Strict Rules: The iconic story of the tour that shaped Midnight Oil

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Author: Andrew McMillan
Category: Biography, Books
Australia: Hachette Australia 2017, 320pp.
ISBN 9780733638084
Reviewed by

“A richly detailed account of Midnight Oil on their 1986 tour through the Northern Territory, a journey with the Warumpi Band that inspired their international breakthrough album, Diesel and Dust.”

In July 1986, Midnight Oil and the Warumpi Band toured through some of the most remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Music journalist Andrew McMillan joined them. The book Strict Rules offers McMillan’s account of the tour, a turning point in the lives of both Midnight Oil and McMillan himself, though neither knew it at the time. After three decades, Strict Rules has been reprinted, with a new epilogue by Midnight Oil vocalist, Peter Garrett.

Midnight Oil

Midnight Oil was already a successful Australian rock band when it planned this tour.  Formed in Sydney in the mid-70s, it released its first album in 1978, around the same time that McMillan moved there. As a Brisbane schoolboy, McMillan had been published in the national music press and wrote some of the first articles about Midnight Oil after he arrived in Sydney

The band had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the media. After being banned from playing live on ABC’s Countdown TV program early in their career, they said they would never appear on the show, a promise they kept.  Despite their uncompromising approach, the band’s popularity steadily increased. Politically charged guitar driven rock songs (U.S. Forces, Short Memory) from their 1982 album 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 helped push them high into the Australian charts. Their 1984 album Red Sails in the Sunset reached number 1.

In Strict Rules, McMillan picks up the Midnight Oil story in July 1986. By then, the band’s dynamic live performances and strong social conscience had been firmly established. But the Blackfella/ Whitefella tour was different.

Midnight Oil were joined on the tour by the Warumpi Band. Formed in the Northern Territory at Papunya, the Warumpi Band won the best band competition at the 1983 Aboriginal Country Music Festival and released the first rock single sung in an Aboriginal language. They’d supported Midnight Oil in concert and the bands were well known to each other.

Starting with a performance in Alice Springs, the tour travelled by 4WD to Uluru and then deeper into the Western Desert. The members of Midnight Oil were looking to learn firsthand about the people, culture and conditions of the communities they performed in. But it was clear almost from the start that the band’s performances didn’t resonate the way they expected. Drummer Rob Hirst observed that gradually, and with the Warumpi Band as their guide, they learned how to use space in their music and to breath the slower rhythms of the desert. This learning would flow through to their next album.

The Warumpi Band in the early 80s

The second leg of the tour took them into the subtropical wetlands of the Top End, flying into remote communities by light plane. After 25 days, the tour ended in exhaustion in a performance in Kakadu National Park.

McMillan travelled with the road crew on this tour and his insightful book is much more than a tour diary. He reveals layers of history and biography as the book unfolds. Each chapter provides a lengthy account of the community visited as well as the performance obstacles.

If you’re looking for gossip about Midnight Oil, you won’t find it in Strict Rules. The band has their own strict discipline about touring and this serves to protect the band. The same can’t be said for the road crew and it’s clear that for them, the journey is draining, overwhelmingly difficult at times and just a bit crazy.

McMillan writes Strict Rules in a casual voice that helps us understand the daily circumstances of the tour and the different communities they visit. Strict Rules was a turning point for McMillan. He moved to Darwin after the book was published and largely gave up music writing. His new focus was the complexity of his new home, writing a further four books before his death in 2012.

Peter Garrett, later

Midnight Oil were also changed by this tour. The album that followed, Diesel and Dust, drew inspiration from the desert landscape, issues and people they encountered. It was a number one album in Australia and their first major international success. The band maintained an international presence throughout the 1990s and performed Beds Are Burning at the Sydney Olympic Closing Ceremony in 2000, the word SORRY printed prominently on their black clothing.

Midnight Oil disbanded in 2002 and singer Peter Garrett entered federal politics, retiring at the 2013 election. The band has recently reformed and embarked on a world tour. This book provides a vivid account for those wanting to know something of the band, with McMillan capturing a small though critical snapshot of their career.

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