The Sounds of Travel 10: “Read About It”

Here at Gadling we’ll be highlight some of our favorite sounds from the road and giving you a sample of each — maybe you’ll find the same inspiration that we did, but at the very least, hopefully you’ll think that they’re good songs.

Got a favorite of your own? Leave it in the Comments and we’ll post it at the end of the series.

“Read About It” by Midnight Oil

Midnight Oil’s “Read About It” is not a road song, really, not in the sense that the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” is a road song or Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” is a road song or the Chili Pepper’s “Higher Ground” is a road song.

In other words, you wouldn’t necessarily go to this cut first having just pulled on the highway and wound down the windows.

But for me the song, and more importantly the band, is very much rooted in a travel experience, which I guess makes it another kind of road song.

I spent half of 1998 living in Australia. That seems like a long time ago as I write this, but I can easily close my eyes and recall the details of that time, how the country’s light looked, how the country smelled, the vibes of its city streets, and how in not a few parts the sheer distances and openness you confront could make you feel very, very small indeed.

I went everywhere, from the central outback to the Kimberly to the shores of the Thursday Islands to the dense inland trails of Tasmania. I talked to people.

If that time had a soundtrack, I suppose it would have been composed of Midnight Oil songs.
I can’t think of another band that is so of a place as Midnight Oil. Midnight Oil is of Australia – its music is rooted in the land and the people, as are the topics the band sings about.

You could probably spend a weekend listening to their entire oeuvre and receive a pretty good crash course on Australian history and culture: Its artists, its colonial and penal past, its environment and geography, its industry, its media, its cities and towns, its spaces, its relationship with its indigenous citizens.

(On that last one, it’s somewhat surprising, when you really think about it, that the Oils’ biggest chart-topper in the US was a passionate song about Aboriginal land rights – “Beds are Burning” – a topic that doesn’t necessarily scream hit.)

The band does turn its attention beyond Australia at times, usually to rail against arms races or nuclear negligence or corporate greed – this is the band, after all, that played its anti-corporate railer “King of the Mountain” on the back of a flat-bed truck outside an Exxon office building in downtown New York. Yet even these songs have an Australian sensibility in that they seem like shouts from a distant place to the wider world – which is very much an element of Australian society. Things sometime have to be done louder there just get people elsewhere to listen.

Probably if I look deep inside myself, my time in Australia was the time in my life when I started becoming angry about a lot of things in the world – and that was suited for the Oils too, because their songs reflect that same kind of anger.

I don’t know whether I came to understand Australia better through Midnight Oil songs or Midnight Oils songs better through traveling around Australia. Probably a little bit of both.

What I do know is that both realities – the band and the traveling – fed off each other. Things I saw turned up in Oils songs; things frontman Peter Garrett sang about would flash at the windows of whatever buss or taxi or car I was in. You can’t really understand what “Beds are Burning” is about, for instance, until you spend some time in a place like Broome, in the far northwest of the country.

But I’ve singled out “Read About It,” I know. There’s a reason: You can’t just blithely travel through Australia. You experience it. And to get the full impact of Midnight Oil, you have to do the same — and that means live. Both encounters – with land and band – are raw, intense, visceral, big.

Veterans of Oils shows will tell you that these outings are not something you simply go to but also go through.

So relentless is the experience of a Midnight Oil concert that when it’s over you’re left standing, dazed and unsure of what has just transpired during the past two hours.

That’s how I felt when I first saw them in Melbourne, when they played this song. (Four years later I would see an entire crowd on Boston Common stand in much the same sort of depleted haze after the Oils finished up a short six-song set on Earth Day. It felt like everyone was thinking, Who were those guys?, and you could almost feel the energy rolling out of the surroundings, like a breeze along your arm, as the band left the stage.)

I think this live performance of “Read About It,” from a 2005 concert at the Sydney Cricket Grounds benefiting the victims of the Asian Tsunami, showcases a little bit of this intensity.

Is travel in Australia like attending a Midnight Oil show? I don’t want to go too far with this – I feel already like I’m treading on unstable ground.

But maybe, for me, yes, it is a little like that.

Midnight Oil broke up in 2004, and the imposing, dance-challenged Garrett is now Australia’s secretary of the environment.

But Midnight Oil’s songs, whenever I put them on, take me back to those days of travel. To me at least, the band’s music is Australia.