The Time Has Come: Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust at 35
Looking back on the Australian band’s most successful LP
It was 35 years ago, in August 1987, that Australian rockers Midnight Oil released what is arguably their masterpiece, Diesel and Dust.
The band had already been kicking around for 15 years at that point, and had released five critically-acclaimed albums, with 1982’s 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 and 1984’s Red Sails In the Sunset specifically finding traction with fans on the harder edge of the ‘new wave’ with singles like “Power and the Passion” and “Best of Both Worlds” receiving modest college radio airplay stateside.
If they were virtually unknown outside of the low-wattage reach of college radio stations across the North American continent, Midnight Oil was HUGE in their native Australia. All five of their black wax flapjacks before Diesel and Dust had been certified Platinum or better by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) and, beginning with 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, every album the band released has charted in the Top 10 in Australia (a phenomenon that continues with their latest effort, the excellent Resist, which was released in February); that’s an awe-inspiring ten consecutive home runs spanning a long and troubled four decades.
But Diesel and Dust, an out-of-time, 1970s-styled concept album at heart, is Midnight Oil’s undeniable “mountaintop” smash hit, the first to chart in multiple counties (peaking at #21 in the U.S. and #19 in the U.K. while also enjoying significant sales in territories like Germany, Canada, and Sweden), moving better than a million copies in the states and boosting the band’s global fame. What makes this all the more remarkable is that Midnight Oil was – and remains – a politically-charged, left-leaning band championing environmental causes and equal rights for native people worldwide. It was this latter issue that informs the songs on Diesel and Dust, which lyrically addresses the struggles of Indigenous Australians.
Midnight Oil’s inspiration for Diesel and Dust came from the band’s 1986 tour of the Australian outback as part of the Blackfella/Whitefella Tour with the Indigenous music groups Gondwanaland and the Warumpi Band. The band witnessed firsthand the health issues and poverty-level living standards of Aboriginal communities. Midnight Oil’s participation in the tour was criticized by the press at the time as some sort of gimmick, but the experience opened the band member’s eyes. In an October 1988 Creem magazine interview with Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst, Michael Davis asked about the tour. “It turned out to be much more than an exotic vacation or a fact-finding mission,” he writes, “according to Hirst, adapting the band’s sound to the Outback environment in order to communicate with the Aboriginals changed the way they approach their music forever.”
The band lineup at the time featured the imposing, chrome-domed lead singer Peter Garrett, razorblade guitarist Martin Rotsey, keyboardist/guitarist Jim Moginie, bassist Peter Gifford, and big-beat drummer Hirst. Gifford left the band after the recording, but before the release of Diesel and Dust, citing the band’s heavy touring schedule as his reason. He was replaced by ‘Bones Hillman’ (a/k/a Wayne Stevens) from the New Zealand band the Swingers (which was founded by former Split Enz guitarist Phil Judd). Bones would play with Midnight Oil until his death in 2020. The band entered the Albert Productions studios in Sydney in early 1987, working with British producer Warne Livesey to capture the songs on tape.
Livesey was the best person to record Midnight Oil at this point, the producer possessing as wild and diverse experience as any engineer and producer in the business. Livesey had previously recorded albums by the Specials (ska), Martha & the Muffins (new wave), Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel (avant-garde), and Coil (experimental) and had scored hit albums in the U.K. with The The (1986’s Infected) and Julian Cope (1987’s Saint Julian). Livesey brought a unique vision and knowledgeable ears to the project, and Midnight Oil obviously held him in high regard as Warne returned to produce several subsequent albums for the band. Livesey would go on to be one of the most in-demand producers of the ‘90s, working with artists like Jesus Jones, Deacon Blue, Paul Young, and the House of Love.
Musically, Diesel and Dust lives up to the hype, the album a culmination of a decade and a half of blood, sweat, and tears shed by the band as they trudged around the world. Whereas their earlier albums had displayed a raw, angry, almost punkish intensity that bludgeoned the listener into submission, the songs on Diesel and Dust are laser-focused and nuanced, the music hitting your ears like a sophisticated velvet thunderclap. Opening the album with its overarching political statement, “Beds Are Burning” is a muscular rocker with a riff-like chorus, heavy guitar ‘n’ bass, and Garrett’s light/dark vocals which snarl lyrics like “the time has come, a fact’s a fact, it belongs to them, let’s give it back”, a defiant call for reconciliation for the Aboriginal people. As a single, the song charted in the Top 10 in seven countries.
VIDEO: Midnight Oil “Beds Are Burning”
“Put Down That Weapon” is no less potent, even if it is somewhat more subdued than the album opener. Garrett’s menacing vocals are delivered with a sandpaper whisper, splashes of psychedelic guitar swirling in the background until the singer and band both briefly go supernova before returning the song to a subliminal roar. More of a conventional rocker with locomotive rhythm, Hirst’s hearty timekeeping, and Garrett’s strong vocal performance, “Dreamworld” has a strong melody and a hooky chorus, but it charted almost nowhere as a single release as audiences couldn’t relate to its geographically-specific lamentation of heritage lost, although Garrett was really singing about a worldwide issue, of greedy developers tearing down the past to make a fast dollar without concern for the future.
“Arctic World” speaks of the environmental harm of mining and drilling in Alaska and Greenland. Midnight Oil championed environmental causes throughout their existence; in 1990, the band played an impromptu lunchtime set in front of Exxon headquarters in New York City in protest of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a banner reading “Midnight Oil Makes You Dance, Exxon Oil Makes Us Sick” draped above their heads. Both “Warakurna” and “The Dead Heart” are concerned with Aboriginal rights, the latter a sort of musical amalgam of “Power and the Passion” and “Beds Are Burning”, the lyrics telling of (white) colonization from an indigenous point of view. “The Dead Heart” attracted controversy over its alleged “primitive” native stereotypes and (more believable) its anti-corporate lyrical stance (“mining companies, pastoral companies, uranium companies, collected companies, got more rights than people, got more say than people”).
Named for the Aboriginal ceremonial instrument, “Bullroarer” uses the sound of its namesake as a poetic lyrical device, the mid-tempo rocker exploring the imagery of, and the reality of living in the Australian Outback. The U.S. version of Diesel and Dust closes with “Sometimes”, another steely performance with Garrett’s fierce vocals and gang harmonies accompanied by a staggering, melodic soundtrack with switchblade guitars and syncopated rhythms. It’s a call to arms, to carry on in the face of adversity, with brilliant lyrical imagery (“I know that the cannibals wear smart suits and ties”, “I say bear the punch drunk huddle drive hammer and wheel”) reduced to a simple message – “sometimes you’re beaten to the call, sometimes you’re taken to the wall, but you don’t give in.”
Sadly, Columbia Records (the band’s U.S. label) dropped the song “Gunbarrel Highway” from the album’s domestic release, citing the lyrics “shit falls like rain on a world that is brown” as being “too violent” for audiences in America (the land of the AR-15, the GOP and weekly mass shootings!). A little YouTube sleuthing found a recording of the song, however, which is a rootsy-rocker in a Del-Lords or Long Ryders vein with twangy guitars, and passionate, stream-of-consciousness vocals so that you barely notice the offending wordage. For the faithful, the 2007 Canadian import reissue restores the wrongfully omitted song to the track list.
VIDEO: Midnight Oil “The Dead Heart”
Diesel and Dust didn’t get a lot of stateside press when it was released. In the aforementioned Creem magazine article, Michael Davis wrote “1988 has already seen some pretty bizarre sights – fortunately, not all of them on the negative side. Seriously, if someone had told you last year that Midnight Oil were about to break through to mainstream acceptance on the strength of a tune about giving part of Australia back to the Aborigines, you’d have been just a tad doubtful, right? But it’s happened. Diesel and Dust has been sniffing around the Top 20 for a month as I write this and ‘Beds Are Burning’ is a bona fide hit single.”
Best as I can tell, Rolling Stone magazine ignored the album altogether, but Jim Green, in Trouser Press, wrote “Diesel and Dust doesn’t reach the heights of 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 but it is consistently powerful and compelling. The production (the band with Warne Livesey) is snappier than ever, and the passion for the issues comes across load and clear.” Mark Deming, writing for All Music Guide, says “while the album lacks the kick-in-the-head impact of their earlier work, Diesel and Dust also makes clear that the band members could apply their intelligence and passion to less aggressive material and still come up with forceful, compelling music. Diesel and Dust is that rarity, a bid for the larger audience that’s also an artistic success and a triumph for leftist politics – even the Clash never managed that hat trick this well.”
Midnight Oil is still making great music today. After the monster success of Diesel and Dust, the band used its newfound fame to produce the 1989 benefit album Building Bridges – Australia Has A Black History, featuring contributing artists like Paul Kelly, the Saints, Crowded House, INXS, Yothu Yindi, Hunters & Collectors, and others. The album’s proceeds benefitted the National Coalition of Aboriginal Organisations. They followed up Diesel and Dust with the equally esteemed 1990 album Blue Sky Mining, and carried on throughout the 1990s until they called it quits with 2002’s Capricornia.
Garrett pursued a political career during the 2000s, spending nearly nine years as a member of the Australian Parliament and serving as the Minister for School Education Early Childhood and Youth and as the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. Midnight Oil would reunite through the years, mostly to perform benefit shows for causes they supported. The band reappeared on record in 2020 with The Makarrata Project, which features collaborations with Indigenous artists and First Nations people, and the aforementioned Resist was released earlier this year and was accompanied by a worldwide tour that the band says is their last, although they’ll continue to record.
Three-and-a-half decades since its release, Diesel and Dust remains a tour de force, a perfect storm of lyrical idealism, creative vision, and powerful music. Midnight Oil’s influence is worldwide, with bands as diverse as Pearl Jam, Crowded House, Green Day, and R.E.M. citing them as an inspiration, and Midnight Oil songs have been recorded by performers like Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder, Billy Bragg, and Tom Morello, among many others. The power and the passion that Midnight Oil brought to Diesel and Dust echoed across the planet, and remains the soundtrack of the struggle some 35 years later.
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