50 years of Midnight Oil: Music, politics, and their goodbye tour

50 years of Midnight Oil: Music, politics, and their goodbye tour

Midnight Oil
Words by Ben Lamb

It’s hard to imagine any band in the current music scene lasting for 50 years.

With countless stories of infighting, band members going solo and different creative visions, groups don’t seem to be made of the same mold as their predecessors.

When you think of classic Aussie bands that are still prolific nowadays, the mind usually goes to INXS, Jet, or even AC/DC, each either not together anymore, touring with a vastly different lineup than their first inception, or even frontmen just touring solo. None have experienced the longevity of Midnight Oil, touring and releasing music consistently over their now 50-year career, still with most of their lineup from first inception.

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Starting way back in 1972, their punk personas and stick it to the man attitude were immediately evident, with the name Midnight Oil even coming in an original way, picking the name out of a hat, beating names like Television or Southern Cross.

Their first release was 1978’s self-titled Midnight Oil, which wasn’t immediately well received. Many mainstream stations didn’t enjoy the plethora of anti-disestablishment sentiment throughout the music, so it was only picked up by Double and Triple J, back then two of the few Australian stations to harbour groups with a different view of the world.

Their first successful release came in 1982 with 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, which hit number three on the Aussie charts and reached 178 in the US. This album strenghtened the political views that effortlessly wound their way into the music of the group. The track ‘U.S Forces’ led Americans to their music, while 1987’s Diesel and Dust featured the Oils’ biggest track, ‘Beds are Burning’, which was written about the poor living conditions among First Nations people in Australia, which the group were exposed to on a tour through the outback years prior.

Following from Diesel and Dust was Blue Sky Mining, which featured the universally loved track, ‘Forgotten Years’. This track was written by Oils’ drummer Rob Hirst about his grandfather’s experience in the war. The track still relevant today as it was almost over 30 years ago. The Killers’ frontman Brandon Flowers noted that he “wished he wrote it” and the group continued to feature it in their sets until the end, including their ground-breaking 2017 performance at the AFL Grand Final. Groups like Green Day, Pearl Jam, and R.E.M also cite the Oils among their biggest influences.

Many international groups were fans of the Oils and ‘Beds are Burning’, which has been covered by artists such as Eddie Vedder, who played it when he toured Australia a while back, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello with The Nightwatchman, and even Anti Flag, covering it for Triple J’s Like A Version in recent years.

In the early 2000s, the group announced their disbandment so vocalist Peter Garrett – after singing about changing the world for so many years – could focus on starting his political career. He first ran unsuccessfully for parliament in 1994 with the Nuclear Disarmament party, but for Labor, Garrett was swept into the Kingsford Smith and quickly chosen as the Minster for Climate Change, Environment, Heritage and the Arts.

Throughout his nine-year career in the political world, Garrett campaigned for many environmental issues, one of the most notable his implementation of the government’s whaling policy, which detailed the need to stop the scientific and commercial killing of whales in Australia’s Southern Ocean, a practice that had been standard by Japan for years prior. In his later political career, he became Education Minister, and supported the increase of funding for public schools.

The Oils’ disbandment lasted until 2016, but a few memorable reunions occurred during that gap, hinting at what was to come. In 2006, the group were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, and in 2009, they played one of the biggest shows of their career for Sound Relief, a show put in place to raise money for those impacted by the Black Saturday bushfires.

This show joined the Oils with groups across a range of different genres, from Bliss N Eso to Jack Johnson to Kasey Chambers. As always, they seemed right at home, and provided the same consistently energetic live performance they were renowned for.

In 2016, it was announced that they would be hitting the stage for a worldwide reunion tour, their first in a whopping 19 years. The band hit sold out venues across the planet, and remarked that they played shows with a new fire lit inside them, a resoluteness of purpose that harkened back to their early days.

As their final tour has shown, the group are still as important as they have ever been, making headlines with their political takes and newsworthy concert moments. In early 2020, following on from their years of support for the often-marginalised First Nations communities in the outback, the group released their first song in 18 years, ‘Gadigal Land’. All proceeds from the song went to supporting the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was an effort to recognise Aboriginal and First Nations people in the Australian constitution.

Late last year, it was announced the Oils will be heading out on their Farewell tour across the US, Europe and New Zealand, and of course Australia. The group are currently in the middle of their Australian tour, which like so many in this time, has been greatly impacted by COVID.

The tour announcement also came with an album announcement, Resist, their 15th album to date. The album was released in late February this year and was widely well received by fans and critics alike, with the release reaching the top spot on the charts.

It’s hard to say that the Oils will ever stop touring – certainly the option of future recordings has always been left on the table. With so much of the band’s activism still burning in Australian culture, in a strange way, there’s never a better time to get into the music of the Oils.

Years on, they continue to find new fans, who continue to find solace in the music of one of Australia’s greatest bands.