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CHOCO
Dec 3rd, 2002, 07:14 PM
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The Oils and lead singer Peter Garrett breathed politics and activism, not just intersected with it.



The sun sets on Midnight Oil
December 4 2002


The Oils and lead singer Peter Garrett breathed politics and activism, not just intersected with it.

It's been said of Midnight Oil that "this is what Australia sounds like". But it's all over now that singer Peter Garrett has called it a day. Bernard Zuel reports on 25 years of music that made you dance and think.


At last there was an Australian band with something on its mind. Well, with a mind at all, for that matter. It was almost too much to believe that rock music could be about anything but itself. You know: life on the road and the inconvenience of VD. Dicks and chicks. Faux Americana.
Finally someone was playing stuff that was musically idiosyncratic, fresh and strong. And authentic. Particular. Peculiar. True to a time and a place and pretty damn defiant about it. They kissed no bum and tugged no forelock.
-Tim Winton

Peter Garrett always argued that Midnight Oil wasn't a political band, but a band that found itself intersecting with politics. It wasn't here to change your mind; it was here to make you dance and sweat, and making you think along the way was a bonus.

"I don't think people have understood that that's what we've always done," Garrett told The Age earlier this year. "Quite often in the past something we have no control over has seen an album be part of a political campaign. We're trying to get ourselves thinking about the songs (first) and later you get to look over your shoulder and see what you've had a shot at."

You wouldn't be alone in thinking he was being a trifle disingenuous, even without taking into account Garrett's long involvement with the Australian Conservation Foundation, of which he is president; his former role with Greenpeace international; and his campaign for a Senate seat as a candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984. And he may be about to enter politics once again.

From the first self-titled album in 1978, Midnight Oil has actively engaged with politics and political action. In the song Used And Abused (written, as many of the most anthemic Oils songs have been, by drummer Rob Hirst and guitarist Jim Moginie), Garret sang: "I was taken downtown for my part in the demonstration/I was used and abused with the light in my eye at the station".


Later there came support for Aboriginal land rights ("the time has come, a fact's a fact/it belongs to them, let's give it back"); an independent defence policy ("US forces give the nod, it's a setback for your country"); Middle East disarmament ("She pictures all the poverty the cursed Holy War/The pictures that used to be scrawled on the wall/Are written in the heart"); and even the plight of mine workers dying from exposure to asbestos fibres ("And if the blue sky mining company won't come to my rescue/If the sugar refining company won't save me/Who's gonna save me?").

Long-time environmentalists, in 1990 the Oils played a concert on the streets of New York outside the offices of Exxon to protest against the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska. (Though here they did uphold one of Garrett's assertions, sporting a banner that read: "Midnight Oil makes you dance - Exxon Oil makes you sick".)

Four years ago, at the height of the cult of Pauline Hanson, with a conservative government in the ascendancy federally, Midnight Oil released its most sustained political assault with the album Redneck Wonderland.

Packed with attacks on middle-class complacency ("Emergency has gone, apathy rolling on/Time to take a stand/Redneck wonderland") and right-wing ideology, it even predicted the border security issues that flared with the Tampa crisis ("So you got coastline for fence/It could be your first line of defence/You'll never be ready for this/Ignorance is bliss haven't you heard").

And lest we forget, as part of the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympics, with John Howard and hundreds of millions around the world looking on, Midnight Oil performed Beds Are Burning wearing black clothes covered with the word "sorry". In other words, this was a band that breathed politics and activism, not just intersected with it.

While Garrett's tilt at the Senate in 1984 threatened to derail the band - members all backed his run but in retrospect the band could not have gone on with a lead singer tied to parliamentary sittings rather than tours - the political base of the band was not confined to the lead singer.

As pointed out earlier, many of the most politically charged Midnight Oil songs were written by Hirst and Moginie, but Hirst often deferred publicly to the higher-profile Garrett, and Moginie never gave interviews.

However, while politics singled out Midnight Oil, equally as important was the fact that the band channelled that activism into pop songs, not dirges: hummable, saleable, chart-appearing songs that reached millions. They were not warm-inner-glow folk songs that played in the trades hall.

When comparing Midnight Oil's 1990 album Blue Sky Mining with U2's The Joshua Tree, American Rolling Stone magazine described it as "a stunning issue-driven document of fear, anger and commitment delivered with artful musical restraint and tempered vocal fury".

Asbestos victims were not sexy in 1990 and handing back land to Aborigines has never been sexy, yet Blue Sky Mine and Beds Are Burning both were top 10 hits in Australia and top 40 around the world.

In Moginie in particular, Midnight Oil had a songwriter who could work with power and subtlety, melody and pure visceral force. It's why they could sell around 12 million albums over their career. The thousands who pumped fists in the air at sell-out shows over the years were singing along, not just shouting out slogans.

Rare among successful bands, Midnight Oil was never afraid to experiment with its songs and its audience. The band's reputation was built on intense live performances but its breakthrough record was the technology-driven album, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1. Midnight Oil was known for volume and force but the international hit, Diesel And Dust, and its follow-up Blue Sky Mining, both rested on acoustic sounds.

And along the way, the band's personnel rarely changed, losing two bass players - the last one 15 years ago - but retaining the same manager and the same record company. Likewise, the members' personal lives have been spectacularly unremarkable. While contemporaries such as INXS and Mental As Anything have lost singers and songwriters, and the Go-Betweens split and then reformed, the Midnight Oil that toured this year is pretty much what you would have seen at the Royal Antler at Narrabeen 25 years ago, if slightly older.

Maybe this could explain one startling fact about Midnight Oil: much like U2, whose career and political bent runs parallel to the Australians', during its 25 years the band has never delivered a bad album. Not the debut, which was patchy but held a lot of promise in songs such as Run By Night, and not even its final album. If anything, the last two albums, Redneck Wonderland and Capricornia - one a hard-edged, electronic fuelled collection; the other more ruminative and melodic - are among the best of their career.

However, while those albums were outstanding, they did not sell, certainly not in the numbers they once did. The band downsized its venues - and still sold them out - but didn't contemplate giving up. Bass player Bones Hillman put it this way: "I think it's like hitchhiking. If you don't get a ride, you may as well walk. And we walk."

But Garrett recognised that their message wasn't always getting through, particularly with the Redneck Wonderland album. It realised that some of its audience must have voted for Hanson. It decided to change again, not ditching the polemic, but rephrasing it.

"I think we said clearly what we wanted to say on Redneck and it didn't seem like that many people got it, so you've got to dust yourself down and move on," Garrett said this year on the release of Capricornia. "This time some of the songs were standing by themselves and we thought let's do it, let's not analyse it much.

"The other thing is maybe it's a sense of more indifference. There's a lot of pop philosophising about Generation X and Baby Boomers, but I think if you had to summarise where a lot of mainstream generational responses are, it's all about competition and consumption.

"That's fine in its place but whole human communities are about more than that. We're interested in the resonances that lie underneath, the spirit of the place, the moral black hole that we descended into with the Tampa and how do we get the grappling irons and climb out of that."

Maybe that's what a political career means to Garrett, if he goes that way, a chance to throw up some grappling irons.