Director: Ray Argall
I have argued previously, on the blog, that Midnight Oil is a remarkable band in the history of politico rock and if not for the fact that they are Australian would’ve /should’ve been massive globally.
That view didn’t change when I saw one of their final shows in the recent world tour – absolutely stunning, and it remains after seeing the movie Midnight Oil 1984 which, in the main, chronicles the performances and political activism that culminated in front man Peter Garrett running for the Australian senate for the NDP while still on tour.
My view of the lack of recognition of “The Oils” was shaken a bit when we had dinner recently with neighbours who had moved from Madrid. “Have you seen any bands since coming to Melbourne” ….” Yes, Midnight Oil, they were fantastic, we love them. And the footage of overseas shows that there is indeed a rusted on global fan base.
There are 3 phases of Midnight Oil and possibly a fourth to come with talk of new music to be recorded. The first is the hard-edged band from the northern beaches of Sydney. Then came the big success of 10, 9 …. which stayed on charts in Oz for 2 years then the 1984 #1 album Red Sails in The Sunset. They bolstered/ softened the erm vagaries of Garrett’s voice with harmonies, esp. Rob Hirst and brass added a new dimension. Old school fans have their doubts, says a mate of mine “80’s production values? Compressed drums/synth and no guitar? When they were originally a surf guitar band? C’mon!!…Place without a Postcard for me!
But I missed a lot of the early stuff. First, they were a Sydney band and there was/is a Syd/Melb divide though less so now. Second, they packed out seriously sweaty smoky beer barns with sweaty singletted bogans, not a sophisticated uni cone head like me. So, I missed those clearly incredibly shows. My loss. And there was a gap when I was overseas in Africa. Tapes would be sent over and being into African stuff by now I’d take little interest. But 10, 9…. really jumped out. Really political, like really political “USA forces get the nod, it’s a setback for your country” and a ferocious rhythm section. So, when I got back to Australia I made amends and paid more attention. Phase 3 was more their “international phase, Diesel and Dust, Beds Are Burning, high production value videos and international success.
Midnight Oil have critics from 2 directions the music and the politics.
On the music side the focus is on Peter Garrett. Can’t sing. No not really but he has a sound that has melded with the Oils music and of course vice versa. Certainly, there are times when one winces at the over reach for notes, the awkward phrasing, the adrenaline fuelled, sometimes garbled rants but jeezus there is no one like him, an incredible dervish of a performer. And there is the dancing. Bizarre stick figure thrashing heightened by his gaunt 1.93 frame (6 foot 3 in the old – actually thought he was taller). There is footage in the movie of him kicking an Aussie rules footy around. Can’t kick it, can’t mark/catch it. He is as unco as all fuck – so he turns a limitation into a trademark. Watch all the kids get up on stage mimicking his style – often with a better sense of rhythm I might add – fantastic.
And then of course there is the politics. Those on the right will have hated the activism and especially the lecturing from the stage but more often the criticism is about Garrett and that he “sold out”. Remembering first that others in the band, esp. Hirst were just as committed, the complaint is that he switched from the NDP to Labor, wore a suit became a Minister and became part of the machine – a point argued quite forcefully by @GaryJohn on this blog. Yeah, I get that. On the other hand, you can look at all the causes they worked for and publicised over the journey and ask what any other bands/ front men have done. If you look at the balance sheet I know where the numbers stack up.
So, without further ado – onto the movie.
This was originally filmed as movie of the 1984 tour supporting the Red Sails in the Sunset tour, but events overtook, the stuff was never released, and the footage sat in storage. Having finally convinced the band that the footage could be made into a worthwhile film. So, it is a bit of a hodge podge, interviews, backstage stuff, some rehearsal footage, cutaways to contemporary interviews, quite a bit of narrative and footage showing the politics of times and some concert footage. So, a bit of everything and probably not enough of anything, but just when I would say to myself “come on get on with it” they would cut back to those few shows in low ceilinged jam-packed clubs and, I think, the Palais in Melbourne and the show I saw at Kooyong Tennis Stadium. Fucking incredible. Power energy and captivated crowds.
Only a couple of songs are played in entirety and I think all of them involve cutting from one show to another. It’s deftly done but sometimes I closed my eyes to focus on the song alone – and the sound is great I might add.
I’d forgotten how they had reached down to a younger audience – and quite deliberate all these 18-year-old potential voters and next year the 17-year olds can vote etc. I’d also assumed drugs must have been in the mix but no- no booze, no drugs just pure adrenalin. I’d also forgotten just how full on things were. The record, the tour, the activism then in the middle of all things Garrett announces Senate candidacy for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the 1984 elections. As they say in the movie, morning television, interviews all day. Party meetings then performing at night beyond the point of collapse. Maybe the shows were so cathartic that they eased the pressure. Also, and this is not covered in the movie, Garrett a Christian was becoming more evangelical so add that to the mix!
At the concert I saw they were still counting Senate votes and Garrett’s future was unclear. In the end he just missed out, apparently to everyone’s relief. The band rolled on to the success of Diesel and Dust. Throw forward and Garrett has quit NDP joined the Labor Party got elected and become a Minister with mixed assessments of his career. The movie ends referring to the 2017 world tour so it all fizzles out and it is clear they didn’t really know how to tie it all in. Having said that, I’m glad it has been released flaws and all.
Post script – Iwas watching the young crowd in the audiences and flashed back to their concert in February. The crowd was a few years younger than me overall. They were singing along to every song. Knew all the words and I thought -that’s them back then.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Midnight Oil. Australian bands, getting an insight into culture and band environments in Australia in the mid 80s.