1988 Countdown #69: Midnight Oil, “Beds Are Burning”

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Consulting the Midnight Oil entry in my ever-handy Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop, I learn (1) “underneath the radical politics and lean, driving guitar rock, Midnight Oil remained an honest and compassionate group of optimists with a strong pride in their own country” (2) it only takes 35,000 units sold to certify a record gold in Australia.

A rusty windmill creaks in the desert. Trees grow out of a lake. The moon rises over a craggy bit of rock. Then the music starts: a good, propulsive rock tune owing more than a little to “Peter Gunn.” We see white aboriginal masks against a black background, and the camera pans over to Peter Garrett, on the red-dirt banks of a lake. He’s got a rancher’s hat on, and he’s crouching down by the water (since he’s six-foot-four, maybe he’s just trying to fit into the camera frame). In the background, we see the trees growing out of the water (this means that most of the year, it’s dry, but the video was filmed during the rainy season). A small black dog splashes around in the water.

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Garrett’s vocals sound like some Australian mad scientist producer installed a tremolo knob on his throat and then cranked it up as high as it would go. He’s not quite as quavery as Donna DeLory and Niki Harris in Truth or Dare, singing Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” while beating on their breastbones, but it’s a closer contest than it should be. The camera keeps panning around Garrett; in the background, we can see more dogs and, fighting for screentime with the canines, other members of Midnight Oil. Garrett is all twitches and bulging veins: he’s either worked himself to a fine lather for this video, or he’s the most overcaffeinated man in the antipodes.

A fire burns in the background as Garrett sings “forty-five degrees.” He’s not actually singing about a nippy autumn day when you first see frost on the ground: no, he’s employing Celsius in his lyrics! (45 degrees Celsius is 113 degrees Fahrenheit, so he’s saying things have gotten a bit warmish.)

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We reach the chorus: “The time has come / to say fair’s fair / to pay the rent / to pay our share.” The band is now in a beige pickup truck, painted on the side with black birds in flight. Garrett’s driving (it’s an Australian vehicle, so he’s on the right-hand side). Next to him is a guy who apparently got the shotgun seat by winning the band’s annual bushiest-beard contest. The other band members, plus dogs, are in the back of the truck, shielded from the sun by a little tin roof. They drive through the Australian outback, singing and playing acoustic guitars. The drummer uses a dangling coffeepot as his ride cymbal. The band speeds down a dirt road, kicking up red clouds behind them–and then we get an aerial shot! Did the Australian record company really pay for a helicopter?

(I spent a day driving through the outback, nine years ago, and it remains one of my most vivid memories. Long expanses of red-dirt landscape with stubby bushes, punctuated once an hour by wild kangaroos or a car going the other direction. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to taking a road trip on Mars.)

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As the chorus ends, the band enters a city: lots of traffic and (in the best use of a jumbo jet in a rock video until U2’s “Beautiful Day”) an airliner taxis at high speed directly over them on an overpass. That was either very difficult to set up or an incredibly lucky documentary moment, but either way it’s a great shot. The contrast between the outback and the city is further emphasized by an unsubtle change in filters: warm red light changes over to an icy-cold blue glow.

The band drives through the city, intercut with girls dancing. Apparently those clips come from Midnight Oil hanging out at an aboriginal community; some little kids have climbed on top of their pickup truck and are beating on it with sticks.

Garrett finally takes his hat off for some lip-synching in the desert, revealing his shining bald dome. I sure hope he slapped some sunscreen on that. He hugs his chest and flails around, still working off that double espresso, so the director mercifully pulls back to show the rest of the band, and then quickly cuts back to the aboriginal community, so we can see people tentatively dancing to the song. More high-tech effects: the band in black silhouette over various Australian landscapes. They keep driving: everyone’s napping except Garrett, who’s got the wheel and is lip-synching his heart out. Not that I can understand a single word of the verse, mind you–and not that it matters much.

In Australia, this song was an anthem for reparations from the Australian government to the aboriginal people. It came from a long-established band (Midnight Oil had been around since 1976 or so) making their Big Statement. In the States it was just a chugging rock song with a catchy chorus, made distinctive by Garrett’s strangled vocals. I suppose some Americans had their consciousnesses raised, in a vague way. Garrett went on to a political career, and is currently a member of the Australian House of Representatives and the Minister for Environment, Heritage, and the Arts. (Is there really just one Australian minister for those three things? Are they suffering from a severe minister shortage?)

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More silhouettes of Garrett, the director (one Andrew de Groot) having decided that silhouettes look extra-cool when you’re bald. In one shot, Garrett stands almost as tall as a blood-red moon, suggesting that he is a musical colossus blotting out the night sky.

We head to the fade, cutting between more silhouettes and Midnight Oil playing at the aboriginal community, where they seem to be getting a curious but lukewarm reception. The aboriginals offer no opinion on whether they are being used as props signifying authenticity, like the Native Americans in the Steve Winwood video. In fairness, without their presence, I think most Americans wouldn’t have known what this song was about, and may have believed it was a tribute to Farrah Fawcett’s epochal 1984 TV movie, The Burning Bed.

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Midnight Oil, by the way, marks our first true one-hit wonder in this countdown (defined for our purposes as “an act that had exactly one top-40 hit on the Billboard charts”). Even Henry Lee Summer and Johnny Hates Jazz had moderately successful follow-up singles: “Hey Baby” and “I Don’t Want to Be a Hero,” respectively. (We have also seen two acts that never placed in the top 40, but had lots of success in other incarnations: Keith Richards and the Traveling Wilburys.)

So in the United States, Midnight Oil were destined to take their places in chart history right next to other one-hit wonders such as Midnight Star (who hit #18 with “Operator” in 1985). This stands in delightful counterpoint to their thirty-year run in Australia, where devoted fans not only bought many albums and attended various live performances, but gave the band a nickname. Sure, it was a pedestrian one (“the Oils”) that doesn’t compare to the way all Australians refer to AC/DC as “Acca-Dacca,” but you take what you can get.

“Beds Are Burning” hit #17 on the Billboard pop charts. You can watch it here.

posted 3 June 2009 in 1988 and tagged , , . 3 comments

3 Comments on 1988 Countdown #69: Midnight Oil, “Beds Are Burning”

  1. Chris M. Says:

    he’s employing Celsius in his lyrics! (45 degrees Celsius is 113 degrees Fahrenheit, so he’s saying things have gotten a bit warmish.)

    I believe Garrett himself calls it “steaming 45 degrees” at one point. So it’s not like he didn’t give the Yanks and other Fahrenheit-lovers a clue.

    In fairness, without their presence, I think most Americans wouldn’t have known what this song was about, and may have believed it was a tribute to Farrah Fawcett’s epochal 1984 TV movie, The Burning Bed.

    I believe Rolling Stone or SPIN once did a profile on the band where, on their promotional duties through the States, they bump into some Smoove B–like dude who says something like, “Oh, yeah, you’re the guys who do that sexy song about burning beds! Yeah, man, that song is hot!!”

  2. BT Says:

    That’s a good point about the helicopter shot — seems surprising in retrospect.

    I am one of a very small minority of Americans who remembers, and prefers, the follow-up single “The Dead Heart.” I think that video got into some reasonable rotation on MTV, though nothing like “Beds are Burning.”

  3. Gavin Says:

    Non-American videos are always done on a cheaper budget, so much so that sometimes the US record company will pay for a brand-new video if they’re trying to break the single in the States.

    “The Dead Heart” reached #53. Two years later, “Blue Sky Mine” (which I remember getting a lot of MTV play) stalled out at #47.

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