Rock band, activists
In 1990 the Australian band Midnight Oil gave a lunchtime performance at the headquarters of Exxon in New York City. Before some 10,000 bewildered onlookers, the quintet offered a typically raucous set to protest the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. A video documentary of the concert titled “Black Rain Falls” was issued shortly thereafter, with proceeds going to the environmental group Greenpeace.
Midnight Oil has, in fact, combined an acute awareness of political, social, and environmental issues with an aggressive rock sound to create one of the most distinctive voices in current popular music. From the moving depiction of the plight of Australian aborigines featured on the 1987 album Diesel and Dust, to the bitter commentary of “My Country,” about America’s Iran-Contra scandal, found in 1993’s Earth and Sun and Moon, Midnight Oil’s “agit-rock,” as Rolling Stone’s David Fricke once called it, has urged their audience to dance—and think.
Members include Peter Garrett (received law degree from University of New South Wales), vocals; Bones Hillman (born in New Zealand), bass; Rob Hirst, drums; Jim Moginie, guitar; and Martin Rotsey, guitar. Other members have included bass players Peter Gifford (left group c. 1988) and Andrew “Bear” James (left group 1980).
Band formed in Sidney, Australia, 1976; released self-titled debut on own label, Powderworks, 1978; signed with Columbia Records, 1982, and released 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1; Garrett ran for Australian Senate on Nuclear Disarmament Party ticket, 1984; mounted international tour, c. 1988; performed at Exxon Building, New York City, to protest Exxon Valdez oil spill, 1990; released film documentary, Black Rain Falls. Band has worked in suppport of numerous activist organizations including Greenpeace, the Movement Against Uranium, and Save the Whales. Garrett was president of Australia Conservation Foundation, 1991, and is a board member of Greenpeace.
Addresses: Record company —Columbia Records, P.O. Box 4450, New York, NY 10101.
The original nucleus of Midnight Oil was made up of drummer Rob Hirst, guitarist-keyboard player Jim Moginie, and bassist Andrew “Bear” James. The three friends began playing together in Sidney in 1971 and by 1972 had founded Farm, a group that performed cover versions of songs by Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. The group gained some media attention by touring Australian coastal resorts during the summer.
In 1976 Farm advertised for a lead singer and found one in Peter Garrett, then on leave from law studies. Garrett shaved his head—adding a striking visual element to the group that would become the singer’s trademark—and the band toughened up its sound, developing what Fricke called “something akin to the early-seventies Who with a leaner, punkier pub attack.” Later that year, guitarist Martin Rotsey rounded out the group and the ensemble changed its name to Midnight Oil.
By 1978, Midnight Oil, under the able guidance of manager Gary Morris, had begun to find a wide audience through explosive live performances at inner-city pubs in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. Inevitably, the band was approached by record company executives, but in order to maintain control over their music, the bandmembers decided to form their own, independent label, Powderworks, on which the first, self-titled Midnight Oil album was released in June of 1978.
In November of 1978 Midnight Oil began to build a reputation as political activists by playing a concert at Sidney Town Hall to protest Australia’s policy on uranium mining. Within a few months, the group was playing benefit concerts for the Save the Whales and Greenpeace organizations, Garrett eventually joining the latter as board member.
For the next several years Midnight Oil continued to record and toured England and the U.S. They received a great deal of press—especially when Garrett decided in 1984 to run for the Australian Senate on the Nuclear Disarmament Party ticket—yet commercial success remained beyond their reach; as drummer Hirst told Rolling Stone’s Fricke, “We were the best-known band in America never to sell records.” It was not until the group began to take a closer look at what was occurring literally in their backyard that Midnight Oil finally exploded onto the international scene.
In July of 1986 the group mounted what it called its “Black Fella White Fella” tour, during which it traveled to some of Australia’s most remote aboriginal settlements with the Warumpi Band, itself made up of aboriginal musicians. While performing in these far-flung spots, the group witnessed directly the atrocities that Australia’s native people have suffered at the hands of white settlers in over 200 years of colonization; they saw communities devastated by poverty and disease.
Shocked and confounded, the group immediately began writing material for a new album. Diesel and Dust was released in August of 1987, and despite the ugliness of its subject matter and angry sound—grippingly captured by Garrett’s anguished and commanding vocals—the album became a worldwide success and spawned the group’s first hit single beyond their native shores, “Beds Are Burning.” The record prompted a major tour of Australia, followed by extensive jaunts through Europe, the U.K., and North America. Although the group had existed for 12 years, audiences all over the world began discovering Midnight Oil for the first time.
Blue Sky Mining, the follow-up to Diesel and Dust, featured a change in personnel; Peter Gifford, who had replaced James on bass, was himself replaced by New Zealander Bones Hillman. The focus of the new record was more expansive; songs like “Blue Sky Mine” and “Stars of Warburton” continued to address topics specifically concerning Australia, but others, such as “Antarctica” and “One Country,” took a more global view. Another commercial success, the disc was Midnight Oil’s most critically acclaimed effort to date and prompted another round of international touring.
In 1991, the members of Midnight Oil took a year off, though they continued to remain politically active, giving a series of outdoor benefit concerts for the homeless and Garrett spending a year as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. In 1992 the group issued a compilation of live performances called Scream in Blue, which Fricke evocatively described as “real guitar nirvana: crisp, catalytic agit-twang, pregnant with steely menace, shivering with skittish vibrato and erupting in enraged screams of ice-pick feedback.”
Midnight Oil’s tenth studio album, Earth and Sky and Moon, retreated from the studio slickness of Diesel and Dust and Blue Sky Mining in order to recapture the rough-edged sound of the band’s early pub days. To record the set, the group rented a small facility near Sidney’s international airport—“our own little grunge hole,” as Garrett described it to Billboard —and relied on spontaneous musicianship rather than hi-tech wizardry. The result was a highly personal collection of what Billboard’s Melinda Newman called “stripped down, thunderous music.”
During their discussions with Newman the fiercely self-reliant group also addressed their 1982 move to the major label Columbia. “Coming over to Columbia was always a big step for us as an independent-minded band,” admitted Garrett, “and part of it was predicated on the basis that Oils is Oils; what you see is what you get.” The singer continued, explaining, “Our deal works in a different way to how must people’s arrangements work in that it has more of our own underwriting and control in it.”
Though Midnight Oil has maintained their status as what Garrett somewhat jokingly referred to in Billboard as a “terminally serious band appearing at the right places for the right things,” they have lightened their image somewhat. Garrett went on to admit, “You can’t be 100 percent politically, ideologically, ecologically, musically, spiritually, socially correct. You can only do it on your own level.” Even as the group continues to spread its message with conviction, it remains at heart a hard-driving, no-frills rock band.
Midnight Oil, Powderworks, 1978, reissued, Columbia.
Head Injuries, Powderworks, 1979, reissued, Columbia.
Bird Noises (EP), Powderworks, 1980, reissued, Columbia.
Place Without a Postcard, Powderworks, 1981, reissued, Columbia.
10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, Columbia, 1982.
Red Sails in the Sunset, Columbia, 1984.
Species Deceases (EP), Columbia, 1985.
Diesel and Dust (includes “Beds Are Burning”), Columbia, 1987.
Blue Sky Mining (includes “Stars of Warburton,” “Antarctica,” and “One Country”), Columbia, 1989.
(Contributors) “Wharf Rat,” Deadicated, Arista, 1991.
Scream in Blue, Columbia, 1992.
Earth and Sun and Moon (includes “My Country”), Columbia, 1993.
(Contributors) Alternative NRG, Hollywood, 1994.
Billboard, May 1, 1993.
Detroit Free Press, August 6, 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, May 22, 1992.
Musician, June 1993.
Rolling Stone, July 9, 1992; June 10, 1993; August 19, 1993.
Spin, June 1993.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Columbia Records press materials, 1993.
Members: Peter Garret, vocals (born Sydney, Australia, 16 April 1953); Rob Hirst, drums, vocals (born Sydney, Australia, 3 September 1955); Jim Moginie, guitar, keyboards (born Sydney, Australia, 18 May 1956); Martin Rotsey, guitar (born Sydney, Australia, 19 February 1956); Dwayne "Bones" Hillman (born New Zealand, 7 May 1958). Former member: Andrew James, bass.
Genre: Rock, Pop
Best-selling album since 1990: Blue Sky Mining (1990)
Hit songs since 1990: "Blue Sky Mine"
Midnight Oil, the Australian rock band, was introduced to U.S. audiences through their hit "Beds Are Burning" (1987), considered one of the most potent political rock songs of all time. The band had already been around for over ten years fighting for the environment and social justice, especially the rights of the Australian Aborignes. Midnight Oil took their self-appointed role as advocates seriously, and they used their breakthrough fame to promote their convictions in unconventional ways. Their live shows were distinctive for their firebrand blend of activism, hard guitar rock, and the hyper energy of their front man, Peter Garrett. Thrusting his wiry, seven-foot frame into every pocket of the stage, Garrett created a incomparable performance picture.
Garrett was an unlikely band front man in more ways than one. He had earned a law degree when the band first came together in the late 1970s, during the height of punk rock. The band distinguished themselves by their fiercely independent streak. They created their own record label, Powderworks, and booked their own tours across Australia, many of them benefits. Midnight Oil quickly developed a loyal following. They signed to Columbia Records in 1983, and their major label debut, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 (1983), sat on the charts for two years. Garrett made news in 1984 when he ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Australian senate.
The band's international breakthrough was Diesel and Dust (1987). The music was politically charged, anthemic rock with polished hooks perfect for radio airplay. The music, most significantly the hit single "Beds Are Burning," spoke for the plight of the Aborigines who had been disenfranchised by colonization and suffered from land rights issues, particularly the mining of uranium on their land. Most Americans however, were not even aware of the music's message, which Garrett admitted was subversive. The album and subsequent videos introduced a wider U.S. audience to Garrett—his lanky demeanor, shaven head, and intense body maneuverings.
The band became known for staging impromptu concerts, most famously in front of the Exxon building in New York in 1990, a year after the disaster of the breakup of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez, in waters off Alaska, which resulted in the worst oil spill in U.S. history. In the 1990s Midnight Oil regularly played benefits for Greenpeace, the international environmental organization, and Garrett became president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. The band was invited to perform for the closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Sydney in 2000. While performing "Beds Are Burning," each band member opened his jacket to reveal the word "sorry" written on his shirt, a gesture that made waves for politicizing the moment. It was meant to draw attention to the struggles of the Aborigines.
By then Midnight Oil had evolved into a pop-oriented band, as evidenced by the release of their most nonpolitical album, Breathe (1996). Their albums received mostly warm reviews, but the band was playing to a small, dedicated following. Columbia shifted priorities, and by the late 1990s devoted minimal effort to marketing the group. The band signed with Liquid Records, an independent label in Minneapolis. Liquid released Capricornia (2001), an accessible and upbeat pop album meant to reconnect with the core audience. From 2001 into the next year, Midnight Oil embarked on an ambitious club tour of the United States, playing sold-out shows in most cities. In late 2002 Garrett announced his retirement to become a full-time environmental activist. The rest of the band continued under a different name.
While most bands pay lip service to activism, Midnight Oil integrated social concerns fully into everything they did. Paving the way for politically conscious groups like Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, and Fugazi, Midnight Oil remained committed to making music that could change people's lives. The band staked their reputation on live shows that were always exhilarating.
Midnight Oil (Powder-works, 1978); Head Injuries (Powderworks, 1980); Bird Noises EP (Powderworks, 1980); Place Without a Postcard (Powderworks, 1981); 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3, 2,1 (Columbia, 1983); Red Sails in the Sunset (Columbia, 1984); Species Deceases EP (Columbia, 1985); Diesel and Dust (Columbia, 1987); Blue Sky Mining (Columbia, 1990); Scream in Blue Live (Columbia, 1992); Earth and Sun and Moon (Columbia, 1993); Breathe (Sony/Work, 1996); 20,000 Watt R.S.L.—The Columbia Collection (Columbia, 1997); Redneck Wonderland (Columbia, 1998); The Real Thing (Sony, 2000); Capricornia (Liquid, 2001).