Midnight Oil live in 2017. This seemed impossible to me. How could the band that used to (literally) tear stages apart with hammer-of-the-gods pulverising power possibly re-emerge with the same rock muscle or political potency at the dawning of their twilight years? Peter Garrett’s fiery, uncompromising Superman agit prop persona had been enfeebled by the kryptonite of party politics. Surely he would look ridiculous careering around a stage like a tripping surfie? Wouldn’t Rob Hirst’s Aussie-Keith-Moon-drum-kit trashing antics be nobbled by ebbing, failing physical capacity? How could wiser, older, men surrender the composure and dignity commensurate with their advancing years to the cliché of ‘getting the band back together’?
I went to the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne. Twice. Midnight Oil were magnificent. On many levels. They did not look ridiculous. Quite the opposite; they were on top of their game. They committed utterly to honouring their earlier sturm und drang – reproduced, not entirely to the dangerous levels of 1980 (when they were in their ’20s), but certainly to the level when they were at their commercial peak (1987- 92). They were superbly musical but with a contained relentless power. Occasionally we were taken on exhilarating whoopee-rides of excessive rock eruption. And by honouring their legacy, by committing themselves so firmly to being Midnight Oil, they assumed gravitas and dignity.
Peter Garrett still possesses that coiled-spring energy; spiralling and flailing, lunging, lurching, gesticulating, palms splayed, dancing liked some kind of crazy robot dad.
And many of the songs (even those from the 1970s) have awoken from their unquiet slumber with awful renewed thematic resonance: recognition of the rights of Australia’s indigenous people, the environment, big business, greedy mining, disarmament, grimly lurking dark ignorance, political torpor and indifference – haven’t we got any of this right since these songs were originally smashed out?
Midnight Oil nearly secured a place as one of the all-time greatest rock bands. Like other worthy aspirants – say REM or Silverchair – they touched the sky but couldn’t hold the summit. But they were good enough to be up there with the Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Nirvana. They were angry, wise, reckless, perverse and intensely musical; a dynamic, complex, out of control freak show with a righteous message and a sense of purpose. They brought something honest, complicated and energised to the culture.
The Oils wanted a mass audience. They mobilised, they attacked, they conquered.
In 1980 my pointy, post-punk three piece, Serious Young Insects, opened for the Midnight Oil. I was militantly anti-rockist. Our band refused to use the word ‘gig’, preferring the more proletariat ‘job’. ‘We have a job opening for this surf rock band from Sydney.’ At the back of the Melbourne Uni caf I experienced a road-to-Damascus conversion. I had never seen such a ferocious unleashing of performative energy. Midnight Oil in 1980 were at a level of delivery I had never seen before; a cyclonic force that was terrifyingly out of control yet focused. And musicality lurked within the storm. There were keening chordal dissonances, parachute drop dynamic changes, texture and counterpoint. I felt uncomfortable amongst their yobbo audience but I found the band exhilarating.
Mysteriously, the Oils saw something in us and we semi-regularly opened for them over the next year or so; uni gigs where the Insects and other support band (occasionally INXS) struggled to rise above the chanting of the crowd; ‘Oooiiiils.’ One day we gave bass player, Peter Gifford, a lift from Sydney airport. We quizzed him on why our band kept getting these supports. What did we have in common with the Oils?
It was an oracle-like utterance. We pretended to understand. Our manic, punky-fizzy energy came from a nerdy commitment to music. The Oil’s commitment was of an entirely different order; way deeper and more abiding.
The Oils went from stubbornly marginal to barnstormingly mainstream. They learnt how to make fantastic records, taming Peter Garrett’s bellowing voice and complementing it with a team of backing vocals (my next band, Boom Crash Opera nicked this unison singing approach). They learnt to treat the recording studio as a space to sculpt tones rather than ‘bash it out live’. The songs became more focused, even more specifically topical; from Surfing with a Spoon to US Forces; ‘It’s a set-back for your country’. No ambiguity there. They wanted a mass audience. They mobilised, they attacked, they conquered. Over summer backyard fences, you could hear ‘No one goes out back – that’s that!’ while breathing in the scent of burning sausages; from rock band to cultural totem. They retained their parochial perspective but translated and transmitted their messaging music to a global audience, all through the quality of the work, the brute force of their live shows and ‘commitment’.
To some it might have felt too strident, too white, too blokey. These reunion concerts have been heavily populated by salt-and-pepper-haired middle-aged men. As Only The Strong or Stand In Line issued forth, they whooped and hollered as if all their pie-nights had come at once.
How much did they connect with the messages? Did they ever? Can a song change the world? The oil tanker of cultural transformation is turned by degrees. It cannot be meaningless when a massive GP audience sings ‘It belongs to them – let’s give it back’. Surely there’s an incremental effect – perhaps an Australian version of ‘Free your mind and your arse will follow’.
The Oils were once, regrettably, part of the anti-disco movement (‘Death to Disco’ said the poster). In the late ‘70s, their brand of rock represented the aggressively ‘authentic’. To some, disco was somehow effete, escapist and detached from grimy suburban realities; the very realities that a frantic, sweaty Oil’s gig aimed to critique and assuage. The Oil’s music tore along at breakneck speed, pots and pans banging in your ears. Disco music was supple and syncopated, felt in your loins. Rather than body slamming, Disco made your body swivel and gyrate. ‘Oooh, that feels good’.
Some of the greatest pop has come from cross-cultural collaboration. But can you imagine the Oils trying to get all Marvin-Gaye-sexy?
Instead of going to Memphis they went to the desert and embraced a different kind of rhythm. On the Black Fella White Fella tour the Oils were famously humbled and awed by travelling with the Warumpi Band and playing in remote communities. And the Oils found their groove – listen to the walking bass line in Beds Are Burning.
I felt exhilarated after both recent shows. While I loved the energy, particularly that of drummer Rob Hirst (no ebbing capacity here – he refuses to go gentle into that good night), I parked myself in front of guitarist/keyboard player Jim Moginie, so I could enjoy the exquisitely musical and endlessly inventive subtleties of his playing. In No Time For Gameshe delivered an extended solo that was positively avant garde in note selection and sonic exploration. I love it when this sort of thing happens in a mainstream context.
Peter Garrett still possesses that coiled-spring energy; spiralling and flailing, lunging, lurching, gesticulating, palms splayed, dancing liked some kind of crazy robot dad, throwing himself into it without shame, only love. Not vainly surrendering to some out-of-control former version of himself, he was, rather, committed to the project of the band, the abiding political and cultural values that drive the music… and to a bit of good old fashioned show biz pizazz. He was dignified because he honoured the work and the audience.
And there were smiles-a-plenty. The Oils actually can do humour!
Back in 1982 it was all too much for Serious Young Insects. Our drummer couldn’t handle the unpleasant edginess of nearly being booed off every night by the Oils audience. We quit opening for them; then we just quit. We weren’t that committed.
A life-time away from those times the Oils are still committed. There was always an abiding spirit around this band – if you’re going to do it, then go all the way.
As they say in The Power And The Passion ‘Sometimes you’ve got to take the hardest line’.