Midnight Oil

Subject: Excellent Article by Paul Toohey
From: Jill Sweetapple
Date: 26/10/2007, 3:09 am
To: powderworks@yahoogroups.com.au


Desert trek transformed the Oils

Thursday, October 25, 2007
Midnight Oil's breakthrough Diesel and Dust album owes much of its success to the fact that the Aborigines of central Australia hated it.
I took me old mate Andrew McMillan to a Darwin restaurant the other night. I can't tell you that restaurant's name because it has a room where gentlemen, as McMillan and I both surely are, can, by arrangement with the management, ignore the prevailing law and smoke cigarettes, at will, at the table.
This dinner was an expenses job. Officially, an interview. And while I took copious notes, we still managed to enjoy a few glasses of red. A most enjoyable night.
At times, a most enjoyable life. The great thing about being a journalist - and this is something the public might wish they could change - is we can't be voted out of office. We can only be sacked (like, for lying, or drinking too much red wine on the company) or lose our position by falling down dead.
McMillan is an ex-rock and roll writer who these days writes books. Like me, he lives in Darwin. He does it pretty tough: he gets (very) occasional grant money; and does some occasional PR work. He can't really afford too many luxuries but, then again, he doesn't have a wife or kids to worry about. He writes and writes and writes.
The topic of that evening was Midnight Oil, of which McMillan has special knowledge. But more specifically it was Peter Garrett, the subject of The Bulletin's cover story this week.
McMillan has watched Midnight Oil closely for three decades. His most intense involvement with the band was probably in 1986, when he toured with them into the deep Northern Territory desert on their famous Blackfella/Whitefella tour and wrote a book about it, Strict Rules.
The tour itself was not famous, because not too many apart from desert people, and McMillan, saw it. But it brought famous results.
Readers may be interested in McMillan's version of how a tour of Australia's central desert communities brought about what many regard as Australia's greatest rock and roll album, Diesel And Dust.
Even if you dispute the album's ranking, there is no question Diesel And Dust transformed the Oils into a national - and international - act. And according to McMillan, that album came about because desert Aborigines couldn't stand Midnight Oil.
The year before, 1985, McMillan did something quite adventurous for a Sydney-based rock journalist - he joined the little-known Warumpi Band on their six-week tour of (mostly) remote communities, promoting their album, Big Name, No Blankets.
"After six weeks on the road, I came home to Sydney shell-shocked," says McMillan. "A few days later [Midnight Oil drummer] Rob Hirst came round to grill me. [Singer Peter] Garrett turned up a few days later."
McMillan says the Oils were looking to get into central Australia to connect with, and write songs about, Aboriginal Australia.
A joint tour with the Warumpi Band, to be called the Blackfella/Whitefella Tour, was planned. But before the Oils even left the city they'd wrote the song "The Dead Heart" ( We carry in our hearts the true country/And that cannot be stolen). They headed for central Australia in July, 1986, and played places like Uluru, Docker River, Warakurna, Kintore, Papunya and Yuendumu.
McMillan got on to the tour by promising to sell cassettes. Garrett was introduced to elders as an important man from Sydney and sat down to talk about law and custom; but things changed once they got up on stage. The crowds ran for their lives.
"They were worried about the reception they were getting," says McMillan. "The Warumpis went down well but the Oils were too big-city and aggressive and loud. Each night, the bands swapped as the headline act. The people who danced to the Oils were generally two or three petrol sniffers. They wanted the Warumpi Band."
The Warumpis played somewhere between Chuck Berry and country music; they were locals, and they were loved. But with most of the Diesel And Dust songs as yet unwritten, or partially written, they were blowing the crowds away with songs like "US Forces", "Short Memory", "Only the Strong", "Read About It" and "The Power and The Passion".
People didn't like it. "The Oils were bewildered," says McMillan. "They'd sit around the campfire and discuss it. They couldn't connect. It came as a shock because they'd been playing to Sydney crowds of 10-12,000 people."
But there was fortune in this rejection, according to McMillan. It led (though too late for the Aborigines of central Australia) to the Oils' guitarists employing a furious acoustic, rather than electric, sensibility behind the same extreme beat: Diesel And Dust, the resulting album, contained the beautiful "Beds Are Burning", "Put Down That Weapon", "Dreamworld", "Sometimes" and the "The Dead Heart". And, most of all the superb "Warakurna", with the lyrics that insisted: "There is enough for everyone".
When "Warakurna" talked of "Don't drink by the water hole/Court fines on the shopfront wall", it wasn't just jerk-off city talk. They'd been and seen Aboriginal Australia.
Some of the Oils by then had young children. When they played demos of "Beds Are Burning", says McMillan, their "kids were dancing - they realised they had their first serious hit".
The album was their true breakthrough. Their music was now accessible to all, even though it talked about boring Aborigines and a land most Australians had never seen.
It was an enormous, tough statement that anticipated - if not created - the mood for reconciliation. Garrett even tried to sing. The album nailed just about every corner of Australia's youth. They scored in the US, too.
And if Macca's right, the music was taught to Midnight Oil by repelled Aborigines.
I saw the final show of the Blackfella/Whitefella Tour, at Cooinda, in Kakadu, on July 29, 1986. When the Warumpis did their final song, being "Blackfella/Whitefella", the Oils were already plugged into their amps, playing out the song's climax with this mostly Aboriginal band. And then they went into their first song. I can't remember what it was, but it was big. It may be the best concert I've ever seen.
One other memory from that night: between an Oils song, a white drunk was yelling out for the Oils to play Men At Work's "Down Under". Mr Garrett didn't seem amused, but the band did - they cracked into it and pulled off a few passable bars. The Oils musicians were clearly in good humour - and glad to have the end in sight after a hell month on the road.

And this big boat that I'm taking
Can't come by quickly enough
If there is hell on earth
There must be heaven too
Both in one place
And not a second to lose
Heaven That I'm Making
Crowded House/Neil Finn

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