Underwater (P Garrett/ B Hillman/ R Hirst/J Moginie/ M Rotsey) 1996 and Redneck Wonderland (R Hirst/ JMoginie)– Midnight Oil 1998.
The Oils released the live album Scream In Blue in 1992 which was a collection of hits culled from five live concerts over a 9-year period, including songs from the protest concert staged in front of the Exxon Oil building in 1990. The band were essentially in hiatus at this time and the album enabled them to maintain a chart presence when it climbed to #3 in Aust, and top forty in Germany, NZ, and Sweden.Their ninth studio album Breathe, was released in October 1996, three and a half years after their eighth album Earth, Sun, and Moon, Malcolm Burn (below) was producer at Daniel Lanois Kingsway studio in New Orleans.By now the band was starting to pursue individual passion projects, Peter Garrett was commencing a move towards politics via his position with the ACF, and Rob Hirst had already released his first solo album with the Ghostwriters, which included several of his own compositions, that other band members felt would have bolstered the content of the last Midnight Oil album, had they been included.Breathe was a dark, murky and occasionally slightly weird album, that signaled a move away from the storm and fury of previous Oils albums, guitars and drums were detuned to capture a very different ambience, the tracks included the instrumental Surf’s Up Tonight, but overall the songs lacked the frisson and nervous energy for the which the band were famous.Underwater was the first single taken off Breathe and it reflected the influence of U2’s 1991 album Achtung Baby (above), where a more flippant, less earnest altrock attitude prevailed, it seemed that both U2 and Midnight Oil were sounding more light-hearted, even self-deprecating, at this stage in their careers. Underwater was essentially an unpretentious pop song with a languid surf rock ambience, Peter Garrett is in mellow, laid-back, surfer dude mode, no histrionics or strident protests here “Scanning at the blue bended headlands/ White flurry scudded, a dark silhouette flashes by, in the wet/ It is glistening flesh/ In the deep marine, in the deep marine.” The video features excerpts from a surfing documentary by professional big wave surfer Laird Hamilton, who pioneered the use of the hydrofoil surfboard. Surfing images are intercut with footage of Hawiain islanders swimming in pristine Pacific waters, it charted #28 and loyal Oils fans took the album Breathe to #3.
If Breathe was the sound of a band embracing a slower, mellower sound, 1998’s Redneck Wonderland was the sound of a band snapping back to its protest roots. Recorded at the same time as the rise of Australia’s conservative, anti-immigration One Nation Party, led by Pauline Hanson , pictured below with former PM Tony Abbott, Rob Hirst described Redneck Wonderland as “an angry record”. It genre-hopped across altrock, industrial rock, electronic rock, alternative metal, funk rock, blues rock , and trip hop – four singles were released with the title track performing best at #54, the album did better charting a respectable #4.“Our whole time together has always been reacting against what we’ve just done,” Hirst recollected, “It’s quite perverse in a way.” Redneck Wonderland returned to prominence in 2012 partly due to Sixto Rodriguez, who was the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Rodriguez’s cover of the album’s title track had become one of his live staples, the friendship between Rodriguez and Midnight Oil dated back more than thirty years when they toured together back in 1981, and performed at the Tanelorn Music Festival in NSW.
In 2000 at the closing ceremony to the Sydney Olympics, following the cancellation of an appearance by the Seekers due to Judith Durham’s ill health, the band demonstrated that they had learned the lesson of the ‘Truganini’ controversy, and consulted members of Yothu Yindi before deciding upon the now famous ‘Sorry’ outfits. These shirts, given the impact they had on viewers, went further than the official organisation of the Olympics in re-focusing on indigenous issues.Midnight Oil brought popular protest to one of the world’s most iconic arenas, a place where symbols of nation are displayed, and critically the band demonstrated their acceptance of their role as a mere instrument, a loudspeaker for indigenous voices.After 1998’s Redneck Wonderland, Midnight Oil released their final full-length studio album, Capricornia, though the album was officially released in 2002, the band toured the United States to promote it in 2001. More specifically, they were touring a few weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, during a time when there was widespread speculation about when the next terrorist attack would occur. During this time, the band debated cancelling their tour, but as Rob Hirst opined ‘We thought what the hell, we’ve got to actually go, and it turned out to be one of the most heart-warming and successful tours that we’ve done in the states,” he said. Capricornia charted #12 locally but there were no standout singles
Midnight Oil officially called it quits in 2002 after Peter Garrett decided to pursue politics full-time, in 2004, running as a member of the Australian Labor Party, Garrett was elected to the House of Representatives, and served in several ministerial portfolios in the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments between 2004-2013.Rob Hirst continued to record and perform with various groups including the Ghostwriters who have released four albums in the period 1990-2007, and he has also performed with former Oils band mates Mognie and Rotsey as well as Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie in the band The Break.(left to right below- Hirst, Moginie, Ritchie, Rotsey).Midnight Oil have reunited twice since their 2002 break-up, both times for charity concerts, the first was in 2004 for the victims of the Indian ocean tsunami, and the second for the victims of the 2009 bushfires in Australia that killed more than 170 people. In 2006 ARIA inducted Midnight Oil into the Hall of Fame, in a stellar field that included the Divinyls, Rose Tattoo, Helen Reddy, Daddy Cool, Icehouse and Lobby Lloyd. The band returned to touring in 2017 after they reformed, and the Great Circle Tour encompassed Aust, USA, Europe, Canada, Brazil, and South Africa, in 2019 they toured Europe and the UK, and announced plans for a new album to be released in 2020, their global album sales currently sit at an impressive 12.0 million .
When Peter Garrett resumed performing with the band and returned to both touring and recording commercially, after nine years as an elected member of Federal Parliament, he was criticized for abandoning the principles he had loudly espoused as front man for Midnight Oil. As Minister for the Environment he had endorsed the expansion of uranium mining, even though he had been a strident critic of such mining and nuclear arms, and had even stood for Parliament as a candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984. The lyrics of the song Dead Heart now sound particularly hollow “Mining companies, pastoral companies/ Uranium companies/ Collected companies/Got more rights than people/ Got more say than people…” Garrett’s political record on indigenous land rights, logging, and US global military presence, fell somewhat short of the rhetoric that can be found in the lyrics of numerous Midnight Oil songs, and particularly the anti-corporate/anti-polluting big business/anti-US military rants from Garrett that often preceded songs at the band’s live performances.
Despite the band claiming to have found new relevance in the Trump era, Garrett’s evolution from long-term activist to politically expedient pragmatist, and to now performing those old polemical songs once more, without any evidence of a mea culpa, is confusing, deflating, and unprincipled, it seems the new Oils are about “do what I say, not what I do.”