Friday, February 17, 2017

Punk as F*ck: Why Midnight Oil may be the most important band there's ever been

There are a lot of bands who have had long and respectable careers based on principle and evolution. When asked who my ideal template is for a band's career, the one that always stands out most is the Australian monolith, Midnight Oil.


When The Oils (as they're affectionately called by their fans) started out in the late '70s, they hit the Australian club circuit hard, opened for the Ramones, and developed a strong cult following. The Oils quickly developed a reputation for being a no-bullshit punk rock act, notoriously (and heroically) stopping performances mid-set to announce that the promoter had not paid them and they would not play another note until the matter was resolved. Fearing riot from the packed-full room of young punks in the audience, promoters always made good on their end of the deal.

Eventually (and almost inevitably), major labels started sniffing around. The Oils, led by singer Peter Garrett and his recently-acquired law degree, tore up every contract that came their way, feeling the terms offered were not artist-friendly on a financial or creative level. Their first three records were released independently as a result. When The Oils ultimately did sign with a major label, it was on the conditions of: you don't tell us what to do, you don't tell us when to do things, and you don't tell us how to do it.

With the leverage of a dedicated fan base and the bargaining power of the education of the band itself, The Oils got exactly what they wanted and began to mount an international campaign to become of the most respected and exciting live attractions in the world. Not only that, they never shied away from political subject matter, and delivered it in a way that, in their own words, didn't exploit the victimization of the people they were helping give voice to.

And The Oils weren't just about singing about it; they held strongly that they should also act upon it, no exceptions. When the Exxon-Valdez spill happened in 1990, The Oils embarked on a covert operation to set up a stage in front of Exxon headquarters in New York. Next thing they knew, 20,000 people were there ready to rock, as the band erected a sign saying "Midnight Oil Makes You Dance, Exxon Oil Makes You Sick."

When the Sydney Olympics had their closing ceremonies in 2000, The Oils, as Australia's Beatles, were invited to perform. Having a long-standing history of working with the Aboriginal community in Australia, and recognizing that the Sydney Olympics were taking place on traditional Aboriginal land, The Oils hatched a plan: without telling anyone, at the last possible second, to a global-wide broadcast audience, they stripped into black outfits with the word "SORRY" across their chests, and blasted out "Beds Are Burning," an anthem denouncing colonialism.

The Oils commanded respect, and seemed to have no trouble maintaining it across the board. Strangely, unlike many other successful artists who are often told to "shut up and sing" when they infuse politics into their music, no such cries were ever made to The Oils. They were, and still are, held in the highest esteem and regard as artists, activists, and global citizens.

In 2002, The Oils released, in my opinion, their best album, Capricornia. It was supported by an international tour. The album, and tour, would prove to be their last, as Peter Garrett stepped down from the band to run for the Australian Labour Party. He won in 2004, and would eventually be appointed Minister for the Environment, Heritage, and The Arts. For the next eight years, Peter Garrett brought a refreshing sense of purpose and forward-thinking ethic to the high office.

It was assumed at that point that Midnight Oil would never record or tour again.

Garrett resigned in 2013, expressing no intention to seek re-election (which he could have easily gotten had he decided to run).

This past week, it was announced to the surprise of the world, that the Great Circle Tour 2017 would see The Oils making their return to the global stage. Needless to say, I'll be front and centre when they come to Toronto in May.

I can't think of a more noble and respectable career than the ones The Oils have had. I suspect many would be hard-pressed to find otherwise.