In the late 1980’s if you were listening to radio or watching MTV in this country, you would remember a song that literally jumped out of the airwaves, thanks to three distinct chords and a blast of brass fanfare by Glad Reed (trombone) and Jeremy Smith (French horn, below) of Hunters and Collectors, followed by funky chugging guitars and bass riff.
The song became even more identifiable when Peter Garrett, in a distinctive Australian accent, declared “out where the river broke/ the bloodwood and the desert oak…” Beds Are Burning would be one of the most iconic songs by Midnight Oil, the insistent bassline riff keeps the song moving forward to the swooping chorus which completely envelopes the listener, as Garrett’s taunting, impassioned, idiosyncratic vocals challenge and chastise the political powerbrokers, an elite group to which he would briefly belong following the euphoria of Kevin ’07. Crucially the music that underpins Beds Are Burning is anything but mournful, after the riveting opening it explodes into life, and the pre-chorus challenges us “it belongs to them… let’s give it back.”
It was Rob Hirst who originally had the idea for the song as recounted by Jim Moginie“he brought in the chorus which everyone liked, ”How can we dance when our Earth is turning/How do we sleep while our beds are burning”, and I had this riff which was the verse riff, Peter just walked in with the lyrics ”The time has come to say fair’s fair, to pay the rent, to pay our share…a fact’s a fact, it belongs to them, let’s give it back.” He said” Just put this in the song” and then he walked out!” Then he came up with the bridge, and I think I might have come up with the brass tabs. Rob had some great verse lyrics and melodic ideas for the verse”.
The band expected a negative, racist response to the song, the very title of the song was a reference to the practice of white administrators burning down Aboriginal dwellings to flush out children who would become part of the Stolen Generation.
But it had the opposite effect, and who would have thought that an album about dispossessed indigenous people in Australia would be one that would resonate so movingly with a global audience, but it did, especially in countries where colonial rule had impacted so badly on indigenous people in South Africa, USA, New Zealand, and Canada.
Beds Are Burning railed against the forced removal of Aborigines from their tribal lands and the subsequent return of the Pintupi tribe to their natural lands. Once there they established the Kintore community which, along with the town of Yuendumu, are name-checked in the song.
The sense of social injustice felt collectively by the band about the violation of aboriginal land rights and the dispossession of tribal communities was palpable, and even though the sing-along chorus and Clash-influenced rhythms were commercially attractive, the underlying protest message was pounded out, there had been genocide and stolen generations of children, now was the time for reparation.
The album Diesel and Dust would become the unofficial musical accompaniment to the 1988 bicentennial, but it would take another 12 years for Beds are Burning to complete its triumph. At the closing ceremony of Sydney’s Olympic Games in 2000, Midnight Oil played the song dressed in black outfits emblazoned in white with the word “sorry”. It was an eerie experience, watching the Oils perform a song about Australia’s greatest shame, and in the context of that moment, simultaneously sense a flicker of pride.
It is a much-honored composition, a national #6 hit, rated by APRA as the third best song of the modern era 1926-2001, included in the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped R&R, #1 in NZ, South Africa and Canada and top five in France, the Netherlands, #6 in the UK and #17 in the US, it sold over two million copies.
In an interview with the Boston Globe in 1989 Peter Garrett articulated on what the band wasn’t, which was quite insightful “We do not have a set of ambitions which relate to instant and overwhelming success. We do not visualize being poster pinups. We have got a different set of ambitions from most people. We don’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 the cars, drugs, money and the glamour life. We are not absorbed by whether we have charted or haven’t charted. Finally, we are not a “hairdresser band” – we’re not faddish.” (Midnight Oil – Michael Lawrence 2017).
Put Down That Weapon was the third single released from the album, it was a strong anti-nukes/anti-terrorism protest inspired by the shameful sinking of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior by the French at Marsden Wharf in Auckland Harbor in 1985, resulting in the death of Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira, the video is intense, spooky, and you will never win a staring contest with Peter Garrett.
Peter Gifford (bass) departed the band before they toured the album due to alcohol-related ill health, he was replaced by “Bones Hillman” (aka Wayne Stevens), former Swingers bassist, who was a good vocalist and musician, with a welcome sense of humour, he hit it off with Rob Hirst and the rhythm section was now tight to tour the album globally. In the US and Europe, the band now have hits with big singalong choruses (U.S. Forces, Power and the Passion), some of their most exciting rock songs ever (Dreamworld, Hercules), meaningful atmospheric slower numbers (Dead Heart, Arctic World, River Runs Red) and epic showstoppers (Beds Are Burning, Bullroarer, and Read About It).
4TR BEST SONGS
1980’s – THE TOP TEN
1.Beds Are Burning – Midnight Oil
2.Down Under – Men At Work
3.Don’t Dream Its Over – Crowded House
4.Power And The Passion- Midnight Oil
5.Reckless – Australian Crawl
6.Cattle And Cane – Go-Betweens
7.I Was Only 19 – Redgum
8.Throw Your Arms Around Me – Hunters and Collectors
9.Wide Open Road – Triffids
10Great Southern Land – Icehouse
To Her Door – Paul Kelly
Science Fiction – Divinyls
Quasimodo’s Dream – The Reels
Choir Girl – Cold Chisel
Jessie’s Girl – Rick Springfield
Never Tear Us Apart – INXS
Solid Rock – Goanna
Pleasure and Pain – Divinyls
Leaps and Bounds – Paul Kelly
Under The Milky Way – The Church