Saturday, November 11, 2017

Midnight Oil – Great Circle

NOVEMBER 10 2017
David Leser

Desmond Tutu, the South African anti-apartheid activist, Anglican archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner once observed that if you are impartial in situations of injustice, you have ended up siding with the oppressor.

"If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse," he said, "and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."

Since Midnight Oil announced their Great Circle world tour in April this year, five months after Donald Trump's improbable victory in the US 2016 presidential elections, there has been no let-up to the remonstrations across the globe.

Midnight Oil has been many things to many people over the past 40 years but neutrality has never been part of the band's genetic make-up. Scorching music behind a spellbinding lead singer, yes. Angry anthems directed against corporate greed, environmental vandalism, Aboriginal dispossession and unchecked militarism, absolutely. But neutrality? Not on your life.

During the reviled apartheid era the Oils steadfastly refused to break the United Nations-approved cultural boycott of South Africa, despite generous enticements to do so. (Queen, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Frank Sinatra, Tina Turner and Julio Iglesias, to name just a few, showed no such moral conviction.) It was only after Nelson Mandela had walked free from 27 years in prison and, in 1994, become the country's first democratically elected black president that the band agreed to play.

"We went there about six months after Mandela came to power," drummer Rob Hirst recalls now. "We'd been invited before, but that would have meant breaking the boycott."

"So we ended up playing in Johannesburg at the famous Ellis Park, alongside Sting, Lucky Dube and Johnny Clegg. It was the first multi-racial show in post-apartheid South Africa and people had been bussed in from the townships and were singing these beautiful three and four part harmonies to Dead Heart:

We carry in our hearts the true country
We follow in the steps of our ancestry
And that cannot be broken

Since first coming together on Sydney's northern beaches in the mid to late 1970s Midnight Oil – comprising Peter Garrett, Rob Hirst, guitarists Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey, and bass player Bones Hillman – has been Australia's most overtly political musical outfit. Never mind the nine year hiatus (2004-13) that saw frontman Garrett take an eyebrow-raising detour into Australian Labor Party politics, there's never been a group in this country to equal the Oils for conveying the rage, fear, cynicism and burning idealism of a generation. (Despite the censure that Garrett received in some quarters for swapping his role as an activist singer for a mainstream politician, the former minister for the environment and the arts – and later school education and youth – proudly claims to have made more decisions to protect the environment than any other Australian environment minister.)

If there were an anti-uranium or nuclear disarmament concert to be played the Oils would be there. (They probably organised it!) If it was a protest concert against, say, the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, then the Oils would be the ones blocking traffic outside the corporation's Manhattan headquarters. If there was going to be a way to symbolically express regret for the history of Aboriginal trauma in Australia … and to do so at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics in front of a global audience, well then no prizes for guessing who'd be the ones wearing black "sorry" suits. As playwright Stephen Sewell once observed, they were the group who "plugged into the passionate commitment to human values that is at the heart of left politics".

The domain has always been one of the epicentres of articulated resistance

Peter Garrett

But that was yesterday right, when winter days still felt wintry and the political left could still be heard? Well not quite. Since Midnight Oil announced their Great Circle world tour in April this year, five months after Donald Trump's improbable victory in the US 2016 presidential elections, there's been no let-up to the remonstrations across the globe. In America: Inauguration Day protests, an enormous Women's March on Washington, airport protests in support of refugees; protests against American withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement; demonstrations in support of migrant children; NFL players dissenting on bended knee; impeachment marches; Resist Trump Tuesdays, Not My Presidents Day declarations, even mass objections to Trump returning to his home in New York.

And that's not the half of it. Look beyond Trump and the clamour of civil disobedience seems to be everywhere – on the streets of Barcelona, Caracas, Istanbul, Delhi, London, Jerusalem and, of course, here in Australia where rallies in support of same sex marriage, the Manus Island asylum seekers, and in defiance of Indian coal giant Adani seem to be getting larger and louder. "It seems protest is back in fashion," says Hirst. "And that gives relevance to a lot of our material. Even though, for example, US Forces was written at the time of the face off between (US President) Ronald Reagan and (Soviet leader) Yuri Andropov, it could equally be the face off now between Trump and (North Korean president) Kim Jong-un. The world is still living on the edge."

Put down that weapon or we'll all be gone
You can't hide nowhere with the torch light on
And it happens to be an emergency
Some things aren't meant to be

Peter Garrett concurs. "There is no doubt that the reaction to the band and to its music has been of a much greater order of magnitude than we expected," he says shortly after returning with the band from unveiling a protest banner on the endangered Great Barrier Reef.

"That is partly due to the titanic shifts that have taken place in the political landscape, most notably the rise of the alt-right and Trump becoming president of the US … but I think the backdrop to that is the dissatisfaction with the way in which people's lives have panned out for them. And of course many Midnight Oil songs reference these things, either directly or indirectly."

That's why Midnight Oil's final two performances in the Domain today and on Friday, November 17, are not just exercises in fabulous, life-affirming nostalgia, although they are that too. Rather, they're timely and poignant reminders that songs which were once relevant might always be relevant. Please take your pick from the treasure trove: The Dead Heart, Blue Sky Mine, Short Memory, When the Generals Talk, Truganini, Forgotten Years, Power and the Passion, Beds are Burning ...

What better place, then, to end an extraordinarily successful world tour than the Sydney Domain where Garrett and Hirst first ventured as young boys to hear political philosophers firing up the crowds from Speaker's Corner.

"It was an age of eloquence and great public speaking," says Hirst who came on many occasions with his father. "Back then there was more kudos for someone who could put forward a view in front of an irate rabble."

Garrett remembers, too, the sheer exhilaration of visiting the place with his mother and marvelling at what a focal point it was for self-expression. Then and now.

"When there's a great challenge before us, whether it's to do with the way we treat one another, whether it's to do with human rights, or the way we look after and secure our natural environment; whether it is about opposing forces of greed and the concentrations of power and the trampling over people that goes with it, the Domain has been one of the epicentres of articulated resistance to that."

Sounds like the perfect occasion for geography and history to come together. And for Midnight Oil to raise the volume once more.

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