Midnight Oil - Biography
By Audra Wolfmann
Dubbed as “one of the most significant bands ever to emerge from Australia” by Rolling Stone magazine, Midnight Oil forged a 27-year career extraordinarily characterized by both acts of political protest and chart-topping hits. This unlikely combination makes “The Oils” a hard act to follow -- not just for Australians but for all musicians everywhere. From Australia’s own internal strife involving racism, Aboriginal rights, and asbestos-poisoned miners to the international concerns of the Exxon oil spill, Midnight Oil lyrically raged, physically protested, and scored hit after hit.
Midnight Oil formed in 1975 after a young law student and singer named Peter Garrett answered a classified ad placed in the Sydney Evening Post by a local prog rock band called The Farm. Garrett soon convinced drummer Rob Hirst, guitarists Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey, and bassist Andrew James to shift to an edgier, more punk-influenced sound. They changed their name to Midnight Oil and started touring the Eastern coast of Australia, where they quickly formed a cult following of surf punks.
Despite the band’s growing fan base, Australian record companies weren’t interested, so they created their own label and released Midnight Oil (1978 Sprint Music/ re-released by CBS Records). The guitar-driven rock and Garrett’s powerful baritone voice made their self-titled debut a hit, landing at #43 on the Australian charts. The success of Midnight Oil caught the attention of Columbia Records in Australia, who released the band’s second album Head Injuries (1979 Columbia), as well as all their following major releases for the next 21 years.
In 1980, bassist James was replaced by Peter Gifford and Midnight Oil released the four-song EP Bird Noises (1980 Columbia). The EP strays from the hard rocking style established on their first two albums, showing a promising musical flexibility. Bird Noises features some acoustic experimentation and the relaxed surf-rock instrumental “Wedding Cake Island,” which has proven to be an enduring favorite of fans. The EP charted at #28 on the Australian charts.
With a taste of national success under their belts, the band headed to London to record their next album, Place without a Postcard (1981 Columbia), with renown British producer Glyn Johns (The Rolling Stones, The Who). On Place without a Postcard, Midnight Oil’s enviro-political agenda begins to shine through as well as their now trademark high energy, anger-driven intellectual sound. The album’s breakout hit “Armistice Day” made The Oils one of Australia’s most popular bands and landed them an American deal with Columbia Records.
Their American debut 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (1982 Columbia) was recorded in London by post-punk producer Nick Launay (The Birthday Party, PiL, The Jam, XTC, Peter Gabriel). Although the album with the unwieldy name sports a smoother, more-produced and radio-friendly veneer than their previous releases, Midnight Oil did not hold back on their political agenda. Their musical calling card to America includes songs denouncing American foreign policy (“US Forces”) and imperialism (“Short Memory”). The album received a moderately positive response in America and scored a distant spot in The Billboard 200, but remained perched in the Australian charts for over two years.
In 1984, The Oils again teamed up with Launay and recorded Red Sails in the Sunset (1984 Columbia) in Tokyo, Japan. The rhythmic, driving guitars of Moginie and Rotsey create a solid base upon which Garrett’s stern and pounding vocals strive to educate the world on its injustices. The album faired just slightly better in The Billboard 200 than 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and hit #1 on the Aussie charts.
Wanting to take a more direct route in his activism, Garrett ran for a seat in the Australian Senate under the Nuclear Disarmament Party, right after the release of Red Sails in the Sunset. He did not win a seat, but had the most votes of all the minority party candidates. The following year, another EP was released, Species Deceases (1985 Columbia), in observance of the 40th anniversary of atomic bombing of Hiroshima. All profits were donated to a fund promoting disarmament.
Midnight Oil’s next move was characteristically outspoken, daring, and oddly successful for both the band and global consciousness. In 1986, The Oils embarked on their Blackfella Whitefella tour with aboriginal rock group the Warumpi Band. Together, the bands toured remote Aboriginal communities in the Australian outback, witnessing the substandard living conditions imposed upon the Aboriginal people. The creative outcome of Midnight Oil’s outrage was Diesel and Dust (1987 Columbia), which charted at #1in Australia and went platinum in America. The album’s biggest international hit singles "Beds Are Burning" and "The Dead Heart" are both blatant protest songs against the indignities suffered by the Aborigines. Midnight Oil succeeded in raising the world’s awareness of what was until then a nearly invisible plight and they did it through accessible and catchy rock music.
After massive touring for Diesel and Dust, bassist Gifford left the band due to health issues. Wayne “Bones” Hillman replaced Gifford and three years later Midnight Oil recorded Blue Sky Mining (1990 Columbia), which again hit #1 on the Aussie charts and #20 on the Billboard 200 in the U.S. The title track, dedicated to the blue asbestos-poisoned miners of Wittenoom (and the unfair treatment they received by the proprietors of the mines), is the band’s only song to hit #1 on the American charts. On May 30, 1990, Midnight Oil used their spotlight shrewdly, by pulling up to the Manhattan offices of Exxon in a flat-bed truck and playing a set in protest of the Exxon Valdez oil spill – possibly the world’s most disastrous pollution snafu. The concert literally stopped the city in its tracks and earned the band even more environmental street cred than ever, which is just as well since by this time Garrett had become the President of the Australian Conservation Foundation. Songs recorded at the legendary Exxon protest concert can be heard on the band’s first live album Scream In Blue (1992 Columbia).
In 1993, Earth and Sun and Moon (1993 Columbia) was released with three singles on the American charts. “Truganini”, which charted at #4 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks, again deals with the Aboriginal plight. Three years later they released Breathe (1996 Columbia) to waning American interest.
The final six years of Midnight Oil’s history were certainly productive, but as Garrett became more entrenched in Australian politics and the other band members pursued outside musical interests, their albums produced fewer international hits. Redneck Wonderland (1998 Columbia), railed against racism in their country and sent them on a world tour. Two years later, The Oils put out The Real Thing (2000 Columbia), a mix of live concert recordings and studio acoustic tracks. Later that year, the band performed “Beds are Burning” at the Closing Ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games. Never ones to pass up a chance at making a public political statement, each band member wore the word SORRY printed on their shirts to signal a national apology to the Aborigines. The message also served as a condemnation of Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s refusal to participate in a symbolic reconciliation with the true Australian natives. Howard was in attendance at this performance.
Capricornia (2002 Liquid 8) continued Midnight Oil’s crusade for global awareness, but it was to be their last album. Garrett announced his resignation from the band in December of 2002 and went on to be selected as the Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment, Heritage and the Arts in 2004 and then was named the Minister for the Environment in 2007.