30 Years Ago: Midnight Oil Make Australian Politics Global With ‘Diesel and Dust’
By 1985, Midnight Oil had become a household name in Australia. Well, in most of Australia.
In eight years, the Aussie rockers had gone from being one of scores of bands making the rounds at the country’s beer barns -- huge rooms packed with hundreds of hard-drinking men -- to dominating the charts. Both 1982’s 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and 1984’s Red Sails in the Sunset made the Top Five and went multi-platinum. Even the rumbling punk of the group’s 1985 EP Species Deceases managed to hit No. 1.
But as well as they were known on the coasts, in the big cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, Midnight Oil remained mostly a mystery in the rural, wild center of the country. Of course, the center was a mystery to Midnight Oil as well.
The band had built their reputation on loud, furious music that swung from hard rock to new wave. The quintet wrote about the dangers of nuclear arms, environmental disasters, workers’ rights, and a laundry list of other leftist causes. But it took looking deep inside their own country for Midnight Oil to conjure their masterpiece: Diesel and Dust.
In 1986, the band skipped headlining arenas for a tour of the Australian outback. Dubbed the Blackfella/Whitefella Tour, the trek gave the band its first glimpse at both the brutal poverty and unique culture of Australia’s Aboriginal people.
“It was a life-changing event for all of us,” drummer and key songwriter Rob Hirst told Pop Matters in 2013.
Hirst, singer Peter Garrett, guitarists Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey, and then-bassist Peter Gifford joined forces with Aboriginal tourmates the Warumpi Band for a trip from one remote settlement to the next. Documented in the amazing rock documentary Blackfella/Whitefella, which was included as a DVD on the 2008 reissue of the Oils’ Diesel and Dust, the experience inspired a writing boom in the band.
“We observed as young, white Australians the conditions out there,” Moginie told Identity Theory in 2008. “The poverty, the petrol sniffing, the health problems, the art, the deep culture, the dispossession, the respect the concept of family has, the great sense of humor and strength of the people, the natural beauty, all mixed up into a radicalizing experience. We wrote about our impressions on the Diesel record.”
Their interest in indigenous rights, which had been largely ignored by the country, peaked when the Labor government returned the ownership of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) to the Mutijulu people. The Mutijulu asked the band to write a song for a film being made about the issue. The Oils wrote “Beds Are Burning,” “The Dead Heart,” and a tune called “We Shall Not Be Released.” The Mutijulu picked “The Dead Heart.”
“That’s a piece of music which could only have come from our band and a time and a place,” Hirst said.
Lyrically, “The Dead Heart” made a fierce, clear statement: “We don’t serve your country, don't serve your king / Know your custom, don't speak your tongue / White man came took everyone.” It directly attacked both the theft of land and of thousands of aboriginal children -- known as the Stolen Generations -- taken from their parents by Australian Federal and State agencies.
Sonically, the song came directly from sound of their trucks rumbling against hundreds of miles of corrugated desert roads. The band has also said the “chicka-chicka” of the guitar in “Beds Are Burning” came from the metallic rattle their vehicles made traversing the barren land.
The landscape and culture of the desert came to redefine the band. On the tour, the group discovered its hard-charging punk didn’t work in the outback. Over time tempos slowed, more acoustic guitars sneaked in, harmony vocals came together, and the tone of Diesel and Dust coalesced.
“There was a desire for simplicity and focus in the camp at the time,” Moginie said. “We were always rebelling against our previous records. I think on this one simplicity was the key.”
“There was a sixth sense that the music somehow fitted the landscape, the Gunbarrel Highway was surveyed with a .303 rifle, dead straight for hundreds of miles of corrugated, red-dirt road,” he continued. “Drive for hundreds of miles on roads like that, and you do get hypnotized. Repetitive music works better in cars over long distances. Like a good car mix-tape, it makes the drive better. ZZ Top would work better than say Duran Duran, to use 1980s examples.”
In the studio, the band had a keen focus, their sound and message merged. They named songs for forgotten villages (“Warakurna”); they incorporated the buzz of the sacred indigenous instrument bullroarer; they sung, “It belongs to them / Let’s give it back” with clear resolution.
"When you think about us singing about dispossessed indigenous people, you wouldn't think that would be a record that anyone would want to hear," Moginie told Reuters. "But it turned out that they did. There's hope for the world yet."
Prepped by increasingly-political artists -- think Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and U2 -- rock fans were ready for an Australian LP fueled by outrage. Even if the band were bringing up issues many of their countrymen had spent decades burying.
“I think our frame of reference is basically just a lot broader than most peoples’,” Peter Garrett told Noise 11. “We are prepared to have a go at (difficult subjects) even if it seems appearing very grandiose and profound and didactic and whatever. I think it’s just something that we’ve been prepared to have a go at. When you get it right and it coincides with what other people are feeling, then, yes, you do have a really strong record. But when you don’t, then everyone looks at you like you’ve come from another planet.”
Diesel and Dust arrived in August 1987 and became an international sensation. It achieved platinum status in the United States (and Canada and Sweden and…) and went 7x times platinum in Australia. Both “Beds Are Burning” and “The Dead Heart” became massive global hits -- the former is still a staple of alternative and rock radio.
“The record did unbelievably well, which is still surprising to me,” Moginie said. “It was given a green light all around the globe, like the keys to a city. It surprises me now that a record by a bunch of whitefellas from Sydney about the problems of indigenous people in Australia could be a hit worldwide. That isn’t supposed to happen. But it turned out that people got it, maybe it was the poetry of the landscape in the videos we did, the focus of the sound of the record producer Warne Livesey brought to it, the fact ‘Beds’ was on it, or that we meant what we said.”
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