“Power and the Passion”: Midnight Oil’s aggro agit-pop and the ’80s Australian invasion

By on May 1, 2017

Night Flight’s “Take Off to the Australian Invasion” — which originally aired on November 11, 1983 — profiled the early ’80s Aussie music scene, led by bands like Midnight Oil, who were known for their aggressive agit-pop. Watch their video for “Power and the Passion,” now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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Over their long career, Australia’s favorite polemological rock band released more than a dozen albums, with songs that created an acute awareness of political, social, and environmental issues.

Their aggressive agit-pop would make them one of Australia’s biggest imports during the late 1980s, right around the same time that the 1986 hit Crocodile Dundee was introducing Americans to actor Paul Hogan (he would later teach us “How To Speak Australian” in Foster’s Lager TV commercials).

Midnight Oil had started out as a local band in Sydney, though over its more than forty year history, they have become a global concern, known for their social conscience and activism on behalf of many causes, including environmental protection, collaborating with both local and international organizations.

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The band’s lanky, 6 ft. 5-inch bald-headed lead singer Peter Garrett — also noted for his bush hat and quirky, electrified dance moves — was born in 1953 and grew up in Sydney, Australia, where he surfed the waves and attended private schools, becoming socially conscious early in life.

His parents encouraged him, as he said in more than one interview, to “express opinions and talk about things,” adding, “we didn’t spend our life in front of the television set.”

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While attending Australian National University in Canberra, Garrett answered an ad placed by a local rock band named Farm, who hailed from Sydney’s middle-class northern suburbs.

Guitarists Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey, bassist Andrew “Bear” James (their first bass player forced to leave due to illness in 1979, and was later replaced by longtime bassist Peter Gifford) and drummer Rob Hirst had been playing together since 1972, playing mostly covers of American and British classic rock bands like Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Led Zeppelin.

They were looking for a singer, and Garrett — who had already been in one band by then, Rock Island Line — joined them in 1977, bringing to their sound a more progressive rock influence (bands like Jethro Tull and Yes) as well as encouraging them to write their own songs.

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Garrett, at the time, had moved to Sydney to complete his law degree — he graduated with a law degree from the University of New South Wales — and Farm would soon change their name to Midnight Oil by drawing the name out of a hat.

Had they chosen the name Television, one of their other choices, hey might have been disappointed once they arrived in the U.S. to discover there was already a band with that name since 1973 (Midnight Oil reportedly came from the Jimi Hendrix song, “Burning of the Midnight Lamp”).

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Their first fans were comprised mostly from the surfing community from the nearby northern shore beaches, and they played most of their gigs at The Royal Antler at Narrabeen and the Bondi Lifesaver club near Sydney’s Bondi Beach.

Right from the start, Garrett’s primary voice and his imposing public image became Midnight Oil’s front-and-center focal point, and in a relatively short time their sound became more more aggressive, and more punk influenced.

The singer used his appearance to his advantage — he described himself as a tall, slightly aggro sort of surfer” — in order to get up on a soapbox and voice his populist, left-wing leaning opinions, asking his fellow Australians to examine their own priorities and think critically about the world around them.

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The entire band (touted in their early days as the hardest-working band in the country) would soon be voicing their opinions on lots of Australian-only topics, and not just environmental issues but other topics too, such as the Uluru/Ayers Rock handover ceremonies, the anti-ID card campaign and “Surfers Against Nuclear Destruction” (SAND)… even paying a visit to the U.S. base at Pine Gap, yelling into hand-held megaphones to make sure they were all being heard.

Midnight Oil formed their own record company, Powderworks, and released their debut eponymous album in November 1978. The album peaked at #43 on the Australian albums chart.

In October 1979, they followed up with a second album, Head Injuries, which climbed to #36 on the charts, and by mid-1980 it had achieved gold status.

In 1980, the band were expanding outside of the Sydney area and gaining a national audience in Australia, particularly after they found a fanbase in Melbourne and were getting tons of national press, mostly for their aggro agit-pop, which is defined as the use of pop music to promote political propaganda.

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The new songs — mostly written by Hirst and guitarist/keyboardist Moginie — that the band began writing during this early period pretty much set the tone for the rest of their career.

They were penned from a purely Australian point-of-view, typically offering up a scathing analysis of the Australian historical, geographic, economic and cultural condition. The songs were meant to inform their audiences more than condemn or criticize those with the arrows aimed directly at them.

An EP, Bird Noises, peaked at #28 on the Australian singles charts, and a third long-player, Place without a Postcard, was released in November 1981. It was distributed by CBS Records.

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This last album had been produced by English producer Glyn Johns — who had produced the Rolling Stones, the Who, and many others — who had his own production arrangement with A&M Records, and it was A&M who asked the band to go back into the studio with Johns in order to record material suitable they thought would be more suitable for an American single release.

Midnight Oil balked at their request, though, and returned to Australia, determined more than ever to blaze their own path, believing they’d find success in America and the UK on their own terms.

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London, 1981 (left to right): Peter Gifford, Jim Moginie, Peter Garrett, Martin Rotsey, Rob Hirst

Their 1982 album 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 — called the “Ten to One” album — featured songs like “Power and the Passion,” “Read About It,” “U.S. Forces,” and “Short Memory,” with references here and there to nuclear brinksmanship, the denunciation of American military interference in foreign affairs, environmental destruction, and their critique of imperialist repression and Australian apathy.

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Ten to One album peaked at #3 and remained on Australian’s album charts (Top 5 for six months) for an unheard-of 95 weeks when their next album, Red Sails in the Sunset, was released.

Both albums were noted for being Midnight Oil’s first attempts to use the recording studio to focus on a cohesive polished sound rather than trying to replicate their live concert sound.

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The band’s video for “Power and the Passion” was filmed at the “Woolloomooloo Mural Project” in Sydney, NSW, Australia.

It features Rob Hirst banging away on his rusted water tank in synchronized time along with a persistent drum-machine accompaniment.

“Power and the Passion,” in fact, is the only studio recording by Midnight Oil to feature a drum solo, which was done in one take.

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Hirst described how it came about this way:

“Personally, I was having a mini nervous breakdown around this time. I was frustrated about what had happened with the band in the previous twelve months and I wasn’t really enjoying being in London. I felt a long way from family and friends. I would run around Ravenscourt Park in the rain every day to try to get my head straight. Then I’d go into the studio and take it out on the kit. When I listen to 10 to 1 I hear this person who is frustrated and unhappy and he’s trying to let it out. When Pete screams at the end of ‘Somebody’s Trying To Tell Me Something,’ that’s a real scream. Everyone was feeling it, I think.”

The video contained a mixture of performance, animation and montage, with lots of neon signs bearing the logos and emblems of mostly U.S.-owned multinational companies.

These logos and emblems were purposely added by the band and they would have had to edit them out had they wanted the video to appear on Australia’s popular Countdown program, but the incendiary post-punks had shunned appearing on the show because it aired on the government-owned channel ABC, for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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The band had been scheduled to perform on “Countdown” sometime in the early 80s, but on the day of the show they were “bumped” from the line-up after arriving late for rehearsal.

Due to the show’s very tight schedule and budget there was a strict policy that latecomers were not allowed to appear, and so, in response, Midnight Oil declared that they would never appear on the show, a promise they faithfully kept.

“Countdown” presenter Molly Meldrum shaved his head bald, imitating Garrett, for its final show on July 19, 1987, expressing regret that Australia’s popular band Midnight Oil had never appeared on the show.

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Their refusal to appear on “Countdown” didn’t seem to hurt the band, though, and may have drawn even wider media exposure to the band.

It may have even opened up the opportunity for them to talk about the states of contemporary Australia — as well as their American allies — and the dangers of both countries capitalist consumerist societies (the song also allowed Garrett to vent about the band’s beloved Sydney “wasting away in paradise.”)

I see buildings, clothing the sky, in paradise
Sydney, nights are warm
Daytime telly, blue rinse dawn
Dad’s so bad he lives in the pub, it’s a underarms and football clubs
Flat chat, Pine Gap, in every home a Big Mac
And no one goes outback, that’s that
You take what you get and get what you please
It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees

That last line paraphrases Emiliano Zapata, by the way.

“Power and the Passion” peaked at #8 on the singles charts in Australia.

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When 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 was first released in the U.S., during late ’83, right around the same time our “Take Off to the Australian Invasion” was airing on the USA network, the band were looking to break in the States.

They would only play ten shows during a brief three-week U.S. tour in April ’84, however, before returning home to Australia in order to begin rehearsals for their next album, Red Sails.

That same year, 1984, the band’s future was briefly threatened when Peter Garrett ran for the Australian Senate on the fledgling Nuclear Disarmament Party ticket, which had been formed by a Canberra doctor and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White, among others.

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His candidacy drew 200,000 votes, and he polled just under ten percent of the total vote and needed 12.5% to win a seat in their Senate voting system, but a primary vote of 9.6% was insufficient when Labor gave its preferences to the conservative Liberal and National Parties ahead of the NDP.

Garrett later claimed he was relieved to have lost, saying that he’d achieved his goal in running, which was to send a message about the dangers of nuclear weapons.

He was also not quite ready to leave the band, giving them a reprieve for a time so that they could focus on breaking in America.

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In an August 1985 article in Spin magazine, Peter Garrett would tell writer Bill Wolfe that while Midnight Oil were in the U.S. they were mostly wishing to be back in their native country, where they felt more comfortable.

Garrett: “We spent most of our time overseas wishing we were back in Sydney. The song ‘Best of Both Worlds’ is about being in Sydney: it’s about what we have. We went back and there were more strikes on and the New South Wales government was exploding with corruption, but it seemed that — despite all these things — what was going on overseas was far, far worse, and we should just get our act together there and realize what we’ve got.”

Rob Hirst, who was also interviewed for that 1985 Spin article (“Bubblin’ Crude: Midnight Oil gushes up from down under and redefines the Australian record for success”), would tell the writer that even though they were on the verge of international success, they were particularly proud of being from Australia.

Hirst: “We are Australians, so we write about the country we grew up in and the people we live with. The record is a valid contribution to contemporary Australian culture, even if culture is spelled with a capital K.”

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Red Sails — released in the U.S. in July 1985 after more than six months of haggling between the band and their label, Columbia Records — played down their concern about nuclear proliferation and other nuclear-related topics.

This time the group seemed to be particularly preoccupied with aboriginal issues, since they had all been affected strongly by their 1984 visit to an Aboriginal settlement in northwestern Queensland, where they gave a special outdoor concert, the first show by white performers ever witnesses by the indigenous people of that region.

In 1986, the band embarked on their “Black Fella White Fella” tour, traveling across their native country to even more remote Aboriginal settlements, accompanied by the Warumpi Band, who were made up of native Aboriginal musicians.

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The experience had a profound effect on lead vocalist Peter Garrett, who saw first-hand how native Aboriginal communities had been devastated by poverty, disease, and discrimination, which then led to more scathing public comments about “popular” chauvinist culture in urban white Australia.

This tour also influenced many of their songs released on their 1987 album Diesel and Dust, which finally brought them worldwide acclaim.

The critically lauded Blue Sky Mining, which arrived in 1989, was supported by a huge worldwide concert tour.

During the late ’80s, their single “Beds are Burning” was a worldwide hit: #1 in South Africa, six months before the end of apartheid, as well as Top Ten in the UK and Top 20 in the U.S.

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Garrett finally decided to make another run for a political office again that same year, in 1989, and was elected president of the the membership-based Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), the continent’s largest environmental organization, which partnered with communities and businesses to work together toward protecting Australia’s natural heritage and promoting ecological sustainability.

During his tenure as the group’s president, ACF achieved results in protecting Tasmanian forest and Coronation Hill in Kakadu National Park, as well as stopping construction of a naval base which was planned for Jervis bay in New South Wales.

In 1990, Midnight Oil performed at a lunchtime concert outside the Exxon Building in New York City’s mid-town Manhattan, where they unforgettably stopped traffic and attracted ten thousand spectators while protesting the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

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That concert was turned into a documentary film, Black Rain Falls, the proceeds from its sale going to Greenpeace.

The band has spent much of their career supporting Greenpeace campaigns on crucial issues like dangerous climate change and the imminent threats to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Midnight Oil performed numerous other concerts during that same decade, leading to Garrett to refer to them as “a terminally serious band appearing at the right places for the right things.”

Garrett resigned his ACF presidency in 1993, in order to take a position on the international board of directors for Greenpeace, but returned to the ACF in 1998 after he’d decided that he preferred to focus on Australian issues, some of which included genetic engineering, coastal development and the expansion of the nuclear power plants in Australia.

He’s won many awards for his environment activism, including the Australian Humanitarian Foundation’s award in the environmental category.

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Midnight Oil kept it together as a band until 2002, when Garrett initially retired from the band in December — following the release of their Capricornia album, which was accompanied by another world tour — in order to enter politics again, this time serving in the Labor Party’s government under two Prime Ministers, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

He has since enjoyed a near-decade of service in the brawling turnover of Australian government, including spells as Minister for the environment, arts and education.

Garrett left politics in 2013 and wrote a memoir, Big Blue Sky.

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In February 2017, Midnight Oil — whose close friendships remained intact as the other members continued in music — announced they were embarking on the “Great Circle 2017” World Tour, the first worldwide tour by most of the classic ’80s lineup in over two decades and their most extensive tour, taking place over a six month period, since their late ’80s/early ’90s heyday.

The tour — these will be their first shows apart from two stadium benefit concerts, in 2005 and 2009, and a handful of recent “warm up” gigs in small venues — began in mid-April, in Sydney, Australia, the band’s hometown, and that’s also where the tour will also finish with eighteen special homecoming concerts in Sydney in October and November, later this year. They will also play their first shows in New Zealand in more than twenty years.

Their summer shows here in the northern hemisphere will have them sharing festival stages with bands like the Arcade Fire, Sting and the Pixies.

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This tour — with the support of the band’s record company, Sony Music — will also coincide with May 26, 2017, U.S. release of three archival box sets, including The Full Tank, featuring all of Midnight Oil’s existing albums and EP’s plus a mammoth new 4 CD/8 DVD treasure trove called The Overflow Tank — which will be issued in a facsimile of drummer Rob Hirst’s signature percussion instrument, a rusted water tank — will contain more than fourteen hours of previously-unreleased and rare material recorded by the band over their long career, from 1970’s home recordings through unreleased tracks from 10-1 and Blue Sky Mining to cover versions and B sides from the ’90s.

Among the DVD contents, comprised of vintage concert films and documentaries, are an incendiary Oils set from 1981s Tanelorn Festival, a full 1994 stadium concert in South Africa, an “MTV Unplugged” performance and their iconic mid-80s gig on Sydney’s Goat Island.

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These collections will be released earlier, Friday, May 12th, in Australasia and Europe.

Midnight Oil has also unveiled plans to release their first ever complete Vinyl collection, on Friday June 9th, with all tracks having been recorded at Abbey Road studios.

Watch Night Flight’s late ’83 “Take Off to the Australian Invasion” — and music videos by a wide variety of Aussie artists in this special episode — over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.