Album Review | Midnight Oil and terror in Australia

The band’s first new studio album in almost twenty years, The Makarrata Project, is a radical critique of Australian society made in collaboration with Indigenous Australian artists.

In 1987, the Australian band Midnight Oil stormed their way into the consciousness of rock audiences around the world with Diesel and Dust, their sixth studio album. The sound of the music carried a strong sense of the heat and vastness of the Outback, and the music was combatively political.

The band was formed in Sydney in 1976 and paid their dues in the often-tough bars in the north of the city. Their first album, eponymously titled, was released two years later. From the start, the band rooted their work in the Australian context and the country’s politics, beginning with fairly standard themes like lying politicians, consumerism, labour issues and corporate power, but developing rapidly.

By 1982, their fourth album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – the first in a golden run of six great albums that would continue until 1996 – was sonically more inventive and significantly more melodic than their earlier synthesis of hard rock and punk. It was also more political. Short Memory is a direct attack on both colonialism and contemporary forms of imperialism, moving from the “conquistador of Mexico” and the “plantation in Virginia” to “the Belgians in the Congo” and on to apartheid South Africa and the civil war driven by the United States-backed junta in El Salvador. US Forces, one of the band’s best songs, is a straight-up attack on US imperialism, the Central Intelligence Agency and the subordination of politics to the market. 

An expanding consciousness

As the politics at the heart of their music developed Midnight Oil became increasingly committed to environmental causes and the campaign for nuclear disarmament. The cover of their fifth album, Red Sails in the Sunset, is a representation of what the Sydney Harbour might look like after a nuclear strike. The concern about the risk of the Cold War turning into a nuclear conflagration continued in the music. One of the album’s best tracks, When the Generals Talk, moves from an attack on the US-backed dictators in Latin America to corporate power back home in Australia.

The 1985 EP, Species Deceases, includes Hercules, a song opposing the deployment of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific. It is another of the band’s best tracks. The next year, Midnight Oil toured the remote parts of the Outback with two Indigenous bands, and saw for themselves the racialised impoverishment and abandonment festering in the underside of Australia. The confrontational hard-rock style for which the band had become known didn’t work with smaller audiences outside of the usual circuits played by rock bands. The songs were stripped down, often into an acoustic form, and their performance became more dialogical, with the band doing a lot of listening.

This experience became the foundation of Diesel and Dust

29 May 1988: A group portrait of Midnight Oil taken in Ghent, Belgium. From left are Rob Hirst, Peter Garrett, Martin Rotsey, Bones Hillman and Jim Moginie. (Photograph by Gie Knaeps/ Getty Images)

Confronting racism 

Diesel and Dust continued the nuclear disarmament theme in songs like Put Down that Weapon and Arctic World, but the bulk of the songs deal with Australian racism. In 1988, the year Diesel and Dust was released in the US, Rolling Stone called it the album of the year and it remains a classic album in the global rock canon. A band that had become an iconic symbol of national identity in Australia was now an international symbol of Australia. With his striking height, shaved head and unique dance style Peter Garret, the front man, became a global figure.

In South Africa, drunk young white people received the song Beds are Burning, along with Eddy Grant’s 1988 hit Gimme Hope Jo’anna, with mass ecstasy on dance floors. The Midnight Oil track is about racism, and includes a direct injunction for land restoration: 

A fact’s a fact
It belongs to them
Let’s give it back

The Grant song referred to Johannesburg as “Jo’anna” but it namechecked Durban and was a straight-up attack on apartheid:

She’s got a system they call apartheid
It keeps a brother in a subjection

Was this collective alcohol-driven ecstasy just a matter of young drunk people being mindlessly carried along by really good songs, like the right-wing Americans punching their fists in the air to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA in 1984? Or was there some unconscious relief at an attractively presented, but very explicit, return of the repressed from the outside?

January 1980: Peter Garrett on stage at the Lyceum Theatre in London, England. In 2004, he became a member of the Australian Parliament and later served two terms as a minister before quitting politics in 2013. (Photograph by David Corio/ Redferns)

Documents of fear, anger and commitment

When the next Midnight Oil album, Blue Sky Mine, was released in 1990, it also won significant international success. Rolling Stone called it “a stunning issue-driven document of fear, anger and commitment delivered with artful musical restraint and tempered vocal fury”. It continued the environmental theme and included an exquisite rock ballad, One Country, which offers a vision of the world beyond national borders. 

The band went on to put out two more well-received albums, Earth and Sun and Moon in 1993 and Breathe in 1996. Breathe, a stripped-down album with a delicate soundscape, was a significant but successful departure from the harder sound that had made the band so famous.

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Their two next albums, however, failed to find success with audiences, despite critical acclaim. Redneck Wonderland, released in 1998, was a sonically and politically hard-hitting attack on the growing right-wing current in Australian politics, typified by the rise of Pauline Hanson, an early but particularly grim version of the right-wing demagogues that would sweep to power in a number of countries in time to come. The album was well received by critics, but it didn’t win over the general public and left little trace in the band’s set list for live performances. The next album, the much quieter and more melodic Capricornia, released in 2002, met the same fate.

In 2004, lead singer Peter Garrett was elected as a member of Parliament for the Labour Party, and in 2007 he was appointed as minister for the environment, heritage and the arts. The idea that radical commitments can be pursued from inside mainstream political parties never works out well and to many people he seemed compromised. He resigned as a member of Parliament in 2013, and in 2017 the band reformed and went on an international tour, which included a performance in Johannesburg.

There were live albums, collections of previously unreleased songs and, of course, a box set, but no new work. But on 30 October, Midnight Oil released their first studio album in almost 20 years. 

A uncompromising return

The Makarrata Project is a short album with just seven tracks, each of which is a collaboration with Indigenous Australian artists. Gadigal Land, which has been a top five hit in Australia, sounds like the band in their most successful period. It is a hard-rocking and lyrically uncompromising assault on colonialism in Australia. The lyrics leave no room for misinterpretation:

We can live without your gallows
We can do without your chains
We can do without the massacres

The rest of the album doesn’t always sound much like classic Midnight Oil as other artists, and sonic forms, come to the fore. The standout track, Terror Australia, sensitively sung by Alice Skye, moves from colonial conquest to the police violence and mass incarceration suffered by Indigenous people in contemporary Australia: “It’s a terror in Australia, jails and guns and failure.”

Midnight Oil remain an iconic symbol of Australia in that country and elsewhere. The vision of Australia in The Makarrata Project – as a site of terror – is a world apart from the idea of Australia as the “lucky country”, always far from war, kissed by the sun and holding vast mineral riches beneath the soil. 

The Makarrata Project isn’t going to be the next Diesel and Dust. But it is another beachhead into the long-standing denial that England’s settler colonies – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and South Africa – were founded on terror, that that terror is not over, and that its consequences remain intensely and painfully present.

17 February 2017: Bones Hillman, Rob Hirst, Peter Garrett, Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey of Midnight Oil pose during a media announcement in Sydney, Australia. (Photograph by Don Arnold/ WireImage)
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