#899: ‘When The Generals Talk’ – Midnight Oil

Midnight Oil were one of those ubiquitous bands in my childhood that helped to form my musical taste. It was almost impossible not to have a day go by in which I didn’t hear one of their songs on the radio, or hear some form of reference to them from the Australian media. However, this overexposure lead to me feeling somewhat sick of them for a long time, preferring not to hear any of their overplayed hits, and instead choosing to listen to their lesser-known, or less-played tracks, such as ‘When The Generals Talk’.

Midnight Oil’s early tracks saw them very moderate success, with their music being preferred by many of Australia’s public broadcasters as opposed to the national radio stations. By the time their fourth album, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, was released in 1982, the group had managed to crack the mainstream. With a number of highly-political tracks, such as ‘Read About It‘, ‘US Forces‘, and ‘Power And The Passion‘, the group were almost instant legends of the pub-rock scene.

After a hugely successful album such as that, the group didn’t exactly follow it up with another album of the same calibre. Despite being the group’s first number one album in Australia, 1984’s Red Sails In The Sunset, contained two singles, neither of which charted. One of these singles, ‘When The Generals Talk’, became a favourite of mine for many years. As I said before, I was sick of the tracks that would be overplayed, and instead I turned to songs such as this, which had a completely different vibe and feel to it. It wasn’t until a few years later that I discovered one of the reasons I might have enjoyed this song, was that ‘When The Generals Talk’ was one of the few Midnight Oil songs not sung by frontman Peter Garrett, rather it was sung by drummer Peter Hirst.

The track itself is a rather self-explanatory critique on war and how many tend to blindly follow the world leaders into wars, but that wasn’t what resonated with me at the time. These days, the song’s message makes a lot more sense to me than it did when I was younger, specifically when it comes to lines such as “Sitting on the fence both ears to the ground, the fat cats still push the thin cats around.”

Despite my lack of understanding of the song’s message, there was something different about this song, and it took me forever to realise what that was. Not only was the group’s singer different, they had employed electronic drums, and used guitar riffs which were far less straightforward than previous.

If anything, ‘When The Generals Talk’ felt almost like Midnight Oil’s foray into art-rock; their attempt to play music for the sake of playing music, rather than trying to appeal their audience, and it was something I highly respected. Years later, I discovered a cover of the track by Australian rock band Jebediah, and while it doesn’t feature the same art-rock feel to it that Midnight Oil’s original does, it’s still a brilliant cover that deserves recognition.

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