Politics in music is a tricky business. If it’s so pointed and obvious, it can often make the politics, and the music, insufferable, no matter how much you might agree. The results are a compromised song. On the other hand, if you’re subtle and thoughtful, your message sometimes gets lost. Just ask the Boss about “Born in the U.S.A.” Similarly ask Midnight Oil about “Beds are Burning.” A top ten hit here in the States and part of an album that went platinum, it’s possibly the only song that successful that was nothing more than a rather conscience-bruising demand for aboriginal/native land rights. While Midnight Oil was writing about Australia, the parallels are obvious for America. And yet it was their biggest success in the States up until that point. Score one for subversive politics.

Diesel and Dust is as political and, in some ways, as radical as contemporary political albums like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Doubt me? This is the same band that, six years later, would have another minor radio hit with a song that had the line: “I see the Union Jack in flames / let it burn!” Score one for obvious politics.

Midnight Oil had a lyrical agenda from day one, but their music had two problems when it came to breaking out of Australia. At this point, they’d been releasing records since 1978 with a good amount of success back home. But first, their populist tendencies had defeated attempts at American marketing. The politics had been either too regional (who in the States even knew who Jimmy Sharman was?) or too seering. The results were songs that were powerhouse political rants, but way too confrontational for radio play. Second, the production just wasn’t quite up to snuff. They were making good, interesting albums. But Diesel and Dust is their first moment in the (American) sun for a reason.

You couldn’t have asked for a better single (and lead album track) than “Beds are Burning.” Catchy, anthemic and, yes, dancey, it’s immediately ingratiating. “The time has come / to say fair’s fair / to pay the rent / to pay our share…it belongs to them / we’re gonna give it back.” Did most people know exactly what they were singing? Probably not, but it’s an incredibly non-mainstream political idea to open an album with – and it only continues from there. Nuclear disarmament (“Put Down that Weapon,” “Arctic World”), general rallies/spiteful opposition (“Dream World,” “Sell My Soul”) and more indigenous issues (“Warakurna,” “The Dead Heart”) populate the album.

Name dropping time – but for a purpose. When Patterson Hood got into my car a few weeks ago during the course of our interview, he had to move aside my copy of Diesel and Dust to sit down and he immediately began to praise the record. His comment was that, as good as each track is, it just seems to get topped by the ones following it – clear to the end. And I can’t disagree with him. By the time you reach the end, and the triumphant, bolstering and jagged “Sometimes,” an album that has spent the last 40 minutes tackling dead serious issue after dead serious issue leaves you feeling renewed, emboldened and hopeful.

Diesel and Dust would be the beginning of a run of arguably their three best albums, each as political as the last. In 1990 they would play a guerrilla gig on a flatbed trailer outside Exxon’s headquarters in New York in protest of the company’s handling of the Valdez oil spill – just another day at the office for one of the world’s most outspoken and political bands. – j. neas

MP3: Midnight Oil :: Beds Are Burning
MP3: Midnight Oil :: Dream World

MP3: Midnight Oil :: Sell My Soul (Live-NYC 1993)
Amazon: Midnight Oil – Diesel and Dust

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13 Responses to “Midnight Oil :: The Politics of Diesel and Dust”

  1. What a fabulous and thought out review of a great album! Thank you so much for posting this . . . I found it greatly informative and entertaining!

    Pope JTE
    The Ripple Effect

  2. It is excellent to see Midnight Oil being praised, posthumously, on an American blog. In Australia, Midnight Oil is one of a great many bands and musicians (Hoodoo Gurus, Paul Kelly, You Am I, etc.) whose popularity within this country was matched by near-complete anonymity elsewhere around the world.

    There is a part of the story which you haven’t come across, however. The Oils’ frontman, Peter Garrett, was not only singing about politics – he was living it. During the 1980s, he was for many years the president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and had an active role (along with current Greens leader, Senator Bob Brown) in achieving heritage listing and protection for the Franklin River in Tasmania. He went on to be extremely critical of the Hawke Labor Government, however in 2004 he himself joined the Labor Party and won the seat of Kingsford-Smith. And last year, the Labor Party won Government for the first time in 11 years.

    As a result, Garrett is the current Minister (that’s the equivalent of a Secretary in American politics) for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. He is now part of the establishment. Some consider this selling out – others figure it’s where he should have been all along.

  3. Ben, I’d known that Garret was an MP down there, but hadn’t heard he had become a cabinet level person. That’s fantastic. It’s absolutely where he belonged all the while. You can only change so much from outside – I’m sure he’s doing fantastic work within. I might’ve gone into it more in the article, but I was trying to focus mostly on the Diesel and Dust era. Thanks for the input!

  4. I also couldn’t agree more. the Oils never got quite the respect they deserved here in the USA. But I’m not sure I agree with the statement that it started a run of their best three albums. That run, in my mind, started with the amazingly powerful (and political) 10,9,8,7,6,…. which took the USA head on for its foreign policy while still lamblasting the Aussie’s at home for their apathy and lifestyle. “Red Sails in the Sunset,” (which we reviewed on the Ripple Effect) is often over looked, but is an amazingly intense album that was their first serious address of the aboriginal treatment in Australia. Then came the amazing Diesel and all your comments. I personally find Blue Sky Mine a bit of a drop off, then they roared back with Earth and Sun and Moon.

    The Ripple Effect

  5. Thanks for the update, Ben, & Todd-absolutely, ’10, 9, 8′ & ‘Red Sails’ were veritable cornerstones of ‘college radio’…
    Sadly, i don’t think many in the US ever realized that this band could flat out rock live. To this day, the loudest band i ever have seen. Someday i’ll find a bootleg of their brutal run through ‘what’s so funny about peace, love, & understanding’…
    Thanks to all above for your comments…looks like i’ve got some records to dig out tonight!

  6. My first CD ever. It was on sale for $13.99 at the time. I didn’t have a CD player, but I was planning to buy one.

    Now I have a CD player, but hardly any CDs. It’s all been ripped to AAC.

    Anyway, The Tragically Hip used to do a show called Another Roadside Attraction. For a few years, it was a pretty significant thing in Canada and it got pretty spendy.

    The first year it was kind of small, unexpected and new. In Toronto, the festival was held in Markham, Ontario (it later moved to Molson Park in Barrie, a tragic venue if I’ve ever seen one.)

    That first great year $30 got you BOTH days of the show. Each night was headlined by the Hip, but the “second” headliners were Midnight Oil, Hothouse Flowers, and Daniel Lanois.

    Midnight Oil rocked that thing pretty hard, stealing the show. My memory says The Hip were at least as awesome, but they had the benefit of a couple more beers and a Fifty Mission Cap.

    Midnight Oil played a concert on Meers Island in Clayoquot Sound to protest the logging of British Columbia’s old growth forest. They’re still logging it, but less than they used to. That monstrously tall bald sasquatch Garrett deserves a tonne of credit.

  7. Peter Garrett got screwed. They fastracked him into the position of a candidate to attract the Green vote because of his fame and his association with environmental activism.

    He was made the Environment minister but they started gagging him before the election when they found out that letting him speak his mind meant a lot of damage control for the party as they only really wanted him for the votes not the radical suggestions for protecting the environment.

    Since the Australian Labour party won the election they’ve also gone to the trouble of neutering him by giving the issues of Water and Climate Change its own portfolio and then gave that to another minister. He is now rarely allowed to talk to the media, and is forced to regurgitate party policies dictated to him which we all know are counter to his beliefs.

    I think Midnight Oil’s music is absolute crap, I can’t stand it, but I respect and admire what they stood for and how they brought issues to light. We need more people like that.

    The Australian Labour Party has screwed him over and they’ve cheated us out of voice that needs to be heard.

    R.I.P. The Peter Garrett of Old

    Note: I refuse to be so petty as to comment on his resemblence to Lurch from the Adams Family or say that dancing as badly as he does would warrant institutionalization in some countries.

  8. Thanks… I haven’t played this one in ages. Got my copy in hand right now…

  9. a fantastic album from a great band. it’s funny because they have several very strong albums, but i never really think of midnight oil as an “albums” band. the best way to experience most of the music is live. there are some great live recordings of midnight oil out there. the best way to hear pre-diesel and dust material is on oils on the water, which is one of the best live recordings of anyone ever anywhere that’s ever been released. but even with that, you miss a lot of great songs.

    and sure the politics were regional, and i’m not austalian, but for me part of the fun of midnight oil was learning who jimmy sharman or ned kelly were or what kosciuszko was. new things and all that.

  10. For sure a great album! Thanks for reminding me. Brings back memories of hot Fresno summers and a topless Jeep with this tape on.

  11. Wow, I’m so happy to see so many M.O. fans chiming in. I saw the band at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee on the Blue Sky Mining tour and loved every bone-shaking second. Come on over to Timedoor to check out an acoustic version of “Warakurna.” Cheerz!

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  13. Well I used to and see the Oils regularly when they played Melbourne in the late 70’s-early 80’s. They were the most intense live band I have ever seen, no question. Unfortunately they lost their edge when they lost Andrew James the original bass player. I don’t know if his leaving was the reason or not but their last prime recorded work was the Bird Noises EP.

    The peak of their power was the Head Injuries album, just the right balance of strong political lyrics without beating you over the head like some of their later material. But the music was the thing, really original and tough as nails. Is It Now, the closing track (pretty much forgotten fare for the band) is one of my all time favorite pieces of music, it builds to the most amazing climax, gives me goosebumps every time!

    After Head Injuries, in spite of occasional glimpses of brilliance it was all downhill sadly. Still I’m glad they made a success of it in the business, they deserved it. Shame about Garrett’s limp political career, he’d have done better as an outside agitator imho.

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