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.
I’m at home and listening to 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1; Midnight Oil’s apocalypse-themed fourth album. Fucking loud – there was never any other way to listen to them, really. I haven’t listened to the Oils for maybe 10 years, though, because I haven’t needed to. They’ve always been there. I’ve just caught myself singing quietly along to the opening track Outside World as I’m writing: every lyric is embedded in my skull.
Now it’s Only The Strong. “Speak to me, speak to me / I’m at the edge of myself / I’m dying to talk.” Midnight Oil were a deeply political band, but earlier in their career they could do post-punk existential angst with the best of them. They were everything you remember them to be, but also more than maybe you’ve forgotten, or perhaps ever realised.
To call Midnight Oil a pub rock band is, as Nick Kent once famously observed of Television, akin to calling Dostoevsky a short-story writer. They merely played in pubs before graduating to arenas and stadiums. Their closest peers were the Clash, Gang of Four, and early Elvis Costello; the Who their direct forebears. And they were genuine radicals. Time and again, they put their money where their mouth was, in benefits and donations, to the many causes they championed.
The music on 10, 9, 8 was immensely powerful, attacking, and as complex as it was memorable. Being complex and memorable at the same time is a damn near impossible thing to do in popular music. Get the balance wrong and you end up in the pretentious mire of ’70s progressive rock. But Midnight Oil had a different ethos, emerging from the northern beaches of Sydney as a high-energy surf-punk band.
They changed my life irrevocably. I was a skinny kid growing up in Melbourne’s outskirts in the early ’80s. The Cold War was in full swing: “In the shadow of ban the bomb we live,” Peter Garrett sang, on US Forces. And we did. It’s easy to forget we still do. Midnight Oil were a political awakening, as well as a musical one. Countdown was Duran Duran and Madonna at that time. Midnight Oil never played Countdown.
The news that they’re reforming next year makes me both happy and apprehensive. Will I see them? I’m not sure: I’ve done that maybe 30 times already, and I saw them at their thrilling peak. A show at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre in 1987, on their Diesel And Dust tour, still looms large in my catalogue of greatest-ever gig memories. Midnight Oil were a force of nature live, even more so in their early years.
10, 9, 8 has finished – in a locked-groove scream, for you vinyl junkies – so I’ve put on Diesel And Dust. Forget about Peter Garrett’s political career for a moment; focus on the music. On that album, the Oils stripped their sound back. They became kinder and gentler, but the lyrics on Beds Are Burningwere as bald as Garrett’s head: “The time has come to say fair’s fair / To pay the rent, now / To pay our share.”
Truthfully, angst-ridden teen that I was, I missed some of their earlier brushes with alienation and ambiguity. But the late ’80s was not a time for subtlety or navel-gazing; if you wanted to make a point, you needed to get straight to it. And in Garrett – who at his full six feet, six inches was one of a handful of seriously tall men in rock & roll – the Oils had a messianic spokesperson, with a unique dance step to boot.
Many, including friends who introduced me to the band, have never forgiven Garrett for his move into politics. I deeply admired it. Say what you will, but the man is no fool: do you think he answered the call not knowing that every lyric he ever sung would be hurled back at him, both in newspaper headlines and across the chamber? That he would be a party to decisions he deplored, because he was bound by party rules?
Garrett may have been a more effective advocate than a politician, but as he once sang (on Arctic World), “Don’t wanna be an advocate / Don’t wanna be a monument”. He became an insider because changes get made on the inside, by increments, more often than they’re forced from outside by revolutionary means.
That’s a brave and, dare one say, mature call to make when you’ve just entered your 50s, as Garrett had when he joined the ALP, 20 years after coming within a dodgy preference deal of being a senator for the single-issue Nuclear Disarmament Party.
He didn’t write most of the music, anyway. Rob Hirst, the drummer, and Jim Moginie, the band’s guitarist, keyboard player and resident evil genius, did almost all of that. Garrett mostly added finishing lyrical touches (as he also did on Yothu Yindi’s Treaty: “This land was never bought and sold”). The singer’s profile has obscured Hirst and Moginie’s status among this country’s finest ever songwriting teams.
Could Garrett sing? Not really. Did it matter? Not at all. It’s called a character vocal, where technique is less important than how it speaks to both the music and the audience. Gauging their influence on contemporary Australian bands, Eddy Current Suppression Ring remind me inescapably of early Midnight Oil, not least for singer Brendan Huntley’s irresistible charisma, combined with his endearing inability to carry a tune.
If there’s anything I’m nervous about, it’s the prospect of a Garrett solo album. He’s not a man given to public introspection (he dedicates two pages in his 443-page memoir Big Blue Sky to his bearing witness to his mother’s tragic death in a house fire), and some introspection is crucial to the writer’s craft. But the rest of the band have pursued their own creative paths post-Oils, and Garrett is every bit as entitled to his.
Diesel And Dust is finishing as I write this, and the last lines are ringing out. “Sometimes you’re beaten to the core, sometimes / Sometimes you’re taken to the wall / But you don’t give in.” I might not need to listen to it for another 10 years: the music we grew up on is always with us. Sometimes when we need it the most.
Danny Fields – so-called “company freak” of Elektra Records in the late 1960s; the man who discovered the MC5 and then the Stooges; later the first manager of the Ramones – once rapturously described Television as the band with “the most perfect skin in the world.” They literally got under mine: on the inside of my right forearm, I have a tattoo of the design adorning the back of their debut album, Marquee Moon. On the original midnight-blue sleeve, the moon is dazzling; radiating white light. On my pale skin, it’s necessarily polarised. I’m occasionally asked if it’s a black hole.
Television – singer/guitarist Tom Verlaine, guitarist Richard Lloyd, bass player Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca – was the first group to play CBGBs, the legendary New York dive that was also the crucible for Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads during its first, glorious era, between 1974 and 1978. Lean, short-haired and dressed in plain clothes, held together at times with safety pins, they were in the vanguard of punk, a movement they otherwise bore little relation to.
If anything, they were the anti-Ramones. Nick Kent, in a famously hyperbolic NME review, cocked them cold when he said to call them punk was akin to calling Dostoyevsky a short-story writer. Released in March of 1977, Marquee Moon anticipated post-punk six months before the Sex Pistols made the form instantly obsolete with Never Mind The Bollocks. To this day, it sounds as urgent and thin and wiry as the band (once) was, filled with ecstatic, extended guitar solos at a time when brevity was the sine qua non of rock & roll.
They made art-rock cool again, and it’s impossible to imagine hundreds of bands, from fellow New Yorkers Sonic Youth and the Strokes, to Australian acts like the Church and Eddy Current Suppression Ring, without them. Now, they’re here in Australia for the first time, firstly to play All Tomorrow’s Parties spin-off Release The Bats in Melbourne (where they perform Marquee Moon in its entirety), and tonight at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney, which promises most of that album – we get seven of the eight tracks – plus a little more besides.
The only absentee is Lloyd, who quit the band in 2007 following a health scare. He’s been replaced by session musician Jimmy Rip, who has played alongside Verlaine in the latter’s solo ventures for years. But the words “No Lloyd, no Television” have been heard, and it’s not mere preciousness. The defining feature of the band was the interplay between Verlaine and Lloyd, whose tough, snappy counterpoints served to earth Verlaine’s explorations – without them, Television would be all crackle and pop. (Mind you, they took turns: this is the kind of band that listed who was responsible for what solo on each of their three studio albums.)
Perhaps also missing is the near-mythological status that accompanies Lloyd as one of the great junkie hellraisers of the New York scene; another contrast to the ascetic Verlaine. Lloyd was the man who wore the infamous “Please Kill Me” T-shirt that ex-band member Richard Hell, who designed it, was too afraid to wear. A photograph of Lloyd, taken at Beth Israel hospital, depicts the guitarist in a white smock, contemptuously lighting a cigarette in front of a “No Smoking” sign, staring at the camera with pinned eyes while hooked up to a drip.
Cannily, their set is front-loaded with songs on which Lloyd took the original solos, giving Rip an early chance to win over the audience. After an almost perfunctory run-through of Venus, the pinging introductory notes of Elevation really kick things off. But the mix is uneven, and Verlaine’s voice – never a strong point – is puny. On record, he’s commanding, even when he squawks like a chicken. On stage, he’s barely trying. It’s a shame, for the former Tom Miller (he renamed himself after the French symbolist poet) is a fine lyricist, albeit one prone to speaking in riddles: as he sings in Prove It: “It’s too, too, too to put a finger on”.
Still, a Television show is all about the guitars. The third song, 1880 Or So, is the only number from the band’s third, self-titled comeback album from 1992, and it’s a real highlight, its dreamy fluency punctuated by a jarring solo from Rip that builds upon the recorded version. Note-for-note renditions is not what this sold-out, solidly middle-aged crowd expects or wants: this is, as the recent Rhino reissue of Marquee Moon puts it, “jazz for the punk-rock set”, and they’re ready to go as far as the band are willing to take them.
Nothing exemplifies Television’s wanderlust so much as their first single, Little Johnny Jewel, its near-eight minutes originally split across both sides of a seven-inch single (a decision that prompted Lloyd to briefly quit the band on its release in 1975, despairing of their commercial prospects). Heralded by Smith’s descending bass riff, it sparks immediate whoops of glee, and is the first selection of the night to stretch beyond 10 minutes. This is the Verlaine show now, producing the piercing guitar sound one-time girlfriend Patti Smith compared to “a thousand bluebirds screaming”.
It’s followed by the taut See No Evil, the first song from Marquee Moon. And it’s on these shorter, more neurotic songs that you realise how loose Television are on stage – a long way from the mathematically precise group that laid down the album’s epic title track in one majestic take, which Ficca thought was a rehearsal. These songs had been performed and rewritten countless times before being recorded; the definitive articles are on the album. Television have not been a full-time concern since 1979; to expect them to re-make the masterpiece live is absurd.
Two entirely new songs, however, give notice that this version of Television is not all about the re-runs. Both tracks, neither introduced by name, are plangent, elastic, near-wordless meditations, anchored by the pulse of Smith’s bass, and a long way from the fiery guitar duels of the band’s early days. Adventure, the band’s much underrated second album (which, sadly, we don’t hear anything from) was a more mellow affair, while the third sounded like a collection of spy themes. The new material is calmer still, the group sounding more like a jazz quartet than a rock band than ever.
But they’re not what people are here for. It’s amusing to see the crowd take a rare opportunity to sing along to a chorus (Prove It); even funnier to see them attempting to dance to Marquee Moon itself, the show’s 15-minute centrepiece, and the one everyone is waiting for: predictably, they get lost as soon as Verlaine takes off for another hyper-extended solo. It’s a trip where he alone knows the destination, but not necessarily how he’s getting there: Kent claimed Verlaine could solo without ever losing the point; here, at times, he does.
They encore with Friction and an off-key rendition of the Count Five’s Psychotic Reaction, a reminder that Television are as indebted to the post-British Invasion garage bands of the ’60s as much as they are to anything more supposedly sophisticated. But instead of a frenzy, it ends in a slow, bittersweet sigh, a whisper: just as Television’s career first seemed to finish, with a 1979 show at New York’s Bottom Line which everyone, except the audience, knew was the end.
While Television are touring, Hell – squeezed out early by a clash of egos with Verlaine, taking one of punk’s great early anthems, Blank Generation, with him – is touting his autobiography. In its epilogue, the band’s original bass player and genuine punk icon recalls a recent encounter with Verlaine: “His teeth looked brown and broken in the night light, even worse than mine (he still smokes), and his face was porous and expanded and his hair coarse grey. I turned away and walked on, shocked.” Even tattoos fade.
Following on from the previous thread, as the title suggests, here’s tracks 30-29.
30. YOTHU YINDI – Treaty (1991)
Did this song start a national conversation, or just get people dancing? Actually, scarily, it managed to get politicians dancing, spurring some very awkward shuffling by certain members of the ALP after Paul Keating’s famous “victory for the true believers” in 1993. I’m sure there’s incriminating evidence of Ros Kelly and Gareth “Gareth” Evans out there somewhere. But buried under the Filthy Lucre dance remix is a great song sung in both English and Yolgnu/Matha, written by Mandawuy Yunupingu with help from Paul Kelly and Peter Garrett. It was the first song by a predominantly Aboriginal band to chart in Australia (reaching number 11), and peaked at number six on the Billboard dance charts in the US. In 2009, the song was added to the National Film and Sound Archive.
29. DADDY COOL – Eagle Rock (1971)
I’m nowhere near as crazy about this song as those who routinely put it in the top 10 of these kinds of lists (APRA had it right up there at number two, behind Friday On My Mind), but I’m not about to deny its charms either, from Ross Wilson’s opening exclamation “NOW LISTEN!” down. Word is that Sir Elton John was so inspired by the song after an Australian tour that he wrote Crocodile Rock in response. It’s also considered traditional at the University of Queensland to drop your daks when it’s played on the local campus bars. Maybe that’s why it, too, is in the National Film and Sound Archive. You just can’t argue with that level of cultural significance, can you?
28. RADIO BIRDMAN – Descent Into The Maelstrom (1977)
Ann Arbor, Michigan native Deniz Tek isn’t solely responsible for bringing the Detroit rock action of the MC5 and the Stooges to Australia when he founded Radio Birdman as a medical student in Sydney in the mid 1970s – there were many other record collectors who had already picked up on it, not least a guitarist from Brisbane called Edmund Kuepper. But Tek still deserves a huge amount of credit. This song, for me, is their finest four minutes. It’s pure excitement, from the rolling thunder of Ron Keeley’s opening drum salvos to Rob Younger’s adrenalised vocals, telling a Tek tale about a surfer dragged out to sea. It’s a pretty good metaphor for the song itself: you think you can ride this monster wave, then Tek’s extended pipeline lead break sucks you under. (Check out the video – half the audience at the Marryatville Hotel in Adelaide is going bonkers, while others can be seen covering their ears!)
27. EDDY CURRENT SUPPRESSION RING – Which Way To Go (2008)
There’s something about Eddy Current Suppression Ring that reminds me, inescapably, of Midnight Oil. Like Peter Garrett, Brendan Huntley really can’t sing. Nonetheless, he’s a great frontman, with a unique dance step to boot. And like the Oils, each member of Eddy Current perfectly complements the other. You won’t get a better example of their chemistry than this seamlessly constructed song, where the bass carries most of the melody, the guitar adds texture (until Mikey Young drops in the most exquisitely logical of solos) and the drumming matches Huntley for urgency. There’s something both universal and comic about the singer’s inability to make up his mind, and the fact that he can barely keep time with a band that’s otherwise in perfect lock-step somehow only adds to the charm.
26. KYLIE MINOGUE – Can’t Get You Out Of My Head (2001)
Like Which Way To Go, the beautiful symmetry of this song’s arrangement is the key. Like Giorgio Moroder’s production on Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, its strength is its minimalism, reducing dance music to a pulsebeat. At just the right tempo, with just the right amount of melody, and a lyric that seems to be about pop music itself, it’s a song that lives up to its name – but in that good way.
25. THE AVALANCHES – Since I Left You (2000)
A sound collage composed entirely from samples, it’s hard now to divorce this song from its iconic accompanying video – a story of two trapped coal miners which perfectly captured this wistful song’s odd, ineffable beauty. But it still works a treat on its own. Moving away from the late 1990s Big Beat electronica/plunderphonics of the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, the sound of Since I Left You is gentle and nostalgic, conjuring the Beach Boys and obscure French pop records. The song reached number 16 in the UK charts, with the album of the same name featuring high up on end-of-year (and end-of-decade) lists around the world. Oz rock didn’t end here, but Since I Left You finally forced the local industry to recognise dance music’s artistic legitimacy.
24. GOD – My Pal (1988)
Teenager Joel Silbersher had this song’s circular five-note riff in his head for years before one day, in the shower, the lyric came in a rush: “You’re my only friend / You don’t even like me!” Recorded when most of the band were 17 (the video above captures Silbersher with braces still on his teeth), My Pal was GOD’s first single, and it was such a towering feat that, unfortunately, it overshadowed everything else they ever did. Tim Hemensley joined Bored! before going on to form the mighty Powder Monkeys; he died in 2003. Guitarist Sean Greenway, who went on to the Freeloaders and Yes Men, died in 2001. Both barely made it out of their 20s.
23. ICEHOUSE – Great Southern Land (1982)
Iva Davies has always sounded like a poor man’s David Bowie to me, but this song still puts me under a spell wherever I happen to hear it. Like some Antipodean Born In The USA, it’s often mistaken for a cheesy patriotic anthem, but in actuality it’s no more nationalistic than any of Sidney Nolan or Russell Drysdale’s more nightmarish landscapes. Perfectly paced and executed, Great Southern Land’s sparse arrangement and echoing vocals add to the impression of vast, empty space, giving the track a panoramic feel. A few years later, the Triffids’ Wide Open Road replicated this song’s single-note, droning keyboard intro to similar effect.
For INXS, this was the track that launched them from Australia’s beer barns onto the world stage. Produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, it’s a muscular funk track, underpinned by Andrew Farriss’ opening keyboard hook and with Michael Hutchence’s voice at its best – his falsetto leap at 3.12 remains startling and spine-chilling. This is a song where every part serves the whole, right down to Kirk Pengilly’s excellent closing saxophone break. Check the video for the best collection of mullets the 1980s ever tossed up.
21. NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS – The Mercy Seat (1988)
In a word: epic. Nick Cave’s tale of a man facing the electric chair for a crime of which he’s “nearly wholly innocent, you know” is his Like A Rolling Stone, tackling the big questions: life, death, good, evil, truth, guilt and innocence. Sonically, it’s an overpowering assault: leading off the album Tender Prey, the song is seven minutes plus; the single is more powerful for being slightly condensed. Later covered by Johnny Cash, leading Cave to proclaim something along the lines of “Johnny Cash has covered one of my songs, so the rest of you can fuck off.” Fair enough.