When it came to the career of Midnight Oil, American music fans were, in a way, lucky. The first album by this Australian rock band to get any kind of promotional push in the U.S. by Columbia Records was 1982’s 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. By that point the quintet had already moved beyond the blues-inflected pub rock sound of their early albums into more adventurous sonic territory, abetted by the work of producer Nick Launay. As well, the various songwriters in the group (primarily drummer Rob Hirst, but with great contributions from guitarist Jim Moginie and vocalist Peter Garrett) had sharpened their lyrical gaze on political tumult and the distressing rise of nuclear proliferation around the globe. 10, 9, 8… was Midnight Oil fully formed.
What came before and after that landmark album is just as important to the story of the band. The commercial and creative heights they reached with 1987’s Diesel and Dust and its hit single “Beds Are Burning,” and the 1990 follow up Blue Sky Mining, as well as the diminishing commercial returns that came with each subsequent album. There’s also the three albums leading up to 10, 9, 8… with the expected amount of creative growing pains that lessened with each one. And of course the Oils’ reputation as one of best live bands around; a taut, sweaty ensemble led by the stiff-limbed Garrett and his roaring expressive vocals.
That’s what makes the two new boxed sets Full Tank and Overflow Tank essential listening for anyone looking to truly understand the band and its evolution. The former pulls together their previously issued studio work—11 studio albums and two EPs—along with a DVD of all their promotional videos. The latter is the deep dive: a full eight DVDs of documentaries and filmed concerts alongside four CDs with demos, b-sides and more live recordings. For the casual listener, it’s likely far too overwhelming a prospect to expect to listen and watch this all in a timely fashion. One of these live DVDs alone is a commitment considering how exhausting it is watching Midnight Oil tear through a set. Eight of them? That’s living dangerously.
What these sets provide is a firmer understanding of how much of an influence the music of the day was having on the band. On their 1978 self-titled album, the Oils had yet to fully shake off the prog influences that marked their early recordings, but with the dusty fingerprints of Thin Lizzy and Led Zeppelin found elsewhere (Garrett does his best Robert Plant on “Dust” and comes surprisingly close to the genuine article). The punk and art rock bands of their home country, and the sounds that they would absorb on their European tours start to creep into the mix on 1981’s Place Without A Postcard but more fully flower—again, with the help of Launay—on 10, 9, 8… and Red Sails In The Sunset.
The much stranger turns happen in the years following Blue Sky Mining. There’s a decidedly Madchester flavor evident on Earth and Sun and Moon from 1993, and a hugely misguided attempt at Rage Against The Machine-like heavy rock on 1998’s Redneck Wonderland. The most pleasant surprise of the studio work is sorely overlooked 1996 album Breathe. Recorded with Malcolm Burn, the record finds the Oils dipping into the deep well of American roots music, including appearances from Emmylou Harris and guitarist Buddy Miller. There’s still sinew and grit to the material, but it’s performed with a lot more nuance and restraint.
While the commercial prospects for Overflow Tank are slim, the benefit of this collection is as a reminder of Midnight Oil’s strong political convictions and commitment to Australian causes. Included in this set are several live shows the group did for 2JJJ, the radio station that supported and championed the band from the jump. And there’s the inclusion of the powerful Black Rain Falls film, which captured the Oils performing on a flatbed truck in front of Exxon’s New York offices in protest of the company’s response to the wreck of the Exxon Valdez in 1989.
But if you only spend time with one segment of Overflow, it should be Blackfella/Whitefella, the documentary that follows the group as they tour the Aboriginal Outback to meet with local tribes and more fully understand their harsh treatment at the hands of white Australians. The impact that that experience has on the men is visible, and the songs that they wrote afterward for Diesel & Dust were direct, heartfelt and unforgettable.
The truth is that Midnight Oil is long overdue for a cultural reassessment and resurgence here in the U.S. Not much gets heard from these gents outside of a few songs in the rotation on retro radio stations like SiriusXM’s 1st Wave. For too long, the same fate has befallen this band as it has their countrymen like The Go-Betweens and The Saints, other groups whose vast catalogs only receive surface scratches from music fans here. With these new boxed sets and the current North American tour underway, there’s a golden opportunity to give this band some overdue respect. There’s so much more power and passion to be found beyond the big hit.