Midnight Oil burns with conviction

April 21, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

When it comes to musical activism, few bands can match the standard set by Midnight Oil.

It isn't just that this Australian quintet tackles big issues in its songs, writing about anything from ecological issues to global politics. The group has also managed to have hits in the process. In fact, its biggest American single was a tune called "Beds Are Burning," which heatedly argues that Australia should try to right the wrongs of colonialism by giving land back to the Aborigines.

Midnight Oil also makes a point of acting on its convictions, both at home and abroad. Sometimes that takes the form of guerrilla theater, as when the band set up its amps outside Exxon's Manhattan headquarters for a protest concert a few years ago. And sometimes they take the more conventional route of playing benefit shows like tomorrow's Earth Day concert at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia (along with a similar show in Manhattan this past Sunday).

But the Oils always try to see that their message gets across. So you've got to admire the way guitarist Jim Moginie laughs when he and singer Peter Garrett are reminded of the fan who stopped Garrett on the streets of New York to say how much he enjoyed "that hot sex song, 'Beds Are Burning.' "

"I don't know about the wording, but the situation is correct," says Garrett, stifling a chuckle over the phone. "He thought it was a song about sex.

"But as you know, people will take what they will from songs. They may take a video image, they may take the beat and the rhythm, or they may take the words seriously to heart. We're just never going to be able to presume which way people will run on it. And it's their right to run whichever way they do."

Besides, as much importance as the band places on the ideological content of its music, the Oils wouldn't be making music if all they were interested in was politics. As Garrett says, "It's not a putting-the-point-across exercise here. It's the meshing of that and wanting to be musical."

And that seems more the case than ever with "Earth and Sun and Moon," the Oils' latest album. Although the lyrical content is often issue-oriented, what carries the album is the loose, lively feel of the music.

That had less to do with what the band had to say than with the way it worked up its material.

"It wasn't very deliberate," says Moginie. "It was more a matter of sitting around in a room and playing, and creating an atmosphere by doing that -- rather than being self-conscious about it. Crazy stuff was going on when we were playing. It was more like throwing things on the tape."

Even some of the writing went that way, adds Garrett. "Some of the songs, we'd been exchanging lyrics and sending things to one another, and then we'd get in the room and just sit around as a band, nutting it out. We started off with in excess of 20 songs, and just kept on sort of being brutal with them until we ended up with the 11 that we've done."

It's important to note, too, how deeply shared the group's political sensibilities are. Although Garrett tends to get more of the ink -- a situation helped in no small part by the fact that he holds a part-time position with Greenpeace International and several years ago was nearly elected to the Australian Senate -- the fact is that, often as not, it's Moginie and drummer Rob Hirst who come up with the most pointedly political material.

Take, for example, the group's new single, "Truganini."

Truganini, explains Moginie, "was an aboriginal woman, the last full-blooded aboriginal, the last surviving one in Tasmania. Basically what happened down there was that when the British came, the aboriginals were driven back from the coast. And in Tasmania, which is an island, there wasn't anywhere to go to, so extermination down there was pretty complete.

"But this was 100 years after the place was discovered, in 1860- or '70-something. And she was subject to all sorts of humiliation -- being dressed up in Victorian finery and all. It was like, kind of a down-market freak show, really, the way that she was treated."

Neither was this something Australian society outgrew.

"There's also a mention in the song of an aboriginal artist called Namatjira. He's a guy who had the same sort of thing happen to him. He was a really brilliant watercolorist; people sang his praises from one end of the earth to the other. He was feted by white society, promoted as . . ."

"The Australian van Gogh," says Garrett.

"Yeah, the Australian van Gogh," agrees Moginie. "That's what they were calling him. But his basic rights as a human being were still being denied. He wasn't allowed to vote or own land or have money or all those sort of things that white people could have. So he died very unhappily. That was his life in the 1950s in Australia."

Part of what attracted the band to Truganini and Namatjira is the way their stories reflect Australia's struggle for a sense of national identity, of what it truly is to be an Australian. But there's another reason to sing the song, too.

"A lot of people in our country don't know the story of Truganini," says Garrett. "So maybe it'll work to activate and light a flame under the remembering process."

In other words, maybe it will do what Midnight Oil does best.

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