The thing about circles is that there’s no end and no beginning, so purists might argue that in Midnight Oil’s case they were, and then they weren’t, and then they were again – so we might have to instead consider a tightly closed letter C. But that doesn’t have the same ring as “The Great Circle” which is what Midnight Oil has called their comeback tour. So while there is a beginning and this may be the end, in music, there’s always flow and since even gaps have bridges to keep things moving, Cs get to become circles.
Circles are apt if you consider the power that music has to wheel you around – from the past, through your youth and youngwomanhood, over gaps in which everything else happened, then finally, if you’re actually lucky enough, through to a reunion and a chance to take a spin and wheel around the circle once more. I’m all for nostalgia. I find comfort in it. My past is a frame for my current.
So let’s think back.
It was October 16, 1988 when Midnight Oil performed at Toronto’s arena, Maple Leaf Gardens. I was there, 10th row, centre, floors, a precocious activist/environmentalist kid who’d by then spoken at Queen’s Park about the dangers of chlorofluorocarbons, spent some weekends rallying support for a local First Nations band, the Anishnaabe, or writing letters for Amnesty International.
Midnight Oil were the nexus of my passion for music and passion for wanting to connect and heal people. They were bold and bolshy and political and enthralling and alive…and I loved them. I loved mostly everything about them even when they got crotchety. I loved their old post-punk (which I respect and love more now that I understand that it was post-punk), their mainstream rock, and less so, their odd, little ballads in which their towering singer Peter Garrett would soften a bit in voice, if not in message. I may have rallied for a few things, but Midnight Oil ranted and raved and rallied about everything. And I loved a band that I could respect.
At the 1988 gig, Garrett ranted mocked Dubya (“Georgie Porgie, run up that hill…”), who would go on to win the U.S. presidential election a month later, and poked at the Royal Family, calling them a “fairy tale fantasy”. 29 years later, let it be siad, nothing had changed as Garrett dug at the fact that British Columbians had recently celebrated a long weekend named for Queen Victoria (“that old biddy? What has she ever done for your First Nations?”) and repeatedly referred to that guy over the border as “The Dumpster.” His anger and energy was electric. Same as it ever was.
I would go on to see Midnight Oil a couple more times in the nineties. On May 20, 1990, we braved freezing rain to see the band – then at its zenith and playing the huge Canadian National Exhibition outdoor bandstand – in a double bill paired with the also-amazing New Zealand band, Hunters & Collectors. It was glorious. Midnight Oil played Nick Lowe’s “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding” for the encore, and filled their set with tracks from the albums I held dear to my heart, Diesel & Dust and Blue Sky Mining. It was SO cold that night that Garret wore a shirt around his bald head, and the next day they released an ad in the paper that said “Thank you to everyone who braved the ‘Freeze House’ effect at the CNE Grandstand…and made it such a great night.” It was freezing. But it WAS a great night.
On April 13th, 1993 the band returned to Toronto, this time as a small-venue treat to surprise fans in the run-up to the release of their album Earth and Sun and Moon . The following day I was invited to participate in a small press conference with Peter Garrett, bassist Bones Hillman and drummer Rob Hirst. Their record company had created a Midnight Oil “newspaper” of sorts and I gleefully got them to sign it after we chatted about the charged issues of the day. At the concert, they called the show their “annual interface” with us. “Truganini” – a song that blends the history of an Aboriginal Tasmanian woman and reflections on then-current-day Australia – was a highlight. It would be a highlight again 14 years later when it was played in Vancouver, the harmonica launching it, the crisp bass its unbroken backbone, and the crowd yelling along: “I hear much support for the monarchy! I hear the Union Jack’s to remain! I see Namatjira in custody! I see Truganini’s in chains!” Nothing like a field of people yelling about injustice.
After 1993, my Midnight Oil history went to ground. I embraced and made out with shoegaze and then Britpop, electronica and drum n’ bass and trip hop and fell hard for indie and lo-fi, and while my empathy for humanity or the planet never waned, my activism did. I never stopped loving Midnight Oil – because they are, in fact, something quite special- but that decade featured a young adult whose circuits were overriding with all the great music of the time and spending many smoky hours backstage. So Midnight Oil got lost. And then they really did. In 2002, Peter Garrett quit the band to follow a political career (which, I am dismayed to hear, has upset some Australian friends who now call him a hypocrite, though I remain unclear why). Midnight Oil disappeared onto the timeline of my life.
Until June 2, 2017, when they came back.
Under a blue sky that had been previously threatening to rain, on a smallish bandstand, inside North America’s largest urban forest, with two bald (how fitting!) eagles perching high on a tree and looking down as if they were the welcome back committee, Midnight Oil took the Malkin Bowl stage once again and the circle wheeled me back. It was so warm, so GOOD to hear those songs again. “Redneck Wonderland” wouldn’t have been my choice for a starter, to be honest, but when 1985’s “Progress” followed (a track they’ve not played in Canada since the early 90s) I remembered everything: the post-punk, the crisp guitar, driving drums and locked-in bass, the harmonied choruses, and the manic robot dancing of one Mr. Peter Garrett. I was activated.
“Read About It” shifted the crank further back in the WayBack Machine (“Power and the Passion” also sounded rad in the first encore) and I just stood there, beaming. By the time drummer Rob Hirst came to the front of the stage to harmonize with the others on “My Country” (hairs standing on arms!), then lead into the marching “When the Generals Talk”, we were all back in love. Garrett thanked us for our patience, for letting them “play tonight in the environment” and returning to listening to their music. The band reached Peak Midnight Oilness in the third part of the show, stringing together the softy ballad “Arctic World” into “Warrakurna”, then “Dead Heart” and (with an introduction encouraging us to keep fighting against the Kinder Morgan Pipeline) “Beds Are Burning” THEN into “Blue Sky Mine” and “Dreamworld”, well…fark. I’d been, in my head, around the world thinking of all the gigs, all the rallies, all of my youth and youngwomanhood. And for that, Midnight Oil, I am grateful. May this great circle be unbroken. \m/
Click on each photo below to scroll through and embiggen. Watch “Beds Are Burning” from this concert, here: