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Midnight Oil

The Oils clear out their musical garage, with generally superb results.

It’s genuinely weird that a band as venerable and storied as Midnight Oil has been so little anthologised over the years.

Most comparable bands would have all sorts of legacy-enhancing-slash-barrel-bottom-scraping collections out in the marketplace by now, but not the Oils. In fact, the relative paucity of product (a handful of best-ofs and live albums) has been matched by the near-impossibility of getting hold of many of their original albums in any decent format until relatively recently. Even classics like 10-1 and Red Sails in the Sunset spent decades available only on low-quality mid-price CDs, when they existed at all.

Thankfully the announcement of the band’s reactivation and world tour has been accompanied by the re-release of all the band’s material on vinyl and CD – in big fancy box sets, no less! – and a proper, overdue trawl through the band’s archives. It seems appropriate that instead of putting out a steady stream of coffer-filling live recordings, b-side and demo collections, documentaries and concert DVDs, the Oils do the whole lot in one hit.

The price tag alone means that the four CD/eight DVD Overflow Tank is something that only a devoted fan would purchase, which is a good thing: there is material here that only a devoted fan would want – or, for matter, endure.

Such fans, however, are going to love the absolute hell out of this.

Let’s start with the least interesting bits first: the Lasseter’s Gold disc of unreleased demos, and the b-side compilation Chiko Locallo.

The first doesn’t turn up any lost classics. Five of the 12 tracks were from the Blue Sky Mining sessions and the most appealing – the Hirst/Moginie “Wreckery Road” – would later be resurrected for Ghostwriters, while “A Sunburt Sky” was a first draft of Moginie’s solo song “A Love So High”. What’s perhaps most noteworthy is the inclusion of two songs named after (and performed by) the pre-Oils versions of the band – the scrappily inept joke jam “Schwampy Moose” and the atmospheric instrumental sketch “Farm”, which are historical curios you’ll listen to once and never, ever again.

Similarly, the Oils were not a band that wasted great songs on b-sides, although “You May Not Be Released” has a late-night swing and you can’t fault the intent behind earnest polemics like “The Last of the Diggers” and “Ships of Freedom”, especially when compared with the studio sound experiments “Frontier… What Frontier?” and “Kingdom of Flaunt”.

Most of the songs are from the band’s nineties era and tend to be more mid-paced ballads and Garrett’s idiosyncratic voice means that cover versions tend to sound incongruous rather than appropriate – proven here with their versions of Russell Morris’ “The Real Thing” and Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love & Understanding?” – although the dark groove of ‘Heaven & Earth’ is begging to be sampled for a modern EDM track.

The live recordings fare rather better, however. Not only were the Oils a band who were at their best on stage, as demonstrated on the career-spanning compilation Punter Barrier BPM, their thumping 1978 Live At The Wireless recording arguably does a better job than their self-titled debut album at capturing the raw energy of the band at the time.

But the real gems – the things that will have fans fishing down the back for change – are the DVDs, which are uniformly excellent.

The best of the several live DVDs on offer is undoubtably Oils on the Water, the band’s legendary Goat Island gig for the tenth birthday of Double/Triple J in 1985. It remains one of their definitive live performances (and it’s surprisingly adorable to see them stumble on the complex stop-starts of “When The Generals Talk”) – and if that’s the band at their juggernaut peak, their 1993 MTV Unplugged set goes some way to proving Jim Moginie’s assertion that they were basically a folk band under their rock trappings.

The absolute first thing to watch, however, is the documentary Only the Strong: the making of 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. If you’re a fan of the Oils – and, as asserted earlier, you won’t have this thing if you’re not – watching the double-act of Moginie and producer Nick Launay scamper through the multitracks of the album that made the band’s career is both fascinating and inspiring (so that’s how they got the “sproing!” sound at the beginning of “US Forces”!), and the interviews with Peter Garrett and Rob Hirst are equally illuminating.

Black Rain Falls is a short doco about the band’s 1990 protest performance on a flatbed truck outside the Exxon Mobil building in New York after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and is impressive partially in the band’s gumption in doing such a thing since these days they’d have been in Guantanamo Bay before the truck was even parked, and partially because the band sound tight as a freakin’ drum despite playing a guerilla show on a truck.

But the gem is Blackfella/Whitefella, a documentary about the band’s 1986 outback tour with the Warumpi Band. This was a pivotal moment for Midnight Oil, leading directly to Diesel and Dust (and even includes an early, uncertain live version of “Beds Are Burning” with rambling, extemporised verses). And watching the way that the experience of spending time in Arnham Land changes the band is fascinating, especially in watching the Sydney rock stars get a little humble and sheepish in front of Aboriginal audiences listening politely, as opposed to an RSL filled with northern beaches surfers leaping about.

And the Warumpis get the best musical moments too: the highlight is watching the band swap during a performance of the song “Blackfella Whitefella”, where the Warumpis are replaced by members of Midnight Oil as the song transforms into “The Dead Heart” (watch Gordon Butcher and Rob Hirst swap over without missing a beat) – and their rough and ready performance of their classic “My Island Home” should jolt anyone only familiar with Christine Anu’s smooth version.

There’s basically an entire weekend’s worth of stuff to listen to and binge watch, and if not all these Oils are (ahem) essential, the highlights of Overflow Tank are more than worth the sticker price.