On a road trip back from somewhere in mid-2016 the talk turned to personal origin stories, as is wont when the miles are long.
There were four of us in the car, all in leadership positions in Australian campaigning organisations. Turned out that our family, work and activism backgrounds were heterogeneous, but there was something in common: for each traveller in that fast-moving sedan the music of Midnight Oil had been a formative part of our political activation.
I found myself drifting off, thinking of road trips 30 years earlier. There were other great bands and sounds, of course, but the Oils were singular. At times we seemed to listen to Midnight Oil almost on loop, played on cassettes that wore out in beaten-up old cars. The question wasn’t what band, but would we start with Red Sails or Blue Sky? The music was like something elemental, intrinsic to the temper of the time for that generational cohort to which I belonged – emerging in the greedy, scary, last decade of the cold war, and the wasted locust years of the 90s.
It was first announced in October, but this week Midnight Oil will be formally awarded the Sydney Peace Foundation’s gold medal for human rights. The prize is deeply deserved for more than four decades of musician-activism and for all that the band has inspired in others. In typical fashion there’s no doubt the Oils will use the platform to advocate as allies of the Uluru Statement of the Heart as they have on their most recent release, The Makarrata Project.
The span of issues covered by the Oils was as comprehensive as a manifesto: urban alienation, nuclear disarmament, workers’ rights, Indigenous land justice, the commodification of life, imperialism, refugees, vested interests capturing democracy – and of course the environment and climate change.
The tone shifted from song to song, from the didactic to the allegorical or satirical and the furious to the contemplative. But the compass always swung towards a true north of hope through action; of the ability of people to hold power to account and the transcendent beauty of the earth and sea and sky. Deep commitment to social justice and a sense of the spiritual were evoked with intense feeling but without dogma. And it just sounded fantastic: the lead vocals of Peter Garrett, the velocity of Rob Hirst’s drumming, the singing guitars of Martin Rotsey and Jim Moginie; the underlying drive of the bassists, first Peter Gifford, and then the late and great Bones Hillman – taken by cancer earlier this month.
For young men in particular, the Oils offered a species of masculinity in deep contrast to the macho blokeyness of traditional Australian gender roles. Testosterone, it seemed, could be put to decent ends and peaceful pursuits. The only thing to be shot was the wave. The passion never became aggression, and power was not for domination. The band didn’t tolerate any aggro at Midnight Oil shows, not from within the crowd – nor by overzealous security.
The materiality of the continent was evoked in tracks of surf and desert, cities of concrete and neat-lawned suburbs. And the songs were imbued with deep historical consciousness. The Oils lyrically acknowledged the truth of prior Indigenous ownership from time immemorial and the pain of invasion long before these things became common fare among whitefellas. But other history was there to ensure no forgotten years of foreign wars or short memories of global imperialism.
The nation became a grand thing in the Midnight Oil imaginary, deserving of epic songs of gun barrel highways and bones bleaching white – capable of simultaneously realising justice and potential. The insistence that the great south land could be as great as the one it could have been not only problematised Australia’s past and present but also offered an immensely hopeful idea of the national future. And there was nothing elitist about the project because Oils songs are full of people and the immanent features of daily life: the part-time cleaner in a holiday flat; the worker from the blue-sky mine; people who live in water tanks and those who live in red-brick flats.
Midnight Oil has a long association with Greenpeace. Back in the mid-80s Garrett sometimes introduced the iconic track Hercules as an “ode to the Rainbow Warrior“. When the Oils re-formed in 2017, they played a private warm-up gig for 250 activists, environmentalists and friends in Greenpeace’s Sydney warehouse before the world tour kicked off (the gig is mentioned for posterity in the sleeve notes to the Armistice Day live album). I remember an odd sense that night, almost a mythic feel to things. In days of climate emergency, with a national government sunk in a morass of capture by fossil-fuel-vested interests, they’d returned. The Oils were back. And three years later here they are, back at number one on the Australian music charts.
The songs of Midnight Oil never shy away from loss and grief, both personal and political. That honest bearing of loss is fundamental to an emotional reckoning with these breaking years of extreme climate damage. But there’s no defeatism or abandonment in any Oils track.
When you read the Oils song-sheet, the ethic of determination, onwards, whatever the odds, is a golden thread. Not much time, but time to try. They say it’s late, but you know it’s never too late. Sometimes you’re shaken to the core, but you don’t give in.
o David Ritter is the chief executive of Greenpeace Australia Pacific