Many bands would make a great noise about passing a momentous milestone like their 20th Anniversary. There'd be TV specials, special video compilations, 3 CD boxed sets, brass plaques, tickertape parades, free concerts in the park, that kind of thing. But Midnight Oil -- the band that has made a career out of making noise about so many important things and has so much to show for 20 incredible years -- chose to let the occasion pass without particular fanfare.
So, if Midnight Oil are the reluctant birthday boys, let us now be the insistent revelers who force them to at least participate in the celebrations, acknowledge the speeches and blow out a few candles. Here is a band, after all, who have defied all musical fashions to create ten extraordinary albums (and two EP's) with combined international record sales of more than 12 million units. A band that has railed against injustice, apathy, inequality and the lurking evil forces of cynicism and conservatism with sound, fury and righteous indignation. A band that has written more wonderful songs, about more things that count, than virtually any band in the history of music.
So anyway, while we were talking, they turned 21. And now they've released their very first Greatest Hits-type compilation. Inexplicably, it's called 20, 000 Watt RSL -- The Midnight Oil Collection.
The facts: 1976 is the year that the historians generally nominate for the commencement of the Midnight Oil juggernaut, because that was the year that guitarist Martin Rotsey joined forces with three other lifetime members: Jim Moginie, Rob Hirst and Peter Garrett. The band, called Farm, had existed in various forms since 1971 - but in '76 they changed their name to Midnight Oil. Their first, self-titled album (nicknamed "The Blue Meanie" by old fans and friends) came out in 1978, to be followed in '79 by another release, Head Injuries (October, 1979). Both albums went some way towards capturing the awesome crushing force of the band's live work, although anyone who was around then will tell you that they didn't quite succeed.
1980 saw a lineup change (original bassplayer Andrew James being replaced by Peter Gifford) and an LP called Bird Noises (November 1980). In 1981 the band traveled to London to record with legendary British producer Glyn Johns (The Who, Rolling Stones) and returned with an album called Place Without a Postcard (November, 1981). With powerful songs like "Armistice Day" and "Don't Wanna Be the One," Postcard is often cited as Midnight Oil's first turning point; the moment where the band mastered the inherent challenges of studio recording and began to write songs that captured not just the energy and anger of their live show, but also the intelligence and political viewpoint of the band.
1982 saw a return to London to record - only this time they made a critical decision to work with a young hotshot by the name of Nick Launay. Launay's yearning for weird, digital sounds and studio experimentalism meshed perfectly with the band's emerging musicianship and songwriting prowess. Still one of the most incredible albums recorded by any band, anywhere, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 (November, 1982) turned Midnight Oil into superstars in their homeland. Songs like "Power and the Passion," "US Forces," and "Short Memory" became instant classics.
1984 saw the release of another album, again produced by Nick Launay, but this time recorded in Japan. The work of a group in a state of cultural displacement, intense personal crisis (and perhaps not so coincidentally, great creativity), Red Sails in the Sunset (October, 1984) spawned some wonderful tracks, including "Kosciusko" and "Best of Both Worlds." The following year, after a tumultuous period in history both for Australia and the Oils that saw Peter Garret running for election on a Nuclear Disarmament ticket, the band spat out a killer EP called Species Deceases (December, 1985) that included one of their most memorable anthems, "Hercules."
What happened next was a revelation -- a watershed event in the history of Midnight Oil. In 1986 the band undertook a tour of remote outback settlements with Aboriginal rockers The Warumpi Band. The tour -- which ultimately became the subject of both a book and a TV documentary -- exposed the group to experiences, both positive and negative, that left a profound impact. The resulting album, Diesel and Dust (August, 1987) -- recorded with British producer Warne Livesy -- reflected these experiences in extraordinary songs like "Beds Are Burning," "Dead Heart," and "Dreamworld."
With Diesel and Dust clocking up sales in excess of five million, the band was now a major commercial success story all over the world -- and following a bout of international touring -- they returned to the studio with the same producer to make another incredible album, Blue Sky Mining (March, 1990). Tracks like "One Country," "Blue Sky Mine," and "Forgotten Years" revealed the band taking on new international perspectives whilst losing none of their passion, commitment or songwriting ability. The album was also the first to feature the talents of Midnight Oil's third bass player, the effervescent Bones Hillman.
The pace of releases slowed for Midnight Oil in the 90s - entirely understandable given the energy the band had put into touring and recording over the preceding 15 years. In 1992 The Oils released a blistering live set, Scream In Blue (Live) (May, 1992), which was followed in 1993 by an album that reflected a refreshingly human side of the band, Earth, Sun and Moon (February, 1993). Recorded partly live with analog instruments in a decidedly low-tech studio, Earth, Sun and Moon set a new musical course for the Oils which was continued with their 10th album, Breathe (October, 1996).
Which brings us to the present. 20, 000 Watt RSL -- The Midnight Oil Collection features sixteen of the best songs from these ten brilliant albums, plus two new songs ("What Goes On" and "White Skin Black Heart") that have emerged from Midnight Oil's most recent recording sessions. It would be silly to call 20, 000 Watt RSL -- The Midnight Oil Collection a "Greatest Hits" album, because Midnight Oil have never been concerned with hits, great or otherwise.
The world of hits, misses, radio playlists and platinum discs is a long way from the place from which Midnight Oil's music emanates. It has no borders, this place. It adheres to no laws. It's a place where the things that matter are the emotion, the expression, the substance and the performance. The moment and the meaning, the power and the passion.
Midnight Oil is like a river and continues to flow. Over milestones and everything else.