Tagged: Nirvana

“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

The Hummingbirds’ Simon Holmes, 1962-2017

The tragic news that Simon Holmes, founding singer and guitarist of Sydney band the Hummingbirds, passed away a week ago broke on Wednesday night, via the band’s Facebook page and a beautiful tribute by his friend, writer and fellow musician Tim Byron. Byron recalled that one of Holmes’ favourite sayings was “hurry up and wait”, a line Byron said he took from Brian Eno, but also was a key lyric in the chorus of Blondie’s hit Sunday Girl.

“Hurry up and wait” is a military phrase, meaning that a soldier has to hurry to arrive at a given destination only to then wait around for hours or days for something to happen. A lot of rock & roll is like that. An Australian band on tour in the 1980s could drive all day, flat out, to get to a venue in time for soundcheck before waiting the rest of the night to play.

The Hummingbirds’ career was true to their name and their sound; like a blur. They were here and they were gone, leaving just two albums and a clutch of glorious singles behind. They were flushed with early success, and in the years since spent a lot of time waiting to be rediscovered: a rare reformation show at Newtown Social Club a year ago with their contemporaries the Falling Joys quickly sold out.

The Hummingbirds were on the cusp of the so-called alternative music explosion, but Australian rock historian Ian McFarlane quotes the band’s stated aim was to be “the ultimate pop band”. From their first single Alimony, released by independent label Phantom in July 1987, they got pretty close. The Hummingbirds loved nothing more than harmony on top of melody on top of guitars.

They could be slightly ramshackle live, but the songs were great, even if early on they sometimes struggled to get from one end of them to the other. Still, they were a breath of fresh air, not least due to the presence of guitarist Alannah Russack and bass player Robyn St Clare, Holmes’ former partner and mother to his son Milo. The mixed-gender group stood out in a suffocatingly macho rock scene.

Their first album LoveBUZZ, released in late 1989, was named after a Nirvana single originally recorded by Shocking Blue (who were better known for their song Venus, which itself is better known for Bananarama’s version). Recorded by Mitch Easter, famous for his work with R.E.M., the album crossed over from the alternative charts to the mainstream thanks to the single Blush, which peaked at No. 19.

That might not sound like much now. But in Australia at the time it was a harbinger of what was to come, paving the way for Ratcat and, later, the Clouds and Falling Joys, all of them before Nirvana’s Nevermind rewrote the radio playbook for the rest of the 1990s. The Hummingbirds were hurried up into recording a follow-up album, va va voom, which bombed. A couple of EPs later, they broke up.

Before that, they supported INXS on a run of stadium gigs and toured Europe and North America, which in themselves added up to a lifetime’s worth of stories. Holmes wasn’t a music snob: Byron recounts his love of Yes, whose albums (along with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin’s) he once ruined by trailing them behind him on a bicycle after hearing the Sex Pistols, only to live to regret it later.

Holmes remained involved in music throughout his life, via production work with other 1990s acts including the Fauves and Custard, working at Sydney record store Half a Cow, playing in many other part-time bands, and via a weekly radio show on Sydney station 2SER, which he co-presented with son Milo.

Holmes was just 55 when he died, and there are simply no words for that. He is survived by his partner Justine and their daughter Maisie, as well as Robyn and Milo, and won’t be forgotten by anyone who loved, lived and breathed music as he played it.

First published in The Guardian, 21 July 2017

Flowers in the wheelie bin

In 1977, John Lydon – née Rotten – launched a vitriolic attack on the monarchy that brutally summed up the status of England’s youth in the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee: “When there’s no future, how can there be sin? / We are the flowers in the dustbin / We’re the poison in your human machine / We’re the future, your future!”

God Save The Queen, as performed by the Sex Pistols, is one of the greatest protest songs of all time, but I’ve long pondered over these lyrics. Was Lydon inferring that Britain’s future had been literally thrown out with the garbage, as the nation celebrated? Or making a statement about how great art can be constructed from throwaway refuse – one of punk’s defining tenets?

Or was he saying that art itself is nurtured by the oppression of the state? “We’re the poison in your human machine” is a wonderfully subversive argument to this effect, and it’s a line with ongoing resonance to Queensland. It’s a common assumption, for example, that the 1970s punk explosion in Brisbane, spearheaded by the Saints (who, let’s not forget, pre-dated the Pistols by as much as two years) was a reaction to the excesses of life in Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Superficially, it’s easy to understand why. As I’ve written before, life under Sir Joh was nothing if not iron-fisted: “Public displays of dissent were often brutally suppressed; the rule of law was routinely bent to the will of those charged with its enforcement; minorities were treated as just another obstacle on the path to development. To top it all off, the electoral system was hopelessly rigged in favour of the incumbents. ‘Here,’ wrote Rod McLeod, ‘in a city practically under police curfew, you fucked and fought, got stoned, got married, or got out of town.'”

Thirty-five years later, in the year of (still our) Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Campbell Newman has passed his first 100 days in office as Premier of Queensland, and we’ve got a pretty good idea of his administration’s priorities. Many of his actions and statements have been highly symbolic: the axing of the state’s literary awards; abolishing state-sanctioned civil ceremonies for same-sex couples; his declaration that Queensland was in “the coal business” (in response to environmental concerns about increased shipping through the Great Barrier Reef) and, last but not least, sending in a 200-strong goon squad to rough up a few Aboriginal people in Musgrave Park because, well, they were there.

It’s been enough to prompt more than a few comparisons between Newman and Joh, whom the former politely name-checked in his maiden speech as premier. And in that time, I’ve heard a few suggest that maybe we’ll even see some kind of musical renaissance under Newman, now all those latte-sipping arty types suddenly have something to complain about again. Flowers in the wheelie bin, if you like.

Sorry, but it’s time to bust a few myths. I spent four years investigating the assumption that bad politics = great music, and as far as I can tell, mostly, the idea that conservative and/or repressive governance leads to creativity is vastly overstated.

Let’s take the punk example first. The truth is, it would have happened anyway, and the reason why is simple: Ed Kuepper and Chris Bailey were rabid record collectors who were turned on to the sounds of the MC5, the Stooges and the New York Dolls before almost anyone else in this country, other than Michigan native Deniz Tek and Sydneysider Rob Younger. Those two would go on to form Radio Birdman at around the same time as the Saints, in 1973-74. Both the Saints and Birdman were also influenced by earlier Australian garage bands like the Easybeats, Master’s Apprentices and Missing Links (among dozens of others). And the bands that followed the Saints and Birdman – in Brisbane, that means groups like the Fun Things, Razar and the Riptides – were additionally inspired to pick up guitars by three principal events.

The first one was the release of the first Ramones album, a stroke of genius so deceptively simple that enthusiastic non-musicians everywhere fell for the idea that they could play this music, too. Notwithstanding the aforementioned groups, the vast majority of these hack thrashers forgot the necessary corollary: few do it well.

The second, which followed the Ramones, was the international punk boom of 1977, thanks mainly to the sight of the Pistols appearing in lounge rooms across the country, not only via Countdown, but a good old-fashioned moral panic, courtesy of Mike Willesee and A Current Affair. Sure, Bjelke-Petersen was a reactionary, but it’s not as if televisions and radios were banned.

Which brings me to the third principal event: the rise of public radio stations, following reforms made in the dying days of the Whitlam government. Brisbane’s 4ZZZ was the very first of them, followed later by 2JJ (later Triple J) in Sydney and 3RRR in Melbourne. All of these – far more than Countdown – played a critical role in getting this new music to a wider audience.

So, as I’ve also written before, it makes no sense to give a politician credit for the creation of a music scene. The qualifier to all this is that growing up in a climate of fear and loathing distorted the prism through which these people saw the world: those who experienced the brutality of the Joh years first-hand still wear it like a badge of honour. As Robert Forster put it, “Bjelke-Petersen represented the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservatism that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against.”

And so we had Pig City (the song), written by political activist Tony Kneipp, specifically for the 1983 state election. And Task Force, by Razar, was the ultimate up-yours to Brisbane’s pre-Fitzgerald Inquiry finest.

But – and this is the point most people seem to overlook – these songs are emblematic of Brisbane at the time, not its music, which was far too diverse to be reduced to a set of agitprop slogans. The conditions for making music in Brisbane at the time were absolutely oppressive, and far from being an inspiration, it forced thousands of creative people to flee. The best example was Brisbane’s other truly great cultural export to emerge from the late 1970s, the Go-Betweens, who as far as I can tell never wrote a protest song in their lives.

Here were two slightly effeminate young men (Forster and the late Grant McLennan) who aspired to art, wrote poetry and occasionally wore dresses. At the height of punk’s most atavistic aggression, they played acoustic guitars to jerky rhythms, backed by a tall woman with short hair who played the drums. They didn’t write political songs – they didn’t have to. They were making a political statement just by being who they were, and that, in a nutshell, is exactly why they had to leave. Thus one of the best songs ever about growing up in Queensland was written in London:

Neither does the bad politics argument hold water when we look at the next big boom for Queensland music, the early 1990s. Bjelke-Petersen was long gone by then, so we can hardly attribute the success of Powderfinger, Regurgitator, Custard and the rest to him. More likely, that especially fertile period came down to an complex amalgam of factors: generational change, the reshaping of the music business in the wake of Nirvana’s album Nevermind; the nationalisation of the Triple J network, and the fact that Brisbane was becoming quite a nice place to live, with plenty of places to go out and play, without the attendant paranoia, post-Fitzgerald, of police harassment or worse.

Musically speaking, Brisbane currently is in the best shape I’ve seen since that golden age. Yes, there have been setbacks like the closure of Rave magazine, the venue situation is tenuous (it was ever thus) and making a living is harder than ever. But it’s never been easier to make, produce and distribute music than it is now, and the breadth and depth of quality here is astonishing. I can’t go out without tripping over someone new and exciting. That’s the subject of a whole new post.

Frankly, I can’t imagine it getting much better than it already is under Can-Do Campbell. Hopefully, it won’t actually become more difficult, due to the vagaries of licensing laws, poor town planning or the de-funding of programs that actually do help enable local musicians to get their music to a wider audience. That really would be throwing the flowers in the dustbin.

Oh well, whatever, etc

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s second album Nevermind. A rash of earnest think pieces have already appeared in yesterday’s papers – isn’t this a bit like celebrating your birthday by opening your presents at midnight? – but since this record was such a game-changer in the musical-industrial complex and a life-changer for thousands of individuals besides, it would be churlish of me not to add to them. I was one of those thousands, after all.

I listened to the album for the first time in many moons a couple of weeks ago. I’ll probably listen to it again later; I certainly don’t need to put it on now for inspiration. I think I know every note of the damn thing backwards; such was Nevermind‘s power at the time of its release that it quickly became embedded. These days, there aren’t too many real reasons to pull it out, simply because it’s always there within you. Smells Like Teen Spirit, once so transcendent, can even sound a little shopworn for being overplayed. But if you catch it on a classic rock station and it gets you at the right angle, at the right moment, it still creams the competition with muscle to spare.

I can’t tell you where I was when I first heard Teen Spirit; in fact I can’t recall hearing it for the first time at all. It just suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Actually, I’d just arrived in Melbourne after a seven-week jaunt around some fairly remote parts of the country, so I certainly wasn’t even aware of any music press hubbub. And I hadn’t heard Bleach, the band’s first album. If I had, it wouldn’t have prepared me in any way for the avalanche about to be unleashed.

So I know I didn’t hear it at least until I got back to Brisbane a couple of weeks later, in October. It might have been on Triple J, but also might have been on Triple Zed. Can’t say. But I soon became aware of the groundswell. That couple of months, leading up to the beginning of 1992, was among the most exciting of my life. I was 20, and probably everyone who’s 20 and waiting for their life to start probably still gets nostalgic about what it was like to be that age and feel like anything’s possible. Teen Spirit seemed to make everything possible again.

Musically, the 1980s was nowhere near as bad as the reputation if you had a clue. There was terrific music everywhere, even on the Top 40 charts, at least in the earlier part of the decade – Prince, Springsteen, early Madonna, Michael Jackson at his thrilling peak – hey, it was thrilling, and still is, at least if you have an open mind and love pop music more than you love being cool. By late in the decade, though, it’s true that things were on the slide. The real action was in the American underground. Dinosaur Jr’s Freak Scene was a great, great single; Mudhoney’s Touch Me I’m Sick, too.

The biggest buzz was for the Pixies, the band Kurt Cobain claimed to be ripping off with all those soft/loud dynamics. Well … Maybe. Lots of other bands, including Australian bands like the Scientists, had done that already. These days, I listen to the Pixies and I still can’t believe they didn’t get there first. Here Comes Your Man – how was that not number one in every country in the western world? It’s bizarre, really.

But maybe that just made the breakthrough of Teen Spirit – so much more aggressive and potent – all the sweeter. To this day I’ve never heard such excitement surrounding a single like it. And strangely enough, when I first brought Nevermind home on the back of it in December ’91, after the album was belatedly released locally, I was a little underwhelmed. It was so clean, to start with. What was with all those pop hooks? It actually took a few listens for the penny to drop that that was the whole point.

I still think the best description of the album came from Cobain himself: Black Sabbath getting molested by Black Flag and the Beatles. Can’t remember if it was in that order, but whatever – sure as hell no one else had ever found a way to put those three things together, if they ever even thought of such an unlikely combination. I doubt anyone had. People got very excited about Radiohead’s OK Computer six years later – Nick Kent even wrote a review reminiscent of his exaltation of Television’s Marquee Moon 20 years earlier – but no fucking way was the impact on popular culture even comparable to the nuclear assault of Nevermind.

Not in my view, anyway. And of course it wasn’t all good; record companies signed up every guitar band that moved for a while, no matter how horrible, and plenty of toy wind-up Nirvanas came out of the woodwork. Most disappeared from whence they came. Many great bands who might have deserved similar success instead got left behind; that was sad. Independent record stores and labels were hammered as the mainstream co-opted their market; that was sad, too. Saddest of all, the album’s success also seemed to psychologically destroy poor Kurt Cobain himself. That’s another post, so I’ll leave it.

But surely what mattered about this album, and what still matters, is its inclusiveness. Purists will tell you Bleach is the truest Nirvana album; those who value their indie credentials say In Utero‘s the masterpiece. Look, they’re both good, but really, seriously, come on. Great music belongs to everyone. I began writing about music because I wanted to share it with people, and I still do. Nevermind was a key part of that.

I saw the band in January of ’92, at Festival Hall in Brisbane. They were supporting Violent Femmes, the result of the tour being booked before the band went large. Nirvana liked and admired the Femmes and wanted to honour their commitment to opening for them. Me? I didn’t even stick around for them, which I’m sad about now, because I still haven’t seen them. But Nirvana at that moment just made everything else seem irrelevant.

Not that it was the greatest show, mind you. The sound mix was muddy, Cobain was sick, the band played for just 40 minutes. At some point I left the mosh and went back towards the mixing desk. That was better. They played Come As You Are and suddenly it all seemed to snap into focus. Such a haunting, beautiful song, but then that whiplash solo tore the roof off. That was the band – brutal and beautiful at once. Black Sabbath, Black Flag, and the Beatles.

They finished with On A Plain, still my favourite Nirvana song. I’m not sure why, but I don’t think I need to explain it anyway. I’m sure you have your favourites, your own reasons and your own stories. This was mine.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWrW0j6uOIU