I am willing to bet the first time most Americans heard anything from Midnight Oil was the song “Power and the Passion” released in 1982. I know that song was my introduction to the band and I was definitely intrigued by what I heard. The vocals and the harmonies are what really grabbed me as well as a stirring drum solo in the middle and the horns at the end of the song. It wasn’t simple rock and roll, it wasn’t new wave but there was definitely something different about the sound. Now I was still a kid at that time so I did not immediately pay careful attention to the lyrics but one line did jump out at me; “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” A little research into the nature of the tune led me to discover the song had a heavy political message with references to a former Australian prime minister as well as a spy base by the name of Pine Gap.
There was nothing ordinary about this band and I wanted to know more. “Power and the Passion” was a single from the album 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 and to my dismay that was already the band’s fourth album. It turned out Midnight Oil had been in existence since 1972 and had changed its name to Midnight Oil in 1976. Now you have to remember Midnight Oil existed in the pre-internet days so information about the band was tough to come by at that time. The band came into being originally as The Farm in 1972, vocalist Peter Garrett joined the band shortly thereafter and if you know anything about this band you will understand what a dramatic impact this made. Garrett was studying law at the time and when the band officially disbanded in 2002 it was due to Garrett furthering his political career that began while still in the band. Midnight Oil developed a furious reputation for its intense and unbelievable live performances and its steadfast support of political causes they felt were important. Many bands claim to be political but Midnight Oil took that belief next level.
Red Sails in the Sunset followed 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 two years later and the absolute monster Diesel and Dust was released in 1987. Midnight Oil had become huge without compromising any of its beliefs and if anything, Diesel and Dust may have been its most politically charged album while also being the disc that brought them international stardom. Red Sails in the Sunset was the album that had the highest level of staying power with me due to tracks such as “Best of Both Worlds”, “Kosciusko”, “Bells and Horns in the Back of Beyond” and my favorite, “Shipyards of New Zealand”. The guitar work on that disc was all over the place, at times possessing a heavy, near metal type of sound, at times a more tranquil acoustic sound. The riff on “Best of Both Worlds” shreds harder than many thrash metal riffs I have listened to, it is that intense.
Midnight Oil has reunited twice for a total of four gigs in 2005 and 2009 and there are no current rumors of another reunion. I can only hope because I never saw this band play and I truly regret that. While not a true live clip, check out this video for “Shipyards of New Zealand” to get an idea of what the band was like live. The end of this song is incredible.
Album Inspiration: Red Sails in the Sunset