A major exhibition chronicling the history of Midnight Oil, one of Australia’s most successful rock bands, will include a never-released song called The Ghost of the Roadhouse.
“It’s a quaint little song in a way, very Australian and I think it has historical value,” said Oils guitarist, Jim Moginie, who composed the song in 1982 with lead singer Peter Garrett.
The song was a demo for the album 10-1 but was dropped, with no regrets. “No, it shouldn’t have been released,” Moginie said.
Rob Hirst, the band’s drummer who is the driving force behind the exhibition, said the song was a forerunner to Oils’ hit Power and the Passion, and is among many surprises in the show spanning from 1978 to 2002.
During that era, the band racked up nearly a dozen songs on the Billboard charts and their album Beds Are Burning topped the list of 100 best Australian albums of all time.
“It’s a massive collection and the more I drag stuff out of the attic the more I realise I’ve never thrown anything out,” Hirst said.
The show will not only reflect the band’s passionate commitment to environmental, social and Indigenous rights, but also the riotous era of pub rock.
“We’ve got an amazing collection of posters which tell the story of a time in Australian music that’s long disappeared. The bands have gone. The venues have disappeared,” he said.
“We’ve also kept all our road cases which have become exhibition boxes. We’ve kept a lot of our clobber, the stuff we used to wear.”
The clothing includes the “sorry suits” which will be on display. The band donned suits with the word “sorry” on them during the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, as part of a campaign to apologise to the stolen generation of Aborigines.
Moginie recalled the moment when the musicians revealed them on stage in the crowded stadium.
“We kept it a secret. We couldn’t tell anyone we were going to do this,” he said.
“It was a bit of a relief when we appeared in the sorry clothes. A huge cheer went up and everyone in that stadium got it.
“It seemed to sum up the era, especially the song Beds are Burning, which was about reconciliation. Something was in the air at the time and that was John Howard’s Australia where he was saying we’re not going to say sorry. But everyone wanted to.”
The exhibition is being installed at the Manly Art Gallery and Museum in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, the area where the Oils started their careers.
Curator Ross Heathcote said the show will include never seen before documentaries and videos, and will also recreate a part of the long demolished surf-pub, the Royal Antler Hotel in Narrabeen, where the band attracted their first big crowds.
“This will take the fans back to the sticky, carpeted, claustrophobic beer-stained feel of the Antler in the late 70s when thousands of fans would cram into a space that was licensed for a couple of hundred to desperately be part of the Oils,” he said.
Hirst laments the passing of those days.
“We had success beyond our wildest dreams,” he said.
“We were the luckiest of bands because we were able to make original music right in our own way, without interference from anyone. And that’s unprecedented, I think.”
Coinciding with the exhibition is the release of a DVD of the Oils’ 1990 New York protest concert, Black Rain Falls, performed on the back of a flat-bed truck outside the headquarters of Exxon Oil.
More than 10,000 people left their office buildings to listen to the Oils responding to the environmental disaster in Alaska where millions of gallons of oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled onto the coastline.
With the exception of lead singer Peter Garrett, who left to pursue a political career in Canberra, the band members continue to perform with other groups.
But now that Garrett is out of Parliament, the musicians have not ruled out the Oils playing together again.
“We’re lucky enough to have all the members intact, all the limbs still work and even our minds are not completely shot to pieces,” Hirst joked. “So yeah, I think it’s possible.”
Moginie gave a similar answer. “Never say never,” he said.
“Why wouldn’t you get back together and play the songs that are so much a part of what you are, and a generation of people in the country, and that people enjoy?”
It seems that the decision may rest with Garrett, who is currently writing his memoirs.
The Making Of Midnight Oil will be on show at Manly Art Gallery and Museum from June 20 to September 7. It will tour later to Canberra, Melbourne and other centres.