The first Midnight Oil song that I was aware of was The Power and the Passion. At its best Midnight Oil certainly possessed plenty of both.
Because I started with Diesel I also picked up Blue Sky Mining – I still think that the Oils were one of the best at putting a political message inside a three-minute pop-rock song; you could enjoy and agree with the message – or you could like the song without agreeing with the politics completely. That said, I learned a lot about aspects of Australia’s culture, geography and politics from Midnight Oil songs.
I bought Blue Sky Mining on a trip to Sydney – the band’s home-town – the year it came out. In 1990 Midnight Oil was probably my favourite band. By then I had thrashed Diesel and Dust and my brother had picked up 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. In Sydney, on that same trip, I also collected Red Sails In The Sunset from a second-hand music store for $2.99. A couple of years later a mate had picked up the CD, Head Injuries (the band’s sophomore release). It was harder (Back On The Borderline) and I liked it a lot.
It seems I could never quite ever let go of Midnight Oil. I picked up 1993’s Earth And Sun And Moon because Truganini was reminiscent of the singles and the sound of Diesel and Blue Sky. Three years later I picked up Breathe because I liked the single, Surf’s Up Tonight. A couple of years on from there I grabbed Redneck Wonderland (even though I didn’t think all that much of White Skin Black Heart when it was released the year earlier as part of the anthology, 20,000 Watt R.S.L.)
When Capricornia was released (2002) I bought it and instantly fell back under the spell of the band – it sent me back to my favourites (Red Sails and 10, 9, 8) and suggested that the band still had hooks, messages and songcraft. (And you hear all of that and more on the majestic coiling, unfurling riff of Tone Poem). They were a pub-rock band, sure, perfectly placed given the propensity for that sound in New Zealand and Australia at the time the Oils were at their biggest. Somehow, to me, they transcended the bogan cliché of pub-rock – even though they could absolutely (and always) be enjoyed on that level. The songs were sharp – they had heart.
Of all the bands I’ve followed – collecting up all their work, studying, obsessing over – Midnight Oil was a band I was happy knowing very little about. And, really, I still don’t know a lot about the band – I’ve never wanted to read the band’s story, find out more about the players or songs, watch documentaries…I just like/d the music for what it was/is – and happen to think there’s surprising levels of depth (still) in so much of the band’s work.
I wasn’t just a casual fan – I collected over a dozen albums and EPs, live material, compilations; I had basically everything you could get. Every trip to Australia for me includes a quick-fix gander to see if I can find any Midnight Oil rarities; these days I’m looking for a few of the albums on vinyl (I have most of my favourites – I’m still finding the EPs on vinyl though).
But – and it might seem obvious to say this – I was happy letting the music do the talking; I didn’t need to get behind it. I only ever wanted to get inside it. I wanted the music – I didn’t need any back-story.
You don’t need back-story with Midnight Oil, the band’s songs contain their own mini-histories; they are biographies and atlases of so much that is wrong and right in Australia.
To this day there are a dozen or more Midnight Oil songs that can stop me in my tracks; that hook me in; that create that goose-bumps/arm-hairs-at-attention feeling. The first song to do that was Maralinga. To this day it’s one of my absolute favourite songs.
I can see that things got a bit obvious later on – there’s no reason for those last few albums to be afforded any great scrutiny, to be picked through for gems (even though they’re all pleasant and strong enough) but those early albums still light a fire.
How about Jimmy Sharman’s Boxers? That song still has me hooked, the punch of the drum, the guitar jumping between the speakers, a lurch turning into a crawl, then a march. I love this song.
You could make an alternative Midnight Oil compilation avoiding so many of the known “hits” and you would create a more rewarding listening experience.
But in the end is that the problem; one of context? Midnight Oil was never quite a post-punk band, never really close to the new-romantics, never radio fodder or cheesy pop, not metal – and yet the band existed through the timeframes when all of this other music was happening. Where did they take their influence? What made them want to say the things they said? I mean, apart from addressing social injustice and showing political awareness. Where did this come from in a musical sense? What were their touchstones? In the end it feels like Midnight Oil was only ever best described as pub-rock or political-pop and those were just facets of the sound; not a complete and accurate summary for three decades of music. Or is it?
So many people have talked about Midnight Oil being a great live band; I never got to see the band perform live. I would have loved to.
Seeing heroes live – that’s what I got into gigs for, that’s what I got into gig-reviewing for. That’s what keeps me excited about seeing live music, new and old, finding and making (and meeting) new heroes, and seeing the old legends.