Australian band, Midnight Oil developed from an association struck up in 1974 between drummer Rob Hirst, bassist Andrew ‘Bear’ James and guitarist/keyboard player James Moginie. The three found shaven-headed vocalist (and law graduate) Peter Garrett two years later, and the line-up was completed in 1977 with the addition of guitarist Martin Rotsey.
After gigging around the northern beaches of Sydney (originally as The Farm), the band recorded their debut album in 1978 on their own independent Powderworks label. It included tracks which had been live favourites, such as Used and Abused, Run by Night (the single) and Surfing with a Spoon.
Their second album, Head Injuries, was recorded in July/August 1979 at Trafalgar Studios in Sydney. A tighter and more proficient effort, it made a solid chart impact in Australia and approached gold status. Stand-out tracks were Back on the Borderline and the national hit single, Cold Cold Change.
Early in 1980, bassist Andrew James left the band because of health problems. He was replaced by Peter Gifford.
Their first charting release was the 4-track 12″ EP Bird Noises (December 1980), which reached #28 on the Australian singles chart and featured the stand-out instrumental track Wedding Cake Island.
Place Without A Postcard (1981) was recorded in England with producer Glyn Johns but drew heavily on Australian history in its lyrics. It went platinum at home and yielded a major chart single, Armistice Day.
Armed with a sheaf of politically charged songs, the Oils returned to Britain in 1982 to record the album 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. The album spent a staggering two years in the Australian Top 40.
Vocalist Peter Garrett became notorious for airing his political views both in print (through a series of newspaper columns which were compiled in a book called Political Blues) and on television.
In 1984, following the Red Sails In The Sunset album, Garrett ran for the Australian Senate on the Nuclear Disarmament Party ticket. He very nearly succeeded and went on to eventually become Australia’s environment minister (and then education minister).
The Diesel and Dust album (1987) went gold in a day and platinum in three in Australia and had the largest ship-out in the history of the country’s record industry. Its stand-out track, Beds Are Burning, achieved the band’s only Top Ten success in Britain in 1989, also reaching the Top 20 in America.
The Oils undertook a world tour (with New Zealander Dwayne ‘Bones’ Hillman replacing Gifford on bass) and returned with the Blue Sky Mining album in 1990, written for the thousands of Australians who had contracted cancer while working as blue asbestos miners.
The following year, the band was back on the road, playing to wildly enthusiastic crowds, as evidenced by a great live album, Scream In Blue (1992).
They returned to the UK and US charts with their 1993 album Earth & Sun & Moon, cementing their reputation as one of the most enjoyable, honest and committed acts around. Breathe (1996), their 10th album, was recorded in Sydney and New Orleans.
The following year the band celebrated their 16th anniversary with the release of a compilation called 20,000 Watt RSL, which gave fans – in addition to 16 of their best old songs – a sneak peek of things to come, with two tracks from their next ‘proper’ album, Redneck Wonderland (1998).
The single White Skin Black Heart was dubbed “too controversial” for airplay on Australian radio for its attacks on the government, but by now, the band were more than used to raising a little dust with their deliberately provocative lyrics.
When Midnight Oil took to the stage at the Sydney 2000 Olympics closing ceremony to perform Beds are Burning, they wore black overalls, prominently displaying the word “sorry” as an apology to all indigenous Australians – with an estimated TV audience of around one billion people.
The Real Thing (2001) was an Australia-only collection of new material, live cuts, and an MTV unplugged session kept the fires of indignation burning for Capricornia (2002).
Peter Garrett announced his decision to quit the group on 2 December 2002 to refocus on his political career. He won the seat of Kingsford Smith in Sydney for the Australian Labor Party at the 2004 General Election and was selected as Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment, Heritage and the Arts.
On 29 November 2007, Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd named Garrett as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts.
The other members of the band continued to work together but not under the Midnight Oil name, bringing the band’s career to a close, although they reformed occasionally since then for special events.
Dwayne ‘Bones’ Hillman