Five guys–a rock band–venture into the Central Australian outback… Two years later, and some ten thousand-plus miles to the north and east, an American kid ear-holes an incendiary, 4/4 sound that jolts him something fierce. It’s a sound that, to him, points the way to art not as high-fructose distraction, but as a tool for illumination, engagement, and ultimately good.
While “three chords and the truth”–U2-frontman Bono’s lyrical term for protest rock–might not have sunk the Vietnam War (Woodstock) or expunged African poverty (Live Aid, Live 8) or tempered global warming (Live Earth), rock-n-roll does on occasion sway hearts. Of course, when the music does move people, it usually does so not in some bacchanal arena or amphitheater teeming with noxious fumes and Neanderthal drunks, but in moments of solitude. In a sub-compact on a lonely drive to work, the car stereo cranked. In a one-room apartment on a friendless Friday night, headphones blaring. This is when rock’s revelatory power reveals itself, when guitar, bass, drum, and gutty tenor become like the voice of God: a bluesy “burning bush” that inoculates the soul against fascism–corporatism–Realpolitik–Orwell’s proverbial “boot stamping on a human face–forever.”
I know because I owe my political education–my political coming-of-age, if you will–to Aussie agitprop rockers, Midnight Oil.
My education began in 1988, in Louisiana, in a ninth grade history class at Baton Rouge High School. It was mid-October, yet still summer humid with short-sleeves all around. Just another U.S. high school history classroom–green blackboard up front, red-white-and-blue bunting up the wazoo, an American flag on a stick next to the sit-down! stand-up! intercom, plus cardboard cut-outs of General Washington, Honest Abe, Ronnie Reagan post-Bonzo and the Constitution (sans Bill of Rights) push-pinned to bulletin boards. The room was ubiquitous in almost every way, except for the location of the teacher’s desk–that black sheet metal monstrosity–located in the extreme back of the room, behind the thirty some-odd student desks, and offered Mrs. B— an almost panoptic vantage from which to spy on students. Very Foucauldian, huh? Very authoritarian, yup? And very un-Midnight Oil.
On that particular day, however, in the desk immediately to my right, my friend Rob Israel–seemingly in a trance–sat hunched over his Walkman.
I pointed to his cassette-player, a sort of shorthand for “Who ya listening to?”
“Midnight Oil!” Rob said. Only he didn’t just say it, more like he bellowed it, in this real crazy extra loud headphone-deaf voice.
A few kids snickered.
“So-o-o good!” boomed Rob.
Behind me, this mulleted rocker-jock kid (Clint? Cody? Clydell?) snorted derisively. Picking a strand of dog hair off the collar of his Motley Crüe “Shout at the Devil” T-shirt, Clint-Cody-Clydell went: “Midnight Oil–isn’t that the band with the fruity bald singer? I’ve seen their video. Dude’s nuts.”
He was referring, of course, to Peter Garrett, Midnight Oil’s tall, gangly, shaven-domed frontman–a surf-head ex-lawyer from Sydney who half-chanted, half-growled his band’s defiant lyrics, flaunted free-form, Iggy Pop-style dance moves, championed Greenpeace, nuclear disarmament, and the rights of Australia’s Indigenous people–a man who during hair metal’s cock-flopping, T-and-A, 1980s-heyday must’ve appeared as the rock-n-roll Antichrist to black T-shirted MTV aficionados from South Louisiana to New South Wales.
Rob fluttered his hand dismissively at Clint-Cody-Clydell, then eyed me. “I’ll make you a tape!”
From the back of the room: the sharp smack of Mrs. B—’s heel against the tile floor, the signal that “learning” (a.k.a., note-taking) was about to begin.
“Pipe down!” she said.
The next day in history class–the same class in which four months later, I would be forced to watch the swearing-in of Bush 41 followed by Reagan’s farewell as he saluted the nation and whirled off in the Marine One “bat-copter” (my teacher Mrs. B—with damp, mascara-smudged eyes)–my friend Rob Israel gave me a little Maxell cassette dub of Midnight Oil’s Diesel & Dust.
I couldn’t wait; the rest of the day, which included Algebra, Biology, and German–Ach nein!–followed by a yellow bus ride home in the shadow of the Mississippi River, was excruciating.
(If only we could preserve some of that youthful ardor and excitement, you know, reduce it down to pill-form, save it for some darkly adult day in the future when our hopes have abandoned us and the cubicle has become like Folsom Prison without the Johnny Cash.)
But then, finally, there I was–alone in my middle-class bedroom–just me, my eleventh-birthday-gift-from-my-folks Sears stereo, and a lo-fi copy of Diesel And Dust. I popped the tape in the deck, pressed play, and sprawled on my unmade bed.
From the first rumblings of the opening riff–the brassy stomp of “Beds Are Burning” (i.e., the now-famous duh, duh, du-u-uh!)–I became stupid with goosebumps. My heart pounded like some long-extinct herd. And for the first time in my rock-n-roll life, I felt my very aliveness. That exhilaration. That sense of the possible that comes from being completely and utterly in awe of something as simple as guitar, bass, drum–and in this case, trombone–with fuck-you vocals. Which, of course, is the hallmark of all great musical bombast: it gets you high.
Sure, I’d heard the song “Beds Are Burning” before, but I’d never really heard it. Either I’d caught it on the FM dial, between the blather of Top-Forty deejays and radio ads for dollar-ninety-nine strip club steak lunches, or I’d caught it on MTV, between music videos for bands whose lyricists rhymed “squeeze” with “tease.” This time was different, however, because minus all the media hoopla, Midnight Oil was, at long last, audible. And I was stunned. Peter Garrett’s street-preacher vocal delivery; Rob Hirst’s athletic, quasi-punk beats; Peter Gifford’s–and later Bones Hillman’s–sturdy grooves; Martin Rotsey’s heavy riffage; and Jim Moginie’s maestro guitar and keyboard arrangements (those soaring choruses!).
Five guys–a rock band–venture into the Central Australian outback, and I am reborn as a staunch leftist. A progressive. A dyed-in-the-dick Democrat. A lover of Steinbeck, Vonnegut, O’Brien, Chomsky, and Zinn. A damn, dirty “libruhl.” Me, a kid largely raised south of the Mason-Dixon line by parents who gleefully punched ballots for Reagan (twice), Bush 41 (twice), Bob Dole, Bush 43 (twice), and will, no doubt, this fall “touch-screen” for John McCain.
So what happened to me? The Oils happened.
Garrett belted lyrics like: “This land must change, or land must burn.” Then on a high-school trip to London, I buy a Blue Sky Mining cassette at the Tower Records in Trafalgar Square. Then via MTV News, I catch clips of the band’s legendary May 1990 Exxon Valdez flatbed-truck protest in Midtown–their amps cranked to “11.” As a result, I purchase the entire Midnight Oil back-catalog (the “blue album,” Head Injuries, Bird Noises, Place Without a Postcard, 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1, Red Sails In The Sunset, Species Deceases, even a few bootlegs). Then I experience The Oils live in Atlanta (July 1990) and in St. Louis (September 1993). At the ’93 St. Louis show, my girlfriend and I use “Outbreak of Love” CD singles–the designated backstage pass to the after-show autograph session–to meet the band. I use my time to ask Peter Garrett about the town of Warburton, Western Australia–Garrett declares it an unrivaled place to sleep under the stars. I use my time to ask Peter Garrett about the town of Warburton, Victoria –Garrett declares it an unrivaled place to sleep under the stars. I also ask Jim Moginie if there’s any validity to the 1990 Rolling Stone article which suggests Garrett might someday exit the band to dedicate himself more fully to politics and activism–Moginie thinks “probably not.” (Ah, irony.) Three years later, I’m watching Late Show when David Letterman–apparently under the impression that Midnight Oil is comprised of Native Australians and not European-Australians–refers (rather racistly, I might add) to his evening’s musical guests as “bushmen.” Then I experience The Oils in San Francisco in October 1996 at the legendary Fillmore Theater–an intimate venue made famous a quarter-century earlier by Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Dead. It’s the greatest rock show of my life; I attend alone, drain beaucoup pale ales, dance my ass off, and witness an incendiary rendition of The Oils’s 1981 classic “Written In The Heart.” Later, I buy The Real Thing and Redneck Wonderland from a Net-based Aussie music retailer. Even later, I’m bummed to find there’s no Austin, Dallas, or Houston date for the U.S. leg of the band’s 2001 tour. (I will always regret not road-trippin’ to Louisiana for the New Orleans date.) And I am saddened when I awaken on Tuesday, December 3, 2002 to read on the CNN ticker: Peter Garrett quits Midnight Oil. It’s unwanted news, like learning that a dear friend has passed.
So, like I wrote, The Oils happened to me.
And because of them–I write a hokey, albeit well-intentioned 11th grade term paper about the plight of Indigenous people in Australia. I travel to a reservation near Canyon de Chelly in Northern Arizona to help herd and vaccinate sheep and protest destructive mining practices on Navajo and Hopi lands. I become a journalist and try my hand at good, old-fashioned, all-American, Upton Sinclair-style muckraking. I write a lefty rock-n-roll novel (currently under consideration at a small, indie press in Northern California). I sing “Stars of Warburton” to my infant son Keegan as a nightly lullaby for the first fifteen months of his life. I crank The Oils’s track “Progress” on the drive over to the south Phoenix neighborhood I’ve been assigned to canvass on behalf of Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama. True story: the instant I step from my Japanese car, my clipboard in hand, a Confederate-flag-bandannaed man–out walking his brutish pit bull–passes me on the sidewalk. I steel myself, quietly recite the chorus to “Progress,” and go door-to-door anyway.
Five guys–a rock band–venture into the Central Australian outback, and I’m forever grateful.
Matt Okie: In the song “Beds Are Burning,” which peaked at #17 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1988, Midnight Oil argues that indigenous lands should be ceded to Australia’s aboriginal citizens. In fact, Peter Garrett sings: “It belongs to them/Let’s give it back.” How incendiary a statement was it in the late 1980s–during the peak of Thatcherism and Reaganism–for five white Australians to declare their political support for Indigenous Australians?
Jim Moginie: Heartfelt more than incendiary. There was a sense of hopelessness about the issue at the time. It felt like screaming into a fog of indifference. When the album was ready to be released, we were prepared to be shouted down by every closet racist in the country. The issue of Aboriginal dispossession had been effectively ignored up to that point. Aboriginals only got the vote in the 1960s and a lot of the information about stolen children hadn’t yet come to light. The ray of hope that sparked us into action was the handing back of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) by the Labor government to the Mutijulu people, the traditional owners, who then asked us to write a song for the film that was being made about it. We wrote “Beds Are Burning,” “The Dead Heart,” and a track called “We Shall Not Be Released.” They chose “Dead Heart.” They invited us to play there, and then a tour of the Western desert and the Top End was added. We observed as young, white Australians the conditions out there, the poverty, the petrol sniffing, the health problems, the art, the deep culture, the dispossession, the respect the concept of family has, the great sense of humour and strength of the people, the natural beauty, all mixed up into a radicalizing experience. We wrote about our impressions on the Diesel record, which came out the next year. There was a definite snowball effect.
MO: I’ve read that the “chunka-chunka” “Beds Are Burning” guitar riff (that in some ways hearkens back to vintage Johnny Cash, i.e., “Folsom Prison Blues”) is meant to emulate the sounds of vehicular travel across Western Australia. Did you consciously set out to imitate the rhythms of a road trip when you composed the music, or is this simply one of those mythic stories that gets tagged to piece of great pop music after the fact?
Having said that, there was a desire for simplicity and focus in the camp at the time. [Of] the previous two records we had made, we felt that Red Sails in the Sunset was perhaps a psychedelic unfocused piece of work, and Species Deceases, a cyclonic pub-rock-thrash–even though we loved them both. We were always rebelling against our previous records. I think on this one simplicity was the key.
There was a sixth sense that the music somehow fitted the landscape, the Gunbarrel Highway was surveyed with a .303 rifle, dead straight for hundreds of miles of corrugated, red-dirt road. Drive for hundreds of miles on roads like that, and you do get hypnotized. Repetitive music works better in cars over long distances. Like a good car mix-tape, it makes the drive better. ZZ Top would work better than say Duran Duran, to use 1980s examples. Australians are usually big travelers because of the large distances between cities.
Rob [Hirst, Midnight Oil’s drummer] became very interested in the idea of a driving beat. We’d used drum machines a bit in the past. He’d always said in jest, “Machines play so relaxed” (which Kraftwerk said anyway). But that feel, played on the drums combined with the acoustic guitars (on which the songs were written, on verandahs and around campfires) sounded fresh, so we went with it.
MO: I’ve long considered “Warakurna” perhaps the most beautiful and underrated track on Diesel and Dust. To my mind anyway, the song mostly chronicles the poverty and suffering of Indigenous Australians, then closes with a rather pissed-off call for official political action to alleviate the situation (see the lyric: “This land must change, or land must burn”). If you would, please recount the 1986 Blackfella/Whitefella tour experiences that led you to write “Warakurna.” Also, for us non-Aussies, could you explain the lyric: “Not since Lassiter was here/Black man’s got a lot to fear”?
JM: Warakurna was a blast. It’s close to the WA [Western Australia] border and we drove there after a gig at Docker River. The first thing you see coming in to the town is a piece of space satellite junk that had fallen to earth like something out of Star Wars. Then a hand-painted sign saying “Strict Rules.” Then, a mountain of derelict car bodies. All set against the most beautiful ochre/purple coloured hills you could imagine that felt so weathered and ancient.
It was the second gig of the tour, and was scheduled just the day before. Most of the people had left town for a football match in Yuendumu, but we played anyway on the school verandah. A camel stormed the stage. We camped on a riverbed and heard stories about how the people there had been handed bread with poison on it by the whitefellas. We were getting to know the guys in the Warumpi Band. It was the first time I had heard the term “Europeans” used to describe white people, of which I was one. And I believed it. Because out on that land, with their deep culture and history, it really felt like a country within another country, but somehow swept under the carpet.
Harold Lasseter was a whitefella looking for gold. He claimed the Western Desert contained a gold reef of infinite wealth. In the 1930s, he headed out there to find it, but was deep-sixed by the harshness of the environment. He died out there looking. It was a Raiders of The Lost Ark kind of deal, and some people still reckon Lasseter’s reef exists.
The line simply says hypothetically that if he was right, Lasseter posed a threat in terms of: more whites/more disease and alcohol/more pressure to get off their land because of how valuable the ground would be to white people. But back in the 1980s, and [even] now, the threats to Aboriginal people are political in nature: money for education, housing and health still come from our Washington, namely Canberra.
MO: What effect, if any, do you think Midnight Oil’s 1986 Blackfella/Whitefella tour with The Warumpi Band (and the accompanying ABC documentary) have on the psychology of Australia as a whole? If my understanding is correct, it was–and still probably is–unheard of for a white rock band to pair with a black rock band for a tour of the aboriginal settlements that populate the interior of the country: the Outback. Do you think the tour was, in effect, one of the many “dominoes” that needed to fall in order to eventually push the Australian government (in the form of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd) to apologize for the atrocities committed against the Aboriginal people?
JM: It’s hard to say what effect it had. It certainly affected us. In my life, there feels like a before and after the tour, like life was broken into two segments.
The record did unbelievably well, which is still surprising to me. It was given a green light all around the globe, like the keys to a city. It surprises me now that a record by a bunch of whitefellas from Sydney about the problems of indigenous people in Australia could be a hit worldwide. That isn’t supposed to happen. But it turned out that people got it, maybe it was the poetry of the landscape in the videos we did, the focus of the sound of the record producer Warne Livesey brought to it, the fact “Beds” was on it, or that we meant what we said, along with the fact we could cut it live and had toured constantly for years before it got on MTV.
In terms of awareness, the Oils had good radar for an issue. Not in a cynical way, but in the way that at certain times in history, people invent the same thing at the same time in different countries, like Newton and Leibniz invented the calculus. Maybe there’s a word for it, some things are just “in the water.” We always had good instincts that way. Pete especially. I like to think we were part of the debate, perhaps we made people think about something they hadn’t thought about before and dance at the same time.
MO: In a 1991 speech, ex-California governor and one-time U.S. presidential candidate Jerry Brown (who was famously name-checked and labeled a “Zen Fascist” in The Dead Kennedy’s song “California Über Alles”) seemed to plagiarize the Diesel and Dust track “The Dead Heart” in a speech when he said: “We carry in our hearts the true country / And that cannot be stolen.” What was your reaction to having the band’s ideas co-opted by a U.S. politician?
JM: No feelings at all really. I mean, where is he now?
I think songs can be twisted by anyone at anytime for their own purposes, or quoted out of context. How many times have we heard songs sold to multinationals to sell products?
MO: The Oils have always seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the United States. (And, in my opinion, rightly so.) For example, the Diesel and Dust track “Sell My Soul” contains the lyric: “America’s great now / If you don’t talk back.” The implication is, of course, that the U.S. government likes its allies servile. Is this the message then of “Sell My Soul”–that Australians should fight to preserve those aspects of their culture that have yet to fall under the influence of the American Empire? Also, in the lyric “I don’t wanna sell my soul to him,” who or what is the metaphorical him? Is it the United States as “devil”?
JM: In the early days of the band, there was that young man’s sense of “kicking against the pricks,” which sometimes is aimed at no one in particular, or everyone at the same time. Later on, Pete especially became much more about engagement…putting together two opposites at a conference table to hammer out a result, which is more constructive than “us vs. them.” That’s the politics of adulthood.
In terms of trade, Australia has always had an uphill battle because of our distance from the big market places of the world. We used to be part of the EU, but got kicked out of that when the walls went up there. The alliance with the U.S. has become critical to our survival.
The song deals with that. Alison Anderson who worked at Papunya council says, “Aboriginal people won’t sell out for a dollar’” in the doco [i.e., documentary] on the DVD, and we could all learn from that.
I think we ended up loving America, but the first times we played there we were kind of blown out of the water by the size of it, the politics of Reagan and the nuclear stuff, and the thirty different types of milk in the supermarket aisle. In Australia, you’d get just one if you were lucky.
MO: In my opinion, Diesel and Dust is an absolute classic rock album; it’s right up there with Exile On Main St., Green River, Who’s Next, London Calling, The Joshua Tree, etc. Was there ever a moment during the recording of Diesel and Dust with producer Warne Livesey where you and/or the other band members were like, “Whoa!”? Was there ever a recognition that the recording sessions were birthing something grand and gorgeous that would make the band an international phenomenon?
JM: No, not really. We recorded in a very small studio on the north side of Sydney Harbour. It was like an office. It felt like office hours. I know we spent a hell of a lot of time dissecting the songs, rearranging them and ejecting them, playing them live and getting them right. The lyrics were about something, not faux-Americana or getting pissed. It was a strong and focused record. Warne, our producer who walked in cold, probably had a better view of it than we did. He said it was full of singles when he heard the demos. We thought he was joking, but he was right.
It did connect, it just shows you that when you have something to say, give it a good beat, concentrate on melody and arrangements, it can go places. I still believe that, even though the band had set itself up around the world with 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 and previous albums and tours, and we had something to prove, the subject matter and the conviction behind it allowed it rites of passage onto the world’s stage. Some people I know say its success was more about the karma of standing up for people who are dispossessed than the songs themselves.
But the songs were strong, and the album can just be listened to on that level.
Let the historians decide.