Perhaps it’s easy to forget, nearly 60 years into his career, that the songs of Bob Dylan were made famous by other artists with sweeter, more radio-friendly voices than the one David Bowie later described as a mix of sand and glue. Between 1963 and 1965, Joan Baez, the Byrds, Peter, Paul and Mary and many others all helped turn Dylan into the voice of his generation for people who couldn’t stand his voice.
Eventually his label, CBS, started marketing him with the phrase that “Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan”. Which is still true, even as that untutored yowl – through age, experience and more age – turned into a croon and, finally, a croak. Now, however, he may have a rival to his own title: nobody has ever sung Dylan quite like Nashville-based Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift. And maybe nobody (other than Dylan) has ever sung him better, either.
Swift’s splendidly titled album Blonde On The Tracks is a collection of eight Dylan songs that she began recording in 2017 and completed earlier this year, when she became the first artist out of the gate to cover I Contain Multitudes, from Dylan’s new album Rough And Rowdy Ways. She sings with clarity and vulnerability, and just a hint of vibrato, but the key to these performances is her firm grasp of Dylan’s phrasing and timing.
That doesn’t mean that Swift doesn’t put her own spin on such well-worn songs as You’re A Big Girl Now. The way she lets her voice drag just a little longer as she sings “I can change, I swear” will drive a corkscrew through your heart. And where Dylan’s band helps him elaborate the gorgeous melody he can now only hint at in I Contain Multitudes, Swift needs no such assistance in a version that preserves the song’s wryness and subtlety.
It helps that Swift’s partner is Robyn Hitchcock, the prolific solo artist who, in the early 1980s, led the English psychedelic punk band the Soft Boys. Hitchcock is a brilliant guitarist who has long drawn on the legacies of both the Byrds and Dylan; his work on Queen Jane Approximately steers the arrangement closer to the folk-rock style of the former than Dylan’s original from Highway 61 Revisited, and eventually opens out into a ringing electric solo.
But the focus always remains on Swift’s voice. For Queen Jane Approximately, drummer Jon Radford sits back on rimshots, never overwhelming the song with his kit. On the verses of One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later), Swift is so hushed, accompanied by just the barest traces of pedal steel and piano, that it sounds like she’s singing in church – an effect only enhanced when the song’s main refrain swells into a heavenly chorale.
There are a couple of less obvious selections – Going, Going, Gone is from Planet Waves, while The Man In Me is from New Morning, two of Dylan’s relatively neglected early ’70s albums, and Swift illuminates both. The bravest is the 12-minute run through Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands, the immense closing track from Blonde On Blonde; on Blonde On The Tracks, it’s dead in the album’s centre and never flags, sung with patience and grace.
Swift has had a stop-start career to date, releasing very little music since coming to notice with an acclaimed self-titled EP in 2014. According to Swift, the idea for Blonde On The Tracks was born from a protracted period of depression and writer’s block. And yet it may be the making of her. It’s a beautiful piece of work by a singer with a rare interpretive gift, comparable to Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball in its intent, execution and intimacy.
The breakup album is a standard trope of rock music. Bob Dylan set the benchmark in 1975 with Blood On The Tracks; Beck’s Sea Change (2002) is a famous more modern example. Now Marlon Williams – the 28-year-old Melbourne-based New Zealander with the golden throat – has offered his own contribution to the form with his second album, Make Way For Love.
And Williams is making no secret of the album’s source: the dissolution of his three-year relationship with another acclaimed New Zealander, Aldous Harding, in December 2016. He even coaxed her to sing on the album’s penultimate song, the duet Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore.
“I think she saw how important it was to me, more than anything, and that song, more than any other, expresses a feeling I couldn’t put into her words any other way,” Williams says. “I’m actually telling her something in that song, and she’s responding through my words in her voice, so it’s a really important song for me.”
After a long apprenticeship in his home country, Williams burst into international view with his debut solo album in 2015. He was acclaimed for his storytelling gift and stunning voice, a tremulous instrument that’s often been compared to Roy Orbison. His band the Yarra Benders came on like an Antipodean Stanley Brothers, with string ties and high harmonies.
On his second album, Williams let those affectations go, as the songs came in a rush in the wake of his split with Harding. This time, they were mostly written on piano, not guitar. It wasn’t a conscious move away from country, he says, as much as moving towards something much more personal and revealing.
Even before the breakup gave him the material he needed, though, Williams says he wanted to make a more focused body of work. “I wanted to lock into a certain theme, regardless of what it turned out to be. My first album was pretty broad and undefined, so there was a real desire to close off certain things and just really get into one mode.”
Williams had previously been reluctant to draw on his own life for songs, but this time he couldn’t help himself. “It was freeing and exciting in one way, and also kind of terrifying in another. Nick Cave talks about songwriters being cannibals of their own lives, and I’ve always sort of tried to avoid that cyclical drama feeding into songwriting.”
But Williams’ focus in the immediate aftermath of the split helped him to simplify and unify his approach. “I wanted to close off everything else except for one thing that was going to really carry this body of work through,” he says. “So the listener will get to the other side and feel one mood.
“The hardest thing was really trying to tap into the honesty but not getting caught up [in details] that don’t matter, that aren’t essential to the feeling. It took a little bit of a re-set in my brain to get used to it, especially because I’m naturally such a storytelling songwriter. But the thing wanted to come out, so I had that going for me.”
Williams says that for him, the process was therapeutic: “I’m a much more rounded person coming out the other side of that album. But, you know, it’s difficult, it deals with difficult things, because it was so personal. It wasn’t easy in that sense, it was a bit of a gut-wrencher, but it needed to be done.”
And Harding? “I’ve given her the record now. We haven’t really talked about it, but there’s an unspoken respect, I think, (a) for my decision to make the record and (b) for my decision to be pretty open about it. She preserves her privacy and keeps it all about the art, but we’ve definitely got different approaches about that stuff.”
Is he prepared for the possibility of an answer record? “Well, it’s close enough to [Harding’s album] Party; there’s a lot of stories in there!” he says. “I’m sure we’ll be bound in a certain way throughout our lives.
“I can’t not have been influenced by her over the course of our time together. I’ve known her since we were 16 and I’ve always found her to be more musically on point than anyone I’ve ever met, so she’s definitely all over the record in a lot of ways.”
First published in The Age (Shortlist), 15 February 2018
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
Fifty pages into this long-awaited memoir, songwriter, critic and author Robert Forster gets very meta. “If a film of Grant & I is ever made, it could start here,” he writes. It’s 1978, and he and Grant McLennan, the co-founders of the Go-Betweens, are driving from Brisbane to Sydney for the first time. After crossing the Tweed river into New South Wales, McLennan dashes into a shop, and emerges triumphantly waving a copy of Playboy, which was banned in Queensland at the time.
Of course, this being the Go-Betweens, they’re reading it for the articles – in this instance, Bob Dylan’s first full-length interview in three years, which McLennan ecstatically reads to Forster as the car races past cane fields on their left, Mount Warning on the right (“Cue thundercrack,” Forster says). The Go-Betweens always were the most self-referential of groups, as well as the most literate. Grant & I would make the most bookish of buddy films.
That’s not to say they were square. “On many occasions dark rock bands would encounter the Go-Betweens expecting namby-pamby, book-besotted, cocoa-drinking wimps, to find themselves partied under the table. We were a rock & roll band,” Forster declares. Yet it’s both a strength and a weakness that this often very moving book avoids the cliched recounting of rock & roll excess – until those excesses inevitably begin to catch up with them.
The obvious stylistic inspiration for Grant & I is Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which centres on her enduring friendship with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. But whereas Smith’s book skirts around her years of fame (like Dylan’s Chronicles, another reference point), Forster revels in his: each album, each single of the Go-Betweens’ career is lovingly charted – if only they had actually charted. This is a tale of cult stardom, of missing hits and hits-that-missed.
At one point, Forster writes of “the lengthy entry in the rock encyclopaedia that we felt the group deserved”. With Grant & I, he has all but written it himself. Some of the best passages of this book are clear-eyed critiques of his own band’s work as they navigate the usual artistic pitfalls: grinding poverty, unrecouped advances, unsympathetic producers, and drum machines used to tame a true original, Lindy Morrison, with whom Forster was in a relationship for eight years.
The heart of the book, though, is about a close friendship with someone who remained unknowable: a “naive boy” who kept a close watch on his inner life, only to pour it out in songs such as the revered Cattle And Cane and its companion, Dusty In Here. Both songs reference McLennan’s father, who died when he was six. Yet as Grant & I (and the band’s career) unfurls, McLennan recedes; as his friendship with Forster is attenuated to a few words or glances, it’s easy to lose sight of him.
And in this, there is an omission. The shadow of heroin hangs over this book, but we don’t know of it until Forster drops the bombshell of his own diagnosis with hepatitis C, a likely consequence of his own dabbling with the drug. It’s well known in rock circles that McLennan was a long-term user; Steve Kilbey’s book Something Quite Peculiar speaks bitterly of McLennan introducing him to opiates, and the journalist Clinton Walker has also written of his habit.
It’s obviously a charged topic. Yet towards the end, as McLennan begins to fall apart physically and emotionally – alcohol, Forster notes, was “eating him out, destroying him, and he knew it”, and songwriting sessions between the pair occasionally lapsed into therapy – it’s impossible for anyone familiar with the Go-Betweens’ story not to question the toll it took not just on McLennan, but on everyone in and around the band, not least his best friend.
The awful ending is already known and, as Forster has conceded publicly, McLennan’s death at the age of 48 from a heart attack came as a shock, but not a surprise. That’s another rock & roll cliche, and it’s to Forster’s credit that he avoids it in the beautifully written final chapters, which still manage to build tension leading up to the tragedy that finished the band 10 years ago. “I’ll carry it on,” Forster says, a promise to ensure the group’s legacy is not forgotten.
Behind the legacy lies enmity: Morrison and violinist Amanda Brown, who fought and eventually settled with Forster and McLennan for a share of songwriting royalties, are acknowledged at the funeral with just a nod – and, if there’s something missing, it’s an epilogue. If a film of Grant & I is ever made, it could end here: the surviving members leading the first walk across Brisbane’s Go Between Bridge, with Streets Of Your Town the soundtrack – the bridge an act of belated recognition that, cruelly, took the death of one of the city’s finest poets to bring about.
Taylor Swift is single again, and I for one am glad. Not for her heartbreak (as a fellow human, naturally, I’m sorry for her pain), and certainly not because she’s “back on the market” since, needless to say, I’m not in it. No, I’m glad selfishly, because if it produces a song half as good as I Knew You Were Trouble, the world will be a better place, for she will ease the pain of anyone who’s ever been through the same.
Which, let’s face it, is pretty much all of us. Romantic heartbreak is the lingua franca of the pop song. In the opening soliloquy of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Rob (played in Stephen Frears’ film by John Cusack) poses a universal question, as the 13th Floor Elevators’ garage classic You’re Gonna Miss Me blasts through his headphones:
“What came first – the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence is going to take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
And then Laura – who is about to shoot to number one with a bullet on Rob’s desert island, all-time top five most memorable breakups, in chronological order – walks into the room and pulls the plug, literally, on the music and, metaphorically, on their relationship.
The tabloids are already coming after Swift. Grazia listed 13 times ex-boyfriends have apparently inspired her music, saying she had “infamously” mined her personal life for lyrical inspiration. Like every other songwriter in history. Actually, maybe we should be glad for Swift’s critics, because she’s already kissed them off in fine style with Shake It Off. Can we have another one of those, too?
Did anyone complain when Otis Redding practically tore out his (and everyone else’s) heart singing I’ve Been Loving You Too Long? How about the Clash’s Mick Jones, who wrote Train In Vain after his breakup with the Slits’ Viv Albertine, while the band was recording London Calling? Do we even need to talk about Joy Division’s all but sanctified Love Will Tear Us Apart?
No one complained when Bob Dylan got an entire album out of the collapse of his marriage to his first wife, Sara Lownds. That album was Blood On The Tracks. It has been the measuring stick for every breakup album by a serious male singer-songwriter since, from Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call (which features at least two paeans to PJ Harvey) to Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker to Beck’s Sea Change.
Adams, of course, later covered Swift’s 1989 in its entirety. Stripping Swift’s songs back to basics, focusing attention on the brilliance of their construction, threw up an interesting set of questions around pop, authenticity and Swift’s superstar status – especially around what a female pop singer has to do in order to be taken seriously by a mostly male critical establishment.
Or, in this case, not do. For the more cloth-eared members of that establishment, unable to look past Swift’s glossy image or admit that rock music is often equally as factory-assembled, it took Adams’ emo take to legitimise Swift’s talent. (Adams, by the way, isn’t the first male artist to try his hand at this sort of thing: see Richard Thompson’s version of Britney Spears’s Oops! I Did It Again.
Can anyone recall an album by a female artist being compared to Blood On The Tracks? I can’t. Certainly not in pop music. Not even, in the rock arena, PJ Harvey, whose Is This Desire? was dedicated, in turn, back to Nick Cave. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is frequently described, in a very feminised way, as a soap opera, due to the somewhat complicated nature of the relationships within the mixed-gender group.
Pop music is dominated by women, from Madonna to Rihanna to Sia to Beyoncé, and along with boy bands and almost anyone playing dance music, their music is routinely dismissed as lightweight. But if grown men can confess to being moved to tears when Springsteen and Dylan turn their attention to matters of the heart, then why not, say, Swift’s Wildest Dreams?
I hope Swift finds true love soon. Really, I do. But in the meantime, I hope she goes on too many dates and can’t make ’em stay. Let her go on making the bad guys good for a weekend a while longer. Actually, now I think of it, I hope she gets back together with Calvin Harris, just so she can break up with him again and write another version of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.
Just like her male peers, like all of us, Swift gets down and out about the liars and dirty cheats of the world. The only difference is she’s doing it to a sick beat. As for the haters, well, we all know what they say about them.
Josh Ritter – American songwriter, novelist, near-neuroscientist – likes to run. “It’s the perfect exercise for me,” he says. For one thing, it’s portable: all you need is a pair of sneakers and you can run anywhere; especially to get away from the confines of a tour bus. There’s also a little bit of pain involved, which he doesn’t mind: he’s run three marathons. That was until the time running almost killed him a few years ago.
One morning, after a slightly over-exuberant workout, he woke up sore. Soon he was having trouble getting dressed; a few days later, he noticed his muscles beginning to swell, literally like the Incredible Hulk. His alarmed partner Haley [Tanner, a novelist] rushed him to hospital – “notwithstanding I was looking pretty damn good,” Ritter wrote, tongue in cheek, in a blog post from 2012.
It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a close-run thing: Ritter’s kidneys couldn’t cope with what was, in effect, a meltdown of muscle fibre into his bloodstream. He spent days in hospital on a saline drip, paying the price for his driven nature. “Running keeps me alert and excited and kind of hungry,” he says, “[But] I think I realised I had a bit of a problem. I really paid the price.”
Ritter, 38, doesn’t do things by halves. His albums and songs, though not excessively long, are epic in scope. So are his ambitions. For his eighth album, Sermon On The Rocks, he wrote: “I wanted to make something grand. I wanted it to swing hard. I wanted to peek through death’s keyhole. I wanted my monster to run. I wanted to sing songs that I had written in stretches of frenzy.” (There’s more, but you get the idea.)
Did he get there? “I think I got it on this one. Everything was there; the wildness … The songs were high adventure; how I felt was big romance, and I wanted the whole thing to have that. Sometimes the most pristine playing is not the stuff that gives you chills, so I wanted that messiness. My goals were really high, but I felt that they were achievable if I opened the door and let all the crazy out.”
Ritter is a songwriter in the grand American folk tradition: a student of Dylan and Springsteen and Leonard Cohen, as well as contemporaries like Nick Cave. He writes “rock & roll with a lot of words”, tumbling over with metaphors. “I like a good rich set of symbols, those are really important to me,” he says. “Somehow a good story is either about God or love or death, and the best ones kind of have all of that.”
He was born in Moscow, Idaho, a small college town of less than 20,000 people in desert country. He says he grew up “way out of town, on the edge of a mountain”, where he had to learn to entertain himself. He got lost, both in the surrounding countryside and in books about dragons, as well as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. “I had a pretty rich fantasy life when I was that age.”
His was no backwoods upbringing, though. Ritter’s parents were neuroscientists who taught at Washington State University, across the border. “I grew up thinking that being a scientist was the best thing in the world. It was such a beautiful and noble quest to throw yourself up against things that are unknown, and slowly and methodically pull on the thread of that tapestry until it all comes apart.”
Ritter initially wanted to follow them, moving to Oberlin, Ohio to study neuroscience himself, until the songs he was writing began to pull him away. In some respects, he realised, his job was the same: songs are like a riddle to be solved. He ended up completing a self-styled major, “American history through narrative folk music”, and made his first, self-titled album at a recording studio on campus in 1997.
Later, he moved to Scotland for six months. “There was so much music that came to the States from Scotland and Ireland and England, and I wanted to get closer to the American music that I loved.” Tellingly, one of his early musical loves was the Pogues. “Their records are like a wolfhound ripping a rabbit, they’re ferocious. Even the slow songs – Fairytale In New York is just brutal.”
He soon found himself a solid audience in Ireland, going from playing to 20 people at open-mic nights to halls of 600 after being spotted by Glen Hansard, of Irish band the Frames (as well as the Commitments). “Their verbal technology is 10 years ahead of us. They have the best jokes, and they have the best words for things, and they’re the harshest [critics], they’re going to keep you real.”
Since then, Ritter has released a further seven albums, and while his sales are relatively modest, his prolific output, devoted fan base and heavy touring have seen him build a sustainable and growing career. He’s also had good success licensing his songs, both to commercial chains such as Starbucks, and to advertising and TV shows.
He considers himself a songwriter ahead of a storyteller, but nonetheless he is compelled by narrative. “I really do move towards stories. I feel like I need their little twists, for a lot of songs. When I hear a song like [Leonard Cohen’s] Famous Blue Raincoat or Where The Wild Roses Grow [Nick Cave], it makes me antsy and jealous.”
Often, his songs are tinged with fantasy elements, a throwback to his early life, where he made up stories to keep himself amused: The Curse (from his 2010 album, So Runs The World Away), is the story of a mummy who falls in love with an archaeologist. Another song from the same album, Another New World, sees an Arctic expeditioner chop up his own ship for firewood to keep warm.
Eventually, inevitably, one of his songs couldn’t be contained. It spilled into a novel, Bright’s Passage, the story of a Great War veteran who hears voices. Reviewing the novel in the New York Times, Stephen King – an avowed fan of Ritter’s music – asks himself whether he would have recommended publishing the book, were its author unknown. He concludes: “It’s a question I’m glad I never had to answer.”
To be fair, King also praises Ritter’s gift, saying that at its best, the novel recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime, and urges a follow-up (which Ritter is working on). But he knows that there is a greater power in compressing his big ideas into smaller spaces, and Sermon On The Rocks sees him paring his songcraft back into simpler, more digestible shapes. “Make it portable,” he says – that word again. “Any saying or epigram, those things that we remember are the smallest, most concise things.”
Writing Bright’s Passage renewed Ritter’s belief in his craft, which he clearly took into the making of Sermon On The Rocks. “I didn’t need permission to be a writer, I was writing all the time, but for some reason that was something that I took out of it, that I wasn’t expecting, and it made me feel really good about writing songs. … Also, I became better at killing off characters.”
Ritter has also become the father of a daughter, Beatrix. It’s forced him to change his work habits for the better, writing in shorter bursts. “It used to be I could moon around for about 12 hours and feel like I hadn’t got anything done. Now at the end of the day I’ve written something and I can put a pin in it, even if it’s just a few lines.”
He’s also started running again – but not in the way that he used to, a reflection of a more relaxed approach to his work. “The marathon isn’t interesting any more,” he says. “There’s no magnum opus for me. If I have a time in my writing when I feel like, this is it – that I will do no better or nothing will come of this, I guess that means I’ve achieved my goal, my marathon.
“But I don’t want that. I want every day to be different, and I want every day to have the potential of doing something great. Haley said the other day, it’s easy to give yourself the goal of running a marathon, but it’s harder to make yourself run four miles every day. So that’s my new goal. I don’t need to run any more marathons.”
First published inSpectrum (The Age/The Sydney Morning Herald), 24 October 2015