In the U.S., Midnight Oil are probably best known for their single "Beds are Burning." The video helped define late-'80s MTV by showing the group (most notably tall, gangly, bald singer Peter Garrett) dancing amid native tribespeople in the desert, while the lyric forcefully argued that their ancestral lands should be given back to them.
The rockers scored more hits with tracks like "The Dead Heart," "Blue Sky Mine," "Forgotten Years," and "King of the Mountain," and remained dedicated to producing material that dealt with political, socioeconomic, human-rights, and environmental issues, often related to their Australian country of origin and its indigenious peoples. If any band could be said to continue the legacy of the Clash, the Oils would be a quite right candidate.
But the band produced a lot more incredible material during their 1976-2002 lifespan, and hopes are that the brand-new 2-CD/36-track anthology, Essential Oils will introduce the band to new listeners as well as bring back some rare material for the core fans.
"It was a perfect opportunity for us to chronologically assemble for the first time and remaster our strongest tracks," says founding member and drummer Rob Hirst via email. "And the so-called 'political' nature of the band was simply an accurate reflection of the preoccupations and passions of the band members and manager."
That the band remained fiercely Australian in outlook and in choice of subject matter is point of pride with Hirst.
"We've always felt so lucky to be Australian, and wanted out birthplace to feature strongly in our music," he offers. "We felt that our country's unique stories, history, landscapes, and colors should inform our work. After all, our culture is a rich and relatively untapped resource -- perfect songwriting material."
In fact, the Oils might still be burning today were it not for Garrett's decision to affect change on a different level and plunge into his country's politics, first as the official government's Protector of Aborigines in Darwin and then a string of other posts. His currently serves as the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth.
"The band fully expected Pete to make the move into party politics," Hirst says. "It's something that had been on the unspoken agenda for a long time."
And while the band has reunited twice since 2002 for two one-off large-scale benefit concerts, Hirst says there are no plans to do so more permanently.
The drummer currently plays and records with the Breaks, a surf/space/sci-fi instrumental band consisting of former members of Midnight Oil, the Violent Femmes, and Hunter and Collectors. Their most recent CD is Space Farm.
"Surf music has always been in our blood," he explains. "To play it is a natural urge, as we've all grown up close to the coast and some of the world's best beaches."
The Breaks have just completed an Australian tour both as a headlining act and as a backing band to the born-again-musically Rodriguez, the subject of Searching for Sugar Man, which recently won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Still, most casual listeners in the U.S. will mentally unspool the "Beds are Burning" video upon hearing the band's name. Hirst says that the clip is actually a combination from two entirely different shoots.
"The first half was in the Australian desert during our Blackfella/Whitefella tour with the Warumpi Band - hence the riverbed, the four-wheel drive, and the wide landscape sunset shots," he recalls. "The second session was in Sydney with [tribal] elders and other members of the Redfern's Aboriginal community. This was the dancing and the group shots."
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Essential Oils is available from finer music retailers today.