Bird Noises, Midnight Oil’s first EP, released in 1980, isn’t one of the better-known releases in the band’s back catalogue. So, seeing a T-shirt bearing its artwork at the Palais Theatre merch desk was an intriguing sight. Midnight Oil were back in Melbourne for one last hurrah, promising to perform 1982’s 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 in its entirety.
They’ve been everywhere this year, from New York, Paris, London and Auckland to Byron Bay Bluesfest, Hobart’s Mona Foma and Mundi Mundi Plains outside of Broken Hill. The fun ends in Sydney in early October when Peter Garrett, Rob Hirst and co will call time on their live performance career following a show at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion.
Midnight Oil Play One For the Planet
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Nearing the end of this bout of wholesale travelling, Midnight Oil were eager to celebrate the album that shifted the course of their career. They weren’t in a hurry to get it over with, however, and began the show with ‘Knife’s Edge’, track two from the aforementioned Bird Noises.
The crowd was male- and Boomer/Gen X-dominated. Some in attendance could probably remember first getting their hands on a copy of Bird Noises in anticipation of the Oils’ third album, 1981’s Place without a Postcard. But for those less familiar, and for those in the demographic minority, the song’s chorus hook got everyone on side.
“Word crimes, bitter lies,” sang Garrett, with help from backing vocalist (and support act) Liz Stringer. “Bitter crimes, government lies.”
Garrett said g’day after the song and made an argument that an event such as this – one founded in consensus and an attempt at genuine connection – was “diametrically opposed” to the sort of “pandering” and artificial mourning being carried out by the media and politicians across the divide in the wake of the colonial monarch’s death.
He didn’t dwell, and he needn’t have done, but when ‘Truganini’ appeared in the setlist just a couple of songs later, the line, “I see the Union Jack in flames / Let it burn,” felt especially urgent.
Garrett typically grabs a lot of attention at Midnight Oil shows – he’s not only the lead vocalist and MC, but also one of rock music’s most idiosyncratic physical attractions. But close to 50 years after their founding, Garrett’s band mates made sure Midnight Oil sounded as good as you might desire.
Rob Hirst continues to exert alien levels of energy behind the drums while singing along to every song as though newly inspired. Guitarists Martin Rotsey and Jim Moginie – who’s no mug on the keyboard either – retain the telepathic interplay that brings melodic depth and harmonic complexity to Midnight Oil’s compositions. Stringer and touring bass player Adam Ventoura also made vital contributions, conveying the impression that playing with Midnight Oil was not a job, but a rite.
Midnight Oil – ‘Knife’s Edge’
After nearly a dozen warm-up numbers, most of which dated back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, the venue lights faded to black and the throbbing bass of 10-1 opener ‘Outside World’ got the Palais crowd standing at attention.
Midnight Oil are a weird band. It’s a detail that’s often lost amid their association with pub rock, Australiana and the commercial success of songs like ‘Beds Are Burning’. But along with being Midnight Oil’s breakthrough album, 10-1 is the truest representation of the band’s penchant for combining post punk and new wave experimentation with sing-along vocal hooks and ideological resolve.
The album’s defining songs, ‘Only the Strong’, ‘Short Memory’, ‘US Forces’ and ‘Read About It’, just about brought the house down. Each engendered a feeling of unselfconscious immediacy that made the Palais feel like someone’s lounge room. Where else would you feel comfortable enough to sing lyrics like, “Now market movements call the shots / Business deals in parking lots / Waiting for the meat of tomorrow,” at the top of your lungs?
Midway through the album comes ‘Scream in Blue’, one of the more laterally-structured songs in the Midnight Oil oeuvre. I’ve never been able to make sense of it on record. It stops and starts, picks up a groove and then deviates into noisy assault, only to break right down to allow Garrett to sing in an earnest croon.
Illuminated here, during what was apparently its first airing on the current tour, it struck me as a masterpiece, encapsulating the band’s passionate investment in musical experimentation and the emotional grounding of the entire Midnight Oil project.
“When I’m dreaming I dream in blue,” sang Garrett. “When I’m screaming I scream in blue.” Outside the doors of the Palais, there was an awful lot to warrant screaming, and an awful lot to make you feel blue. Midnight Oil have fought hard for five decades to get people to recognise the destructive misdeeds of the federation of former colonies that constitute Australia, as well those of our allies.
Are we any better off as a result of their efforts? Or are we simply the meat of tomorrow? Either way, seeing this great band one last time generated a bolt of inspiration that won’t soon fade from memory.