ROCK / Oil and troubled waters: There's nothing Neighbourly about the Australian band Midnight Oil. Martin Wroe met and watched them in Brixton

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AT BRIXTON Academy in south London on Tuesday night, several thousand people were holding advance celebrations for Australian independence, singing about Aboriginal land rights, environmental conservation and all things Australian. A visitor from another planet would have concluded that if the Republic of Australia had not yet been declared, at the very least a new monarchy had been established, with Peter Garrett, lead singer of Midnight Oil, its king.

'We apologise for Rupert Murdoch,' said Garrett to huge cheers, dedicating to his compatriot media- mogul a new song, 'Tell Me The Truth', with its line about 'receiving someone else's lies'.

Neighbours, Home and Away, Kylie, Jason, even Sylvania Waters didn't get a look in on Tuesday. Midnight Oil represent another Australia from that of popular export. Their lead singer for example, in a plot-line yet to be considered on Ramsey Street, recently returned from a month in the country - more specifically, the Australian desert, where he slept out under the stars with his Aboriginal hosts, who have been doing something similar for thousands of years.

Speaking before the concert, he described it as 'just getting in the middle of nothingness' and insisted that any culture shock happened not on his arrival in the desert but on his return to the city.

'Days and nights flow almost like a seamless road,' he said. 'Hearing all these incredible sounds and none of them ugly or generated by machines has a very soothing effect. It cleans you out, helps you to filter everything a bit.'

It also helped him and his consciousness-raising conspirators in Midnight Oil focus on Earth and Sun and Moon, their new record, which again wears their political sensibilities on its sleeve without neglecting to pack some memorable tunes. New songs like 'Drums of Heaven' and 'My Country' were received as enthusiastically as old standards, with the exception of 'Beds Are Burning', the reception for which the folks back home probably caught.

While the English cricket team were subjected to some mockery from the stage, so too was Her Majesty their Queen, if nothing too malicious. But when Garrett sang 'Truganini' with its refrain, 'I see the Union Jack in flames, let it burn', any of Her Majesty's courtiers present would have sensed a definite sense of time up, game over.

Not that the idea of Australia parting company with the old country is a novel doctrine in the Midnight Oil canon. Lately, however, many seem to agree.

'There's no doubt about it happening now,' says the drummer Rob Hirst, who founded the band in 1971, four years before Garrett joined as vocalist and they were christened Midnight Oil. 'We'll have a republic by the year 2001, we'll have a new flag which reflects the colours and experiences of Australians, rather than the blues and reds of that distant mother country of our parents' generation. It's an inevitability now . . .'

Garrett picks up the colour theme: 'We haven't got an identity which reflects us being peculiarly Australian. I have this conversation with recent British immigrants in Australia and they still can't understand that the colours I see are those of the bush 60 kilometres south west of Sydney - greys and bluey-greys and those brilliant horizons which have nothing to do with green fields. They can't understand that our experience of summer is of bush fires and smells and tastes totally alien to this country.'

Evidently Oil fans in Brixton do understand. They may have left to do Europe in camper vans with crates of Fosters but, unlike their predecessors who made it and stayed away - Germaine Greer, John Pilger, Clive James, Robert Hughes - these Aussies will be going back. As will Midnight Oil, despite the lure of the United States where they sell millions of records.

'Maybe if the Oils had happened in the Sixties,' says Garrett, 'when everything about rock seemed to be about England, we'd also have been on the first ship out of Oz. But not today. You don't get any sense coming back to Sydney today that you are missing out on anything. For example, we feel more in touch musically with radio stations than we do in Europe or in the US where, if they play you another Brian Adams track, you'll throw yourself off the timber.'

Despite their chosen immersion in the cynical political realities of a messy world at the end of the second millennium, there remains a sense of the innocent about Midnight Oil, a sense that maybe they're still doing it for the fun they looked for when they started out as a Seventies surfie band. They may sing about global warming or the cultural rape of indigenous peoples but they insist that they are not carrying the weight of the world on their broad Australian shoulders.

'There is a ruminative sense in our music,' says Hirst, 'which comes with the business of being able to cross borders and get a sense of the scale of different things, but we're not doom sayers, we don't sit around bemoaning the state of things.'

Garrett adds: 'It's still incredible for us to come from Australia, to have written songs about Australian places, people, feelings, to put out a song like 'Truganini', about an obscure Aborigine who died in the last century . . . A lot of Australians still have trouble with that, let alone people in Mudplain, Ohio.'

Or people at Brixton Academy, for that matter. But there is a clue to the feeling they tap into on the title track of the new album, where they imagine that instead of scientists taking space trips, it's poets, religious leaders and ordinary folk who look on the globe from above the sky. 'It's not a bunch of people in different-coloured uniforms,' says Garrett.' You can't see them, you just see one human tribe.'

(Photograph omitted)