April 02, 1984 12:00 PM

On Manly beach in eastern Australia the breakers still wash over a few late-summer bathers. Manly is a surfer’s paradise, and even now the broad sands recall the California settings of Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys and that long-gone era of happy-days rock. Here, however, a few miles north of Sydney, the reigning band is Midnight Oil, and its songs are as far removed from those of the Beach Boys as Manly is from Malibu.

This week the Oils will begin their first-ever U.S. tour and bring to American audiences the most politically aggressive rock ‘n’ roll since the days of the Vietnam War. In music as sharp-edged as their message, they will decry nuclear power, American foreign policy, military spending and anything else they take as evils of the ’80s. Says Peter Garrett, the band’s hulking 30-year-old vocalist: “The paradoxes kids see today—surrounded with fantastic wealth while they can’t get jobs, vast amounts spent on weapons that make us more unsafe—I think those things have to be changed. And I think a lot of other people do as well.”

Apparently so. While such Aussie exports as Men at Work and Air Supply have found their greatest success in the States, Midnight Oil has cultivated its own sizable audience closer to home. The group’s fourth and newest album, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 (or 10 to 1, as the Oils call it), has sold a remarkable 200,000 copies in Australia, a country with the population (15 million) of Texas. In September, relying almost entirely on word-of-mouth publicity, the boys packed Sydney’s 12,000-seat Entertainment Centre for three days running. It was a feat no band from America had ever managed.

The Oil’s appeal is part style, part politics. In concert their focal point is Garrett, a surfer and a 1977 graduate of the University of New South Wales law school. Standing 6’5″, with a shaved head, he looks like a crazed butler from a Gothic horror movie as he herky-jerks across the stage during the group’s 90-minute shows. Behind him, drummer Rob Hirst, 28, bassist Peter Gifford, 29, keyboardist and guitarist Jim Moginie, 27, and guitarist Martin Rotsey, 28, backlight the spectacle with combustive flash and fiery intensity.

Midnight Oil’s lyrics, written mostly by Garrett, run to stark, clipped-verse assaults on modern times. In Short Memory he rages against “The story of El Salvador/The silence of Hiroshima/ Destruction of Cambodia.” In Power and the Passion his targets range from urban ennui to the U.S. spy-satellite tracking station at Australia’s Pine Gap: “Sydney, where the nights are warm/Daytime telly, blue rinse dawn/…Flat chat, Pine Gap, in every home a Big Mac.”

Such social consciousness took root in the ’70s in the beach communities where the Oils’ audiences were often rougher than the pounding surf. “It’s not all love and bean sprouts,” says drummer Hirst of those Manly crowds. “These people may be surfers, but they’re some of the most vitriolic people you’ll come across.” So, too, at times, were the Oils when they were playing for $60 a night. Cheated out of a $30 bonus by their agent one evening, they sent the rascal fleeing under a barrage of empty ale cans. “That,” notes Hirst, with satisfaction, “was the beginning of our noncompromise stance.”

The Oils’ commitment to noncompromise remains strong. The band shuns hype by granting few interviews, usually refusing to play in stadium-size arenas (“binocular city,” complains Garrett) and declining to appear on Australia’s top TV pop-music show because of the glitzy way they would be showcased. Asked along as an opening act on The Who’s 1982 farewell tour, Midnight Oil refused even that for fear of traveling “around America on the coattails of somebody else.”

Instead they have donated much of their time and more than $500,000 in earnings to antinuke advocates, the Greenpeace Foundation, work training for unemployed youths and other causes. How Yanks will react to the Oils on their first American crossing will become clear shortly. “I think we have a lot to offer,” says Garrett, “but it’s unreasonable to expect that a band that’s taking a very hard line toward U.S. imperialism, say, or military activity is going to have the level of success of Men at Work. We don’t expect it.” But even if the worst happens, no matter. Concludes Hirst: “Bands that are motivated by money end up in disappointment. Bands that have other motives can possibly survive and be happy at the end.”

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