It was 1987, and the world of popular rock music veered away from its usual course to take a very strange detour. Suddenly, everywhere at once, as if by mass mind-control, everybody and their mother and their mother's canary was playing Midnight Oil's "Beds Are Burning," without even caring much about the message or the cause or the singer.
Except if you caught their act on MTV. Then you were treated to Peter Garrett, a seven-foot-tall tree of a man with a huge, shaved head and rows of raptor-like sharp teeth, who gave you every impression that he would bite your head off and chew it like a hunk of Bubblicious if you didn't agree with his song. His voice was that of a carnivorous predator, too. And he's especially scary when singing about disturbing images like trying to sleep in a burning bed.
As if that weren't distinguishing enough, it turns out that the band was originally named "Farm," and had Peter Garrett taking time out from studying for his law degree at the Australian National University of Canberra to answer an ad in the paper for a lead singer. When Garrett joined, they picked the new name for the band simply by drawing names out of a hat.
The place of the song is kind of hard to pinpoint exactly, since it is about the plight of an Australian Aboriginal group, the Pintupi, which has been displaced. So, they took up a kind of nomadic existence before resettling in the Kintore ("Kintore East" in the lyrics) community, in the picturesque Kintore Mountain Ranges. But their original homeland is in the area to the west of Lake MacDonald and Lake Mackay, in Western Australia.
The political message was carried all the way to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where the band performed "Beds Are Burning" live, to a crowd of thousands, while dressed in black and wearing T-shirts with the word "sorry" printed on them, to do the apologizing to the Aborigines when their government would not.
Together with other hit singles such as "Blue Sky Mine," about the rights of mine workers who were not compensated for their asbestos-related injuries, and "The Dead Heart," about returning Ayers Rock to the local Pitjantjatjara Aborigines, Midnight Oil has established themselves as a very political band, with a social message in most songs, and maintaining a heavy protest feel. In America, they would be called "bleeding heart lib'ruls," but they're much better-received in Australia. Occasionally, they manage to do some good, raising awareness for the anti-nuclear, environmentalist and indigenous causes which, without them, many wouldn't even know about.
The band sort of broke up in 2002, since Garrett has balanced both a legal and political career with his music. That's right, starting in 1984 with his bid for the Australian Senate, Garrett has sought to put down the microphone and pick up a gavel. He has since won the Kingsford Smith seat in the 2004 General Election, been selected as Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment, Heritage and the Arts, and in 2007 been appointed to Minister for Environment, Heritage and Arts. The rest of the band has meandered on without him under different names. Nevertheless, with eleven studio albums to their credit and a fantastic successful run at that, no one can say that this band did not accomplish what it set out to do.
Regarding the line, "From Kintore East to Yuendemu," Yuendemu is an aboriginal community in Central Australia, 250 Kilometers northwest of Alice Springs. (thanks, Dave Malkoff - San Francisco, CA, for above 2)
Album : Diesel And Dust Released : 1988 US chart position : 17 UK chart position : 6