College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 10

10 beds

10. Midnight Oil, “Beds are Burning”

Diesel and Dust, the sixth album from the Australian band Midnight Oil, had in origins in a tour they had undertaken the year before. In 1985, a group called the Warumpi Band released a song titled “Blackfella/Whitefella,” their one and only single from the album Big Name, No Blankets, their debut release. Although the group had several indigenous Australians in the lineup, it was a white member, Noel Murray, who chiefly wrote the song, basing it on his experiences working in a community primarily populated by the people who had the longest lineage in the country, but had been largely displaced and cast aside.

“Blackfella/Whitefella” wasn’t a hit in Australia, but it did catch the attention of certain, politically-minded people. The members of Midnight Oil were among that contingent, and they were equipped to transform their fandom into action. While they were still largely unknown away from their homeland, Midnight Oil enjoyed a great deal of success in their main stomping grounds. Their 1984 album, Red Sails in the Sunset, topped the chart, and they’d registered a Top 10 single with the 1982 song “Power and the Passion.” So it was a boon for the Warumpi Band when Midnight Oil suggested the two groups tour together, mounting a series of free concerts in indigenous Australian communities. They called it the Blackfella/Whitefella tour.

The tour was transformative for Midnight Oil. They certainly had an awareness of the pains suffered by indigenous Australians, but seeing it up close made a different impact. And it spoke to the band’s ethos of directly addressing the social and political problems they saw in the world. “There’s a feeling in Midnight Oil that the band should be involved in doing these things, or lending itself to doing these things, that it should not be unaware,” lead singer Peter Garrett explained around that time. “There’s a feeling that to have the kind of audience and long-term success that this band has had is a privilege: it’s not a right.”

The result was Diesel and Dust, an album that fiercely rages against the injustice leveled against the indigenous Australians. The passion of the political statement is exemplified by “Beds are Burning,” the album’s second single. Specifically addressing the travails of the Pintupi people, who were some of the last to be displaced from their desert home to settlement camps. The message of the song is direct and plain: the land belongs to the Pintupi and the Australian government should give it back to them.

“There was a sense of hopelessness about the issue at the time,” guitarist Jim Moginie said later. “It felt like screaming into a fog of indifference. When the album was ready to be released, we were prepared to be shouted down by every closet racist in the country. The issue of Aboriginal dispossession had been effectively ignored up to that point.”

“Beds are Burning” became Midnight Oil’s first global hit, including a trip to the Billboard Top 40 in the U.S., the band’s sole appearance in that chunk of the chart. And it has remained arguably the biggest, most famous rock song to hail from Australia, holding a place of such significant notoriety and esteem that Midnight Oil was asked to perform it during the closing ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, held in Sydney. Since it was already an unlikely venue for angry protest rock, he band made certain to emphasize the pointed fury of the song. They dressed all in black with the word “SORRY” emblazoned across their clothes in popping white.


As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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