (after more than a month of counting) by a preference swap between Labor and the Coalition. Then-prime minister Bob Hawke was re-elected with a reduced majority.
Argall can count himself lucky to have joined the band on the road that year, shooting more than 28,000 feet (about 8,500 metres) of film. The results powerfully capture not only a great live band at their peak but a fascinating moment in Australian politics that anticipates many of the anxieties, ruptures and culture wars to come. The Labor government, entrenched in power with a charismatic leader, felt the pressure on its left flank. So too the Democrats, who did their best to “keep the bastards honest” before being supplanted by the Greens.
On the right and in the media, Garrett was attacked for being “emotional, naive and a rock star”, a sign of the inevitable attacks to come when he joined the Labor party, though by then the rhetoric had changed to “ageing rock star”. Within the band there was tension too: while the others backed Garrett’s charge publicly and privately at the time, they were unsure how or whether Midnight Oil could continue. Indeed, the Democrats called on Garrett to resign from the band if he were to fulfil his duties as a prospective senator.
The pressure on Garrett himself was enormous. Midnight Oil’s musical directors, guitarist, Jim Moginie, and drummer, Rob Hirst, give different perspectives: Moginie recalls the singer as being “on top of the world, alive and effusive” while Hirst describes the band being worried about how hard he was pushing himself – arriving to rehearsal with folders of notes, rushing off to meetings and media calls, playing punishing shows in the evening, finishing in a catatonic state and often wearing an oxygen mask, before doing it all again the next day.
Garrett also reflects – very briefly – on concerns about the impact of this schedule on his life, including his family. There’s a more personal as well as political story to be told here, but in typical Oils fashion, that’s not what we get. There’s no narration, and interviews are relatively sparing, interspersed with period news footage. Otherwise, you get a lot of the band in concert and, while the film is not overlong at 90 minutes, that’s something that works both for and against it. Viewers are left to read between the lines and draw their own conclusions.
Sometimes that’s frustrating. The live footage is as explosive as you’d expect, and it all looks and sounds great, but this is not a concert film, and sometimes it feels as though it wants to be. There were moments when, as a longtime fan of the group, I wanted it to be, too. But that comes at the expense of storytelling and holds the film back from being what it could be, particularly for those not already rusted on. The end result is something in between, which doesn’t quite fulfil its potential.
Michael Lippold, the band’s stage manager, identifies that this was no ordinary rock group. “They didn’t do drugs, they didn’t drink and they didn’t whore around,” he says bluntly. They were famous, and certainly became wealthy, but they weren’t only in it only for themselves. They were a conduit and, as their office manager, Stephanie Lewis notes, the audience saw themselves in the band’s music and lyrics. What 1984 does most effectively is encapsulate the band’s relationship with the audience who grew up and came of age with them.
For perhaps tens of thousands of young Australians, the band aided their political awakenings. In hindsight, most – including, surely, the band themselves – will be grateful that things worked out as they did: after the studio experimentation of Red Sails, Midnight Oil headed for the desert and created their most intimately Australian and yet internationally successful work, Diesel And Dust. No other band had as much to say about their own country and 1984 does well to document Midnight Oil’s place in our history.
First published in The Guardian, 10 May 2018