Pub Sweat And Post-Punk Stomp: Midnight Oil’s Essential Oils

Midnight Oil
Essential Oils
Columbia/Legacy

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Although they were led by one of the most imposing figures in rock and roll history—during a performance he once reached down and lifted an offending fan in mid-air with one arm—over the course of their career Midnight Oil were as much heart as they were muscle.  Firebrands of ecological and social justice, the Australian band took on everything from environmental disasters to cultural neglect and somehow managed, in the process, to never sound preachy or pedantic.

Every song Midnight Oil recorded was fueled by a surge of power and velocity and whether the subject matter was about the plight of the Aboriginal citizenry, mining disasters or unwelcome military intervention in foreign affairs, it became immediately apparent that this was not a band who were ever going to write a song that would be played at your Senior Prom—this was an outfit who were playing fight songs for people who were up for the fight.

Singer Peter Garrett was a twitching mass of a man who waved his powerful arms convulsively around like chopper blades, his body a heaving, propulsive unit of coiled energy that, once loosened, sounded like a bolt of lightning cracking the sky in half.  His moves were feral and uninhibited and he moved across the stage with possession and sheer physical electricity.

Garrett may have been the public brand—his unmistakable bald head, spasmodic dancing and quivering open palm outstretched to the heavens were the recognizable iconography of The ‘Oils—but the band’s secret weapon (and in many ways its principal songwriter) was drummer Rob Hirst, who pounded away with athleticism, drive and rhythm that kept every number menacingly afloat.  Meanwhile, the duel guitar attack of Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey added a rolling texture to the ‘Oils work, making numbers like “Forgotten Years” and “Hercules” instant classics.

Early on, Midnight Oil tore out of the gates with an almost feral mixture of pub sweat and post-punk stomp. Their early albums like Place Without A Postcard (1981) or Red Sails In The Sunset (1984) were twitchy blasts of raw force and primal energy, while their sonic evolution on later albums like Diesel and Dust (1987) and Blue Sky Mining (1990), found the band flexing more melodic muscle than ever on tracks like “The Dead Heart” and “Forgotten Years.”

A 2-CD collection of 36 tracks, Essential Oils serves as a great primer for new fans and a reminder for longtime followers of what a vital force this band was. Collections like these can sometimes feel uneven or patchy, but in the case of Midnight Oil, it tells the full story in what amounts to a rather perfect sonic historical narrative.  The first disc mines albums ilke 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 and Red Sails In The Sunset with numbers like “Kosciusko” and “Power and the Passion” and it even dips into the Bird Noises EP, offering the splendid surf-tinged insturmental “Wedding Cake Island.”  The band were raw and their hooks were rough-hewn and sinewy, making numbers like “Back On The Borderline” or “Don’t Wanna Be The One” parcticluarly memorable.

Disc Two covers Diesel and Dust all the way to the end of the band’s career.  “Dreamworld” and “Beds Are Burning” are as monstrously perfect as ever and Blue Sky Mining’s inclusions are equally as thrilling.  “Blue Sky Mine” is a punchy classic about sacrificing one’s body for their family, while “One Country” starts as a spare number about personal activism that turns thrillingly into a rousing acoustic battlemarch. The massively underrated Earth And Sun And Moon (1993) is finely represented with the winning jangle of “In The Valley” and the swaggering sing-a-long of “My Country.” And selections from the band’s last three studio albums, which are all fine efforts, are also in attendance, namely the marvelous “Surf’s Up Tonight,” which fires away with a subdued pipeline prowl.

There’s next to nothing here that represents a comprehensive scraping of the vaults, but that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.  That the band has no b-sides lurking about reinforces that they were an outfit that left it all out there for their fans.