Midnight Oil Live at the Forum, 5 May 2001

How do Midnight Oil escape the tag of 1980s pub-rock embarrassments? Nobody admits to liking Barnesy these days; nobody ever liked Farnesy; and the Angels, V. Spy V. Spy, the Radiators, the Uncanny X-Men, and countless other staples of the 1980s Australian touring scene have disappeared in an almighty collective cough behind the hand of Generation X, condemned to live out their lives on hits-'n'-memories radio. So why are Peter Garrett and co. still with us?

Two reasons, perhaps. One is their politics, which has always been an integral part of their music. While younger generations are hardly going to flock to hear a 40-year-old sing brainless tunes of teenage romance (dude, look at him, he can't even get it up any more), the left-wing, environmentalist, pro-land-rights, no-nukes message of the Oils still finds an audience.

The other is their timing. The Oils began as a late-70s pub-rock band, but they peaked in the late '80s with an album that bore little relation to pub-rock, Diesel and Dust. The next few years of international popularity (through to the equally impressive Blue Sky Mining) saw them bridge the gap from '80s dinosaurs to '90s alternarock; and although one of their finest achievements, 1993's Earth and Sun and Moon, got lost in the rush of excellent new music that year, they somehow managed to linger in the collective conscious (locally, if no longer internationally) as a relevant band of today.

They almost dropped the ball in 1996 with the lacklustre Breathe, their least-political record in years, but 1998's Redneck Wonderland saw them step back into the protest-rock arena clothed in techno and industrial-rock garb. That it was greeted as a modern classic, and not as the aural equivalent of yer sad uncle wearin' trackies and Nikes and saying how 'festy' everything is, is a minor miracle. But it's not hard to see why: Redneck Wonderland is one awesome album. Along with 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and Diesel, it's an album that defines the Oils and explains why we still love them.

But there's another factor at work in the Oils' appeal - one that I hadn't fully appreciated until Saturday night. That's when I saw Midnight Oil playing live for the very first time, in one of the best shows I've ever seen.

I'm not sure how I didn't make it earlier. I can remember missing one of their early '80s shows because of high-school student poverty, and having to make do with taped copies of 10, 9, 8..., Red Sails in the Sunset, and a precious 90-minute recording of the ABC-FM broadcast of their Goat Island concert in honour of Triple J's tenth anniversary. That this tape was clearly better than their poorly produced and mixed early albums, and even than my two favourites, should have told me that catching an Oils show would be a Good Idea. But somehow I never did.

Fast-forward to the Forum Theatre, Melbourne, Saturday 5 May 2001. A full house packs the seats and floor. Punters stand around admiring the theatre's ornate decorations, evidence of the little-known Roman colonisation of Victoria in 124 BC. Support act Palladium play an over-long set of cod-pub-rock that nobody under 35 should even be listening to, let alone performing. Second support Lo-Tel play their latest single and their one hit to an audience that clearly doesn't even know who they are; this is not a Triple J crowd. Finally, to chants of 'Oiiiii-illls', the lights go down for the main act, two and a half hours after the doors opened. Five shadowy figures walk onstage and take up their instruments. A skittering synth introduces their best-known song of recent years, the red lights go up, and: whomp.

'Redneck Wonderland', the song, is without doubt the best thing about Redneck Wonderland the album: with that opener the album would be a classic even if every other song was crap. And it's one hell of a way to start a show. The wave of guitars floods through you, the stop/starts get you moving, you chant along with the words and shout out 'Shoot!' and thrust your arms in the air. Peter Garrett jerks his lanky body in those trademark dances, so unique, so alive, and you can't stop watching. Everything about this performance makes you pay attention.

And then they follow it with 'Only the Strong' from 10, 9, 8..., and you find you know every word and can't help singing them - along with half of the audience, who all remember just what it's like to be 15 and hearing this manic bald guy shouting from the speakers of their cheap 3-in-1 stereo; God help us, where our grandparents crooned 'Stormy Weather' into their old age we'll be screaming 'When I'm up in my room...'

And so it goes. A show packed with anthems, with a few new songs from the unrecorded next album thrown in to give us all a rest from singing along ('Golden Age' sounded good, but it's hard to judge the rest of them on one listen). All eras are covered: a couple from Redneck, a couple from Breathe, a couple from Blue Sky; 'King of the Mountain' from Earth and Sun and Moon; 'Dead Heart', 'Warakurna', 'Bullroarer' and 'Beds are Burning' from Diesel and Dust. The land rights message of the latter is as relevant today as in 1987, and when Peter Garrett amends a line to 'Two thousand and one/Give it back', the sense of unfinished business is strong.

Recent hits 'The Real Thing' and 'Say Your Prayers' also get a loud audience response, but the strongest is saved for the oldest: 'No Time for Games' from the Bird Noises EP turns into a full-on jam by Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey, with Garrett dancing back and forth between them like a short-circuited battle-robot from the Martian Wars of 2131; and a brilliant impromptu romp through 'Bus to Bondi' from Head Injuries, with bassist Bones Hillman (who joined the band long after that album) making it up as he goes along.

When they come back for an encore the audience is expecting a rousing performance of 'US Forces', as loudly requested by a girl at the back earlier in the night; instead, we get their biggest hit of the early 1980s (and the first single I ever bought), 'Power and the Passion'. Apart from the Gough references it could have been written yesterday; it's staggering to think that this song was written seven years after the events of 1975. Rob Hirst hammers away in its closing drum solo, proving that he's still Australia's best drummer, and throws handfuls of sticks into the crowd as he leaves the stage. And a fantastic two-hour show from one of Australia's most enduring bands comes to an end.

So, three reasons.


This page: 8 May 2001.

©2001 Rory Ewins