Midnight Oil Set To Reissue “Diesel and Rust”

 

            Some 21 years after its release in August 1987, DIESEL AND DUST, the sixth studio album by the beloved Australian band Midnight Oil, continues to burn a trail across the rock wilderness that is as relevant and politically savvy today as the moment it was created.  Source of an enduring manifesto of songs that cut across environmental collapse, native human rights, nuclear devastation, and big government, the album earned RIAA platinum in this country (and 7-times platinum in Oz) on its way to desert-island-disc status.

            Underscoring Midnight Oil’s activist core was the commitment of its lead singer Peter Garrett – who first campaigned for the Australian Senate on a Nuclear Disarma­ment Party ticket in 1984, while still in the band (losing only by the slimmest margin).  Today, six years after amicably departing Midnight Oil in 2002, Garrett’s dedication is strong as ever, as Australia’s Minister for Environment, Heritage and Arts.

            Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the U.S. chart debut of DIESEL AND DUST in 1988, an expanded edition of the album will now contain the long-lost 11th track “Gunbarrel Highway” (banned from North American editions of the album because of the lyric “shit falls like rain on a land that is brown”), coupled with a bonus DVD of the one-hour 1987 Blackfella/Whitefella Tour documentary – its first appearance on com­mercial home video (with bonus clips of “The Dead Heart” and “Beds Are Burning”).  Newly remastered for the first time in two decades, and complete with band member Rob Hirst’s original liner notes, the new package will arrive in stores May 6th on Columbia/Legacy, a division of SONY BMG MUSIC ENTERTAIN­MENT.

            DIESEL AND DUST was the penultimate statement from Midnight Oil – Peter Garrett, Martin Rotsey (guitar), Jim Moginie (guitar, keyboards), drummer Rob Hirst, and then-bassist Peter Gifford (who took over the spot in 1980 from Andrew ‘Bear’ James, and was succeeded in late-1988 by Bones Hillman, the only lineup changes in the band’s history).  The opening track, “Beds Are Burning” (“The time has come, a fact’s a fact/ It belongs to them, let’s give it back”) was a grim reminder of similar battles fought by native American Indians in this country. 

            It took the album nearly six months to enter the Billboard chart, despite the fact that it debuted at #1 in Australia (their fourth #1 album there).  But Progressive Rock radio in the U.S. forced the issue – in February 1988, “Beds Are Burning” finally crossed-over to the Mainstream Rock singles chart (reaching #6) and the Hot 100 (making #17).  DIESEL AND DUST followed suit in February, on its way to a 55-week chart stay (hitting #21) and RIAA platinum.

            Four years before, in 1984, Peter Garrett attracted worldwide attention as a “rock star” standing for office on the NDP (Nuclear Disarmament Party) platform.  A caustic figure, Garrett’s outspoken views on everything from native land rights and foreign military bases, to the national I.D. card, logging proposals, and uranium rights, while unfamiliar to many outside his country, were nevertheless piquing imaginations everywhere.  Garrett, who holds a law degree from the University of New South Wales, pulled 290,000 votes and quite nearly won the Senate seat. 

            (Garrett’s first book was issued in 1987, Political Blues, published by Hodder & Soughton in Sydney.  He continued to campaign tirelessly for nearly two more decades, until amicably departing Midnight Oil in 2002.  Two years later, he won a Labor Party seat and was appointed Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment, Heritage and the Arts.  In November 2007, the Labor Prime Minister promoted Garrett to Minister for Environment, Heritage and Arts.)

            In 1985, Midnight Oil became involved in campaigns for the preservation of rainforest areas in Queensland and Tasmania.  It started with a song, “The Dead Heart,” written for the Mitijula Aboriginal community.  The song was used in a film they made about Australia’s return of the sacred Uluru stone in October to its traditional Aboriginal owners and custodians after a long national campaign. 

            The turning point took place in July 1986, when Midnight Oil set out on a tour of remote Aboriginal settlements in Central Australia, the Western Desert, and the Top End.  As Hirst writes, “they staged concerts, talked with tribal elders and saw European occupation of Australia through the eyes of its original occupants.  This became known as the Blackfella/Whitefella Tour.”  The realities of modern Aboriginal life were over­whelm­ing.  200 years of white settlement in Australia had seen all manner of atrocity visited upon the country’s original owners.  Survivors today fight to maintain their ancient traditions in an atmosphere tainted by poverty, disease and alcoholism.

            Midnight Oil returned to Sydney in a state of shock and bewilderment.  The three principal song­writers – Moginie, Garrett and Hirst – had addressed many of the most important issues confronting the world in the late 20th century.  They had looked long and hard at the arms race and the imminent danger of nuclear war.  They had written songs about the folly of war and the destructive nature of capitalism, exploita­tion and greed.  They had cried out for the natural environments laid waste by progress – and they had touched on many of the great stories of Australia’s brief but colorful history of white settlement.  Now they turned their attention to the plight of the country’s own indigenous people.

            As they wrote, they extensively road-tested the new material with a series of pub dates in late 1986.  In 1987, they entered the studio with British keyboardist-producer Warne Livesey, who had produced London’s The The (Infected) and Australian band Icehouse (Measure for Measure) the year before. 

            DIESEL AND DUST accurately reflected Midnight Oil’s experiences in the desert the year before.  In addition to “The Dead Heart,” there were extraordinary new songs such as “Bullroarer,” “Dreamworld,” “Put Down That Weapon,” and of course, “Beds Are Burning.”  Midnight Oil had always sounded distinctively Australian, but the music on the new album evoked a different Australia, and despite the ugliness it described, and the anger and horror with which it spoke, the album was destined to become a best-seller worldwide. 

            1988’s January 26th Australia Day bicentennial celebrated the arrival of the first British convicts in 1788, and the establishment of the British Crown Colony of New South Wales at Port Jackson (Sydney harbour).  Two centuries later, Midnight Oil was proving that there was more to the rugged subcontinent than kangaroos, koalas, and Crocodile Dundee.  “Beds Are Burning” – an unintentional hit single if ever there was one – was the unofficial anthem for the Aboriginal land rights movement in Australia, and threw the band into the international spotlight. 

            After a major Australian tour, they proceeded to work extensively throughout Europe, the UK, and finally the U.S. and Canada in April and May.  By then, the one-hour concert film documentary of the Blackfella/Whitefella Tour was in circulation, although not widely shown.  Originally seen on ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corp­oration), a U.S. airdate was never confirmed.  The new 2008 expanded limited edition of DIESEL AND DUST commemorates an historic chapter in the Midnight Oil story.

            Interestingly, DIESEL AND DUST, recorded and released in 1987, just about marked the one-third point in the 26-year life of Midnight Oil – 11 years after the band was formed in 1976, nine years after they recorded their first album in ’78; and 15 years before they disbanded in 2002, eight albums later.  (Although Rob Hirst continues to thrive in his band Ghostwriters, formed as a side project in 1990 and now four albums deep.  Rotsey joined the band last year, and recorded Political Animal with them, which featured a guest appearance by Moginie; Hillman has also sat in on occasion.)

            The Blackfella/Whitefella Tour, which inspired DIESEL AND DUST, was nothing less than a life-changing phenomenon.  “It was the most collectively exciting, eye opening and ultimately saddening experience for us as a band,” Hirst concludes.  “We found people reduced to living under bits of Western refuse, falling prey to Western disease… petrol sniffing, alcoholism… and being misdirected by idiot bureaucrats.  But at the same time being exposed to the positive aspects of Aboriginal culture.  There are parts of the trip I still have trouble assimilating years later.”

 

 

            DIESEL AND DUST by Midnight Oil (Columbia/Legacy 88697 17653 2 8, originally issued August 1987, as Columbia 40967)  Selections – Disc One (CD): 1. Beds Are Burning • 2. Put Down That Weapon • 3. Dreamworld • 4. Arctic World • 5. Warakurna • 6. The Dead Heart • 7. Whoah • 8. Bullroarer • 9. Sell My Soul • 10. Sometimes • Bonus track: 11. Gunbarrel Highway.

 

            Disc Two (Performances contained within the Blackfella/Whitefella Tour DVD documentary):  1. The Dead Heart • 2. Stand In Line • 3. The Power And The Passion • 4. Blackfella/Whitefella • 5. Gotta Be Strong • 6. Warumpinya (Papunya) • 7. Best Of Both Worlds • 8. Nyuntu Nyaalyjirriku (What Are You Going To Do) • 9. Helps Me Help You • 10. Waru (Fire) • 11. Kosciusko • 12. Beds Are Burning • 13. Island Home • 14. Read About It • Bonus tracks: 15. The Dead Heart  (video clip) • 16. Beds Are Burning (video clip).

Note:

All performances by Midnight Oil except number 4 (by Midnight Oil and the Warumpi Band); and numbers 5, 6, 8, 10, and 13 (by the Warumpi Band).

Author: James McQuiston

Ph.D. in Political Science, Kent State University. I have been the editor at NeuFutur / neufutur.com since I was 15. Looking for new staff members all the time; email me if you are interested. Thanks!

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