Rob Hirst reveals the impact touring to remote Aboriginal settlements with Warumpi Band had on the music and lives of Midnight Oil.PT6M37S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-28mnc 620 349 November 1, 2012
It's 30 years since Midnight Oil's Australian breakthrough album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and 25 years since their international breakthrough, Diesel and Dust. And although the band broke up more than a decade ago, the Oils remain one of the most important and popular bands from the golden age of Australian music.
Ahead of today's release of a double-disc retrospective, we asked the band's founding member, songwriter and drummer, Rob Hirst, to pull out some of their most memorable moments.
These are his stories. They are probably true.
Midnight Oil's Rob Hirst.
Before Midnight Oil there was Farm, which had future Oils members Jim Moginie, Andrew “Bear” James, Peter Garrett, Hirst and a series of keyboard players. Formed while Moginie and Hirst were still at high school and Garrett was just starting his law degree in Canberra, Farm was a start.
“I don't know if they were good but they were ambitious," Hirst says. "And steeped in prog.” But even prog had its limits. One temporary player, Peter Watson, "immediately alienated everybody else by unbuttoning his shirt to expose his hairy chest and would shake his mane as he played Rick Wakeman-esque keyboards," Hirst recalls. “This in front of an AC/DC and Finch crowd, which went down very poorly.”
It was a prog step too far?
“It's one thing to be prog, it's another thing to be a wanker. Sorry Pete."
But Watson left his mark indelibly as, when the band met to decide on a better name in 1976, it was his slip of paper carrying the words Midnight Oil that was pulled from the hat.
This while several of them were living in "a Young Ones-esque” house at 77 Albert Avenue, Chatswood, having the full Australian experience in the shade of a Hill's Hoist.
“We had a frangipani, a six-foot-high fence, the asbestos garage, a lawn that was always three-foot high, Nigel's bike in bits and pieces in the long grass. And Jim and I sat on the back step and wrote Surfing With A Spoon, Dust and Run By Night.”
'RIGHT, LET'S GET THE STRIPPERS BACK ON'
It's 1980, by which time Midnight Oil had "absorbed the energy of Radio Birdman, the Saints, the Pistols, the Clash and the Damned” and were in their office on Kangaroo Street, Manly.
“It was like this arrow came through the window with a torn note on the end,” Hirst says, imitating the twang and thwack of an arrow hitting the wall. “And it said [affecting a gruff and no-nonsense voice] 'You will be appearing at the annual Broadford Hells Angels concert, signed Ball Bearing'. Mr Bearing as we called him.”
They drove down to country Victoria in a couple of Commodores. “We came over the hill and it was like the final scene in Apocalypse Now: fires burning, bodies hanging from trees, and women, I think they were women, with chains crossing over their shoulders. It looked like hell on earth, with the crowd we were playing to behind wire mesh.”
They shared a "dressing room" with a couple of the strippers who performed between the bands and “Mr Bearing comes in, produces this dagger and offers us coke [to be snorted off the blade]”, which was politely declined. He tells them to play until he indicates time's up by a raised middle finger so now, thoroughly spooked, they play every song as fast as possible with Hirst checking over his shoulder at the end of every song for Mr Bearing's finger.
After 40 minutes, and possibly 20 songs, the finger was raised and they run straight from the stage into the cars. "As we fishtailed out of there we could hear Mr Bearing on the PA saying 'Reckon we got good value out of Midnight Oil? Right, let's get the strippers back on.' ”
HOW DO WE SING WHEN OUR STAGE IS BURNING
In 1983 the band is invited to perform on the late night TV show Thicke of the Night, hosted by the Canadian actor and comedian Alan Thicke.
"We didn't know what it was and we were kind of pissed off to be on the show for reasons I can't remember, and this was before our breakout success in America when we were doing mini tours, but they said we could play live three songs.”
The trouble began when Hirst, a fan of the Who's madman Keith Moon, remembered an infamous Who television appearance where the drum kit was meant to explode but Moon talked a stagehand into dramatically increasing the explosives. The resulting explosion destroyed the drum kit, sent a cymbal into Roger Daltrey's arm and damaged Pete Townshend's hearing permanently.
"I remember thinking, we've got to make some kind of beau geste [grand gesture] on the Alan Thicke show, something that people will notice. We sent Gary [Morris, manager] out to suggest, for Read About It, why don't we perform on a whole stage of ripped up newspapers as a kind of raised middle finger to the quality of news in general. As you do. They liked that but what they didn't know was the liet motif behind, that was that we would then set fire to the scrunched up newspapers, which Pete duly did.
"He produced a match and the fire started burning quite vigorously by the time we finished the song.
"The stagehands all rushed out with fire extinguishers and the audience were absolutely aghast that they were going to be incinerated. We retreated in triumph to the back but they were not amused at all. No sense of humour."
You'll never work in this town again etc? Actually, they did, but Thicke of The Night was cancelled soon after.
To record the 1984 album Red Sails In the Sunset, the band and producer Nick Launay, who had produced 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 in London, moved to Tokyo precisely because "it was like landing on another cultural planet ... We realised that the environment you recorded in was almost as important as the songs you had."
They were the first "Western" band to record a full album in this studio and their every move was noted and logged by the studio engineers, with a view to replicating these new and sometimes bizarre Launay techniques in the future.
Local brass band and string sections were hired but initially the strings were too formal and polite, too good in effect. "We got some of the finest sake, which was warmed up to just the right temperature, and that was administered to all those musicians until they started swaying. And then we got the take that we wanted."
For one song they recorded the drums in the toilets, something which had never been done before and horrified the studio manager. "I'm in the toilet, all miked up, and studio people are coming and going, using the urinals and looking at me strangely. We start this track and it's obviously going to be the one because it's a killer take, I'm playing furiously when [the studio manager] comes bursting into the studio waving his arms for me to stop. But I couldn't, I had to finish even though it was so disrespectful.
“We found out later that an elderly national treasure and his wife, a koto musician, were recording on the ground floor when down the stairwell came this [imitates a cacophonous drum sound] and they were in the middle of a silent piece, plucking these strings, and they had to abandon the take because of this racket.”
TRAGEDY IN RIO
"It's one of those tragedies that no band hopes will ever happen to them,” says Hirst of a show they performed at Rio de Janeiro's Macarana stadium in 1993, three days after massive storms had caused landslides and damage across the city.
"The whole basement of the [stadium] has completely filled up with dirty water but in typical Brazilian fashion, that wasn't enough to cancel the gig. It just meant that they put these barriers around the stairs leading down to the basement, the kind of flimsy barrier you might put around a hole in the road to stop people falling into it.
“They tried to pump as much water out but there were some parts where they couldn't so they covered up this area with chipboard, which as you know when it gets wet collapses. Thousands and thousands of people are packed together to see Midnight Oil and what exactly happened will always remain a mystery but essentially two young guys in their late teens, cousins, were crushed together. And one of them, in order to get somewhere else, jumped over one of these barriers while the band was still playing and went straight through the wet chipboard and was electrocuted immediately.
"The reason the pump hadn't worked to get the water out of the basement was there were live wires underneath. His cousin saw what had happened, went after him and was also electrocuted, ending up in the muddy water below."
The memory still haunts and the deaths had a long-lasting effect. "It certainly meant that Pete would regularly stop the show when he saw people being crushed or whatever. And it might happen multiple times. In the back of our minds we would always go back to Rio."
The 1996 album Breathe was recorded half in Sydney and half in New Orleans, where the producer Malcolm Burns had worked regularly with Daniel Lanois. Burns was keen to show the band a full-on, high gospel church service so one Sunday they piled into a couple of cars and headed off to church. Unfortunately, the second car with Hirst in it got separated.
"We took off roughly in the same direction but not only did we get lost, we found ourselves – in a Tom Wolfe moment – in a really bad area of New Orleans, where there was a protest march happening. We weren't sure what the march was about but we were certainly the only gringos there. We were wedged in, our car – an old Volvo station wagon – wedged in by these very irate marchers.
“We were getting pretty anxious and then lo and behold, these good Samaritans, two elderly women, amazingly dressed for church as women in the south do, wound down their window and said 'you look lost!' and we said, yeah, we are. 'Where you going?' We named the church and they said 'oh, you are totally in the wrong area, follow us.' We followed them through these extraordinary neighbourhoods, people glaring at us, but we were with 'friends' so it was OK.”
The one thing to note about this? Midnight Oil will join any protest, even when they don't know what they're protesting about.
Essential Oils is out Friday.