In July I was invited to the deepest depths of the Australian Outback to cover the self-described “most remote music festival in the world”, Queensland’s Big Red Bash. With John Farnham the headline act and fellow Aussie baby boomer star Daryl Braithwaite also on the bill, I went to the towering sand dunes on the edge of the Simpson Desert (over 1500-kilometres west of Brisbane) with a strong sense that this was something very different and also something that could be a lot of fun.
I was also interested in how both Farnham and Braithwaite, as near 70-years old, have managed to connect to masses of millennials through two of their now decades-old songs: Farnham’s You’re The Voice and Braithwaite’s The Horses. What is it about these two songs that makes young Aussies and Kiwis go so arm-in-arm crazy every time they’re played at some sort of gathering? With a backstage pass, I was able to ask both men what those songs mean to them. Enjoy the article, including highlights from my conversations with Farnham and Braithwaite, as well as my favourite photos from the festival.
I remember when I first realised young people loved Aussie pop star John Farnham’s 1986 #1 hit You’re The Voice even more than their parents. It was 2010, I was 29 years old and in the back half of an 18-month detour from my radio career (doing what Kiwis call “the big OE”, as in “the big overseas experience”). This chapter of life had seen me backpack all through Southeast Asia, gain an appreciation for under-employment in Canada and land on my feet as a DJ / tennis-player at Club Med in Australia’s Whitsunday Islands.
It was in that curious job-share (the full-time tennis guy’s job had been disestablished so I took it on in an unofficial, alarmingly shirtless capacity alongside my acclaimed* nightclub DJing) that I unashamedly gave the people what they wanted. And what did the guests of all ages and the mostly young (and off-duty) staff want to close each boozy night at the Club Med disco with? You’re The Voice. As John Farnham sang, “You’re the voice, try and understand it”, and I’ve been trying to do just that for nearly a decade since.
The song would go off. I’d never seen a piece of music make people so arm-flailingly, throw-the-head-back, euphoric. And we’re talking teenagers and cool kids (as well as the dorky ones) in their early 20s. We’re talking (then) 29-year olds like me. And yes, while we’re also talking the 30-60-year olds who’d make their way up the hill and through the doors of the Lindeman Island disco on Wednesday and Saturday nights, it’s fair to say most of the people filling the dance floor at 11:59pm (we had a strict midnight closing time – heady days) were under 30. And everybody wanted John “The Voice” Farnham.
Fast-forward a couple of years and I was back in New Zealand and back in broadcasting, but my music obsession still meant I’d get called upon to help with things like wedding playlists. One mate wanted a suggestion for a fun song to end their wedding reception and I knew exactly the choice. I told him You’re The Voice and said, “trust me, you won’t regret it”. Come the day of the wedding, the mental image of his bride leading the crowd in a spontaneous table-top singalong is one I won’t forget in a hurry. “We’re all someone’s daughter! We’re all someone’s son!” Needless to say, they didn’t regret it.
That was just one night, but like those nights at the Club Med disco, it’s been clear for some time that You’re The Voice was re-entering the popular consciousness in New Zealand too as a rousing, arm-in-arm singalong. As to why? Last month I finally saw John Farnham in concert and had the chance to ask the man himself about the enduring popularity of his most famous song. From backstage at Queensland’s Big Red Bash music festival, Farnham had this to say:
“It kills me, it absolutely kills me. I look down and I see everyone singing the words, from little boys and girls to grownups to nana and granddad. It blows me away that people get that much out of it, it’s really cool.”
Farnham also mentioned the “unexplainable” thrill of being at the Big Red Bash for the first time:
“I’d never done this before and all these other [artists] have done it a couple of times and when this was particularly mooted I just leapt at it. I couldn’t wait to get out here and it’s been worth every second so far. I reckon I’ll be pulling sand outta’ me socks for a few weeks yet though.”
He was right about the sand. As far as leaping at the chance to go this far into the Aussie Outback, it was Farnham who was the clincher for me. Sure, I love adventure and exploring, but the thought of singing along to You’re The Voice against a desert backdrop of 40-metre high sand dunes was just too good to turn down. Then when I saw that Daryl “The Horses” Braithwaite was also near the top of the bill – a fellow baby boomer that the kids of late can’t get enough of – I couldn’t possibly say no.
There are some experiences in life you know you’ll never forget and being immediately behind the stage as John Farnham signaled to his bagpiper to step forward for the You’re The Voice solo is one of those for me. I’ve been backstage before. I’ve even sat onstage for a concert before. But never before have I literally been leaning on the stage, looking through the instruments and band-members as a show was happening. In the desert, no less.
Behind me was a sloping wall of sand and in front was the most successful domestic singer in Australian music history. And in front of him, 9000 fans, a temporary town/campsite known as “Bashville” and in the distance, another mighty sand dune. There was a clear blue sky above and the whole thing was surreal.
That moment. Farnham gave an open palm directional to his tartan and kilt-clad piper to step forward. This is hardly a new routine, but amazing pop songs don’t need spontaneous gestures to give rise to spontaneous responses.
The hairs on my neck stood up and apologies for the cliches, but the crowd roared too. I’m a shameless sucker for bagpipes and whether it’s Amazing Grace, Paul McCartney’s Mull Of Kintyre, Rod Stewart’s Rhythm Of My Heart or Farnham’s You’re The Voice, I’ll always succumb to a bit of poptastic bagpipe-induced emotion. The crowd noise suggested I wasn’t the only one. But there was something extra about being that close; about seeing the keyboardist who could’ve easily replicated the bagpipe sound with the touch of a button, take a back seat to the real thing.
Speaking of pipes, Farnham’s own vocal pipes are as good as any near 70-year old singer I’ve ever heard. Extraordinary. During the set, I briefly pulled myself away from the rear of the drum-kit and caught up with Daryl Braithwaite who’d just come offstage. In a set dominated by some of the most successful domestic Australian singles of the 70s, it was predictably still Braithwaite’s late career smash The Horses (1991) that had both young and old opening their lungs.
In many ways Braithwaite is an artist whose career has paralleled Farnham’s in the sense that they’d both dominated the Australian singles charts in the 70s (Farnham as far back as the 60s) before running aground commercially in the first half of the 80s. Then, when Farnham stormed back to the top of the charts in 1986 with You’re The Voice and the 24x platinum selling, record-smashing Whispering Jack album, Braithwaite felt inspired:
“When that came out that was really motivational for me to pull my finger out ‘cos I was in sort of dire straits. We all looked at Whispering Jack and went, ‘My God! How good is that!?’ And then there was You’re The Voice that we all just thought was… amazing, magnificent.”
He did pull finger and two years later in 1988 Braithwaite had his biggest hits (either as a solo act or with his band Sherbet) in a decade with the Australian #1, quadruple platinum album Edge. His You’re The Voice moment would then happen in 1991 when his cover of an unknown Rickie Lee Jones song, The Horses, became a surprise Australian #1 single. What Braithwaite could’ve never counted on was it becoming a piece of Australian pop culture too, but that was still some years away.
As we listened to Braithwaite’s old mate John Farnham belt out his greatest hits, I asked him about the love that people young enough to be his grandchildren have for The Horses and You’re The Voice:
“…I’ve spoken to Rickie Lee Jones who co-wrote The Horses with Walter Becker and she wasn’t really aware [of its popularity in Australia]. I showed her some clips of the Falls Festival that we did and she was just amazed [at the crowd] and then she did it herself at the Byron Bay Blues Festival and she stopped mid-song and all the people just sang. She was just staggered.
I think it’s something about both those songs. I really have tried to decipher with The Horses what it is and I don’t know. Whether it’s the lyrics, the melody or everything.”
As to when The Horses went from being just another big hit to being the song that would dwarf every single other song he’d ever recorded, Braithwaite pinpoints a moment roughly a dozen years ago:
“I think, going back to about 2006, my son Oscar who’s 32 now, he gave me a DVD of Green Day – Bullet On A Bible – and I thought, ‘Billie-Joe, I wanna’ be like him!’ To go out and be really cheeky with an audience but really good. And so gigs that we started then, I started to encourage people to sing and I wasn’t scared or afraid of anything at all.”
Other than being catchy, melodic songs (I’d argue that the chorus of The Horses recalls the Rolling Stones’ Beast Of Burden), the lyrics of both tracks have easily heard, repeating refrains relating to camaraderie. With The Horses it’s “…and if you fall I’ll pick you up, pick you up”. With You’re The Voice, the vaguely anti-war lyrics don’t ever get too detailed to make you forget this is an almightily fun pop song, but the repetition of the word “we” and the lines “we’re all someone’s daughter, we’re all someone’s son”, makes this not just a cry for peace, but a collective cry.
You’re The Voice is really a lyrical cousin of Michael Jackson’s Man In The Mirror (1987) in that they are rousing sing-alongs encouraging everyday people to “make a change” (Jackson) and to “turn the pages over” (Farnham). In terms of the song structure, the tension is ratcheted up in both songs, making use of a glorious key change in Mirror and that bagpipe solo in Voice that leads you right back to the chorus. The fact that Farnham is belting the song out at the upper range of his tenor then puts the song in Bon Jovi Living On A Prayer (1986) territory in that mere mortal males like me can only sing along with the choruses in falsetto or if we virtually shout out the words. This only adds to its end of the night, hugging your mates, qualities.
In comparison, The Horses is a much gentler piece of music to have found a similarly large foothold in the Australian millennial playlist landscape, but it also has a tension that steadily builds. And all these things have a snowball effect because once people have enough fond reminisces attached to what they were doing while listening to You’re The Voice or The Horses, it ceases to matter whether they love the actual song or not. Or rather, the reason you love the song evolves into being because of the memories evoked as much as any magic of melody or lyrics.
So yes, there are clues as to the longevity and growing popularity with people not yet born when these songs came out, but maybe Braithwaite is right in that you can do all the analysis in the world, but for both him and Farnham, it’s mostly a mystery:
“I ask young people about it and they say ‘We just love it. We play it every night when we’re finishing out in the pub.’ Or at weddings and funerals… I mean imagine if you knew the formula! But I feel blessed and I’m sure John does with You’re The Voice. There’s no denying both those songs are very lovable. I still love singing it because of the reaction that happens and hopefully that won’t die.”
For Braithwaite and Farnham, I’m sure it won’t anytime soon.
Note: The Big Red Bash has taken place every Australian winter in the southwestern Outback of Queensland since 2013. Historic, charming and tiny Birdsville is the nearest town and no matter where you’re coming from in Australia, it’s several days worth of driving away! Or you can cheat and fly in like we did. Enjoy the photos and see more about the festival at bigredbash.com.au.
PS. Keep an eye out for the Honey Badger himself, Nick Cummins!
Links: I’ve also written about the Big Red Bash in a couple of my weekly columns for the New Zealand Herald, specifically what it would be like sharing a tent with John Farnham and just how cold it can get in the desert at night. Thanks for reading! And maybe I’ll see you at the Bash one day.