Politics in music is a tricky business. If it’s so pointed and obvious, it can often make the politics, and the music, insufferable, no matter how much you might agree. The results are a compromised song. On the other hand, if you’re subtle and thoughtful, your message sometimes gets lost. Just ask the Boss about “Born in the U.S.A.” Similarly ask Midnight Oil about “Beds are Burning.” A top ten hit here in the States and part of an album that went platinum, it’s possibly the only song that successful that was nothing more than a rather conscience-bruising demand for aboriginal/native land rights. While Midnight Oil was writing about Australia, the parallels are obvious for America. And yet it was their biggest success in the States up until that point. Score one for subversive politics.
Diesel and Dust is as political and, in some ways, as radical as contemporary political albums like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Doubt me? This is the same band that, six years later, would have another minor radio hit with a song that had the line: “I see the Union Jack in flames / let it burn!” Score one for obvious politics.
Midnight Oil had a lyrical agenda from day one, but their music had two problems when it came to breaking out of Australia. At this point, they’d been releasing records since 1978 with a good amount of success back home. But first, their populist tendencies had defeated attempts at American marketing. The politics had been either too regional (who in the States even knew who Jimmy Sharman was?) or too seering. The results were songs that were powerhouse political rants, but way too confrontational for radio play. Second, the production just wasn’t quite up to snuff. They were making good, interesting albums. But Diesel and Dust is their first moment in the (American) sun for a reason.
You couldn’t have asked for a better single (and lead album track) than “Beds are Burning.” Catchy, anthemic and, yes, dancey, it’s immediately ingratiating. “The time has come / to say fair’s fair / to pay the rent / to pay our share…it belongs to them / we’re gonna give it back.” Did most people know exactly what they were singing? Probably not, but it’s an incredibly non-mainstream political idea to open an album with – and it only continues from there. Nuclear disarmament (“Put Down that Weapon,” “Arctic World”), general rallies/spiteful opposition (“Dream World,” “Sell My Soul”) and more indigenous issues (“Warakurna,” “The Dead Heart”) populate the album.
Name dropping time – but for a purpose. When Patterson Hood got into my car a few weeks ago during the course of our interview, he had to move aside my copy of Diesel and Dust to sit down and he immediately began to praise the record. His comment was that, as good as each track is, it just seems to get topped by the ones following it – clear to the end. And I can’t disagree with him. By the time you reach the end, and the triumphant, bolstering and jagged “Sometimes,” an album that has spent the last 40 minutes tackling dead serious issue after dead serious issue leaves you feeling renewed, emboldened and hopeful.
Diesel and Dust would be the beginning of a run of arguably their three best albums, each as political as the last. In 1990 they would play a guerrilla gig on a flatbed trailer outside Exxon’s headquarters in New York in protest of the company’s handling of the Valdez oil spill – just another day at the office for one of the world’s most outspoken and political bands. – j. neas
MP3: Midnight Oil :: Beds Are Burning
MP3: Midnight Oil :: Dream World
MP3: Midnight Oil :: Sell My Soul (Live-NYC 1993)
Amazon: Midnight Oil – Diesel and Dust