By 1986 Midnight Oil were looking to re-focus their message and re-boot their creative energies, and after their next album, the legendary Diesel and Dust, they would emerge as the most relentlessly outspoken critics of the dispossession and mistreatment of Australian Aborigines, and particularly the Stolen Generation crimes of the period 1909-1970 when Aboriginal children were taken from their natural parents and adopted out or institutionalized. A trilogy of hits including Dead Heart, Beds are Burning, and Truganini would amply attest to their public commitment to addressing the plight of the First Nation people in our society.They toured remote outback indigenous settlements with the Warumpi Band and Gondawanaland on what became known as the Blackfella/Whitefella Tour, before recording, and this experience would deepen their commitment to pursue the cause of aboriginal land rights and related social justice agendas, and profoundly affect their music. At this point in their career the band would readily acknowledge their lack of a real understanding of Aborigines and their culture, and their well-intentioned ambition to build bridges with the indigenous people of Australia’s Centre, initially fell flat. Their performances were regarded by the locals as loud, curious, and often irrelevant, these people were more accustomed to the gentle, low-key country songs of Slim Dusty, about love of family and homeland, performed over decades by Slim in outback locations, and not Peter Garrett’s loud, live-wire performances and comments about “slick city politics”.To their credit the Oils learned how to slow down the tempo, to yarn to their audiences between songs, and allow the space and vastness of their surrounding to fill the gaps between the beats, notes, and words. The band performed at such remote aboriginal settlements as Warakuna, Kintore, Papunya, Yuendumu, Maningrida, Galawinku, Groote Eylandt, Numbulwar and Wadeye, Jim Moginie summed up the impact that this tour had on the band “ We observed as young white Australians the conditions out there, the poverty, the petrol sniffing, the health problems, the art, the deep culture, the dispossession, the respect the concept of family has, the great sense of humor and strength of the people, the natural beauty, all mixed up into a radicalizing experience – we wrote about our impressions on the Diesel record, … there was definitely a snowball effect.” (Midnight Oil – Michael Lawrence 2016). By 1986 Peter Garrett and other members of the band were married and starting families, Rob Hirst had fathered a daughter when he was seventeen who had been adopted, and she was subsequently identified as county singer Jay O’Shea, pictured below with Rob Hirst.The band would father eleven children during the period of their commercial heyday, Hirst and his wife Leslie Holland’s daughters, Alexandra, and Gabriella were born in 1986 and 1990 respectively.Peter and Doris Garrett’s (above) daughters Emily, Grace and May (left to right below with Peter) were all born by 1990, they were becoming more settled, less nomadic, and these changes in their lives would also reflect in their music. The band had initially been asked by Film Australia to write a song about the handing back of Uluru to its traditional owners, the Mutitjulu people, they produced Beds Are Burning, Dead Heart, and You May Not Be Released, and Dead Heart was chosen.The album was recorded at Alberts Studio (Syd) with producer Warne Livesy (above), the songs had already been road-tested in pubs, and just as the U2 album The Joshua Tree (1987) would be influenced by the vastness of America, so too would Diesel and Dust reflect what the band had seen and heard in the Australian desert.Jim Moginie described the creative process behind the development of Dead Heart thus“Rob had some lyrics – We don’t serve your country, don’t serve your king…” and I had this beat and this doo-doo chanting. Rob had the chorus “We Carry in our hearts the true country and that cannot be broken…” Those great lines. We just, again, wanted to summon up the feeling of being on a road that goes literally into affinity, sitting in some 4-wheel drive, smashing along the road, bumping up and down on the road, this hypnotic repetitive rhythm, which is very much an Australian experience. Peter came in at the end with the improvised rave “Mining companies, pastoral companies…” He was always very direct in his lyrics.”
The lyrics of Dead Heart pillory the forces that enabled the exploitation of Aboriginal lands by mining and pastoral companies as well as the insensitivity with which Aboriginal cultural values and sites are treated – the promo video shows tourists tramping over Uluru without any understanding or apparent regard for the deep spiritual significance associated with this sacred place by our indigenous people.Dead Heart was a powerful protest song with an ambience of ghostly urgency, which captured the sense of loss and dispossession that caused Aborigines to feel dead at heart about their future in their native land. When lifted from the album it charted #4 in Aust, #11 in the US, and sold over 1 million copies globally, where it resonated with indigenous people and their supporters right around the world.