Early in Jimmy Barnes’ memoir Working Class Man, he tells an anecdote about Cold Chisel guitarist Ian Moss. In 1974 the band, formed in Adelaide a year earlier, was living on a farm outside of Armidale in northern NSW. One day, in the middle of winter, the group went into town leaving Moss behind to practice while wearing, in Barnes’ recollection, only a towel.
Late that night, as it started to snow, the band returned and were startled to spot Moss ahead of them in the headlights, miles from the homestead by Barnes’ estimation, wandering starkers in the middle of the dirt road. “Mossy was always on another planet,” Barnes concludes, “but we loved him.”
At home in Sydney’s inner west, where he lives with his partner, jazz singer Margeaux Rolleston and their son Julian, 14, Moss seems perfectly earth-bound, albeit shy. A white Gretsch guitar sits on a stand next to sheet music for the torch song You’ve Changed. On the dining table is a booklet from the funeral of the late AC/DC guitarist, Malcolm Young.
On a shelf behind him sits Barnes’ book, which he admits he hasn’t finished. So, what actually happened that night in 1974? At a minimum, you’d think finding Moss in such a state would warrant an immediate trip to hospital for hypothermia. “I don’t want to rain on Jim’s story, but there’s definitely a fair bit of poetic licence there,” he says with a wry chuckle.
The way he tells it is this. “About as naked as I would have gotten in that particular instance was a pair of boxer shorts, and I remember wearing a blue jacket with some real or fake lamb’s wool. I was having some issues with what’s popularly become known now as panic attacks. It was getting the better of me, and I just had to get out and run it off.” He was also only a few hundred metres, not miles, from the house. He was barefoot, though: “Barefoot was natural for me.”
Moss, who is about to release his seventh solo album, remains an elusive, almost spectral presence in Australian music. The writer and lead vocalist of one of Cold Chisel’s most celebrated songs, Bow River, hasn’t written too many more over the years, leaning heavily on others (usually the band’s piano and organ player Don Walker) for material.
He was born in 1955 in Alice Springs, the third of four children to Geoffrey and Lorna, who both worked for the local council. The way he speaks of the town’s wide open spaces might explain his case of cabin fever on a cold night outside of Armidale. “I’m a claustrophobe from way back, so I had no problems out there [alone in the dark],” he says. At 11, Moss picked up the guitar, and has barely put it down since.
As a boy, he visited Adelaide on summer holidays. He recalls seeing the ocean for the first time with a child’s innocence, expanding his arms: “Like, woooow!” He moved to Adelaide to finish high school and started an electronics course in 1973, but according to an interview with the ABC he only lasted a term after “daydreaming the whole time”, before working a series of factory jobs.
Barnes writes of Moss: “He seemed to look down at his feet a lot … When he did look at you, his eyes seemed to look deep inside you, searching [for something] he could reach out and connect with.” Walker describes the guitarist as “quiet, intelligent, very funny, not pushy, not overconfident, and the most gifted musician I’ve ever seen. He has a punctuality problem. I owe him. I trust him.”
Moss doesn’t need to be told he has a punctuality problem. “I’ve always been a bit lazy,” he confesses, though most weekends will find him on stage somewhere, mostly solo and acoustic. He speaks slowly, and long, long pauses punctuate his conversation. He still lives, seemingly, on Alice Springs time. “I have had this habit of getting great ideas, and they’ve laid moribund for a long time, on the wrong side of the finishing line.”
Bow Riverwas a case in point. “The first thing that came to me was what you might call the bridge,” he says. He sings: “Listen now to the wind, babe / Listen now to the rain / Feel that water, licking at my feet again – just that.” He sang it one day at a rehearsal, off the cuff; the band’s drummer, the late Steve Prestwich, encouraged him to keep at it. It took years.
Imagine, for a moment, being Ian Moss. He is blessed with one of the finest white soul voices anywhere, a prodigious songwriting gift, and palpable on-stage charisma. He could easily have fronted any other band in the world. But in Cold Chisel he was surrounded by songwriters, every one of whom contributed hits, the majority by a genuine great in Walker.
He sang lead on a handful of songs, including My Baby, but you only have listen to the final verse in Bow River – when Barnes swoops in and tears the song to shreds – to understand why it was easier for Moss to remain in the background. In a 2014 poll, his musical peers rated him Australia’s greatest guitarist, pipping Malcolm Young (not the popular fancy Angus) as No. 1.
Tim Rogers, whose band You Am I covered Cold Chisel’s Houndog on a tribute album, describes Moss as “a quiet gentleman who explodes with passion and vigour on stage [with] finesse and fire that mesmerises me … Soulful and supple of voice and a deft, romantic songwriter. That he’s handsome too is just ridiculous.”
Yet Moss admits he lacks self-confidence. In a way, it’s easier for him in Cold Chisel. “Jim’s the frontman, he can take all that pressure. I do still enjoy it when I get out there, but it’s always a little bit easier if someone [else] has got that pressure and you can just sit back and play guitar, sing the occasional song and do the backing vocals.”
You’d think the success of his first solo single, Tucker’s Daughter, released in 1989, might have cured him of his anxiety. Co-written with Walker, It went to No. 2, won an ARIA for Song of the Year, and the related album Matchbook went to No. 1, with double platinum sales. But releases since have been sporadic: his new album will be his first since 2009, and the first of all new material since 1996’s Petrolhead.
Did he enjoy the attention after the initial flush of solo success? “I guess so, yeah. Whether I was ready for it or not, I don’t know. And then … I guess there seemed to be that real or imagined pressure – oh well, you’ve had a really successful album, what’s going to happen if the second one’s not, how are you going to cope with that?”
The second album, Worlds Away, wasn’t as successful; it was released in 1991 as a wave of younger bands led by Nirvana swept aside the old guard. Moss faded into the background again. The 1990s had their share of difficult times; he split with his partner of more than a decade, actor Megan Williams, who in 2003, died of breast cancer at just 43.
On this album, he bears the lion’s share of songwriting credits. As usual, it’s been a long time in the making, though his voice is as strong and his guitar playing as tasteful and subtle as ever. The initial studio sessions were held in 2011, when Moss met Sydney songwriter Sam Hawksley, now based in Nashville and playing in the BoDeans.
In 2014, Hawksley called. “He said, ‘How you going with all those ideas lying moribund?’ I said ‘They’re still there, they’re not dead, but they’re still on the wrong side of the finishing line’.” Hawksley told him to gather them together, and in August that year Moss flew to Nashville, then returned to Cold Chisel as they prepared to record The Perfect Crime.
The songs sat around some more. Moss slips into the third person. “Sam was insistent that all I had to do was just relax, get into it, be Ian Moss – sing as well as Ian Moss can sing and play guitar as well as Ian Moss can, and it was all going to come together,” he says. “But the songs had been such a long time coming, and I just wanted to be really sure about them.”
If all this makes Moss sound obsessive, or at least an over-thinker, he’d learned from the best. “Don would play songs and [ask], ‘What do you think?’ He’d play the whole thing, and we’d say, let’s do it, it sounds great. He’d say ‘No, no, I’m not happy with the third syllable in the fourth word in the third line of the second verse!’ That level of detail.”
Since initially reforming in 1998, Cold Chisel have remained together for longer than during their original existence, save the tragic loss of Prestwich, who died of a brain tumour in 2011.
Chisel were arguably the Australian band of their generation before imploding in 1984, but it has taken far longer for their reputation to spread beyond Australia. The band undertook a disastrous tour of the US in 1981, playing mostly on the bottom of mismatched bills, an experience that prompted Barnes to write the seething single You Got Nothing I Want.
Moss, though, had a ball. “My playing went from here to here,” he says, raising his hand to indicate improvement. “But we were really starting to get sick of living in each other’s pockets. [Some of the] guys had met their future wives and some of the guys hadn’t … Jim had met [wife] Jane, and was obviously missing her like crazy.”
He motions to the picture of Malcolm Young on the table, and ponders whether things might have been different had they gone earlier. “I wish we’d done what these guys [AC/DC] did … To me someone should have said get overseas now, while you’re still young and all the energy’s there. I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t have been a massively different story.”
Perhaps, but one wonders how Moss might have fared had Chisel made the jump to world stages. You couldn’t take Alice Springs out of the boy then or, seemingly, the man now. Bow Riveris a song about escaping, of going home, even if – after that barefoot run through the snow back in Armidale – Moss is lucky to have any toes left for the water to lick at.
“I’d go back to Alice Springs on holiday and at least feel like I could relax, like I was at home, it just seemed a little bit more real,” he says. “That’s what Bow River was about, really. I’d had enough of the speed and the rat race and the insincerity and I was going back home, where people are real, and to the countryside I love.”
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 9 February 2018
Like millions of others, I have fond memories of live entertainment at Festival Hall. Sure, the room was lacking in atmosphere, bonhomie, charm and sound quality – almost anything, actually, that makes a great music venue – but that doesn’t stop me treasuring the experiences of seeing the Ramones in their late-career dotage and Nirvana at their absolute apex, despite Kurt Cobain being obviously ill.
So it was a sad day in Brisbane when, in 2003, the building was demolished to make way for the construction of an apartment block. We’d been through it all before too many times, most notoriously when the beloved Cloudland Ballroom was knocked down in the dead of night in 1982 by the Deen Brothers, the premier/hillbilly dictator Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s demolition firm of choice. Their slogan was “All we leave behind are the memories”.
For Melbourne, the potential loss of its Festival Hall for another proposed block of flats has nothing to do with acoustic or architectural aesthetics – unlike, for example, the historic Palace Theatre. Like Brisbane’s version, Festival Hall was designed for sporting spectacles, mainly boxing. It was the simultaneous arrival of television and rock & roll that resulted in the room throwing open its doors to live music, most famously the Beatles in 1964, as also happened in Brisbane.
It’s about memories, the loss of a rare mid-sized venue that can hold between 4500 and 5500 punters, and the blow to the self-image of Australia’s self-proclaimed live music capital. The local industry first flexed its muscle in January 2010 after the (mercifully temporary) closure of the punk venue The Tote in Collingwood – an event that prompted a rally of more than 10,000 people to march through the city against punitive liquor-licensing regulations.
So the music sector’s muscle is built on solid economic foundations. That’s to say nothing of its priceless cultural contribution. Try, for a moment, to imagine the cities of Liverpool, Manchester, London, New York, Sydney (particularly during the 1980s) and smaller centres such as Brisbane and Dunedin in New Zealand without reference to the artists who helped to define their history and legacies.
The subsequent passing of the agent of change principle by the Victorian government in 2014 imposed obligations on developers to protect existing live music venues from noise complaints by residents. This means that the onus is on developers to provide noise attenuation measures should their plans fall within 50 metres of an existing venue, unless it is the venue which plans to expand, in which case the onus is reversed.
But that hasn’t insulated Melbourne’s music scene from the cold, hard commercial realities of real estate. Since the 2010 groundswell, Melbourne has lost not only the Palace Theatre but the Ding Dong Lounge in the city (which held its last drinks only 10 days ago), the Caravan in Bentleigh and a number of St Kilda venues, including the Palace, the Greyhound Hotel and the Esplanade, although the latter is scheduled to reopen in October.
In a statement, Music Victoria’s CEO Patrick Donovan urged the developer and local and state governments to retain and protect the “iconic” Festival Hall. “The developer’s proposal comes at a time when all eyes are on Melbourne and Victoria as a world leader in live music,” he said. “Melbourne has been recognised as a global music city, hosting the international Music Cities Convention in April.”
But Festival Hall’s owners have made a commercial calculation that there is more money to be made from selling the site than in continuing to compete with similar more modern venues, including Margaret Court Arena (which is slightly bigger, with a capacity of 7500 people). And as much as the City of Melbourne and the state government have done to work with the music sector, there’s no agent of change principle or heritage listing at stake here.
And that’s why the pleas of Music Victoria will probably fall on deaf ears. At the end of the day, the city is not in the business of protecting memories. At the entrance to what is now Festival Towers in Brisbane, there’s a rather sad collection of photographs from gigs gone by that few other than the building’s residents will ever see. The application for the Melbourne development speaks blandly of “harness[ing] the emotional aspects of this venue”.
Which will mean absolutely nothing to anyone who ever passed through its doors to see the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Kanye West and homegrown acts including AC/DC and Courtney Barnett.
Back in Brisbane, Hutchinson Builders’ Scott Hutchinson – a music tragic who also built the Triffid in partnership with former Powderfinger bassist John Collins and the band’s manager, Paul Piticco – is now starting work on a 3500-capacity venue to “replace” Festival Hall in inner-city Fortitude Valley.
Perhaps Music Victoria might consider sounding out the state government or a similarly philanthropically minded developer, should any exist, about a long-term investment in a purpose-built mid-sized music venue – one with better acoustics and atmosphere than Festival Hall could ever offer.
Between his work as a guitarist and songwriter with the Easybeats and as a producer (along with fellow Easybeat Harry Vanda) for AC/DC, there is a very strong case to be made that George Young was the original sonic architect of Australian rock & roll. Other than Vanda – and with no disrespect to anyone who came before them, or followed after – the legacy of Young, who died yesterday aged 70, arguably outstrips anyone’s.
Those are big claims to make, so let’s start at the beginning. Young was born in Glasgow in 1946, migrated with his parents and younger brothers Malcolm and Angus to Sydney in 1963, and met Vanda at Villawood migrant hostel (now shamefully a detention centre) the following year – an event Australian Musician magazine selected as the most significant event in this country’s rock music history, in 2007.
That’s another big call, but the Easybeats, Australia’s first and finest response to the British Invasion (and the Beatles in particular) all but justify it by themselves. Their second single She’s So Fine, released in May 1965, launched them to local stardom. Their fifth, Sorry – led by a propulsive, serrated Young riff that prefigured younger brother Malcolm’s rhythm work with AC/DC – took them to the top of the Australian charts.
That was in October 1966, by which point the Easybeats had relocated to England. Until then, Young had written music for singer Stevie Wright, who contributed lyrics. It was the year of Revolver and Blonde On Blonde, and there were murmurs that the wild, colonial Easybeats lacked polish by comparison. Young was subsequently teamed with the Dutch-born Vanda, who was still learning English. Their first recording was Friday On My Mind.
The Easybeats’ joyous paean to the end of the working week was a worldwide smash, covered in years to come by everyone from Blue Öyster Cult to Bruce Springsteen, as well as David Bowie, who recorded it for his album Pin Ups. In 2001, the Australian Performing Rights Association voted it the best Australian song of all time; it was added to the National Film and Sound Archives registry in 2007.
If that had been all, Young’s legacy would have been secure. But it was his ongoing work as a songwriter and producer for other artists that turned he and Vanda into giants. As house producers for Albert Productions, they started out by rescuing the doomed Wright’s career with the magnificent three-part opus Evie in late 1974. Around the same time, another Scottish immigrant, Bon Scott, joined AC/DC.
A few stories sum up George Young’s contribution to that band. First, as Clinton Walker has pointed out in his biography of Scott, Highway To Hell, Young insisted that AC/DC should never deviate from straight, hard rock & roll: following trends, he believed, had been the Easybeats’ undoing. He also identified the silence and space in Malcolm Young’s stop-start riffs as crucial to their early sound: “It’s the stops what rocks,” he said.
The most famous story is of smoke billowing from Angus Young’s amplifier as he laid down the climactic solo for Let There Be Rock. From the control booth, George gesticulated and screamed at the guitarist to keep going, with Angus just managing to finish before his Marshall melted. “There was no way we were going to stop a shit-hot performance for a technical reason like amps blowing up!” George said later.
The work Vanda and Young produced for AC/DC – Let There Be Rock, especially – had a tougher edge than the sound Robert “Mutt” Lange gave the band for their international breakthroughs Highway To Hell and Back In Black, recorded after Scott’s death. Vanda and Young were by then also working with the likes of the Angels and Rose Tattoo, who would go on to influence a new generation of hard rockers, notably Guns n’ Roses.
And yet again, there was still more to the story. For as much as Vanda and Young can be credited for birthing the sound of what we now know – sometimes somewhat derisively – as “Oz rock”, they were also writing and cutting huge pop, and even disco hits: Can’t Stop Myself From Loving You, performed by glam rocker William Shakespeare, followed by a string of songs including Love Is In The Air for John Paul Young (no relation).
Vanda and Young even formed their own studio project, Flash & The Pan, whose first single Hey St Peter, released in September 1976, prefigured new wave just as punk was breaking worldwide. The song’s B-side, Walking In The Rain, was covered in 1981 by Grace Jones on her iconic album Nightclubbing. The mesmerising synth-pop of Waiting For A Train, released in 1983, featured Wright on vocals and hit No. 7 in the UK.
The story of Australian rock & roll, from the Easybeats to the Saints to the Hard-Ons and beyond, is of migrant kids. We should all be forever grateful for the day George Young met Harry Vanda at Villawood. And if it sounds like too much of a stretch to say Young defined the sound of Australian rock, listen to that manic, choppy riff from Sorry again – then try to imagine it without him.
The place: 8 Ormiston Avenue, Gordon, a leafy suburb on Sydney’s Upper North Shore. The year: sometime in 1972. A teenaged Robert George Hirst hauls his drum kit into the attic of the Cape Cod-style home owned by the parents of James Moginie.
Pretty soon, all hell starts breaking loose. There’s a thudding bass riff, played by Andrew “Bear” James. A couple of mighty clangs from Jim, and soon he’s noodling away over the top of Hirst’s kick drum. Hirst, all the while is hooting and hollering:
“SCHWAMPY MOOSE! SCHWAMPY MOOSE!!!”
It’s followed by an even greater cacophony, which sounds like Hirst kicking his drums back down the stairs again, just for the fun of it. Bands have, perhaps, had less auspicious beginnings. So begins the story of Schwampy Moose, soon to be known as Farm, and – later – as Midnight Oil.
THIS box of recordings represents both a purging and a history, but history is rarely linear and never neat. Tentative steps and great leaps forward can be followed and are sometimes accompanied by self-doubt; by glances sideways; by the occasional strategic retreat. It is a collection both of defining and celebrated moments, and of things that fell between the cracks.
But always there is purpose, and there is integrity. Those qualities took Midnight Oil to places few artists dared to go. To the Indigenous communities of Australia’s central and western deserts. To Midtown, Manhattan for a guerrilla-style protest against an oil company. To a heaving Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, in that country’s first post-Apartheid, multi-racial concert, following the election of President Nelson Mandela.
In purpose and integrity also lies resistance and refusal. A refusal to play/mime on Countdown, Australia’s long-running answer to England’s Top Of The Pops that was all but compulsory Sunday-night home viewing for a decade from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s in suburban lounge rooms. The many declined invitations to tour South Africa, for as long as Apartheid remained in place.
There was even a declined invitation to the Grammy awards in 1988, at the apex of Midnight Oil’s international success, so singer Peter Garrett could attend a protest at home against Bicentennial celebrations of the European invasion of Australia on 26 January 1788. Midnight Oil had their own priorities, and if they weren’t yours, that was just too bad.
You can’t capture that kind of refusal on tape. But it, too, is part of Midnight Oil’s history. It screams – in blue, perhaps – between the lines, at a time when resistance and refusal are needed more than ever.
FROM early on, the Oils – Hirst, Moginie, James (replaced in 1980 by Peter Gifford, who was in turn replaced in 1987 by Wayne Stevens, aka Bones Hillman), guitarist Martin Rotsey and Garrett, who grew up not far from Moginie in neighbouring Lindfield – were a strange hybrid that sounded like no one else.
In his autobiography Big Blue Sky, Garrett describes the band crawling from its cocoon to become an “iron butterfly”; surely a deliberate choice of words. The band’s first, self-titled album from 1978 is aflame with punk energy, inspired both by English bands and, locally, Sydney’s Radio Birdman, featuring the mesmerising Rob Younger out front – another singer with jerky stage movements and long, white-blond hair.
But there are also lingering elements of progressive rock, of psychedelia, and of the utopian hippie surf ethos of the 1971 film Morning Of The Earth and its classic soundtrack by G. Wayne Thomas. Even hyperkinetic songs like the opening Powderworks stretched over five minutes; the closing Nothing Lost, Nothing Gained carries for nearly eight at a pace that might, by the standards of the day, be considered meandering.
Still, there was no mistaking that the Oils meant business. Garrett maximised the visual power of his already daunting frame and features by shaving his head (which also served the utilitarian purpose of helping him take surf photos from the water without his hair getting in the way). Soon, the Oils began to establish a reputation as a band that was not to be missed, and definitely not to be fucked with.
This phase of the group is documented on a live performance from 1978, the first of several Live at the Wireless recordings made over the Oils’ career by ABC youth radio station 2JJ, later to become Triple J. (Among the treats here – underscoring the band’s earlier influences – is a cover of Take Me Down Easy, originally recorded by Jo Jo Gunne, formed by erstwhile members of psych-prog band Spirit.)
The sound is bright and trebly, but the key ingredients are in place. In the left channel, Moginie takes one mile-a-minute break after another; in the right, Rotsey chops out the rhythm like a competition woodcutter, only for the roles to be reversed when Moginie switches to organ for Surfing With A Spoon. All the while, Hirst leads from the back with his perpetual-motion drumming.
In effect, between Garrett and Hirst, the Oils had two frontmen, and Moginie identifies Hirst as the band’s driving musical force. “Great bands need great drummers, and we had a great drummer. It’s the way Rob’s kick drum’s slightly ahead of the beat and his snare’s about on the beat – or maybe even slightly back on the beat – so you get this pumping effect, and I think that’s the core of our sound.”
The band would tighten up that sound dramatically on their second album, amplifying the energy, boosting the bottom end and trimming the fat, even on workouts like the show-stopping Stand In Line. “I remember producer Les Karski saying, ‘The first thing I’ve got to do with you guys is get rid of the hippie waffle,’” Hirst says. “And he did, so the Head Injuries songs are much more concise.”
FAST forward to 1981, and the fourth CD of this collection, Punter Barrier, and one can hear the real beginnings of a phenomenon, starting with a live version of Stand In Line that first appeared as a B-side of the Armistice Day single. By now, the Oils were mowing down audiences in performances more like hand-to-hand combat in beer barns, inner-city theatres and outdoor festivals all over the country.
“That’s what will happen if you play 180 gigs a year in the clubs and pubs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane,” Hirst says. “It was quite gladiatorial back then. We were part of a circuit with Rose Tattoo and the Angels – even AC/DC of course were still here – and we’d learned how to play really hard, tough music through these huge PAs, which we used to call triple four-ways.”
The arrival of Peter Gifford had given the band a harder look, too, including work-wear overalls that several members would soon adopt. “Giffo was a chippie [carpenter], and he brought that no-fuss quality to the band,” Hirst says. “But he was also a great musician. He had an amazingly tough sound, and a down-beat with his right hand – exactly where my kick drum was – and we locked in immediately.”
Gifford’s impact can be heard in all its brutal glory on Punter Barrier – and seen, on the Moments In Space DVD – in a gig from the Tanelorn festival, recorded on a freezing night outside of the small New South Wales town of Stroud not long after the recording of the band’s third album Place Without A Postcard, recorded in Sussex, England on the property of famed English producer Glyn Johns.
It was so cold that you can see steam rising from both the audience and band members, who are swaddled in heavy winter clothes – Garrett’s head looks like it’s on fire. “The temperatures plummeted just before we went on stage, and poor Split Enz were coming on after us as well, so it was even colder for them,” Hirst says. “Looking back on it, though, you can just feel the roadwork that we’d done.”
But while Place Without A Postcard did well at home, it failed to find much international support, and all the roadwork in the world wasn’t going to keep the Oils afloat much longer. Behind the scenes, tension was building. Within a year, they were back in England – this time, London – with a much younger producer, and an air of desperation.
BY the time it came to record 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (or 10–1, or 10, 9, 8, depending on which shortened version of the title you prefer) Hirst was at his wit’s end and suffering panic attacks. “There was huge pressure on the band,” he says. “It was make or break … We were sick of going overseas and losing money and then coming back to Australia, and having to do a long tour just to recoup and go again.”
“We had nothing to lose at that point,” agrees Moginie. “There was no sense we were trying to preserve or protect any legacy. It was like we never had any legacy; we almost started with a clean slate. It was, let’s just make a record that works as a record, and there’s great moments on 10–1 where it just sounds like it’s about to explode.”
The story of the making of 10–1 (the title both a countdown to what then seemed like imminent nuclear Armageddon at the height of the Cold War and, more subtly, a sly reference to the TV show the band still stubbornly refused to play) is told on Only The Strong, a new documentary that sees its first release on this box set. It features the wizard-like figure of producer Nick Launay explaining, alongside Moginie, Hirst and Garrett, how the band achieved the array of extraordinary sounds buried within its dense textures.
As Launay and the band explain, 10–1 took the Oils out of the pubs and into stadiums via a sharp left turn into radical post-punk production techniques. To that point, Launay had worked with England’s Gang of Four, Killing Joke and on Public Image, Ltd’s Flowers Of Romance album, as well as the epochal single Release The Bats by Australia’s Birthday Party. He was met by a band ready to shed its skin.
Songs were cut up and reassembled. Hirst’s drums were recorded without cymbals, to be overdubbed later, and two of the album’s biggest-sounding songs (and singles), US Forces and Read About It, were built on multiple layers of acoustic guitars, with electric guitars used more sparingly, to devastating effect. US Forces featured Hirst playing piano strings with his drumsticks in the chorus, a feat so difficult Launay never attempted it again with another band.
Then, of course, there was Power And The Passion, with its percussion loop, that drum solo – Hirst’s performance throughout 10–1 is a masterclass – and topping it all, the brass section who blew themselves blue in the face trying to hit those hysterical high notes in the song’s coda. But for all that, as Garrett notes, the core of the band was not lost in the process: “We had an album that was very different to what we’d done before, but it was Midnight Oil, and when you went to see us live, you heard it.”
The sense of triumph is summed up by Hirst. “We were a bloody-minded bunch of bastards,” he admits. “We were very demanding on everyone around us, [including] each other … We were hard to deal with, we antagonised and irritated a lot of people, and at that moment, in the Townhouse studios with 10–1, I just thought, right, it’s all been worth it! We have actually reinvented what we are.”
Garrett – who in his memoir says he must have listened to the album 10 times on the flight home from London – says in the documentary: “I really was hitting the roof … Once we got onstage to play the songs – and they were all eminently playable – then of course that rounded it off.”
AFTER the countdown, Midnight Oil dropped the bomb (figuratively speaking) on the Capitol Theatre, Sydney on the 27 November, 1982.
Previously released as a dual DVD, Best Of Both Worlds, along with another spectacular gig recorded by 2JJ, Oils On The Water (also included here), the Capitol set remains arguably the best existing document of the band in full flight. All the tension that went into the recording of the album and the excitement of delivering the Oils’ best set of songs to date was detonated in front of a berserk audience.
“It’s so fast!” Garrett said with a grin, during an earlier interview. It’s true – many of the songs at the Capitol, such as No Time for Games and Lucky Country, are played as if by a bunch of speed-fuelled truckers. Rotsey and Gifford are straining at their leads, Moginie remains the band’s ice-cool centre of gravity, and Garrett is simply messianic. Behind them, Hirst pushes the band over the edge with abandon.
The blistering opening performance of Only The Strong, especially, demonstrates the extraordinary chemistry that had developed within the band; listen to how Moginie and Rotsey’s guitars talk to each other in the breakdown. Moginie laughs: “How many guitarists does it take to change a light bulb?” (The answer: “Two, because I could have done it better than the other guy!”)
Moginie confesses that when Rotsey first joined Midnight Oil, he feared he might have been usurped. “Guitar players are notoriously competitive, usually,” he says. “But I think in our case we realised early on that our styles were so different, there was never any trying to follow each other. There was a wonderful tennis-like quality to it, as if we were knocking a ball backwards and forwards across the net.”
10–1 also saw Midnight Oil emerge as a potent political force as well as an artistic one: after touring for the album was complete, Garrett would have his first tilt at a parliamentary seat as a high-profile candidate for the single-issue Nuclear Disarmament Party in the Australian federal election of 1984. He lost, narrowly. History may have been different. But history also has a way of repeating itself.
FOLLOWING the breakthrough of 10–1, the band recorded their next album, Red Sails In The Sunset (again with Nick Launay) in Tokyo, Japan. It saw the band pushing the boundaries of the studio even further – and, inevitably, there was a push back. First came Species Deceases, an EP of primal garage rock in the vein of 1980’s Bird Noises. Then, in late 1985, came an unexpected opportunity, and a quantum shift.
At that time, the Mutitjulu people were handed back custodianship of Australia’s largest monolith, Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), of which they were the traditional owners. To commemorate the event, they asked Midnight Oil to write a song. This was The Dead Heart which, Garrett writes, was built on Moginie and Rotsey’s acoustic guitars “churning like an 18-wheeler, backed in by a crunching snare drum sound”.
In 1986, the band backed it up with a tour through Aboriginal communities, accompanied by the pioneering Warumpi Band from Papunya, west of Alice Springs. This was the Blackfella/Whitefella tour, named after the Warumpi Band’s classic song, filmed by the ABC, and included here. The tour was an unforgettable shock to the entire band’s system, as the Oils were confronted with third-world living conditions in the middle of the so-called Lucky Country. Garrett writes in his memoir:
“I made a note about my gut feeling that if we were to get a clearer fix on where the nation sat, we had to go to the roots of our history, and so it proved. Sure, you could read about it, but once you took the step to head to a place where the wounds and the memories were as fresh as today, there were no excuses, no turning back.
“We were strangers in this timeless land, where the grandeur and fine detail of the landscape took your breath away, but in the same instant, the pervasive poverty and extreme conditions brought you up short, as did the ever-present sense of ennui and grief. The story of Aboriginal peoples following the arrival of white settlers was one of loss: the loss of country that sustained them and gave their life meaning; the loss of family and neighbours to the sickness that followed; and finally, the loss of interest in living, still tragically evident in the suicide rate of young Aboriginal men.”
Most of the band members have returned to the communities they visited in the years since, including Garrett after he became a cabinet minister more than 20 years later. The experience has never left them. Hirst says he has still barely been able to come to terms with what he saw, noting that while there have been gains, there have also been regressions – the suicide rate of Aboriginal men, for example, has only increased.
Garrett continues: “Here in the desert we had to slow down, in the way we played, in the way we thought. In the great silence that enveloped us, we had to listen carefully – to the words that were deliberately chosen, to the long gaps in conversation, to the odd angry shout erupting in the night. Only then did we get a glimpse of the depth of the culture of those we had come to perform for.”
It also had a profound impact on the Oils’ sound: as Hirst says, “we just left much more space between the beats and the notes – much simpler songs”. There was a newfound appreciation for space, for stillness, for quiet, and for echoes that you can still hear, rebounding back to you from the band’s greatest work: Diesel And Dust.
ON 24 March 1989, an oil tanker, the Exxon Valdez, ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska. In the following days, it spewed over 10 million gallons of crude – possibly much more – into the ocean and over more than 2000 kilometres of remote coastline. The spill devastated local communities and wildlife, including countless seabirds, seals, sea otters, and fishing stocks; the images shocked the world.
What was more shocking, and shameful, was Exxon’s response. Despite the fact that the after-effects of the spill persist to this day, Exxon continued to appeal costs awarded against it for the following 20 years, progressively reducing their damages bill from $5 billion to just over half a billion dollars. Spurred by sheer disgust at this environmental calamity, Midnight Oil began planning a response.
A little over a year after the spill, in the middle of their Blue Sky Mining tour, the Oils pulled up on a flat-bed truck outside the glass-walled headquarters of Exxon on the Avenue of the Americas and 6th Avenue, Manhattan. This was agitprop; this was a raid. In the course of the following half-hour, they played a furious set to a swelling lunchtime crowd, unfurling a banner: “MIDNIGHT OIL MAKES YOU DANCE – EXXON OIL MAKES US SICK”.
The agog faces pressed against the glass upstairs were soon replaced by drawn curtains, while at ground level, the band were trying to see how many songs they could get away with before the NYPD inevitably pulled the plug. Some, though, were notably enjoying themselves. “If you look at the film clip for King Of The Mountain you can see the cops starting to sway and move,” cackles Hirst, “and the sergeant there who was basically running the show eventually just said, oh, enough’s enough!”
The success of the protest action, which involved climbing or ducking significant bureaucratic and logistical hurdles, was a tribute to the determination of many people in and around the band who made it happen. Hirst cites the band’s sixth member, manager Gary Morris – another bloody-minded bastard possessed of “enormous charisma, a very firm handshake, and a tendency to talk someone into the earth before he would take a ‘no’. He was a formidable presence.”
Mention should also be made of the support the band were given by those in Sony Records at the time, particularly Mason Munoz, who went beyond simply respecting the band’s artistic and political independence. “There were mavericks in record companies then, and in radio as well,” Hirst says. “We relied on them. I can’t imagine the Oils having got anywhere near where we did without those enlightened folks.”
The end result was Midnight Oil at their best. If you wanted the perfect example of the band’s commitment to its values, its willingness to get up the right people’s noses and take others along with them – besides their performance at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in “Sorry” suits, sadly not included here for licensing reasons – the Exxon protest was it.
A FEW years later, the band was invited to perform on MTV Unplugged, a performance included here in its entirety on DVD for the first time. The unplugged concept, at that point, was an MTV staple – the idea being that by stripping away amplification and effects, fans would see a more “authentic” version of their heroes playing their favourite songs.
Some artists took the format further than others. Neil Young, at least sans his ear-bleeding backing group Crazy Horse, was hardly a stranger to the acoustic format; so too Bob Dylan. Conversely, one of the best and most famous performances, by Nirvana, was at times very much plugged in (check, for example, Kurt Cobain’s guitar in their cover of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World).
Midnight Oil’s performance is recalled differently by the band members. “No!” replies Moginie instantly, laughing, when asked if the concept suited the band.
Nonetheless, the band performed well, as is apparent on the DVD, with the group bolstered by the addition of keyboard player Chris Abrahams, of Australian improvisational jazz trio the Necks. Also, Moginie concedes, Diesel And Dust had already seen the Oils tone down their aggression to put greater emphasis on the songwriting and the vocals.
The Oils were still a rock band, though, and at the time he felt Unplugged was just a way of making guitar players turn down, or even eliminating them altogether. Worse, he says, “it was like making Rob play his drums with one arm behind his back! I think we did a really good job of it and it’s part of our history but personally it’s not something I look back on with much fondness.”
Hirst himself feels very differently. “It was quite an honour to be asked to the Ed Sullivan Theatre to do that,” he says. “We spent a few weeks stripping the whole thing down, and what we found was underneath the grunt of the amps and the drums, there [were] actually some really good, melodic songs.” In other words, the Oils proved exactly what the format asked them to.
The difference in perspective is as simple as Hirst’s position from behind the kit, compared to Moginie’s as a guitarist. With the volume down, Hirst – playing a supportive rather than leading role – could finally hear his own band. “Personally, I heard things I’d never heard before [that] the other members were doing, but because of the sturm und drang of the big show, I just wasn’t aware of,” he says.
And while Moginie felt he and Rotsey had been reduced to simply “strumming our hearts out”, Hirst heard the magical mesh between them. “Jim and Martin had been playing for so long together, there was this lovely guitar interplay. Of course, shortly after we’d done that everyone said oh, what the fuck – let’s just plug into the amps and blast away! But I think we discovered things about our vocal ability and how melodic the songs were, and that was quite a revelation.”
WHILE Hirst and Moginie’s recollections of Unplugged may differ, one event about which the entire band is unanimous was their historic concert a year later at Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg, performing alongside Sting, Lucky Dube and Johnny Clegg in the first major multi-racial show in post-Apartheid South Africa. It was a genuinely special night, with musicians and audience united in the most joyful of celebrations.
It was especially remarkable that the audience knew the songs, since the band’s albums had not been exported to South Africa during the earlier economic embargo: the word (and the lyrics) had spread via bootlegs. The Oils had resisted previous overtures to tour the country, and Garrett had sung on Sun City, a hit protest single by Artists United Against Apartheid, a collective led by the E Street Band’s Steve Van Zandt.
Johannesburg sits at an elevation of 1753 metres, which is not all that far short of Australia’s highest peak, Kosciusko (title of another Oils song). It made singing a challenge, both for the asthmatic Hirst and for Garrett, who had to do it while whirling and jerking about the stage in his inimitable fashion. Thankfully, they had plenty of cover from the locals.
“We started with The Dead Heart and we had this massive singalong,” Hirst says. “Everyone was singing to the fullness of their abilities, and of course there’s serious vocal firepower in South Africa, you know, they can really sing. We should have just left them to it! Dead Heart never sounded better; Beds Are Burning never sounded better.”
Hirst says he gets shivers just talking about the gig to this day, and Garrett likewise cites it among his favourite moments. As for Moginie, he says he didn’t even realise the concert had been filmed; unearthing it for this box was a Eureka moment. “It was a moment in time that was just captured and there was a tape of it we didn’t even know we had! We looked at it, and we were [like] holy shit – this is just great.”
ABOVE all, Moginie says, the aim of this box set was to present an honest overview of Midnight Oil’s history. Here, we rewind to Schwampy Moose and the first CD here, Lasseter’s Gold, a collection of previously unreleased outtakes and snippets. It’s a fascinating insight into a democratic band at work, from their rough beginnings right through to A Sunburnt Sky, a reject from the Breathe sessions in 1996.
These are songs that, for one reason or another, fell between the cracks. Two of them, Schwampy Moose and Farm – a one-minute, ambient Moginie mood piece from 1975, featuring the name the band would use in their early gigs – are ancient relics that have survived. Some tracks might have been less fully formed than others at the time of recording, and fell behind in the pecking order as deadlines approached.
Others fell victim to the preferences of band members and producers, or were later reworked to turn up elsewhere: Wreckery Road, for example, on Hirst’s first Ghostwriters album. Ghost Of The Roadhouse, a demo for 10–1, features a reference to “bells and horns at the back of beyond”, a line that became a title for an instrumental on Red Sails In The Sunset.
At times it’s even possible to hear the band cannibalising itself: Doghead, another instrumental recorded over the New Year of 1987–1988, features an opening chord pattern lifted – perhaps intentionally, perhaps not – from Scream In Blue. This was all part of the Oils’ process: a musical jigsaw puzzle, where shapes were constantly thrown together in different keys and tempos until they interlocked.
“We’re really wearing our hearts on our sleeves here, because everyone’s got favourites on these,” Rob says. “These are songs which didn’t see the light of day, often with good reason. Some of them you can hear they need to go the extra mile with the writing or the arrangement or the production, but we just thought, what the hell – if not now, then when?”
“The thing about it that’s interesting is that when you’re doing demos, like these were, everything’s very unguarded,” Moginie says. “The lyrics are unguarded, the playing’s unguarded; [and] maybe not quite as righteous as it could be, but then you have this other frail human quality which sometimes gets lost in the studio when you’re doing a million takes and you’ve got a producer and a deadline.”
And, as the title suggests, there is gold here, too. “Things like The Band Played The Last Melody we were all going, why the hell didn’t that make it onto an album?” Moginie says. “Things would just get overlooked – maybe there was something a bit odd about a song; a lyric here or there or a dodgy chord, but nothing that couldn’t have been fixed. Other songs would just get traction, and attention would move on.”
OVER a long career, a band’s time can come and go, and come again. At the time of this box set’s release – close to 15 years since Midnight Oil was last an active entity, and 45 since those rough beginnings in Jim Moginie’s attic – let us pause for a moment to survey the landscape.
A real estate tycoon and reality television star, Donald Trump, is in the White House. His appointee as Secretary of State is none other than Rex Tillerson who, between 2006–2016, was the CEO of Exxon, a company he has served since 1975. Meanwhile, ice caps and glaciers are melting as the planet continues to warm at an alarming rate – a phenomenon that Exxon has also spent billions of dollars denying.
In Australia, there continues to be debate over changing the date of Australia Day, which for Indigenous Australians remains a day of dispossession and devastation. The majority of recommendations of a Royal Commission into black deaths in custody remain unimplemented; shamefully, the percentage of Indigenous people in prison has increased from 14 percent in 1991 to 27 percent.
It would be a misunderstanding of Midnight Oil’s purpose to assume the band will get back together because the political circumstances seem somehow to demand it. For the band, the music always – always – came first. Having said that, Garrett left the band in 2002 to further his political career; after a decade-long stint, including as a cabinet minister in the Labor government, the Oils were free to resume.
The last time Midnight Oil toured the USA, it was in the months following the levelling of the World Trade Centre in the terrorist atrocity of 9/11. The sad result, 16 years later, is that the very freedoms that nation so cherishes are under attack as never before. Even Green Card holders are finding it hard to get into the country as Trump and the judiciary battle in a very real crisis for the country’s constitution and international standing.
How might a dissident bunch of Australians fare?
“I imagine Rex Tillerson was one of the ones with his face pressed against the glass, looking down at this Australian rock band with our big banner and going, what the fuck?!” Hirst says. “I wonder if he’ll remember us, if we do tour the United States this year. It’ll be interesting to see whether we last the distance, and whether we’re appreciated or deported.”
Whatever happens, the Oils will be there, to witness, and to testify: it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.
Liner notes written exclusively for Midnight Oil’sOverflow Tankbox set, released 12 May 2017
How to sum up the life and times of Ian “Molly” Meldrum? If you think four hours is an extraordinary chunk of airtime to devote to a television biopic on the cat in the hat, you probably didn’t grow up in the 1970s and ’80s. If you did, you almost certainly grew up on Countdown, the weekly music program that, over 13 years and 563 episodes, made Molly the unlikeliest of entertainment icons.
Molly, which premiered on Channel Seven last night in the first of a two-part mini-series, tells his story ingeniously and, perhaps, with a touch of sly irony: via a series of flashbacks, following Meldrum’s terrible accident at home in 2011, which left him with severe injuries. (At the time of the show’s airing, Meldrum is recovering after a second fall in Thailand).
It allows for an unashamedly nostalgic, but also unexpectedly affecting look back at an era that was both more innocent and less straight-laced. As a gormless young suburban boy, I mostly took even Countdown’s most anarchic moments at face value. Even so, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just the infamous 100th episode when its host – not to mention its guest stars – turned up on set considerably the worse for wear.
With his craggy features, Samuel Johnson was born to play Molly. More impressive than the physical resemblance, though, is the genuine pathos with which Johnson invests in the character. Underneath Molly’s bumbling, stuttering exterior (his first word on air is “um”) lies an intuitive intelligence and the irrepressible enthusiasm that audiences came to adore him for.
He’s also fiercely – and physically – loyal, which gets him into trouble both with the law and his superiors at the ABC, especially buttoned-down executive Alan Wade, played with perfect rectitude by Benedict Hardie. He is ably protected by Countdown’s producers, Michael Shrimpton (Tom O’Sullivan) and Rob Weekes (TJ Power), whose main job seems to be to save our hero from himself.
The show touches delicately on his early family life: Meldrum is raised mostly by his grandmother, after his mother is hospitalised due to an unspecified mental illness. Then, of course, there is his sexuality, which became a talking point last month after Johnson told the ABC that a scene in which he kisses another man had been cut by Meldrum himself, who thought it was “gratuitous”. (“I wanted the kiss in, I wanted it to be in there, it wasn’t gratuitous at all,” Johnson said.)
As our first sexually fluid television star, Meldrum never really came out, because he never really had to – what you saw was what you got. Here, the subject is dealt with mostly via a series of nudges, winks and knowing looks, until a touching scene where Molly, who is engaged to Camille (Rebecca Breeds) takes his strung-out, heroin-addicted transgender housemate Caroline back to his backwoods Victorian home town of Quambatook, only for both to accuse each other of running away from themselves.
It’s these glimpses into the man behind the mononym that made the first episode of Molly so much more satisfying than Never Tear Us Apart, the INXS mini-series from 2014. We see his self-doubt – “If this falls apart, no one’s gonna give me another chance,” he confesses to Camille before Countdown’s debut – and more obscure details, like his lifelong obsession with Egyptology and the St Kilda football club.
In between all this is the music. Countdown’s influence on a generation of Australian music – both for better and worse – is incontestable, and Meldrum, for over a decade, was at the centre of it. (This extended to his role as a producer – both on Russell Morris’s epochal flower-power hit The Real Thing and Supernaut’s bisexual anthem I Like It Both Ways.)
The structure of Molly allows for Countdown’s most celebrated appearances and controversies to be gleefully recast: the initial appearance of Skyhooks, the endlessly replayed “interview” with a loaded Iggy Pop, and the later refusal of Midnight Oil to appear. Along with Cold Chisel’s trashing of the Countdown awards set in 1981, their withdrawal signalled the beginning of a waning in the show’s agenda-setting power.
But the best moment – indeed, as the man himself had it, the most important moment in the history of the program – was Meldrum’s catastrophic interview with a youthful Prince Charles, during which he repeatedly fluffed his lines, swore, put his hand on the Prince’s knee while calling him “lovey”, and asked after his mum (“You mean Her Majesty The Queen,” came the unctuous reply).
The wonder of this scene is, of course, amazement that it happened at all. But the 1970s were different days, when the ABC still played God Save The Queen before it ceased broadcasting at midnight – but also a time when AC/DC’s Bon Scott, wearing a schoolgirl’s uniform and pigtails, could smoke a durrie while attacking Angus Young with a rubber mallet during a live performance on the national broadcaster.
Whether inept or insouciant, Meldrum’s treatment of Charles said much about our history and our relationship with our colonial masters. But it also spoke of Molly’s almost comic inability to be anyone other than himself, and his determination to treat everybody – as his grandmother taught him – the same. Molly the mini-series is a funny, warm and wholeheartedly affectionate tribute.
The news that Stevie Wright – solo artist, singer for the Easybeats and, thanks to that band’s immortal single Friday On My Mind, arguably Australia’s first international pop star – has died at the age of 68 will not be a surprise to anyone familiar with his sad story. That does not make his loss any less devastating.
The tiny Wright, who was billed as Little Stevie in his early years, was Australia’s prototype rock & roll frontman. Some of his moves, not to mention his leering grin, were lovingly copped by AC/DC’s Bon Scott. They also found an echo in Chrissy Amphlett, whose band the Divinyls covered the Easybeats’ I’ll Make You Happy.
Wright, along with his bandmates, was part of the first wave of migrants to jump-start Australian rock and pop. Born in Leeds in 1947, his family emigrated to Australia when he was nine, settling in Villawood. There he met Dutch-born Harry Vanda and Scot George Young (older brother of AC/DC’s Malcolm and Angus), both of whom were staying at the local migrant hostel.
Wright wrote lyrics for many of the Easybeats’ early hits, including She’s So Fine, Wedding Ring and fan favourite Sorry – a number one hit in Australia in 1966, and as tough a record as anything released to that point by the early Kinks, Rolling Stones or the Small Faces.
After that, his influence within the group waned, as Young began working with fellow guitarist Vanda. Friday On My Mind was the first fruit of a phenomenally successful partnership, for the Easybeats and as house writers and producers for Albert Productions in the 1970s.
Ultimately, this worked to Wright’s advantage after he was reunited with Vanda and Young as a solo artist. His full range as a singer – an inspired belter, capable of surprising tenderness – is best captured on his 11-minute single Evie (Parts 1, 2 & 3), which despite its prodigious length also went to number one in 1974.
But Wright, as the title of his first solo album Hard Road indicated, lost his way after his early fame. And although it contained some of his finest performances, the cover of that album was a giveaway, with a haunted-looking Wright photographed on a beach as though shipwrecked.
Addicted to heroin, he admitted himself to the notorious Chelmsford Private Hospital where he was administered deep sleep therapy, a combination of electroshock therapy and drug-induced coma which left him with severe after-effects. (The hospital’s practices, which were linked to 26 deaths, later became the subject of a Royal Commission.)
Wright performed only sporadically after that, headlining the Legends of Rock show at Byron Bay for his final show in 2009. With the Easybeats, he was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2005; in 2001, Friday On My Mind was voted the best Australian song of all time by the Australasian Performing Rights Association.
It’s the song for which Wright will be best remembered. From its opening stanzas charting the working week, through to its hedonistic chorus celebrating the coming of the weekend, it’s the definitive Australian working-class anthem. Wright’s vocal is by turns impatient, cheeky – “even my old man looks good!” – and exuberant.
It is sad that Wright’s struggles have obscured his enormous influence on generations of Australian rock & roll, from AC/DC to the Saints to You Am I. Each of their vocalists, in turn, owe a drink to the diminutive frontman with the who-me grin, the little shimmy and the loveable larrikin vocals.