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Peter Garrett: A Rage Against The Mainstream

Midnight Oil's return to the stage is set against a global political backdrop where their lyrics matter more than ever.

28 Jul 2017 / Competition, Opinion / written by Tecla Ciolfi

Its been a good 20 years since Midnight Oil played the first multi-racial concert at Ellis Park. Their newly released remastered CD Box Set includes unrealesed footage from that momentous occasion, one which Peter Garrett remembers fondly as we chat casually over the course of several minutes.

Tecla Ciolfi: Is there a bit of anticipation on your side to see how South Africa has changed since you were last here?  

Peter Garrett: You’re absolutely right, we wanted to do it no matter what and the last time, even though it was a long time ago, was a very important part of our career. We enjoyed making the connections with the audience there and the show was incredible.

We came at a time in South Africa’s history that was very significant as well. Since then a lot of water had flown under the bridge and obviously we are interested to see how things are, but at the same time it’s important for us to make a connection to that audience again. We don’t want South Africa to be this forgotten location. It’s going through its own particular periods of ups and downs at the moment and that’s not so relevant to us, what’s relevant is getting in and playing to an audience and saying, hey you’re a big part of what we were as a band and we haven’t forgotten!

TC: What was the atmosphere like at that show 20 years ago? Could you feel momentousness of performing at Ellis Park?

PG: Unquestionably. I think we still rate it as, over a really significant career, one of the most memorable of all our performances. I mean we performed at the closing of the Sydney Olympics to over 2-and-a-half billion people – it’s right up there in terms of one of the key moments of our career.

I remember playing the show and looking out at the sea of faces and there was a great sense of buoyancy and release.

TC: South Africa is still facing some trying time times socially and politically, and I think globally, world politics and tensions between, I suppose you could call them superpowers, are at an all-time high. What’s your thought on the current political climate globally?

PG: So there are two ways of looking at Trump. I prefer to look at Trump as an opportunity and that move to the right as an opportunity for people and non-government organisations and activists, to really stand their ground and defend the gains that have been made over the last half century – advance the agenda on things that so desperately need attention like climate change and innovating civil society. It doesn’t need to be through mainstream politics, it can be, but it can be in other places.

That’s exactly what’s happening in America because as soon as Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord a number of States decided that they would be apart of it. Businesses started to respond, there were massive demonstrations on the streets. People need to take control of their own future and there’s no better time to take control of it than when you’ve got nasty, stupid, narcissistic and irrelevant people with their hands on the levers of people. And the same goes in any country, including South Africa.

TC: For somebody like yourself who’s so environmentally conscious, what would you say to the people who think that climate change doesn’t exist?

PG: There really isn’t anything that you can say to those people. If someone genuinely says, look I’m not really sure, then you just tell them to jump onto the National Geographic website and have a look at The Arctic or whatever – there are a thousand images.

But for people who refuse to believe it, they’re like antimatter, you can’t get ahold of them and have a rational discussion with them. It’s important in education for young people to be given a grounding in science and values and it’s important for institutions – political, economic and civil society ones – to keep on the road.

TC: The socio-political importance of Midnight Oil’s lyrics are as relevant today as they’ve ever been, do you think enough contemporary artists are make music that deal with weighty issues and not just fluff like partying and drinking?

PG: I think we were surprised to find that some of our words still have so much punch. It’s a good and a bad thing if you like, but they do and it means that there’s a relevance to what we’re doing.

I think there are a lot of people that are making music like that, I think they’re not as visible, sometimes they’re underground or online or fringe. The mainstream is mainly vacuous and lightweight and without any redeeming features – I guess now I do sound like someone who started out making music in the late ’70s, early ’80s. We were railing against disco and dance clubs [Laughs]. We wasted our energy really, if you think about it. I still don’t get it, but it’s still there!

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