A quintet that originally found a following in the rowdy surf crowd frequenting Sydney-area bars, Australia’s Midnight Oil went on to become an international phenomenon, and its music grew far beyond its hard-rock roots. But that categorization never quite fit in the first place; hearing their watershed 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 and then reviewing their previous output, the natural query of “how did they make that leap” becomes “what took them so long?”
Oil’s iconoclasm is the primary answer. Lead singer Peter Garrett both symbolizes and embodies it: well over six feet tall and bald as a cue ball, he gave up a law career to sing rock’n’roll. His angst/anger-ridden vocals have nothing in common with the standard styles of hard- rock singers, nor do the band’s lyrics (chiefly by drummer Rob Hirst) share any of the genre’s fixation on refried love themes. The songs are frequently political, yet just as often are couched in extremely personal terms, be they about romance (rarely), self-doubt, hopes and fears and so on. And despite its share of semi-normal hard-rock, complete with blistering guitar solos, the eponymous debut album also includes strange notions about chord progressions and arrangements that would eventually flower: “Dust” is a bluesy riff stated on two basses an octave apart, backed by organ and drums.
No doubt the Oils’ insistence on intra-band democracy and doing things their own way was why they refused a major- league deal for five years. Unfortunately, that also meant a lack of money for studio experimentation, and most of their independent-label work sounds like demos, lacking the firm command of a proper producer.
It may also have retarded the band in working out the complexities of songs and arrangements, including adapting the music to odd lyrical meter (or vice versa). Head Injuries makes some progress on that front, and the songwriting — still largely done by various teams in the group — seems to have matured. A clutch of songs are able to transcend the limitations of their presentation, assisted by Garrett’s impassioned vocals and the group’s overall intensity. What at first seem to be arranging gaffes eventually take on an air of almost integral idiosyncrasy. The four-song Bird Noises EP continues that development and also features an anomalous but delightful Shadows-like instrumental, “Wedding Cake Island.” (The 1990 reissues of Oil’s early records and the 1985 EP are all CD/cassette; no domestic vinyl exists.)
Place Without a Postcard should’ve been a brilliant breakthrough; instead, it’s muscle-bound, all worked up and uncertain where to go first. The few simple strokes are the most effective — in fact, “Someone Else to Blame” is a crackler — but most of it’s at war with itself. Also, the sound achieved with veteran producer Glyn Johns in England is demo-thin. But the experimentation yielded valuable lessons, and James Moginie, the group’s most prolific composer, also began to jell his distinctive guitar sound, as well as creatively exploring keyboards. The stage was set for the group’s international introduction.
The strong political views expressed on 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 may have been a sticking point outside the band’s homeland, but they’re frequently more personally expressed than, say, the Clash’s and, when not, they’re more articulate. Increased use of synthesizer handsomely complements the quintet’s most cohesive songwriting and arranging; while no two tracks are more than vaguely similar, they’re all completely unified. Some credit must also go to Nick Launay (co-producer, with the band), who obtained a crisp, if slightly odd, sound. Although much of Side Two is more thoughtful and less visceral than Side One, overall the album is a masterpiece, from the desperate hopefulness of “Outside World” to the controlled hysteria/rifferama of “Only the Strong” to the danceable fist-shaker, “Power and the Passion.”
On Red Sails in the Sunset (again with Launay), the Oils indulge in too much experimentation at once (though more successfully than Place Without a Postcard). The LP opens with two relatively simple tracks, “When the Generals Talk” (more clichéd than the band’s usual political statements, but a stirring mix of hard rock and — new for the Oils — funk) and “Best of Both Worlds,” one of their best straight-ahead rockers ever. From there on, excessive musical complexity, plus some topics that are simply beyond the ken of non- Australians, make it heavy going. Some tracks (notably “Sleep” and “Minutes to Midnight”) do unfold eventually, but others remain steadfastly impenetrable.
Evidently inspired by the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Midnight Oil recorded Species Deceases, four survival-of-humanity tracks cut virtually live in the studio (co-produced by Francois Kervorkian). Solid and heartfelt, but no lyrical or musical revelations.
Diesel and Dust doesn’t reach the highs of 10,9,8… but it is consistently powerful and compelling. The production (the band with Warne Livesey) is snappier than ever, and the passion for the issues comes across loud and clear. Actually, the passion comes through regardless of the issues; few Americans who made “Beds Are Burning” the Oils’ first US hit single had any idea it was about Aboriginal land rights. Diesel is a consolidation of strengths, and isn’t even beyond a bit of recycling, but the results can be impressive (as on “Bullroarer,” which partially reprocesses Red Sails‘ “Sleep”). And it’s hard to fault such dandy goods as “The Dead Heart,” sung from an Aborigine’s point of view.
Blue Sky Mining continues the disappointing trend of decreasing musical inspiration. It’s like Species Deceases with more production (Livesey and the Oils again); not without its fine points, and occasionally as lyrically on-the-mark as ever (e.g., the title track), but the melodies, most of the messages and the general excitement level just aren’t the band’s best. If the Oils weren’t so eminently capable of greatness, an album this good would seem quite impressive.
The advantages of a Midnight Oil live album over a Midnight Oil concert are obvious: you get all the anthemic passion and none of the distraction — specifically, Garrett’s spastic calisthenics. Scream in Blue Live recaps the righteous Australian rockers’ career with a dozen performances of their rousing best, dating back to 1982 and ranging geographically from a theater in Sydney to a flat-bed truck in midtown Manhattan. Time has generally been good to the Oils, as the group has learned — both on record and stage — to present its political anger as confident grand drama rather than desperate zeal. Smartly sequenced to flow like a single show and buttress the least compelling songs with the sturdiest, the album gives good play to such artful fist-wavers as “Read About It” (from 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, the quintet’s masterwork), “Beds Are Burning” (a stirring call to return land to the Aborigines from Diesel and Dust, another top-rank album), “Stars of Warburton” (one of the few songs to hit the mark cleanly on Blue Sky Mining) and the anti-nuclear/pro-activism “Hercules” (from the four-song Species Deceases). A fine introduction to an invigorating if occasionally overbearing band.
Maturity significantly improved the Oils’ methodology, but it was accompanied by a distinct decline in the group’s creativity. Earth and Sun and Moon continued a slow slide that began in the mid-’80s; although the bottom has yet to fall out, Midnight Oil just doesn’t write ’em like they used to. Co-producer Launay settles the band into a sonic easy chair as Garrett sings lazy, routine lyrics like an outdated codger passing the torch. “Renaissance man are you ready/See what a world that you can make,” is his most optimistic view, mirror-imaged by “The world is crashing down on me tonight…I know this is the end of the beginning of the outbreak of love.” “God knows it’s been fun,” he opines in the memoir-like appraisal of “Feeding Frenzy.” Even the topicals (the environmental title track, the monarchy-attacking “Truganinni”) lack the usual bite. Only the folky family history of “In the Valley” has the kind of stand-up-and-be-counted chorus on which the group’s reputation rests, and it’s tucked away near the end of the album.