Review Summary: Between consolidation and superstardom: inside the Oil's weirdest and most political album.
By 1984, Midnight Oil had outgrown the Sydney pub circuit to take their strident stances on environment and Indigenous land rights across the country. Their first foray into a musical depiction of Australia’s outback was the concept of their fifth album Red Sails in the Sunset
The Oil’s label Sony expressed a desire to record an album in Japan, so the Sydneysiders packed up and went to the Victor Aoyama studios in Tokyo with thoughts (but no fully-formed songs) of triangulating Indigenous land rights and anti-mining and anti-nuclear weapon stances. Strangely enough, in his 2004 band biography Beds Are Burning
, Mark Dodshon recalled that “there was much more of a sense of humour and playfulness in the recording sessions”. This conflict is reflected in the finished product, which is Midnight Oil’s weirdest and most political album.
As history tells, Red Sails
dropped when Midnight Oil was somewhere between consolidating themselves as a nationally renowned act and becoming one of pop’s most unlikely international successes. The album cover summaries the urgent overtones as a post-nuclear attack Sydney harbour sits raved of all its postcard beauty (a resonant photo-negative of the desecration of sacred Indigenous lands conducted by mining companies). The first half of Red Sails
is an air-raid siren screaming a warning of a country skidding towards disaster. Released just weeks after UK New Romantic group Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s not dissimilar hit ‘Two Tribes’, opener ‘When the Generals Talk’ is the album’s most successful union of public service announcement and musical experimentation. Stripped down to a nigh-on solo effort drum and vocal performance from Rob Hirst, the death-disco number decries lying, manipulative politicians to a ridiculously catchy hook. The remixed vocals and spliced drum loops take the studio electro-trickery of their previous album 10,9,8…1
to the next step. Along with the rockabilly spit-in-the-eye ‘Helps Me Helps You’, this is the beginning of the band using satire and humour in their political gravitas.
A grand piece of musical theatre delving back along the winding, forgotten tracks of the outback, ‘Jimmy Sharman’s Boxers’ is the album’s obvious masterpiece. The song ambitiously reimagines the titular boxing troupe comprised largely of Indigenous men who audiences could fight for a fee who toured the outback for two generations. The band sets the scene as guitarist Jim Moginie’s sparse, tumbleweed chords usher in a sense of remote desolation. The scene changes under Hirst’s militaristic entrance, the representation of the bouts. “Standing in the spotlight, eyes turned blacker than their skin/For Jimmy Sharman’s boxers, it’s no better if you win,” snarls frontman Peter Garrett, but he refuses to allow the track to fall into a simple lament of subjugation. The hardened resolve and dignity of the fighters is celebrated to a towering coda, with Garrett declaring, “Their days are darker than your nights/But they won’t be the first to fall.”
Elsewhere, Red Sails in the Sunset
is a combination of the old, roots-rock-rebel Oils and the band who would become international superstars upon embracing a different sound. ‘Best of Both Worlds’ and ‘Kosciusko’ blaze with the angular ferocity of a band that rose to prominence on the back of sledgehammer force while ‘Sleep’ and ‘Minutes to Midnight’ employ a subtler touch. Using acoustics and prayer-call vocals, the pair precede the acoustic, campfire sounds of the Oil’s 1986 follow-up Diesel and Dust
, arguably the most important marriage between music and socio-politics in Australia’s history.
Yet the instrumental frippery and conceptual reappraisals don’t always deliver. Following up ‘Jimmy Sharman’s Boxers’ is an unenviable task appointed to the sub-minute marching band instrumental ‘Bakerman’. If it’s not the Oil’s worst song, it’s definitely the stupidest. ‘Harrisburg’ is a limp-wristed ode to the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster five years prior. ‘Bells and Horns in the Back of Beyond’ is an uncertain first step into the musical exploration of the outback, a twinkly bit of mystery that throws in the towel to become another Hirst showcase. Even more lost is the closer ‘Shipyards of New Zealand’.
Safe to say, Red Sails in the Sunset
is not Midnight Oil’s most famous, most revered or most popular album. Somehow, its middle child status and unusual left-turns make it as interesting as any other work by the band.
‘Jimmy Sharman’s Boxers’
‘When the Generals Talk’
‘Helps Me Helps You’