The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #222: Beds Are Burning/The Dead Heart by Midnight Oil (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #222: Beds Are Burning/The Dead Heart by Midnight Oil.

In 1873, a surveyor named William Gosse was in the Northern Outback of Australia. He happened upon a giant, monolithic rock formation. He christened his “discovery” as “Ayer’s Rock”, in honour of the, then Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. Unbeknownst to Gosse, the large sandstone formation that is one of Australia’s most recognizable geological features, already had a name. It was called Uluru. It had been called that for thousands of years, from the time of Creation, by the aboriginal population who inhabited the region…the Anangu. But, as we know from countless examples of other indigenous populations that were colonized by stronger armed white colonizers, no one cared much about who these “savages” were, what their traditions and culture were or what the names they had ascribed to places of great value and importance to them. All that mattered was that they get out of the way of expansion. So, as telecommunications were starting to improve and we were all getting to know more about other countries, that rock in the northern outback of Australia was presented to the world as Ayer’s Rock. And so it was for over a century.

In terms of the journey toward reconciliation between white colonizers and the Indigenous Peoples who bore the brunt of colonization efforts, Australia is further down the road than is my country of Canada. In the mid 1980s, public sentiment manifested itself into political will. That political will turned out to take the form of a public apology from the government of the day to all Indigenous Peoples for harm done to them as a result of colonization. Furthermore, some of the traditional territories of the Indigenous Peoples of Australia were being returned to them, in a full, political autonomous sense. In other instances, the land was returned in more of a shared-custody arrangement in which the Indigenous Peoples would share in the decision-making that went on in a given region and, more importantly, that Indigenous terms would be used to name places of importance. One such shared-custody arrangement involved Ayer’s Rock which was to be jointly known as “Ayer’s Rock/Uluru”. In preparation for the signing back of “Ayer’s Rock” into Indigenous care, a contest was held to find an original song to capture the spirit of the occasion. Out of all of the Australian bands who submitted entries, the winning song turned out to be, “The Dead Heart” by Midnight Oil.

As a result of winning this contest, Midnight Oil was invited to participate in a concert tour of small Indigenous communities that were scattered throughout the Outback. Midnight Oil were always a very politically-minded band so, as they toured these small communities, they were struck by the desperate state in which many Indigenous Peoples were living. They recognized the depth of the devastation wreaked by colonization, they realized how much would be needed to rectify the situation and, as well, they could see, quite clearly, how little was actually being done to help by the government. From this tour came the inspiration for an album called, “Diesel and Dust”. From this album came a song that helped to shine an International spotlight on the plight of Indigenous Peoples in Australia. That song was, “Beds Are Burning”.

“Beds Are Burning” is a song all about making reparations to the Indigenous Peoples of Australia and, specifically, it is about returning land that traditionally belonged to Indigenous Nations. For many people around the world, “Beds Are Burning” was our introduction to Midnight Oil. What we saw when we watched them perform was what a tremendous live band they were. The passion of their principles shone through in every song they played. In many ways, for the sake of comparison, Midnight Oil are quite a bit like our own, The Tragically Hip. They are beloved in Australia, much the same way that The Tragically Hip are in Canada. Midnight Oil is a five-piece band, fronted by one of the most energetic and charismatic singers of all-time, Peter Garrett. The Tragically Hip is a five-piece band fronted by one of the most energetic and charismatic singers of all-time, Gord Downie. Both “The OIls” and “The Hip” reference the history of their homeland in their songs. Both bands have enough faith in their fans to write complex, intelligent songs that make you think. Finally, both bands believed in the idea that Indigenous cultures in their home countries had worth and beauty and were important and had been done a real disservice by white colonizers. In 1993, Midnight Oil came to Canada and joined The Tragically Hip in a festival tour that became known as “Another Roadside Attraction”. It was during this tour that Garrett and Downie were able to sit and talk and discuss their shared passion for the beauty of Indigenous cultures. At that time, Midnight Oil had completed their tour of Indigenous communities back in Australia. A decade or so later, Gord Downie would take “The Hip” to play a benefit concert in a remote Indigenous community called Attawapiskat. That journey forever changed Downie, in the same manner that the tour of the Aussie Outback forever changed Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil.

One of the things that Midnight Oil proved was that being a political band that sang songs about the issues of the day in their home country could, also, prove to be a formula for commercial success. The album “Diesel and Dust” has been ranked on Australian lists as being the #1 most successful and important Australian album of all-time. In addition to Indigenous issues, Midnight Oil has written songs about the environment, about poverty and economic disparity, as well as, a laundry list of songs about Australian history, in general. They are one of the biggest selling bands in Australian history, with sales in the tens of millions of copies worldwide. They write with passion and they play with passion; making the most of the public platform they have been given.

So, without further delay, I am going to play both “The Dead Heart” (which helped them to win the contest regarding the return of Ayer’s Rock/Uluru into Indigenous care). I will, also, play a live version of “Beds Are Burning”, too. For what it is worth, I think that Midnight Oil are an amazing band. I hope that you like them, too. Let’s go!

The link to the video for the song, “The Dead Heart” by Midnight Oil, can be seen here.

The link to the video for the song, “Beds Are Burning” by Midnight oil, can be seen here.

The link to the official website for Midnight Oil, can be seen here.

The link to the video of Canada’s own, Tragically Hip, when they played in the northern community of Attawapiskat, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Tragically Hip, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for never shying away from playing songs that may come across as being political. The link to their wonderful ensuite can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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