Melbourne suburbia, 1986 and beyond

Running around the pool table listening to the same records over and over is one of my most prominent memories from early childhood. The record choices were limited to the point of being abject: my parents were not music buffs. The favourite: John Farnham’s Whispering Jack album from 1986. A most abused vinyl, upon which the needle was dragged and dropped by my chubby little hand countless times.

Nostalgia aside, I defy anyone to label the following two truisms my subjective opinions: 1. John Farnham is deeply cheesy. 2. John Farnham has a beautiful voice.

Let’s be frank right now. John Farnham is so cheesy they should rename King Island after him. He’s so cheesy, Louis Pasteur would have looked at him and wept, saying, “Non, non, it’s too much, I don’t know what to do with this!” John Farnham is so cheesy, it is amazing that there isn’t one of those stuffed crust Frankenfood pizzas for stoned people with his name on it  – everybody would understand.  The stoned people would laugh like Beavis and Butthead. “John Farnham pizza, he he he he.”

John Farnham will never be cool in this lifetime or any other. He appeals to a mainstream Australian audience of Mums and Dads and children who have yet to be baptised by the toilet waters of bullying and peer pressure (though I don’t even know if such untainted children exist anymore). Farnham has maintained his uncoolness with steadfast dedication for 40 years or so of public life. Through comeback tour after comeback tour. Through the thinning of his leonine golden mane. His uncoolness is probably as intrinsic to his popularity as his incredible voice. If he had been cool, or had ever tried to be at any point, he would most certainly have been labeled “up himself” and the Strayans would have turned their backs to the great man en masse. Instead, his public persona is rather like a super white Anglo-Aussie ex-AFL player turned media commentator – who also happens to be an artist. An artist nicknamed Farnesy.

What’s that you scoff, John Farnham isn’t an artist? Well sure, he doesn’t write his own lyrics most of the time. He’s never composed a song, so far as I know. And if you take the view that “artist” is an honorific that is bestowed as befitting the artistic complexity and social comment within an individual’s work, then John Farnham is probably going to come up short. It is unlikely that is debut 1967 single Sadie The Cleaning Lady is a piece of agitprop after Das Kapital, or the song Age of Reason is about 17th century philosophy (though it well could be). But none of this means that as a singer, as a person who uses his voice as an instrument, John Farnham isn’t an artist.  He’s just an artist in disguise. He’s an artist without the stereotypical and commodified trappings of coolness and “individuality” that we have come to expect of artists. He doesn’t wear the right gear, doesn’t brood, doesn’t speak the lingo.

Ever been to a John Farnham concert? I have. I went instead of my mother once, because she wasn’t well (that’s my story anyway). The man is like an MC at a wedding, constantly cracking jokes and doing little comedy skits between songs. The jokes aren’t even bad, they are quite good really, like listening to the witty uncle of the family. Or a more anodyne Robbie Williams. But he’s not exactly edgy. John Farnham just does his tame little mother-in-law jokes. And then he starts singing.

Yes, he starts singing. And this is the interesting part, because the voice of John Farnham is so beautiful, and so moving, that he has the crowd in tears. Take the song Reasons. Like most of the Whispering Jack album Reasons is a bit fucked up by too much 80s synth, and not in a Pet Shop Boys way, or a Leonard Cohen First We Take Manhattan way, where the synth sound holds up as a quirky and interesting historical artefact. It’s fucked up in a bad way. In a “dear God let’s re-do this instrumentation for Farnham and posterity’s sake” way. But regardless, John Farnham’s voice shines through all of it, right from the intro:

Some people are dreamers, they live for the future. As if it would work out, just as they dreamed it would work out. Some how.

That little turn that he makes from the strongly vocalised first lines to the tiny husky phase some how, – and the drop in volume that accompanies it – is an absolute killer. In those two words he manifests the disappointment of the broken. John Farnham does these little things all the time, he understands the importance of detail and how to use the voice to soar through octaves and dip into murmurs. And he always sounds very much like himself, which is no small thing.

When I was a teenager I had a friend who was a drummer. He played in some cover bands, competing with the trill of the pokies. This guy never talked much about being a drummer though, or even about music, probably on account of not really coming from an arty type of background. If whole geographical swathes of people can be reduced to an archetype, he was a very “suburban” kind of guy. He was the kind of guy who liked to watch TV and make funny calls about what was happening on the screen while sitting on the couch with his friends – and not really do much else. There were rumours though that he was a very good drummer and could have played anywhere, with any band, had he been bothered to try out. One day another friend of ours told this drummer guy that he should play for me, so that I could hear the sound. So we all went down into the basement garage where he kept his drum kit, down where the sound wouldn’t draw the complaints of his parents or the neighbours. We shut the door and he sat down at the drums and started playing. It was like going from silence to the internal detonation of a bomb. In seconds sound, rhythm and sonic energy had suffused every particle of my body. That rhythm and force was like being on drugs, being rooted at the spot unable to move, fascinated by the sensations prickling my skin. Like surrendering your brain to be manipulated by electrodes. After many years, I can still remember it perfectly. This guy never became a famous musician though. He just ended up getting married and having kids and selling phones I think.

And there are countless people like this in the world, people who have some incredible artistic talent, some gift that they casually discard because they have never appreciated the value of it or had the inclination to display it. While perversely, at the same time, there are people who wear the right clothes, are in the right scene, have the right critical vocabulary, and would kill to have a tiny bit of the talent that those oblivious people have. But for whatever reason these scenesters must stand on the dry land of the Appreciators.

John Farnham is neither an impotent scenester or an oblivious prodigy. He undoubtedly has an artistic gift, a gift that he has exercised for a mass public for many years, but he probably doesn’t have what you would call “good taste”.  He hasn’t built an identifiably artistic image of himself, or really made the best song choices. I’m not quite sure why he never seems to have done one of those classic covers albums that any pop artist with his level of vocal skill inevitably does. You know, like Farnesy does the Rat Pack kind of thing.  He’s got the voice at the level of a Frank Sinatra, but without the gravel, and the personal gravitas, without the mythology and the mafia. It’s tempting for me to try to barge in and rescue him, to kidnap this blonde guy in his sixties and force him to record more spare, synth-free versions of his greatest hits while feeding him meat pies and chips to keep him alive. But I suspect these feelings are probably motivated by snobbery, and Farnesy is just fine as he is.

Bianca Simpson is a writer and researcher who works for NGOs in Melbourne.