How Midnight Oil made an art of mixing politics with music

press shot of Midnight Oil

Big statements are for big occasions. And they don’t come much bigger than when they are made at the greatest sporting event on the planet. At the closing ceremony of Sydney’s Olympics in 2000, in front of a stadium audience of 115,000 and a global TV audience estimated at 3.5 billion, Midnight Oil took to the stage and played Beds Are Burning, their 1987 protest song about the theft of land from Australia’s indigenous population.

The band wore simple black outfits, each adorned with the word ‘sorry’ in white. This was both a shameful reminder of the nation’s brutal history, and a direct comment on Prime Minister John Howard’s refusal to apologise to Aboriginal Australians on behalf of the government.

“When they picked us up on the big screens, everybody jumped up and lots of the athletes came running over to the stage,” recalls Peter Garrett, Midnight Oil’s kinetic frontman. “But Howard didn’t stand up. Instead he and his wife sat there in the midst of this arena that was going crazy. The next morning, Howard stated that he didn’t think we should be mixing politics and sport. So I went on the radio and said: ‘That’s what they used to say about people who talked about apartheid.’”

Outspoken, uncompromising and fearless, Midnight Oil were no strangers to political activism. Previous years had seen them throw their weight behind a number of causes, from nuclear disarmament and indigenous rights to social justice and the environment. In 1990, while touring the multi-platinum Blue Sky Mining, the band pitched up on a flatbed truck outside the New York HQ of oil giant Exxon, where they played a fierce guerrilla gig to protest over the company’s lack of action over the calamitous recent oil spill in Alaska.

In lesser hands, all this might have come off as overly earnest sloganeering. But Midnight Oil were armed with a clarity of purpose that was rare in other rock bands of their ilk. They had adopted political issues as a core message in their work, to the extent that Garrett was then president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. The following decade he left music altogether and became a Labour Party MP.

But the crucial factor in Midnight Oil’s success during the 80s and 90s was the unbridled power of their music, songs whose melodies and taut grooves burned with the white heat of their polemic. The banner they hoisted up that day in New York spoke on more than one level: ‘Midnight Oil Makes You Dance, Exxon Oil Makes Us Sick’.

“We’ve always been a political band, but the bottom line is that the songs have to be good,” stresses guitarist, keyboard player and Garrett’s fellow songwriter Jim Moginie. “You can’t stand up there playing a G chord for half an hour and saying how the whole world’s fucked up, you have to bring people in through hooks.”

Midnight Oil have never taken the conventional route. After forming in Sydney in 1976, they steadily acquired a fan base through constant gigging around the inner-city pub scene, a battle-scarring experience that prepared them for the mainstream success they eventually landed. A regular haunt was Narrabeen’s Royal Antler Hotel, a hot and sticky venue that Midnight Oil played nearly 1,000 times in their early years. They founded their own label, endured an icy standoff with the sniffier elements of the music press and refused to appear on Countdown, Australia’s equivalent of Top Of The Pops. Relations with radio stations and record companies were, for the most part, mutually suspicious.

All of this fostered a siege mentality. “It was five of us against the world,” says Garrett. “But we built this pretty significant suburban audience and they kept us alive for half a decade. It was night after night of playing pubs and clubs in our own country. It always felt very right to me, even in those very early days when the playing was so explosive and I had such a strong desire to take something out and wrap it around people’s heads.”

There wasn’t much that was conventional about Garrett. A convulsive stage presence from the get‑go, the six-foot-six, shaven-headed singer cut an imposing figure. Moginie, who had founded the band in 1972 as Farm, remembers the day Garrett arrived for his audition: “We’d put an ad in the Sydney Morning Herald, and Pete was the only one who turned up. We were playing a school gymnasium one afternoon and he walked in, sat in the crowd and just gave us this big death stare. I think he thought we were just a bunch of wankers from the North Shore. He got up, and the first thing he sang was Locomotive Breath, by Jethro Tull, then a prearranged blues where he ad-libbed lyrics about surfing, Chiko Rolls and being Australian, in this unusual high falsetto. We asked him to join pretty much straight away.”

“The truth of the matter is that they probably didn’t even want me,” says Garrett, who was then studying law and politics in Canberra. “I was older, bossier, bigger and a surfer. But they didn’t have any luck finding anyone else, so I was in.”

Taking their cues from the visceral charge of The Who and Led Zeppelin, with spoonfuls of classic British prog and home-grown reprobates like Radio Birdman, The Saints and AC/DC, Midnight Oil were an invigorating live draw. But the notion of singing about being Australian was triggered elsewhere.

“There was a Melbourne band called Skyhooks, who were pretty influential for me inasmuch as they were writing songs about Australia and singing in an Australian accent,” Garrett explains. “They didn’t give a shit about what was happening in London or New York or wherever. And they were cheeky. They had that larrikin thing which I guess is part of the Australian character. So when we started playing, it was all about landscape, suburban culture and, after a while, indigenous Australia. We loved our rock, but at the same time we were absorbing this big southern continent and transforming it into music that made sense to us.”

Midnight Oil released their self-titled debut album in 1978. But it was the following year’s Head Injuries that gave them their home breakthrough. Rammed with caustic anthems – Cold Cold Change, Back On The Borderline, the revolutionary call to action of Stand In Line – it served as a marker for their entire career. 1981’s Place Without A Postcard and the following 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 were produced in England by Glyn Johns and Nick Launay respectively, both of whom magnified the band’s sound and aspirations without forgoing the inherently Australian nature of songs such as Lucky Country and Power And The Passion.

The pivotal moment in Midnight Oil’s creative life came in 1986, when they ventured deep into the Australian outback for the Blackfella/Whitefella tour. Joined by the predominantly Aboriginal Warumpi Band and Gondwanaland, the group took their music to remote indigenous communities.

“In the centre of the country it was only recently that the Aboriginal people had come off their land and stopped living the way that they had for upwards of forty thousand years,” says Garrett. “No other band of our size had ever been to any of these places. It was an eye-opener. It affected our music, our politics and our way of seeing things. And it stuck to us. Diesel And Dust was one result of that, the Sydney Olympics [performance] was another. And a lot of the work that I’ve been doing quietly, even as an MP over the last ten or fifteen years, has been a response to that trip as well.”

“I’d say my life has been divided into two halves: the time before that and the time after,” Moginie adds. “We started making Diesel And Dust about our experience with Aboriginal people. Their dispossession had caused a lot of problems in their society, and the album almost gave us a right of passage to take it to the world.”

Released in August 1987, Diesel And Dust was a huge global hit, fired by singles The Dead Heart, Put Down That Weapon and, specifically, Beds Are Burning. The band’s music bore the imprint of the experience too. There was no let-up in urgency or attack, but there was suddenly more air in Midnight Oil’s rhythms, a spaciousness that echoed the vast silence of the Australian heartland that had opened up to them.

“It’s got that Kraftwerk repetition to it, the constant beat of banging up and down on the corrugated roads,” Moginie explains. “We became more musical and a little less crash-bash. We wanted the power, but without the bombast.

“We toured solidly for years on the back of that success, and the next album, Blue Sky Mining [1990]. Everything just changed. I remember walking into a room in America at an aftershow and there were two hundred people looking at us like we were The Beatles. I never thought that kind of adoration would ever happen. But by then we were playing to five thousand people a night.”

A handful of similarly slanted albums followed, as well as a number of prestigious shows – none more so than at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium in 1994, the first major multi-racial concert in South Africa’s history, after Nelson Mandela’s inauguration – before the famous Olympics appearance.

When Garrett quit to devote himself to politics full-time in 2002 (he eventually became Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts in Kevin Rudd’s Labour cabinet in 2007), it looked like the end for Midnight Oil. Moginie and the others embarked on various projects in the meantime, punctuated by the odd reunion gig. Even when Garrett retired from active politics four years ago, the chances of getting back with his old bandmates seemed remote.

But then all good things, as we know, come to those who hang around for long enough. A reconvened Midnight Oil are currently in the midst of a mammoth world tour (their first in 15 years) that will keep them busy until November.

“No one ever really expected it to be goodbye,” offers Garrett, whose amiable conversational manner is in direct contrast to his wild stage persona. “There’d only ever been one band that I’d ever sung in and written songs for. I certainly missed the essential business of being a dusty troubadour with a bunch of mates.”

What’s more, many of the songs that Midnight Oil wrote some 30-odd years ago are, sadly, even more pertinent today. Short Memory, about fascist dictatorships and the rise of nationalism, is a clear case in point. As is Minutes To Midnight. When the band released the song in 1984, amid escalating tension between the US and the Soviet Union, the Doomsday Clock was set to three minutes to midnight. In January this year, following Trump’s inauguration, it was moved on to two and a half minutes.

“I think the timing of the re-formation is uncanny,” says Moginie, who is also optimistic about new Midnight Oil material in the near future. “When it comes to the kind of things that the band has to say, I don’t think anyone else has picked up the mantle.”

“We’ve always tried to essentially rip the mask off idiocy and dinosaur thinking, and connect with people who are standing up for their rights,” Garrett says. “But I think we were all surprised that so many of the lyrics still had 2017 punch. It’s depressing on one hand, but exhilarating on the other. It feels like we still have something to say.”

Complete Vinyl Collection Box and The Full Tank CD Box are out now. Midnight Oil play London Hammersmith Eventim Apollo on July 4 and 23.

Essential Oils

A Midnight Oil Playlist

Cold Cold Change - Head Injuries, 1979

The band’s punky beginnings are still evident on this minor classic of paranoia and disgust.

Stand In Line - Head Injuries, 1979

An early rallying cry against apathy, inequality and complacency, the Oil ramming home their point with barely disguised rage.

Armistice Day - Place Without A Postcard, 1981

Spare and ominous, ruptured by the squalling guitars of Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey, with Peter Garrett intoning like prime-time Joe Strummer.

Power And The Passion - 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1982

Borrowing Zapata’s credo “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees”, the band offer a clarion call for the 80s.

Read About It - 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1982

A rattling diatribe about the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots, with suitably anthemic vocals.

Beds Are Burning - Diesel And Dust, 1987

Peter Gifford’s taut bassline and Peter Garrett’s wired vocals steal the show. Australia’s own This Land Is Your Land.

The Dead Heart - Diesel And Dust, 1987

A clever singalong hook pulls you into the moral mire that is the Australian government’s historical treatment of the Aboriginal population.

Blue Sky Mine - Blue Sky Mining, 1990

This satirical swipe at the Australian mine owners who exposed their workers to deadly asbestos rips along like a freight train. Great chorus too.

Truganini - Earth And Sun And Moon, 1993

Howling harmonica, chugging rhythm and a searing commentary on the devastating effect of British colonialism on the lives of indigenous Australians.

Redneck Wonderland - Redneck Wonderland, 1998

Driven by roaring fuzz guitar, it’s ample proof that neither age nor success had dampened The Oils’ righteous fire.

Midnight Oil - The Complete Vinyl Collection album review