A highlight from Midnight Oil's third album, 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 (1982), this is one of rock's most eloquent protests against imperialism, neo-colonialism, and forgetting. The first two verses consist of little more than a litany of passing references to mass atrocities. But the recitation builds in power as lead singer Peter Garrett reels off the stark syllables -- "Short Memory" perfectly suits his staccato, incantatory vocal style. The second stanza delivers a sardonic broadside against western modernity's homogenizing and deadening nature -- but also against Soviet imperialism (in Afghanistan), an important bit of balance in an otherwise western-focused critique. The overall effect of the song-chant is hypnotic. The chorus and closing call-and-response ("Short memory, must have a ...") is a magnificent self-negation: in singing of historical amnesia, we remember. (See, in a similar vein, the Oils' later classic "Forgotten Years", which only barely misses inclusion in this songbook.)
The Oils' global breakthrough Diesel and Dust (1986) was still several years away, and "Short Memory" never made an international splash as did "Beds Are Burning". But it's just as essential an anthem. The melody is as catchy as anything the group recorded, and the playing throughout is sublime. 10-9-8 ... found the Oils jelling as the greatest rock and roll unit Australia has produced. Jim Moginie's elegiac keyboards mesh beautifully at the outset with the filigreed guitar work of Martin Rotsey, and the two combine again in the jazzy-dissonant instrumental break. Drummer Rob Hirst provides just the right combination of subtlety and crash throughout.
The heart of the song's anthemic appeal is in the first two verses and chorus, and one wouldn't want to miss a word when singing it to the forces of empire:
Conquistador of Mexico, the Zulu and the Navajo
The Belgians in the Congo, short memory
Plantation in Virginia, the Raj in British India
The deadline in South Africa, short memory
The story of El Salvador, the silence of Hiroshima
Destruction of Cambodia, short memory
Short memory, must have a short memory ...
The sight of hotels by the Nile, the designated Hilton style
With running water specially bought, short memory
A smallish man Afghanistan, a watchdog in a nervous land
They're only there to lend a hand, short memory
Wake up in sweat at dead of night
One could also build a whole scat-singing, drum-thumping improvisation around Garrett's closing polemic: "If you read the history books you'll see the same things happen again and again / Repeat repeat short memory they've all got it / When are we going to play it again / Got a short, got a short ...," et cetera.
Peter Garrett went on, of course, to become an Australian member of parliament. In 2010, some cited this song in accusing Garrett of having a "short memory" himself, when he declared his support for the US-Australia military alliance that the Oils had once pilloried in songs like "US Forces" and "Hercules".
The original recording of "Short Memory", from 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1:
The Oils performing the song in a 1983 show at the Sydney Entertainment Centre (included on the 20,000 Watt R.S.L. DVD):
My favorite live version is from the "Oils on the Water" surprise show on Goat Island in Sydney Harbour in 1985, kicked off by Garrett's amusingly demented rant:
Originally released on Midnight Oil, 10-9-9-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 (1982), track 3.
Full lyrics here.
Superjesus have a cover version of "Short Memory" on the Oils tribute album, The Power and the Passion: