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Midnight Oil: rock around the apocalypse



Australian popular art--or at least the Australian popular art that becomes popular in the Western world these days--relies heavily on images of the apocalypse. This appears to come naturally to many Australian rock bands and movie directors, but it also tends to be what we expect them to deliver us. The most popular Australian band of the season, Midnight Oil, fits this stereotype without succumbing to its cliches; the band's art runs on the apocalypse as the current state of affairs, without resorting to the cynicism of the U.S. hard-rock bands that rely on the same basic premise.

Onstage, the band plays against a barren backdrop that shifts in colors to suggest the varied moods of the songs--as varied as the moods of the desert. The props suggest embattled survivors: the monitors are protected by wire fencing and barbed wire; the aboriginal flag is prominently displayed; a slat-board windmill twirls in the rear alongside a corrugated-iron water tank that sometimes serves as a percussion instrument for the drummer. The band's primary image of nuclear survival, though, is lead singer Peter Garrett, a six-and-a-half-foot-tall shaved-headed giant whose singing style and stage presence are as erratic and rough-edged as the band's music. His loose-fitting clothing, the low neckline of his shirts, calls to mind nothing so much as that 50s nuclear survivor "The Amazing Colossal Man," while his odd-angled staggering about the stage suggests Orson Welles's portrayal of the aging Charles Foster Kane, careening through his wife's bedroom smashing everything to bits. There is something that inspires sympathy in Welles's acting there--in the odd way his body moves--just as there is something that inspires empathy in Garrett's presence. But how he evokes that empathy is mysterious. His voice is discomforting at first. Sometimes shrill and wavering, sometimes raspy and whispering, it grows on one in a surprising fashion; one surrenders to the odd melody amid the usual screeching the way one surrenders to a beautiful sight amid catastrophe. The band's music--all jagged angles and abrupt tempo changes on first listening--is equally affecting on reacquaintance. The band is quite accessible, actually--as any comparison of its record sales with those of, say, Husker Du or Black Flag would indicate. If Midnight Oil relies on the apocalypse to fuel its art--on images of barrenness and the rediscovery of basic facts--it is the apocalypse not as dreadful threat but as inevitable incident, as a sort of severe bracer for what must come afterward.

Still, the reasons for Midnight Oil's large and growing popularity in the States--especially on the dance floor--remain elusive. The band is austere from the get-go. Its melodies are rare and, when discovered, are spare to the extreme. The song structures on Diesel and Dust wonderfully depict Australia--simply because they don't seem to have come from anywhere else. Like INXS, Midnight Oil is a band of rock 'n' roll pros who have a number of studio albums behind them in their native land. But that is where the similarities end. From its deliberately sexy lead vocalist to its Keith Richards guitar rhythms, INXS takes the Rolling Stones' formula for success and puts it in an 80s context. The band's history reflects its influences; it could as well have come from Ohio as from Australia. What are Midnight Oil's influences? Not the blues (although Garrett did bow to this city's indigenous music with a brief, facetious harmonica solo to open the show), not the Beatles, and certainly not the Rolling Stones--although there are hints of all of these and more in the guitar playing. Yet they remain only hints. Midnight Oil sells records because in its postapocalyptic vision it has rediscovered Dick Clark's basic truth: if it has a good beat and you can dance to it, it will sell.

Midnight Oil's records are aesthetically good for other reasons. As a band--and it's as a band and not as an act that Midnight Oil excels--it follows in the new traditions of the U.S. and British new-wave groups. That's why Garrett--in direct opposition to Michael Hutchence--revels in his ugliness. "The truth hurts" is message number one. Garrett's lyrics also demonstrate a Clash-like ability to equate struggles on the personal level to those on the global level. In "Put Down That Weapon," a personal appeal for nonviolence blends naturally into an attack on military proliferation. Like the Clash and others, Midnight Oil is politically correct in all the right ways--which means that it recognizes the need for reforms without thinking those reforms will be easily attained. "Beds Are Burning" is not a post-Marcus Garveyan back-to-Britain statement but a recognition of huge--and not necessarily monetary--debts owed. The audience--or most of it--recognizes this.

The show last month at the Aragon was one of the most pleasant--strictly on a level of dealing with those around you--that I've seen there. There was no body-search hassle at the door and no threatening glances if you stood up in front of your seat or spilled someone else's beer. The usually lovable Aragon bouncers cut through the crowd to make someone get off the edge of the balcony--where he was sitting talking with friends between acts--but they did so not by dragging him off by the scruff of his shirt but with a few waves of their flashlight beams. The crowd was tolerant of an aboriginal band called Yothu Yindi--which performed some traditional tribal music--and then was rewarded when the band brought out some electric instruments and moved into a set that turned out quite funky. On the way out after the show there was a short line to sign a petition supporting the rights of indigenous people to their native lands.

At the core of Midnight Oil's political idealism is, of course, the music. Garrett shows a remarkable (and utterly un-Clash-like) ability to connect with the audience through anthemlike choruses. Diesel and Dust moves so wonderfully from one song to the next because the messages are so gracefully woven into the music. From "Beds Are Burning" to "Put Down That Weapon" to "Dreamworld" (one of the closing songs of the live set) and from the new hit "Dead Heart" to "Sell My Soul," the record meets a wide variety of issues head-on, without flinching or settling for easy answers. (That's why it's at once so durable and so infuriating as a work of art, but more on that later.) Midnight Oil would have to be described as a guitar band. But if that's the case, it is the most unassuming and inoffensive of guitar bands. Garrett and the drummer are at the core of the sound, but the guitars give the songs their body and their emotional range. One comes to realize, especially in performance, how wide a range the band's two guitarists have. Midnight Oil does not write "songs," the way Elvis Costello does, but it does perform them: that is, the songs themselves are not immaculate from a formalistic standpoint, but the performance of those songs--from the standpoint of a band playing together--is as immaculate as can be. The sound of Midnight Oil is that of a new-wave Band. But where the members of the Band were always leaving hints of what great musicians they were (e.g., Garth Hudson's organ intro to "Chest Fever") and in that way made the listener conscious of how they were reining themselves in for unity's sake, Midnight Oil doesn't allow these jarring interruptions. The two guitarists--who are mentioned on the songwriting credits as only "Moginie" and "Hirst" because Midnight Oil, like New Order, believes in stressing the band by minimizing the individual contributions have an amazing vocabulary, but they never contribute anything to a song performance that doesn't seem to make formal sense. The hint of skank in "Whoah," the tremolo in "Bullroarer," the jangling Ventures sound elsewhere all contribute to the general effect of the songs without emphasizing the contributions of the instrumentalist. Which means that while the Band--for all its unified rhetoric--was actually a group of 70s egoists just like everybody else, Midnight Oil might actually be aiming to achieve something better.

Whether that something else is attained is, of course, something else entirely. Diesel and Dust is obviously likable and eminently respectable, and entirely unified and consistent--rare attributes for a rock record, especially these days. But whether it's a great piece of art, I don't know. In performance the band demonstrated all these admirable qualities, while embellishing the music in its sequencing and arrangements (and Garrett added to his political correctness with a short lecture on "Danny" Quayle). But I can't say it was transcendent. The things Garrett and his mates have real conviction about--equality, fairness, concern, humanity--are no less difficult to describe well in a rock 'n' roll context (where they are such unfamiliar topics) than in a presidential debate. Ask Michael Dukakis if these abstract topics don't sometimes take the edge off one's message. In an apocalyptic setting, these attributes are at once precious and moot. Yet if Diesel and Dust isn't quite the record that Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is, Midnight Oil's politics are better--by almost any standard. I suppose that means Midnight Oil has more of a future--or that its future is more interesting--although I imagine that both records will sound contemporary if and when the apocalypse does arrive.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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