PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Midnight Oil's Time Has Come Again

Daniel Nester

Midnight Oil taught me that citizens not only need a soundtrack for resistance, but we also need to resist.

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

Daniel Nester is an essayist, poet, journalist, editor, teacher, and Queen fan. His latest book is a memoir, Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects. His recent work has appeared in the Atlantic online, New York Times, Buzzfeed, and the Poetry Foundation website. Follow him on Twitter @danielnester and at DanielNester.com.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Is Carl Nevill's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.