G’Day vinyl vultures and welcome back to Viva La Vinyl, Music Feeds’ bi-monthly record club where all the cool kick back and shoot the sh*t about some of the most iconic albums that every collector should own.
There’s plenty of cartoon idealism and political posturing running through contemporary music, but why not own a slice of the real thing? 2017 marks the 30-year anniversary of one of the most potent political statements ever set to song. In a decade of ambivalence, Midnight Oil’s ‘Beds Are Burning’ didn’t just make a million ears stop and listen, it forced a sense of social consciousness back into the heart of popular music.
Loaded with nine equally affecting calls to action, Diesel and Dust was the album which delivered it all.
In 1973, a motley trio of Sydney dropouts began operating under the name Farm. They spent the next couple of years cutting their teeth in North Shore surf clubs and community halls. Playing to half-interested crowds, the group jammed on covers of The Doors and Jethro Tull.
By ‘76 they’d recruited law student-turned-lanky vocalist Peter Garrett and changed their name to Midnight Oil. When their self-titled debut dropped in ‘78 they’d rounded out to a five-piece and a regular fixture in the city’s beer barns. As their profile built, their sound was changing. Pooling their songwriting instincts, the group began tackling less-than-conventional topics: government corruption, environmental rape and radical political thought, nothing was out of bounds.
From their instruments and minds emerged an intelligent yet hard-rocking sound, the voice of a nation’s youth. When touched with the classic pub rock chug and blared out at blistering volumes, people began to listen.
More than just the strum and drum of so many hopeful contemporaries, there was a universality to their socially conscious sound. The Oils’ issues were important, and their solutions straightforward. By the onset of the ‘80s, the now-veteran outfit weren’t only a hometown favourite, but a national success.
Looking to take their ambitious combination of politics and hard-edged rock to the world, they began reaching out overseas. By ‘85 the Oils were touring abroad and even glancing a few minor hits. Yet, as with most groups championing a distinctly Australian sound, this was as far as it went.
Turning the focus inward, they took a trip that changed everything. Placing the comforts of the inner-city behind them they embarked on the Blackfella/Whitefella Tour in ‘86. Travelling by four-wheel drive, they journeyed deep into the deserts of central Australia and then to the remote reaches of the Top End.
Coursing across the red earth, the group witnessed the poverty and extreme living conditions of the traditional owners of the land firsthand. For five comparatively privileged white males accustomed to the modernity of city life, this suffering and denigration was otherworldly. It didn’t seem real. This wasn’t happening in some faraway country but their own backyard. They couldn’t help but feel ashamed.
The Oils were heartbroken, yet something was moving them too. Time and time again they encountered the same resilient spirit. These were a people who were not only unbroken but unified in the conviction that justice would someday come.
Midnight Oil returned physically drained but creatively charged. The blistering desert had slowed both their thoughts and sound. Lyrics came easily as the group mellowed their harder edges. Uncovering the poetic heart of their music, they laid it bare.
With Diesel and Dust, they did what no other Australian group had ever done before. Weaponising their sonic arsenal, they universalised their music without abandoning their message. The album’s leading singles carried potent statements and equally propulsive sounds.
By the close of ‘87, the group had catapulted themselves to global stardom. Leading this success were two songs about Aboriginal land rights and another about a Brisbane pub. Diesel represented their unlikely but equally brilliant moment.
As one of the greatest Australian albums of all time, Diesel and Dust has sold close to 3 million copies. Hitting the charts, it peaked at #19 in the UK, #1 in France and #12 in the US. It’s since gone 7 x Platinum within Australia, in addition to breaking Platinum in the US — a huge feat for any Aussie act.
Diesel’s greater impact is felt in the galvanising presence of the band and perhaps, even more importantly, the music itself. Masterfully executed in its simplicity, ‘Beds Are Burning’ is by far Diesel’s most significant track. As the album’s instantaneously recognisable opener it comes accompanied by an equally iconic introductory hook. Accompanied by visuals of Garrett’s distinctive visage dancing across the Australian outback, it became a radio and MTV hit, climbing the charts in Belgium, Canada, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the UK, and the US.
The desert pulse of ‘The Dead Heart’ follows on in a similar vein. Penned before the rest of the album’s material, it was recorded with Nick Launay for a documentary film chronicling the struggle of the Pitjantjatjara people to wrestle control of sacred rock, Uluru. Here, the Oils zero-in on the notion that this iconic landmass represents not only the spiritual heart of the Australian nation but the frontline of an ongoing struggle between Aboriginal sovereignty and white oppression.
The jangly ‘Dreamworld’ lightens the tone. Here, the band makes reference to the demolition of a Brisbane club, a heritage building, and musical hub demolished in the dead of night. Another unlikely topic for the record’s third most popular track, yet it hammers its message home with brightness and a sense of hope.
Diesel didn’t just speak out about injustice, it urged a way forward to a brighter future. It shone a light for those looking to overcome the prevailing apathy of the ‘Me Decade’. It helped shake a nation out of the ambivalence that the multitude of problems facing the land’s traditional owners were ‘Aboriginal issues’.
Seeing the importance of what the Oils had achieved, other artists like Paul Kelly would make similar pilgrimages and connections with Aboriginal communities. The unprecedented global awareness of the plight of the continent’s original settlers also allowed groups like Yothu Yindi and The Warumpi Band to have their own voices heard.
The Oils would continue to wage war on injustice and promote wholesale cultural change before disbanding in 2002.
They’ve reignited in 2017, although some detractors have argued their social and political edge has become blunted. Whether or not this is the case, Diesel’s dream of reconciliation, justice and a better world is very much alive.
Why Own It On Vinyl?
This record still rings true, an inspirational and ultimately uplifting statement that leaves you angry but ready to take on the world. Midnight Oil’s straightforward political commentary is as compellingly defiant as when first committed to vinyl. Diesel is not only a definitive protest album, it’s part of the fabric of Australian culture. Get it for your collection, here.
…when in need of a spiritual recharge.
…when in need of some fire and fury.
…when it’s time to dance like Peter Garrett.
Fun Fact: Who’s Gonna Shave Me?
For many years, the origins of Garrett’s distinctive cue-ball evaded fans. He hadn’t always sported the shaven pate. As an Australian National University student in Canberra, he cultivated a shoulder-length shock of blond hair. This was still the case when he joined the earlier iteration of the band Farm, yet its disappearance remained a matter of speculation until Garrett set things straight in 2015 memoir Big Blue Sky.
As it turns out, it was surf photography. An avid boarder himself, Garrett and his brother had initially harboured aspirations of making a living as professional photographers. His main frustration, alongside a terminal inability to have his shots published, was that his hair kept getting in the way of the camera. In response, he shaved it all off. Dispensing with the added bother with a cool comfortable and frictionless solution, he’s been doing it ever since. An odd unit, the old Pete.
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