Tuesday, April 26, 2011

SONGS #143-147: Side One of 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1

Midnight Oil, 1982

Hi again.  Where have I been?  What happened?  Let's just think of it as a creative hiatus and leave it at that.  After half a year off, absolutely out of nowhere, the iPod got my fingers moving again.  It's good to be back.  The album that did it was one I first heard in 1984, and which has stayed one of my 50 favorites for 27 years.  

You have probably heard of Midnight Oil, and you probably only remember this:

That's 6'5" Peter Garret, lead vocalist, Australian activist and politician, and big weird bald dude.  The band was all over MTV for two years at the end of the 80s, and seemed to be poised to join U2 as the great arena rock activist bands.  They then abruptly ran out of gas and disappeared.  You probably remember those hit singles with the same nostalgia as Dee-Lite's "Groove Is In The Heart."  Good songs, but no need ever to hear them again.

I need you to keep an open mind-- before Midnight Oil went global, they were the most interesting Australian rock band from 1978-1985.  They were AC/DC's angry, punkish, intellectual cousin.  Unlike the polished efforts that made them famous, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 is a weird, wonderful record.  And I never would have heard if it hadn't been for the incompetent folks at the Columbia Record and Tape Club.

I've talked about these clubs before; back in the day, the record clubs were a great way to get a huge infusion of music at once.  The deal was that you would receive between 8-12 records for a penny, and then have to buy 7-10 more at "regular club prices,"  which were a huge rooking.  In the end, though, you ended up with about 20 albums for the price of 10.  

Dick Clark explains it well for you right here:  http://youtu.be/_l3F0XrL4ME

I was a member a lot of times-- maybe ten? (It was always advantageous to quit as soon as you could and rejoin.  Staying in the club after fulfilling the agreement was economic suicide.)  I knew people who used fake names and never fulfilled the agreement, but I was way too chicken to try that.  When I moved into a group house in college, we got mail from the company for about ten fake people (John Cocktoasten* being my favorite), including some threatening collection agency letters.  "Mr. I.P. Freely, you owe the Columbia Record and Tape Club $27.74. We have passed this matter on to Cheech and Bruiser, and they are coming to break your thumbs.")

In 1984, I read an article about Midnight Oil and what a wild, rocking live show they purportedly had.  I couldn't find any of their records in my local music stores (almost impossible to imagine now) so I ordered their most recent record, Red Sails In The Sunset, from the record club.  It came (it always took forever-- about a month-- also almost impossible to imagine now) and when it did, it was the wrong Midnight Oil album.  They had sent me their first American album: this one.  (At the time, I didn't know they had already released three Aussie-only albums.  All three of those records are great as well, but not in the same class as this one.)

My first thought was to return the album and wait another month for the replacement, but I was 14, and it was a brand new album, right there, in my hands, and the turntable was feet away.  I didn't stand a chance.  I did a quick justification in my head of why I should keep it (it's always good to hear a band's first album, maybe it's a sign, etc etc) and threw on side one and settled down to try to do homework.

I was not met with the wild, ragged rock n roll I had been led to expect.  Instead, a synthesizer pulsed quarter notes while another synthesizer played kabuki-sounding notes over the top.  I waited for the band to kick in, but instead, one of the strangest voices in rock music started singing over the stop of this skeletal keyboard bed:

"There's a wind on the eastern side
Ghost gums dance in the moonlight night
Mopoke mourns the racketeers"

What? the? hell?  Did he actually just say "Mopoke?"  What's a Mopoke?  Where are the damn guitars?  Where's the out of control rock music?  I kept waiting for the buildup, and the track almost got going at three minutes, but then it went back to the moody synthesizers.  I was thoroughly disappointed, but I had to admit-- it was atmospheric, and I had never heard a first track like this one.  It took guts to open a record with four minutes of impenetrable art-pop.  That doesn't mean I liked it, and I seemed in danger of actually getting homework done.

The track faded into some feedback and guitar noodling, and then... BOOM.

"When I'm locked in my room
I just wanna scream
And I know what they mean
 One more day of eating and sleeping..."

It was like having someone reach out of the speakers and slap me in the face.  There was the band as advertised.  The drums sounded like anvils (and not Metallica St. Anger anvils, but good ones) and the guitars were squealing and all over the place.  This album was one of the first rock albums I heard that used guitar effects not to soften the guitars, but make them more angular and driving.  To this day, I think it's one of the most sonically interesting guitar albums I've ever heard.  They never sound the same from track to track, even within the same song.

And that voice and lyric-- everyone has moments when a song communicates his inner thoughts.  (For example, Rebecca Black's "Friday."  Just this morning I had to choose whether to kick it in the front seat or the back seat.)  Here was one of those moments for me.  I was in my room.  I was doing homework I didn't want to do.  I was generally angry, confused and oppositional, and felt like each day was another drag into the inevitable of birth, school, work, death.  I was locked in my room, wanted to scream, with one more day of eating and sleeping.  It took about 20 seconds for homework to be forgotten.  I was transfixed for the rest of side one.

Side one (or tracks 1-5 now, I guess) rewards the careful listener with unique, crafted and expertly played songs.  "Only The Strong," with three distinct sections in a four minute song, gives way to a brooding pulsing number "Short Memory" about politics with spectacular guitar and piano work and lyrics that are far more interesting than "It belongs to them-- let's give it back."  The next track, "Read About It," is the great lost anthem of the 80s.  It has one of the all-time killer guitar riffs and a fabulous key change at the end.  Also, check out the bass playing on the outro-- so good.  That bleeds into the almost-seven minute "Scream In Blue" that starts with three minutes of furious band instrumental and falls into a plaintive piano ballad.  It all works so well together even though it's eclectic and adventurous and in no way made for radio consumption.

Seriously?  It's one of the best Side Ones in rock music.  And one of the least well-known.  Do yourself a favor and check it out.  To me, side one is basically one unified song-- I never hear any piece of one of these songs without stopping, going back to "Outside World," and playing the whole thing through.  And Side Two is no slouch-- it has "US Forces" and "The Power And The Passion," among other great tracks.

Midnight Oil went on to disappoint me.  As much as I love the band's first five albums,  I'm actually not a big fan of the hit records-- "Beds Are Burning" and "The Dead Heart" were too slick and obvious for me really to love.  And it's not that I need to like the unknown stuff and reject the popular material-- they just came off as sloganeering blowhards rather than artists when they made the jump to stardom.  I missed the complex band they had been before everyone was listening.  

So enjoy, and good to see you again.


Only The Strong (Live 1982): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyqWoq2STjw

*Fletch, for those of you playing at home.


  1. Welcome back! Thrilled, THRILLED for the blog's return.

    I think I was one of the Columbia house/bmg record club scofflaws. At one point I ordered the entire led zeppelin catalogue from the columbia record club under the name "Larry Led Zeppelin." When Larry did not fulfill the terms of the agreement it seemed fair enough to me.

  2. Every blog post is a little teeny tiny Christmas present. So so good. I'm off to burn me some Midnight Oil.

  3. Hell yeah. This is the musical RX for me this week. Exactly the kind of discovery I needed. Props, Jeff.

  4. Was just listening to the Oils in the OR the other day. The 20 year old tech said "what the hell is this?" I snorted derisively. Red Sails was my first too. I think I read the same article in Creem or some such mag. It fit right in with my ethos at the time. I actually bought the 10,9,8..album at Plastic Fantastic in lovely downtown Ardmore. Welcome back Jeff!

  5. Hi Jeff! How about a blog consisting entirely of Jeff Symonds' bass music?

  6. A mopoke is boobook owl found in Australia sounds a lot like a cuckoo