erasing clouds

The Real Thing: 26 Years of Midnight Oil

reviewed by dan heaton

In the fall of 2001, five Australian rockers reappeared in the United States for one of the most anticipated tours of recent years. Well, at least this was the case for a small cache of devoted fans. The typical music-listening personage had long forgotten Midnight Oil except for a rare instance of hearing the hit single "Beds are Burning" over the retro airwaves. Are those guys still making music? Is the raw passion still there? The answer to both questions is a resounding YES.

During an energetic October night at the House of Blues in Chicago, the Oils step onto the stage supported by a melodic Aboriginal-sounding tune. Without saying a word, they quickly roar into the thundering guitar chorus of "Redneck Wonderland." This title song of their blistering 1998 album soundly exclaims that the years have not removed the fire from their music. An attack on Pauline Hansen and the One Nation Party in Australia with lyrics like "it is vision free, it's poor bugger me, something less than grand," this track remains as hard-hitting as their best efforts. Upon its conclusion, the band quickly shifts gears to "Bullroarer" - a driving, guitar-driven melody from their 1987 classic Diesel and Dust. Although these tunes are remarkably different, they both utilize the energy and worldly awareness that has characterized Midnight Oil for more than 20 years.

The recent concerts were especially notable for the inclusion of brand-new tracks that would eventually appear on Capricornia, released on February 19th. During this particular night, the group reveals three impressive, harmonious tracks that match the best songs of the evening. "Too Much Sunshine" emerges early in the set and offers rough edges reminiscent of 1978's Head Injuries album. Sporting a repetitive, yet catchy chorus and energetic guitars, this tune captures the essence of the Capricornia sound. "Luritja Way" comes next and exudes charming acoustic melodies with lyrics concerning life away from the cities. Even given some harsh realities, it stays positive with such lines as "Oh guiding light you will shine/you'll pick me up/you'll hold me up." Near the show's conclusion, they present the thoughtful words of "Golden Age" - the first radio single. It opens with "All the screens are filled with heroes and losers/but the sky's still filled with stars." This earthy, upbeat sentiment dominates Capricornia, which represents their best work since 1990's Blue Sky Mining.

"I don't need no fire and brimstone warning
I've been a long time punching bag
I won't run no race where there ain't no prize
Take a look at my face
Can't you see this ain't no lies" - Powderworks (1977)

Originally formed as Farm, they became Midnight Oil in 1976 with the arrival of law student Peter Garrett. His giant, bald-headed presence has been the marketable image of the band since its early days. During their frenzied live shows, he jerks around the stage with arms swinging in all types of odd contortions. In 1984, Garrett lost a narrow election to the Australian Senate, and he often speaks publicly about social and environmental issues. However, Midnight Oil is much more than its charismatic frontman. Drummer Rob Hirst and guitarists Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey have also been part of the band since its inception. Bass player Bones Hillman joined them in 1988, following the release of Diesel and Dust. All five members contribute to the songwriting process, and their concerts showcase expert musicianship, especially from Moginie. While performing, he stands nearly motionless and immersed within his deft guitar playing. On Capricornia, Moginie receives either a solo or co-songwriting credit for every track, which places much of its success on his shoulders.

Following the release of Earth and Sun and Moon in 1993, Midnight Oil embarked on a lengthy and exhausting world tour that covered much of the United States and Europe. Both "Truganini" and "Outbreak of Love" received significant airplay on alternative radio, and audiences still packed amphitheaters to see the band. Unfortunately, the subsequent years saw a sharp drop in overseas touring and promotion from the record label. In 1996, they released Breathe, a more laid-back collection that did not offer easily accessible singles. Although not one of my favorites, this album still includes some remarkable tunes, but they do not fit into the narrow-minded marketing concepts of greedy executives. Redneck Wonderland followed and appeared perfect for airplay on today's more "extreme" alternative radio stations, but it hardly drew a mention outside of Australia. Thankfully, Capricornia appears poised to avoid the unfortunate fate of its worthy predecessors.

"Where will you live when the fields are falling
Where will you live when the feedlots calling
Everybody standing in the treetops saying
Where will you live? Where will you live?" -
"Tone Poem" (2002)

Capricornia displays an emotional connection to the land that exists away from the hectic and crowded nature of the cities. The title is taken from Xavier Herbert's 1938 novel set in the Northern Territory, and the tunes connect with the raw nature of this land. "Mosquito March" utilizes quick beats and evokes the concept of finding answers to life within the wilderness. While the Oils don't suggest that everyone leave their homes and venture into nature, they do attempt to describe the simplicity and beauty of this land. "Been Away Too Long" exclaims: "Fresh air soft landing/so good to be home/this bruised world's got its beauty/it's where I belong." Placed over a catchy rhythm, this track takes a basic approach and wonderfully transmits the lush feelings generated by nature. The exact meaning of the lyrics may not be known, but the passion is evident without specific knowledge of the band's mindset.

The sentiments of this new release hearken back to ideas often expressed by the Oils throughout their long history. "Underwater" - Breathe's opening track - strongly exclaims the power of the natural world to overcome any obstacle placed upon it by humanity. "No one can make her, no one can break her down/Underwater, over land." This affection for the land also permeates tunes that veer more towards the social commentary that is the hallmark of the band. The Diesel and Dust single "Dreamworld" is a perfect example with its forthright statements about the problems of rampant development. With verses like "So farewell to those Norfolk Island pines/No amount of make believe can help this heart of mine" to its melodic chorus stating "Your dreamworld is just about to end," this song skillfully conveys these ideas.

"Conquistador of Mexico, the Zulu and the Navaho
The Belgians in the Congo, short memory
Plantation in Virginia, the Raj in British India
The deadline in South Africa, short memory
The story of El Salvador, the silence of Hiroshima
Destruction of Cambodia, short memory" - "Short Memory" (1982)

Touring only a month after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, Midnight Oil appeared to have an important opportunity to speak out about the troubling issues concerning our world. Their songs (including "Short Memory") often discuss the necessity in understanding the past and realizing its connection to current events. Unlike U2 - who altered their shows to honor the victims in over-the-top (yet effective) fashion - the Oils took a much more subtle approach. During the shows, Garrett spoke with calm sincerity about the aftermath of the attacks. He said: "One of the reasons for coming here is not to forget what's going on, but it's to recognize that whatever else is going on, life still goes on as well. The one way to deal with this kind of nonsense is to not let it stop us from doing the things that we want to do." Although this may appear out of character, this sentiment actually corresponds perfectly with the ideals presented by the band throughout their career. They seldom take the Rage Against the Machine-type avenue and scream incessantly with little effectiveness. Instead, the music does the talking to try to open the minds of listeners to a larger view of the world.

Office workers in Manhattan witnessed a peculiar sight during their lunch hour on May 30, 1990. Situated outside of Exxon's offices was a flatbed truck with an Australian band playing rock music. Displaying a banner stating "Midnight Oil makes you dance, Exxon makes us sick," the group played a quick six-song concert to draw attention to the disastrous oil spill in Prince William Sound. At the closing ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Midnight Oil played "Beds are Burning" to a massive worldwide audience. More notable than the music was the single word "sorry" printed across each member's black outfit. Intended to criticize the Australian government for their continued unfair dealings with the Aborigines, this message brought significant attention to the issue. These are the types of actions that embody the heart and soul of this band. Within a musical framework, they have discussed pivotal issues often ignored by our governments.

"We carry in our hearts the true country
And that cannot be stolen
Follow in the steps of our ancestry
And that cannot be broken" - "The Dead Heart" (1987)

Midnight Oil achieved unbelievable popularity across the world following the release of Diesel and Dust in 1987. Much of the material was inspired by the Blackfella Whitefella tour through the Aboriginal communities in 1986. Joining the legendary Warumpi Band, they discovered the unfortunate state of Australia's native people. These travels helped to create some of the band's most inspired songwriting up to that time. This trip helped to produce standout tracks like "Warakurna," "The Dead Heart," and the worldwide hit "Beds are Burning" - a melodic tune that discusses the need for Aboriginal land rights. While this song has brought their music to a much larger audience, it also placed them into the ridiculous category of a "one-hit wonder." Regardless of any silly labels, the passion still flows strongly through Midnight Oil's music. At the Exxon protest, Peter Garrett takes a nasty fall from a high speaker during "Sometimes" and lands flat on the stage. Without missing a beat, he climbs back onto his perch and finishes the rocking tune. This moment has always defined the band in my eyes and showcased their long-standing resilience.

Back at the House of Blues, the Oils bring drummer Rob Hirst to the front for an intimate acoustic set featuring "Beds are Burning" and "Short Memory." These moments may lack the rocking punch of other entries, but they draw a closer connection with the audience that carries throughout the remainder of the show. As the band cranks through the energetic hits "King of the Mountain," "Truganini," and "Forgotten Years," the crowd becomes more and more enthusiastic. By the time they close the encore with "Read About It," the venue is flooded with incessant claps and cheers. Have long have these guys been around? Twenty-six years and still going.


Issue 9, April 2002 | next article

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