During a trip to Australia in 1986, I spent a day with Midnight Oil at a mixing session in Sydney for their single, "The Dead Heart." Part protest, part celebration, with a railroad rhythm and haunted-chant hook, "The Dead Heart" was the oils' response to the Australian government's return of the sacred monolith Uluru (a.k.a. Ayers Rock) to aboriginal custody. Singer Peter Garrett, drummer Rob Hirst, guitarists Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey and then-bassist Peter Gifford were also invited to play in remote aboriginal settlements. At the mixing session, the Oils suggested I tag along.
I should have gone. Blackfella/Whitefella — a documentary filmed on that '86 tour and included in a new CD/DVD reissue of the Oils' 1987 album Diesel and Dust (Columbia/Legacy) — is one of the most remarkable concert movies ever made, putting every hari-metal road flick you've seen in pitiable perspective. The poverty in the settlements is horrific. Even the Oils, hardened rock crusaders, look sober and shocked as they witness, up close, a legacy of systematic racism.
Blackfella/Whitefella is also packed with rock action — thrilling performances by the Oils, in high-desert-Clash gear, and aboriginal tourmates the Warumpi Band, for sometimes puzzled but mostly joyous audiences. In this setting, everything is a fight song, including the embryonic "Beds Are Burning," later recorded for Diesel and Dust and the Oils' biggest U.S. hit. Many of Diesel's songs were inspired the by the desert tour, and they have lost none of their pictorial force and smart-pop rage. The Oils broke up in 2002, and Gerrett is now minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts in Australia's Labor government. But Diesel and Dust still resonates with urgent business — the band left plenty of room for global warming and corporatization in the end-of-days howl of "Dreamworld" and the broiling rot in "Gunbarrel Highway." "This land must change, or land must burn," Garrett cries atop the guitars in "Warakurna." You have been warned — again.