The Power & The Passion

The Power & The Passion



Author Michael Lawrence on his new book ‘Midnight Oil: The Power & The Passion’, and his previous tome ‘Cold Chisel: Wild Colonial Boys’.


As I Like Your Old Stuff turns up the heat on all things Pub Rock ahead of the release of Festival Records’ The Glory Days of Aussie Pub Rock Vol.2, we look at the new book Midnight Oil: The Power & The Passion by Australian rock writer Michael Lawrence, as well as Michael’s 2012 book Cold Chisel: Wild Colonial Boys, which was itself an expanded and updated edition of his earlier Chisel book Showtime.

These are two books that any self-respecting fan of Oz Rock cannot do without. They are treasure troves for fans of the bands who know the story but want the nitty gritty. They both take a similar approach, and it’s a fabulous one; an approach I’d love to see taken in books about all my favourite bands. Both are part biography, part scrapbook and part journal. Each band's career is laid out chronologically, year by year, gig by gig. You get plenty of photos and press clippings – the scrapbook part - and the text is accompanied - in a narrow column down the left hand side of each page of text - with gig dates etc, which basically provide a timeline for the accompanying text.

This works especially well with the Chisel book due to the depth of detail, which includes set lists and details of recording sessions (including numerous earlier demo sessions, which makes for fascinating reading); the Oils book however includes countless more quotes from the band drawn from period press, which gives you an idea of what the band was thinking every step of the way. Which can be a lot more illuminating and interesting than reading what bands think about things in retrospect, through the correctional lens of hindsight.

These books put you in the moment as events unfold, and we’re talking about two bands with long and turbulent histories. Both these books contain over 350 pages and are large format and hardback. I wouldn’t quite call them coffee table books – maybe bar top books might be more appropriate. No dust jackets to worry about, and if you splash a bit of beer you can just wipe it off.  You can read these books cover to cover, pick them up for a quick squiz, or hone in on a particular period or event that grabs your interest.

To be clear, whilst both books were put together with the respective bands’ awareness, neither contain new interview material, nor do they contain much by the way of critical analysis. But that’s not the point; these are books for fans, by a fan.

I Like Your Old Stuff caught up with that fan, Michael Lawrence, for the lowdown...

ILYOS: Congrat's on the great new Oils book Michael, and also on the Chisel book, which I've enjoyed dipping into often over the past couple of years. I know you grew up seeing bands in the pubs as an underage teenager - you didn't have any trouble getting in in your mid-teens?

ML: Thanks, I hope the books do the respective bands justice. When I first started seeing bands (around 1979) in pubs around Melbourne, drivers licenses did not include photographs, so having a few slightly older friends enabled me to borrow ID to get into venues. Memorising the owners birth details etc. was usually enough to get you past the bouncers, who weren't really that fussed as long as you looked like you were 18. I saw The Cure, Kevin Borich, v.Spy.v.Spy, Dragon, Models, Sherbs, Redgum, Sports, Jo Jo Zep & the Falcons, Choirboys, Mi-Sex, Sweet Jane, Russel Morris, Mother Goose, Mike Rudd, INXS, Angels, Flowers, Rose Tattoo, and many others in Melbourne pubs at this time.

ILYOS: Can we assume Chisel and the Oils were your two favourites? Who else did you particularly like?

ML: All of the above, before them Skyhooks; I found U2 around 1981, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, and many others... Thinking back to the 79-83 era, Cold Chisel and the Oils were definitely the two Australian acts who could match it with anyone in the world.

ILYOS: I really enjoy the approach you've taken with both books. Going through things almost in point form, in chronological order, and structuring it around dates of note. Makes it easy to look up periods of interest and enables the provision of plenty of facts, but at the same time it's not dry and you dig deep to provide insight. What inspired this approach?

ML: When I approached those books, I asked myself what I would want to read in a book on these acts. Books of a similar format (slightly similar) had been done on bands such as U2 and Led Zeppelin and I saw no reason why Cold Chisel or Midnight Oil did not deserve the same treatment.

ILYOS: You were able to go into more detail with Chisel than Oils in regards to recording session details and the like. Did that simply come down to access?

ML: Yes, I had access to some diary notes and other documents from Cold Chisel manager (at the time) Rod Willis and Don Walker. 

ILYOS: It was fantastic to see all the Chisel demo and live stuff come out some years back. Reckon we'll ever see the same from the Oils? Can't imagine they recorded as many demos as early on as Chisel did...

ML: That was nowhere near all the the Chisel demo stuff, but I think it's fair to say that they were far more at home on the stage than in the studio. As for the Oils, it's a similar situation, though I think we'll see some archive material from the Midnight Oil camp in the next year or so. There were numerous outtakes and takes of songs with Rob singing rather than Pete. There are numerous live performances from all over the world that are stunning, some of the finest live gigs the rock world has witnessed. These kind of statements sound like hyperbole, but Midnight Oil were dropped into the middle of L.A. and New York, Montreal, Chicago etc. where critics and audiences were left amazed at what they had witnessed. Getting this across in the book without looking like a tragic fan raving on was definitely one of the aims.

ILYOS: From the clippings included in your books, I assume you were an avid reader of Sydney’s rock fortnightly RAM as well as Melbourne’s weekly Juke. People have forgotten how important, in pre-internet and even pre-free street press days, those papers were.

ML: I had a pile of Juke magazines so high that I couldn't fit any clothes in the wardrobe. Bought and read it religiously. RAM too. I grew up in Sunshine in Melbourne's western suburbs; the newspapers and radio were all covering the live music scene which was so healthy, and every one of my friends talked music - I recall being sent out of Legal Studies class for a week because myself and a friend were talking music while he was trying to teach us. My school folders were covered in music pictures and handwritten music lists.

ILYOS: Back to Chisel and the Oils - both bands had a particular Australian-ness to them (like Skyhooks before them). Do you think this accounted for the massive popularity both achieved?

ML: I do believe that both bands were reaching never before seen heights for a band playing and singing about Australia. Audiences were aware of this and appreciated it even more. It was only a half a dozen years previous that nobody in this country believed that an Australian act could be as big as overseas bands were here, and they needed to sing songs about overseas places and hide any local accents in order to be seen to be comparable to overseas acts.

ILYOS: Both bands also came of age in the era of punk and new wave. As did the Australian Pub rock scene overall. Was that coincidental or was the influence of punk and new wave a key component?

ML: I don't think that the punk movement had anywhere near as much traction here in Australia as it did overseas (particularly in the UK) as the pub rock thing, where bands such as AC/DC, Rose Tattoo etc. had been doing much the same thing as the early punk bands in equally aggressive environments for a few years - right back to the days of Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs. I saw The Clash in 1980 and they seemed tame compared to many of the aforementioned acts. So it was nothing new to the Australian pub rock audience.

ILYOS: In regards to the Oils, do you think there was a conservative element to their audience that chose to ignore, or just didn't pay attention, to their left wing politics?

ML: That's an interesting question. The early Midnight Oil emitted a very angry, aggressive image which I don't think would have had an instant appeal to any serious political punter, but a closer examination would reveal far greater depth and subtlety. However, Midnight Oil at this point were riveting just from the point of seeing someone perform with such intensity and sincerity. So, I do think there were many who were so taken by the performance that they took the words as part of the performance, accepting that it would not be as effective if they were singing about their favourite car or girl.

ILYOS: In regards to Chisel, one point that's always struck me as ironic is that many of the people who enjoyed Don's work with Tex Perkins would be the same people who consider Chisel to be just for ‘bogans’. What do you think this dichotomy reveals about Don and about the band? (The band is receiving a lot more respect these days from previously dismissive quarters which is a good thing).

ML: There were certainly a number of Cold Chisel fans who saw things from the Jimmy Barnes perspective, working class men who became wild things on saturday nights when they weren't home and broken hearted. They had never before had Georgia on their minds, children called Janelle (or Danielle) or girls with names like Rosaline (or Rosie). As with Midnight Oil, the audiences of both bands were as diverse as they were immense. This is to be expected when your pub rock bands are made up of musicians with university degrees in quantum mechanics, law and architecture.

ILYOS: In regards to both bands, how do you feel the records stand up to the live performance? Especially the early records. The Oils’ first album and I think Chisels' first two were both criticised at the time for not capturing the live energy, but I think both stand up well. It was a common criticism - early Sports and Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons both copped it. There was an expectation at the time that Australian bands couldn't be captured in the studio. It was odd. I think it was maybe because we didn't see as many o/s bands here back then. People thought that the local bands sounded differently on record to what they did live and maybe didn't realise that overeas bands did too. Thoughts?

ML: I think all the Australian bands from that era could play live, but good record producers were rare. Skyhooks raised the bar in this area, Living in the 70s sounded as good as anything from overseas at the time and they worked to replicate this sound onstage. But, for most bands, the opposite was the case. They were great live and average on record. Cold Chisel gave it their best shot on the first album, nearly destroyed a producer (and their own enthusiasm) on the second and did not find it 'till the third record, by which point they had been playing for seven years. Midnight Oil's first record captures some of the energy, but the power is absent. It was their first record: little money, little experience, maximum enthusiasm. The recently issued remaster is a huge improvement. 

ILYOS: Who are the great unsung pub bands of the era you think deserving of rediscovery?

ML: Taste (the Melbourne band, with Vigil Donati on drums) made a couple of great albums that sit between Queen/Sweet/Zeppelin and deserve remastering and CD release.
Sweet Jane were also a great band, female vocals, female guitarist (Chris Bonacci I think her name was) who left Australia to join Girlschool in the U.K. Sweet Jane had great original material and did the odd cover from Thin Lizzy or Led Zeppelin. 
The Young Lions, formed by former Finch/Skyhooks guitarist Bob Spencer before he joined The Angels.
Stars, but they are nowhere near as 'forgotten' as the previous bands.
Redhouse, John Dallimore's band.
Kevin Borich, always a world class guitarist, a remastered compilation would be wonderful.
V.Spy.v.Spy, there's a lot of love out there for these guys, they are hard to find on CD now and nothing has been remastered.
The Clowns of Decadence, a unique Adelaide band from a little later on.
Matt Finish, a remastered CD of any sort would be great. (Editor’s note – check out drummer Matt Finish drummer John Prior’s site here)
The Vasco Era, from not so long ago. Played with an energy only seen in a few, far more well known bands.

ILYOS: Any more books planned?

ML: See top answer!

ILYOS: Could you give me a list of you top 11 Aussie pub rock tracks?

ML: These are all rockers, so I guess I'm thinking last couple of songs for the night in the pub rock set:
Stand in Line - Midnight Oil (Live from JJJ 1981) Stood in line many a time to hear this.
Boys Will Be Boys - Taste
Take A Long Line - The Angels
Run to Paradise - Choirboys
Star Hotel (live) - Cold Chisel
Don't Tear It Down - v.Spy.v.Spy. There's a theme here. Saw these guys tear up many a pub.
Boys In Town - Divinyls
All Torn Down - The Living End
Evie - Stevie Wright
The Real Thing - Russell Morris. Used to see bands Russell took on the road from 79-83 and he would often finish with The Real Thing or play it as an encore.
Baby Please Don't Go - AC/DC. Never saw them in a pub, though I recall them playing the local High School. This was their set closer for nearly all of the Bon era.

Thanks Michael!

Both Midnight Oil: The Power & The Passion and Cold Chisel: Wild Colonial Boys are published by Melbourne Books and available from their website. While you’re there check out other great books on the Mick Thomas from Weddings Parties Anything (brand new – we’ll feature that shortly), the Dingoes, Capt Matchbox Whoopee Band, Diana Trask, Jeff Duff, the Seekers and others.

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