MIDNIGHT OIL 1976 – 2002

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Truganini (R Hirst/J Moginie) and Tell MeThe Truth (P Garrett/ J Moginie)– Midnight Oil 1993


The Earth and Sun and Moon album reunited the Oils with producer Nick Launay with whom they had recorded the 10…1 album in 1982 and Red Sails in The Sunset in 1984, in 1993 they went into the Megaphone Studios (Syd) to record what would be their ninth album. Earth and Sun and Moon had an organic sound that reflected in its title, it was heavily melodic, in an era that was dominated by grunge and particularly the megahit album Nevermind by Nirvana. The band were feeling the need to capture some of the aggression of grunge, to re-capture the live feel of Diesel and Dust, to rely less  on technological gimmickry, and to employ more retro 60’s sounds like the wah-wah pedal guitar and Farfisa organ. Midnight Oil 3Songs like Feeding Frenzy, My Country, Outbreak of Love, Tell Me The Truth were good examples of such songs, but Truganini would be the first single lifted off the album, and was deemed to be a worthy contender for chart success. It had an uplifting chorus and rolling bass line reminiscent of Beds Are Burning, the band were sure it would be a global hit. But their record label Columbia had no idea who or what Truganini was, and concluded that the song would not resonate with an international audience, and abruptly stopped promoting it as a single, this effectively terminated the international career of Midnight Oil, at least in the States.oils52Truganini was one of the Oils more controversial songs, as it loudly protested the plight of Aborigines and the enslavement and genocide inflicted on our indigenous people by early white settlers and the military. In the areas adjacent to Sydney Cove, reprisal raids by soldiers against spear-wielding natives resulted in many deaths, while the more cynical but equally lethal use of poisoned flour, and the smallpox virus to decimate local tribes, were tactics already field-tested by the British against the native population in their African and North American colonies. (below Aborigines in chains at Wyndham, WA) oils51Australia’s colonial history is a blood-stained indictment of the murder and mistreatment of our indigenous people, massacres in northern NSW at Moree, Waterloo Creek, Appin and Myall Creek, and in Victoria at Bathurst, Portland, and numerous other massacre sites, are still bizarrely memorialized in the names of current locations there, with such gruesome place names as Butcher’s Tree, Massacre Plains, Murdering Gully, Slaughterhouse Creek and Murdering Flat, being macabre signposts to some very dark pages in our country’s history.Midnight Oil4The unrelenting extermination of Tasmania’s Aboriginal population from the 1820’s onwards is personified by Truganini (above), a young Aboriginal girl, who was a member of the Bruny Island people, whose life was the very embodiment  of the systematic marginalization and annihilation of Tasmania’s Aborigines. Her life story was horrific – she was raped by whites, and the indigenous man to whom she was betrothed was murdered by whites, her mother was murdered by whites, her aunties kidnapped and enslaved, her final indignity was to be paraded in Hobart like a sideshow attraction as the “Queen of the Aborigines”.

She died in 1876 , but she was not the last Tasmanian aboriginal, Fanny Cochrane Smith who passed away in 1905, is now generally recognized as the last, although over 7,000 First Nation people claim to be surviving members of Tasmania’s Aboriginal people. Truganini’s remains were initially buried in the Hobart Gaol, they were then dug up and her bones stored in an apple crate, to be re-assembled and displayed in the Tasmanian Museum. In 1976 on the centenary of her death, her dying wish for her remains to be scattered on the waters of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel were granted.

Despite the title of the song it does not deal primarily with indigenous issues but links a range of vignettes themed on what may be described as injustices – wage slaves on a treadmill, farmers’ struggling with drought and climate change, Australia’s convict past, and a Republican theme dominate :”I hear much support for the monarchy/ I hear the union Jack’s to remain/ I see Namatjira in custody/ I see Truganini in chains.”Midnight Oil 5The song and the promo video depict not only Truganini but also the Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira (above), whose final years were devoid of the respect and dignity due to one of Australia’s most celebrated landscape artists, who without proper care and professional management drifted into vagrancy and alcoholism. Republicanism, the flag, the mixed blessings that accompany the British traditions we have inherited, all form part of the complex message that this song and its promo video conveys.Midnight Oil 1Musically it was a clarion call for action, a blast of harmonica at the opening alerts the listener that the Oils are again manning the ramparts, bass, drums and wailing guitars carry the impassioned vocals to the first chorus and beyond “I hear much support for the monarchy/ I see the Union Jack in flames, let it burn/ I see Namatjira with dignity/ I see Truganini in chains.” The band’s strength here lies in the vast spaces between sounds in the basic track, a simple bass line locks in step with a basic back beat, clipped guitars weave around it, and light touches of keyboard and harmonica fade up and down, Garrett’s vocals were insistent but not strident or hectoring.

The song had a mixed reception from the public, some Aborigines denounced it for perpetuating a white myth about the extinction of the Tasmanian Aborigines, so undermining those whose Native Title claims hinged on establishing ancestral land rights, while others supported the Oils for bringing the matters into public focus.

Midnight Oil’s manager, Gary Morris, insisted that the reference to Truganini was a metaphor for injustice in land rights, not a comment on authentic Aboriginality and encouraged the band’s critics to overlook the error and be silent: ‘My suggestion to these people is to stop shooting themselves in the foot and let a band like Midnight Oil voice its appeal to white Australia on behalf of black Australia’. On behalf of Midnight Oil, Morris disparaged the ability of indigenous Australians to self-represent, he diminished the significance of Midnight Oil’s erroneous representation about the extinction of Tasmania’s Aborigines, while over-estimating the band’s ambassadorial powers, neither the band nor their manager had yet learned how to speak to indigenous people, before presuming to speak for them.

The album charted at #2 nationally, and top five in NZ and Switzerland,  and the single charted #10 in Aust, and USA, #4 in NZ, and Canada and #29 in the UK, but it would be the last time the Oils took a single into the ARIA top ten again

In 2014 a proposal to create a National Resting Place for the human remains of thousands of indigenous people held in museums in Australia and overseas – an Australian War Memorial for the First Nation Australians – was suggested but has never been supported by a succession of governments at state or federal level.

Tell Me The Truth was the second single lifted off the album,  and it called out the usual suspects – manipulative media, obsessive materialism, and the duplicity of banks and big business – in a snarling and visceral attack, described by Rob Hirst as a “four-minute slice of sounds trying to compete with the roar of jet engines (from the nearby airport), while passively inhaling glue from the furniture factory downstairs. The choruses explode like The Who, the verses groove like The Hunners, and the middle eight feels like you’re riding The Rotor at Luna Park, at that instant when the floor disappears” (Midnight Oil – Michael Lawrence 2017). Nick Launay was cutting and pasting sound tapes like a man possessed, the result was an incendiary version of Jim Moginie’s original song, with Bones Hillman adding note-perfect, enviably enunciated, backing vocals, the song instantly became a live performance favorite.

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