In the nascent Sydney punk scene of 1976, the Oxford Funhouse on Taylor Square was ground zero. The venue had been established by Radio Birdman who, along with Brisbane’s the Saints, can lay claim to the title of Australia’s first punk band.
Peter Garrett, who was leading an embryonic band not yet named Midnight Oil at the time, checked them out early and came away a changed man, marvelling at how the hipsters in the crowd kept their sunglasses on amid the mayhem. “The sound was laser-bright and ferocious, and frontman Rob Younger was riveting, stalking the tiny stage with a leonine fury,” he wrote in his memoir, Big Blue Sky, released late last year.
If you want an idea of where Garrett got the unique dance step that captivated audiences for over 20 years, watch Younger in action. Garrett wasn’t informed by his movements so much as the idea of performance as an altered form of consciousness. “I like to get myself into a state where I’m not aware of what I do at all, yet somehow I get it all out,” Younger said at the time. “I don’t know, I try not to think about it.”
Garrett similarly deflects questions about his dancing, as if talking about it might cause him to freeze. “You’re suspending rational thought, as you should when you go into that zone,” he says. “When you start to move and feel the energy around you, if you think about it for one second you become a clichéd plastic statue. Which we’ll try to avoid for a little bit longer.”
Garrett – as he proclaimed on Tall Trees, the first song and single from his first solo album, A Version Of Now – is back, and he remains a man of formidable energy. If his 63 years have slowed him somewhat, he won’t be merely treading the boards on an upcoming promotional tour, either. Later in the year Midnight Oil will reconvene, with the band planning to spend much of 2017 on the road. Again.
There are two public sides to Garrett: the whirling dervish on stage, and the highly organised figure who, years before he left Midnight Oil to join the Labor party, served his first term as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation between 1989 and 1993, at the height of the band’s success. He then served a further two years on the international board of Greenpeace.
“They’re both the same person,” Garrett says, lounging in a community café in Redfern, where he’s just done an interview for Koori Radio. As distinctive as ever, he doesn’t escape without shy requests for selfies and signatures. “You might discover different sides of the same person when you go on holidays with them, or sitting around a campfire, or if you have a big night in a karaoke bar.”
Garrett is used to being reduced to a caricature. So was his band. “[Midnight Oil was] misunderstood in terms of being seen as specifically constructed to deliver a political philosophy,” he says. “Misunderstood in being seen as very blokey and pub-ish, which we weren’t at all, certainly not as people. Misunderstood overseas, because no one knew where the hell Australia was, or what we were writing about.”
That didn’t stop Beds Are Burning – a pointed call to white Australia to return the land to its original inhabitants – from becoming the band’s biggest hit in America. Still, there was always more to Midnight Oil than slogans. “I thought there was some abstraction in what we were doing,” Garrett says, before conceding: “Probably not a lot of humour, it’s fair to say. Not my strong suit. Humour ain’t Oils!”
A Version Of Now isn’t played for laughs, either, but it’s often unexpectedly tender and sweet. There are love songs to Doris, his wife of 30 years, which are as direct as anything he’s ever written. Their three daughters, Emily, May and Grace, sing harmonies; May even plays drums on one track.
And while it features the Oils’ guitarist Martin Rotsey, it sounds like a genuinely personal solo project. There was no thought of bringing the songs to rest of the group, he says: “They came so quickly, and then I knuckled down and tried to knock them into shape and get people to play them as quickly as I could. They sounded like Peter Garrett songs.”
What it does share with his old band is some of the rawness that marked their early records. The approach was basic: “We’re in a room, we’ve learned the chords – or maybe we haven’t quite learned them – and we’re going to grab the moment.” The album was produced by Burke Reid, who has worked with the Drones and Courtney Barnett. Garrett was inspired by the unvarnished sound of both.
“The Courtney record [Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Think] was like being on a skateboard, rolling down a hill – ‘This is what I am, this is what I sound like, this is what I talk about’,” he says. “It had a spirit of music that I love that is timeless in some ways, because it was so gritty, real and without pretension.”
People often ask who dares to talk about big issues in popular music these days and it hasn’t escaped Garrett that the Drones and Barnett are among them. “There’s plenty of it out there [and] I was interested in what they had to say, but I also liked the sound.” The music, he insists, always comes first. “If it doesn’t have that internal combustion, you’ve got nothing.”
None of which means that Garrett has nothing to say. I’d Do It Again, the album’s second song, should stay a thousand journalists’ questions: “I didn’t jump, I wasn’t pushed / I went on my own, I’ve got to do what I could / I got my hands dirty and had a go”. Garrett’s rejection of the purity of activism for the messy compromises of high office remains unapologetic.
But those words “I’m back” also suggest he’s nothing if not happy to be making music again. “And who wouldn’t be, really? It’s not that I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, but they’re very different kinds of vocations and there’s not a lot of blend. I guess my starting point is that I think we can have a go at more than one kind of thing, and many people do.”
He concedes he “sometimes” felt like an outsider in politics, and in the Labor party too, partially because he wasn’t part of any faction. But neither was he a career politician. “The fact of the matter is, and most politicians would recognise it, that to some extent the lives that they’ve lived prior to entering the parliament are quite narrow.”
The result, he says, is an entrenching of the political classes, in which he includes advisers, lobbyists and various apparatchiks and insiders, including the press gallery. “The ultimate result of that confection is that it’s very difficult to break out from stasis or antipathy and the never-ending striving for short-term political advantage.”
Political progress is an illusory thing. Sometimes we go backwards; at others, around in circles. After the 2010 election, he remembers, suddenly “there was a row of younger, seriously hardline right-wing climate sceptics sitting on the other side of the parliament. It makes you pause for a second to think, and it also makes you demand of someone like the current prime minister [Malcolm Turnbull] that they do live up to their convictions.”
But the intractability of issues such as refugee policy, for example – which Garrett admits was “deeply, deeply challenging” – often meant personal convictions came a distant last in the same political machinery he has just described. Part of our disenchantment, he says, is driven by a skewed view of what politics can realistically deliver. And when it doesn’t, “there’s no shortage of people howling it down”.
No one, at least, could accuse Garrett of not having experienced life before entering politics. Two high points he names from Midnight Oil’s career were playing the first multi-racial concert in South Africa in 1994, following the election of Nelson Mandela as president, to roughly 80,000 people in Ellis Park, Johannesburg; and playing Beds Are Burning at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, with the band wearing “Sorry” suits.
That – like the band playing on a flatbed truck outside the Exxon building in Manhattan in 1990, in a guerrilla-style protest after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill the previous year – was essentially a prank but it was also extremely effective political theatre. And very punk. “It was agitprop,” Garrett says. At such times, “we felt we were part of something bigger that was at play”.
Whether the band will enter the studio again remains to be seen. “I think [the band members] obviously are still creative, [we’d] like to be creative. You’ve got to do it for the right reasons.” He notes the band’s contemporaries Cold Chisel have had a second life, “and they’ve made a fair fist of it. It’s been good, the stuff that they’ve done, I’ve enjoyed it.
“There’s no reason why not. We’re not bound temporally; we’re only bound by how fearful, how brave, how imaginative, how hard we’re prepared to work, and I think if we continue to bring the love of music and making music together then maybe we’ll see something come out the other end. Whatever it is you do, if it’s still moving you, then try to do as much of it as possible, before it’s too late.”
But, always, it’s the live shows that will come first. Midnight Oil became effective users of the studio as an instrument – particularly on their 1982 breakthrough album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. But the studio is a bit like the parliament: sounds are negotiated, compromised and brokered. It’s on stage, in front of an audience, where Midnight Oil made its reputation.
Garrett’s upcoming solo tour will give him the chance to splay his hands and wave those long arms around again, in those inimitable jerky movements that somehow work with the jagged angles of the music. But really, it’s a prelude to the main act next year, when the Midnight Oil juggernaut rolls back into action. It’s also a test. Can they do it again, or will they be, in Garrett’s words, clichéd plastic statues?
“It’s not like we can go out every night, [whether] it’s a club show or a theatre show, and just switch it,” he says. “We’ve got to suck the music out of the marrow of our bones and spit it back out over people, with all the sense of no tomorrow that we can muster up.”
First published in The Guardian, 17 July 2016