35 Years Later: Revisiting Midnight Oil’s Anthemic ‘Diesel and Dust’ Album

It is an ever-so-fitting sign of circular closure that Midnight Oil’s final world concert tour concludes right around the three-and-a-half-decade milestone of Diesel and Dust (released 8/2/87). With the exception of the follow-up, Blue Sky Mining, and their possible final record, 2022’s Resist, this veteran band from Down Under has never made rock and roll more anthemic over the course of its extensive discography.

The group became skilled recording artists in the course of a fifty-some year career in which this release was their crowning achievement ( to that point, as they would continue for eight more albums before disbanding in 2002, then regrouping twice, first in 2016, then six years later for the latest campaign). Collaborating with kindred spirit producer Warne Livesy, this stalwart band accurately captures dense layers of voices and instruments that reflect the complexity of their perception.

As Peter Garrett so precisely enunciates the words to “Dreamworld,” for instance, his vocal delivery mirrors sleek musicianship in motion through a tightly-knit arrangement. Rob Hirst’s drums and Peter Gifford’s bass churn out the bedrock rhythm, while the (acoustic and electric) guitars of Martin Rotsey and Jim Moginie mesh in similar piston-like action. The Oils’ musicianship is a unity of mind and purpose in line with the socio-political activism they espouse.

The pulsing, propulsive likes of “Bullroarer” too are sinewy and tough in both music and lyrics. Words that at first seem overly provincial ultimately become universal with repeated listening and the fact that neither the performance nor the recording undercuts (much less even stifles) the message is a tribute to the multiple skills of a unit that knows better than to simply offer lip service. The deceptively conventional structure of such songs, including the most popular likes of “Beds Are Burning,” deliver like great oration, the repeated refrain heightening the clarity of the observations in the verses (not to mention lending itself to singalongs for marching in the streets to the martial rhythms).

Dynamics come further into play with the subdued use of trumpet on “The Dead Heart.” With impeccable musical logic, this cut, in turn, segues into the ghostly and portentous orchestration of “Whoah.” “Sometimes” may be about resistance, but “Warakurna” speaks to taking a stance in a larger community, all of which attitudes resound sonically as well as philosophically, thanks to the original clarity of Warne Livesy’s production. The subsequent remastering by Bob Ludwig for the 2008 reissue doesn’t add much audio punch, but the CD in the package does feature a number left off the original album release, “Gunbarrel Highway” (some of its lyrics were deemed too offensive at the time).

In line with the overall video/audio/touring project that beat Diesel And Dust, Midnight Oil’s music is only the means to an end. Yet the fact the recording stands successfully on its own terms, while also resounding with the public, offers tangible proof pragmatic activism can become as creatively and commercially valid as it is politically persuasive.

As if to prove this effort was no fluke–and also reaffirm the thorough maturity this sixth album evinced, The Oils followed it with the equally pointed and articulate seventh LP three years later: in so doing, the ensemble consolidated their stylistic approach–theirs is as pure a rock and roll as anything aside vintage Who–while also sharply tempering its ability to infer specific socio-political topics, i.e., aboriginal rights and climate change, with overarching pertinence.

Along with the most recent effort, both these vintage records remain pertinent to the current state of affairs around the globe. In addition to ongoing relevance to the group’s native Australia, the latest Midnight Oil remains particularly applicable to an America whose democracy, like its culture and ecology, remains perilously close to shambles just past the mid-point of 2022. It’s a measure of how high the group regards Diesel And Dust that they deemed it worthy of the aforementioned expansive re-release including a DVD documentary of their tour through the outback.

Rousing and provocative as ever on their farewell performances and recording, the Oils’ staunch multi-faceted viewpoint remains a resonant echo of this now thirty-five-year-old music.

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