Four Chords Round the Heart of the Matter: Midnight Oil, “Dreamworld” (1987)

I haven’t yet done justice to Midnight Oil’s “Dreamworld”[1] and now must try.  Many reasons press me to cite it as one of the greatest of four-chords rock songs:

1. The main four-chord sequence is stated with a maximum of elegance and force, the top notes of the chords making a militant marching lead slung forward again every measure by a syncopated booming bass line:

“Dreamworld” 1

Chords: E      Bm    G       D      E        Bm    G       D
….Bass: E    B         G     D        E     B          G     D
….Lead: E  E  D  D  C#C#A  A  G# G# A  A  F#F#D  D

There’s also an engaging mystery in the third note of that bass pattern that the ear can’t neatly resolve; the note wants to be an F-sharp as much as it wants to be a G (just as the chord there could just as well, or even more easily, be F-sharp minor instead of G).

2. The main sequence is balanced by two other excellent four-chord sequences in the first half of the chorus:

“Dreamworld” 2

Your dreamworld is just a – bout to

end . . .

3. As in the canonical “Just Like Me,” nearly all of “Dreamworld” unfurls in a four-chord pattern—except for the bridge, which sits for 18 measures on G-sharp minor and F-sharp major. In any other song this would be a nothing bridge, but in “Dreamworld” it perfectly meets our need for a breathing spell of marching in place before we continue barreling forward in four-chord changes. The dramatic timing of the bridge is perfect too:  like the “about to fall”/“about to end” extensions in the chorus, it goes past the normal 16-bar unit just a bit (and not a second too long) to make us more eager to resume the four-chord assault.

“Dreamworld” 3

4. Best of all is an event at 3:04, a tremendous lift from E to a G chord that slammingly alternates with D—the chords now throwing in with that syncopated bass line—while lead-guitar phrases shoot up like two-stage waves hitting a seawall:

“Dreamworld” 4

E………………..Bm……….G…………D………… G  D   G  D   E  B   G  D
Your dream-world is just a – bout to fall!

This would be an inspiring modulation to a higher key, except that G and D are already well established as brightly blue chords in “Dreamworld’s” key of E; they’ve been used to start each verse. While the G-D-G-D alternation is not a true four-chord sequence, here it comes out so much in the same vein that it sounds like a revelation of the four-chord pattern’s beating heart, a deeper structure and extra energy of elemental insistence on two undergirding the journey through four.

5. As regards theme, one might pose this question, playing on the idea that four chords offer a “touring the perimeter” experience:[1]  what place does “Dreamworld’s” four-chord touring point to?  What would be within its perimeter?  The Oils are thinking of the “dead heart” of Australia (an old term for the interior desert taken up ironically in another song on Diesel and Dust), the land inhabited by the first Australians, “a place they say the dreaming never ends.”  For most of us, the center of Australia is a tremendous place to be related to—tremendously difficult—as it’s so remote culturally and geographically.  But of course the greatest difficulty is always where we actually are.  The more fundamental challenge posed by these circling four chords is to consider what exists apart from our illusions, not as out there but as in here.

Extra treat:
watch drummer Rob Hirst
s left hand falling like the headsman’s axe


[1] See the earlier post “Triumphant Return to Four Chords” (revised).


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Chord Arguments, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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