Monday, March 28, 2011

Surpassing the Original: Alexisonfire's Take on Midnight Oil’s "The Dead Heart"


The Australian activist band Midnight Oil has been with us in one form or another since 1972. Over those years, they have always worn their liberal hearts on their sleeves. What I've always liked about the band is that they have walked the walk even when I disagreed with their point of view. For example, bald, tall, lead singer Peter Garrett has probably done more for Australian aboriginal causes, through his music and politics, than any other white man in the country's history. He was elected to parliament for the Labour Party in 2004 and, as with many activists who have moved into politics, has softened some of his more radical stances. Yet, there is still no debate that his and Midnight Oil's hit songs such as “Beds Are Burning,” “Dreamworld,” “Blue Sky Mine,” and, of course, “The Dead Heart,” have done plenty to bring recognition and exposure to some of the more horrific things that the modernization of Australia has caused.

“The Dead Heart,” on their 1987 Diesel and Dust CD, tells the story from the aboriginal point of view (controversial, since no one in the band is an aborigine) of what life has been like for them since the white man came to the country in 1788. Midnight Oil's version is fine. It's sung with passion and is pointed in its condemnation of what has happened to Australia's indigenous peoples over the last 220+ years. And yet, the song is also almost too pretty and melodic. It is a song that becomes way too easy to ignore the content and think of as simply a good song to dance to.

In 2010, Canadian post-punk outfit Alexisonfire (pronounced “Alexis-on-fire”) put out a 7-inch vinyl single with two cover tracks: “The Dead Heart” and “I'm Stranded” (originally done by a band called The Saints). Over the weekend, though, when I first heard their version of “The Dead Heart,” I was driving and not paying close attention. So I thought it was the Midnight Oil original. “The Dead Heart” starts with the same forceful lead guitar, propulsive drumming and group-chorus sung “Doo dot doo dot doo doo doo,” but then lead singer/punk screamer George Pettit comes in with an almost terrifying shouted cry from the heart when he sings: “We don't serve your country/Don't serve your king/know your custom don't speak your tongue/White man came took everyone.” It made me pull over and listen. This was not the version I knew (it's played much faster too). Midnight Oil's version was angry; Alexisonfire is filled with hate, contempt and venom. There is no doubting here what this song is about. The music is still pretty and you can still dance to it, but you cannot avoid the intent of the lyrics. Pettit spits them in your face and forces you to listen. The chorus, “We carry in our hearts the true country/and that cannot be stolen/follow in the steps of our ancestry/and that cannot be broken,” is sung by guitarist/pianist Dallas Green in a more melodic fashion. It ends up being perfect counterpoint to Pettit's full-bore venom.

The fact that Alexisonfire is a St. Catharines, Ontario, band, and all-white, is astounding. When they sing this version, you forget that Midnight Oil was singing strictly about Australian aborigines because Alexisonfire version is done for all repressed people: be they Native North Americans, African slaves or indigenous peoples of Australia or New Zealand.

The song is important because it details what our ancestors did to the native cultures of the many lands they colonized. There are many things my ancestors did that I would probably not be proud of. However, I live my life in a way that obviates that way of thinking. A song like this should be heard and understood, so we know what happened. But if we are to carry forward in this world, the hatred must end. Alexisonfire's version suggests the anger is still there, yet by understanding that anger, it is a starting point for reconciliation.

Link to Alexisonfire's version

Link to Midnight Oil's version

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree. Aggression illustrated through art definitely sparks an understanding, and conversation.