The next time you hear some rock star moaning about life on the road, think of this album and the remarkable tour that inspired it. In the summer of 1986 — which is actually winter down under — the Australian rockers and political activists of Midnight Oil packed amplifiers, sleeping bags and good intentions into a caravan of four-wheel-drive vehicles and embarked on a concert tour of remote Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory.
The members of the band ate grubs and wallaby meat and played on makeshift stages under chilly night skies for audiences huddled around campfires. They also witnessed firsthand the extreme poverty, cultural devastation and spiritual resilience of the island continent's original settlers. The Oils' awe and anger came pouring out in Diesel and Dust, an album caked with outback grit and charged with hard-rock moxie and melodic savvy. Contrasting images of Aboriginal desperation and determination with the ruins of white manifest destiny, Diesel and Dust is a site-specific document rooted in a basic theme of man's inhumanity to man.
The Oils' odyssey had started a couple of years earlier, when at the request of a teacher friend, they played to 300 Aborigines at a settlement near Darwin. "It made a greater impact on us than playing in New York . . . or to audiences of 30,000 anywhere," lead singer Peter Garrett told an Australian reporter in 1986. "The more we toured overseas, the more the desire grew to get out with the Aborigines and learn more about our own country."
Shortly before the tour, Midnight Oil was commissioned to write a song for a documentary about the return of a sacred tribal site, Ayers Rock — or Uluru, the Aboriginal name — to its rightful owners. The band delivered "The Dead Heart," a song of ghostly urgency that was a Number One hit down under and subsequently became the centerpiece of Diesel and Dust. Also written at the same time was "Beds Are Burning," another powerful song about Ayers Rock. Appropriately, the band played both songs for its Aboriginal audiences; at one settlement, Kintore, the village elders responded to the Oils' sincerity by allowing them to participate in a sacred tribal ceremony.
Upon returning to their Sydney home base, the Oils wrote the rest of Diesel and Dust and undertook a tour of sweaty local pubs to road-test the material before recording it with British producer Warne Livesey. The resulting album gave the band its first gold album in America, as well as a Top Twenty single in "Beds Are Burning." It also fulfilled Midnight Oil's long-standing desire, in drummer Rob Hirst's words, "to write Australian music that people overseas could get into and understand, which would enlarge their whole vision of Australia past Vegemite sandwiches and kangaroo hops."