Sunday, 18 December 2011

The time has come to say fair's fair. To pay the rent, now. To pay our share.

Pick of the Week

“Beds Are Burning” by Midnight Oil (1987)

Australia is a tough land and always has been. It is a land of extremes: Extreme heat. Extreme tragedy. Extreme beauty. To name a few.

The hardship of Australians over the last few years with bush fires across Victoriaand floods in the beautiful north and then in Victoria have been horrendously difficult to deal with. Ongoing problems of water shortages and reduced tourism due to the world economy only tend to compound their problems. With all this going on, in a harsh land, the resilient spirit of the Australians as always, prevails and even thrives as they have done for some two hundred years.  They are a very tough, yet soulful and proud people. And hey, they have the coolest accents of the English speaking world. This spirit is often reflected in their music.

For a country that has a fairly small population it has blessed the world with many a gifted musician
The one that always comes to mind for me as we approach Christmas is “Six White Boomers” by Rolf Harris. I remember every year when I was a kid we drove to this party on Christmas Eve. They always played this song on the radio either going there or coming back. It is a classic!

Influence by native didgeridoos, folk music and ‘bush ballads’ (like Waltzing Matilda) the music of Australia is a colonial anglo-celtic mishmash of everything. Whether it is opera at the Sydney Opera House or listening to an old Slim Dusty country song in the tradition of Australian poets, Australians love their music. Artists like the Seekers, the Easybeats, and Johnny O’Keefe started the rock revolution down under. Others like Crowded House, AC/DC, Men at Work, INXS, Olivia Newton John, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Savage Garden and Kylie Minogue have captured the imagination of the world ...and then some. I’m sure I have missed many.

“The Oils” as hardcore fans of Midnight Oil know them as, were originally called “Farm”; formed in Sydney in 1972. Rob Hirst (drummer), Jim Moginie (lead guitar/keyboards), Andrew James (bass) played together doing what we know call classic rock covers. Stuff like CCR and Led Zeppelin.

In ’75 looking for a lead singer they placed an ad in the paper and Peter Garrett who was studying at the Australian National University in Canberra responded. He had been singer and synthesiser player for a band called Rock Island, and it was not long before his influence had them playing more prog rock stuff like ‘Yes’, “Jethro Tull” and “Focus”.  By ’75 the band was touring the East Coast of Australia.

Now developing a bit more of an aggressive punk style (it was that time), it suited the bar circuit they were playing. The changed their name to “Midnight Oil” which was a random draw of a bunch of different names, this one from a Jimi Hendrix song - “Burning of the Midnight Lamp”. I suspect Peter and Jim had worked this one out on keyboards; one of the few songs Hendrix himself actually played keyboard on. The names they abandoned included “Television” that had already been taken by a New York band who would have success with an album called “Marquee Moon” later.

Guitarist Martin Rottsey joined in ’77 and their manager Gary Morris helped them to establish their own record label “Powderworks”. Their debut self=titled album in 1978 did a respectable #43 on the Australian charts, but the single “Run by Night” was a bit disappointing. They had a hardcore fan base in Sydney by now and were getting known elsewhere with their relentless touring with their high-energy live performances – and the bald giant Garrett bounding about.

By the time founding bassist member Andrew James left due to poor health and was replaced by Peter Gifford, their second album had been released. This time production by former ‘Supercharge’ member
Leszek Karshi had them sounding more like the powerhouse live performances they were capable of on “Head Injuries”.

For the bands third album they went to Sussex England and were recorded by the famed producer Glyn Johns, who produced such acts as The Rolling Stones and The Who. The blokes did not get along too well with Johns and when he tried to get them to do a single that was suitable for American audiences they simply went home. The album “Place Without a Postcard’  went to number 23 in Australia and the two singles "Don’t Wanna be the One" and "Armistice Day" did very well.

Except in Sydney, mainstream rock all but ignored Midnight Oil. They seemed a bit too ‘alternative’. There was still considerable conservatism in the industry and this was a business dammit! Why wouldn’t they be good lads, conform, and produce some nice pop tunes that sell?

Isn’t rock and roll about not being part of the mainstream? Isn’t it about rebellion for the cause, whatever that cause may be? They would make no compromises. They were Australian and they were proud. Refusing to mime on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation show “Countdown” preferring to perform live, they were tossed out of the line-up. They vowed never to perform for them again and kept that promise. Bands’ being outspoken and political was fairly new to Australia and they had no idea how to react to the likes of Mr. Garrett. They still had their hardcore fan base, including the Bondi Lifesaver Club near Sydney’s Bondi Beach (the birthplace of lifesaving I think).

Their next album, despite it’s denunciation of American military interference in foreign affairs, went to number 3 in Australia. Produced in England by Nick Launay (who had produced such acts as the Jam, XTC, and Peter Gabriel) the album ‘10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1’  hit the charts with the singles “Power and the Passion” and “Read About it”.

Did I mention Garrett studied law in Sydney? Becoming even more political the band organized the ‘Stop the Drop’ Nuclear Disarmament concert in 1983 and won a United Nations Media Peace Prize for their efforts. With 1984’s “Red Sails in the Sunset” what this band was fuelled by was apparent to all.  The album cover depicts Sydney harbour devastated by a hypothetical nuke.

In 1986 Midnight Oil spent several months touring the Outback, playing for remote, primarily indigenous communities and seeing the issues they are facing in health and living standards. We in Canada can relate to this as we see the plight of our indigenous people daily.     

“Diesel and Dust” released in 1987, spoke to recognizing injustice and pleading for reconciliation of Australia’s indigenous people. The passion comes through in songs like “Beds are Burning”, “The Dead Heart” and “Dreamworld”. The songs also hit a chord with the world as “Beds” became a hit worldwide.

1990’s “Blue Sky Mining” broadens the topics of the oppressed. The song “Bly Sky Mining” I thought originally was metaphoric for situations that are and have been facing so many communities all over the world with closing coal mines, steel mills and fishing operations. “Blue Sky Mining” actually speaks directly to the Whitenoom asbestos mines in Western Australia where the blue asbestos operations ignored the safety of miners who have and will contract fatal lung diseases.

1993’s “Earth and Moon and Sky” did reasonably well. They also toured Canada and collaborated with Canadian bands, The Tragically Hip, Crash Vegas, The Hothouse Flowers, and Daniel Lanois on a single called “Land”, which protested the clear cutting of forests in British Columbia, Canada.

They continued to produce albums in the ‘90’s such as “Breathe”, “Wonderland” and “The Real Thing” which continued to do well on the Australian charts.  

Midnight Oil painted us a picture of the land down under – sometimes bleak, struggling and unfair, but at the same time abundantly beautiful.  The ever-passionate Garret with a reformed Midnight Oil headlined the ‘Sound Relief’ concert for the victims of the Victoria bushfire disasters in 2009.

1.        The ‘Black Saturday’ bush fires of 2009 resulted in the loss of the highest ever number of human lives due to a catastrophe in Australian history with 173 deaths and 414 injures.
2.        Beginning in December 2010 a series of floods in Australia’s northern state of Queensland resulted in thousands of people being evacuated from towns and cities. Some 70 towns and over 200, 00 people were affected.  The cost to the Australian economy was estimated at $A 30 billion. It killed at least 35 people. The Victoria floods of 2011 resulted in more than 50 communities struggling with floods.

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