Review: Midnight Oil 1984

Resurrected footage traces Peter Garrett’s duelling ambitions as rock frontman and one-day political frontbencher. Electric.

We all know reality can be a bit of a come down after the heady heights of idealistic vision. It’s probably fair to say Peter Garret the former government frontbencher doesn’t quite match up to the impassioned rock star and frontman of Midnight Oil who once took a tilt at the senate on the Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP) ticket.

Documentary-maker Ray Argall, who directed their 1982 concert film Saturday Night at the Capitol as well as the videos for ‘Read About It’ and ‘The Power and the Passion’, was there to chronicle that first political foray in 1984 over a three-month period of unfettered access in what would one day become Midnight Oil 1984.

A year prophesised as dystopian by George Orwell, the far-sighted novelist wasn’t too far off the mark given the widespread unease at the time that atomic holocaust may well be awaiting humanity. Indeed, the title track of the band’s chart-topping fifth album Red Sails in the Sunset was recorded in Tokyo after the band met with survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In an unusual bit of timing, the record’s national tour clashed with Garrett’s fledgling political ambitions, creating a considerable amount of unrest that isn’t quite as thoroughly probed as it probably should be here, particularly in how that affected the other band members. Though that may well be because they all seem far too polite to war with each other. Still, it’s pretty clear they were happy when the camping ultimately crashed.

It’s this political focus that really makes Argall’s insights stand out from your average music doco, getting to the heart of what was an activist band, unafraid to support their beliefs on everything from nuclear deterrent to indigenous rights on stage. It’s certainly funny to see Garret publicly sparing with former PM Bob Hawke as he spruiks his camping during the day before gigging at night, particularly given how that story ultimately wound up.

His would-be pollie ambitions also meant an insane level of security at their gigs in a time when that wasn’t really a major thing, prompting one former band roadie to note, with wry humour, that the crew weren’t exactly fans of the behind the scenes searches.

A rousing insight, Argalls’s project initially stalled because the famously image-conscious band didn’t think his live recordings were up to scratch. Improvements in digital technology have resurrected it all these many years later, conveniently in time for the band coming back together too. The archival footage sounds magnificent to my ear, anyway, and you’d have to have a cold heart not to get a thrill hearing an audience of thousands singing ‘Beds are Burning’ back at them by the doco’s close.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords