5 March 2010

"We have the power to be powerful..."

You're The Voice by John Farnham. To us in the UK, a one hit wonder with daffy rock star's hair. To the good folk of Australia, an unofficial national anthem sung by a rock god.

I knew Farnham was popular in Australia, but didn't realise just how much. He was having hits in the 60s as a teenager and still releasing anthologies in the noughties that were reaching number one in the album charts. It is easy to be cynical and predictable regarding the alleged "cultural desert" that Australia represents in the attitude of a tightly-sphinctered Brit, but this is a serious case of credit where credit is due.

You're The Voice
was released here in the UK in 1987 after Farnham had left Little River Band (no, me neither). It was one of those chuckaway releases that record companies barely noticed until radio listeners began pleading for it. It got to number one in Australia and then a cursory release over here. Presumably the story of its rise to the top down under had reached at least one DJ in the UK, as it huffed and puffed its way to number 39, ready to become a hit.

Farnham looked and sounded just like any other 30-something 1980s rock singer when we first saw him. Slightly craggy face, long blond mullet, fiery and emotional vocal style - indeed, he was simply John Parr with a more exotic accent. But the song was chest-beatingly fantastic, if rather clich├ęd as far as sorting the world out through humanity and compassion, yada yada yada, was concerned. It had a hook, the lyrics were strikingly clear, and the chorus was one Benny and Bjorn would have been happy with.

The video, meanwhile, does the shtick of the lyrics - old war zone footage etc - complete with some resolutely hammy soap opera acting from a couple having a row at the dinner table while the young child, under instruction, looks sad while glancing at each parent just as Farnham sings "how long can we look at each other...". Naturally, the wife throws a full dinner plate at the husband and misses by an absolute mile ("Careful Sheila, that could've hit me!") while Farnham, whose profile is singing away with an earnest expression, quietly grabs the child to remove her from the danger.

After the second verse - Farnham singing profile, sad pensioners, bit of third world struggle - his band appear on the battered TV screen in the background and then he suddenly runs off his profile screen, then re-appears on the TV. Smart work. It is here where we get the full resplendence of the mullet and discover that Farnham wears way too much make-up and has a guitarist who inspired the clothing preferences of Henry Ramsey from Neighbours.

And then we get the bagpipes. Have a go at fathoming why, because I can't. The song was written by some serious names from Procul Harum, Manfred Mann's Earth Band and Icehouse, but I can't figure out a Scottish connection there. Farnham himself was born an Englishman. I suppose there doesn't have to be a Scots link, of course, but I bet it made performing the song live a real ballache. The scenes of conflict and destruction replay in the background while our heroic bagpiper finishes his turn, then we get Farnham and his band onstage for the remaining minute or so.

It took a while to be noticed, even after getting into the Top 40. It climbed to number 32 and then 28, therefore only the radio play was doing it any good. One assumes Farnham's commitments elsewhere prevented him from performing all-importantly on Top Of The Pops but then he got a climb to 15, then 9, then 7 and finally a peak at number 6. That's a very hardworking single, right there. Six separate climbs within the Top 40 was extremely good going in the 1980s.

Inevitably, we never heard from him again, and the only thing I can remember afterwards was a cameo appearance on Home & Away when, like mega rock stars do, he agreed to give a private concert to young Sally (who would have been probably ten or younger at the time, and therefore hardly in the target Farnham audience) after she won tickets for a concert of his but then missed it through illness.

While searching for the video, I also found this. Despite the fact that it is Coldplay, I challenge your spine not to let out a shiver. The concert was to raise funds for the victims of the Victoria bush fires. Keep the mute button handy for when Chris Martin's foggy monotone threatens to turn a great chorus into a dirge.

Notice how many times Farnham asks the audience to sing the highest bit of the chorus. It's that fantastic Frank Skinner encore routine about Can't Take My Eyes Off You in real life...


Jon Peake said...

In my quest to discover more about Australian music, it's surprising just how massive he is there. I've got quite a few of his other hits on my ipod now, but I'm not a major fan.

The Little River Band on the other hand are great. Songs like Cool Change are marvellous. They were huge in the US in the late 70s.

Check out the Aussie documentary A Long Way To The Top, which is a comprehensive history of Oz rock from the 1950s to the present day. Most fascinating.

Bright Ambassador said...

So, in your opinion an Australian accent is more exotic that a Doncaster accent? Interesting...

Louis Barfe said...

"Little River Band (no, me neither)" - Never heard Reminiscing? Lovely song.