King of the Mountain: Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett Turns 70

Revisiting a pair of archival interviews with the Australian rock legend

Peter Garrett 1988 (Image: Toronto Public Library)

Who, among us, could make the claim Peter Garrett, the outspoken singer of Midnight Oil, does here?

He and I were talking in 1988, prior to a U.S. tour, and somehow – I can’t recall how – the topic of fast-food establishments and particularly McDonald’s was brought up and Garrett said he had never, not once, eaten at that fine establishment. He did allow however, somewhat reluctantly, that he’d eaten some Mickey D’s fries a friend had bought and given him.

So, he’s got standards. He’s resolute. But he’s human. (Damn, those fries are good.) And one of the most famous very-tall-white-rockers-with-a-shaved-head-and-a-conscience turns 70 on April 16th.

It’s been quite a ride for the Aussie native, a ride through rock ‘n’ roll, activism and politics.

But back in ’88, while we were on the subject of things Garrett (and the band he fronts) does or does not do, qualities it has or does not have, he began by ticking these off: 

“We do not have a set of ambitions which relates to instant and overwhelming success. We don’t visualize being poster pinups. We’ve got a different set of ambitions from most people. We haven’t a great deal of concern for material gain. It’s certainly great to get out of debt and be making a good living, but we didn’t get into it for cars, drugs, money and the glamour life. We’re not absorbed by whether we have charted or haven’t charted. Finally, we’re not a ‘hairdresser’ band — we’re not faddish.”

With Garrett at center-stage, it would be difficult to perceive Midnight Oil as a “hairdresser” band. 

“Precisely right,” says Garrett, with a laugh. “That says it all.”


VIDEO: Peter Garrett “Power and the Passion”

The towering, charismatic Garrett often says a mouthful. He’s one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most articulate, politically aware and active performers. He’s an outspoken opponent of the nuclear arms buildup and who ran and lost the 1984 race for for the Australian senate, running for the Nuclear Disarmament Party.

More recently, Garrett and Midnight Oil have become involved in the civil rights fight for his nation’s Aboriginal peoples. This struggle has been extended to the rights of other indigenous populations, including, on the U.S. tour, Native Americans.

Although specific songs work on different levels, Aboriginal rights is the core theme of the group’s Diesel and Dust album, its best and most successful American release. The hits include “Dream World,” “The Dead Heart,” and “Beds Are Burning.” The latter is particularly ferocious, starting with those definitive three thumping chords and Garrett weaving a pretty  convincing condemnation of us doing nothing while the world goes up in flames. The singalong hook doesn’t hurt, either, Garrett singing “How can we dance when our earth is turning? / How can we sleep when our beds are burning?” Yes, it’s specifically about Aboriginal rights – giving back the country, no less – but it can be taken at a more widescreen level, too.

The album showcases a group that has, in contrast to the usual rock ‘n’ roll curve, gotten better with age. The band has a sharper edge, a keen, improved sense of melody and an ability to draw the listener into the lyrics through the big hook in the chorus. “Well, that’s great if it happens,” says Garrett. “Nothing wrong with it happening that way.”

“I basically see it from the point of view that each extra day that we’re granted to be Midnight Oil is a day’s grace. I think we really feel like that. Very few bands that I’m aware of have managed to maintain their creative output or their expression in performance as they’ve marched from album to album, and I believe we’ve done that . . . If anything, I think we’ve probably increased it.”

As vocal as he is, Garrett should not be construed as the leader of the quintet. “I’d like to dispel that,” he says. “It’s not me and a backing band. We have a collective vision on the thing and we operate as a collective as we work.”



In fact, guitarist Jim Moginie and drummer Rob Hirst write the bulk of the music. The lyrics are a group venture with songwriting credits reading “Midnight Oil.”

Manager or “facilitator” Gary Morris is included as the sixth group member – a la U2 with Paul McGuiness.  “We have management within the band,” Garrett explains. “We don’t have that constant tension between a whole set of business people looking at the band as a corporate producing entity and the band as the artists that feel reluctant to being drawn into the business or being corporatized.”

But with all these folks, why, then, is Garrett most often the mouthpiece?

“I’ve got the biggest mouth.”

Fair enough. Garrett is, though, more than willing to share the spotlight. “I don’t want to talk about me; I’ve had that level of publicity and it’s not something I take enormous pleasure in.”

Garrett brings up the name of anti-nuclear activist Katya Komisaruk, who broke into Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and demolished a computer to protest President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, aka Star Wars). She was sentenced to five years in Federal prison. Says Garrett, “She’s a peace activist and she just used the Nuremberg Principles about a citizen’s duty to act when he or she thinks that the government’s involved in preparations for war.”

The Oils, which formed in 1977, are also sharing the spotlight on this U.S. tour, with Yothu Yindi, an Aboriginal band that mixes traditional and rock forms, and Graffiti Man, a Native American band from Los Angeles.

“It seemed to us,” says Garrett, “a very natural way of letting people know what is actually behind this record. We’re encouraging people to take the whole show in. There is a meaning and an input; it’s not just going to be entertainment.”

Garrett, not surprisingly, has spent some time thinking about the mesh of agitprop and entertainment. He feels some folks have Midnight Oil pegged as a political band; others may see them just as a tuneful, high-energy rock group. He feels the truth lies between the two extremes.

“There’s plenty of nice chords and pretty songs floating about the airwaves, but what are they doing about anything? They’re just adding to the general sleepwalking of the world’s population. Really, this isn’t a doom band; we’re not wanting to constantly throw doom at folks, but we recognize that there are serious challenges and serious iniquities and serious injustices going on all around us in our country and other countries and we want to draw attention to them.

“We understand, at the same time, we’re musicians. We’re entertainers and we’re expressing our opinion. We’re not a political party. I think the kind of idealism that we have is certainly a strong sense of hope that people can change their lives.”

Midnight Oil’s tack is often pretty persuasion: a gorgeous melody, a fierce vocal, a committed lyric and, live, a hard kick. The concert stage is where the Oils shed their studio slickness, where the band is much more than a good liberal pop group. They rock hard, they mean it, and they connect on several levels. The overriding theme he and the other Oils project is optimism in the face of indifference or oppression. 

Are Garrett and the Oils angry? Not exactly. “I’m an optimist,” Garrett says, allowing those things such as Earth Day – a valid ideal semi-co-opted by environmentalists-for-a-day corporations – turns him into “a confused mixture of an optimist, pessimist, cynic, realist, utopian and so on.”


VIDEO: Midnight Oil “The Dead Heart”

Here are some takeaways from a 1990 concert at a summer shed outside Boston: “Sometimes,” the cathartic closer to the pre-encore set, stressed resilience, the need to keep up the struggle. Environmentalism – particularly trenchant in the swooping, slow-building “River Runs Red” and in the quiet plea of “Antarctica” – is of paramount importance. And, if somehow you missed all of that, the back of an Oils’ T-shirt sold at the show read, “This is a fragile ball we are living on. It’s a miracle and we are destroying it . . . “

The concert had a smart kickoff and an equally smart closer to the first encore. “King of the Mountain” began the show, with Garrett demanding he not be trivialized as a pin-up pop star (“Don’t put me up on your bedroom wall!”); later, Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love & Understanding” brought home the Oils’ sensibility in a raucous, rip-snorting fashion. 

Atmospherics and ambience played a part – the subtle lighting and sparing chemical smoke worked well, as did the unobtrusive use of a mining derrick on stage. But, in large part, the band used its stage time to cut loose with big, crashing drum codas from Hirst and sharp, stinging, angular guitar lines Moginie and Rotsey. Occasional horn parts were supplied by members of the opening Hunters & Collectors.

Essentially, Midnight Oil is a no-nonsense band that also understands the concept of putting on a show. Call it serious fun. It’s often an awkward marriage, but Midnight Oil seems right at home with it.



A couple of years later I was talking with Hirst. He’d attended a Bruce Springsteen concert with an American friend in Madison Square Garden a few years ago.

“It wasn’t the best Springsteen concert,” says Hirst, “so we got to talking and he turned to me – this is really strange from an Australian point of view – and said (adopting a Southern U.S. dialect), ‘You know, with the Oils there’s politics and, you know, there’s righteous indignation and there’s, you know, all that stuff that Pete does, but basically, I think you’re just one hell of a kick-ass good rock ‘n’ roll band!’ “

“I nearly fell over!” says Hirst, laughing at the recollection. “‘Yeah, that’s what I think it is, too.”

What makes the situation humorous is the fact that Midnight Oil is rarely, if ever, described in those terms. Despite the group’s ability to craft memorable melodies, to rock out fiercely, and to create a cathartic, meaningful bond with its audience, writers often write only about one side of Midnight Oil: The political side. 

Not that Hirst disagrees with the politics of the Oils. In fact, after he agreed with his American friend, he added, “There’s quite a bit of the other as well.” And, the “other,” of course, is the politically-oriented sensibility that’s been the backbone of the band since its inception.

But here are Hirst’s thoughts on the musical process which produces their trademark sharp, stinging melodic hooks: “I think that’s something we even forget as well – the writing of good pop songs and rock songs. I think that area is really the common denominator, still, and sometimes forgotten. You’ve got a group of musicians that like writing songs and playing on stage and I think that’s really where it begins and ends.”

Well, he doesn’t really think it ends there But Hirst is obviously pleased at the chance to discuss the music itself. No one is going to listen to any political song, no matter how trenchant, if it doesn’t have other attractive elements.

Although songwriting input comes from all five musicians, Hirst and Moginie are the principal composers.  “On tour in 1988, we just got very bored on the bus so we started writing, Jim at one end of the bus with his guitar and myself at the other end of the bus with a little Casio I bought at an Indiana truck stop for $75. We worked toward song writing in a different way. I can’t play the guitar, but Jim and Martin play very well.

“I seem to have some sort of knack for God-given melodies and lyrics and rhythms, so we meet half-way. Most of the better-known Oils stuff, I suppose, was created with me bringing stuff to Jim and vice-versa or collaboration, in which the band contributes and Peter adds or subtracts lyrics.”

Back to Garrett, who checks in on the phone from another locale.

“Environmentalism has been there before the dawn of time in Midnight Oil history,” he says. “We’ve looked up and seen our beaches have gotten polluted and we’ve played our Greenpeace benefits like a good environmentally-conscious rock band would. I’m being kind of funny about it, but obviously we’re serious about it and we’ve done it for a long time.”

“It’s difficult to quantify,” says Hirst, “but we feel like we’re doing our small bit.”


VIDEO: Midnight Oil “Blue Sky Mine”

Audiences seem to agree. Blue Sky Mining, Midnight Oil’s latest album, has gone gold (signifying sales of more than 500,000 copies) and the band has graduated from clubs to theaters to outdoor arenas. 

Hirst and Moginie formed Midnight Oil when they were at college in Sydney. The band spent seven years building a rabid following in its homeland before attempting to conquer the rest of the world. In 1984, the band released its fourth album and its first U.S. effort, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, which was accompanied by an avalanche of hype, including a cover story in Musician magazine.  “I think we were the biggest band in America never to have sold a record,” says Hirst, with a chuckle.

“It’s funny to think of too-much-too-soon for a band like us – we’ve always been very cautious and gone the hardest route – but maybe it was,” says Hirst. “I think that we were with people [an agency] that were keying for us to be the next overnight sensation. But, as we all know, good things take a while to develop and we’re much happier to do it this way.”

Blue Sky Mining is more atmospheric and textured, less thematically specific than some previous records.

‘We describe it as sort of the Instamatic record,” says Garrett, “like snapshots. It derives in part from the traveling that was done and the experiences that people had looking out the window and being in different places when we did the Diesel tour.”

One of the best songs, though, “Forgotten Years,” was inspired from thoughts about World War I. Sings Garrett: “Our sons need never be soldiers/Our daughters will never need guns/These are the years between/These are the years that were hard fought and won . . . Who can remember? /We’ve got to remember! . . .

“The hardest years, the darkest years/Forsaking aching breaking years/The time ‘n’ tested heartbreak years/These should not be forgotten years.”

Midnight Oil shot the video in a cemetery in Verdun, France, the final resting place for many war dead. “We thought it was the best place to illustrate the song,” says Hirst. “The song is a song of peace, not war. This was supposed to be the war that would end all wars and, of course, that wasn’t the case.”

How do the Oils work together?

“We politely debate each other through gritted teeth,” Garrett says, with a laugh. “It’s volatile from the inside, but it’s not something we talk about a great deal.”

Adds Hirst: “It’s not so much friction as constant debate and discussion.”

Of Garrett’s intense, sweat-drenched performances in concert, the singer says, “If the music is sufficiently sliding, swinging and pumping along for me, I’m reasonably content to get the songs done and try and have a good time when I’m up there. I’m just trying to maximize my moment, my brief cosmic moment.”



Blue Sky Mining is a textured, layered album – certainly less full-throttle than the band is in concert. “I think what happened,” says Hirst, “is that quite a larger percentage of songs we chose out of the 16 or 17 we’d written were more atmospheric.”

But when you see them, expect the Oils to burn on higher intensity in concert. “We love to drive hard,” says Garrett.

Adds Hirst: “I heard the tapes we did at Wembley two nights ago and, believe me, it’s pretty rough and raw, so in spite of some nice production by Warne Livesey on Blue Sky Mining and the other records, certainly there’s a fair bit of grit and attack on stage, to which you’ll no doubt see in Boston.”

So, who is Midnight Oil?

“Six people who are vastly over-educated,” says Hirst.

“It’s a collective entity,” says Garrett, “but it also has room for people to individually put their stamp on it. It’s fortunate that it’s got more than one source. It’s trying, in its own very insignificant small, slightly angry-shouting way to lift the scales off everybody’s eyes including its own. Go out and knock the barbarians out of the seats and claim the earth for the people.”           

In the fall of 2021, Midnight Oil announced its effective retirement following the death of bassist Bones Hillman.  They wrapped in up Nov. 3, 2022 with a concert in Sydney.


VIDEO: Midnight Oil “We Resist”


Jim Sullivan
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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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