Diesel and Dust (2008 Remaster)
“The main thing we were focused on when we went to do Diesel was to try and get the songs down in as simple and uncomplicated form as we possibly could,” Midnight Oil vocalist Peter Garrett tells Apple Music. “Particularly the ones that were influenced by our trip into the Western Desert region with the Warumpi Band on the Blackfella/Whitefella tour.” The plan worked, with the band’s sixth album yielding some of the Sydney quintet’s most enduring songs, such as “Beds Are Burning” and “The Dead Heart.” That these singles were incendiary reflections on the history of First Nations peoples and the intersection of white and black culture, as witnessed by the group on that 1986 tour of remote Aboriginal communities, made their success all the more remarkable.
Though Diesel and Dust also looked beyond Indigenous issues–songs such as “Put Down That Weapon” and “Arctic World” were informed by broader, more global political concerns—they nonetheless remain inextricably linked with the album, alongside the band’s experiences in the Western Desert region. “When writers and musicians and performers take that raw material and fashion it into a piece of music, then you get the songs we had on Diesel and Dust,” says Garrett. “That’s probably what gave the album its power.” Here the singer offers a track-by-track guide to the record, which not only represented a watershed moment in Australian musical history, but broke Midnight Oil internationally.
Beds Are Burning “We had been invited to write some songs for a film that was being made about the handing back of Uluru to the traditional owners, the First Nations people. And the genesis of two songs–‘Beds’ and ‘The Dead Heart’–came about partly as a consequence of that invitation and partly as a result of us visiting and seeing that part of the world briefly. Interestingly it became played more in other parts of the world before it was played a lot in Australia. It was a strong lyric: ‘pay the rent,’ ‘give it back.’ Nothing was being held back in what we were trying to say. And I think in Australia there was a little bit of reluctance initially to pick up on it and give the song a big hurl, and once that started happening in other places, people came back for a second bite of the cherry, and the rest is history. The rhythm of the song, the way [drummer] Rob Hirst’s playing and the way the bass is constructed, is very much a nod to what it’s like to drive across the Northern Territory and Western Australia and that remote desert country in those old four-wheel drives, which we did a lot of. But also it’s the rhythm of people who are on the move. Once that chug rhythm was in place, that’s the bedrock that the song’s built on.”
Put Down That Weapon “We were very much aware of the buildup of nuclear weapons in the world, the fact that there was still a weird Cold War underway between the Soviet Union and the United States in particular. Militarism and huge amounts of resources were going towards essentially trying to wipe people off the face of the earth, and it made no sense. It still makes no sense. It’s a massive failure on the part of leadership and people and countries. I think Jim [Moginie, guitars/keys] brought the rough idea in early and we started working on it and kept it pretty lean and simple, added bridges here and there. It’s one we ended up playing live a lot because it seemed to touch a chord with people.”
Dreamworld “The original idea came from the choruses that Rob had and this opening line [‘The Breakfast Creek hotel is up for sale’] about what was happening in Queensland at the time under a right-wing government. Not only did they destroy one of the most fantastic venues of all time, Cloudland, but historic old pubs with verandas. Plus, there was the growth of the Gold Coast almost overnight, the special deals that were being done with the white-shoe brigade. We basically had it as an attack song as to what people were doing to the country, what was being trashed, and it showed no signs of abating at the time. It’s bouncy, and you need bouncy songs on a record.”
Arctic World “It’s partly a reflection on leadership and people exercising power and how that’s a very cold and quite sterile and hard experience in human life. And it’s about the power and megalomania that sometimes goes with people who have high office, but they don’t bring forward anything that’s good. It’s all about them. But unfortunately they have the power and it affects everybody. It’s a very atmospheric song and it’s got lots of these different effects that we like playing around with that Jim or Martin [Rotsey, guitar] would throw in either from keyboards or guitar.”
Warakurna “Warakurna was probably one of the most remote places that we had played. When Jimmy brought this in with the observations that are contained within all the verses, it was such a strong and powerful song. It’s a really brilliant bit of songwriting and took us to this place immediately that we’d experienced. It’s always been one of my favorite live songs; it was a big live song when we toured. It’s almost like the centerpiece of the album in a way.”
The Dead Heart “It was written early on in the piece. I think Rob came in with choruses and all those up-front verses, which we ran down a few times, and basically got it down pretty quickly. It was such a strong lyric that Rob had brought in. And then out of that I was able to take it somewhere in the breakdown which gave vent to the frustrations that many people felt about the actions of Australian governments towards Aboriginal people. We felt this really strongly ourselves. But of course you’ve got these really strong melodic structures as well, which I suppose is one of the things that the Oils quite often do–we’ll juxtapose pretty hard content against pretty sweet melody. Next thing you know you’ve got a sugar pill happening.”
Whoah “I can’t remember ‘Whoah’ at all. All I know is that the chords were so complicated I couldn’t play it on guitar, and needless to say, I still can’t. But we liked it, and it’s got these transforming musical bits that take you somewhere else altogether, and you get to the end and there’s a massive chant and you sound like Buddhist monks that got lost in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’d be pushing it to summarize that one. It is what it is.”
Bullroarer “We got permission from the Pintupi people in the Western Desert to use the sound of a recorded bullroarer. A bullroarer’s a communicative instrument/weapon/tool, and its sound is extremely evocative and a sound that people are not altogether familiar with. But it works across the melodies of the song and the way in which the band plays and the pretty simple 4/4 time we had working to enable it to lift the song somewhere. Great bit of songwriting by Rob in bringing that idea of the sound of an ancient culture into the present.”
Sell My Soul “I can remember Warne Livesey, who produced this, sitting in the studio with Rob, Giffo [bassist Peter Gifford], and Jim and just getting that actual rhythm right, including the percussion that you can hear in it. It’s quite a different type of song for us musically, and just sitting in a percussion groove. It’s not a dance song, but ‘Sell My Soul’ is also the kind of song you do want to move to while you’re thinking about what selling your soul actually means.”
Sometimes “We wanted to write and have a song that was almost like an anthem for activism, for people who care, for people who want to go out and lay their bodies on the line for their country or for the environment, or for an issue or cause. We’re not taking any prisoners. We and many people of our generation felt like we were up against it, ’cause the forces of darkness, the forces of greed, the forces of rampant overdevelopment or weaponizing or trying to make money off other people were forces that we saw that needed to be opposed. And the only way that history could be made good and to get a better world happening was to be in there; we needed to be in the ring. And I think ‘Sometimes’ is that song.”
Gunbarrel Highway “It was a spare, one of those leftover songs. We sometimes have songs that are left over at the end of a Midnight Oil session, and for whatever reason we’re not sure if they’re finished. And somehow we overlooked this and thought, ‘Nah, it’s not quite ready.’ So it didn’t go out in America, but it was on the Australian version. Of course, people would know the Gunbarrel Highway. It’s this amazing highway that travels from the bottom of South Australia across Western Australia, and it’s so straight and there are so few trees that you can fire a gun down the highway and not hit anything from one end to the other. It’s got a nice swing to it, and lots of atmospheric imagery, so it actually become the perfect concluder to Diesel and Dust.”