Midnight Oil: Diesel and Dust

[19 June 2008]

By Andrew Gilstrap

In 1987, you simply couldn’t escape U2’s The Joshua Tree. Bono’s croon poured out of college dorm rooms, the band’s videos camped out on MTV, and the album’s songs took turns nesting on the charts, propelling The Joshua Tree to sales of more than ten million copies in the United States and more than twenty million worldwide.  It was also, up to that time, the band’s least strident album. Gone was the flag-waving militancy of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “New Year’s Day” in favor of soul-searching introspection like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Running to Stand Still”.

Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust, however, easily filled the void that, at the time, we didn’t know U2 was permanently leaving. Diesel and Dust found Midnight Oil, like U2, dropping the harder edges from its sound, but without diluting the lyrical venom. So while U2 explored the politics of the self, Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett roared about reparations and labor injustice in his native Australia. While U2 added elements of Americana to their sound and dressed like turn-of-the-century immigrants, Midnight Oil looked out across the Australian landscape and saw exploitation so profound that it permeated the soil. It wasn’t just for show, either. By this time, lead singer Peter Garrett had already begun his political career with a Nuclear Disarmament Party bid for a seat in the Australian Senate. Many years later, he’s now Minister for Environment, Heritage and Arts, although the apparent softening (in what some have called a pragmatic compromise, and others have called a betrayal) of his beliefs as a member of the Labor Party has earned him criticism.

Back in ‘87, however, there was nothing soft about Garrett’s opinions. Diesel and Dust, inspired by the band’s Blackfella/Whitefella tour of indigenous areas with the Warumpi Band, bluntly calls for reconciliation and reparations over the land rights of indigenous Aborigines. The album’s flagship song, “Beds Are Burning”, immediately establishes itself as an anthem with dirt road rhythms, blaring horns, Garrett’s pointed vocals, and a top-notch singalong chorus. “Sell My Soul” tackles the issue of involvement with America through lyrics like “America’s great now / If you don’t talk back / You hide your face / Crawl in rubble and smile and scorn / At that snail-paced creature / Going up and down walls”. “The Dead Heart”, like much of the album, conveys sentiments that feel all too relevant in today’s globalized economy: “Mining companies, pastoral companies / Uranium companies / Collected companies / Got more right than people / Got more say than people”. In fact, despite the album’s deep Australian roots, much of it comes across like a very modern protest record, applicable to pretty much any modernized country. This Deluxe Edition‘s inclusion of “Gunbarrel Highway”, left off of prior American and Canadian pressings, closes the album with an ominous sense of apocalypse.

It’s all delivered with a punk-informed fire (by way of a little R.E.M. jangle and incredibly catchy choruses) that bears little, if any, hint of the often dated decade from which it came.  On this Deluxe Edition, celebrating the album’s 20th anniversary, the songs and the band sound as fresh and vibrant as ever. Garrett’s nasal sneer would seem to offer a sharp counterpoint to the pop sensibilities that Midnight Oil integrated into their sound (the guitar interplay on “Sell My Soul” is worthy of the Church), but the combination actually works to convey the message more effectively than ever.

In addition to restoring “Gunbarrel Highway”, this reissue also includes the Blackfella/Whitefella documentary. The film, which captures the band on their tour of Aboriginal settlements, mixes performance footage with powerful scenes of modern Aboriginal life marked by poverty. More than just a Midnight Oil concert film, Blackfella/Whitefella gives the Warumpi band nearly equal time, presenting them as a bridge between the Aboriginal listeners and the modern rock ‘n’ roll that accompanies Midnight Oil. At a little more than an hour, it’s not able to go into any real detail about the issues at hand, but does convey a sense of how the band came face to face with the realities of the Aboriginal villages. Those experiences and realities would become the lifeblood of Diesel and Dust, which still stands as a watershed moment in the band’s career.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/midnight-oil-diesel-and-dust/