‘I’m making an inroad on the one and only, I’m just part of this play, I’ve finally decided I’m here to stay.’
It’s more than just a lyric. It’s a statement by a band who, through their convictions, live energy and smarts, sustained a huge presence in Australian music.
Just one look at the album’s front cover and you can see the fire and the fury in Peter Garrett’s eyes and posture. His mouth open mid-shout, his arms rigid and hands outstretched, flooded with intensity.
This was a band that wasn’t just going to be a passing interest. Although you won’t find any of Midnight Oil’s best known or most celebrated songs on Head Injuries, it’s a significant record which shows how they step into becoming the band we know and respect today.
There was a sense [of] writing off a whole section of the Australian community, and saying ‘look, you don’t count anymore. You’re not part of the picture.Peter Garrett — triple j, 1997
There are environmental concerns underlying tracks like ‘Cold Cold Change’ and ‘Koala Sprint’.
They rail against complacency on ‘No Reaction’ and social ails on ‘Stand In Line’.
In 1997, Peter Garrett told triple j’s Richard Kingsmill about the inspiration behind ‘Stand In Line’.
“It was the [Prime Minister, Malcolm] Fraser period, and there was a really trenchant conservatism,” he said.
“There was a sense [of] writing off a whole section of the Australian community, and saying ‘look, you don’t count anymore. You’re not part of the picture. You just gotta stand in line. You got to get in the dole queue’.
“I think it was the first time we ran narrative ideas which were quite forceful over a performance, itself that had a lot of force, and room to do it in too.
"It wasn’t too constricted a song. It was quite open ended. And, live, it could go anywhere. It could go on forever and ever depending on what the crowd was like and how much energy we had.”
Sonically, Head Injuries was a truer approximation of what the band delivered in a live setting: a reputation they’d worked very hard to build up with constant gigging.
People were singing in American accents and they felt like to be successful as an Australian band, they had to be successful in another country. We really totally rejected that from day one.Peter Garrett — triple j, 1997
The guitars of Martin Rotsey and Jim Moginie packed grunt but also felt airy and light. Their guitars wove together throughout the songs, which were robustly held down by the powerful drumming of Rob Hirst.
They were keen to open up their pub rock sound to different textures, evident in the eerie synthesizers in ‘Koala Sprint’ and more quirkily in ‘Section 5 (Bus To Bondi)’. It was a recording that saw the band really start to gel as a creative unit and emerge with something that was more identifiably their own.
Their values as a collective unit were also firmly in place in these early days. They refused to feed the pop music machinery, famously staying away from appearing on Countdown even though Molly Meldrum was a big fan.
Garrett said the music industry was in a bad place and Countdown was a part of that problem.
“It was pop fodder,” he said. “It was churn and burn and it was for 14-year-old girls.”
An added concern for the band was a pervasive feeling of a cultural cringe.
“’If it doesn’t come from America, it’s no good,’” Garrett recalled. “People were singing in American accents and they felt like to be successful as an Australian band, they had to be successful in another country. We really totally rejected that from day one.
“So I think, as young guys who were very idealistic about our music, that we didn’t have much in common with the [music] industry. so we went into head butting mode with them.”
Midnight Oil have never shied away from butting heads. They put so much at stake in order to do things their own way, championing a message of awareness, responsibility and change. Their legacy is unrivalled.
But in 1997, Peter Garrett was concerned there would be no one to take over from them.
“We do want to hand the baton to somebody or we’d like to see someone come and just take it off us,” he said. “A few people have shaken it around a little bit but I don’t think it’s happened.
“I think that’s part of the reason we’re still here.”
It seems fitting and self-fulfilling, 18 years on, as we keenly await their imminent reunion in 2017.