In the late 1980’s a number of high- profile performers were making socially-conscious music, U2’s The Joshua Tree was quickly followed by Tracey Chapman, REM, and Public Enemy with similarly consciousness-raising albums. In March 1989 the Exxon Valdez oil tanker hit a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 10.8 million gallons (37,000 metric tonnes) of crude oil into the water, causing substantial damage to the environment after the spill engulfed 1,300 miles (2,100 klms) of pristine coastline (below), this disaster helped galvanize a renewed public interest in environmental issues, at this time.In 1989 Midnight Oil were just completing their highly successful Diesel and Dust tour of the world, and whilst in New York they had famously performed outside the Exxon building in 56th. Ave.(NYC), in protest at the pollution of the Alaskan coast by the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, in front of a poster that read “Midnight Oil Makes You Dance, Exxon Oil Makes US Sick”, and in doing so had nailed their environmental protest colors to the mast (see below). That night at Radio City Music Hall (NYC), the crowd was ecstatic, for when introducing The River Runs Red, Peter Garrett announced that ”This next one is called License to Spill, an 11 million gallon production, the title song is performed by the Spillage People, George Bush also appears, and its coming to a shoreline near you soon.” Peter Garrett was appointed President of the Australian Conservation Foundation in the same year, so their new album was much anticipated.The previous album, Diesel and Dust, had sold over three million copies and was rated by Rolling Stone magazine at #13 in the list of the greatest albums of the 1980’s. They were going back into the Rhinoceros Studio (Syd) with British producer Warne Livesy (The The, The Matthew Good Band, Deacon Blue, and Paul Young), to record what would become their seventh album, Blue Sky Mining. Bones Hillman (real name Wayne Stevens) had joined the band as replacement bassist on the Diesel and Dust tour with Peter Garrett, Jim Moginie (guitar/keyboards), Rob Hirst (drums) and Martin Rotsey (guitar), and the title track featured Garrett on harmonica and Jim Moginie on organ, Peter’s vocals were more restrained here, and better for it.The idea for the song came from Jim Moginie when he was just 15 years old, the band collaborated with him to complete the song, Rob Hirst contributed the “Who’ll save me …” line, Peter the verse with Jim’s lyrical topic being the catalyst, and Martin Rotsey added contrasting guitar parts.The Oils were aware of a book entitled Blue Murder written by Ben Hills in 1989, which exposed the cruel and heartless exploitation of workers on the Blue-Sky Mining company’s blue asbestos mine at Wittenoom (see below), in the West Pilbara of Western Australia between 1947-1966. Exposure to the deadly cancer-causing blue asbestos dust was known to be harmful to the workers by the owners and management of the mine but no warnings were given, nor safeguards taken, the town attracted workers and their families, particularly newly-arrived migrants, eager to get a job and establish their lives in a new country.The workers, their wives and children were all exposed to the insidious creeping death that is mesothelioma, it has been estimated that 25% of the 20,000 workers at the mine will ultimately die of the disease, and many other family members who were incidentally exposed to the asbestos that was used to make roads, pave school yards, and decorate gardens in the town, would also suffer a similar fate.Jim Moginie’s teenage vision of the song he had musically imagined, surfaced when the band were demoing songs in the studio, producer Livesy (above) recalled that of all the songs on the album this was the one that underwent the most significant changes as the band wrestled with its powerful lyrical content and musical structure. He was striving for a Motown-inflected sound via organ and echo guitar which he felt would better resonate with the lyrics and impart the dynamism that was ultimately captured by the band.
The Oils had always imparted an intense personal connection between their music, the subject matter of their songs and their audience, they completed this emotional loop in a way that few bands could, in Blue Sky Mine you felt like you were one of those exploited workers trying to “put food on the table” and “have pay in your pocket tonight”.The song begins with a clarion harmonica riff from Garrett that signals the band’s intent, then driven by organ, acoustic guitar and a metronomic rhythm section, Garrett and the band are never less than emotionally connected, and the listener is inexorably drawn to the desperation of the workers plight “And if the blue sky mining company won’t come to my rescue/ if the sugar refining company won’t save me/ Who’s gonna save me?”
The song resonated with the public and charted a respectable #11 locally, #2 NZ, #7 Canada, #47 US, the album continued the Oils domination of the album charts and debuted at #1 locally and in NZ, top five in Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, and sold over two million copies worldwide.The parent company Colonial Sugar Refinery, and its subsidiary Blue-Sky Mining, were uncharitable, and litigious in their dealings with their workers who had died or were wasting away from work-related terminal cancer, the death toll continues to mount, and no amount of financial settlement will ever compensate these families for the pain and hardship inflicted upon them.A third wave of asbestos-related diseases contracted through home renovation and indirect exposure to asbestos dust and products is continuing to cause grief for Australian families. Imported products including Toyota brake pads, Dora the Explorer crayons, and camping goods have been found to contain the deadly mineral and banned. Products from countries where asbestos is not banned including China, Russia and Indonesia require special vigilance; and given the weakening of the EPA under the Trump administration, and Donald Trump’s assertion in his book the Art of the Deal that asbestos is “100 per cent safe”, there may be concerns about reduced controls in the US in the future.In 1980 famous actor Steve McQueen (below) died of mesothelioma contracted when working in the engine rooms of US navy vessels during his tour of duty in the 1950’s, and also when wearing asbestos-lined fire-retardent suits while competing in motor-racing events in the 1960’s. In 2003 US singer/songwriter Warren Zevon (Werewolves of London) (below) died of mesothelioma after indirect exposure to asbestos in duct tape and plumbing and air conditioning systems in performance venues he had frequented throughout his career. In 2010 Malcolm McLaren, rock impresario, songwriter, artist, and former husband of fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, also died of peritoneal mesothelioma in 2010.