Reviewed by Richard Tutin
John Farnham is one of the most respected and popular musical artists in Australia. Many of us have grown up listening to his music and enjoying his live concerts. Yet, as Graeme Turner explains in his book Whispering Jack, there was a time when Farnham, though popular, was not taken seriously enough by the music industry because of the way in which he began his musical career and the genre of music his management at the time felt would suit his voice and image.
One album though changed all perceptions about who Farnham was and how his talent had outgrown the young pop image that had given us hits such as “Sadie the Cleaning Lady”, “Comic Conversations”, “One”, and “Friday Kind of Monday”. That album was released in 1985 and was called Whispering Jack. Turner offers us the story behind the album and reminds us that it’s a long way to the top especially if you want to change your musical direction. A hint of Farnham’s more serious talent was shown when he released his arrangement of the popular Beatles’ song “Help” in 1980. It was a great departure from his usual pop music offerings and remains a very powerful rendition of what was originally written as a fast-moving rock song for the Beatles’ movie of the same name.
Because the industry, especially the record companies, were reluctant to sponsor a John Farnham album that was very different from his usual material. John and his manager Glen Wheatley mortgaged their homes to fund production costs. They also recorded it in John’s home studio to save money and, as Turner explains, to retain control of how the material was arranged and produced.
The result was an album that exceeded all expectations on the part of the singer and his associates. The most recognised track “You’re the Voice” is now one of the most popular songs in the Australian song book. It showed Farnham in a new light that opened the way for his later albums such Age of Reason and Chain Reaction. His popularity as an artist speaks for itself.
Turner’s book also speaks of something else. As well as discussing John Farnham and his change of musical direction, he also examines the changes that were occurring in the Australia music scene that allowed Whispering Jack to become the top selling album by an Australian artist in Australia that it is today. “You’re the Voice” has reached anthem status and has been sung at many different events in support of a range of causes. For Turner, both Farnham and the Australian music scene grew and matured at the same time. This opened musical possibilities and influences that have guided the industry for the past thirty-seven years.
Though it is a slim volume, Turner packs a lot of interesting information and thoughtful insights that shed light on the backstory of an album that has found its way into many collections and on various streaming services. It is worth listening to Whispering Jack while reading the book. Doing that allows the album to be heard in a way that highlights both the risk Farnham took in recording the album and the acclaim it has received over the years since its release.
Graeme Turner is Professor Emeritus at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is one of the founding figures of media and cultural studies in Australia and a leading figure internationally. He was one of the earliest to undertake academic research on popular music in Australia, producing articles, chapters and a co-edited book over the 1980s and 1990s, before turning his attention to television and new media in the 2000s.
ISBN 978 150138 206 2