Album of the Week, May 24: Diesel and Dust by Midnight Oil

MOilD&DThe roots of one of Australia’s most important bands go back to a Sydney-based pub-rock covers group formed in 1971. Drummer Rob Hirst and guitarist/keyboard player Jim Moginie formed the Farm with a couple of other musicians. They played part-time while some band member were at University, eventually recruiting vocalist Peter Garrett. By 1976 they were a full-time operation, changing their name to Midnight Oil. They added guitarist Martin Rotsey and retained Farm bassist Andrew James. The Oils became famous for their incendiary live shows and incredible passion. Their first two albums captured the sound and fury of the live band; on their third, Place Without A Postcard, featuring new bassist Peter Gifford, they turned down the sonics just enough to let the messages resonate more clearly. In 1982, they headed to London and recorded the stunning 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, experimenting more with their studio sound but losing none of the passion. By 1985 they were one of the biggest bands down under and about to experience life-changing events that would lead to their finest album.

Title Diesel and Dust
Act Midnight Oil
Label Columbia Release Date August 1987
Producer Warne Livesey and Midnight Oil
U.S. Chart  #21 U.K. Chart  #19
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Beds Are Burning [#17]
  2. Put Down That Weapon
  3. Dreamworld
  4. Arctic World
  5. Warakurna
  6. The Dead Heart [#53]
  7. Whoah
  8. Bullroarer
  9. Sell My Soul
  10. Sometimes
  11. Gunbarrel Highway
    [not included on original US release]

The Mutitjulu Aboriginal Community, traditional caretakers of Uluru, the world’s largest natural monolith, asked the band to write a song to commemorate the official transition of Uluru back into their custody. They submitted three songs and The Dead Heart was selected. Following that selection, legendary Aboriginal group Warumpi Band invited the Oils to tour the outback with them. This weeks-long experience, dubbed the Blackfella/Whitefella tour — with its time spent in vast open spaces, playing to communities who might never have heard of Midnight Oil — was transformative.

They learned to add subtlety to their delivery: the sonic blast that worked in Sydney was overwhelming in the Outback. They also learned much more about the history and people of the area, fusing a sense of sometimes desperate humanity to their already well-honed political conscience.

The secret to Midnight Oil’s sound was always shared commitment and internal tension. Peter Garrett — with his large frame and larger voice, spinning madly while singing with near abandon — was the face and voice of the band. Hirst was its heart, committed to shaping the finest band in the world. Moginie was its soul, the quiet genius that everyone turned to for musical decisions and inspiration. The three were the principle writers and collaborative leaders of the band while Rotsey and Gifford kept up the musical quality and consistency. Time spent travelling longer distances than usual in wide open country honed their roles but deepened their appreciation of each other. As a result, one of the tightest bands in the world became even more formidable while learning how to deliver that power in a wider range of sound. The results speak for themselves.

The Oils kick things off with one hell of a statement of purpose. Beds Are Burning was drafted as one of the Uluru submissions. It evolved over the course of the tour and a final version was added to the album at the last minute. It’s a brilliant political statement, tied directly to Aboriginal land rights but conveying universal themes. Garrett makes the most of his vocals, blasting the chorus with enthusiasm but equally effectively making his point with the angry whisper of “Let’s give it back.” The song was like everything the Oils had done distilled into four powerful minutes.

That blend of Australian specificity, broad commitment to social justice, and moments of personal connection fueled the rest of the disc. Put Down That Weapon features one of Garrett’s most restrained vocals delivering some of the band’s darkest lyrics. Whoah shares the quiet of that track, adding a haunting chant to the chorus that makes the most of the group’s vocal harmonies. One track, Arctic World, is about oil drilling in Greenland but fits into the broader themes so smartly that there is no sense of disconnect. A highlight of the album is Sell My Soul, another broad political theme that works in the album’s Outback context and brilliantly in the larger world.

Hirst has said that his dream was an Australian music “that people overseas could get on to …which would enlarge their whole vision of Australia past Vegemite sandwiches and kangaroo hops.” Diesel and Dust accomplishes that, often in its most Australian moments. Warakurna — named after a settlement where the band played — and Bullroarer — a distinctive traditional instrument in Aboriginal culture — convey everything the group learned  in a way that makes it meaningful to audiences everywhere. Gunbarrel Highway, sadly omitted from the original US release, conveys the band’s passion and the almost unimaginable distances between settlements in central Australia.

Two anthems are among the finest Midnight Oil tracks. Dreamworld is a stinging indictment of those who live by selfish need. It’s a stirring warning that justice and equity win out in the end. Sometimes is a get-on-your-feet testifying song. Showing off the power of the three vocalists joining voices, it warns of all the dark times that may come. Despite these hardships “you don’t give in.” It’s great protest rock, rising above what could be a trite message because of the undeniable sincerity of the performers. Sometimes the simplest messages are the strongest.

The finest moment on the album is the song that started the journey. The Dead Heart, a nickname for the open territory around Uluru, is a beautiful testament to the history of the Aboriginal people, their indomitable spirit, and the pressures and abuses they have faced. Where Beds Are Burning is a stinging rebuke of European abuse, The Dead Heart is a celebration of a people who cannot be broken. A big white guy singing from an Aboriginal perspective could be tricky, but Garrett’s nuance and commitment, coupled with the incredible power of the band, make it work. The song ends with a mournful fanfare of trombone and cello, acknowledging past pain but offering hope for the future. That’s the spirit of Diesel and Dust.

The album was the group’s international breakthrough, selling millions across the globe. It helped realize Hirst’s dream of deeply authentic Australian themes resonating with people thousands of miles away. The album also reinvented a band that was already a musical and political powerhouse. All five members clearly delineate their lives before and after Blackfella/Whitefella, acknowledging the profound impact of the experience. What they made of that paid off in sales and acclaim — the editors of the 2010 book The 100 Best Australian Albums put Diesel and Dust at #1 — but also in spirit.

FURTHER LISTENING: There’s no such thing as a bad Midnight Oil album, but some definitely stand out. 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1,  was their first watershed moment, a truly inspiring blend of pub rock power, political activism, and studio genius. Red Sails In the Sunset has amazing highs, but does get bogged down a bit. Blue Sky Mining followed Diesel and Dust and is a worthy successor even if (understandably) lacking its full majesty. Earth and Sun and Moon came next and feels much more like an album in its own right. Capricornia was the band’s last album before Garrett left in 2002 and it’s a fitting sendoff.

There are also a number of Midnight Oil compilations. The best is Essential Oils, a lovingly constructed overview of the band’s career with well-chosen songs from each album.


About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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