Jeff Apter, the author of a biography about performer John Farnham, Playing to Win, (published by Nero) tells the story of how Farnham’s album Whispering Jack is still the highest selling Australian album of all time with 1.7 million sales since its release almost 30 years ago.
John Farnham’s iconic Whispering Jack album may now be enjoying a 30th anniversary, but it was almost never made at all. When Farnham and a small crew — producer Ross Fraser and musical all-rounder David Hirschfelder — set to work on the record in the winter of 1985, Farnham’s name was music industry poison. No record label would touch him. He hadn’t had a number one hit since 1969’s Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head and was still known to many as Johnny Farnham, the pretty pop star who sang about Sadie, the washer-woman with ‘red detergent hands’. He was also broke, having just come off three frustrating years with the Little River Band. When team Farnham began recording Whispering Jack, they were relegated to working in the garage of his rented suburban home. Farnham’s manager and strongest ally, Glenn Wheatley, was forced to mortgage his house to keep the sessions afloat, over time sinking $150,000 into the record. It turned out to be the best investment of his life.
Then there was the matter of music. Farnham needed to prove he could handle weightier emotional material — he made inroads with 1980s rendering of the Beatles’ Help! — but he also needed to update his sound. Technology was rapidly changing; he wanted to make a contemporary-sounding record. In keeping with the times, no human played drums on the finished record; it was all the work of drum machines. Keyboards also dominated. Ross Fraser’s production was clinically clean, polished to within an inch of its life. It sounded very much of the moment. John also updated his look, growing a flowing, golden mullet and sporting a full-length Drizabone; he resembled a rock and roll stormtrooper.
As the record neared completion, the consensus was that it lacked that one killer song, a surefire hit. John wasn’t much of a songwriter; instead he’d covered tracks by locals Eric McCusker (No One Comes Close), Ross Wilson (Touch of Paradise) and Englishman Harry Bogdanovs (Pressure Down). Someone recalled a demo of a song called You’re the Voice that was on a cassette in a bottom drawer. It was a song with a curious bloodline: its four composers included Chris Thompson of the Manfred Mann Earth Band, who’d wanted to record it for his own solo album, but the idea was rejected by his record label. It duly became a song for hire, doing the rounds of music publishers.
‘I know what it needs,’ John told producer Fraser as the song came together. ‘A bagpipe solo!’ Fraser wasn’t convinced but John was right on the money.
When John nailed the vocal for what has become his signature song, everyone — Wheatley, Farnham, the production team — knew the record was done. The final production touches added, John dropped a tape of the finished album at Wheatley’s office. A note was attached, which read: ‘Dear boss, this is the best that I can do. Thanks for the chance. Love, John.’ The note, now framed, has pride of place in Wheatley’s office, among his star client’s many platinum albums and awards.
Then there was the matter of getting the record heard. The mid 1980s was a golden age of FM radio — Triple M and 2Day FM dominated in Sydney, EON FM did likewise in Melbourne — and, as far as those stations’ programmers were concerned, they did not play John(ny) Farnham. INXS, Jimmy Barnes, Mondo Rock, Crowded House — sure — but not the bloke who sang Sadie. In a masterstroke, Wheatley sent You’re the Voice to the key radio stations in plain wrapping, with no credits other than the title. That way, he figured, the decision would be based purely on the song. Even then, it was the deluge of listener call-ins demanding it be played that helped make the song a radio staple. And as soon as one FM station playlisted You’re the Voice, the others quickly fell in line. By early November it was the country’s number one single and embedded itself at the top of the charts for the best part of two months. Its parent album, Whispering Jack — the first Oz album to be released on compact disc — was fast-tracking its way to sales of one million plus; staggering figures. It’s currently around the 1.7 million mark, making it the highest selling Australian album of all time.
Whispering Jack’s influence is undeniable. A wave of successful homegrown artists with a ‘grown up pop’ bent followed in its wake, everyone from the Rockmelons to Southern Sons, 1927 to Jenny Morris and Peter Blakeley. Yet perhaps Farnham’s biggest achievement is that he’s continued to stay on top for 30 years after the release of Whispering Jack, but that’s another story altogether.