Midnight Oil has long been regarded as Australia's most politicised rock'n'roll band. In voicing socio-political and environmental concerns with great effect through their music, the Oils turned the entertainment they provided into the message. Backed by penetrating and resolute manager Gary Morris, the band also changed the rules by which the music industry operated. Much to the frustration of record companies and promoters alike, The Oils wrote their own contracts which allowed them a maximum of creative control. Yet, underneath the radical politics and lean, driving guitar rock, Midnight Oil remained an honest and compassionate group of optimists with a strong pride in their own country.
The nucleus of Midnight Oil (James Moginie, Andrew James and Rob Hirst) came together in 1972 under the name of Farm. The band played around Sydney's northern beaches, building up a modest following among the surfing fraternity. By 1975, with a line-up of Peter Garrett, Moginie, James and Hirst, Farm had already undertaken a number of east coast tours. Farm's music combined elements of Focus, Yes, Jo Jo Gunne, Gun and Jethro Tull with their own material. Although the band members admitted to a heavy influence from Focus and Yes, they said at the time that `the influence is used only as an extension of their individual style'. That style encompassed an energetic hard rock sound underscored by a uniquely Australian outlook and fiercely independent spirit.
Until Garrett completed his law degree at Canberra University and moved to Sydney permanently at the end of 1976, Farm/Midnight Oil was a part-time concern. Martin Rotsey (guitar) completed the Midnight Oil line-up when he joined in early 1977, and the band stepped up its live work. Midnight Oil swiftly earned a fierce reputation on the suburban pub circuit for its tenacious live shows. The gigantic, bald-headed, rampaging Garrett also began to emerge as one of the most compelling and outspoken frontmen of the era.
In 1978, Midnight Oil formed the Powderworks label in order to issue its eponymous debut album. Unlike the power of the band's live shows, the album lacked a decent punch. The production sound was shallow, at times the playing was self-effacing and undemanding and Garrett's vocals sounded stilted and merely adequate. Only a handful of tracks like `Powderworks', `Used and Abused' and the single `Run by Night'/`Dust' (December 1978) revealed any promise. And the band was yet to present any firm political notions. By 1979 the Oils were one of the top live draws in the land.
The second album, Head Injuries (October 1979), highlighted the band's growth and strength of purpose. The dynamic singles `Cold Cold Change'/`Used and Abused' (October) and `Back on the Borderline'/`Section 5 (Bus to Bondi)' (February 1980) made a strong impact. The album managed to reach #36 on the national chart, and by mid-1980 had attained gold status (35000 copies sold). In April, bass player Peter Gifford (ex-Huntress, Ross Ryan Brothers) replaced Andrew James who had to leave due to ill-health. The band issued the 12-inch EP Bird Noises in October 1980; it reached #28 on the national singles chart in December, and was Top 20 in Sydney and Melbourne. The EP continued the development heard on Head Injuries, with `No Time for Games' and `I'm the Cure' being particularly impressive. Bird Noises also boasted the anomalous, but delightful Shadows-like instrumental `Weddingcake Island'.
With the release of the UK-recorded, Glyn Johns-produced Place Without a Postcard album (November 1981), the Oils began to reach a wider audience. The album made #12 on the national charts and produced the singles `Don't Wanna Be the One'/`Written in the Heart' (#40 in November 1981) and the 12-inch `Armistice Day'/`Stand in Line' (#31 in May 1982). In mid-1982, the Oils returned to the UK to record a new album with young, hot-shot producer Nick Launay (Public Image Ltd, Gang of Four, Birthday Party). The union resulted in the uncompromising and state-of-the-art 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 album which marked a significant departure for the band. While retaining the Oils' live energy, it bore no relation to anything they had previously performed or recorded. That the Oils' most adventurous and radical album to that time should also become their most popular was testament to their emerging status as Australian cultural icons.
The album reached #3 on the national chart in December 1982. It stayed in the Top 20 for ten months and by the end of 1983 had sold close to 250000 copies. (The album eventually stayed on the chart for 186 weeks.) The album produced the hit singles `US Forces'/`Outside World' (Instrumental) (#20 in December 1982) and `Power and the Passion'/`Power and the Passion' (Dub Version) (#8 in April 1983). The Oils celebrated their first overseas album release (for 10 . . . 1) when they signed to CBS in the UK and Columbia in the USA. `Power and the Passion'/`Glitch Baby' came out as a single in both territories. The UK also got `US Forces'/`Outside World', while the USA instead got `Tin Legs and Tin Mines'/`Power and the Passion' and `Outside World'/`Read About It'.
With the success of 10 . . . 1 Midnight Oil began to exert a great deal of political clout and pressure. In February 1983, the Oils helped organise the Stop the Drop Nuclear Disarmament concert (which they also headlined) at Melbourne's Myer Music Bowl. In October, the organisers of the concert and the producers of the subsequent television simulcast received a United Nations Media Peace Prize Award for their work. In 1984, the band travelled to Tokyo, Japan to record its next album with producer Nick Launay. Red Sails in the Sunset (October) perhaps overstepped the mark with its reliance on high-tech studio wizardry, but the band's optimistic lyric stance shone through. `Best of Both Worlds'/`Kosciusko' and `When the Generals Talk'/`Who Can Stand in the Way' were only issued as singles in the UK and USA.
Garrett confirmed his commitment to political and social change by running for the NSW Senate as the candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party at the 1984 federal elections. He was unsuccessful in his bid for a political career, but it signified to all and sundry that he was now a nationally recognised public figure. In August 1987, Garrett again turned his attention to public affairs when he joined the likes of Senator Janine Haines and Australia II designer Ben Lexcen in a forum against the introduction of the Australia Card. During January 1985, Midnight Oil played a one-off showcase gig on tiny Goat Island (in the middle of Sydney Harbour) to help celebrate the tenth anniversary of radio station 2JJJ (precursor to the national Triple J network). Billed as Oils on the Water, the concert was later issued on video.
In December 1985, the four-track 12-inch EP Species Deceases crashed into the singles chart at #1 on its first week of release. Ostensibly as a reaction against the studio sheen of Red Sails in the Sunset, the EP featured a stripped-back pub-rock sound. In terms of sheer sonic firepower, it was one of the band's hardest hitting works. In the winter of 1986, Midnight Oil embarked on the unprecedented Blackfella/Whitefella tour playing to remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory accompanied by Koori outfit Warumpi Band. Writer Andrew McMillan documented the tour in his book Strict Rules, an insightful look at Australian music and how it interacts with, reflects and changes our culture.
While the band was on the tour, the 12-inch EP `The Dead Heart' (which had been written for the film Uluru: An Anangu Story) reached #1 on the national chart. The flip side featured Warumpi Band's `Blackfella/Whitefella' and Coloured Stone's `This Land'. In August 1987, Midnight Oil reached the peak of its powers with the release of the groundbreaking Diesel and Dust album. Inspired by the Blackfella/Whitefella tour, Diesel and Dust is arguably one of the greatest Australian albums of all time. Powerful, dynamic and passionate songs like `Beds are Burning', `Put Down that Weapon', `Dreamworld', `The Dead Heart' and `Sell My Soul' were statements of intent and a call to action backed by the strength of their convictions.
Before the album's release, New Zealand-born Dwayne `Bones' Hillman (ex-Swingers) had replaced Gifford on bass. `Beds are Burning'/`Gunbarrel Highway' (#5 in September 1987), `Put Down that Weapon'/`Peace, Love and Understanding' (November) and `Dreamworld'/`Arctic World' (August 1988) were issued as singles. After reaching #1 in Australia, Diesel and Dust heralded the Oils' international breakthrough by peaking at #19 in the UK, #1 in France and #21 in the USA. It went on to sell close to three million copies worldwide. `Beds are Burning' also reached #6 in the UK (after being reissued in March 1989) and #17 in the USA.
Following the 1988 American tour to promote Diesel and Dust (with Yothu Yindi and American Indian activist/poet John Trudell aka Graffiti Man as supports), the Oils helped launch the Various Artists album Burning Bridges. The double album featured tracks by Midnight Oil (`Warakurna'), Paul Kelly, Scrap Metal, Coloured Stone, Hunters & Collectors, Areyonga Desert Tigers, James Reyne, The Saints, Crowded House, INXS and Yothu Yindi. All proceeds from sales went to the National Coalition of Aboriginal Organisations (NCAO). In 1989, Garrett was appointed President of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF).
The Oils' March 1990 album, Blue Sky Mining (produced by Warne Livesey), was their most defiant and outspoken work to date. The first single, `Blue Sky Mine' (backed by `You May Not Be Released'), was inspired by Ben Hills' book Blue Murder which detailed the history of the blue asbestos mine in Wittenoom, Western Australia. `Blue Sky Mine' reached #8 on the national chart in March 1990. Blue Sky Mining made its debut at #1 on the national chart the same month. It yielded a further four minor hit singles, `Forgotten Years'/ `Shakers and Movers' (#26 in June), `King of the Mountain' (#25 in October), `Bedlam Bridge' (#46 in November) and `One Country' (#51 in April 1991). As well as reaching #1 in Australia, the album peaked at #28 in the UK and #20 in the USA. Although it went on to sell over two million copies worldwide, it was not the massive chart smash the band had expected. The Oils spent most of 1990 touring across Europe and the USA in support of Blue Sky Mining.
While in the USA, the Oils staged one of their most infamous protest gigs on a Manhattan street. The unannounced lunchtime gig was to express their disgust over the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, and the band made its views felt by playing outside the company's headquarters. The protest attracted international attention to the cause, and the subsequent documentary of the concert Black Rain Falls raised funds for Greenpeace.
The Oils returned to Australia in November for their first full concert tour in three years. Columbia awarded the band the Crystal Globe Award in -recognition of sales of five million albums outside Australia. The Oils also took out Best Group and Best Album (Blue Sky Mining) at the 1990 Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Awards. In 1991, the band took a year-long sabbatical, during which Rob Hirst recorded an album, Ghostwriters, with Dorland Bray and Rick Grossman, Moginie played on the new Neil Murray record and Garrett tended to his duties with the ACF. In 1993, Garrett resigned from the ACF and took up a position with the International Board of Greenpeace.
The Oils' in-concert album Scream in Blue Live (June 1992) featured the band in all its rough-edged, on-stage fury. The album's tracks were culled from concerts over an eight-year period (1982–90), plus `Progress' which was taken from the band's lunchtime protest gig outside Exxon Valdez. `Sometimes' (live)/`Beds are Burning' (live) was issued as a single and reached #33 in May 1992. A month earlier, Midnight Oil headlined the prestigious, annual Earth Day concert in Boston, Massachusetts. Then, under the guidance of Nick Launay (for the first time in eight years), the band recorded its ninth album, Earth and Sun and Moon. The album produced the singles `Truganini' (Australian #10 in March 1993; UK #29 in April), `My Country' (#52 in July), `Outbreak of Love' (#57 in September) and `In the Valley' (November). For their global tour in support of the album, the Oils added acclaimed keyboards player Chris Abrahams.
The Oils undertook the Breaking the Dry tour of Australia at the start of 1995, but it was to be another year and a half before they issued a new album, Breathe (October 1996), and single, `Underwater' (#22 in September). The songs on Breathe featured a loose, raw feel but were mostly gentle and low-key. The album reached #3 on the national chart, but was the band's least successful album to date. It sold 50000 copies before slipping out of the national Top 50. `Surf's Up Tonight' was issued as a second single in November 1996. The Oils returned to the national album chart in November 1997, when the compilation 20,000 Watt R.S.L. reached #4.
By the time 20,000 Watt R.S.L. – The Midnight Oil Collection slipped out of the national Top 40 in April 1998, it had sold over 150 000 units (to qualify for double platinum status). By that stage, Midnight Oil was poised to release a new CD single, ‘Redneck Wonderland’, and album, Redneck Wonderland, which came out in June and July 1998, respectively.
Following on from Breathe, which had been a relatively low-key effort, this album was full of the band’s trademark committed, angry, squalling noise, with a tightly focused production sound courtesy of producers Lachlan ‘Magoo’ Gould and Wayne Livesey. The album’s title had been inspired by a piece of graffiti near Melbourne’s Yarra River that had ‘Redneck Wonderland’ sprayed across a map of Australia and was followed by the words: ‘Will the forests that survived the ice age survive the Howard Government?’. The album made its debut at #7 on the national chart, but fell out of the Top 40 within a matter of weeks. Nevertheless, the band kept busy with the Redneck Wonderland national tour.