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‘Whispering Jack’ Turns 30 and still the biggest selling Oz album ever

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.

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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.

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10 responses to “‘Whispering Jack’ Turns 30 and still the biggest selling Oz album ever

  1. Johnny Farnham was on the Don Lane show years ago I remember the episode and so was Sammy Davis jnr, Davis heard him sing and said to Johnny” why have you not gone to the States to try your luck ? ” Farnham said ” I want to get my voice right first” Sammy Davis replied ” Your voice is good enough now just go Man!!” The point I am getting at is he was always potentially a world class act, Sammy Davis could see it, but he lacked the confidence and the right management ,that’s all . When a crap band like INXS can be successful so could have he , but he found his groove later on and it’s a good groove , Obviously OzKanka has no idea about what is good or not , but the popularity of his music in Australia proves that the public think it’s good and that’s all he needs!

  2. You have to admire the guy and record. His ability to stay around, stay clean and to prove himself is probably unmatched in Australian music and possibly media history. I was one who dismissed him when I was younger but now with age and wisdom all I can do is admire his achievements and thank him for giving me the chance to witness them

  3. The Voice: Soaring Farnham marching with wounded bagpipes out of the mists of defeat etch an unfading tattoo on ancient highland goosebumps. Who needs sense in lyrics when this anthem of the larynx sinks into the soma and calls old blood back to life?

  4. As a teenager in the mid 80s this song was the reason why I hated Australia. This song is absolute shit. The record is absolute shit. It represents everything that was average and rubbish of the time. Australia actually had a bit of a music scene in those days but there is no way in the world that Jonny Farnham was a part of it.

    I can’t find a name attached to this article. I wonder why.

    1. Hey Oz,

      Different music has different roles. Yes, there was some quite good indie music in OZ in those years, but that isn’t going to appeal to everyone. It seems churlish, to me, to not acknowledge the value in a song that gave our nation a shared memory, even if it lacks the artistic merit of some of your favourites. And the position Farnham and his manager were in before releasing it certainly adds to the myth. The story about the note is a nice touch too.

      I was nine and it got in before I discovered cool. I shunned it for my late teens and twenties, but can’t say I every stopped loving it.

      If it arrived when I was 19, maybe I’d feel the same way as you do.

    1. Spot on and by about 38 million copies or so. Mind you it didn’t have a Australian producer and wasn’t recorded here but Albert Music is an Australian label.

  5. I have loved John Farnham since he first had a song I have followed him ever since.
    Inn 1987 I was dangerously ill when I heard his song Paradise I assure you it had me in tears but it also boosted me up to getting well

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