Midnight Oil’s sensational breakout hit ‘Beds are Burning’ was released thirty years ago this year. An incendiary indictment of Australia’s treatment of indigenous people, it brought the hitherto unanswered plea of the aborigines uncomfortably close to home for white Australia.
Thirty years on, their call is yet to be answered.
Midnight Oil were politically minded from the off, but concerned with the big picture: nuclear war, environmental decay, globalisation. Hot stuff on the 1980s punk scene. But on their sixth album they turned inward, and looked at the injustice lurking at the heart of neo-colonial power.
On Diesel and Dust they championed the aboriginal cause (‘The Dead Heart’) and highlighted the folly of the Government’s attempt to steamroller their own violent history (‘Dreamworld’), but the single ‘Beds are Burning’ is one of the greatest protest songs of the century. Part defiance, anger and celebration. It’s an absolute classic.
The oft-repeated refrain “How can we dance while our earth is turning / How can we sleep while our beds are burning?” is no idle couplet either. The songs refers to the Pintupi tribe, one of the last to be forcibly relocated. They were moved due to military testing: Blue Streak missile tests right in the heart of Pintupi territory.
The community were forcibly removed, or ‘encouraged’ into new settlements.
The peculiar and precious identity and kinship of the Pintupi was chickenfeed to the Menzies government of the time. They were to be assimilated into white society and their own predisposition and ideals left behind.
However what makes ‘Beds are Burning’ so special is its sense of hope. The irrepressible singer Peter Garrett was not lacking a sense of Australian pride, and the love for his country is felt tangibly in the urgent tone and aspiring, emotive oomph of the build – “The time has come to say fair’s fair“.
Garrett felt that Australia was ready to live up to it’s founding ideals, a faith that was unwavering. The triumphant three note trumpet blasts and indelibly tight beat create a song to dance to, not one to march to. It wasn’t a finger pointed, as so many protest songs are, it was your hand on mine. It was a declaration of fraternity.
Hopefully sometime soon Australia and its indigenous community can see eye-to-eye.