Spencer P Jones wasn’t a household name of Australian rock music. But he worked with many who were (Tex Perkins, in their band the Beasts of Bourbon, as well as Paul Kelly and Renée Geyer) and was held in high esteem by many beyond these shores, notably Neil Young.
His work as a guitarist and songwriter also influenced many, including the Drones, who covered one of his songs and whose principal members, Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin, recorded an album with him under the name the Nothing Butts in 2012.
The news of his passing from liver cancer on Tuesday, aged 61, was no surprise. He’d been forced into retirement from the stage (a place you otherwise couldn’t keep him from) a few years ago, and was advised of his terminal condition in June.
His rare appearances had been limited to guest spots, one of his last being for the Beasts of Bourbon’s bass player Brian Hooper in April. Hooper came out of hospital to perform, took the stage in a wheelchair and wearing an oxygen mask, and died days later, aged 55.
If this paints a familiarly grim picture of the rock musician’s fate, it might be worth mentioning that Jones’s first album with the Johnnys, recorded in 1986, was called Highlights Of A Dangerous Life. The highlights from Spencer’s could easily fill a book.
But unlike most rock stars, Jones didn’t look away from the consequences of his choices. One of his later songs, sadly never released, was called The Monkey Has Gone. A sad lament punctuated by clashing guitar chords in the chorus, it was about cleaning up, and owning it:
The monkey has gone Time to move along Get on with my life Say sorry to my wife But that’s a different song Thankfully, the monkey has gone
Born in Te Awamutu, New Zealand in 1956, Jones arrived in Sydney in 1976. In his first week there, he saw Broderick Smith’s country rock band the Dingoes, Radio Birdman at French’s Tavern in Darlinghurst and a much-bootlegged show by AC/DC at the Haymarket.
Those three gigs and their respective influences – country, punk and hard rock – all informed his later work. The Johnnys, Jones’s first band of note, were dubbed “cowpunk”, and they played the image to the hilt, wearing Stetsons, chaps and Cuban heels.
They also kept bar fridges on stage, painted as black as their amplifiers, which they’d open between each number to take beers from – a gimmick that helped prevent their riders from being pilfered.
The beer poured in rivers from the bar taps, too, but other stunts made them a publican’s nightmare. At the end of shows, the band would cut the twine holding the hay bales on stage, scattering straw throughout the venue. (This back in the days when everyone smoked at gigs.)
The Beasts of Bourbon, a supergroup featuring Perkins and the Scientists’ Kim Salmon, were an even more lethal proposition. Their first album, The Axeman’s Jazz, was recorded in a single eight-hour session, fuelled by three cases of beer and, well, who knows what else.
By the band’s fourth album, The Low Road – led by a song called Chase The Dragon – the band’s hard edge and habits were becoming obvious. They were ferocious live, Jones lurking in the shadows, puffing smoke from under the hat that obscured his receding hairline.
As a guitar player, he was highly rated, coming in 17th in a poll of Australian musicians that was topped by Cold Chisel’s Ian Moss. His Stratocaster chugged and wailed, always a bit behind the beat, and he held the history of rock & roll in his right hand.
At that stage, Jones wasn’t a prolific writer. The two Johnnys albums were padded with covers, and he contributed a minority of songs to the Beasts of Bourbon. But the quality control was high, and after his first solo album, Rumour Of Death in 1994, he blossomed.
For much of the 1990s, Jones played in Paul Kelly’s band. Jones once told me that Kelly taught him that songs didn’t just fall out of the sky: “You’ve got to do the work,” he said. After leaving the band, Jones hit a purple patch, recording a string of terrific albums through the 2000s.
Looking through his body of work – with the Johnnys, Beasts of Bourbon, Hell to Pay (formed with another hellraiser, Ian Rilen) and his solo records, what stands out above all is the consistency. You’d be hard pressed to identify a bad song on any of them.
It’s easy to imagine Bleeding Heart, a single recorded with the Johnnys with a little help from Kelly, as being a big hit in the latter’s hands. In time, we may view Jones as a songwriter of Kelly’s equal, but Jones’s snarling delivery and reputation undoubtedly scared many off.
There’s another story to be told here, about the Australian music industry’s cowardice and ageism. Had Jones been based in Austin, Texas and started a little earlier, he might have been venerated and celebrated for both his songs and transgressions, in the way of other outlaw country artists such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
But that’s a different song. Paraphrasing one of his best, The Day Marty Robbins Died, he’s with Mother Maybelle Carter and Hank Williams now, in that Grand Ole Opry in the sky.
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
At the end of her opening keynote address to Brisbane music industry conference Bigsound, former Sonic Youth bass player Kim Gordon told a packed theatre of a calamitous acoustic show the band performed in 1991 for Neil Young’s The Bridge School, a non-profit education organisation for children with severe disabilities.
Halfway through a cover of the New York Dolls’ Personality Crisis, with the band unable to hear themselves onstage, a frustrated Gordon swore into the microphone, smashed the waiting guitar, and walked off. Then she saw the kids in wheelchairs backstage looking horrified, and felt awful. Neil Young’s then-teenaged son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, rolled up to her.
“Everyone has a bad day sometimes,” he said.
Gordon repeatedly told the audience that her address was a poem or incantation, not an essay, and it was: a series of vignettes that interrogated the co-dependent relationship between the artist and the audience, based on a premise by critic Greil Marcus: that artists who submit to the whims of their fans by only giving them more of what they have already accepted are only able to confirm, not to create.
It was a portal into the approach of Sonic Youth who, after emerging from New York’s No Wave scene, slowly built their own bridges to pop through the 1980s. The classic video for Kool Thing saw them flirting with mainstream acceptance, while subverting it. It was a song that had them on the brink of stardom, but which they refused to build on as bands they encouraged and inspired, like Nirvana, rushed past them.
Gordon’s address began in the hippie dream of the ’60s, describing how the communal relationship between artists and audiences was punctured by race riots, the Rolling Stones’ disaster at Altamont, and the Manson murders. The concurrent emergence of a more challenging generation of performers including the Doors, the Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges, she said, effectively deconstructed the idea of popular music as entertainment.
“[Iggy Pop] walking out onto the audience, breaking glass, smearing peanut butter on himself – was this a stage show? Was this rock music or real life? His estrangement of the audience’s expectations created something new. He gave people something they had never seen.”
She later spoke of an infamous Public Image, Ltd concert she attended at New York venue the Ritz in 1981. There, the band played behind a screen, onto which images were projected, obscuring the “stars” as shadowy figures. The audience rioted, throwing chairs at the screen and forcing the band to flee. “For whatever reason, PiL fucked with our heads,” she said. “We were there because of their audacity, but then couldn’t accept what they were offering: it was [either] too much, or too little.”
Her point was that that an audience’s need to be entertained was an artistic dead end. “What is a star? Suspended adulthood? A place beyond good and evil? Someone who you want to believe in? A daredevil? A risk-taker, going to the edge and not falling off – for you?” Was a performance, she added, “transcendence, or just a distraction from daily life, humdrum, pain, humdrum, boredom, humdrum, aloneness? A nice transition that doesn’t end? A day at the beach, a trip to the mountains? An unending kiss, leading to nowhere – or somewhere you never dreamed of?
“That’s what I want to feel when I go see someone play,” she said. “Something fall apart – until it becomes something else.”
It’s getting to the stage where there practically isn’t a heartland rocker left whose songs haven’t been egregiously misused for conservative political ends. In America, it’s Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. Now, in Australia, it’s Jimmy Barnes, who has been forced to distance himself from anti-immigration groups Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front, after Cold Chisel’s classic Khe Sanh was used in rallies over the weekend.
Don’t they know Barnes’ wife was born in Thailand? Did they never listen to Don Walker’s superb lyrics, which would have made it plain that Khe Sanh – about a burned-out Vietnam veteran – was not exactly a call to arms for an ethnically pure Australia?
Of course not, but let’s face it, we aren’t exactly dealing with Mensa candidates here.
“The aussie spirit is what you stood for in so many” (sic), bemoaned the Australian Defence League in reply to Barnes. “You have just showed the world and every Australian that grew up loving your music that you are nothing but a political correct fold at your knees idiot.” (sic, sic, sic.)
In America, the Republican Party has made a pastime of co-opting the songs of its heartland rockers. Only a few weeks ago, Donald Trump tried to get away with using Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World. Trump’s no Mensa candidate either, but as he likes to remind everybody on a regular basis, he’s really, really rich.
Back in 2000, Petty’s song I Won’t Back Down was used by George W Bush. Bush was the one to back down after the inevitable cease-and-desist, but not before his lawyers claimed that merely playing the song didn’t actually amount to any kind of endorsement – either by Petty of Bush, or vice versa.
Petty is a serial victim of this sort of thing: in 2011, Michele Bachmann used American Girl, which lasted one whole day on the hustings. Springsteen’s Born In The USA, about another Vietnam veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, is surely the most misunderstood and misappropriated song of all time.
One suspects that the Republican Party is fully aware that it will never be granted the necessary permissions by liberals like Springsteen and Petty, and simply doesn’t care. Once a candidate has been introduced to a rabid flag-waving crowd to the strains of an American anthem, the point has been made, as much as it’s been missed.
As the LA Weekly puts it, the problem with being a conservative and co-opting rock and roll is being really, really square at heart, as well as having terrible taste in music. If only the late Johnny Ramone, an infamous punk conservative, had written some songs! Too bad that all da bruddas’ best tunes, including the brilliant Reagan-baiting Bonzo Goes To Bitburg, were written by Joey and Dee Dee.
The reason the likes of Springsteen, Petty, Young and Barnes find themselves vulnerable to being hijacked by right-wingers is because these heartland rockers all play no-frills music with big choruses that amplify the concerns of small-town, blue-collar citizens. All while wearing denim.
And it’s exactly those voters, far more than the music, that conservatives are really interested in co-opting. In the USA, it was the so-called Reagan Democrats. In Australia, it was former prime minister John Howard’s Battlers, those all-important aspirational voters of the largely white working class, who live on the fringes of our capital cities and in our regional centres.
These are the working-class men and women who feel they’ve been left behind: their jobs downsized, done better by robots or simply shipped offshore; veterans left to suffer after returning home; and facing an uncertain future after a lifetime of hard labour. As Jimmy Barnes sings in Khe Sahn: “I’ve travelled round the world from year to year. And each one found me aimless, one more year the worse for wear.”
The trick has been to convince these voters that what they really should be angry about are the trendy concerns of an inner-city elite – and anyone who could be a convenient scapegoat for their problems. Hence the unending culture war that – like all phoney wars – works best when it instils fear and loathing.
In Australia, Muslims and asylum seekers are only the easiest targets for that loathing. They’re also the best friends of a conservative movement that relies on an ageing and afraid white base. And the songs? Against their composers’ best intentions, suddenly they whisper: we’re just like you. We’re on your side. And we won’t back down.