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“A bloody-minded bunch of bastards”

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.

And Midnight Oil make you dance.

But Midnight Oil also make you think.

On the eve of his 2017 tour of Australia, a day after the inauguration of President Trump, Bruce Springsteen was asked about art’s responsibility to the times in which we live. The Boss replied that it was the same as it had always been: it was to witness, and it was to testify, and in doing so, it might help lift people up, and inspire them. Art, at its best, is an appeal to our better angels.

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’s Overflow Tank box set, released 12 May 2017

By Joh, it could be Trump!

For Queenslanders of a certain age, there is so much about the rise of Donald Trump that seems eerily familiar. For 19 years, his prehistoric ancestor ruled the swamps of Australia’s deep north – a hillbilly dictator who beat up protesters and confounded the media with complete gibberish while a dark web of corruption flourished behind him. Thankfully, Joh Bjelke-Petersen didn’t have the codes, or a Twitter account.

At the time, the sheer lunacy of Bjelke-Petersen seemed beyond the reach of satirists, despite there being numerous comedic imitators of Joh’s folksy, stammering idiosyncrasies. These days, it’s getting harder to convince people who weren’t there that certain things actually happened, such as police being sent to university campuses on pre-dawn raids to rip condom-vending machines from toilet walls in 1987.

When he was eventually rolled by his own party, Joh locked himself in his parliamentary annex for days, phoning Buckingham Palace seeking Her Majesty’s intervention. If that’s not enough, imagine the corpulent figure of Russ Hinze – the minister for everything – bent at the waist, peering through the keyhole with tears streaming down his cheeks, beseeching his master: “Joh! Maaaate! It’s over!”

For many of those who lived through it, though, Bjelke-Petersen’s iron-fisted rule was no laughing matter. Apologists for his regime occasionally wave away the vast and vicious corruption uncovered by the Fitzgerald Inquiry that ignominiously ended his career as a victimless crime. Those people need to read Matt Condon’s extraordinary Three Crooked Kings trilogy and count the bodies.

The truly nasty, brutish side of Joh’s regime is mostly sidestepped in Joh For PM (yes, that really happened too), a musical comedy by playwright Stephen Carleton and composer Paul Hodge. What’s striking about it, 30 years after his downfall, is how prescient it is, as though this utterly reactionary figure was some kind of seer. References and parallels to the present day are deliberate, frequent and often uncanny.

Southern journalists, for example, are described thus: “They come up here and write fake news. We need someone to build a wall between us and them!” There’s also his press secretary Allen Callaghan (a show-stealing turn by Kurt Phelan), who describes himself to his boss as “Henry Higgins to your Eliza Doolittle”. Callaghan teaches him to “feed the chooks”, telling him “It’s good TV to try to keep them confused.”

It’s as if the satire has somehow had time to catch up. Some of these songs seem to have written themselves – The White Shoe Shuffle, for example, which skewers the so-called white shoe brigade of Gold Coast developers, and which cleverly riffs on the jitterbug of Wham!’s contemporary hit Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Don’t You Worry About That, similarly, nods to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.

It’s campy, glorious fun, and if it has a weakness, it makes Joh, who’s well played by Colin Lane, look dumber than he was. As one song points out, much of his rise, from local member to minister to deputy to premier – thanks to his predecessor Jack Pizzey dropping dead of a heart attack – seemed accidental, if not divine intervention. But you don’t stay premier for 19 years without ruthlessness and rat cunning.

Joh had both in spades. Like Trump, it’s easy to make him look like a bumptious fool, but it’s perfectly possible to be a bumptious fool and a dangerous megalomaniac at the same time. To suggest that Joh was largely directed by those around him – his wife Flo (Barb Lowing, whose song Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy is a highlight); Callaghan; his pilot Beryl – is a mistake.

But Joh For PM also gets one thing right: his progeny are all around us. Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter (who described the aforementioned condom-vending machines as “despicable things that would do nothing to help prevent the spread of AIDS, but would encourage the community to have sex with gay abandon”), Jacqui Lambie, Clive Palmer, and even Kevin Rudd have all taken a lead from Joh’s dinosaur footprints.

The show was greeted with a standing ovation at The Powerhouse. Among them was Mike Ahern, who briefly replaced Bjelke-Petersen as National Party premier and whom Queenslanders can thank, along with the late police minister Bill Gunn, for having the political and moral courage to institute the Fitzgerald Inquiry that resulted in their party being cast into the wilderness for decades.

Famously, Ahern promised to implement Fitzgerald’s recommendations “lock, stock and barrel”. He didn’t survive long enough as premier to fulfil his pledge, and is an almost forgotten figure today. Described as a “sneaky Roman Catholic” by his devout Lutheran adversary – a line that had him visibly shaking with laughter – he had every right to feel vindicated, both by history and by this highly enjoyable play.

First published in The Guardian, 8 July 2017

Bad//Dreems: Gutful

I WISH I had a buck for everyone who’s ever asked me who sings political songs these days. With the reformation of Midnight Oil and, especially, the rise of Donald Trump, it’s a refrain that’s only gotten louder. Where oh where, these people moan, are the musicians addressing the temper of the times? The complainers are, of course, invariably white and stopped listening to new music in approximately 1988.

In fact, we are seeing exactly the kind of revival of protest music that the era should demand. Much of it is happening in hip-hop, and Kendrick Lamar is the current standard-bearer, but he’s hardly alone. In Australia, AB Original – the logical, local hip-hop extension of revered Indigenous folk singer Kev Carmody – deservedly won last year’s Australian Music Prize.

And while these are lean times for guitar-based rock music, you can find it in that shrinking genre too: in recent releases by the Peep Tempel, the Drones and looking back a bit further, the sorely missed Eddy Current Suppression Ring. It’s also much more subtly and subversively evident in the work of Courtney Barnett, whose songs are rarely as they appear on first listen.

There is nothing subtle about Bad//Dreems. For their second album, Gutful, they’ve once again called upon the services of 1980s Oz rock titan Mark Opitz to produce, and it’s a straight-up-and-down rock record with a lot less jangle and a lot more crunch. Pub rock? Guitarist Alex Cameron says the description was “not particularly welcomed but not something we shied away from either”.

Whatever you call it, two things are undeniable: the songs are catchy, and they’re memorable, with big choruses that stick in your head whether you might want them to or not. On a few songs – the opening Johnny Irony, Gutful and especially Nice Guy, a song about male rage, the influence of Eddy Current is palpable – except that band’s best work was recorded for maybe less than $1000.

Gutful, on the other hand, sounds big and meaty. Mob Rule, the first single, instantly recalls the Living End minus the rockabilly influence: a tub-thumping drum intro leading into a shouted chorus purpose-built to be shouted back at the band from the mosh pit. Lyrically, the song speaks of populism and nativism: “I see flags on the sand / I see blood on your hands.”

Then there’s the title track (and what a marvellously “Oz” title it is too): “Had a gutful of your speed and coke / Had a gutful of your racist jokes / Had a gutful of Australia Day / Had a gutful of the USA / Had a gutful of Donald Trump / Had a gutful of your baby bump.” No one can accuse Bad//Dreems of not getting to the point.

But this is not entirely an issues album: there are spoonfuls of sugar helping the medicine go down. By My Side and Make You Love Me take on more classical pop themes and win. 1000 Miles Away harks back to the power-pop of the Hoodoo Gurus, who had a hit with a song of the same name and whose 1987 album Blow Your Cool was also produced by Opitz (reportedly an unhappy experience for all involved).

It’s a solid album, and at 38 minutes it flies by. It showcases the band’s knack for classic rock anthems. But several bands have deliberately been name-checked in this review, and there’s a nagging sense that Bad//Dreems haven’t fully outgrown their reference points. Put them in a beer barn, though, and they might yet be the band most likely to blow up the pokies.

First published in The Guardian, 21 April 2017

Midnight Oil: back on the borderline

IT’S OFFICIAL. Midnight Oil is back on the boards – or the borderline, if you like. The band flagged its intention to reform in May last year and has been teasing about an imminent return on its website all week. A world tour will kick off with a pub gig in Sydney in April before heading to Brazil, the US, Canada, Europe and New Zealand. After a run of Australian shows in October and November that will take in every state and territory, the group will finish at the Domain in Sydney on Armistice Day, 11 November.

Midnight Oil also announced they will reissue their entire catalogue in three box sets due out on 5 May: vinyl and CD collections of studio albums and EPs, plus the so-called “Overflow Tank”, a voluminous collection of mostly rare and previously unreleased material spread across four CDs and eight DVDs, presented in a miniature replica water tank. (Drummer Rob Hirst famously included a corrugated iron water tank as part of his onstage kit.)

The biggest news by far was the band’s intention to move beyond being a “catalogue act”, as Rob Hirst put it, and to record new material. Hirst said the band had been rehearsing and relearning its entire catalogue dating back to its self-titled debut album from 1978, but promised the group had new songs on the boil: “After all, there’s a lot to sing about these days, isn’t there?”

Indeed there is. As the guitarist, Jim Moginie, pointed out, people have short memories; many of the issues the band sang about on some of Australia’s best-known anthems are more relevant and urgent than ever.

It’s easy to say that the times suit a Midnight Oil comeback. In 1990 the band played a traffic-stopping gig outside the headquarters of oil company Exxon in Manhattan, after the grounding of the Exxon Valdez tanker that spilled 10m gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska. Today the former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, who served the company for 40 years, is the US secretary of state.

Asked whether the band might soft-pedal on making political statements when it reaches the US, the singer, Peter Garrett – who left the group in 2002 for a 10-year career in parliament, where he was a cabinet minister in the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments – was apoplectic. “Maaaaate!” he spluttered. “Come on, what kind of question is that? Seriously, we’re going to try not to get deported, [but] the effect of Trump’s America will be to bring [people] out – whether it’s through music, whether it’s unions, whether it’s academics, whether it’s farmers, whoever – it will bring those people out.

“Healthy democracies sometimes need to react against craziness and ugliness and selfishness and stupidity and grotesquery, and you’ve got that in ample abundance in President Trump. He’s not a figure that’s engendering a great deal of respect from his own people. You can be sure they’re going to respond, and there’s no way that we won’t say what we think about it either.”

Still, for a group that built its reputation on political activism as much as its songs, today’s much-anticipated media conference was mostly about the music, which Hirst insisted was the real driving force that drew the band back together. “It’s almost as if the band has waited for this moment, but I can assure you that’s not true. It’s just pure happenstance,” he said.

Garrett asked: “How do you account for the fact that we played together for as long as we did? It’s not the Brady Bunch. It’s a bunch of people that love their music but are very different in some ways, and people have gone off and done other things.

“And yet I think there’s this residual sense that what we’ve been able to do up until now, we can still do, and we all feel it, and we’re not agonising and angsting over it. We just know that when we get in a room together, it’s a hallelujah moment, and we want a few more of those, and we want to share that with other people.”

Asked whether he had been practising his dance moves, Garrett was blunt. “Mate, let’s be really clear about that – that’s one thing I don’t need to rehearse,” he said. “Midnight Oil’s not a calculated exercise in producing something that has an effect. It’s much more an internal kind of spontaneous combustion that always happens, and it’ll still happen. I’ll go for the odd frolic, I’m sure.”

First published in The Guardian, 17 February 2017

Disclosure: I provided liner notes for Midnight Oil’s Overflow Tank box set, mentioned above

Bruce Springsteen: Perth Arena, 22 January 2017

ON page 209 of his autobiography, Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen describes the effect of growing up as a child of Vietnam-era America, and of the Kennedy, King and Malcolm X assassinations. “Dread – the sense that things might not work out, that the moral high ground had been swept out from underneath us, that the dream we had of ourselves had somehow been tainted and the future would forever be uninsured – was in the air,” he writes.

With that dread in the air again, clearly The Boss feels it his duty – the artist’s duty – to respond. On Sunday night, in Perth for the first leg of his third Australian tour in four years, Springsteen laid his cards on the table early. “Our hearts and minds are with the hundreds of thousands of women and men that marched yesterday who rallied against hate, and division, and in support of tolerance [and] inclusion,” he said. “On E Street, we stand with you. We are the new American resistance.”

If such sentiments sound absurd coming from the now 67-year-old Springsteen, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are many in his home country right now who would damn him as nothing less than an American traitor. Springsteen isn’t usually quite so politically direct: he knows full well that many of his fans back home voted for Donald Trump. They are the same economically downtrodden folk he has written so sympathetically about for more than 40 years.

Such a rallying cry might have led fans to expect an onslaught of the E Street Band’s fieriest material. That’s not quite what happened, at least for the first half of their typically immense three-and-a-half hour, 30-song set. Opening with the 10-minute New York City Serenade – after which the above sermon was delivered – the show’s first half saw Springsteen dive deeply into his first two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.

These albums, recorded when Springsteen was one of many being touted as the next Bob Dylan and before the E Street Band fully coalesced, are filled with long songs and long jams, and that’s mostly what the audience got: Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street, Growing Up, Spirit In The Night and Lost In The Flood in a row; shortly afterwards came Kitty’s Back In Town, Incident On 57th Street and the perennial Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). Before them came Lonesome Day, from The Rising, and the title track of Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

It’s something of a downbeat beginning, giving the band lots of time and space to find their mojo – and that meant the audience took a little while to find theirs, too. While the early material was probably cherished by hardcore fans, it slowed the momentum. Saxophonist Jake Clemons (nephew of the late, great Clarence), pianist Roy Bittan and Springsteen himself took solo turns all over the place, at length, and often all piling into one song. Even Nils Lofgren, usually the most tasteful of guitarists, shredded Because The Night to a bloody pulp.

In the end, though, there’s no stopping the juggernaut. The longer the set goes, the more the hysteria builds as The Boss works the room like a secular Billy Graham. Rock & roll church is in. The Ties That Bind – the opening cut of The River and delivered halfway through the set – follows Rosalita and kicks off a roll call of shorter, sharper classics: Darlington County and Working On The Highway, both from Born In The USA; The Promised Land; a thunderous She’s The One; Badlands.

The first encore is a gem: a solo Springsteen taking a request for the relatively obscure Blood Brothers, for an audience member’s fallen sibling. From there it’s predictable, but still devastatingly good: Born To Run, Dancing In The Dark, 10th Avenue Freeze Out. Dancing In The Dark sees Springsteen pick out a girl who can’t be more than 12 and who actually breakdances in front of him; like an indulgent grandfather, he hands her a guitar to “play” as the song draws to its conclusion.

Yes, it’s hammy, especially when Steve Van Zandt offers his leader a cape, like a retiring boxer, as the band pound their way through Johnny O’Keefe’s Shout. Springsteen says; “I don’t think I’ve got any more,” and half-descends the stairs leading offstage, but he keeps peeking up, then – of course! – he’s back up for one last chorus. Springsteen, his band and their fans are the sort of true believers in their music’s transcendent power who will brook no cynicism.

Cynicism, at any rate, is not going to serve anyone in the coming years. The E Street Band are about total commitment. They are an ideal, and an appeal to our better selves. After 42 years, they still dare you not to be caught up in their own fervour, and it would be a stony heart that failed to leave such a show exhausted, elated, invigorated and inspired. They’re also famous for varying their set lists, and perhaps the most accurate thing to say about this – their first show in six months – is that they’re just getting started. The east coast awaits.

Originally published by The Guardian, 23 January 2017

NB. I copped a lot of stick from readers for this review, mainly for two reasons relating to the second-last paragraph. Shout was originally recorded by the Isley Brothers: my defence was it is probably more famous in Australia for JOK’s version, one of the country’s foundation rock & roll singles. The cape routine was, of course, a James Brown reference, which I somehow failed to mention. Oh, and for not awarding Bruce a fifth star. Oh well.

In the video above, that’s me asking the second question about art’s responsibility to the times in which we live.

Henry Rollins: “I seek not to squander”

Henry Rollins likes to talk. Actually, saying Rollins likes to talk is a bit like saying an anteater enjoys ants, or a boxer doesn’t mind getting into a punch-on. On top of countless books and a column in the LA Weekly, his spoken-word performances can run upwards of three hours. On average, he says, he writes about 1000 words a day, a habit he describes as “awful, it’s just ridiculous”.

So it seems odd that a man with as much to say as Rollins could ever run out of lyrics, but it happened. “It was trippy,” he says. “I woke up going, ‘Wow. Am I done? And I soberly assessed it and went ‘Damn. I’m done.’ And I stopped.” He phoned his manager to inform him and hasn’t written a song since. That was more than 10 years ago now.

He has no interest in playing the old songs either; not those by the Rollins Band or Black Flag, the pioneering West Coast hardcore punk/metal band he fronted in the early 1980s. “It must be nice to be able to go out and play Satisfaction and Brown Sugar and all of that every night and have girls lift their T-shirts up and have everyone roar with approval but that’s not how I’m going to live my life,” he says.

Rollins, who is touring Australia again – it’s practically his second home – likes to keep moving. He spends most of the year on the road, which allows him to observe his first one from a distance. He says he’s still angry, though frankly he sounds pretty chipper and, at 55, he’s driven by his own encroaching mortality: “I know I’ve got more years behind me than ahead of me, and I seek not to squander.”

So he keeps saying yes to things. He’s been in more than 30 films, including last year’s Gutterdämmerung, in which he appeared alongside Grace Jones and his hero, Iggy Pop – ironically, the film was silent – and hosts a weekly radio show for KCRW in his hometown of Los Angeles. (Perhaps it’s helpful to note at this point that the young Henry Garfield was diagnosed with hyperactivity in fourth grade.)

But what does Rollins still have to be angry about? By his own admission, he’s a rich, white, heterosexual, educated American dude who has been spared what he calls the American beating. “I live in a really nice neighbourhood [in the Hollywood Hills] with ridiculously famous neighbours,” he says. “I call the cops and they show up in about 40 seconds and they call me ‘Mr Rollins’.”

It’s a far cry from the days when the LAPD routinely harassed Black Flag and their fans, often shutting down shows. More seriously, Rollins has seen the extreme violence of America close up too: in 1991 he bore witness to the still-unsolved murder of his best friend Joe Cole, who was shot dead in an attempted robbery.

Success has mostly insulated him from further trauma. On this tour, he’ll be talking (a lot) about the American election but doesn’t fear the result personally. “With my economic altitude, I don’t feel any of this. Donald Trump’s gonna suck if you’re brown, black, lower middle-class or poor … I’m just going to enjoy the tax breaks that rich guys get from guys like him and keep on grooving.”

If Hillary Clinton wins, he says, “Trump fans are going to be very dangerous losers. And, if he wins, liberals will be very whiny and hilarious losers. There’ll be lines out of Starbucks, people wanting quadruple lattes; there’ll be more hand-wringing, more poetry – that’s a liberal on a bad day. The angry Tea Party person on a bad day, you lock and load, and go find a Muslim or brown-skinned person.”

But Rollins doesn’t see it as his job to reach out across the aisle. When he speaks, he knows it’s to his flock. “I call it preaching to the perverted. I saw Dinosaur Jr seven times last year [and] I didn’t go there to throw things and go ‘boo’; I went to rock out.” His opponents, he says, “might be waiting for me outside with a sidearm but they’re not coming in”.

I ask him if he’s scared for his country. “No. America gets what America deserves. America’s a tough place full of tough people and I’m an example of a tough American. If you can’t take a punch in the teeth, you should move to Canada.”

First published in The Guardian, 6 September 2016

Out in the heartland, no rocker is safe from right-wingers

It’s getting to the stage where there practically isn’t a heartland rocker left whose songs haven’t been egregiously misused for conservative political ends. In America, it’s Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. Now, in Australia, it’s Jimmy Barnes, who has been forced to distance himself from anti-immigration groups Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front, after Cold Chisel’s classic Khe Sanh was used in rallies over the weekend.

Don’t they know Barnes’ wife was born in Thailand? Did they never listen to Don Walker’s superb lyrics, which would have made it plain that Khe Sanh – about a burned-out Vietnam veteran – was not exactly a call to arms for an ethnically pure Australia?

Of course not, but let’s face it, we aren’t exactly dealing with Mensa candidates here.

“The aussie spirit is what you stood for in so many” (sic), bemoaned the Australian Defence League in reply to Barnes. “You have just showed the world and every Australian that grew up loving your music that you are nothing but a political correct fold at your knees idiot.” (sic, sic, sic.)

In America, the Republican Party has made a pastime of co-opting the songs of its heartland rockers. Only a few weeks ago, Donald Trump tried to get away with using Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World. Trump’s no Mensa candidate either, but as he likes to remind everybody on a regular basis, he’s really, really rich.

Back in 2000, Petty’s song I Won’t Back Down was used by George W Bush. Bush was the one to back down after the inevitable cease-and-desist, but not before his lawyers claimed that merely playing the song didn’t actually amount to any kind of endorsement – either by Petty of Bush, or vice versa.

Petty is a serial victim of this sort of thing: in 2011, Michele Bachmann used American Girl, which lasted one whole day on the hustings. Springsteen’s Born In The USA, about another Vietnam veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, is surely the most misunderstood and misappropriated song of all time.

One suspects that the Republican Party is fully aware that it will never be granted the necessary permissions by liberals like Springsteen and Petty, and simply doesn’t care. Once a candidate has been introduced to a rabid flag-waving crowd to the strains of an American anthem, the point has been made, as much as it’s been missed.

As the LA Weekly puts it, the problem with being a conservative and co-opting rock and roll is being really, really square at heart, as well as having terrible taste in music. If only the late Johnny Ramone, an infamous punk conservative, had written some songs! Too bad that all da bruddas’ best tunes, including the brilliant Reagan-baiting Bonzo Goes To Bitburg, were written by Joey and Dee Dee.

The reason the likes of Springsteen, Petty, Young and Barnes find themselves vulnerable to being hijacked by right-wingers is because these heartland rockers all play no-frills music with big choruses that amplify the concerns of small-town, blue-collar citizens. All while wearing denim.

And it’s exactly those voters, far more than the music, that conservatives are really interested in co-opting. In the USA, it was the so-called Reagan Democrats. In Australia, it was former prime minister John Howard’s Battlers, those all-important aspirational voters of the largely white working class, who live on the fringes of our capital cities and in our regional centres.

These are the working-class men and women who feel they’ve been left behind: their jobs downsized, done better by robots or simply shipped offshore; veterans left to suffer after returning home; and facing an uncertain future after a lifetime of hard labour. As Jimmy Barnes sings in Khe Sahn: “I’ve travelled round the world from year to year. And each one found me aimless, one more year the worse for wear.”

The trick has been to convince these voters that what they really should be angry about are the trendy concerns of an inner-city elite – and anyone who could be a convenient scapegoat for their problems. Hence the unending culture war that – like all phoney wars – works best when it instils fear and loathing.

In Australia, Muslims and asylum seekers are only the easiest targets for that loathing. They’re also the best friends of a conservative movement that relies on an ageing and afraid white base. And the songs? Against their composers’ best intentions, suddenly they whisper: we’re just like you. We’re on your side. And we won’t back down.

First published in The Guardian, 22 July 2015