Midnight Oil were more than just a rock & roll band. From the northern beaches of Sydney to the streets of Manhattan, they stopped traffic, inflamed passions, inspired fans, challenged the concepts of "business as usual" and broke new ground.
To see Midnight Oil in full flight was to experience the full visceral, transcendent, kinetic power of live rock & roll — the Oils could stand alongside any and all of the world's best. To experience Midnight Oil was to be inspired by ideas, to be encouraged to live life more passionately, to get involved in the world around you.
Everything about the band was uncompromising, but in the end their greatest achievement was that they were, night after night and album after album, a great rock & roll band. For all of the incredible growth, ambition and experimentation that Midnight Oil evidenced in their time together, the sound and the fury and the spirit of their earliest recordings is still there 25 years later, on tracks like "White Skin Black Heart" and "Say Your Prayers".
Rob Hirst (drums, vocals), Andrew "Bear" James (bass) and Jim Moginie (guitars, keys & vocals) formed a band in 1972, which gradually evolved into Midnight Oil, acquiring singer Peter Garrett in 1975 and Martin Rotsey (guitar) the following year. Before they took it global, the band's early spiritual home was the Royal Antler Hotel, Narrabeen on Sydney's northern beaches and the lessons learned and reputation forged there stayed with them. It was there that the Oils fan base swelled from a handful to a thousand – in a room designed for half that number. On a typical night Rotsey and Moginie's guitars flashed like twin layers of lightning across the rolling thunder of the rhythm section. Rob Hirst moved around his drum kit with a manic relentlessness, his kick drum always pushing things forward, setting the impatient, urgent tone. There was the anger of punk and the weird colourings of prog rock in Moginie's mad professor lines and Beatlesque melodies. Out front was the massively tall, bald singer Peter Garrett who was a one-man furnace, radiating passion, wit and a bit of righteous indignation, always covered in sweat and dancing like a dervish with a cramp.
Between 1976 and 1980, Midnight Oil played out this blistering ritual up to 200 times a year around the pubs, clubs and ultimately theatres of Australia. At all of these shows the distance and the difference between the audience and band was almost indistinguishable. From their earliest days, Midnight Oil were writing songs about who and what they saw around them.
The eponymous debut album, smartly nicknamed "The Blue Meanie" (equal parts a reference to the Beatles and the snarl of the sound), was released in 1978 and was a collection of primal, spiky rock & roll. Like so many great debut albums it spoke directly about the milieu in which they were born (Sydney surf/suburbs culture) and was an in-studio approximation of their live set. The song "Run By Night" became an instant classic and despite receiving next to no commercial radio support, the album cracked the Australian Top 50. Midnight Oil was on its way.
A second album, Head Injuries, followed the next year featuring the singles "Cold Cold Change" and "Back on the Borderline" – the geography was a little broader, the subject matter a little more universal and the sound a little closer to their live energy.
Shortly after Head Injuries Andrew "Bear" James retired and the bass was picked up by Peter "Giffo" Gifford. Recalibrating their sound as they would do many times, the band's new line-up released the 12″ Bird Noises EP (featuring "No Time For Games" and the sublime surf instrumental "Wedding Cake Island"). Their ambitions growing, the band decamped to England to record the Place Without A Postcard album with legendary producer Glyn Johns (The Faces, The Who, The Rolling Stones). A dense, claustrophobic gem, Place Without A Postcard is arguably Midnight Oil's first great album – defiantly articulating a broader Australian world view on tracks like "Armistice Day", "Don't Wanna Be The One" and the epic "Lucky Country".
By the time Place Without A Postcard was released in 1981, the Australian pub rock scene was at its zenith. Suburban beer barns held 2,000 punters and the Oils were filling them nightly, creating rock & roll chaos. At the same time, the band was now well known for their support of environmental and social justice causes. Being an Oils fan wasn't a part-time or passive experience.
Released in 1982, Midnight Oil's next album 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 turned everything on its head. The band deconstructed their sound and then reassembled the elements into complex soundscapes that married acoustic instruments, electronics, feral electric guitars, drum machines, breaking glass and sharp sociopolitical commentary into a brilliant, multi-dimensional and completely unique album.
Recorded as the band lived on the breadline in London in the shadow of the nuclear arms race and produced by an enthusiastic, irreverent 21 year old Nick Launay, (PIL, Gang of 4), 10-1 is rock & roll paranoia at its finest. Drums play against drum machines while thick warm waves of acoustic guitar lay a bed for the immensely unsettling "US Forces" and the agitrock anti-apathy anthem "Power and the Passion". This was Midnight Oil saying they would not be boxed in by geography, precedent, corporate/government agenda or their own and anybody else's expectations.
The album was a monster success in Australia, staying in the Australians charts in excess of 200 weeks. It was also popular on US college radio and across pockets of Europe – as the band expanded its ambitions it also expanded its reach.
The next album, Red Sails in the Sunset, recorded in Japan, took the band's sonic experimentation and railing agenda to a new and extreme level. Loved by the band's existing fans, it was released in 1983 against the backdrop of singer Peter Garrett making a run for the Australian Senate on a Nuclear Disarmament platform. While Garrett's focus was on 'real' politics, Red Sails saw the band reveal a new set of colours with drummer Rob Hirst coming to the fore as lead vocalist on "When The Generals Talk" and "Kosciusko".
In 1985, Midnight Oil regrouped and reacted to the extremes of their two previous albums with the fierce, angry and streamlined EP Species Deceases. Released to mark the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Species Deceases reset Midnight Oil's bearings and included enduring favourites like "Hercules" and "Progress". It was a turning point, suggesting a new beginning.
That new beginning happened in 1986 when having recorded "The Dead Heart" for the handing back ceremony of Uluru (then Ayers Rock) to it's traditional owners, Midnight Oil were invited to tour through some of the most remote communities in the Australian outback with the legendary Aboriginal group, the Warumpi Band. It became known as the 'Blackfella/Whitefella' tour and exposed the band to the austere beauty of the desert landscape, the inspiring creativity of the indigenous people and the deplorable conditions under which the local indigenous people existed.
The Blackfella/Whitefella tour galvanised and profoundly moved Midnight Oil. They witnessed the great pride and resilience of the indigenous people and embraced their stories and the sounds of the desert into their music, learning to incorporate space ('The Great Quiet' as it was called) and to 'breathe the slower rhythms of the desert'.
The band returned to Sydney and with producer Warne Livesey began work on what was to be their global breakthrough Diesel and Dust. The singles lifted from the album, namely "The Dead Heart", "Put Down That Weapon", "Dreamworld" and their most successful single to date, "Beds Are Burning" opened-up Midnight Oil to new audiences all over the world. The band toured internationally through the remainder of 1987 and '88 driving the album to huge critical and commercial success.
They returned to Australia to record Blue Sky Mining with Warne Livesey again producing and with new bass player Bones Hillman bringing rich harmony vocals to the mix. Released in 1990, Blue Sky Mining was another critically-hailed and globally successful album and on tracks like "One Country," "Blue Sky Mine," and "Forgotten Years" the Oils brought a new international perspective to their songwriting while losing none of their passion, commitment or characteristic voice.
While on tour in the US, the band drew attention to the environmental disaster caused by the oil tanker Exxon Valdez which ran aground in Alaska spilling hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound. They hired a flatbed truck and played a blistering set outside the Exxon offices in New York, stopping traffic and putting the issue on the front pages of newspapers around the world.
Midnight Oil's evolution continued with their next album, 1993's Earth and Sun and Moon. Their most introspective and personal collection of songs to date, the band further explored acoustic textures, replacing the unrelenting assault of their early records with a warmer, more seductive sound. Containing potent and pointed singles "My Country", "Truganini" and "In The Valley" it's an album that continues to reveal its strengths down through the years.
Earth and Sun and Moon was the band's entrée into the WOMAD world music scene and they eagerly soaked up new influences that were revealed on their 1996 album, Breathe. Recorded in Sydney and New Orleans with producer Malcolm Burn, the project produced the fan-favourite "Surf's Up Tonight".
Perhaps in response to the warm, dark textures of Earth and Sun and Moon and Breathe, Midnight Oil's next record was their most angry and confronting. In 1998 the world was in the grip of reactionary governments. In Australia, anti-migrant and anti-Aboriginal sentiment was being inflamed for political gain. Midnight Oil's response was the anti racist Redneck Wonderland, a post punk, industrial and radical album that pulled no punches.
In 2000 the band performed at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games with the word 'Sorry' emblazoned across their clothing – a reference to the apology due to stolen generations of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families between the 1890's and 1970's, in many cases never to see their parents again. They also recorded the excellent, grinding "Say Your Prayers", an anthem for the East Timorese which appeared on a benefit album and later became an addition to their 2002 album Capricornia. Taking on a new musical direction again and inspired by the themes of Xavier Herbert's book of the same title, this was a swag of songs that addressed the history, geography and climes of Australia. Melodic and beguiling and distinguished by the crisp, chiming guitar warmth of Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey on tracks like "Golden Age" and "Luritja Way", Capricornia ultimately became a proud way to conclude one of the most fierce and fascinating journeys in contemporary music history.
In December 2002 Midnight Oil officially disbanded when Peter Garrett announced his departure to pursue a future in politics. In the decade since their passing, the Oils have remained one of Australia's most loved cultural icons. Amongst a multitude of honours, both "Power and the Passion" and "Beds Are Burning" were listed by the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) in the Top 30 Best Australian songs of all time; the band has won 11 ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) Awards and been inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame; in the US, "Beds Are Burning" is included as one of 'The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll' and in 2010, Diesel and Dust ranked # 1 in the best-selling book The 100 Best Australian Albums.
Midnight Oil's music and legacy continues to resonate around the world. Their songs immediately conjure up the sights and sounds, the heat and the space of Australia. No band better exemplifies what it means to be an Australian – self reliant, no bullshit, resourceful and willing to risk it all; in love with the natural wonder of the surf and the desert and dedicated to the idea of a fair go for all.