Midnight Oils “Shakers and Movers” – a profound beautiful gem of a song

Next week Midnight Oil get a Human Rights award. David Ritter has written perceptively and with power and passion (plus some easter egg references for the nerds) about their influence.

I want here just to talk about one song, an album track from the 1990 effort Blue Sky Mine. The song is “Shakers and Movers” and I’ve long loved it and thought about it.

Won’t you come on down the line, away from barren ground?
The harlot and the autocrat, are they driving you further down?
The singer beckons you, away from “barren” ground (which might be fertile, but is in the hands of harlots and autocrats. I think he means Europe in the 19th century… There’s a “why wouldn’t you come to paradise?” tone to it – Australia the (white) working man’s paradise..
The seasons’ rhymes, they anchor me, against the raging tide
Take you to the last wild place, skin and the stars they embrace
The poetry here is astonishing. And though the words didn’t mean it at the time (I think), they now speak to the loss of seasons thanks to climate change – the seasons don’t have rhymes or rhythms anymore, and can’t anchor us, as the tides rise. “skin and the stars embrace” – who can write like this? That’s magical.
A caveman could a saint become, on a hospital ward on the Somme
My reading of this (perhaps wrong) is of an Aboriginal serviceman becoming (briefly) a hero during the first world war (the Somme). The chance of reconciliation? Of shared enterprise in the mythology of Anzac (strong at the time the song was written, stronger since, and now being as challenged because of the Brereton Report.) Though why a blackfella should risk his life for an Empire that has stolen land, murdered, pillaged etc
We can dive into distant amoebas, our wings could melt in the sunWe can take dangerous journeys to difficult living places, but the hubris of trying may lead us to plummet like Icarus. (Nothing is safe, but that is the very nature of life.)
I can shake, I can move, but I live can’t without your love
I can break, Over you, but I can’t live without your love
Love’s the only engine of survival, as one L. Cohen once sang…
I am become a wave (break over you)
Our poet Henry Lawson, he named them, the Lay’em Out Brigade
Here they come, there they go,
Henry Lawson’s poem “The Lay’Em Out Brigade”, is comment on an infamous incident of the threat of military force against strikers. A defence of the working man’s paradise again and an awareness of the willingness of those brigades to inflict physical violence on anyone who gets in their way (see also Billy Bragg’s The Marching Song of the Covert Battalions.
oh great god of developmentThat key word “development” which from the 80s (earlier too, of course) was a euphemism for planting dismal resorts on wilderness. The Hawke government was busy trying to convince folks that “Ecologically Sustainable Development” was a thing as this song was being written.
Don’t really know you yet
Coastline hosed down washed away, economics now there’s nothing left
Coastlines hosed down…. yeah. Economics now (“economic rationalism” – what we used to called neoliberalism, back in the day)
And now, yeah, there is nothing left (bar the shouting)
Tomorrow’s child takes concrete footsteps
And they’ll drink champagne or be damned
We needed then, to take concrete (real, hard) steps and win (celebrating with champagne). We didn’t, so the “or be damned” comes into play…
And the storm is breaking now, yes the storm is crashing downCompare to the end of Blue Sky Mine from the same album – ” in the end the rain comes down…” – rain/weather as redeemer, as cleanser…
(Spoken)This last bit is Garrett speaking. It’s beautiful too, and is a continuation of the themes of the song itself.
Our blood vessels go sailing, galaxies awayMore difficult dangerous, beautiful journeys (to distant novas) (lovely doubling of “vessels”)
You know today’s bushfire is tomorrow’s infernoYeah, we have grokked that, sadly. I suspect, from the context, that the intention was to say “things can change [for the better] quickly…
As rags to riches becomes the public spearThis is beautiful again. The “rags to riches” narrative, of (individual) economic prosperity/growth has become a weapon piercing the idea of a public, a common good.
Watching out down the street as other people start coming downThe same people he hailed at the beginning, to “come on down the line.” The dream of a congregation for the common good (the dream realised in the video for Blue Sky Mine).
I can see that they’re smilingYeah, back then you could do that without having to work really hard. We hadn’t opened so many hellmouths back then. The consequences that had already happened to other species, to other people’s, hadn’t yet become clear enough on “us.”
And that’s something to be proud ofWell, yeah. Most people seem to need hope, and you can be proud to provide some perhaps? (I disagree, but wtf would I know)
And they say it’s late, but you know it’s never too late
And they say it’s late, but you know it’s never too late
This question of lateness, of “last chance to save”. We’ve known how late it was for a long time, and it keeps getting later… Imho, it CAN be too late, and it probably is (that doesn’t give us permission to quit, I think. It should create an obligation on us to reflect and innovate. But that would be a different blog post.
Never too late
Never too late…

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