Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review: Head Injuries by Midnight Oil (1979)

I am going to review a couple of old Midnight Oil albums in order to measure them against each other and justify my preference for one over the other. In fairness, I have only ever had this album Head Injuries as a muddy-sounding home pirated cassette. Clearly I am not an audiophile - and I would never criticise music for it's production values so it's not going to influence me I don't think.
I don't really get into anything Midnight Oil recorded after Red Sails In The Sunset (1984). They made some good and rightfully popular music but it didn't grab me the way the early stuff did. I was at Joe Crawford's house, one day in grade 10 I think, and he was playing some albums his cool young Uncle Max had sent them from Sydney, including Place Without A Postcard. I was hooked immediately. One of my formative experiences as a 17 year old was taking off to Launceston with a gang of schoolmates to see them play at the Velodrome (not an especially charismatic venue) and about ten of us staying that night in a holiday cabin nearby that accommodated 4.
Cold Cold Change opens the album with what I think of as a dumb riff, like Feeling Kinda Sporty by Dave Graney is. The best part of the song is the chord at the end. It was released as a single. It's common to start an album with what you think is the strongest track; but I think they were wrong. 5/10

Section 5 (Bus to Bondi) On this record quite often the lyrics don't scan very well, just ill-suited to the musical space provided. Here is an example "Push start this car tomorrow, I'll take it to the tip yaaaaaaaard, and I'll leave it as a memory for" 5/10

Naked Flame - This works. Like a lot of their songs at this stage I have no idea what this about. It's got a nice Sherberty harmonic chorus near the end. 7/10

Back on the Borderline opens with great drum solo and settles into a good tempo. Very catchy 4 word chorus. "The only place is Laminex" - nup no idea what this is about either. Much more straighforward rock without tempo changes etc of first few tracks. 8/10

Koala Sprint opens with a spoken word bit over a choppy keyboard something like a distant helicopter (which returns on Outside World on a later album). Part 2 is a quiet instrumental prelude then Garret screams and it turns into road song, about a surf trip going north. A bit like Houndog by Cold Chisel. Then for the outro the helicopter comes back. End of side 1. I can hear the needle lift on my home taped cassette. 6/10

No Reaction is back to four on the floor rock, nice spidery guitar solo in the middle. "You're almost but not quite more than we deserve" was a bit complex for me as a teenager and I still don't think I have nailed it. 7/10

Stand in Line  The standout track. No Reaction sets it up well. Deals with unfairness of mining riches, unevenness of wealth distribution. Killer bassline, one of their best. Appealed to my teen sense of the world being unfair and the first step on the ladder being deliberately put out of my reach. Well, I was relatively well off and had nothing to whinge about really but out of *many people's* reach. Good guitar solo then some vocal gymnastics for a big angry finish. Must have been a roof-raiser live. 9/10

I was actually in Sydney when this concert on Goat Island happened, simulcast on Triple J and ABC TV.

Profiteers does some tricky time signature things, starts waltz, then goes 4/4, it's lost me if I'm honest. Vocals sound like they were done via a pay phone; a bit of a singsong nursery rhyme thing about recruiting boys to be soldiers. Back to waltz at the end and some military drums to help the thickies like me who haven't worked out it's about war. 6/10

Is it Now. I am feeling a sense of relief when a new track starts and it's simple rock. They were such a good tight rock band. The riff reminds me of Mental As Anything’s Possible Theme for a Future TV Drama Series. 7/10

Average mark: 6.667 which you could say equates to ★★★.


I have come up with a new system for converting marks out of ten to star ratings. 2.5 or below is one star. 9 or above is 5 stars. On that basis Head Injuries is worth ★★★½

The Rees Marks-to-Stars System


John McGlasson said...

You’re right.

While reading your review of ‘Head Injuries’ yesterday, I wanted to immediately rebut, refute and take apart your analysis as I have such a passion for this album. However, on reading your analysis, I found both the criticisms and compliments were measured and well justified and could find very little to fault.

However, on reflection, I realised something significant. Individuals come from very difference points of view when listening to music. As is the same with all of the arts I guess. Two people watch the same movie, one loves it and the other pans it – I guess it all comes down to taste and how we reflect on these things.

I feel that similarly, an amazing meal is not just the result of the quality of all the ingredients (although it definitely helps), an album is also not only the sum of its parts. It is contextual, a culmination of creativity by all (or most) of the band members and the engineer. It reflects not only the quality of the musicians but provides a snapshot into the evolution of their music. The listener is invited to travel back to that moment in time to sample the essence of their sound. Maybe it’s just me, but with Midnight Oil’s ‘Head Injuries’ (or even Powderworks) album, I allow myself to feel what it was like to experience their 1979 live show at that time. The Ambassador, Newcastle or Bombay Rock in Melbourne. Hundreds of people packed into a hot live band room with beer soaked carpets, all feeling the bass hit them in the chest and the PA filling the room – something that, to be honest, Australian music has mostly lost forever and shame on us.

It’s probably unusual, but I rarely listen to all the lyrics of any song – my bad. I take some of the lines and allow these to splice into the music but have always felt that the vocals of any band was just another instrument. I listen to the wall of sound, made up by a spectrum of frequencies, revel in the chord changes and the overall feel of the song. I liked the ethics of Midnight Oil at the time and felt comfortable that at least they were singing about a cause or two, the exact meanings behind some of their lyrics were not so important. Some of the odder lines are probably another example of the adolescence and immaturity of the bands growth, after all this was only their second album.

While albums that came after this have received worldwide audiences and critical acclaim (10, 9, 8.., Red Sails, Diesel and Dust, etc.), Powderworks, Head Injuries and Place Without a Postcard remain as the cornerstones of their foundation and made the band what they became.

Yes, beyond Head Injuries, their lyrics matured as did their arranging and production. PWAP is a great example of that journey but I still cannot escape the love of the raw energy that Head Injuries delivers. Also, it may be the remastered version I am listening to but the quality of the recording and this mix really does make a difference, blistering guitar licks, pumping bass riffs and that ever reliable Rob Hirst backbone that drives this album hard.

PWAP for me kinda dials that down a bit, the songs are more reflective, more emotional, the engineer uses more trickery in the studio and as much as it would have been great to see this performed live, my smile would have been bigger during the Head Injuries tour.

I look forward to your PWAP review to see how you temper your thoughts across the tracks. We both have a great love of this band, that musical era and that concert at the Velodrome in Launceston as I was one of that 10 went – what a great concert! Although, surprisingly it does not rate a mention on the official concert list site ( …… it is the ghost concert!

For me, I feel that taking into account the era and the production technology they had at their disposal at that time, ‘Head Injuries’ delivers and probably deserves more than 3 stars. However I accept your articulate review my friend. In any case, it is head and shoulders above most music cut and paste on computers today.

Viva La Oils!

chris rees said...

Well thank you, but it gives me no pleasure at all to be right, and I felt kind of grim giving it 3 stars. I have now worked out a scientific "marks out of ten / stars" conversion table. See edit above - now its 3.5 stars.

I totally agree that an album is more than the sum of its parts. And when it's been part of our lives for over 30 years, can we kid ourselves that we can be objective? Not really. That's why I have taken the reductive approach of just marking each song out of 10 and averaging. I will try to be equally critical and forensic with PWAP despite my professed attachment to it.

When your copy of Head Injuries arrives (thank you!) I will drive around with it for a while (I mostly listen to mp3s at home, CDs in the car) and listen more deeply.

Lets Rock!