Music

Midnight Oil – ‘Diesel And Dust’: Why It Mattered

Diesel And Dust from Midnight Oil was a masterful execution of message meets music. Its subject matter was vital, refined for universal reach.

Midnight Oil were always more than beer drinkers and amp fiddlers. At the core of Oil lies a desire for humanity and reconciliation. Peter Garrett (lead vocals/harmonica) was partway through a law degree in 1972 when he joined Farmnow Midnight Oil (the name change was drawn from a hat).

Flash forward to today, and the Oils are one of the most treasured Australian rock bands ever, set to reunite for an unmissable headline performance at Bluesfest this year, where they’ll be launching their new album.

The Oils’ political activism shines brightly in their catalogue, but how did their songs come to generate such ubiquitous discourse and universal appraisal? This is the story of Diesel And Dust, their furthest reaching album, and why it mattered.

Midnight Oil
Image: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

Diesel and Dust wasn’t exactly the band’s breakout album. Previous efforts 10, 9, 8… and Red Sails in the Sunset had already shaken the Australian music scene. Their bruising rock was soundtracking barbecues, pub feeds, and Sunday arvos all around the country.

However, Midnight Oil’s early output was esoteric, falling mostly on Aussie ears. Realistically, songs like Jimmy Sharman’s Boxers could only resonate with so many people. So, for their next project, the Oils knew they had to refine their message.

The band sacrificed nuance yet maintained authenticity, so social concerns like the government’s mistreatment of Indigenous Australians could spark conversation. This is exactly what they achieved on Diesel and Dust, also fulfilling drummer Rob Hirst’s vision to “write Australian music that people overseas could get into and understand, which would enlarge their whole vision of Australia past Vegemite sandwiches and kangaroo hops”.

The LP kicks off with the band’s biggest track to date, Beds Are Burning, a song that was colossal in every conceivable way. The jarring subject matter, the percussive, metallic instrumentation, the silhouetted film clip, Garret’s sporadic dance moves.

The track saw the band break their way into the US charts, an incredible feat for any Australian act at the time, especially one that didn’t pander. From the opening brass to the chugging bassline, a sense of urgency engulfs the listener, perfectly soundtracking Garret’s plea: “It belongs to them. Let’s give it back.”

The anthem’s lyrics have become unanimous with First Australian land rights. Sovereignty is yet to be seeded. The Oils didn’t shroud these lyrics in mysticism, like other political performers of the past, such as Dylan. Instead, they made their intentions crystal clear, performing the hit at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, donning shirts spelling out the cardinal word John Howard wouldn’t say: “Sorry”.

The Dead Heart was another huge moment for the Oils. Its guitar/vocal call and response was pop hook magic, grabbing ears all around the globe. They were commissioned to pen the track for a documentary about Uluru being handed back to the local Pitjantjatjara Aboriginals.

Once more, the band used their musical talents to raise awareness of Australia’s Stolen Generation. The ethereal gallop of Dreamworld was another standout on the record, as the band mourned the loss of Cloudland Dance Hall, a Queensland cultural hotspot that was demolished in favour of an apartment complex.

What do all these tracks (and the rest of Diesel and Dust) have in common? They’re about cultural preservation. The Oils particularly focused on spotlighting the Government’s negligence of First Australians. It didn’t sound out of touch, because it wasn’t. For most of 1986, the band toured the Northern Territory, performing in remote towns for Aboriginal Australians. They explored these settlements with open ears and hearts, learning and listening to the locals.

The band observed harrowing poverty, determination from elders, freezing desert nights, and everything in between. They carried these experiences with them into the studio, resulting in 11 tangible, direct songs straight from the outback.

That’s why Diesel and Dust matters. A practised rock band took their musical strengths and made it a mouthpiece for the neglected. Midnight Oil’s messages still ring true today, stronger than ever.

 

Midnight Oil perform at Byron Bay Bluesfest on Friday October 1st. Tickets for the festival are available here.