Peter Garrett: From the Old Library Lawns to the Australian Stage

Art by Rose Dixon-Campbell.

Peter Garrett called in from his hotel in Cairns. Midnight Oil (or ‘The Oils’, as Peter endearingly calls them) had a show the next night. It was one stop on the band’s farewell tour showcasing their latest album, Resist. A few days earlier, he attended Burgmann College’s 50th Anniversary weekend as an alumnus of the college and the ANU. I got to speak to him about his journey from ANU lawns to the Australian (and beyond) stage, his thoughts on the post-COVID-19 live music scene, and the significance of the Oil’s penultimate show on October 1st taking place on our very own Fellows Oval.  


Born and raised in Sydney, Peter decided to venture to the Bush Capital in 1971. Like many others reading this, he considered himself an “occasional [law] student”, as self-described in his memoir, Big Blue Sky. He would become the first bar manager of Le Chat Noir, an institution that runs in the Burgmann common room to this day. It was this era of his life where his musical journey took off and so did his love of a city where he would eventually spend a decade in Parliament. 


“I began my music career in Canberra as a student, right where you are,” He tellsme, “Playing pretty whacked out not altogether inspiring sort of rock and blues with synthesiser overlays – which was something we were fiddling around with at the time and trying to make work.”


Known for his passion and intensity on everything from his iconic moves on stage to activism on issues of the environment to First Nations rights, Peter spoke fondly about the music scene of those early years at the ANU. 


“One of the first shows I saw was on the old library lawns of the ANU when they opened it up for a bunch of bands who travelled from other places to come and play. Their names won’t mean anything to people now, but for me, as a young student, it was eye-opening and ear-opening to hear people play music in the Australian landscape with the Brindabellas on one side and Parliament House on the other… Ngunnawal and Ngambri land…”


These eye-opening experiences of live music would spark his appreciation and dedication to performance that he enjoys to this day. Following the COVID-19-induced hiatus of the arts industry over the past two years, The Oils headlined the 2022 return of Byron Bay Bluesfest in April. Asking him what the feeling of returning to the stage was like, he said:


“… I think that people had been confined like lab rats for so long that when they eventually got out into daylight, or sunlight, or gathered with lots of others to celebrate music and being together, the feeling was quite different. We’re ecstatic, as in the crowd gathering at a festival or a spiritual experience even.”


 “There’s a myth in the modern era which derives from the cult of the individual and this notion that we’re all just single individuals reaching our own destiny by ascending a ladder or buying shiny goods or locating ourselves in a cool and desirable place. But, of course, that’s just a means of perpetuating an economic system, really. We’re much more communal. We’re still hunters and gatherers; we love to hunt and gather together, and we derive meaning not ultimately from things we end up throwing away but from memories, we collect and stories we tell one another, and the experiences that we share.”


I asked Peter whether this shared musical space lends itself to activism and overcoming collective action problems like climate change. He disagreed, “The two are not really connected particularly because some people do one and some people do the other. It’s just that in our case, we happened to find a way of sometimes doing them both… We just always have existed as a band of songwriters, musicians, and activists, and that’s the way that we are.” 


As a man of many potential titles – musician, activist, politician – I asked whether there have been any new identities or activities he’s found himself inhabiting since leaving Federal Parliament in 2013. 


“A rediscovery of the simple joy of expression without anything else to have to think about in the day. That’s been the most important thing for me, being in this fortunate position of being freed up to be back on stage with the other members of the Oils and to completely lose yourself in the sound and in the plain. I’m sort of having a second childhood really at this stage of my life, with lots of love.”


In attendance at Bluesfest was Peter’s former colleague, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, colloquially known as DJ Albo. When asked about the importance of having a music fan in office, Peter said, “It’s very refreshing to have someone who’s connected enough with the culture of the country and is a music fan and celebrates Australian music, isn’t ashamed of it, and doesn’t have a cultural cringe and understands it some extent.”


“I don’t think there’s any doubt that my expectation is that the current government should deliver a decent cultural policy and support the music industry. Not for a handout, but for building foundations for people’s careers, particularly young artists’ future.” 


Peter and the Oils have always put their money where their mouths are in helping Australians access the arts. In the late ’70s, the band went on strike after a promoter of Sydney Northern Beaches pub The Antler returned on a promise for reasonable ticket prices at their show. For their upcoming show at the ANU, student tickets are priced $60 lower than the standard price of $149.90


 “We’ve always believed that what we’re [Midnight Oil] doing should be heard by as many people as possible, and people shouldn’t be prevented from hearing or seeing Midnight Oil simply because of their income. We’re always mindful of price. We’re price-setters, we always have been, and we never charge the maximum amount of money to, as it were, try and squeeze all the juice out of the lemon.”


“And of course, we know students are not big earners; they’re students, it goes without saying. They’ve probably got HECS debt before they’ve got anything else.”


The Oils’ latest album, Resist, addresses the biggest problem facing students: climate change and the consequences of environmental degradation. The album’s opening track, Rising Seas, begins with:


 Every child, put down your toys

 And come inside to sleep

 We have to look you in the eye

 And say, “We sold you cheap.”


Peter acknowledges that Baby Boomers, who have been complacent in good economic times, have “a lot to answer for”. I asked how a person from Generation Z should interpret Resist:


“It’s in the tradition of protest albums which are calls to action. Hopefully, people will hear and feel moved to act. We think that whilst it’s completely bewildering and anger-making that we’re still heating up the planet as though there are no long-term consequences, the fact is that the climate crisis will impact younger people who’ll be around longer than we will. It’s something to look upon with a great deal of dismay… The upcoming generation has a great deal of hard work to do, and we’ve given them a soundtrack that hopefully makes that hard work a bit more palatable.”


When speaking about the issues he cared about, or the city he called home for so many years, it felt as though Peter might still be a student. A certain youthfulness sprang from the phone in these moments in our conversation. His excitement for The Oils and love for being on stage with his bandmates resembled a musician at the peak of their prowess. Not one in the closing act of a career that has spanned decades. I finished by asking him what it meant for the band to be returning to Ngunnawal and Ngambri land for their penultimate show.


 “It is, without exaggeration, a bit of an epochal moment in our small world, if you like. Because we started playing Canberra… To close the circle off by doing the last big open-air show at the ANU is going to be very special for me.”


Tickets are on sale now for Midnight Oil’s October 1st show on Fellows Oval. They will be accompanied by King Stingray, Emily Wurramara and Moaning Lisa.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.