It's hard to remember what a breath of fresh air the music of Midnight Oil seemed like on the American Top 40 back in 1987, when the song "Beds are Burning" suddenly was everywhere. A fiery call to arms, with that catchy chorus "How can we dance when our earth is turning / How do we sleep when our beds are burning?" It had the drive of punk, the universality of pop, and a slithery exotic feel that stood out from the pack. It sure didn't sound like George Michael, you know?
With a blast of Australian heat and passion so intensely political that they made U2 look like amateurs, Midnight Oil tackled the environment, indigenous rights, and other causes with their ferocious anthems. To a world that associated Australia with Men at Work and koalas, it was a revelation. Their 1987 disc Diesel and Dust remains a classic, punk, power pop mixed with Australian flavours, didgeridoo mashed with electric guitar. It's an antipodean answer to U2's The Joshua Tree.
I can't quite believe it's been 21 years since Diesel and Dust broke Midnight Oil to the world. A massive global hit, it's also an album that sounds nearly as fresh as it did the day it came out. A new Sony Legacy Edition CD/DVD set remasters the album and adds a bonus song, and a fascinating documentary about the band's tour of the Aboriginal Outback.
Front man Peter Garrett, over 6 feet tall and bald as Australia's monolith rock Uluru, was a stunning stage presence. I saw the Oils live back in the late 1980s, and they were a dynamo – I remember thinking at the time that Garrett's herky-jerky dancing style was like watching a man who'd just been smacked in the spine by a sledgehammer. Garrett's frantic energy leapt off the stage.
The major bonus of this reissue is the DVD Blackfella/Whitefella, which follows Midnight Oil's 1986 tour of remote aboriginal settlements with the great Warumpi Band. This is an astounding historical document, packed with great Oils performances in juke joints, shanty towns, and the outdoors. The film is light on narration, heavy on music and a look at aboriginal lives. The hinterlands tour showed the Australia that tourists rarely see, the harsh conditions many Aborigines live in.