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Success Has Its Price

Midnight Oil hates the C-word.

That dreaded word-- commercial --really is profane to the radical-leftist, socio-political activist Australian pop-rock band, which appears Sunday at the Universal Amphitheatre.

“Being commercial is not our goal,” insists lead singer Peter Garrett, 35, who, at 6-feet-6 with a shaved head and a law degree, is one of rock’s most imposing figures, both physically and intellectually. “We’d like as many people as possible to hear what we have to say, but we won’t compromise to reach a bigger audience.”

Wait a minute. Aren’t these the guys who had a hit single, “Beds Are Burning,” from their Columbia album “Diesel and Dust,” which has sold 1.3 million? If that’s not commercial. . . . “We’ve never meant to be commercial,” Garrett reiterates. “At least our music isn’t that easily disposable pap that passes for pop music.”

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Somehow, though, Midnight Oil turned out a commercial album, one full of catchy hooks and hummable melodies, that mostly focuses on a decidedly uncommercial subject--injustices to Australia’s aborigines. It’s full of songs with grim titles like “Put Down That Weapon” and “The Dead Heart,” but it’s crafted in a very--pardon the expression--commercial way.

“We never thought we’d get an audience for any of this because of the content,” Garrett says. “But radio took to ‘Beds Are Burning’ in a big way.”

Until the current album, Midnight Oil, which started as a revolutionary punk band in 1979, hadn’t recorded anything that was remotely commercial in this country. The group’s previous top seller was the 1983 album, “10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1,” which sold only 100,000.

Its cult status, of course, is gone. Packaging the group’s somber messages in a palatable pop form has done something for it that was previously unthinkable--it’s made the five members pop stars. Calling them pop stars is the same as accusing them of intentionally making a commercial album.

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“The inevitable result of becoming a pop star is decadence, depression and death,” Garrett says with disdain. “We’d like to avoid all three.”


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