The good Oils

I am standing in a dark cupboard – about the size, shape and build of a polling booth. A black curtain is pulled closed behind me. On either side of me at waist height are two plastic arms, elbows sticking out, attached to the wall.  Apparently they are meant to move and jostle me around, as if we were standing in the audience of The Antler hotel in Narrabeen in the late 1970s. But the elbows remain static in the dark, inversed Vs, props in some weird Halloween party. In front of me is a largish screen playing a video of a Midnight Oil gig, circa 1982 – and the elbows are irrelevant because I don’t need reminding what a Midnight Oil gig is like. I do remember.

The Making of Midnight Oil retrospective exhibition is in Canberra at the moment at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre and is well worth the hour or so spent down memory lane. First mounted by the Manly Art Gallery and Museum in close consultation with Oils band members, the exhibits cover the life of this iconic Australian band, from its genesis as Farm, through to the early 2000s when they wound up shop. There is plenty of video content to see, as well as clothing, tshirts, album covers, 45s (!), and a stage set up complete with drum kit. The height of Peter Garrett’s microphone stand gives an idea of the size of the man but I suspect they would have needed more room on a real stage to accommodate him, his movement and dance style, and three guitarists as well.

Midnight Oil image 3 stage

Stage set up

The first time I saw Midnight Oil was at The Ambassador nightclub in Newcastle. I was 16 (checking ID wasn’t much of a thing in 1979) in year 12, and had convinced my friend Melanie to come with me. I didn’t see much of her that night, but she knew where I was if she needed me. I didn’t move from my perch on a stool at stage right, mesmerised by the driving energy of the sound and, if I am honest, Rob Hirst’s biceps. Yes, Garrett’s presence was overpowering too, but it was the music that stayed (and stays) with me, and I straight away ordered Head Injuries from the CBS record club – a well-loved piece of vinyl that I retain today. By the time I moved to Sydney the following year (and eventually to North Bondi the following year ), they had taken off and were playing all over the place.

Midnight oil image 2 Ambassador

Poster from gigs at The Ambassador nightclub in Newcastle, complete with surfing and steel-making visual references

The exhibition is very comprehensive – it tracks through the key pinch points of their career – the Oils on Water Triple J concert on Sydney Harbour (somewhere in the garage I have a cassette tape of this, recorded from the radio), endless tours in the US, travelling and touring through the Australian outback – unheard of in the 1980s, the Sydney Olympics and the Sorry suits – politics was never far away and it’s fair to say that it was not the sole province of Garrett. He’d have been given short shrift if the agenda were only his and this comes out in lyrics written by all of the band members.

The high points of the exhibit for me are the personal items on display – the guitars and drum sticks, the Casio keyboard used for song composition, and a tattered set list left over from a gig – perhaps kept by chance but encapsulating the band’s life-time output. And the handwritten lyric sheets – complete with copyright tags – are fabulous to see.

Midnight oil image lyrics

Handwritten lyrics for Run by Night

The film of the making of the 10-1 album is also running on a loop, and features interviews with the brilliant Jim Moginie and producer Nick Launay and illustrates the technical brilliance and musical knowledge that sits behind the unique Oils sound.

The exhibit will be touring elsewhere in regional locations, which is great, but if you are in or around Canberra, I can recommend it.

The Making of Midnight Oil exhibition  is free and runs in Canberra until 14 May – http://www.tuggeranongarts.com/the-making-of-midnight-oil-2/

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