Diesel and Dust
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2008, Volume 15, #5
Written by John Metzger
Wed May 7, 2008, 07:45 AM CDT
Music knows no borders, and its biggest, most influential champions have swept their way around the globe, spreading their influence far and wide. These days, it is not unusual to hear a lot of it coming back, too: The blues of John Lee Hooker, for example, have been emanating from the countries of Western Africa, while musicians from India recently reinterpreted the works of Miles Davis. The give-and-take among cultures, however, wasn’t always quite so interactive. Although, 40 years ago, The Beatles certainly helped to spur interest in Ravi Shankar’s work, the game of catch was played most prominently between North America and Europe. Over the course of the 1970s and early 1980s, however, the record industry gradually began to take a wider view of the world. As Bob Marley and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell were putting Jamaica on the map, Australia was mounting an insurgency of its own. Led by the sonic assault of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell and the mirror-ball shimmer of The Bee Gees, the continent-nation began to have a huge impact upon popular culture, and while its artists certainly were well-versed in traditional rock ’n‘ roll values, their output also was undeniably eclectic. After all, Split Enz was as different from AC/DC as INXS was from the Bee Gees.
Midnight Oil, however, was perhaps the most intriguing band to emerge from Australia. Born in 1971 as The Farm, the group initially failed to gain much attention for its prog rock-leaning work. Nevertheless, its name, its fortune, and its focus shifted dramatically once front man Peter Garrett joined the collective in 1975. Garrett was a former law student, and his interest in raising social and political issues soon weighed heavily upon Midnight Oil’s output, which helped to fuel its rapid ascent within the Australian music scene. Influenced by The Clash, Midnight Oil adopted a more streamlined architecture for its songs, and by 1983, the outfit had set its sights on the American market.
After the release of 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and Red Sails in the Sunset, Garrett formally made an attempt to enter the political arena by running for the Australian Senate. Although he lost by a narrow margin, he gained tremendous insight into the history of his homeland. While he long had taken stances against American military bases in the region, nuclear proliferation, and environmental degradation, Garrett now had a new cause to add to his arsenal: the plight of Aboriginal Australians.
In 1985, Midnight Oil was asked to write a song for a film that the Mitijula people were making about the return of the Uluru stone, a large, sacred monolithic monument located in central Australia. The result was The Dead Heart, which — with its majestic horns and its calls-to-arms on didgeridoo — was one of the finest tunes that the band ever managed to pen. Midnight Oil subsequently embarked upon a tour of the oft-neglected locales of its homeland with the Warumpi Band, and the groups’ experiences were captured in Black Fella/White Fella Tour. Although the hour-long documentary heavily emphasizes live performances by both outfits, it also illuminates the historical mistreatment and outright oppression of Australia’s indigenous people as well as the extreme poverty and substance abuse issues with which they continued to struggle. Their tale — which is told via images set to music — is sad, disturbing, and deeply moving, and over the years, it has become a frustratingly familiar story that has been played and replayed in far too many cultures around the globe. Yet, there also is an air of hopeful optimism that springs as much from the attention that Midnight Oil brought to the cause as it does from the notion that Australia’s aboriginal settlers never lost their pride, despite the inhumanities they frequently faced.
While it was touring Australia’s interior, Midnight Oil simultaneously was writing and debuting the material that became the basis for its third U.S. album Diesel and Dust. The endeavor brought attention to the tragedies that Midnight Oil witnessed, and although viewing Black Fella/White Fella Tour is not necessary for comprehending the statement that the group was trying to make, the film does provide greater insight and understanding of the its perspective. Making its commercial debut, the documentary, not surprisingly, forms the heart and soul of the "Legacy Edition" of Midnight Oil’s breakthrough Diesel and Dust, which also features the restoration of the outing’s previously excised final track Gunbarrel Highway.
Regardless, Diesel and Dust itself is the crown jewel of the collection. Although it dealt primarily with issues that Australia was facing 21 years ago, the album remains strikingly relevant. The details may be different, but the generalities are the same. Wealthy nations and corporate entities continue to take advantage of many impoverished, native peoples, and sabers inevitably rattle as cultures clash. Countless outfits have struggled with the act of conveying political ideas in their work, but Midnight Oil never suffered from being inauthentic or unconvincing in its arguments. Garrett’s feverish (and sometimes manic) vocals combined with the band’s forceful attack to drive home the overriding message without making it seem like a sermon.
Today, Diesel and Dust musically sounds slightly dated. When it was created, its arrangements were neatly groomed to fit within the commercial atmospherics of the 1980s, forming a pastiche of sorts that draws upon the hit singles of Simple Minds and U2 as well as the production style that Trevor Horn applied to Yes’ 90125. At the same time, though, the songs retain hints of Midnight Oil’s early influences — The Clash, the Rolling Stones, and David Bowie, among them — which are further highlighted by the live performances in Black Fella/White Fella Tour.
Even so, the glitzy, sonic flourishes that suffocated many of its heroes’ works during 1980s couldn’t kill Midnight Oil’s ferocity then, and they hardly temper it now. Fitted with engaging melodies, its hard-charging anthems with their big, sing-along choruses — such as Beds are Burning and Sometimes — evoked a mood of insuppressible, recalcitrant determination. The band’s calls for change were also calls for perseverance in the face of oppression, and its arena-ready songs climaxed by making the case that there was strength in unity. With Diesel and Dust, despite the concessions it made to mainstream radio, Midnight Oil deftly remained as uncompromising as ever, which allowed the group to become an international success story without losing its integrity — a feat that many more critically lauded outfits often have struggled to achieve.
Of Further Interest...
Diesel and Dust: Legacy Edition is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box