Forgotten Years

[This is the latest in a periodic series in which I write about some of my all-time favorite albums and the memories that shall forever be attached to them]

Album: Blue Sky Mining
Artist: Midnight Oil
Year: 1990

March 1990. I’m on an airplane flying south, and very frustrated that it’s not a flight winging its way east. I’m on a family vacation, you see; my family, and my aunt, uncle, and cousins, all winging their way south of the border, down Mexico way for a week-long vacation at an all-inclusive resort.

Where I want to be going is several hundred miles east, across the Atlantic, across Europe, to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A.k.a. The U.S.S.R. A.k.a. Soviet Russia

[AK-47. An Eastern block assault rifle which saw great use in Afghanistan. Vietnam and countless Golan-Globus schlock of the 1980s, usually involving Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, and in the case of The Delta Force, a shirtless Robert Forster playing a middle-eastern terrorist.]

Bob, you’re only about thirteen years from Jackie brown. Hold tight.

The reason I wanted to be on that trip and not this one, is because my best friend (then and now) is going. His school, three hours drive away from mine, was planning this trip to the Soviet Union since September the previous year. A lack of overall interest led to an offer to me to accompany. I asked my parents and expected them to say yes as I was, as I am now, a student of history, and to see the Soviet Union, to trod Red Square and see Lenin’s corpse was a dream of mine.

I was a weird kid. But in my defense, he was the walrus.

Goo goo ga joob

So I was hopeful. Being a teenager with little sense of just how much things like this cost, it seemed a no-brainer. Of course those hopes were dashed on the rocks when my parents told me no, I couldn’t go, that it was too much money, and anyways they’d decided to surprise my sister and I with a vacation in Mexico with them and my aunt and uncle and cousins. “Surprise!”

I was not happy. But I was also possessed of some sense of appreciation. I couldn’t just sniff at a week in Mexico, drinking Pina coladas, eating tacos, and sunning on a private beach. Then I learned my friend’s school was partnered with an all-girl Catholic school’s history class, so it ended up being my friend, two other guys, and about thirty gorgeous girls in catholic school girl uniforms my age.

So there I was; the most miserable teen ever to be found on a plane to Mexico.

But fortunately I had my walkman. I had my tapes. I had AA batteries in reserve.

And I had Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining to keep me company.

I think my love – my Animotion-esque obsession – with music began in the mid-80s. I was still a kid then, but entering an age where G.I. Joe and Transformers and Star Wars were on their way out, and MTV, Friday Night Videos, and Top 40 rock radio were in. A traumatic move to the US south found me more often then not sequestered in my bedroom, reading quietly and listening to the local radio station. Mostly Top 40 nonsense, but on evenings I had more success pulling in radio-waves from the smaller campus radio stations further east. That was how I first heard R.E.M. and Talking Heads and Love & Rockets – tiny pinprick sparks of light amidst the endless spin of Whitney Houston, Loverboy, Dire Straights, Billy Joel and other mainstream music. This was the era of the resurgent Boomer – legacy acts like Paul Simon, the aforementioned Mr. Joel, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Chicago – who was taking the radio back from the post-punk new wave, new romantics era of the early to mid-80s – Soft Cell, Duran Duran, Thompson Twins and The Human league. Sure, there was great new stuff out there – 1986 saw the debut of Come on Pilgrim, from The Pixies after all. But you had to hunt for that stuff.

But starting around 1987-1988 music began to change. More socially conscious. Bands like UR, singer-songwriters like Bruce Cockburn and Tracy Chapman and Cowboy Junkies. Amidst all of this “Conscious Rock” was a little band from Down Under that scored their first big North American hit with a little song called “Beds are Burning” which notched heavy airplay on MTV and on the radio.

And still rocks hard, 34 years later …

Australia was cool in the 80s. Don’t ask me why. Well, obviously, it’s a fantastic, fascinating country, albeit one I’ve never visited. But I feel like I at least know Australia. This is the land down under! The land of Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli, of Razorback and The Cars That Ate Paris. Of INXS, Crocodile Dundee, and Jacko … and a little trilogy of car-crash post-apocalyptic movies that pretty much launched a sub-genre from a former doctor turned filmmaker named George Miller

Ride eternal, shiny and chrome little pig …

So there I was, heading into my deep teens, becoming interested in the world around me and its problems. Artists against Apartheid weren’t gonna play Sun City, and neither would bands like Midnight Oil. They’d been kicking around since the 1970s, releasing a string of commercially middling (for North America that is – they were huge down under), but really solid albums. They’d flirted with mainstream US success on albums like Red Sails In The Sunset and 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 (scoring the minor hits “U.S. Forces” and “The Power And the Passion”). The Oils weren’t interested in getting drunk, Scoring chicks, and driving their cars; they were interested in stopping nuclear proliferation, curbing the world’s petrochemical addiction, and educating dumb suburban kids like me about colonial treatment of aboriginal people the world over. They were anti-capitalist, anti-corruption, and anti-greed. They toured the outback; they spoke out against their government and businesses. They walked the walk, talked the talk, and put their money where their mouths were particularly in erudite, shaven-pated singer Peter garret, who eventually became a sitting member of the Australian parliament, and named minister of the environment.

They also rocked hard. And that was just why this kid needed to hear.

Where it all began …

Naturally I scooped up 1987’s Diesel and Dust. I rocked out to Beds Are Burning and The Dead Heart, but he found that top-to-bottom Diesel and Dust was a tight rock album with barely a weak link in the chain. I was a fan, and I was hooked on the Oils, on U2, on all those bands and those issues facing the world I was going to become an adult in.

The tricky thing with finding a new band (or in my case discovering one that had been around for a while) was waiting for their next one. This was still the 80s. Music wasn’t cheap. Finding obscure albums from Australian bands while stuck in N. America was a challenge. The Oils’ early albums wouldn’t be re-released stateside until 1990. Waiting for a new Midnight Oil album, like waiting for a new U2 or Depeche Mode one, was interminable.

There were rumblings in ’89 that a new album was on the way. I was a regular consumer of Rolling Stone magazine. In fact it was Rolling Stone that published an early review of Blue Sky Mining, giving it 5 stars out of 5 and calling it the band’s Joshua Tree.

Needless to say, I was excited. I just needed to get my hands on it. Blue Sky Mine, the first single and video, was getting heavy airplay on MTV, like they were tempting me to madness.

Wikipedia will tell you Blue Sky Mining was released on February 9th, but owing to where I was living and the odd quirks of record distribution, the album didn’t make it to me until early march. Three days, in fact, prior to the family’s departure to Mexico. I needed this album in my sweaty little hands, and I needed it before a week-long vacation. What was I supposed to do? Converse with my family?

And so, on a cold Wednesday in March, the call came, and I made haste to the local record store – the only record store, in point of fact – and was handed my cassette copy (because I did not own a CD player) of Blue Sky Mining (MSRP $10.99, or roughly $22.00 in 2021 dollars – thanks inflation!). Into the walkman it went, and after the audio level test (remember those?) it began.

Now, being familiar with Blue Sky Mine, the lead single, The Stars of Warburton was the first “new track” I got to hear. Stars is a propulsive, melodic song that starts slow and just builds and builds and builds to something transcendent, which is typical of the Oils. Despite being in a frigid northern cline it felt like the outback must have; hot, dry, desolate.

Bedlam Bridge was next. A slower, more mournful track with one of my all time favorite bridges of any rock song;

So how stands the city on this winters night
The city on the hill or so they said
The snow is falling down around the armoury
The city’s closing in around my head

Forgotten Years. This song bangs, to use the modern nomenclature. Here’s the video. Watch it and we’ll get back to things.

Pretty good stuff, huh? A great album closer, if it were one. Definitely a high point of any Oils show. This is the fourth song on the album.

Mountains of Burma. Another slow burn, and one with lyrics seemingly more tornfrom the year 2021 than the year 1990.

Pack your bags full of guns and ammunition
Bills fall due for the industrial revolution
Scorch the earth till the earth surrenders

Were the Oils prophets? No, they were singing about present day issues. It just took us thirty damn years to finally notice.

King of the Mountain. Another banger in the FY mold. Not a complaint, and a great way to kick off side B, same as they kicked off my first time seeing them in concert later that year.

[As a side note: does anyone else miss album sides? If the cassette had one small advantage over the CD it was that it replicated that switch of sides. Eject the tape, flip it over, pop it in, press play. You don’t get that with CDs. You don’t get that with streaming. Maybe that’s why vinyl made a comeback in recent years; for that pause in the action.]

On a whole Side B of Blue Sky Mining is a much slower, much more mournful mirror to the harder rock of Side A. River Runs Red is practically a ballad, only one of the good ones 1990 gave us, at a time where seemingly ever hard-to-mid-rock outfit was whipping out the acoustic guitar like that sensitive ponytail type you saw at every suburban house party.

But Midnight Oil’s ballads are as propulsive as their all-out rock tunes. Shakers and Movers, and One Country following next are practically operatic as they build and build. Have I used “propulsive” enough times in this entry yet to convince you otherwise?

Antarctica rounds out Side B, and it feels like the comedown after a really strong workout. you’ve pushed yourself and pushed hard and now you just need to sit and breathe.

Some albums take time to hook you. Call them slow burns, call them whatever. Blue Sky Mining, for me, was not one of those albums. It dug its hooks in and pulled almost immediately. By the time Antarctica was finished I was flipping the tape over to hear it all again. I knew then, that this was going to be one of those musical experiences I would never forget. that in years to come I might not like the band as much, but that album would always be a part of me.

And I was right.

By the time our plane to Mexico lifted off I was getting familiar with Blue Sky Mining. Over the week that followed, I listened to it over and over again. When I got sunburnt on the second day there – they take afternoon Siesta for a reason, amigos – I spent a lot of time in my hotel listening to it. The vacation was certainly a fun time, and probably preferable to Leningrad in March, and part of that enjoyment was that music swirling through my brain.

Though to be fair, the view was pretty nice too …

Funny thing is I think that vacation actually deepened my appreciation for the album more than it would have otherwise. Because there wasn’t much else to do but listen, when I returned home I found to my surprise that my friends weren’t as into it as I was. Maybe because I spent so many hours recovering in my hotel room from that wicked bad sunburn I had nothing to do but listen to it over and over and over again.

I saw the Oils later that month. My first “real” rock concert. Memorable for all the right reasons and the wrong ones too, I suppose. Blue Sky Mining marked the apex of my fandom of all things Oil. By the time 1993’s Earth and Sun and Moon arrived, I was on my way out with Midnight Oil. The music didn’t have quite the same snap. Of course this being the era or grunge, of Nirvana and Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and the RHCP and hosts of other alternative rock bands crashing the mainstream, a band like the Oils was only going to have a limited shelf life but in a way I think the Oils success in 1987-1990 paved the way for bands like Nirvana; underground artists given a chance in the mainstream and reaching millions of angry, disaffected teens in the process.

Though for my money, Earth and Sun and Moon has aged MUCH better than a lot of early 90s rock

That diminished interest in the Oils was also an ending of sorts to the world I knew, even though I didn’t know it at the time. My parents’ marriage, already rocky, was showing its first real fissures. By Christmas 1992 they’d separated. By late 1993 they were divorced, the relationship crumbling like the Soviet Union had. The divorce cast a long shadow over that decade and over my life, that extends to this very day.

There’s something special, something unique, about finding the right album at the right moment in your life. It’s a rare thing to discover something in the moment that speaks to you in a way it wouldn’t if you’d discovered it ten, twenty, thirty-one years later. Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining is my 1990 album; the one I’ll pull out and listen to when I want to remember what I was going through at that time.

Listening to Blue Sky Mining now – even as I make final edits to this entry – it still brings me back to that year and vacation 31 years ago. It makes me think of hot Mexican weather, bookended by the arctic chill of our northern airport and the long drive to and from there. I remember my friends; most of whom moved on with their lives and left me behind. I remember the Russia trip I never got to go on but became the stuff of legend. I remember the world that was, and was changing all around me without my realizing it. The decade that lay ahead would be one of the most memorable of my life; possibly the most memorable. Everything changed in the 1990s, for me. They may be long ago years, they may be long gone years …

But have not, and will never be forgotten years.

[Have an album in your life with as much meaning as Blue Sky Mining has for me? Let me know in the comments below.]

14 thoughts on “Forgotten Years

  1. Wow – this album totally slipped under my radar but I played it on Spotify after reading this blog. Really, really solid stuff and doesn’t feel dated at all. Now I’m on a Midnight Oil deep dive – thanks!

  2. You’re welcome! they had totally slipped off my radar in recent years, so imagine my surprise to find they’ve reformed and are touring a new album!

  3. Great write-up, Brad. It’s funny how some albums just stick with you. A case of the right song coming along at the right moment in your life. For me, that album would probably be Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins. It dropped the summer before I started college and listening to it even now it just reminds me of that first year of life far away from home. A fun time but a lonely one. It was a real constant for me those years ago and even now I keep a copy on CD in my car on those occasions I feel like taking a drive and listening to it like I used to.

  4. Siamese Dream is another notable album for me, Charles. Maybe not quite as important as Blue Sky Mining, but it definitely soundtracked my summer of 1993 when I was delivering pizza. “Today” makes me think of pepperoni.

  5. Ah, I remember this one. You were more into it than I was at first, but it grew on me. And yes, you did miss out on that awesome Russia trip!

  6. I still wish I could have gone on that trip. Given that the Soviet Union ceased to exist only a few years later, it was a real missed opportunity.

    That *and* travelling with a bunch of Catholic schoolgirls too …

  7. Hey Brad – I just read Magicians Impossible and loved it! And I’ve been spending a lot of time reading through your website archive and was wondering if you could go back to the 80s or 90s and re-experience one year, what year would it be and why?

    PS – is there a Magicians sequel in the works?

  8. Hey Kurt, thanks for your comment and question!

    That’s a tough question for a number of reasons. In the 80s I moved around a lot. 5 cities in ten years? So to pick a year literally means picking a completely different city, different people, and totally different experiences. But if I had to pick one year I’d have to go with 1984. Great movies great music, amazing toys. Probably the last true year of what I’d call my childhood. The last time I went Trick or Treating, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Temple of Doom, The Last Starfighter, GI Joe, Transformers – just some really good experiences, with friends, with family.

    For the 1990s, I’d probably go with 1991-1992. Specifically my last year of HS to my first day of college. I’m sure I’m applying rose-colored vision to it, but that transition from high school to college was a real journey. Plus, alt rock was exploding at the time so to go back and re-experience that excitement and those bands would be wild. I could also easily go back and relive any of my college years.

    No plans for a proper Magicians sequel, but there is a MI short story being included in the first edition of my email newsletter. You’ll be able to sign up for that next week.

  9. Somehow missed this when you posted it.

    I was thinking this morning about how Peter Gabriel’s “So” will forever be the breakup album. There’s nothing breakup-y about it, but when I was dumped by my first love in the fall of 1986, I listened to it constantly. It came out in May, and I had it on cassette (agree with you completely about missing having “sides” to albums), and I’d heard it, but in the months after the breakup I listened to it on repeat — while walking, while sitting in my room crying, while crying myself to sleep.

    Almost 10 years ago (wow, that long?!) there was a Peter Gabriel tour at which he played all of “So” (along with other stuff), and I went with a friend, and while the audience sometimes seemed surprise to know what song was starting up next, I knew every pause, every opening note. That album kept me going during one of the dark spells of my life. I’ll never forget it.

  10. Great story, Laura. My first ever slow-dance with a girl was to ‘In Your Eyes’. We danced once, at a party, never got her name or saw her again. As it probably should be.

  11. Hey Brad, I am glad I discovered this – it’s wonderfully written and like the album your words are extremely evocative of the places, times and the experiences which you describe. I felt like I travelled with you to Mexico but thought that my teenage self would also have yearned for that Russian adventure instead.

    Blue Sky Mining was the first album I ever bought. 1990 was my first year of high school in Australia. The day it was released, Matt, an older brother of a friend of mine had bought a copy, sat us both down in front of his HiFi and made us listen to the entire album.

    I had not shown much interest in music and didn’t have a favourite band or artist but a few months later Matt, who was doing a motor mechanic apprenticeship with my dad was over at our place late on a school night dubbing a VHS copy he had borrowed of a Midnight Oil special onto a Beta video tape (Matt’s household made the wrong choice in Beta/VHS wars – as did we but my dad had just bought a VHS recorder as well so Matt was able to transfer the tape). He had the TV cranked which woke me up, so I wandered up the hall rubbing my eyes and sat down to watch the film clip for Forgotten Years which was filmed at the American Cemetery at the Ossuaire de Douaumont in France. These images were very evocative and certainly struck a chord.

    Then later that year a girl at school said I should broaden my horizons and asked who my favourite band was. I said Midnight Oil but thought I should familiarise myself with more of their material. So in January 1991 over the summer break (in Australia) I finally purchased that blue cassette tape and borrowed my mother’s walkman. It had taken almost a year but I was finally immersing myself in that record, playing it over and over for the entire holiday. Over the next couple of weeks I burned through all of my pocket money picking up most of the Midnight Oil back catalogue and by the end of the month, I was tagging along with Matt and his mates to see my first Oils concert. After the gig my ears felt like they were bleeding but the power of the performance was whirling around my head and I couldn’t wind down to get to sleep.

    I ended up pursuing music as a career and recorded my first album in 1999. I got to know the band quite well during this time and the Oils drummer and songwriter Rob Hirst was very generous with his encouragement and advice. I self funded and released my first album with my then girlfriend and singer. The record generated some major label interest but there was a consensus that we needed some time to develop more of an edge to our sound and performances. Rob offered to get together for a writing session with me to see if something clicked. We sat down with acoustic guitars and I played a few chord progressions that I’d arranged into instrumental pieces which I thought were quite interesting and unusual. Fortunately Rob thought so too and flipped through a big book of lyric ideas he had until he found some great lines for a verse and then wrote a chorus. We mapped out a second song that day and soon after following another writing session, we entered the studio. With Rob on drums, me on guitar and Rick Grossman of the Hoodoo Gurus and Divinyls on bass we had a very raucous trio and I was feeling like a very lucky 21 year old to be recording with my musical heroes. My girlfriend/singer arrived later in the evening and the next day Rob helped bring out that edge that we needed in her vocal performance.

    A couple of days later, my girlfriend and I are sitting in the office of the A&R Manager at EMI playing our new track. He asks if he can burn a few copies of the CD to send to London as he wants us to be an international signing with the label. Just like that our dreams are all coming true. Fast forward a month, my girlfriend has cold feet over doubts that our relationship can endure an international music career. I obviously have a different view but ultimately the impasse ends our relationship anyway as well as the musical partnership and the record deal slips away with it!

    I spent the next few years working with a range of vocalists trying to get the opportunity back on the table but the momentum was gone and the label lost interest. I was a high school drop out and I didn’t have it in me to continue driving forklifts for the rest of my life but I realised it would look pretty desperate if I got to the point where I was still pinning my hopes on landing a record deal at the age of 40.

    What did come out of it though from Rob being so kind, generous and modest, and the fact that he treated me as an equal as a musician, that this gave me the confidence that I my thoughts and ideas could be valued in anything that I worked hard at. This eventually took me on a completely different but equally rewarding career path working in government and with little experience my lucky trajectory landed me a job as a political adviser in the private office of the Premier of Victoria (the Premier is the equivalent of a US Governor). In 2009, our state had endured the most catastrophic bushfires in Australia’s history. Among many other things, I had been tasked with coordinating fundraising and relief efforts from the artistic community to identify the events that would receive the government’s imprimatur. This culminated in helping to get the Oils back together to headline the major fundraising concerts Sound Relief. Two concerts were held simultaneously in Melbourne and Sydney with the Oils headlining the Melbourne concert playing to 81,000 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. At the time this was the largest ever concert crowd in Australia but this was surpassed earlier this year when Taylor Swift performed to 96,000 people at the same venue. Incidentally, a much younger Miss Swift performed at the Sydney Sound Relief concert.

    Fast forward to 2021 after spending 10 years dabbling with music gear and building a recording studio, I suggested (somewhat tongue in cheek) to Oils guitarist Jim Moginie that he trade me his white 1964 Gibson SG Custom for a rare and valuable German microphone that I owned. Jim called me a bastard years earlier when I purchased the microphone, so I had a good hunch that he might be interested in the trade. I now own the guitar that I saw so many times tearing the roof of venues but even more remarkably, it’s the guitar that features in that evocative film clip for the song Forgotten Years that captured my young imagination some 31 years prior. The guitar was used extensively on the Blue Sky Mining album and prominently on the songs Forgotten Years, Stars of Warburton and that killer guitar intro to River Runs Red. The guitar is such a huge source of inspiration to me and has inspired me to dive into its history of awesome riffs and become a much stronger player. The mentoring and friendship with Jim has also helped me get through some tough times in recent years and has reignited a sense of the need to serve a purpose beyond myself.

    As you note, the issues raised in the songs are more relevant now than ever. In these dark conspiratorial times of misinformation, doom scrolling and a prevalence of meanness, there is still safety and hope to be found in the songs etched into our souls during our formative years. These should not be forgotten years.

  12. Damien – thank you for your exceedingly well-written reply to a very old post. You clearly are an Oils fan on a deep dive and I thank you also for all your stories about and with a band that meant so much to me back then and so too now; I went on an Oils resurgence after penning this article and have been spinning Resist quite frequently as I too rediscovered their post Earth and Sun and Moon output. I’m glad you found my little memory hole and found it worth the read. You’re quite a fine writer yourself – do you have a website/blog/something similar?

  13. Brad, that is so kind of you to say and the compliment coming from you means a lot. I was glad that your blog inspired me to write down my own memories of that time. I don’t have a blog or any writing published.

    Writing speeches and media statement for politicians has helped me develop some good skills at writing in that context and has provided me with an opportunity to challenge the standard meaningless government speak! In those roles you are not attributed as the author, however, I have also felt that my words would never reach as far or have as much impact if I published them myself. It’s also sufficiently rewarding to influence public policy through writing that I don’t feel the same need to be credited as I would if someone else recorded one of my songs.

    I am in a period of career transition where I don’t know what my next move will be. Having time for reflection has been a positive in many ways and led me to finding new sources of inspiration and to think differently about the future.

    Resist is a really strong record and stands out to me in their catalogue due to Peter’s increased confidence in his own songwriting, and as a result, he contributes more of his own compositions than on previous albums. I think the Rob Hirst anthems ended up on the Makarrata Project album and Resist includes more of Jim and Peter’s deeply personal writing in contrast. Both albums were recorded during the same sessions.

    Thanks again for your kind reply and I look forward to taking a deeper dive into your own work.

  14. You have a talent with words, Damien, and I encourage you to do as I’ve done, get a website going and use it. Since I binned social media and focused on this little corner of the internet I’ve seen much greater traffic, commentariat, and all-important “SEO reach”. It took some time but in the end I like having a place to write and ruminate that belongs to me, not to Meta or any other Big Tech companies whose algorithms are skewed to the Popular Kids over us weird artistic types/Midnight Oil fans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.