Midnight Oil

Glorious return of the Oils: A classic image of the band taken by legendary photographer Ken Duncan.
Glorious return of the Oils: A classic image of the band taken by legendary photographer Ken Duncan.

OILS! Oils! Oils!

The chanting and the stomping shakes the whole room. Five hundred bodies drenched head to toe in sweat, the carpet stickier than velcro with spilt beer, the air blue with cigarette smoke.

Oils! Oils!, Oils!

Half a decade before the term was invented, the first 10 rows in front of the stage are a frantic mosh pit of pogoing fans, almost all of them male.

Oils! Oils!

It’s 1979, right in the middle of the never to be repeated era of Aussie pub rock, where any night of the week, Australia’s top rock bands were belting it out at a venue somewhere near you.

Tickets $8 on the door, no such thing as responsible service of alcohol and very little in the way of breath-testing for the dangerous drive home afterwards.

Welcome to the Narrabeen Antler, the Manly Vale Hotel, Selina’s at Coogee, the Family Hotel at Rydalmere or, on occasions, Newcastle’s Ambassador nightclub or the Mawson Hotel at Caves Beach.

Any one of a swag load of beer barns up and down the land. Natural stomping grounds of Cold Chisel, The Angels, Dragon, The Radiators, Rose Tattoo, INXS, Hoodoo Gurus and, of course, the now immortal Midnight Oil.

Forty or so years on, and revival rock is big business.

The Rolling Stones started it all, realising that their once teenaged fans were now middle-aged and cashed up, and able to afford ticket prices 10 to 20 times above what was charged the first time around.

Pick up any rock magazine – especially the specialist ones that focus on the second time around circuit – and you’ll see that around the world, and endless line of bands from decades past are still plying their trade, with unavoidable variations in fidelity to the original item.

Some are the original band more or less in name only, but others, with their membership more or less intact and their middle-aged waistlines kept in check by who knows what secret formula, are blitzing the stage better than ever.

Just look at Chisel, who wowed 15,000 at Hope Estate in December 2015 with a set as blistering as anything they’d turn out back in the day.

Or Nick Cave, who turned 60 last month and whose Bad Seeds are as ferocious as ever.

And so, to Midnight Oil, who have spent the bulk of 2017 on an international tour and who hit Hope Estate as part of their closing Australian leg on Saturday, October 21.

The vineyards show, like many of the tour’s 20-plus dates, is unfortunately long sold out.

Tickets for those venues yet to sell out are priced at between $85 or so and $150 for close-up spots.

True to their ethical record, the band says it is doing its best to minimise scalping on the tour, but tickets for Sunday’s Brisbane show, for example, have been on sale through Ticketmaster for more than $350.

Looking at YouTube videos of some of their European and American shows, the Midnight Oil of 2017 is clearly still the band that burst out of the blocks with its first album in 1978, carrying all before it until lead singer Peter Garrett’s decision to enter federal parliament as a Labor MP forced the breakup of the band in 2002.

Maybe Garrett’s not quite as frantic when it comes to his signature whirling dervish stagecraft, but his trademark silhouette – the bald dome and the giant outstretched hands – is as commanding as ever.

Drummer Rob Hirst – a galvanised steel water tank set up beside his kit – still propels the beat from high up on his riser.

Bass player Bones Hillman, who joined the band in 1987, provides the rumbling rhythm for Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey to attack with their angular, stabbing slashes of urgent guitar work.

From the start, Midnight Oil had their own sound, and even now, all these years later, it’s difficult to think of any other band that sounds remotely like them.

Nor have there been too many bands that have worn their political hearts on their sleeves as openly as Midnight Oil.

You’d never call Midnight Oil a band that wrote love songs, and from their 1982 breakthrough album 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 onward, virtually everything they have written or done has had a political, environmental or ethical angle to it somewhere.

Performing at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympics with the word “sorry” emblazoned on their black overalls – a comment on then prime minister John Howard’s refusal to apologise to indigenous Australians – is a classic case in point.

Pop music might not have changed the world in ways that the leaders of the 1960s hippie movement had so fervently hoped – we still have wars and poverty and all the other ills that the protest movement railed against – but there is little doubt that pop culture, for want of a better phrase, has left its mark on broader society.

Indigenous rights, the environmental movement and society’s healthy distrust of politicians and entrenched corporate power structures are all issues that have moved from being fringe concerns to to the centre of the global political stage.

Midnight Oil can’t claim all of the credit for that, but it’s highly likely that in this country, especially, the band’s unflagging devotion to progressive causes has had a solid influence on popular opinion.

This time around, on the Aussie leg of The Great Circle 2017 tour, the band has highlighted the environmental pressures on the Great Barrier Reef, playing a benefit gig in Cairns on October 6 that was recorded for later television and radio release.

“Midnight Oil have always used our music to talk about things we believe are important”, Garrett says.

“We believe the future of the Great Barrier Reef is clearly on the line. We’re at the eleventh hour for our most important natural asset. As the largest living organism in our world the reef is a treasure of extraordinary beauty itself but it’s also a symbol of greater questions we all have to answer.” 

But all of the proselytising in the world would have come to nought if Midnight Oil wasn’t first and foremost a brilliant rock band whose songs move the body as well as the mind.

There’s no secret to the idea of pop music moving into its middle age (if not it’s dotage, with Keith Richards turning 74 in December). It’s simply that the music that moved us in our young years is still by and large the music that we’re drawn to now.

At 64, Peter Garrett is close to being a senior citizen, but as long as the fire burns in his and his band mates hearts, then they’ve got every right to hit the stage and to make some money doing so.

Calls began for a Midnight Oil revival the second that Garrett left parliament, and as he told Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke earlier this year: “"I'd never said it wouldn't happen. I just wasn't sure if it would or not, whether the circumstances would be right."

Garrett said that “when we got back into a room together and started to play, it just sounded so powerful”.

“All the bits were where they needed to be. It's weird if you over analyse or talk about it too much. But it was still there, whatever it is.”

And the punters still want it.

“We're lucky to have that connection with people, that it’s still there," Garrett says.