Midnight Oil (also known informally as "The Oils" to fans) were an Australian alternative rock band from Sydney originally performing as Farm from 1972 with drummer Rob Hirst, bass guitarist Andrew James and keyboard player/lead guitarist Jim Moginie. While vocalist Peter Garrett was studying at Australian National University in Canberra, he answered an advertisement for a spot in Farm, and by 1975 the band was touring the east coast. By late 1976, Garrett moved to Sydney to complete his law degree, and Farm changed its name to Midnight Oil by drawing the name out of a hat.
Important to their development was manager Gary Morris who was able to negotiate favourable contracts with tour promoters and record companies and frustrate rock journalists. Guitarist Martin Rotsey joined in 1977 and Midnight Oil, with Morris, established their own record label Powderworks, which released their debut eponymous album in November 1978, and their first single "Run by Night" followed in December. Founding bass guitarist James, forced to leave due to illness in 1980, was replaced by Peter Gifford. Gifford was himself replaced by Bones Hillman in 1987. Through a long and distinguished career, the band became known for its driving hard-rock sound, intense live performances and political activism, particularly in aid of anti-nuclear, environmentalist and indigenous causes.
Midnight Oil’s albums which peaked in the Australian Top Ten were 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Red Sails in the Sunset, Species Deceases, Diesel and Dust, Blue Sky Mining, Scream in Blue (Live), Earth and Sun and Moon, Breathe, 20,000 Watt R.S.L., Redneck Wonderland, The Real Thing, Capricornia and Flat Chat. Australian Top Ten singles were "Power and the Passion", "The Dead Heart", "Beds Are Burning" and "Blue Sky Mine". Aside from chart success, both "Power and the Passion" and "Beds Are Burning" were listed by Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) in the Top 30 best Australian songs of all time in 2001, achart in which Midnight Oil are the only artists to feature twice. In December 2002, Garrett announced that he would seek to further his political career and Midnight Oil disbanded. But they would reform for two warm-up shows in Canberra leading up to their performance at one of the "Sound Relief" charity concerts, in honour of the victims of the 2009 "Black Saturday" fires in Victoria and floods in Queensland.
Midnight Oil won eleven Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Awards during its career, including induction into the Hall of Fame in 2006. At the induction, ARIA chairman Denis Handlin described Midnight Oil as true legends that always led by example in a uniquely Australian way with music that is powerful, uncompromising, inspiring, entertaining and enduring.
In 2010, their album Diesel and Dust ranked no. 1 in the book The 100 Best Australian Albums by Toby Creswell, Craig Mathieson and John O'Donnell.
In 1971, drummer Rob Hirst, bass guitarist Andrew James, and keyboard player/lead guitarist Jim Moginie were performing together. They adopted the name "Farm" in 1972, and played covers of Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Led Zeppelin songs. They placed an advert for a band member and Peter Garrett (ex-Rock Island Line) became their new vocalist and synthesiser player, and began introducing progressive rock elements of Focus, Jethro Tull and Yes, as well as their own material. Garrett was studying at Australian National University in Canberra, so Farm was only a part-time band. They played for the northern Sydney surfing community, and by 1975 the band was touring the east coast. In late 1976, Garrett moved to Sydney to complete his Law degree. Farm then became a full-time group and so changed its name to "Midnight Oil" by drawing a name out of a hat, leaving behind "Television", "Sparta" and "Southern Cross". Midnight Oil came from the Jimi Hendrix song, "Burning of the Midnight Lamp".
After changing its name to Midnight Oil, the group began to develop an aggressive, punk-hard rock sound for their pub rock audiences. Guitarist Martin Rotsey joined in 1977 and Midnight Oil, with their manager Gary Morris, established their own record label Powderworks. In June 1978 they entered the Alberts Studio in Sydney with producer Keith Walker, from local radio station 2JJ, to record their debut eponymous album, Midnight Oil, which was released by Powderworks in November 1978 and peaked at No. 43 on the Australian albums charts. Midnight Oil's first single "Run by Night" followed in December, but had very little chart success, peaking at No. 100 on the singles charts. The band built a dedicated fan base, initially restricted to Sydney, which was extended to other Australian cities through constant touring – performing some 200 gigs in their first year. They became known for their furious live performances, which featured the two guitarists Moginie and Rotsey, the drumming and vocals of Hirst and the presence of the towering, bald Garrett as lead singer.
The Midnight Oil LP disappointed some critics as it did not capture their powerful live performances, with undemanding playing and Garrett’s vocals sounding stilted. Their second album Head Injuries, released on Powderworks in October 1979, was produced by former Supercharge member Leszek Karski. It mixed solid guitar rock with progressive flourishes and was an improvement by highlighting the group’s strengths and growth. It peaked at No. 36 and by mid-1980 had achieved gold status. In April 1980 founding bass guitarist Andrew James left because of ill-health and was replaced by Peter Gifford (ex-Huntress, Ross Ryan Band). Further interest in Midnight Oil was generated by the popular Bird Noises EP, also produced by Karski, which peaked at No. 28 on the Australian singles charts. One of its four tracks was the surf-instrumental "Wedding Cake Island" named after the rock outcrop in the ocean off Sydney's Coogee Beach. The band's third LP Place without a Postcard, released by CBS Records in November 1981, was recorded in Sussex with English producer Glyn Johns (The Rolling Stones, The Who). Creative tensions between the band and Johns plagued the recording and the group were not totally happy with the outcome. Johns had an arrangement with A&M Records and they asked Midnight Oil to return to the studio to record material suitable for an American single release – they refused and returned to Australia. Place without a Postcard peaked at No. 12 on the albums charts and related singles "Don’t Wanna be the One" and "Armistice Day" reached the Top 40 in Australia.
Fans, music industry, media
Driven largely by commercial pressures to stay with reliable chart-toppers and teenage pop sensations, the Australian music industry in the mid-1970s cast a dismissive eye toward most bands with an alternative outlook. Although consistently championed by Sydney alternative rock station Double Jay and its FM band successor Triple J, Midnight Oil was almost totally ignored by Australia's mainstream commercial radio stations in their early career. Manager Morris developed a reputation as one of the toughest managers and became notorious for banning critics or journalists, who were usually given free admission to concerts, for writing unfavourable reviews. Writer and critic Bruce Elder, in a mid-1980s newspaper review described their music as "narrow and xenophobic", and declared Midnight Oil were:
In retaliation, Morris banned Elder from Oil's shows permanently. Elder later recanted, describing them as the only Australian band to have developed a truly Australian sound.
The frostiness of Midnight Oil's relationship with the traditional music media quickly saw the band develop a strong "street cred", and a reputation for making no compromises with the music industry. In the early 1980s the band was scheduled to appear on an episode of the all-powerful Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) TV pop show Countdown, but on the day of the show they were "bumped" from the line-up. Countdown required artists to mime their songs during 'live' performances, Midnight Oil and Morris insisted they perform completely live and have their sound engineer supervising – neither side backed down. According to Countdown producer Michael Shrimpton, the band had arrived late for rehearsal, and due to the show's very tight schedule and budget there was a strict policy that latecomers were not allowed to appear, and as such they were told they could not perform that day. In response, the group declared that they would never appear on the show, a promise they faithfully kept. Countdown presenter Molly Meldrum shaved his head bald, imitating Garrett, for its final show on 19 July 1987 and expressed regret that Midnight Oil had never appeared on the show.
Fans of the group were drawn to the band's "us and them" mindset, and fan loyalty to the Oils' ideas and music was fierce. Two venues at which they built significant fan bases from their early live performances were the Sydney northern beaches pub The Royal Antler at Narrabeen and the Bondi Lifesaver club near Sydney's Bondi Beach. Politically oriented rock of the style produced by the band was something of a new concept for the Australian music scene, and Peter Garrett quickly earned a reputation as one of the most charismatic and outspoken musicians in the country. He recalled that there were dangers in playing the pub scene:
Rise to fame: 1982–1985
10 to 1
Their Australian breakthrough and first international recognition came in 1982, with the release of 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, which included the singles "Power and the Passion" and "Read about It". The album peaked at No. 3 and "Power and the Passion" peaked at No. 8. The album also includes their denunciation of American military interference in foreign affairs in "US Forces" and their critique of imperialist repression in "Short Memory". 10 to 1 was recorded in London during September and produced by Englishman Nick Launay, who had previously worked with acts including The Jam, XTC, Peter Gabriel, PiL, Gang of Four and The Birthday Party. Launay worked on several other major Australian recordings in this period including INXS' The Swing, Models' The Pleasure of Your Company and The Church's Seance.
The album remained in the Australian charts for 171 weeks. It retained their live energy but was more adventurous and radical than previous work. Their ascendancy was signalled by a series of concerts on the release of the album at Sydney's Capitol Theatre, one of which was filmed and recorded and later released on their 2004 Best of Both Worlds DVD. The band also played their first shows outside Australia during this time, with the album being released in US on Columbia Records, where it charted in 1984 on the Billboard 200; in the UK it was released on CBS.
Red Sails in the Sunset
Midnight Oil undertook more politically motivated benefit concerts, including organising the Stop the Drop Nuclear Disarmament concert in 1983 which received a United Nations Media Peace Prize. 10 to 1 was followed by Red Sails in the Sunset in October 1984, which was recorded in Japan, produced by Launay again. It peaked at No. 1 for four weeks on the Australian charts, and charted on the Billboard 200. Singles from the album were released in US and UK but had no chart success. Whilst the album showed an overreliance on technical wizardry, their lyrical stance was positive. The band continued to expand their sound and explore themes of politics, consumerism, militarism, the threat of nuclear war and environmental issues. The album cover by Japanese artist Tsunehisa Kimura featured a photomontage of Sydney – both city and harbour – cratered and devastated after a hypothetical nuclear attack. Live concert footage of "Short Memory" was used in the Australian independent anti-nuclear war movie One Night Stand. A promotional video for "Best of Both Worlds", later on Best of Both Worlds, received airplay worldwide on cable music TV station MTV.
Garrett ran as a Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP) candidate for a NSW seat in the Australian Senate during the December 1984 federal election, Garrett obtained 9.6% of votes but was unable to obtain the required quota of 12.5%. In April 1985, Garrett, with some 30 other members, walked out of the national conference and resigned from the NDP claiming it had been infiltrated by a Trotskyist group. Although unsuccessful in that federal election, Garrett was now a recognised public figure.
Goat Island Triple J concert
In January 1985, Midnight Oil performed Oils on the Water, a concert on Goat Island in Port Jackson to celebrate Triple J's tenth birthday, before a select audience of fans who had won tickets in a radio competition. The concert was filmed, simulcast on ABC-TV and Triple J, and released on video, which was remastered for their 2004 Best of Both Worlds DVD.
International success and activism: 1985–2002
Diesel and Dust
In December 1985 the four-track EP Species Deceases produced with Francois Kevorkian was released by CBS/Columbia; it peaked at No. 1 on the Australian singles charts for six weeks. Species Deceases, featuring the track "Hercules", featured a return to their pub rock sound with hard hitting firepower. Midnight Oil spent several months in 1986 on the Blackfella/Whitefella tour of outback Australia with indigenous groups Warumpi Band and Gondwanaland, playing to remote Aboriginal communities and seeing first hand the seriousness of the issues in health and living standards. The tour was criticised by some journalists for being a one-off event instead of a long-term attempt to build bridges between communities. The band was galvanised by the experiences and made them the basis of Diesel and Dust, released in 1987 and produced by Warne Livesey. The album focused on the need for recognition by white Australia of past injustices involving the Aboriginal nation and the need for reconciliation. Peter Gifford left the band before the album's release due to extensive touring schedules, and was replaced by Bones Hillman, formerly of The Swingers.
Diesel and Dust peaked at No. 1 on the Australian albums charts for six weeks, No. 21 on the Billboard 200 charts in 1988, and No. 19 on the UK albums charts. "Beds Are Burning" was their biggest international hit single, peaking at No. 6 in Australia, and No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100, No. 6 on the UK singles charts. "The Dead Heart" peaked at No. 6 in Australia, and charted on the Hot 100 and in the UK. "Put Down that Weapon" also charted in Australia, while "Dreamworld" charted on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks and at No. 16 on its Modern Rock Tracks.
At the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) 1988 Awards ceremony, Midnight Oil won "Best Cover Art" for Diesel and Dust and both "Best Single" and "Best Song" for "Beds Are Burning". A fracas developed between Morris, accepting awards for Midnight Oil, and former Countdown compere Ian Meldrum who was presenting: Meldrum objected to Morris making political commentary from the podium.
There were concerns about Diesel and Dust and Midnight Oil's attempts to express indigenous issues to white urban audiences – namely, the question "who holds the power to tell whose history?" The lyrics of "The Dead Heart" tell the story of colonisation from an indigenous point of view but some critics felt they reinforced the "primitive" stereotype. Use of the bullroarer was criticised as belonging to sacred rituals, and therefore not appropriate for rock songs. "The Dead Heart" had been written in response to a request by organisers of the 1985 ceremony to return control of Uluru to its indigenous caretakers; Midnight Oil had originally resisted adding an indigenous group to a concert bill, but the organisers insisted, arguing that the band would reach a wider audience within the predominantly Caucasian urban centres. Midnight Oil requested that all royalties from the song go to indigenous communities. In addition, two indigenous groups, Warumpi Band and Gondwanaland, toured with them.
Following the 1988 American tour in support of Diesel and Dust with Australian band Yothu Yindi, Midnight Oil launched the Burning Bridges album with various artists contributing, including Paul Kelly, Scrap Metal, Coloured Stone, Hunters & Collectors, James Reyne, The Saints, Crowded House, INXS and Yothu Yindi. All sales proceeds were donated to the National Coalition of Aboriginal Organisations.
During 1989–1993 and 1998–2002 Garrett was the President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, whilst during 1993–1998 he was on the International Board of Greenpeace. In 1990 Midnight Oil played an impromptu lunchtime set in front of Exxon headquarters in New York with a banner reading, "Midnight Oil Makes You Dance, Exxon Oil Makes Us Sick," protesting the Exxon Valdez oil spill the previous year.
Blue Sky Mining
In February 1990, Blue Sky Mining, produced by Livesey, was released by CBS/Columbia. It peaked at No. 1 on the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) albums charts. It stayed at No. 1 for two weeks in Australia and had Top 5 chart success in Sweden, Switzerland and Norway. It peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard 200 and No. 28 on the UK charts. The album was more defiant and outspoken; the single "Blue Sky Mine" describes asbestos exposure in the Wittenoom mine tragedy. The single peaked at No. 8 on the ARIA singles charts, top 15 in Norway and Switzerland, No. 47 on Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on both their Mainstream and Modern Rock Tracks charts, and appeared on the UK charts. The second single, "Forgotten Years," was more moderately successful, reaching No. 26 on the ARIA singles chart, No. 97 in the UK, No. 11 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks, and No. 1 on the Modern Rock Tracks.
In Sydney in 1990, while Midnight Oil were taking a break, Hirst joined up with guitarist Andrew Dickson, drummer Dorland Bray of Do-Ré-Mi, guitarist Leszek Karski (Midnight Oil producer) and bass guitarist Rick Grossman of Hoodoo Gurus to form a side project called Ghostwriters. The name refers to the practice of ghostwriting, wherein famous writers contribute under assumed names in order to remain anonymous. Ghostwriters' line-ups – both live and in the studio – changed considerably through the years, with only founders Hirst and Grossman being mainstays. Between successive album releases Hirst and Grossman returned to active involvement with Oils and Gurus respectively. Ghostwriters have released Ghostwriters (1991), Second Skin (1996), Fibromoon (1999) and Political Animal (2007).
At the 1991 ARIA Awards ceremony, Midnight Oil won 'Best Group' and an 'Outstanding Achievement Award' and 'Best Cover Art', 'Best Video' and 'Album of the Year' for Blue Sky Mining. Morris, accepting awards for Midnight Oil, was criticised for a speech lasting 20 minutes.
Scream in Blue (Live), their June 1992 live album produced by Keith Walker, contained material from concerts between 1982–1990, including "Progress" from their Exxon Valdez protest gig. It peaked at No. 3 on the ARIA albums charts; Top 50 in Austria, Sweden and Switzerland; and appeared on the Billboard 200.
Earth and Sun and Moon
Midnight Oil's Earth and Sun and Moon album, produced with Nick Launay, was released in April 1993 and also drew critical acclaim and international success, peaking at No. 2 on the ARIA albums charts, top 20 in Sweden and Switzerland, Top 50 on Billboard 200, and top thirty in the UK albums chart. The single "Truganini" referenced multiple issues, including the 'last' Tasmanian Aboriginal, the treatment of indigenous artist Albert Namatjira, the Australian flag debate, and republicanism. Liner notes for the single claimed "Truganini was the sole surviving Tasmanian Aborigine, the last of her race, when she died in 1876." The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, representing over 7000 contemporary Tasmanians, called for the single to be boycotted as it perpetuated a 'white' myth about the extinction of Tasmanian Aborigines. Their Native Title claims hinged upon establishing links with ancestral lands. Morris responded with, "My suggestion to these people is to stop shooting themselves in the foot and let a band like Midnight Oil voice its appeal to White Australia on behalf of Black Australia". Critics contended that Morris disparaged Indigenous Australians' ability to represent themselves and overestimated Midnight Oil's ambassadorial powers while diminishing their errors, while some indigenous activists saw benefit in Midnight Oil's highlighting of the issues. Nevertheless, "Truganini" released in March peaked at No. 10 on the ARIA singles charts, No. 10 on Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks and No. 4 on their Modern Rock Tracks charts, and top thirty for the UK charts.
In 1993, the band also participated in the Another Roadside Attraction tour in Canada, and collaborated with The Tragically Hip, Crash Vegas, Hothouse Flowers and Daniel Lanois on the one-off single "Land" to protest forest clearing in British Columbia.
Breathe to Capricornia
Breathe was released in 1996. It was produced by Malcolm Burn and had a loose, raw style with almost a low-key sound. It peaked at No. 3 on the ARIA albums chart, and had Top 40 success in New Zealand and Switzerland. They returned to No. 1 on the ARIA albums charts with the compilation 20,000 Watt R.S.L. in 1997 on Sony Records, which achieved 4×Platinum sales. Later albums, Redneck Wonderland in 1998, The Real Thing in 2000 and Capricornia in 2002 again renuniting with producer Warne Livesey, all charted into the ARIA Top Ten.
Sydney 2000 Olympic Games performance
Midnight Oil again brought the politics of Reconciliation to the fore during their performance at the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics. Then Prime Minister John Howard had triggered controversy that year with his refusal to embrace symbolic reconciliation and apologise to Indigenous Australians and members of the stolen generations. But he had also claimed their reconciliation-themed single "Beds Are Burning" was his favourite Midnight Oil song. Midnight Oil performed the song at the ceremony with the word SORRY conspicuously printed on their clothes as a form of apology to indigenous people for their suffering under white settlement, and to highlight the issue to Howard, who was in the audience at the Olympic stadium as an estimated one billion people watched on television. Midnight Oil had consulted with tour mates Yothu Yindi and other indigenous activists, so that their performance would bring popular protest to the world arena. In 2001, when Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) surveyed 100 music industry people for their Top 10 Best Australian songs of all time, "Beds Are Burning" was voted No. 3 behind The Easybeats' "Friday on My Mind" and Daddy Cool's "Eagle Rock". At the 2001 APRA Awards ceremony "Beds are Burning" was shown on video and introduced by Australian Democrats Senator Aden Ridgeway as an indigenous spokesperson on Reconciliation. "Power and the Passion" was also listed in APRA's Top 30 best Australian songs.
Dissolution and reunion
Garrett announced his decision to quit Midnight Oil on 2 December 2002, to refocus on his political career. In the 1984 federal election, Garrett had stood for the Australian Senate under the Nuclear Disarmament Party banner, and narrowly lost. He won the seat of Kingsford Smith at the 2004 General Election for the Australian Labor Party and was selected as Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment, Heritage and the Arts. On Thursday, 29 November 2007, Prime Minister elect, the Hon Kevin Rudd MP, named Garrett as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. The other members of the band continued to work together but not under the Midnight Oil name, bringing the band's career to a close.
After a warm up gig the previous evening at the Manly-Warringah Leagues Club the band, including Garrett, reunited to perform at the WaveAid concert on 29 January 2005, to raise funds for the victims of the 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The concert, which took place at the Sydney Cricket Ground, also included performances by Powderfinger, Silverchair, Nick Cave, John Butler Trio, Finn Brothers and others.
On 29 October 2006 Midnight Oil was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame with ARIA chairman Denis Handlin describing them:
Rob Hirst in his acceptance speech thanked his family, band mates, and support from fellow Australians. He also lamented the fact that unlike the Vietnam war which had inspired some of the best protest songs ever written, very few had been written because of the invasion of Iraq. Flat Chat, another compilation album, was released in November and peaked at No. 21 on the ARIA album charts.
Rumours of an appearance by Midnight Oil at the Sydney leg of the Live Earth concert in July 2007 were false. However Ghostwriters, founded by drummer Hirst and Hoodoo Gurus bass guitarist Rick Grossman and including former Oils guitarist Martin Rotsey, performed six tracks including the Oils' song "When the Generals Talk", whilst Peter Garrett gave a speech introducing a reformed Crowded House.
Aside from Ghostwriters, Hirst has also been a member of Backsliders, performed with former Olympian Paul Greene, with fellow Backsliders member Dom Turner on The Angry Tradesmen and with Rotsey assisted on Jim Moginie's solo album Alas Folkloric in 2006.
On 14 March 2009, a reformed Midnight Oil, with Garrett, headlined the Sound Relief concert in Melbourne. A concert was held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on 14 March 2009 to raise money for victims of Victoria's February bushfire disaster. The event was held simultaneously with a concert at the Sydney Cricket Ground. All proceeds from the Melbourne Concert went to the Red Cross Victorian Bushfire relief. Appearing with Midnight Oil in Melbourne were Augie March, Bliss N Eso with Paris Wells, Gabriella Cilmi, Hunters & Collectors, Jack Johnson, Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson with Troy Cassar-Daley, Kings of Leon, Liam Finn, Crowded House, Jet, Paul Kelly, Split Enz and Wolfmother.
- Official website
- Midnight Oil at Allmusic
- The Deadheart – fan website
- Midnight Oil at the Open Directory Project
- Midnight Oil Forum
- Midnight Oil's memories
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Image from Discogs