No Time for Games
Midnight Oil 1984
Written, Directed and Edited by Ray Argall
In 1984 the globe was experiencing a Cold War more intense and perhaps more terrifying than that of the Kennedy era; essentially it was a stand-off between the USSR and Reagan’s White House and their respective allies. This scenario brought about an extraordinary build-up of arms, centred on nuclear hardware, never seen before or since.
In Australia the Hawke Labour government, recently elected with a surge of nationalist feeling, was finding itself rattled in the face of a late year summer election. It was confronted with a mix of domestic, economic and global issues that saw its popularity shaken. Central to its foreign policy position was its stake in the nuclear community – in the trade that came out of mining and exporting uranium and its special relationship with the USA as an ally and partner in support of its armed forces.
On the street the fear of a nuclear holocaust was real. I remember it all very well, mostly because one of my favourite bands Midnight Oil were about to release their fifth studio album, Red Sails in the Sunset, and their singer Peter Garrett had been unexpectedly tapped by the newly formed Nuclear Disarmament Party to run for a Senate seat in the December Federal election.
While Midnight Oil went on tour playing to sell out shows in support of their LP in the evenings, during the day Garrett would be on the hustings, confronting an understandably sceptical mainstream media. This professional cohort knew little beyond the most superficial details of Midnight Oil or Garrett. Perhaps some had seen their blistering live shows, and many had heard their radio hits like Power and the Passion and US Forces. The band – drummer and founder Rob Hirst, co-founder Jim Moginie, guitar/keyboards, guitarist Martin Rotsey and bassist Pete Gifford – were, outside of the then large music and street press, dismissed as rockers who had contrived an image as supporters of ‘causes’; everything from environmental and conservation issues, to Indigenous rights (yes, even before Beds are Burning), to foreign ownership and control of Australian resources, to the over-reach of corporate media, and the unhealthy dominance of American interests in the local music biz. What was inescapable for all was the sheer popularity of the band in Australia (on that tour they played to 50,000 in Sydney alone). Most commentators were bewildered that a band could mix – broadly speaking – politics and rock and be popular.
They were confounded and maybe disarmed by the fact that the Oils’ ferocious, mouthy, extrovert frontman, was, off-stage, a rather nicely spoken, earnest, smiling and even awkward young man who seemed both utterly sincere (and surprisingly intelligent) and somewhat out of his depth in the rough and tumble of the hustings. Many of the Oils’ fans loved it (and feared that electoral success for Garrett would mean an end to their favourite band). Still, they relished the fact that an issue that had seemed the pre-occupation of student politics and on-the-fringe activists was now being readily gobbled by the media beast in large adult portions.
This, then, is the story of Ray Argall’s Midnight Oil 1984, a thoroughly compelling sort of backstage tour film cum/observational doco where social and political portraiture is of equal importance to capturing a rock show in full flight. Argall was on tour with the band in ’84 and shot 8400 metres of film on 16mm. It sat in a vault for thirty years. Eight years ago, Argall starting to work on the film. Throughout his archive stuff is judiciously cut into new interviews he made with the Oils and a few others from that eventful tour. However, this is not an act of boosterism from an enthusiastic ‘player’ in the Oils camp. Nor is it, as some critics have asserted, an ‘insider’s’ story rubber-stamped by the band. These non-criticisms have emerged, perhaps, because Argall has made no use of the ‘rock-doc’ tropes where wives (more usually ex-wives) and girlfriends talk of excess and neglect, and where ‘rock experts’ – writers, radio programmers, admirers, detractors – intone self-congratulatory fake-insights.
To the casual observer, I suppose that Argall’s editorial position – to limit his narrative to the band members, manager Gary Morris, office manager Stephanie Lewis and road manager Michael Lippold, and a few others, including Garrett’s NDP campaign manager Mark Dodshon – may seem dangerously circumspect, even evasive. But the fact is, as Lippold observes here, when it comes to scandal and bad behaviour, the Oils are a non-event. There’s no drinking, no groupies, no drugs, and none of the supposedly titillating grossness of all too human behaviour that is the unwelcome cliché of rock history. And Argall has a lot of fun with the rock myth.
The Oils’ ultra-masculine image on stage is counterpointed throughout with a great deal of green room and rehearsal footage revealing the band to be adorably goofy, rather shy and even a little naive once they hit the relax button. I especially loved the bit where the Oils land in the dressing room all sweaty and wrung-out after a show with a chorus of ‘can I get a cup of tea?’
In essence Argall views the Oils and their entourage as rather serious suburban musos doing a job they love and finding, to their utter joy and surprise, that others like it too. But even here Argall’s focus is not on the stridency of the band’s lyrics but on the unique connection with its audience, which was inspired, says Hirst, by the give-it-all-you got performances of Aussie rocker Johnny O’Keefe.
Then, as now, there was a suspicion about Midnight Oil’s muse. Argall suggests that the band’s commitment to ‘issues’ was intuitive, a nod to the interest in the social quotidian school of 60s rock (and a function of the fact that their chief songwriters Hirst and Moginie are not introspective types, but rather brainy, arty souls engaged with their culture, and seemingly too embarrassed to make music that’s lusty, longing or bawdy, the key signatures of heavy rock and a major distinction of the Oils craft …and here Argall gently corrects the still popular assumption that Midnight Oil is somehow the vision of Peter Garrett.
In a way Argall is playing with the Midnight Oil image which tends to be po-faced, stern, angry. Argall emphasises the humour, the lightness, the visceral, the extraordinary uplift, the sheer good times that was a feature of the Midnight Oil show experience. I think he wants to say that the band weren’t leading an argument but were following a feeling in the polity. It’s perhaps naïve and sentimental. But, at least for some of us, it rings true, for what’s it’s worth. If the film has an argument it’s that the Oils, in their pop art, captured the zeitgeist; when policy makers found themselves at a loss.
Technically Midnight Oil 1984 is a marvel. What at first seems a vibrant but superficial piece evolves into a subtle miniature of group biography and social reportage. For fans it’s a blast: Argall cuts between different shows within a single song, which is a brilliant way to demonstrate the band’s commitment to deliver a top act every time. The footage throughout offers telling asides and details (the lucid non-verbal communication between band members says more here about trust, intuition, and musical ability than any interview.) Here once and for all is a movie that captures the sound of an Oils show.
So I’m not convinced that this is ‘clubby’ fans film, though non-fans may well be bored with the band. Perhaps the best thing about Ray Argall’s fine movie is the way it captures the feelings of this recent past, as opposed to a close analysis of facts and abstractions, although when he feels it necessary these are judiciously, carefully, and intelligently dished; Argall is highly skilled at making a point strongly, without seeming to wish to try.
A review by Peter Galvin*
*Since I loathe the star rating system of recommending a film I won’t use it here.
Peter Galvin is a writer and filmmaker. He is completing a book about the making of Wake in Fright(1971), A Long Way from Anywhere and right now holds the role of In-house Filmmaker at The Sydney Film Studio, the commercial subsidiary operated by Sydney Film School.