Political Songs | Beds Are Burning – Midnight Oil

The song, which demands that white Australians give back the land appropriated from indigenous people, topped the charts all over the world – changing lives and minds in the process.

There once was a little girl whose life was changed by a song. This is a true story. 

Angela Cuming, now a mom to three boys and a journalist and writer in New Zealand, grew up in Australia. Two years ago she told the lovely tale of how, as a seven-year-old public schoolgirl in western Sydney, she fell in love with a great song, Beds Are Burning, by the inspirational Australian rock band Midnight Oil (or the Oils, as fans call them). 

She wasn’t alone. Millions of record-buying fans across the Western world shared her passion for this song, which catapulted up the charts in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and even here in South Africa where, like in Canada and New Zealand, it reached No. 1 in 1987.

“I liked the song, had absolutely no idea what it was about, and asked a teacher what the line, ‘It belongs to them, let’s give it back’ was all about,” she wrote in The Guardian newspaper in 2017 about how Midnight Oil went on to provide the soundtrack to her political life. “The explanation marked the first time I heard the word ‘Aboriginal’. On reflection, it really beggars belief. 

“Until then, I had not known I was living in a country that had been populated by a completely different race for at least 40 000 years. I didn’t know Europeans had come and taken their lands and killed them and taken their babies from them and denied them the right to vote.

“We, that generation, didn’t know, we weren’t taught it, people didn’t talk about it. That’s the power of music. It taught me all of that, in just one song.”

Founded on genocide

By the time Beds Are Burning was released, the band had already been together since 1972. First called Farm, they changed their name four years later to Midnight Oil after the Jimi Hendrix song, Burning of the Midnight Lamp. Evolving from punk to rock, and mixing their music with militancy, the activist Oils supported various left-wing causes, espousing their anti-nuclear, environmentalist, indigenous and socialist beliefs.

Beds Are Burning was their first major hit. It comes from the band’s sixth studio album, Diesel and Dust, which was the result of the extensive Blackfella/Whitefella tour Midnight Oil undertook in 1986 of Australia’s indigenous communities with two mostly indigenous bands, Gondwanaland and the Warumpi Band.

It was a transformative experience for the band, exposing them to the austere beauty of the desert, the inspiring creativity of the indigenous people and the deplorable conditions under which many of them lived.

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With Diesel and Dust, the Oils shifted their focus from environmental issues, nuclear threat, American imperialism and corporate greed to land theft from the original people of Australia. It came mere months before Australia’s bicentennial celebrations on 26 January 1988, which started as a celebration for emancipated British convicts and evolved into what is now a celebration of Australia that reflects the nation’s diverse people.

The album focused on the need for recognition by white Australia of past injustices involving the indigenous people and the need for justice. As Andrew Mueller wrote in a series on Australian anthems for The Guardian, Beds Are Burning was the dominant soundtrack of the bicentenary year, drowning out “the triumphalism” of the celebrations and reminding the nation that it was “founded on genocide”.

Sorry, not sorry

Diesel and Dust was a powerful, pleading rattle of the national conscience, and Beds Are Burning, essentially the album’s executive summary, suggesting to non-indigenous Australia that the country, ‘Belongs to them / Let’s give it back,’” he wrote. “Ironically, Diesel and Dust, by far Midnight Oil’s most specifically Australian album, became their biggest global hit. Beds Are Burning did notably well in countries which had also acquired their territory at gunpoint, charting high in the United States, Canada and South Africa.”

The song was cowritten by the band’s charismatic singer, Peter Garrett, drummer Rob Hirst and guitarist Jim Moginie. “Who would have thought an Aboriginal land rights song would travel that far?” Garrett said.

Diesel and Dust sold more than six million copies worldwide and got them a Grammy nomination. But Midnight Oil turned down an invitation to the ceremony to honour their commitment to a political event at home.

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But Beds Are Burning had still more fire left in it. Thirteen years later, the Oils gave a blistering performance of the song at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics to a worldwide television audience of billions. Australia’s prime minister at the time, John Howard, who had claimed it was his favourite Australian song, was in the crowd at the Olympic Stadium.

The band were dressed all in black with the word “SORRY” printed conspicuously in white on their jumpsuits. It was a reference to the conservative Howard’s controversial refusal to apologise on behalf of white Australia to their indigenous compatriots for the way they have been treated and their suffering under white settlement.

It provoked global discussion about the apology owing to stolen generations of indigenous children forcibly removed from their families between the 1890s and 1970s. If ever proof is needed of a song that can change lives, Beds Are Burning is it.

1 October 2000: Midnight Oil playing at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Summer Olympics in Australia. (Photograph by Martin Philbey/Redferns)
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