Five years ago, a friend and I were flipping through vinyl shelves at a record fair, as tragically hip music nerds do, and we confessed our guilty pleasures. “I own more Midnight Oil albums than I’d like to admit,” I offered. I further confessed that, in fact, I owned all the Oils’ releases, including Australian imports.
Why the embarrassment? Because I knew, as a proper rock aficionado, my shelf space filled by the Australian enviro-conscious rockers could have (should have?) been taken by artists that were hipper, more tuneful and sonically de rigueur. You see, I’m drawn to music that rocks, unambiguously and viscerally, as opposed to effete and overpraised. Eventually, my taste corrects itself, and I discover the charms of Teenage Fan Club or Silver Jews, but not before I work my way through the discographies of, I don’t know, The Cult and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Fast-forward to 2017, and these debates over musical tastes seem quaint. It’s punk rock time, like Henry Rollins says, and we’ve got Reagan on steroids occupying the White House. Public schools, women’s and minority’s rights, and the environment are all under threat and I’ve taken my lazy white privileged ass out to the streets to protest. And I find myself listening to Midnight Oil again.
This Spring, Midnight Oil embarks on their first world tour in more than 15 years. The Australian band that hit worldwide charts in 1987 with “Beds Are Burning” disbanded back in 2002, when lead singer Peter Garrett entered politics full-time and served in a number of positions in the Australian government, a second career that lasted more than 11 years. The last time Midnight Oil toured the US was October 2001, weeks after September 11 and then-new President George W. Bush ramping up the case for the Iraq invasion. Cut to 2017, and Midnight Oil’s six-month, 50-date Great Circle tour brings Garrett and bandmates to a United States under a Trump administration angling to roll back environmental protections, pillage natural resources, and generally mess up the world.
Like the song goes, the time has come.
Back in 1990, at the height of Midnight Oils’ stateside popularity, the band protested Exxon’s Valdez oil spill by playing a lunchtime concert outside the corporation’s Manhattan headquarters. The guerilla action gig stopped traffic on Sixth Avenue for blocks around Radio City Music Hall. A 30-foot banner atop the band’s flatbed truck read “Midnight Oil Makes You Dance, Exxon Oil Makes Us Sick”. One likes to think that Rex Tillerson, then Exxon’s vice president and now Trump’s Secretary of State, could hear the band’s Clash-like cover of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma”.
Tickets to the band’s US concerts sold out in an hour. I’ve got my tickets for the New York City gig on 13 May at Webster Hall. Maybe the crowd will be filled with ex-pat Aussies eager to see their hometown heroes in a small venue — they’ll be playing rugby stadiums there in the Fall. But I can’t help but believe that there are more than a few American fans like myself who are re-visiting the band’s energy and ethos in the age of Trump, and have found how songs like “Blue Sky Mine” and “Forgotten Years” resonate all these years later.
I discovered Midnight Oil in 1984 after reading a Musician magazine profile and was then roused by the video for “Power and the Passion” on late-night MTV. That was all it took. I bought all their albums. I was 14-years-old, and the American dream had crumbled all around me. My dad had been laid off from his trucking job, I worked at a car wash, and military recruiters called every day trying to get me to enlist. Midnight Oils’ 1982 album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (“10 to 1” for short), provided the soundtrack to my political awakening. Songs like “Short Memory”, with its list of atrocities from the Belgian Congo to the bombing of Cambodia, to “U.S. Forces”, and its ominous warning of “waiting for the next big thing” to bomb and threaten. The rootsy jingoism I’d adopted from Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar suddenly seemed embarrassing. There was a big world down under, and apparently my country played a large part in messing it up.
Was this punk rock I was listening to? I probably thought so at the time, but Midnight Oil were different. No one really could adequately explain Midnight Oil’s music stateside. What was this band led by a 6′ 6″ giant with a shaved head singing about the perils of American imperialism? Dubbed Australia’s version of The Clash but more accurately described as Gang of Four by way of Pink Floyd, Midnight Oil formed in 1975 and honed their manic craft parallel to punk, influenced by proto-stompers The Saints, as well as old school Aussie pub rockers such as Cold Chisel and Skyhooks. Most Americans, not privy to this pedigree, were especially dumbstruck. “Great hooks with and political concerns ranging from liberal to left to Green,” Charles M. Young wrote. “They’re the Cars with a conscience. And balls.”
I also sang along despite lyrics so Antipodean in their focus that you’d need a shelf full of Australian history books to get their full meaning. I thought the lyrics to “Power and the Passion” included the line “golf was tough ’til he hit the rough”. Back then I didn’t have a lyric sheet, let alone access to the song’s Genius page, that tells us “golf” was in fact “Gough”, as in the former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, who was dismissed from office after several rough scandals.
Then came 1987’s Diesel and Dust, which broke Midnight Oil worldwide. Recorded after a tour of the outback with indigenous musical groups, the Oils’ sixth album included “Beds Are Burning”, which People magazine accurately describes as “probably the first song about aborigine rights to go Top 10 in the U.S.” The band I secretly jammed out to with my cassette player now boomed from college dorm rooms everywhere.
It’s hard to understate the sincerity of ’80s alternative rock. What Midnight Oil taught me and others is that citizens need a soundtrack for resistance, sure, but we also need to organize and and be politically active. Like most socially conscious bands in the ’80s, Midnight Oil set up tables outside their gigs for Greenpeace, Rock the Vote, and Planned Parenthood. As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, Midnight Oil, for American fans at least, represented one of those bands for people who couldn’t get enough U2, couldn’t get enough sincerity, and so turned to the latest offerings from The Alarm or The Call, or, for the more adventurous, Michelle Shocked or Billy Bragg.
Unlike U2 or R.E.M., Midnight Oil were less ambiguous about kicking ass onstage, and their live shows are legendary for leaving venues in agitprop shambles. “If you’re singing a song about huge piles of nuclear weapons, you’re unlikely to be playing a harp or plucking a lute,” Peter Garrett told the Ottawa Citizen in 1985.
As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, sincerity made way for irony and grunge and the Midnight Oils returned to the middle of the pack.
But the world is upside down again, and if current pop acts can’t get it together to write protest songs, then maybe it’s time to turn to Midnight Oil. The other day, I found myself rocking out to “Read About It”, one of my favorite tracks from 10 to 1:
Hammer and the sickle, the news is at a trickle
The commissars are fickle but the stockpile grows
Bombers keep a-coming, engines softly humming
The stars and stripes are running for their own big show
Suddenly, what’s old is new again. There’s a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill that has stuck with me. “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has not heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40 he has no brain.”
I guess I have no brain. The good news is, thanks to Midnight Oil, I’ve got heart.
Still from “Beds Are Burning” video