Tagged: The Break

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

The power and the passion of Midnight Oil still burns

I’m at home and listening to 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1; Midnight Oil’s apocalypse-themed fourth album. Fucking loud – there was never any other way to listen to them, really. I haven’t listened to the Oils for maybe 10 years, though, because I haven’t needed to. They’ve always been there. I’ve just caught myself singing quietly along to the opening track Outside World as I’m writing: every lyric is embedded in my skull.

Now it’s Only The Strong. “Speak to me, speak to me / I’m at the edge of myself / I’m dying to talk.” Midnight Oil were a deeply political band, but earlier in their career they could do post-punk existential angst with the best of them. They were everything you remember them to be, but also more than maybe you’ve forgotten, or perhaps ever realised.

To call Midnight Oil a pub rock band is, as Nick Kent once famously observed of Televisionakin to calling Dostoevsky a short-story writer. They merely played in pubs before graduating to arenas and stadiums. Their closest peers were the Clash, Gang of Four, and early Elvis Costello; the Who their direct forebears. And they were genuine radicals. Time and again, they put their money where their mouth was, in benefits and donations, to the many causes they championed.

The music on 10, 9, 8 was immensely powerful, attacking, and as complex as it was memorable. Being complex and memorable at the same time is a damn near impossible thing to do in popular music. Get the balance wrong and you end up in the pretentious mire of ’70s progressive rock. But Midnight Oil had a different ethos, emerging from the northern beaches of Sydney as a high-energy surf-punk band.

They changed my life irrevocably. I was a skinny kid growing up in Melbourne’s outskirts in the early ’80s. The Cold War was in full swing: “In the shadow of ban the bomb we live,” Peter Garrett sang, on US ForcesAnd we did. It’s easy to forget we still do. Midnight Oil were a political awakening, as well as a musical one. Countdown was Duran Duran and Madonna at that time. Midnight Oil never played Countdown.

The news that they’re reforming next year makes me both happy and apprehensive. Will I see them? I’m not sure: I’ve done that maybe 30 times already, and I saw them at their thrilling peak. A show at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre in 1987, on their Diesel And Dust tour, still looms large in my catalogue of greatest-ever gig memories. Midnight Oil were a force of nature live, even more so in their early years.

10, 9, 8 has finished – in a locked-groove scream, for you vinyl junkies – so I’ve put on Diesel And Dust. Forget about Peter Garrett’s political career for a moment; focus on the music. On that album, the Oils stripped their sound back. They became kinder and gentler, but the lyrics on Beds Are Burning were as bald as Garrett’s head: “The time has come to say fair’s fair / To pay the rent, now / To pay our share.”

Truthfully, angst-ridden teen that I was, I missed some of their earlier brushes with alienation and ambiguity. But the late ’80s was not a time for subtlety or navel-gazing; if you wanted to make a point, you needed to get straight to it. And in Garrett – who at his full six feet, six inches was one of a handful of seriously tall men in rock & roll – the Oils had a messianic spokesperson, with a unique dance step to boot.

Many, including friends who introduced me to the band, have never forgiven Garrett for his move into politics. I deeply admired it. Say what you will, but the man is no fool: do you think he answered the call not knowing that every lyric he ever sung would be hurled back at him, both in newspaper headlines and across the chamber? That he would be a party to decisions he deplored, because he was bound by party rules?

Garrett may have been a more effective advocate than a politician, but as he once sang (on Arctic World), “Don’t wanna be an advocate / Don’t wanna be a monument”. He became an insider because changes get made on the inside, by increments, more often than they’re forced from outside by revolutionary means.

That’s a brave and, dare one say, mature call to make when you’ve just entered your 50s, as Garrett had when he joined the ALP, 20 years after coming within a dodgy preference deal of being a senator for the single-issue Nuclear Disarmament Party.

He didn’t write most of the music, anyway. Rob Hirst, the drummer, and Jim Moginie, the band’s guitarist, keyboard player and resident evil genius, did almost all of that. Garrett mostly added finishing lyrical touches (as he also did on Yothu Yindi’s Treaty: “This land was never bought and sold”). The singer’s profile has obscured Hirst and Moginie’s status among this country’s finest ever songwriting teams.

Could Garrett sing? Not really. Did it matter? Not at all. It’s called a character vocal, where technique is less important than how it speaks to both the music and the audience. Gauging their influence on contemporary Australian bands, Eddy Current Suppression Ring remind me inescapably of early Midnight Oil, not least for singer Brendan Huntley’s irresistible charisma, combined with his endearing inability to carry a tune.

If there’s anything I’m nervous about, it’s the prospect of a Garrett solo album. He’s not a man given to public introspection (he dedicates two pages in his 443-page memoir Big Blue Sky to his bearing witness to his mother’s tragic death in a house fire), and some introspection is crucial to the writer’s craft. But the rest of the band have pursued their own creative paths post-Oils, and Garrett is every bit as entitled to his.

Diesel And Dust is finishing as I write this, and the last lines are ringing out. “Sometimes you’re beaten to the core, sometimes / Sometimes you’re taken to the wall / But you don’t give in.” I might not need to listen to it for another 10 years: the music we grew up on is always with us. Sometimes when we need it the most.

First published in The Guardian, 6 May 2016