Thursday, January 26, 2012

Happy Australia Day, Mates!



Today on Facebook, I had posted several video clips from a few Australian bands in honour of Australia Day (commemorating the day in 1788 when the first English explorer sailed into what is now known as Sydney Harbour). These include the best rock anthem tribute to the world's largest island: "Great Southern Land" by Icehouse, a video by Aboriginal band Yothu Yindi, and several by Midnight Oil. I went so far as to call Midnight Oil "Australia's greatest band."

A former co-worker (from That Place That Shall Not Be Named) refuted that by pronouncing AC/DC as Australia's greatest band by sheer fact of the number of albums sold and critical acclaim. He ranks INXS at a distant second place. As we debated it, he even had the nerve to put Men At Work ahead of Midnight Oil, simply because Men At Work had a few hit songs in the U.S. and he had never heard of any Midnight Oil songs. The discussion was enlightening, which revealed this guy's judging qualities to be based on numbers and popularity, rather than quality of the music and message of the music.

He didn't like my diss of AC/DC. Well, the point I tried to make is that if you listen to Midnight Oil's music, you learn a lot about Australia and some of the issues that people of that country are facing. Midnight Oil is unmistakably Australian. The reason why I love them so much is that they have managed to create many songs with meaningful and memorable lyrics with a catchy melody. They found international success in 1988 with their Diesel and Dust album, which featured two songs about land rights, which is a controversial issue in Australia (acknowledging that white Australians are encroaching on sacred Aboriginal lands). Those songs are "Beds Are Burning" and "The Dead Heart", of course.

If you listen to AC/DC or INXS, they could be from anywhere. There's nothing uniquely Australian about them. They are international bands, much like U2. AC/DC is merely a hard rock band that's from Australia. When I first heard about AC/DC in the early 80s, I actually thought they were an American band! The first Australian band that captured my attention was Men At Work, with their huge hit, "Down Under." And yes, I did like Men At Work as a kid. They were the second band I was crazy about (Blondie was the first, in 1979). But when I heard the two Midnight Oil songs in 1988, and then bought their Blue Sky Mining CD in 1990 (still the best environmental-themed album of all time), I was hooked. They ranked up there with Johnny Clegg and Savuka in terms of making music meaningful, by matching lyrics of profound depth and issue-raising awareness to irresistible melodies. If they haven't found greater success in America, it has more to do with American shallowness than anything else. Its just amazing to me that people are willing to argue sales and radio airplay and popularity among listeners as qualifications for "great art." If that were the case, Britney Spears would be considered "great", which she is most certainly not.

My love for Midnight Oil skyrocketed with their 1993 release of Earth and Sun and Moon, which is their most spiritual album and was such a huge hit for me that it spent over a year at #1 on my album chart that I kept from 1985 to 1995. The album still ranks at #2 on my Favourite Albums of All Time list. Its an amazing and profound album. There's no comparison, at all. Men At Work, Icehouse, Crowded House, and yes, even AC/DC simply do not come anywhere near the level of artistry and depth as Midnight Oil. Unfortunately, my interest in them started waning with their Breathe album from 1996, which was their "grunge" album and with Redneck Wonderland a few years later. Capricornica was their final album, which I never bought. They returned to their harder rock sound of the late 70s and early 80s and away from the pop sensibilities of the late 80s and early 90s. I was able to see their concert in 2001, which was awesome, and then the band broke up in 2002. I wish they'd get back together to see if they can create another album like Earth and Sun and Moon.

One more thing that I wanted to say about Midnight Oil being the best band from Australia: when I was in Prague in 1993, I stayed at a youth hostel and met an Australian guy who was traveling Europe for a year. When he found out that I was an American, he started ripping on America...mostly for our military involvement in the world and for our narrow-mindedness and disinterest in other countries. When I mentioned that one of my favourite bands was Australian, he wanted to know which one. When I said, "Midnight Oil", his attitude changed. He said that he thought I was going to say INXS and I laughed. He was stunned that an American had not only heard of Midnight Oil, but liked them more than any other Australian band. And if one likes Midnight Oil, its safe to assume that they are probably a politically aware person and not the stereotype of a typical ignorant American who is clueless about the world outside of our borders. This Aussie became cool with me and we had a friendlier conversation once I passed his "cool test."

If Bryan (the guy who argued with me about Australia's "greatest band") had traveled Europe, I wouldn't be surprised if he ticked off foreigners with his lack of cultural knowledge. My first impression of him was that he's a typical redneck / good ole boy, although he has surprised me over the years in that he considers himself a Democrat. Its interesting to note that he was hired in the position that I had applied for in 2007 that some had hinted that I might get if I put in my application. He lost his job a year before me and he's still unemployed more than two years later! It only took me 75 days to find a job. If I'm not mistaken, he served in the Army and when I had a debate on Facebook about Congressman Anthony Weiner's sexting scandal, I found it ironic that Weiner was being defended by a few females on my FB friends list while Bryan and I (two former military guys) believed that Weiner needed to resign from office.

The strange debates that I seem to inspire in people! Regardless of one's musical preference, when I think about Australia, Midnight Oil always comes to mind because a lot of what I've learned about that country I still long to visit comes from the songs and videos of Midnight Oil. Compared to the Oils, "Down Under" is merely a silly song. Have a happy Australia Day!