Midnight Oil

[Powderworks] Oils Stand Tall (couriermail.com.au)

Cheryl H ooiiilllss@hotmail.com
Thu, 12 Dec 2002 21:22:26 -0500

Hi all -

happy reading.


Oils stand tall
Noel Mengel
07 December 2002

MIDNIGHT Oil: Australia's greatest rock band. For anyone who witnessed the 
Oils on a stage, in some super-heated pub, in a stadium, at an outdoor 
festival, on the back of a truck in the desert, there was no question.

A night with Midnight Oil was about as good as rock 'n' roll can get.

Early memory: standing in a packed campus bar waiting to see my first Oils' 
gig, circa 1979.

Three microphone stands across the front of the stage, and the one in the 
middle towering way . . . up . . . there. Geez, this guy is going to be 

He was. The band played a long, teasing intro, then Garrett was there, 
always moving, striking shapes, grinning, sweat flying from that shaven head 
in the days when no one had a shaven head.

And there was something in that sound  dynamic, kicking, spitting, soaring 
 that sounded like . . . Australia. Sunburn. Sweat. Dust. Surf.

They didn't sound like The Clash, the Sex Pistols, The Byrds, The Stones, 
The Who, The Beatles, like prog or punk or plod or pop.

They just sounded like themselves, even before they had clearly defined 
their sound on record.

Driving it relentlessly along was drummer Rob Hirst, part Charlie Watts, 
part Keith Moon.

He splashed water on his floor tom, attacked it relentlessly, bouncing 
sticks into the ceiling, audience, as spraying water was captured by the 

Another memory: an Oils show at the old Surfair, Marcoola, in 1981, 
observing from close quarters while playing in the support band. No sign of 
Garrett at soundcheck or backstage. Cheeseclothed surfies roared: "Oils, 
Oils, Oils." We just played harder.

Just before showtime Garrett drove his hire car into the car park, calmly 
walked backstage. No Origin-style pep-talk from the coach or anything like 
that. But the moment the lights hit him on that stage, he became that other 
Peter Garrett.

In more than 20 years of seeing their shows, I can never remember them 
playing at anything less than their blazing best. No off nights, no 
Oasis-style dummy spits. If ever there was something amiss behind the 
scenes, they never let you see it.

What's more, they said things that mattered, planted ideas and never 
pandered to the lowest common denominator.

They emerged from the northern beaches of Sydney in a band called Farm.

At the end of 1976, Garrett completed his law degree at ANU and concentrated 
on the band, with the line-up firming around Hirst, guitarists Jim Moginie 
and Martin Rotsey: the core line-up that would still be with them until the 
end, a chemistry later completed with bassist Bones Hillman.

Right from the start, Midnight Oil did it their way.

They refused to play on Countdown and retained artistic control in a game 
where record companies, promoters and agents were used to winning every 

A political streak floated to the surface in their lyrics but was fully 
formed on their 1982 breakthrough album 10 . . . 1, a clear-eyed rethink of 
their sound and vision, less strident, more focused.

"I see sunburnt faces around with skin so brown/Smiling zinc cream and 
crowds," Garrett sang on The Power and the Passion. "Flat chat. Pine Gap. In 
every home a Big Mac/And no one goes out back, that's that."

And Short Memory: "Smallish man Afghanistan/A watchdog in a nervous 
land/They're only there to lend a hand." And the closing line: "In the tents 
new rifles, hey, short memory."

Tim Winton said it best in his "Kiss No Bum, Tug No Forelock" essay with the 
20,000 Watt RSL compilation: "The music contained an unmistakable atmosphere 
of the suburban Australian life . . . a jerky agitation, an itch I 

"Australia seemed about to stop thinking and just go shopping and here was a 
band anxious about our communal future.

"This wasn't mere teen angst or personal teething trouble . . . At last 
there was an Australian band with something on its mind."

And they made you want to jump and dance and shout.

They were more interested in the Australia outside the capital cities than 
any other band, too. In the '80s they went bush with the 
Blackfella/Whitefella tour of the outback. Beds Are Burning, their 
Aboriginal land-rights anthem, might be the most important Australian rock 
song ever written.

They wrote songs called Maralinga, Kosciuszko, Truganini, Dreamworld, Surf's 
Up Tonight.

Their last major Australian tour took them from Alice Springs to Darwin, 
Cairns, Mt Isa and Capella.

Their last album, Capricornia, takes its name from Xavier Herbert's epic 
novel set in the country's north.

"Have you ever built your house in a town called Pissitaway?" Garrett sings.

"Well we do the same things that we always do/Nothing changes but the 
channel changes view."

The song, by Jim Moginie, is called Too Much Sunshine. Still trying to 
scratch that itch.

Unlike most albums by bands in their third decade, Capricornia is a great 

At the time of its release, I wrote: "No Australian band has lifted up so 
many people, delivered so many consistent albums, played so many great 
shows, kept finding ways to revitalise themselves and keep their audience 
challenged and entertained."

Back on the northern beaches in 1976, I think they would have settled for 

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