This week sees the release of a film, Midnight Oil 1984, that captures the band seemingly at the height of its powers and simultaneously contemplating their end, as lead singer Peter Garrett stood for a senate seat as the Nuclear Disarmament Party candidate in NSW. He missed out – though only just – the band stayed together, and they made more stellar albums and important statements, political and social.
However, as Wind Back Wednesday remembers, 18 years after that first near-death experience the mix of/fight between pop and politics had one winner at last and Garrett left the band. To do what? Though in December 2002 he hadn’t yet declared his new home, it wasn’t that hard to guess. But if that was to be the end* they had done their bit, and then some. What did it all mean? Here’s some stabs at answering that from the last days of the last time it was the last time.
*(Ron Howard voice: it wasn’t the end)
GRAPPLING IRONS, POP HOOKS, AND THE POLITICS OF DANCING
Peter Garrett, who may be about to step back into politics, always argued that Midnight Oil weren't a political band but a band that found themselves intersecting with politics. They weren't here to change your mind; they were there to make you dance and sweat, and making you think along the way was a bonus.
"I don't think people have understood that that's what we've always done," Garrett told the Herald earlier this year. "Quite often in the past something we have no control over has seen an album be part of a political campaign. We're trying to get ourselves thinking about the songs [first] and later you get to look over your shoulder and see what you've had a shot at."
You wouldn't be alone in thinking he was being a trifle disingenuous, even without recognising Garrett's long involvement with the Australian Conservation Foundation, where he is president, his past role with Greenpeace International and his campaign for a Senate seat as a candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984.
From their first, self-titled, album in 1978, Midnight Oil have actively engaged with politics and political action. In the song Used And Abused (written, as many of the most anthemic Oils songs have been, by drummer Rob Hirst and guitarist Jim Moginie, not Garrett as most people assume) Garrett sang: "I was taken downtown for my part in the demonstration/ I was used and abused with the light in my eye at the station."
Later there came support for Aboriginal land rights ("the time has come, a fact's a fact/ it belongs to them, let's give it back"); an independent defence policy ("US forces give the nod, it's a setback for your country"); Middle East disarmament ("She pictures all the poverty the cursed Holy War/ The pictures that used to be scrawled on the wall/ Are written in the heart"), and even the plight of mine workers dying from exposure to asbestos fibres ("And if the blue sky mining company won't come to my rescue/ If the sugar refining company won't save me/ Who's gonna save me?").
Long active environmentalists, in 1990 they played a concert on the streets of New York outside the offices of Exxon to protest at the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska. (Though here they did uphold one of Garrett's assertions, sporting a banner that read "Midnight Oil makes you dance - Exxon Oil makes you sick").
Four years ago, at the height of the cult of Pauline Hanson, with a conservative government in the ascendancy federally, Midnight Oil released their most sustained political assault with the album Redneck Wonderland. Packed with attacks on middle-class complacency ("Emergency has gone, apathy rolling on/ Time to take a stand/ Redneck wonderland") and right-wing ideology, it even predicted the border security issues that flared with the Tampa ("So you got coastline for fence/ It could be your first line of defence/ You'll never be ready for this/ Ignorance is bliss haven't you heard").
And, lest we forget, as part of the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympics, with John Howard and hundreds of millions around the world looking on, Midnight Oil performed Beds Are Burning wearing black clothes covered with the word "sorry".
In other words, this was a band that breathed politics and activism, not just intersected with it. While Garrett's tilt at the Senate in 1984 threatened to derail the band - they all backed his run but in retrospect the Oils could not have gone on with a lead singer tied to parliamentary sittings rather than tours - the political base of the band was not confined to him.
As pointed out earlier, many of the most politically charged Midnight Oil songs were written by Hirst and Moginie, but Hirst often stepped behind the higher profile Garrett and Moginie never gave interviews.
However, while the politics marked out Midnight Oil, just as importantly this was a band that channelled that activism into pop songs not dirges: hummable, saleable, chart-appearing songs that reached millions rather than warm-inner-glow folk songs that played in the trades hall. When comparing Midnight Oil's 1990 album Blue Sky Mining with U2's The Joshua Tree, American Rolling Stone magazine described it as "a stunning issue-driven document of fear, anger and commitment delivered with artful musical restraint and tempered vocal fury".
Asbestos victims were not sexy in 1990; handing back land to Aborigines has never been sexy, yet Blue Sky Mine and Beds Are Burning were both top 10 hits in Australia and made top 40 lists around the world.
In Moginie, Midnight Oil had a songwriter who could work with power and subtlety, melody and pure visceral force. It's why they could sell about 12 million albums over their career. The thousands who pumped fists in the air at the run of sell-out shows at the Entertainment Centre in the late 1980s and early '90s were singing along, not just shouting out slogans.
Rare among successful bands, Midnight Oil were never afraid to experiment with their songs and their audience. The band's reputation was built on intense live performances but their breakthrough record was the technology-driven 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 album. They were known for volume and force but the international hit, Diesel And Dust, and its follow-up, Blue Sky Mine, both rested on acoustic sounds.
And along the way they've barely changed personnel, losing two bass players - the last one 15 years ago - but retaining the same manager and the same record company. Likewise their personal lives have been spectacularly unremarkable. While contemporaries such as INXS and Mental As Anything have lost singers and songwriters and the Go-Betweens and X split and then reformed, the Midnight Oil who toured this year are pretty much what you would have seen at the Royal Antler hotel in Narrabeen 25 years ago, albeit slightly older.
Maybe this could explain one startling fact about Midnight Oil: much like U2 whose career and political bent run parallel to the Australians, during their 25 years they have never delivered a bad album. Not the debut which was patchy but held a lot of promise in songs such as Run By Night, and not even their final album. If anything, the last two studio albums, Redneck Wonderland and Capricornia - one a hard-edged, electronic-fuelled collection, the other more ruminative and melodic - are among the best of their career.
However, while those albums were outstanding they did not sell, certainly not in the numbers they once did. The band downsized their venues - and still sold them out - but didn't contemplate giving up. Bass player Bones Hillman put it this way: "I think it's like hitchhiking. If you don't get a ride, you may as well walk. And we walk."
Still, Garrett recognised that their message wasn't always getting through, particularly with the Redneck Wonderland album where they realised that some of their audience must have voted for Hanson. They decided to change again, not ditching the polemic but rephrasing it.
"I think we said clearly what we wanted to say on Redneck and it didn't seem like that many people got it so you've got to dust yourself down and move on," Garrett said earlier this year on the release of Capricornia. "This time some of the songs were standing by themselves and we thought, 'Let's do it, let's not analyse it much.' The other thing is maybe it's a sense of more indifference. There's a lot of pop philosophising about Generation X and baby boomers but I think if you had to summarise where a lot of mainstream generational responses are it's all about competition and consumption.
"That's fine in its place but whole human communities are about more than that. We're interested in the resonances that lie underneath, the spirit of the place, the moral black hole that we descended into with the Tampa and how do we get the grappling irons and climb out of that."
Maybe that's what a political career means to Garrett, if he goes that way - a chance to throw up some grappling irons.
Midnight Oil 1984 is in cinemas May 10