Tagged: Ray Argall

Midnight Oil: 1984

It was October 1984 and Peter Garrett, the frontman for Midnight Oil, should have been riding high. The band’s fifth album, Red Sails In The Sunset, had just topped the Australian charts – the band’s first number one.

Instead, he was restless and preoccupied. In his memoir, Big Blue Sky, he admitted he hadn’t contributed much by way of music to the album, recorded in Tokyo. When it was complete, he and his partner Doris visited Hiroshima.

No book or documentary, he said, could have prepared them for the photos and testimonies when they got to the site where the the first atomic bomb was dropped. “It’s literally a searing experience that leaves its imprint on you and never quite leaves,” Garrett said.

“We met with the Hibakusha, who are survivors and friends and families of the survivors of the initial detonation, and seeing the wreckage at first hand, hearing people’s accounts about what happened and what it meant to them subsequently, really brought it home.”

The experience left him questioning the line between activism and direct political involvement. “I was pretty energised and agitated by the politics of the time, and wanted to be useful – and how useful are you in a rock band?” he asked himself.

In December 1984 Garrett took his first tilt at politics in the federal election, joining the newly formed Nuclear Disarmament Party and heading the New South Wales senate ticket. He fell just short of a seat – squeezed out, ironically, by Labor preferences.

It was a fascinating chapter in Australian political life, as well as the life of Midnight Oil, dramatically captured by filmmaker Ray Argall’s documentary, Midnight Oil: 1984, which was filmed against the backdrop of the Cold War.

Argall’s film had been a long time in the making. That year, Garrett had joined the band on tour, shooting thousands of hours of footage. The film is fleshed out by period news footage and contemporary interviews with the band and associates.

It also captures a driven man running on what seems like combination of adrenaline and fumes. Garrett would arrive at rehearsals or soundchecks with folders full of briefing notes – between his meetings and interviews – before playing high-octane shows in the evening. Then he’d wake up the next day and do it all again.

“When I looked at the film rushes it did come flooding back,” Garrett said. “I guess my strongest sense was the sense of solidarity of the band, who were essentially signing off on the extracurricular activity of their singer.

“My memory of it is more about this upwelling of energy that was driving us, which meant when you got on stage at night – even though you’d been up really early in the morning and going on morning telly – there was still a lot of juice in the tank.”

It was a sliding-doors moment for the iconic singer. Could the band have continued? “I think probably we could have,” Garrett said, before conceding that maybe they would have gone into hiatus “like they did 15 years later and played surf music” – as several members of Midnight Oil did with the band, the Break, after Garrett eventually joined the Labor Party and left the band in 2002.

That move saw Garrett labelled a turncoat by many activists, but he pointed to the many gains made by the disarmament movement as evidence of its incremental success. He says Midnight Oil: 1984 captures a sense of the energy of that movement in its earlier days.

“There were a bunch of different actions and actors breaking out of the conventional narrative,” he said. “At the beginning, of course, we were dismissed as silly fringe-dwellers, and then there was the attempt to completely destabilise us and dirty us up.

“And yet through all of that, there was this other energy – this other, younger Australia saying well hang on a sec, this is something that is important to us. It was idealistic … But they’re ideals that I was proud of and I’m still proud of them.

“If you consider the international campaign against nuclear weapons now, and the ICAN [International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons] group who won the Nobel peace prize last year – some of those people were people in the Midnight Oil audience.

“Is it naive? I don’t think so; I think we’re closer to resolving that issue than we’ve been for a very long time, with a new treaty [on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons] getting ratified around the world.

“It’s not as though the issue just disappeared from sight once we’d done our bit, everybody else has picked it up and done fantastic things since.”

As for Midnight Oil, who reformed last year for their first tour since 2001, Garrett said they would be reconvening soon, and while there were no firm plans, it seemed likely the band would work together again.

“I think we were pretty blown away by the Great Circle [tour] and the level of response both here and overseas, and even though people have sort of scattered to the four corners, we’re all coming back, so that in itself is a positive sign.

“I’d like to think we can do some more songs. I know I’m writing; I suspect the other boys are writing. At this stage of the game you just literally thank your lucky stars that you can be in a band like this.”

First published in The Guardian, 1 September 2018

Midnight Oil: 1984

For those old enough to remember it, 1984 was a year full of dread and apocalyptic overtones. It wasn’t just the paranoia of George Orwell’s dystopian novel of the same name: in some ways, the current age of mass corporate/state surveillance and black-is-white propaganda makes 1984 feel closer at hand today than it did at the time. What’s easily forgotten is a fear that has only recently been truly reawakened: of nuclear terror (or error) and mutually assured destruction. The cold war could have turned hot and melted us all at any moment.

The mid-80s was also an interesting time in pop and rock music: everybody wanted to either rule the world or save it. Midnight Oil were very much in the latter category and 1984, a documentary by Ray Argall, focuses on a pivotal year in the band’s career. Their fifth album, Red Sails In The Sunset, was a continuation of the Armageddon-themed 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1: the cover featured a drained and cratered Sydney Harbour after a nuclear strike (with the Harbour Bridge and Opera House remaining eerily intact).

The album was released in October and became the band’s first No. 1 in Australia. At the same time, Peter Garrett was having his first tilt at politics, as a Senate candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the federal election of 1984. He very nearly won a seat, only being squeezed out (after more than a month of counting) by a preference swap between Labor and the Coalition. Then-prime minister Bob Hawke was re-elected with a reduced majority.

Argall can count himself lucky to have joined the band on the road that year, shooting more than 28,000 feet (about 8,500 metres) of film. The results powerfully capture not only a great live band at their peak but a fascinating moment in Australian politics that anticipates many of the anxieties, ruptures and culture wars to come. The Labor government, entrenched in power with a charismatic leader, felt the pressure on its left flank. So too the Democrats, who did their best to “keep the bastards honest” before being supplanted by the Greens.

On the right and in the media, Garrett was attacked for being “emotional, naive and a rock star”, a sign of the inevitable attacks to come when he joined the Labor party, though by then the rhetoric had changed to “ageing rock star”. Within the band there was tension too: while the others backed Garrett’s charge publicly and privately at the time, they were unsure how or whether Midnight Oil could continue. Indeed, the Democrats called on Garrett to resign from the band if he were to fulfil his duties as a prospective senator.

The pressure on Garrett himself was enormous. Midnight Oil’s musical directors, guitarist, Jim Moginie, and drummer, Rob Hirst, give different perspectives: Moginie recalls the singer as being “on top of the world, alive and effusive” while Hirst describes the band being worried about how hard he was pushing himself – arriving to rehearsal with folders of notes, rushing off to meetings and media calls, playing punishing shows in the evening, finishing in a catatonic state and often wearing an oxygen mask, before doing it all again the next day.

Garrett also reflects – very briefly – on concerns about the impact of this schedule on his life, including his family. There’s a more personal as well as political story to be told here, but in typical Oils fashion, that’s not what we get. There’s no narration, and interviews are relatively sparing, interspersed with period news footage. Otherwise, you get a lot of the band in concert and, while the film is not overlong at 90 minutes, that’s something that works both for and against it. Viewers are left to read between the lines and draw their own conclusions.

Sometimes that’s frustrating. The live footage is as explosive as you’d expect, and it all looks and sounds great, but this is not a concert film, and sometimes it feels as though it wants to be. There were moments when, as a longtime fan of the group, I wanted it to be, too. But that comes at the expense of storytelling and holds the film back from being what it could be, particularly for those not already rusted on. The end result is something in between, which doesn’t quite fulfil its potential.

Michael Lippold, the band’s stage manager, identifies that this was no ordinary rock group. “They didn’t do drugs, they didn’t drink and they didn’t whore around,” he says bluntly. They were famous, and certainly became wealthy, but they weren’t only in it only for themselves. They were a conduit and, as their office manager, Stephanie Lewis notes, the audience saw themselves in the band’s music and lyrics. What 1984 does most effectively is encapsulate the band’s relationship with the audience who grew up and came of age with them.

For perhaps tens of thousands of young Australians, the band aided their political awakenings. In hindsight, most – including, surely, the band themselves – will be grateful that things worked out as they did: after the studio experimentation of Red Sails, Midnight Oil headed for the desert and created their most intimately Australian and yet internationally successful work, Diesel And Dust. No other band had as much to say about their own country and 1984 does well to document Midnight Oil’s place in our history.

First published in The Guardian, 10 May 2018