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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!

Want to see Midnight Oil but still don’t have tickets? We’re giving away 2 double tickets, all you have to do is drop a comment on the post below and let us know which Midnight Oil track is your favourite & why!

  • bianca els

    Best Midnight oil track has to be Bullroarer. That song has to be played as loud as possible always.
    i do have tickets and we flying up tomorrow but i would love to give these to mates in JHB to join us for the day.

  • Al Bundy

    Warakurna, just carries me away to a land of wide open spaces every time I hear it and is always capable of bringing me to tears, such an emotional track for me.

  • Stefan Hurzeler

    If I had to pick one (which is incredibly difficult), it would be “Common Ground”, because of the words: “If we surrender ourselves to Industrial Rules, We’ll Wake Up in the Wreckage of Tomorrow”. That song was from 1996, and while we weren’t totally unaware of the truth of those words, now their urgency makes the song resonate so much more (both fortunately, and unfortunately).

  • Andrew Tomlin

    “Only the Strong”. My son Brandon has had cerebral palsy since birth (he is now 38). My bond with Brandon is very strong, probably due mainly to the fact that I raised Brandon as a single father when he was very small. He grew up with Midnight Oil’s albums being played (loudly) at home. Especially the 10 to 1 album (He was 3 or 4). So one of his and my strongest connections has always been our mutual love of Midnight Oil. In the mid 90s Brandon and I went to 2 Oils shows together. The first was at the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne where we were allocated “seats” in a section reserved for people in wheelchairs. This was great until the band hit the stage and everyone between us and the stage stood up. The show was awesome, but Brandon spent the whole concert with his view of the stage completely blocked. A year or two later, Brandon bought me (as a Father’s Day gift) 2 tickets for he and I to see the Oils at Latrobe University (also in Melbourne). We arrived at the venue early and Brandon insisted that he wanted to be right in front of the stage, so he didn’t have to endure again what had happened at the previous show. So we positioned ourselves right in front of the barrier at centre stage, resolving to each other that we would not move for anyone. After being there for a short time and as more people arrived, a man approached us from the stage. He said he was Midnight Oil’s manager and that some members of the band had seen us there at they were concerned for Brandon’s safety during the show, in what would become a mosh-pit. He told us that there were designated positions reserved for people with disabilities on a balcony (he pointed towards the back of the theatre). I told him of Brandon’s experience at the Music Bowl and added that Brandon was determined to get a good view of the show this time and was aware of the risks (Brandon has limited speech ability). The manager told us to wait where we were and went back stage. About 2 minutes later he appeared with several roadies and they lifted Brandon, in his electric wheelchair, up onto the area at the side of the stage where the sound/lighting desks were. That is where we watched the entire show, on stage with the Oils. During the set, they played “Only the Strong”. This song has always been Brandon’s and my favourite Oils track, mainly because the lyrics and the power of the song connect with both of us. Brandon, in particular, strongly identifies with the opening line, “When I’m locked in my room, I just want to scream”. Peter Garret, during the song, came to our side of the stage and sang the opening verse directly to Brandon and then gave him a huge sweaty hug. After the show, their manager told us that the band wanted us to wait to meet them. They chatted to Brandon and myself for about five minutes and then they all signed a t-shirt Brandon had bought. Twenty years later, when we talk about it, Brandon’s face still lights up with the memory. The t-shirt has never been worn and he still has it tucked away safely. (The photo above is of Brandon and I taken in January 2017) Thanks.