MIDNIGHT OIL’S 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 IS A BRILLIANTLY UNIQUE CRY FOR JUSTICE
The Oil’s countdown to midnight remains relevant 40 years on – only saved from being depressingly so by its electrifying rallying urgency, writes Aidan Elwig Pollock.
3,000 bodies had turned the Luna Park Big Top into a steaming, dank pit – a far cry from the late September post-rain coolness that pervaded the Sydney Harbour air on the twenty-minute walk from the car. Apart from a sprinkling of fresh-faces like mine, the crowd was predominantly composed of grey-haired old soldiers – veterans of a musical campaign spanning 13 LPs, 50 years, and countless sweat-drenched pub sets across Australia and beyond. The characteristic yellow outstretched hand was omnipresent. Perhaps the greatest Australian band to ever grace the stage were about to make their apparently antepenultimate performance.
Almost immediately, Midnight Oil slammed the stage with their infamous energy – perhaps tempered over the years from the fanatical shows of their youth, now consigned to documentary footage and the memory banks of the thousands of late-middle-aged-to-younger-side-of-elderly devotees I shared the moshpit with. Song after song was met with enthusiasm from a faithful crowd. But when the droning intro of ‘Outside World’ began to crackle through the oversized speakers the venue took on a new energy: this was now a horde of zealots, dancing in orgiastic intensity to a full live run of one of Australia’s most iconic albums.
The reaction to 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 – pronounced “10 to 1” – was telling. The iconic Oils album turned 40 this year, and remains not only interesting and unique, but heartbreakingly relevant as an Australian-bred political statement. Midnight Oil began its journey as Farm in Sydney in 1972 – then composed of drummer Rob Hirst, bass guitarist Andrew James and Jim Moginie on keyboards and lead guitar. The one-of-a-kind Peter Garrett – then sporting a shock of long blonde hair and studying law at ANU – joined the band in 1973.
By 1975, Farm was playing surf rock in the pubs of Garrett’s native Northern Beaches. It wasn’t until 1976 that the band took on the name Midnight Oil, and combined surf rock and punk in an explosive, sweaty mix. Over the next six years the band released three albums and an EP, with guitarist Martin Rotsey and new bassist Peter Gifford. The eponymous 1978 debut (nicknamed the “Blue Meanie”) is largely punk-flavoured surf rock that unfortunately failed to capture the band’s live energy. A new producer and a shift to a punkier sound mixed with some more experimental musical ideas resulted in Head Injuries in 1979. Bird Noises continued this trend in 1980, with Place Without A Postcard representing a further foray into alternative experimentation that lacked polish. It was, however, a taste of things to come.
Throughout this period, despite an Australian music industry hostile to acts outside the consumerist mainstream, Midnight Oil remained alternative. At the cost of a slowly building reputation the band stayed independent of mainstream radio and forged a fiercely loyal audience in the pub rock scene of Sydney and surrounds. This alternative ethos would remain with the band, but the success of 10 to 1 would transform their fortunes, producing one of Australia’s most iconic and eccentric bands.
The atmospheric ‘Outside World’ opens the album with a relatively soft start. Peter Garrett’s almost spoken vocals croak across mysterious, abstract noises. As you listen, you can see the smooth white limbs of a eucalyptus tree swaying in the night air. Musically, the track sets the more experimental tone of the album, continuing a stylistic shift that began on Place Without a Postcard. 10 to 1, however, represents the first time this experimental sound actually lands. Ultimately, ‘Outside World’ serves as a slow start to build anticipation for an explosive album – epitomised by the seamless transition to its second track.
‘Only the Strong’, arguably the Oil’s most cruelly overlooked track, builds slowly from its intro, crackling with anticipation – the cool change beneath cobalt-blue clouds on a sweaty summer’s day heralding an evening storm. The track is a masterclass in manipulating anticipation: guitars stop and start throughout the track, gradually building a sense of stunted expectation before an explosive climax. Ultimately, this supports the lyrical content. When Garrett snarls “When I’m locked in my room/I just want to scream/And I know what they mean/Only the strong” we feel the ambiguous frustration that in my mind connects with the experiences of a politically-motivated teenager feeling powerless against the forces of conservatism arrayed against them – a near perfect evocation. Other interpretations focus on the prison system, of which the song is equally expressive.
‘Short Memory’ is more opaque but nevertheless just as impressive. Garrett rattles off a long list of historical crimes against humanity in a scarily relevant statement of the apparent incapacity of humanity to learn from their mistakes. Moginie’s impressive keyboard solo bursts through the centre of the piece, preceding Garrett’s almost-rapped outro. Lines about Afghanistan – which Garrett often now modifies in concert to reference American Imperialism as opposed to that of the Soviets – echo with hair-raising relevance.
Similar relevance carries through ‘Read About It’: a song that could be written about the current media situation in Australia. A ragged guitar hook introduces a much faster paced song where Garrett frantically calls out conservative media and its manipulation of the Australian public. This is followed by ‘Scream in Blue’, the band’s most experimental track. Discordant guitar and ethereal whooshing sounds occupy the first half of the piece, building into a climax before a quieter, piano-driven lyrical section. The song allegedly describes a dream Peter Garrett had about nuclear Armageddon, and as the final song on side 1 of the record, it leaves a lasting impression of the critical importance of nuclear disarmament (still an ongoing issue).
‘US Forces’ opens the second half of the album with a powerful indictment of CIA interference in global affairs. Over an acoustic intro. Peter Garrett growls “US Forces give the nod/It’s a setback for your country” in staccato, introducing the pace of a deceptively frantic song that climaxes in bewildered pleas for a chance to simply live with autonomy.
‘Power and the Passion’, one of the Oil’s best-known songs from the first half of their discography, storms onto the record next. This is a drum-driven song – with a chugging, urgent bassline that induces frenetic dancing – about Sydney (and more broadly, Australia). It’s sweaty, and raw, and calls out the superficiality leaking into Australia’s capital in all but name. Hirst’s drum solo is particularly impressive, and climaxes into the instantly recognisable noise of his banging on a tin water tank (a highlight of live performances).
‘Maralinga’ follows, a much quieter song with a particularly catchy bass part. It represents one of the Oil’s earlier forays into the issues confronting First Nations Australians – a cause the band would push particularly strongly in their fifth album, Diesel and Dust – and highlights the horrific injustice involved in the British nuclear tests at Maralinga, South Australia, during the 1950s. This haunting track sets up ‘Tin Legs and Tin Mines’ beautifully. Garrett mournfully cries “Who’s running the world today?”, essentially an impassioned plea for the appreciation of nature, heritage and life in a country that still prioritises money. The detonation of the Juukan Gorge caves for mining interests in 2020 proves that the song is still sadly pertinent to this day.
‘Tin Legs and Tin Mines’ runs seamlessly into ‘Somebody’s Trying to Tell Me Something’, the album’s frantic and discordant climax. This encapsulates the entire record and caps it off with a final plea to listen, reflect, and change the world.
Ultimately, 10 to 1 remains a landmark album from one of Australia’s most iconic bands. In this album, Midnight Oil produced a burning mission statement bundled in blistering, often-experimental pub rock tied up with a nice little bow of Australiana. This mission statement continues to be depressingly relevant to this day – nuclear weapons, war, profiteering, the struggle for First Nations rights and recognition, and a problematically concentrated media continue to place front and centre as concerns confronting Australia. In many cases, these issues are now worse. But as long as we are faced by such obstacles, Midnight Oil’s 10 to 1 will remain a rallying call for anyone who cares enough to want to see a better world.