Music

After Life In Parliament Midnight Oil Are All Passion, No Power

Is protest music believable when it comes from a former Labor MP?

Midway through Midnight Oil’s set at Terminal 5 — a cavernous venue on New York’s Upper West Side with a disco ball dangling from the ceiling — two fans turn to each other to discuss a pressing question. Where are the youth?

“You need to be listening to this shit,” says one.

“I hope there are enough of them here,” his friend responds.

It’s not hard to see why they’re concerned. Just over a year since the iconic Australian band announced its reformation, the Oils have drawn a solid crowd that is generally middle-aged (not to mention white and male).

That might not feel like a profound rebuke of a band that hasn’t released an original album since 2002, but it does feel like more than a crowd has been lost. It’s not just the young fans who have moved on — so have the times.

Midnight Oil has never been just a rock band, and their music soared in part because it captured a critical nationalistic sentiment, one that resonated with progressive politics in Australia before the turn of the century.

Then, after years of advocacy and activism outside of the band, lead singer Peter Garrett doubled down, dancing his awkward bobble right across the line that separates activism from the operation of power. He ran for parliament, securing a safe Labor seat and eventually becoming a minister in the Rudd and Gillard governments.

More than 40 years after they first thrashed it out in Sydney’s pub scene, Garrett’s return and the band’s global tour provoke some deeper questions. Can the idea behind political music survive after a brush with professional politics?

And does this prolific Australian band have anything left to give?

An Aussie Rock-Politics Juggernaut Rises

It was back in the 1980s that Midnight Oil started to really break through, working their way up the charts in Australia as well as Europe and the US.

As the band’s star rose, it found an increasingly political voice. Lyrically, The Oils pushed themes of environmentalism, respect for traditional custodians of the land, and suspicion of US corporate and military power. Their most enduring hit remains ‘Beds Are Burning’, a song that asks white Australia to face up to its colonial past.

In 1990, the band brought their message to the streets of New York, banging out a set at the doorstep of US oil firm Exxon to protest its environmental record, and the broader malfeasance of corporate greed. “Like U2, Midnight Oil is a rock band with a conscience,” a New York Times reviewer remarked. “But while U2 has vague good intentions, Midnight Oil has clear-cut goals.”

More music followed and the band cemented their place in the canon of great Australian rock acts, holding fast to their political core while selling millions of albums. But their most powerful symbolic moment was still to come.

In 2000, Midnight Oil performed to an audience of literally hundreds of millions of people at the Sydney Olympics, selecting ‘Beds Are Burning’ for the moment. With Prime Minister John Howard in the audience, the band petitioned in lyric and text, stencilling the word ‘Sorry’ onto their shirts, an open criticism of the PM’s refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations. It was a powerful performance precisely because it seemed to ride the tide of history, crashing down on Howard’s parade.

The band was drawing from something bigger and giving it a sound and a presence in popular culture. The same year as the Olympics, a quarter of a million people walked across the Harbour Bridge calling for reconciliation, the largest protest the country had ever seen.

From Idealist Rock Star To Disillusioned MP

Seventeen years later, the optimism of that moment seems a long faded mirage, and Garrett has pivoted from a symbol of hope for progressive politics in Australia to a motif for its recent troubles.

Kevin Rudd did eventually come to power and offer an apology to the Stolen Generation, but his government quickly disintegrated from there. Garrett announced he would leave politics after Gillard was rolled by the man she had replaced. He was, he told Rolling Stone, disillusioned by round-the-clock media demands and the way those working in government had their image distorted. Suddenly, he was on the other side of the protest.

Once the head of the Australian Conservation Foundation and a strident anti-nuclear campaigner, Garrett found himself being criticised by the same organisation for approving the Four Mile uranium mine.

The problem for Garrett and Midnight Oil now is that his own voice of protest changed in the process, flattened by the practical experience of day-to-day politics, the big ideas replaced with grievances that at times seem petty.

Speaking to Rolling Stone last year, Garrett said the people in parliament “are no different to you and I.”

“For some of them, politics has been a calling, and you could argue quite rightly it’s made it a bit narrow, and it’s not as inspiring as it could be, but it’s not a bunch of people with horns. It’s just a bunch of Australians who happen to be elected to office.”

“Whether Garrett likes it or not, the practical difficulties and moral stains that come with exerting real power follow him back to the stage”

Sure. Fine. But this Kitchen Cabinet-esque defence of the people locking up refugees, using Aboriginal communities as welfare cruelty testing labs, and repurposing the lives of LGBTI Australians to wedge their own colleagues rings hollow.

Garrett’s solo album A Version Of Now, released last year, defends his decision to “leave the show”, as he puts it on the track ‘I’d Do It Again’. Would he really do it again? Would he join a party that sent men, women, and children to incarceration on Manus Island? A party that continued the Northern Territory Intervention? A government that attempted to slash higher education funding and cut support for single mothers?

Needless to say, Garrett is not personally responsible for every failing of the Rudd-Gillard governments, less so the parliaments that superseded them. Yet whether he likes it or not, the practical difficulties and moral stains that come with exerting real power follow him back to the stage. Even if you sympathise with Garrett’s perspective, you have to admit that a defence of your decision to join the parliamentary wing of the Australian Labor Party and effect change from within isn’t exactly the stuff of stirring political rock anthems.

At Midnight Oil’s show in New York, Garrett wears a ‘You’re Fired’ shirt with an image of Donald Trump, and delivers a passionate spiel about the dangers of rabid free market ideology. It’s heartfelt. But it no longer feels tapped in to something bigger.

Once you’ve crossed over like Peter Garrett, there’s no going back.

Garrett campaigning against nuclear power in the 1980s.

After The Oils

Behind Midnight Oils’ politics was always a high performing band, something they remain. Onstage in New York they snarl and thump, and Garrett has not been diminished by time. One moment he sways like an anemone in a current, the next he arcs his back and taps at a tiny invisible typewriter. Still bald as fuck, still towering over all, he remains a pleasure to watch on stage.

Garrett has changed and so too has the world. All in all, the withdrawal of Midnight Oil as a politically powerful cultural phenomenon is probably a good thing anyway.

As Australia wrestles with its history and its future, it’s no surprise that voices outside of the white mainstream are making the most vibrant contributions. Where once Midnight Oil facilitated a white-to-white conversation about land rights, a new generation of Aboriginal performers are producing their own political anthems, crossing over to the mainstream with an emphatic message on their own terms.

Even back in their day, Midnight Oil straddled a line, touring with and promoting Aboriginal bands while sometimes angering Aboriginal organisations.

Today, it’s the likes of Briggs, Trials, and Dan Sultan who are landing political tunes with impact and relevance (Garrett has previously noted he’s a Briggs fan, while Briggs recently labelled ‘Beds Are Burning’ a “banger”).

These days, Midnight Oil are just a band. The task of distilling something bigger about Australia — its politics, its people, its history — has been passed down to a new generation.

Max Chalmers is a freelance journalist based in Sydney. He is on Twitter

Article image by Andrej Lugez