On Tuesday an Australian newspaper of repute published an earnest think-piece asking the question: where are all the great Aussie protest songs? Where oh where – in this, our Age of Unreason – are the new Midnight Oils, Goannas, Redgums and Chisels, the author, Jeff Apter, asks?
“Why do the musos of today … seem more concerned with navel-gazing and their fragile broken hearts than weightier, more universal issues?” he writes. “Why the resistance? It’s not like there’s a shortage of subjects to rail against.”
Indeed there isn’t: asylum seekers, Australia Day, violence against women, Aboriginal deaths in custody, marriage equality. And if you spare a moment to actually listen to the musos of today – particularly women, who don’t rate a mention in the piece, and people of colour – you’ll find each of those subjects feature in some of the best new Australian protest music around.
A mic drop on the nation. If the mark of a good protest song is to start a conversation, this song applied a set of jumper leads to the question of when we should hold our national day of celebration – and got voted to #16 in Triple J’s Hottest 100, before Triple J decided to change that date too. In Briggs’s words, holding Australia Day on the day of the invasion of the first fleet in 1788 is about as offensive as “[doing] it on my nan’s grave”.
Camp Cope: The Opener (2018)
Stella Donnelly: Boys Will Be Boys (2017)
More specifically in this vein, Perth musician Stella Donnelly’s wrenching Boys Will Be Boys (an old phrase, and now also the title of a new book by feminist commentator Clementine Ford) cuts to the bone: “Why was she all alone / Wearing her shirt that low? / They said ‘Boys will be boys’ / Deaf to the word ‘no’.”
Jen Cloher: Analysis Paralysis (2017)
Before last year’s marriage equality postal survey, Jen Cloher wrote this song about our parliament’s inability to resolve a matter entirely within its own purview to legislate. She took no prisoners in this evisceration of both the “feral right” and hashtag activist left: “Devoted to the show, not deeds of compassion / Full of good intentions but never any action.”
Cash Savage & the Last Drinks: Better Than That (2018)
Released only last week on her brilliant new album Good Citizens, Savage artfully documents the emotional and psychological impact of that risible and unnecessary survey on the LGBTIQ community, explaining how it feels for an entire country to have its say on your identity and humanity: “Every day brings another intrusion.”
Courtney Barnett: Nameless, Faceless (2018)
Barnett has sold quite a lot of records in the past five years, and is the darling of the American chat show circuit. She writes brilliant pop songs that often have a snarky edge, like this one about her wish to walk through a park after dark without having to hold her keys between her fingers. The song took on more potency weeks after its release when young Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon was murdered walking through a park in Carlton.
Kudzai Chirunga: 4 Deep in the Suburbs (2018)
Written in response to the confected “African gangs” non-crisis – with a video including inflammatory clips from Channel 7 news – Zimbabwean-born Kudzai Chirunga racked up 125,000 views in a week with this beautiful, lyrical lament to walking down Melbourne’s streets of fear: “Feeling the shame, I’m feeling nervous / Walking through streets watching locals closing their curtains.”
Mojo Juju feat. The Pasifika Vitoria Choir: Native Tongue (2018)
This might be the best single of the year. Ruiz de Luzuriaga (Mojo Juju) speaks of her Wiradjuri great-grandfather and Filipino father in this stately, soulful song of identity and erasure. “I don’t speak my father’s native tongue / I was born under a southern sun / I’ve got nowhere I belong / I don’t know where I belong.”
Missy Higgins: Oh Canada (2016)
There have been many songs written about Australia’s appalling treatment of asylum seekers – among rock bands, the Drones dedicated most of their last album Feelin Kinda Free to the topic, led by the brutal single Taman Shud – but Missy Higgins’ Oh Canada makes its point more kindly, gently, and with equal moral force.
TISM: The Phillip Ruddock Blues (2002)
To be fair, this one is a bit older (released on the compilation album Best Off) and was written by a white dude. But since it was all that chatter about perhaps upgrading our national anthem that got Apter thinking, how about this song, which truly speaks to who we truly are, deep down in our mean, spiteful little hearts? “And why should we let towelheads in, just ’cos their ships don’t float / What other race has ever come to Australia in a boat?”
Kev Carmody’s debut album, Pillars Of Society, recorded as a conceptual excoriation of the Australian bicentenary in 1988, is now 30 years old. On release, it was described by critic Bruce Elder as “the best album ever released by an Aboriginal musician and arguably the best protest album ever made in Australia”.
There have been many brilliant records made by Aboriginal musicians since but with the exception of AB Original, none of them has produced such a sustained polemic, and only Archie Roach rivals him for poetic eloquence.
Born in 1946, Carmody grew up on the Darling Downs, west of Brisbane, born to an Aboriginal mother and Irish-Australian father. He is a member of the Stolen Generations, taken along with his brother from his parents when he was 10. Emerging from school illiterate, he now has a PhD in history and is a member of the Aria Hall of Fame.
His first public musical exposure was on the Murri Radio program of Brisbane community broadcaster 4ZZZ. His song Thou Shalt Not Steal, which brought him to national attention, contained the following portrait of black life in Brisbane:
Well Job and me and Jesus, sittin’ underneath that Indooroopilly bridge
Watching that blazin’ sun go down beneath the tall-treed mountain ridge
The land’s our heritage and spirit here, the rightful culture’s black
And we’re sitting here just wonderin’ – when we gonna get that land back?
What follows is a series of appreciations and reflections by other artists who have drawn inspiration from Carmody’s extraordinary debut, recorded when he was 42.
Not Drowning, Waving, My Friend the Chocolate Cake, solo artist
“I had to be reminded that Pillars Of Society was Kev Carmody’s debut album. It wasn’t like he was young when he made it. Here was a voice with oral history leanings and a street fighter attitude. It had as much to do with the Clash as Bob Dylan, but was way better, because this was an authentic Indigenous voice.
I was a young man when I heard it, and it schooled me. The lyrics are dense, the vocals passionate, he doesn’t waste a word. You can tell he was on a roll when he was writing it. It’d be very interesting to see the reaction if it was released today – it would have been lauded in the same way Briggs is; a refreshing voice that is not to be messed with.”
AB Original, solo artist
“There were a few records around at the same time when I was researching, in my own way, what was going on in music in Australia. Kev Carmody was one, Archie Roach was another, Yothu Yindi. Pillars Of Society was part of the tapestry for me – one of the pillars of artistry that we could look to for how to share our stories. It’s like the foundation on which all these new and upcoming artists, and established artists like myself, get to live and breathe.”
Midnight Oil, former Labor Party minister
“This was a very powerful record by someone who’s the Aboriginal poet laureate of his time, and it’s as pungent and as stirring and as evocative and as absolutely ‘on’ today as it was when it was first written. The triumph is that Carmody could get it down in songs that were accessible, and the tragedy is that not enough of us have listened so far. It’s also about the power of art, even when the things that it’s writing about are still tearing people and communities apart.”
Almost everyone Guardian Australia spoke to, like Garrett, mentioned the ongoing relevance of the material. One song, Black Deaths In Custody, anticipated a royal commission into the issue – the findings of which have been largely ignored:
I say, show me the justice, to be had here in this land
Show us blacks the justice for every black human being
Show us blacks the justice, in this white democracy
When you can execute us without a trial while we’re held in custody
Paul Kelly was an early supporter of Carmody, with whom he later co-wrote From Little Things Big Things Grow, the story of the Gurindji uprising.
“Kev Carmody’s songs combine anger, humour, oral history, polemic, poetry and prayer. His body of work, spanning over 40 years, is one of Australia’s great cultural treasures. Cannot Buy My Soul [from Carmody’s second album, Eulogy (For A Black Person)] is a hymn that breathes with steely rage.”
Pillars Of Society has also inspired newer female artists, both white and Indigenous.
“Kev is one of the sweetest, most humble geniuses I know. Paul [Kelly] introduced me to his music years ago, and the first thing I thought when I listened to Pillars Of Society was “Whoa, how come I haven’t heard of this guy?” He’s one of the hidden treasures of the Australian music scene. Being a part of his tribute tour was a real career highlight for me.”
Sietta, solo artist, collaborator with AB Original
“I didn’t grow up on any Australian music, because my dad’s a hardcore blues fanatic, but I feel like if we were going to listen to any Australian music that album would have slotted in quite nicely, because it is really quite bluesy, and that genre really lends itself to the content that he’s talking about, which is sadly still on the forefront of this nation’s circumstances. It’s a great album that should be used in our school systems.”
Malcolm’s got a razor
And a jack-knife up his leg
He’s a friend of crooked Louis
Who can’t lay straight in bed
Life can be hard trackin’
When you’re runnin’ out on a twisted rail
I keep hoping that the mornin’ wind
Come blow my blues away– Twisted Rail
“When I was in primary school [in Brisbane], I went to Zillmere state school, and our main theme song was From Little Things Big Things Grow. We sang that every Friday at assembly, which was awesome. Uncle Kev wrote a letter to the school, asking if we wanted to join him at Parliament House to sing it. And so the school choir went to the Parliament House and sang it. It was beautiful.
Then, when I was in grade nine, we were doing a project on Indigenous music, and we had to listen to that album because of the lyrics, [which were] gentle but confronting and powerful. To be able to capture that much authenticity in a song is so rare. It was beautiful to see an Aboriginal man capture that – it’s so inspiring as a young Indigenous woman to hear those songs and to be influenced in some way by the songwriter. His music is healing.”
It was October 1984 and Peter Garrett, the frontman for Midnight Oil, should have been riding high. The band’s fifth album, Red Sails In The Sunset, had just topped the Australian charts – the band’s first number one.
Instead, he was restless and preoccupied. In his memoir, Big Blue Sky, he admitted he hadn’t contributed much by way of music to the album, recorded in Tokyo. When it was complete, he and his partner Doris visited Hiroshima.
No book or documentary, he said, could have prepared them for the photos and testimonies when they got to the site where the the first atomic bomb was dropped. “It’s literally a searing experience that leaves its imprint on you and never quite leaves,” Garrett said.
“We met with the Hibakusha, who are survivors and friends and families of the survivors of the initial detonation, and seeing the wreckage at first hand, hearing people’s accounts about what happened and what it meant to them subsequently, really brought it home.”
The experience left him questioning the line between activism and direct political involvement. “I was pretty energised and agitated by the politics of the time, and wanted to be useful – and how useful are you in a rock band?” he asked himself.
In December 1984 Garrett took his first tilt at politics in the federal election, joining the newly formed Nuclear Disarmament Party and heading the New South Wales senate ticket. He fell just short of a seat – squeezed out, ironically, by Labor preferences.
It was a fascinating chapter in Australian political life, as well as the life of Midnight Oil, dramatically captured by filmmaker Ray Argall’s documentary, Midnight Oil: 1984, which was filmed against the backdrop of the Cold War.
Argall’s film had been a long time in the making. That year, Garrett had joined the band on tour, shooting thousands of hours of footage. The film is fleshed out by period news footage and contemporary interviews with the band and associates.
It also captures a driven man running on what seems like combination of adrenaline and fumes. Garrett would arrive at rehearsals or soundchecks with folders full of briefing notes – between his meetings and interviews – before playing high-octane shows in the evening. Then he’d wake up the next day and do it all again.
“When I looked at the film rushes it did come flooding back,” Garrett said. “I guess my strongest sense was the sense of solidarity of the band, who were essentially signing off on the extracurricular activity of their singer.
“My memory of it is more about this upwelling of energy that was driving us, which meant when you got on stage at night – even though you’d been up really early in the morning and going on morning telly – there was still a lot of juice in the tank.”
It was a sliding-doors moment for the iconic singer. Could the band have continued? “I think probably we could have,” Garrett said, before conceding that maybe they would have gone into hiatus “like they did 15 years later and played surf music” – as several members of Midnight Oil did with the band, the Break, after Garrett eventually joined the Labor Party and left the band in 2002.
That move saw Garrett labelled a turncoat by many activists, but he pointed to the many gains made by the disarmament movement as evidence of its incremental success. He says Midnight Oil: 1984 captures a sense of the energy of that movement in its earlier days.
“There were a bunch of different actions and actors breaking out of the conventional narrative,” he said. “At the beginning, of course, we were dismissed as silly fringe-dwellers, and then there was the attempt to completely destabilise us and dirty us up.
“And yet through all of that, there was this other energy – this other, younger Australia saying well hang on a sec, this is something that is important to us. It was idealistic … But they’re ideals that I was proud of and I’m still proud of them.
“Is it naive? I don’t think so; I think we’re closer to resolving that issue than we’ve been for a very long time, with a new treaty [on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons] getting ratified around the world.
“It’s not as though the issue just disappeared from sight once we’d done our bit, everybody else has picked it up and done fantastic things since.”
“I think we were pretty blown away by the Great Circle [tour] and the level of response both here and overseas, and even though people have sort of scattered to the four corners, we’re all coming back, so that in itself is a positive sign.
“I’d like to think we can do some more songs. I know I’m writing; I suspect the other boys are writing. At this stage of the game you just literally thank your lucky stars that you can be in a band like this.”
For those old enough to remember it, 1984 was a year full of dread and apocalyptic overtones. It wasn’t just the paranoia of George Orwell’s dystopian novel of the same name: in some ways, the current age of mass corporate/state surveillance and black-is-white propaganda makes 1984 feel closer at hand today than it did at the time. What’s easily forgotten is a fear that has only recently been truly reawakened: of nuclear terror (or error) and mutually assured destruction. The cold war could have turned hot and melted us all at any moment.
The mid-80s was also an interesting time in pop and rock music: everybody wanted to either rule the world or save it. Midnight Oil were very much in the latter category and 1984, a documentary by Ray Argall, focuses on a pivotal year in the band’s career. Their fifth album, Red Sails In The Sunset, was a continuation of the Armageddon-themed 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1: the cover featured a drained and cratered Sydney Harbour after a nuclear strike (with the Harbour Bridge and Opera House remaining eerily intact).
The album was released in October and became the band’s first No. 1 in Australia. At the same time, Peter Garrett was having his first tilt at politics, as a Senate candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the federal election of 1984. He very nearly won a seat, only being squeezed out (after more than a month of counting) by a preference swap between Labor and the Coalition. Then-prime minister Bob Hawke was re-elected with a reduced majority.
Argall can count himself lucky to have joined the band on the road that year, shooting more than 28,000 feet (about 8,500 metres) of film. The results powerfully capture not only a great live band at their peak but a fascinating moment in Australian politics that anticipates many of the anxieties, ruptures and culture wars to come. The Labor government, entrenched in power with a charismatic leader, felt the pressure on its left flank. So too the Democrats, who did their best to “keep the bastards honest” before being supplanted by the Greens.
On the right and in the media, Garrett was attacked for being “emotional, naive and a rock star”, a sign of the inevitable attacks to come when he joined the Labor party, though by then the rhetoric had changed to “ageing rock star”. Within the band there was tension too: while the others backed Garrett’s charge publicly and privately at the time, they were unsure how or whether Midnight Oil could continue. Indeed, the Democrats called on Garrett to resign from the band if he were to fulfil his duties as a prospective senator.
The pressure on Garrett himself was enormous. Midnight Oil’s musical directors, guitarist, Jim Moginie, and drummer, Rob Hirst, give different perspectives: Moginie recalls the singer as being “on top of the world, alive and effusive” while Hirst describes the band being worried about how hard he was pushing himself – arriving to rehearsal with folders of notes, rushing off to meetings and media calls, playing punishing shows in the evening, finishing in a catatonic state and often wearing an oxygen mask, before doing it all again the next day.
Garrett also reflects – very briefly – on concerns about the impact of this schedule on his life, including his family. There’s a more personal as well as political story to be told here, but in typical Oils fashion, that’s not what we get. There’s no narration, and interviews are relatively sparing, interspersed with period news footage. Otherwise, you get a lot of the band in concert and, while the film is not overlong at 90 minutes, that’s something that works both for and against it. Viewers are left to read between the lines and draw their own conclusions.
Sometimes that’s frustrating. The live footage is as explosive as you’d expect, and it all looks and sounds great, but this is not a concert film, and sometimes it feels as though it wants to be. There were moments when, as a longtime fan of the group, I wanted it to be, too. But that comes at the expense of storytelling and holds the film back from being what it could be, particularly for those not already rusted on. The end result is something in between, which doesn’t quite fulfil its potential.
Michael Lippold, the band’s stage manager, identifies that this was no ordinary rock group. “They didn’t do drugs, they didn’t drink and they didn’t whore around,” he says bluntly. They were famous, and certainly became wealthy, but they weren’t only in it only for themselves. They were a conduit and, as their office manager, Stephanie Lewis notes, the audience saw themselves in the band’s music and lyrics. What 1984 does most effectively is encapsulate the band’s relationship with the audience who grew up and came of age with them.
For perhaps tens of thousands of young Australians, the band aided their political awakenings. In hindsight, most – including, surely, the band themselves – will be grateful that things worked out as they did: after the studio experimentation of Red Sails, Midnight Oil headed for the desert and created their most intimately Australian and yet internationally successful work, Diesel And Dust. No other band had as much to say about their own country and 1984 does well to document Midnight Oil’s place in our history.
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
The drama of the dysfunctional band has long been a staple of the rock documentary form. In a case of life imitating art imitating life, films from Some Kind Of Monster (which sat in on Metallica’s group therapy sessions) to End Of The Century (which chronicled the tragically bitter life and death of the Ramones) play like a reprise of the intra-band bickering so perfectly satirised in This Is Spinal Tap.
As the credits roll on Spinal Tap, Marty DiBergi, played by the director, Rob Reiner, asks bass player Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) whether playing rock & roll keeps you a child. I was reminded of this watching Descent Into The Maelstrom, the story of Radio Birdman, as this brilliant, influential and notoriously volatile band squabble over their history and their legacy.
For the uninitiated, a brief snapshot: formed in 1974, Sydney’s Radio Birdman were, alongside Brisbane’s Saints, Australia’s first and most lasting contribution to the punk movement. Like the Saints, they had a brief and extremely turbulent existence, breaking up in in the UK in 1978 while making just their second album. Their massive influence saw them reform for the first time in 1996, only to almost immediately break up again.
But, like Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, guitarist Deniz Tek and singer Rob Younger keep getting back together, because there will always be a baying audience somewhere for them to play to. Both are intense, serious men and aside from stalwart keyboard player Pip Hoyle, few have been able to stick with them. But that volatility was key to the original six-piece band’s combustible chemistry.
If you are already a Radio Birdman tragic – and tragics will be the first in line to see Descent Into The Maelstrom, directed by Jonathan Sequeira – you’re unlikely to find out anything new here. There’s no pre-1978 live footage you won’t have seen already, and the story is familiar. It’s held together over one hour and 50 minutes by interviews with the band and close associates; thankfully, no bigger stars are lined up to obediently sing their praises.
Don’t let this lack of new information put you off, though. What makes Descent Into The Maelstrom work is the brutal honesty of the band members as the wheels fall off their so-called “van of hate”, as the Kombi driving them around that ill-fated 1978 UK tour was dubbed. It wasn’t the usual combination of drugs and booze that did them in: it was poverty, depression and poisonous internal dynamics.
Visually, the lack of new footage is compensated for by hundreds of stills and delightful storyboard artwork by bass player Warwick Gilbert (of whom a gonzo reviewer once wrote “a Warwick is something you light if you want to start a war”). Given that Gilbert was the first to leave the band – twice! – his heavy involvement indicates that Birdman’s music remains bigger than the egos that made it.
Which brings us to the music itself. Deniz Tek was a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he brought his first-hand experience of the Stooges and MC5 to Australia in 1972 (there’s a photo of him as a teenager in aviator shades, right in front of the Five’s Rob Tyner). Radio Birdman were combative, confrontational, hated by the musical establishment, and changed the lives of thousands who saw them perform.
In their slipstream came hundreds of bands, dozens of whom became embedded in the Australian rock landscape: Midnight Oil, the Sunnyboys, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Lime Spiders, the Hard-Ons, Died Pretty, the Celibate Rifles, and on and on. Hoyle gets the last word, and it’s a killer: “I don’t think there’s an Australian sound to Radio Birdman. I think there’s a Radio Birdman sound to Australia.”
He’s right. And few of those bands, even on their best nights, could summon the heart-attack inducing excitement of Radio Birdman in full flight. (For proof, track down the double live album of the band at Paddington Town Hall in December 1977, their last performance in Australia before departing for England: it is, in this writer’s opinion, the best live recording released by an Australian band.)
As such, what started as a cult phenomenon has continued to attract generations of converts to the cause. Descent Into The Maelstrom won’t exactly be an eye-opener to the Birdman faithful but, along with the band’s reissued box set of recordings, it’s a documentary that will ensure their legacy remains: hewn in the living rock, as Nigel Tufnel once observed.