Oral History: The Making Of Midnight Oil's 'Power And The Passion' Video

26 September 2013 | 2:01 pm | Kris Swales

Inside one of Australia's most iconic music videos

The three ton truck driver's eyes are glued to his phone as he waits for the traffic light to change. He misses the signal's switch from red to green, before looking up and hurriedly veering off Palmer Street towards the Sydney CBD. Eight lanes of traffic on the adjacent Eastern Distributor – that raucous divider of city from suburbia – roar under the viaduct linking the city to Woolloomooloo, the rhythmic click-clack of trains passing sporadically overhead.

The Bourke Street Community Garden sits on the eastern side of this relentlessly pumping artery. Fenced off from Bourke Street Park, with its token exercise equipment, stainless steel toilet block with king-sized sharps bin and piles of belongings owned by the local homeless, the garden's grass is patchy despite the three giant rainwater reservoirs standing fenced-off next door.

The plastic tanks have doors and windows inked on them – “plastic houses for the homeless,” according to the lone gardener at work today – while nearby a pile of rotting plush toys sits forlornly at the base of one of the viaduct's cement pylons. A pylon that, unbeknownst to our truck driver and gardener, once served as a backdrop for one of the early high watermarks of Australian music video history.

This pylon may be stripped bare (save the ubiquitous markings of an inner-Sydney graff writer), but the large painting covering the next pylon along is one of nine surviving works from the Woolloomooloo Mural Project. Conceived in 1982 as a community statement against rampant development in the area – development which was halted thanks to the 'green bans' implemented by the New South Wales Builders' Labourers Federation – the project also included seven temporary 'billboard' style paintings, including Robin Heks and Graham Kime's now iconic I Love A Plundered Country where the plush toy shrine now stands.

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Unbeknownst to them, with those five words Heks and Kime captured the spirit of Midnight Oil's Power and the Passion, released later that year. And though Ray Argall's live film of the band in action at Sydney's Capitol Theatre had successfully launched the seminal 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 in Australia, it was the video for Power And The Passion that announced them as a force to the rest of the world.

Ray Argall (Director): I think speak to anybody, whether they're a Midnight Oil fan or not, the live performances are something that are really special. They took it very seriously, in terms of they had an audience and they wanted to communicate with that audience and connect with them. To be released from having to perform on stage was something that, for a lot of groups, was really fascinating. Midnight Oil, on the other hand, their live performance and the energy that they captured in that was such an important part of who they were that you had to try and capture some of that energy in the film clip. They were best playing live to playback and that's what we did.

Rob Hirst (Drummer): When I actually did the original [drum solo], it was all done in one take. We wanted to capture that same energy when it came to doing the clip, so it was all done very quickly.

Ray Argall: What's interesting with Midnight Oil is their very strong musical presence and people really relate to the music, but the other level is of course that there are fairly big themes and concepts coming through their music. I guess what I was interested in was trying to capture that in a not too literal way, but to capture some part of what they, the band, were representing and putting forth in their music.

Rob Hirst: I think Ray Argall and co went looking for a place that would also represent this sense that we had back then – which, by the way, is very much still alive – of the big media barons – ahem, Rupert – and others and big corporate greed running the show against the endeavours and the passions of the little guy. So we found that location down in Woolloomooloo.

Merilyn Fairskye (Artist/Curator, Woolloomooloo Mural Project): It was all tied up with providing an account with the green bans struggles and what was happening in Victoria Street, as well as the history of Woolloomooloo itself.


And now.

Rob Hirst: Back then people in inner-city Sydney were still fighting a losing battle with the big developers. I'm not sure that in 2013 they would've been allowed to carve up a really historic, right next to the harbour community like Woolloomooloo with its incredible maritime history and its cute terraces and atmospheric pubs. But in those days of course, “yeah, we're just going to run the cement right through”. I remember people down there were incredible angry about what was happening, and so they took the first opportunity to make things felt on that Eastern Suburbs railway staunch.

Merilyn Fairskye: We had a real run-in with Midnight Oil at the time because they didn't ask our permission to shoot in front of the murals. We were really heavily involved with the beginning of the Artworkers Union and with artists' rights to control the way in which their work was used. So it was really a difficult time for us with them because they were less than receptive to the things that we felt they needed to take into account – basically that they needed to seek the permission of the artists before using the work in such a big way. And they would've gotten the permission because we were very relaxed about that, but we did want them to recognise that this was the work of artists who were really underpaid – they were a highly paid band at the time – and they provided no credits in the clip at all. And it was more than just incidental material in the background, it provided the centrepiece for much of the clip.

Ray Argall: There are no physical credits on a music video, so I don't imagine that any discussions about that would've been making sure that there was no question about who those artists were. It is interesting that now we live in a world where Intellectual Property is a really crucial issue and I'm acutely aware of it in all the work I do – particularly with Internet usage, it's become a really major issue. However 30 years ago the process we went through was a very simple, straightforward clearance with the Council to work in a public area. With the mural behind, I guess there was a certain amount of accepting that being in a public space.

Merilyn Fairskye: As one of the two organising artists on the project I did go and speak to their manager* – who, I have to say, was rather hostile.

Ray Argall: I think Gary [Morris, Midnight Oil's manager until July 2013] would've been the main person that negotiated with them to resolve anything. I have to say that in my experience, Gary and Peter [Garrett] both deal with the absolute most integrity. Midnight Oil is very strong on these issues, and they certainly would've managed and discussed with the artists because they're not about ripping people off, they just don't do that sort of thing. They have a history of constantly looking after people that they've worked with.

Merilyn Fairskye: Eventually they agreed to pay the two artists a usage fee – this is Grahame Kime and Robin Heks – of $50. [$157, adjusted for inflation.]

Ray Argall: The [music video] budgets were not big. Anywhere between the lowest for around $1000 [$3,144, inflation-adjusted] and the highest probably didn't get above 10, and we were probably in the middle ground somewhere. Back then music videos were in this sort of no man's land of artistic, musical expression. It wasn't like a commercial television production or something.

Merilyn Fairskye: It was their manager I suppose who was running the show, but we felt they were really unsympathetic to us as artists. But I don't want to make out that we hate Midnight Oil or anything like that! It's just because we were so involved at the time with defending artists' rights, we were all real activists around it. For all their leftie posturing, we thought it was just that – leftie posturing, rather than putting their money where their mouth is.

Ray Argall: Once we'd found that area to work in... If you look in the clip you can see when we're circling around, there's quite a little crowd of people. You know, there's music playing and it's probably a warm late spring night or something.

Rob Hirst: It was a really cold winter's night, I remember. Even the homeless people from Matthew Talbot [Hostel] I think had gone inside, it was so cold. Or maybe the PA that we were using drove them inside, I'm not sure – maybe a bit of both.

Ray Argall: We basically just set that up, the road crew came and put all their gear up.

Rob Hirst: I remember I was sick as a dog and didn't really want to do it. I got dragged out there but as soon as the music started we were kind of on.

Ray Argall: We rolled the playback pretty much from beginning to end and I just captured that energy not unlike I would've on stage, however there was no audience so I was able to go everywhere with the camera.

Rob Hirst: I think it was all done in a couple of takes. I guess Ray knew by then that it wasn't a band that was very good at second or third takes.

Ray Argall: We were probably there for a couple of hours. We did around four runs of the song.

Rob Hirst: Pete's dancing and his performance is just great. It really just defined that unique dancing style, and I think I just joined in. I think Ray said “look, next time you kick the drum kit off make sure you really kick it off”, so I did! After I kicked the drums off the thing I had nothing more to hit, so I just grabbed a drum and sort of do this weird, Whirling Dervish thing along with Peter.

Ray Argall: I also got them the next day to basically do the same thing, a few runs of the song in a studio against a chroma key background. That was going to give me the parts, what I needed from them, to work with all of the other images I was going to put together. So as far as planning every shot, it was more planning the elements and then bringing them together in the editing room.

Rob Hirst: I know Gary took it upon himself always to pretty much direct or co-direct everything we did, so [the concept] would've been through Gary – through the band talking to Gary, Gary then talking to the film makers and cinematographers to get the result. We'd done the clip for US Forces where we were all in our coloured overalls up at Central Coast Power Station. But this is the first one that featured all the cut-ins that became a real Midnight Oil feature in so many of our clips for the next 10 or 15 years – fast edited cuts of corporate greed, the media and Big Macs and McDonald's and crook lawyers and greedy accountants and what have you.

Ray Argall: It was me capturing footage – I had some stuff in my own archives that I'd shot, and I just went around capturing images that I thought would work.

Rob Hirst: It's all thrown into the mix, cut up really fast, and then that lovely animation as well which kind of gives the other side of the coin, which was that “get into the panel van and just drive up the coast with a sack of brown rice and go surfing” kind of thing.

Ray Argall: The animation came from a guy called Graeme Jackson, who was a very experienced animator who'd worked overseas and so forth, and that was something that the band, they'd come across him somewhere and obviously discussed it with him. There were a couple of passages that he was given to work with.

Rob Hirst: The whole idea of the overriding theme of Power And The Passion of course is the little guy fighting big corporate greed and media lies and some other very familiar and favourite Midnight Oil topics of the '80s! After what News Limited showed to be capable of with the hacking in Great Britain and elsewhere, and News Limited's influence on the recent Australian elections, you'd have to say “well, sorry folks, nothing much has changed there”.

Ray Argall: I tried to get free-to-air television that was running that was its own commentary. I shot that on an undercranked camera and zoomed right in to get that video noise. You don't know at the time when you're filming that they're elements that you're going to bring together. I had two or three hours before we had to get into the online edit and you can see the splice marks in it. It's just a straight work print and I just cut all those other elements to the music so that that would give that, if you like, acceleration of thematic ideas, it would inject it into the song. Because really, at the end of the day all of the themes and concepts and ideas are great, but it really has to work with the music.

Rob Hirst: That made a huge difference, that song and that clip, to how we were perceived. And it got some play overseas, I think, on a very early version of MTV when it was first starting.

Ray Argall: It was a great song, that always helps! Sometimes those things come together. I think what happens is when that moment in the editing room when you go 'it's falling together', the hairs on the back of your neck rise because your pictures are actually working with that music. The song's great, but you're actually lifting it to a visual level that you sort of feel people are going to relate to it.

Rob Hirst: What we learnt from the song and the clip was that our best way of making music with a message, or making music about our own country, Australia – which we still are passionately involved with and feel so fortunate that we were born here and this has been our lives, where our families have grown up – I think what we learned was that the way to seduce people is to get a killer beat, great melodies, then get Pete dancing. Then, by stealth, the message goes in. You don't want to browbeat people, just beat them over the head, because that's going nowhere. I think that was the secret. I'm sure that Power And The Passion was the first of the clips and the songs where it dawned upon us, the right formula.


And now.

*NB – Gary Morris was unable to be contacted before deadline.