Tagged: Midnight Oil

“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

Descent into the Maelstrom

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.

First published in The Guardian, 10 June 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: Selina’s, 13 April 2017

THERE’S A LOW but incredibly loud hum vibrating at Selina’s, the cavernous band room within the Coogee Bay Hotel. The chant is up: “Oooooooooiiiiiiiillllllllls!” Palms are raised and fingers splayed in anticipation. But the hum drowns out everything: a deafening, earth-shaking pulse. It’s not until Midnight Oil take the stage that the realisation dawns that it’s coming from Jim Moginie’s keyboards.

Peter Garrett has taken up a position on a speaker stack at stage left, and Moginie starts playing the opening notes of Outside World, the haunted opening track from Midnight Oil’s breakthrough album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Garrett misses his opening cue – not by much, but it’s a sign he’s nervous. There’s a slight fragility to his voice, the old bark softened somewhat.

If you can’t forgive Garrett for his sojourn in politics (and plenty haven’t), forgive him this. It’s no small thing to revive one of the biggest, most beloved and simultaneously most polarising bands Australia has ever produced. After a brief, unannounced warm-up at the Marrickville bowlo, this set, for longtime friends and fans, with ticket-holders drawn by ballot, has been feverishly anticipated.

Word is that ahead of Midnight Oil’s upcoming world tour, the band have been rehearsing and, in many cases, re-learning close to their entire catalogue – some 170 songs. It’s a Springsteen-like move, the intention being that at some time on tour, most if not all of them might randomly make an appearance.

On this night, they pull out 29 of them over the course of two and a half hours. I have personally seen Midnight Oil almost too often to count – the first occasion as a 14-year-old in 1985 – but I can’t remember them (or almost anyone else) playing a better or more committed show. From Only The Strong onwards, it’s a fire-breathing performance that leaves the crowd spent and exhilarated.

It’s also a show for the diehards. Six songs in, the band launch into almost the entirety of 1979’s Head Injuries: their second album and first great one, played in order, omitting only Naked Flame. Stand In Line, one of the band’s early showstoppers, is a call to arms in the face of apathy: “Goodbye to the let-it-happen stand.” Garrett says the song sums up why the band are still here.

Once the nerves settle, Garrett finds his voice quickly: he’s singing mostly within himself, better, with more control. Has he still got the moves? Yes, he has. As one of the most physical performers in rock history, it’s unfair to expect him to be the same force of nature as his early years, but he’s still a frontman of compelling charisma and energy.

Behind him, the band are loud and as tightly wound as a coiled spring. Guitarists Moginie and Martin Rotsey rarely duplicate each other’s parts: instead it’s more like watching a pair of crack tennis players, musical parts volleying back and forth, each taking turns to solo as required. Moginie shows off his collection; Rotsey sticks mostly to a battered white Stratocaster.

But the heart of the band is the drummer, Rob Hirst, who looks as fit as a thoroughbred and drives the show from the back. He takes his own obligatory solo turn in Power And The Passion, by which time we’re into the second half of the set and the hits are beginning to rain down – it’s bracketed by The Dead Heart and a ferocious Best Of Both Worlds. The audience sing all three back to the band word for word.

Sadly, in a sense, much of the material is more relevant than ever. Shakers And Movers is a gorgeous song about caring for country; Blue Sky Mine, with its sarcastic crescendo “Nothing’s as precious as a hole in the ground”, could have been written yesterday, with Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in mind. Garrett drops to his knees, praying for sense and reason.

Just off the beach at Coogee is Wedding Cake Island, so it’s no surprise when the band pull out the surf instrumental named after the offshore rock formation for the first encore. The surging power pop of Dreamworld is preceded by a reminder from Garrett: “If you want to hang on to it, you’ve got to fight for it, folks. Go angry into that good night, with love.”

US Forces is saved for last, and again, it’s hard to miss the lyrics’ currency: “Now market movements call the shots / Business deals in parking lots / Waiting for the meat of tomorrow.” One can’t help but wonder what reception Midnight Oil will receive when they reach US airports later this year. Provided they get past the welcoming committee, audiences are in for one heck of a treat.

First published in The Guardian, 14 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

Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine: Get Yer Dag On!

DAMIAN COWELL was the guy in TISM. We know because he told us so (in a song called I Was The Guy In TISM, recorded with the DC3). Anonymity can be a tough mask to shed. Think of Kiss without the war paint, or the Residents without the eyeballs: what lies beneath can only be a disappointment. Years ago, a friend of mine ripped off Ron Hitler-Barassi’s balaclava in a mosh pit. Stupidly, I asked him who it was. “Some guy,” he replied. Who did I expect?

But amid the constant clamour for TISM to reform (how many original members would it take? Who would know? Would anyone care?) Cowell, the artist formerly known as Humphrey B Flaubert, has been quietly building a catalogue that’s not far short of his old band. And if people aren’t as interested in listening to an advertising copywriter in his mid 50s as they are in TISM, maybe they’ll listen to him alongside a supergroup featuring the cream of Australian satire. Hence the Disco Machine.

The first Disco Machine album boasted cameos from Shaun Micallef, Tony Martin, Kathy Lette, John Safran and the Bedroom Philosopher, along with a bunch of other celebrities and fellow musicians: Lee Lin Chin, Julia Zemiro, Tim Rogers and Kate Miller-Heidke. That, if nothing else, speaks of some serious pulling power and the esteem Cowell is held not just in Australia’s musical community, but especially in comedy circles.

TISM were the rarest of joke bands (their first gig was poetically called The Get Fucked Concert) in that the joke has remained as obnoxious, funny and true as it ever was – and the music was frequently as good, if often let down by the production. They cut to the quick of Australian society and manners, pricking the left’s self-righteousness and the right’s mendacity in equal measure. Sometimes they even played it (almost) straight: The Philip Ruddock Blues is as good a protest song as anything written by Midnight Oil, though they’d probably cringe at the comparison.

Get Your Dag On! is the second Disco Machine album, and Micallef and Martin are again present, alongside another stellar roll-call of guests: Celia Pacquola, Judith Lucy and many more. There’s an irony in there being a slightly identikit anonymity about many of these pounding dance-floor grooves, but that doesn’t matter, because (a) irony is central to everything Cowell does, and (b) Cowell can sing: his melodies and phrasing make many of these songs instantly memorable.

And then there are the lyrics.

It is honestly difficult not to quote some of these songs in their entirety. My favourite is 365 Lemmys, featuring Henry Wagons, which points out how everyone’s favourite rock & roll outlaw made fundamentally conservative music by never deviating from a proven formula: “Lemmy turned it up to 10 / Lemmy did it all again / And again and again and again and again / Lemmy was totally Zen.” In a similar vein, Can’t Stop The Music* (*conditions apply) observes that the most common revolutions in rock now are in the modes of distribution and consumption.

Come On Waleed features Henry Rollins (who just gets the title line) and Melbourne songwriter Liz Stringer. It rattles off a list of fallen heroes, both artistic and sporting: “No means yes, I learned that from Lance Armstrong / And Pistorius left us no leg to stand on.” The chorus then begs the beloved polymath columnist/academic/musician/co-host of The Project, Waleed Aly, not to follow them down the celebrity S-bend: “Don’t go changing on me!”

Another inspired duet is between Micallef and Regurgitator’s Quan Yeomans on When You’re Incredibly Good Looking, which imagines a beautiful person’s secret fear that they might not have got where they were on the basis of merit alone: “Thank God I’m ugly!” goes the chorus. Myf Warhurst guests on two songs: I Smell M.A.N., with Machine Gun Fellatio’s Pinky Beecroft, and My Baby Is Interested In Geopolitics But I Just Wanna Dance (with Tony Martin). The delight of these tracks is just how well she sings them.

Best of all is Barry Gibb Came Fourth In A Barry Gibb Lookalike Contest. Pairing Cowell with a purring Adalita, it shamelessly borrows its hook from Prince’s Controversy, and starts with an oblique reference to his own dilemma: “The truth is horrid / Never quite as good as fiction / That’s why we run away from it / How else do you explain religion?” Later comes this middle-eight: “Young girl with passionate views says journalism is the calling for me / Then finds out that her job at the news is to keep the public stupid and angry.”

It seems sadly unlikely that TISM are about to get back together anytime soon. But while Get Your Dag On! might not reach the heights of Great Truckin’ Songs Of The Renaissance (what could?), it stands tall alongside much of what came after. Cowell is an ad man you can trust.

First published in The Guardian, 16 February 2017

Peter Garrett is back, and he’s ready to dance again

In the nascent Sydney punk scene of 1976, the Oxford Funhouse on Taylor Square was ground zero. The venue had been established by Radio Birdman who, along with Brisbane’s the Saints, can lay claim to the title of Australia’s first punk band.

Peter Garrett, who was leading an embryonic band not yet named Midnight Oil at the time, checked them out early and came away a changed man, marvelling at how the hipsters in the crowd kept their sunglasses on amid the mayhem. “The sound was laser-bright and ferocious, and frontman Rob Younger was riveting, stalking the tiny stage with a leonine fury,” he wrote in his memoir, Big Blue Sky, released late last year.

If you want an idea of where Garrett got the unique dance step that captivated audiences for over 20 years, watch Younger in action. Garrett wasn’t informed by his movements so much as the idea of performance as an altered form of consciousness. “I like to get myself into a state where I’m not aware of what I do at all, yet somehow I get it all out,” Younger said at the time. “I don’t know, I try not to think about it.”

Garrett similarly deflects questions about his dancing, as if talking about it might cause him to freeze. “You’re suspending rational thought, as you should when you go into that zone,” he says. “When you start to move and feel the energy around you, if you think about it for one second you become a clichéd plastic statue. Which we’ll try to avoid for a little bit longer.”

Garrett – as he proclaimed on Tall Trees, the first song and single from his first solo album, A Version Of Now – is back, and he remains a man of formidable energy. If his 63 years have slowed him somewhat, he won’t be merely treading the boards on an upcoming promotional tour, either. Later in the year Midnight Oil will reconvene, with the band planning to spend much of 2017 on the road. Again.

There are two public sides to Garrett: the whirling dervish on stage, and the highly organised figure who, years before he left Midnight Oil to join the Labor party, served his first term as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation between 1989 and 1993, at the height of the band’s success. He then served a further two years on the international board of Greenpeace.

“They’re both the same person,” Garrett says, lounging in a community café in Redfern, where he’s just done an interview for Koori Radio. As distinctive as ever, he doesn’t escape without shy requests for selfies and signatures. “You might discover different sides of the same person when you go on holidays with them, or sitting around a campfire, or if you have a big night in a karaoke bar.”

Garrett is used to being reduced to a caricature. So was his band. “[Midnight Oil was] misunderstood in terms of being seen as specifically constructed to deliver a political philosophy,” he says. “Misunderstood in being seen as very blokey and pub-ish, which we weren’t at all, certainly not as people. Misunderstood overseas, because no one knew where the hell Australia was, or what we were writing about.”

That didn’t stop Beds Are Burning ­– a pointed call to white Australia to return the land to its original inhabitants – from becoming the band’s biggest hit in America. Still, there was always more to Midnight Oil than slogans. “I thought there was some abstraction in what we were doing,” Garrett says, before conceding: “Probably not a lot of humour, it’s fair to say. Not my strong suit. Humour ain’t Oils!”

A Version Of Now isn’t played for laughs, either, but it’s often unexpectedly tender and sweet. There are love songs to Doris, his wife of 30 years, which are as direct as anything he’s ever written. Their three daughters, Emily, May and Grace, sing harmonies; May even plays drums on one track.

And while it features the Oils’ guitarist Martin Rotsey, it sounds like a genuinely personal solo project. There was no thought of bringing the songs to rest of the group, he says: “They came so quickly, and then I knuckled down and tried to knock them into shape and get people to play them as quickly as I could. They sounded like Peter Garrett songs.”

What it does share with his old band is some of the rawness that marked their early records. The approach was basic: “We’re in a room, we’ve learned the chords – or maybe we haven’t quite learned them – and we’re going to grab the moment.” The album was produced by Burke Reid, who has worked with the Drones and Courtney Barnett. Garrett was inspired by the unvarnished sound of both.

“The Courtney record [Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Think] was like being on a skateboard, rolling down a hill – ‘This is what I am, this is what I sound like, this is what I talk about’,” he says. “It had a spirit of music that I love that is timeless in some ways, because it was so gritty, real and without pretension.”

People often ask who dares to talk about big issues in popular music these days and it hasn’t escaped Garrett that the Drones and Barnett are among them. “There’s plenty of it out there [and] I was interested in what they had to say, but I also liked the sound.” The music, he insists, always comes first. “If it doesn’t have that internal combustion, you’ve got nothing.”

None of which means that Garrett has nothing to say. I’d Do It Again, the album’s second song, should stay a thousand journalists’ questions: “I didn’t jump, I wasn’t pushed / I went on my own, I’ve got to do what I could / I got my hands dirty and had a go”. Garrett’s rejection of the purity of activism for the messy compromises of high office remains unapologetic.

But those words “I’m back” also suggest he’s nothing if not happy to be making music again. “And who wouldn’t be, really? It’s not that I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, but they’re very different kinds of vocations and there’s not a lot of blend. I guess my starting point is that I think we can have a go at more than one kind of thing, and many people do.”

He concedes he “sometimes” felt like an outsider in politics, and in the Labor party too, partially because he wasn’t part of any faction. But neither was he a career politician. “The fact of the matter is, and most politicians would recognise it, that to some extent the lives that they’ve lived prior to entering the parliament are quite narrow.”

The result, he says, is an entrenching of the political classes, in which he includes advisers, lobbyists and various apparatchiks and insiders, including the press gallery. “The ultimate result of that confection is that it’s very difficult to break out from stasis or antipathy and the never-ending striving for short-term political advantage.”

Political progress is an illusory thing. Sometimes we go backwards; at others, around in circles. After the 2010 election, he remembers, suddenly “there was a row of younger, seriously hardline right-wing climate sceptics sitting on the other side of the parliament. It makes you pause for a second to think, and it also makes you demand of someone like the current prime minister [Malcolm Turnbull] that they do live up to their convictions.”

But the intractability of issues such as refugee policy, for example – which Garrett admits was “deeply, deeply challenging” – often meant personal convictions came a distant last in the same political machinery he has just described. Part of our disenchantment, he says, is driven by a skewed view of what politics can realistically deliver. And when it doesn’t, “there’s no shortage of people howling it down”.

No one, at least, could accuse Garrett of not having experienced life before entering politics. Two high points he names from Midnight Oil’s career were playing the first multi-racial concert in South Africa in 1994, following the election of Nelson Mandela as president, to roughly 80,000 people in Ellis Park, Johannesburg; and playing Beds Are Burning at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, with the band wearing “Sorry” suits.

That – like the band playing on a flatbed truck outside the Exxon building in Manhattan in 1990, in a guerrilla-style protest after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill the previous year – was essentially a prank but it was also extremely effective political theatre. And very punk. “It was agitprop,” Garrett says. At such times, “we felt we were part of something bigger that was at play”.

Whether the band will enter the studio again remains to be seen. “I think [the band members] obviously are still creative, [we’d] like to be creative. You’ve got to do it for the right reasons.” He notes the band’s contemporaries Cold Chisel have had a second life, “and they’ve made a fair fist of it. It’s been good, the stuff that they’ve done, I’ve enjoyed it.

“There’s no reason why not. We’re not bound temporally; we’re only bound by how fearful, how brave, how imaginative, how hard we’re prepared to work, and I think if we continue to bring the love of music and making music together then maybe we’ll see something come out the other end. Whatever it is you do, if it’s still moving you, then try to do as much of it as possible, before it’s too late.”

But, always, it’s the live shows that will come first. Midnight Oil became effective users of the studio as an instrument – particularly on their 1982 breakthrough album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. But the studio is a bit like the parliament: sounds are negotiated, compromised and brokered. It’s on stage, in front of an audience, where Midnight Oil made its reputation.

Garrett’s upcoming solo tour will give him the chance to splay his hands and wave those long arms around again, in those inimitable jerky movements that somehow work with the jagged angles of the music. But really, it’s a prelude to the main act next year, when the Midnight Oil juggernaut rolls back into action. It’s also a test. Can they do it again, or will they be, in Garrett’s words, clichéd plastic statues?

“It’s not like we can go out every night, [whether] it’s a club show or a theatre show, and just switch it,” he says. “We’ve got to suck the music out of the marrow of our bones and spit it back out over people, with all the sense of no tomorrow that we can muster up.”

First published in The Guardian, 17 July 2016

The power and the passion of Midnight Oil still burns

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 Televisionakin 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 ForcesAnd 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 Burning were 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.

First published in The Guardian, 6 May 2016

Molly: the mini-series

How to sum up the life and times of Ian “Molly” Meldrum? If you think four hours is an extraordinary chunk of airtime to devote to a television biopic on the cat in the hat, you probably didn’t grow up in the 1970s and ’80s. If you did, you almost certainly grew up on Countdown, the weekly music program that, over 13 years and 563 episodes, made Molly the unlikeliest of entertainment icons.

Molly, which premiered on Channel Seven last night in the first of a two-part mini-series, tells his story ingeniously and, perhaps, with a touch of sly irony: via a series of flashbacks, following Meldrum’s terrible accident at home in 2011, which left him with severe injuries. (At the time of the show’s airing, Meldrum is recovering after a second fall in Thailand).

It allows for an unashamedly nostalgic, but also unexpectedly affecting look back at an era that was both more innocent and less straight-laced. As a gormless young suburban boy, I mostly took even Countdown’s most anarchic moments at face value. Even so, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just the infamous 100th episode when its host – not to mention its guest stars – turned up on set considerably the worse for wear.

molly

With his craggy features, Samuel Johnson was born to play Molly. More impressive than the physical resemblance, though, is the genuine pathos with which Johnson invests in the character. Underneath Molly’s bumbling, stuttering exterior (his first word on air is “um”) lies an intuitive intelligence and the irrepressible enthusiasm that audiences came to adore him for.

He’s also fiercely – and physically – loyal, which gets him into trouble both with the law and his superiors at the ABC, especially buttoned-down executive Alan Wade, played with perfect rectitude by Benedict Hardie. He is ably protected by Countdown’s producers, Michael Shrimpton (Tom O’Sullivan) and Rob Weekes (TJ Power), whose main job seems to be to save our hero from himself.

The show touches delicately on his early family life: Meldrum is raised mostly by his grandmother, after his mother is hospitalised due to an unspecified mental illness. Then, of course, there is his sexuality, which became a talking point last month after Johnson told the ABC that a scene in which he kisses another man had been cut by Meldrum himself, who thought it was “gratuitous”. (“I wanted the kiss in, I wanted it to be in there, it wasn’t gratuitous at all,” Johnson said.)

As our first sexually fluid television star, Meldrum never really came out, because he never really had to – what you saw was what you got. Here, the subject is dealt with mostly via a series of nudges, winks and knowing looks, until a touching scene where Molly, who is engaged to Camille (Rebecca Breeds) takes his strung-out, heroin-addicted transgender housemate Caroline back to his backwoods Victorian home town of Quambatook, only for both to accuse each other of running away from themselves.

It’s these glimpses into the man behind the mononym that made the first episode of Molly so much more satisfying than Never Tear Us Apart, the INXS mini-series from 2014. We see his self-doubt – “If this falls apart, no one’s gonna give me another chance,” he confesses to Camille before Countdown’s debut – and more obscure details, like his lifelong obsession with Egyptology and the St Kilda football club.

In between all this is the music. Countdown’s influence on a generation of Australian music – both for better and worse – is incontestable, and Meldrum, for over a decade, was at the centre of it. (This extended to his role as a producer – both on Russell Morris’s epochal flower-power hit The Real Thing and Supernaut’s bisexual anthem I Like It Both Ways.)

The structure of Molly allows for Countdown’s most celebrated appearances and controversies to be gleefully recast: the initial appearance of Skyhooks, the endlessly replayed “interview” with a loaded Iggy Pop, and the later refusal of Midnight Oil to appear. Along with Cold Chisel’s trashing of the Countdown awards set in 1981, their withdrawal signalled the beginning of a waning in the show’s agenda-setting power.

But the best moment – indeed, as the man himself had it, the most important moment in the history of the program – was Meldrum’s catastrophic interview with a youthful Prince Charles, during which he repeatedly fluffed his lines, swore, put his hand on the Prince’s knee while calling him “lovey”, and asked after his mum (“You mean Her Majesty The Queen,” came the unctuous reply).

The wonder of this scene is, of course, amazement that it happened at all. But the 1970s were different days, when the ABC still played God Save The Queen before it ceased broadcasting at midnight – but also a time when AC/DC’s Bon Scott, wearing a schoolgirl’s uniform and pigtails, could smoke a durrie while attacking Angus Young with a rubber mallet during a live performance on the national broadcaster.

Whether inept or insouciant, Meldrum’s treatment of Charles said much about our history and our relationship with our colonial masters. But it also spoke of Molly’s almost comic inability to be anyone other than himself, and his determination to treat everybody – as his grandmother taught him – the same. Molly the mini-series is a funny, warm and wholeheartedly affectionate tribute.

First published in The Guardian, 8 February 2016

How I learned to listen and love Cold Chisel

I used to hate Cold Chisel. As a teenager in the 1980s, it was hard to avoid them. FM radio couldn’t get enough of them, and Khe Sanh was especially ubiquitous, pumped out of every muscle-car stereo at the beach like an extra pipeline of exhaust fumes.

Despite growing up in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne, I stood outside of their tribe; the mullet-headed kids that liked them were the ones that gave me a hard time at school. I hated all that masculine camaraderie, the “suck more piss” ethos of their fans and their totemic status in the pantheon of Oz rock.

But strangely, I don’t hate Cold Chisel anymore. They are the crocodiles of Australian rock & roll: a dinosaur that will outlive us all. Doc Neeson is gone, though the Angels gamely play on without him. Midnight Oil died when Peter Garrett stopped dancing and took his pulpit into politics.

Cold Chisel are Oz rock’s last great survivors.

On 2 October they will launch their eighth studio album, The Perfect Crime, at the Deni (Deniliquin) Ute Muster in the New South Wales Riverina. The cover depicts what looks like one of those muscle cars, tail-lights glowing on some lonely country road.

Maybe, like most men of a certain age, my ears are getting bigger. For all my efforts to beat ’em to deaf by standing close to amplifiers for more than half my life, they’re hearing things they didn’t before.

The band has endured for a number of reasons, the main one being an abundance of stellar songs from a multi-pronged team. Don Walker gets most of the kudos – behind the band’s boozy camaraderie (the image of Jimmy Barnes, wine flagon aloft, is synonymous with Cold Chisel), it was easy to miss the sensitivity and literacy of Walker’s lyrics.

But Ian Moss (Bow River), Phil Small (My Baby) and Barnes (No Sense) all took their share of credits too, as did drummer Steve Prestwich, who departed the band, and this mortal coil, in 2011. He also left us with two of the band’s classics: When The War Is Over and the gorgeous lilt of Forever Now.

Chisel rocked hard when they wanted to, and that was often enough. But what stands out now is their versatility; their ability to jump from white soul (Barnes’s voice, pre-solo career, was a marvel) to pop and even reggae.

These days they’ve outgrown the nostalgia understandably felt for them (and other so-called heritage acts) by those who grew up with them: the fans who came of age with them in dangerously overcrowded pubs, back when you could go home with a tumour on your lung from smoke inhalation.

Their One Night Stand national tour – a play on what was supposed to be their Last Stand tour back in 1983 – will be supported by Grinspoon, coaxed out of their indefinite hiatus. Singer Phil Jamieson tells of singing backing vocals for Flame Trees in 2011, arm in arm with his bandmates, as “a moment – I may have even fallen into a bush in my excitement”.

When I was younger, I couldn’t bring myself to admit that the middle eight in that song – “Do you remember, nothing stopped us on the field in our day” – somehow always made the hairs on my arms stand on end. These days I can safely admit to loving them.

First published in The Guardian, 27 August 2015