Baz Luhrmann is famous for such movies as Romeo and Juliet, Australia, and Moulin Rouge, but didn’t he also have a hit a record back in the late 1990’s?
Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) (M Schmich/N Swanston/T Cox) – Baz Luhrmann 1999.
You may be surprised to know that Australian film director Baz Luhrmann scored a #1 hit in the UK with a song, on which he did not sing, nor play any instruments, nor write any music or lyrics, but in a masterful display of file-plundering, re-mixing and merging material at his disposal, he succeeded in delivering a quirky monologue that became an early viral e-mail sensation and hit the top of the UK charts in June 1999.
In 1998 Luhrmann was working with associates Anton Monsted and Josh Abrahams in Sydney to produce his album Something for Everybody, and what became the song Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) began life as a remixed version of the song Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good), an international dance anthem hit written by Tim Cox and Nigel Swanston, for Zambian-born Zimbabwean singer Rozalla in 1991.But Baz needed some lyrics and they were about to fall into his lap.
In June 1997 Chicago Tribune journalist Mary Schmich had written a hypothetical commencement speech to be included in her regular Wear Sunscreen column in the newspaper, the speech was a collection of homilies, handy hints and inspirational messages about how to cope, and never forgetting that there is always more than one way to live your life.
Schmich’s life-affirming advice included such pearls of wisdom as “Do one thing every day that scares you”, “Do not waste your time on jealousy”, “You are not as fat as you imagine”, “Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults”, “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what to do with your life”, it was her third column for the week and she wrote it in four hours.
Wear Sunscreen was then mis-attributed, almost immediately after it was written, to American author Kurt Vonnegut and published in the internet’s infancy as a commencement address given by Vonnegut at MIT. This became urban legend until Mary Schmich was identified as the true author of the piece, and ultimately enjoyed her 15 minutes of fame, several years later.
Anton Monsted brought the speech to Luhrmann’s attention but as they were pressed to complete the album they figured it would be too difficult to get approval from Vonnegut to use the piece, it was only after they discovered that Schmich was the author, that Baz contacted her, a deal was done, and the song was recorded the next day in Sydney.
The song features a spoken-word track recorded by Australian voice actor Lee Perry (Happy Feet, Happy Feet 2, and Three Dollars) who used a gravelly authoritative American accent to complete his vocals in three hours on a DAT machine in Baz’s Sydney home. The backing was a choral version of Rozalla’s 1991 hit, which had already been covered by Quindon Tarver for the soundtrack of Luhrmann’s movie Romeo and Juliet, Tarver sang the chorus of this song on the final version of Luhrmann’s hit record.
When released in 1999 the song became an instant #1 hit in the UK where Radio One DJ Chris Moyles plugged it relentlessly, it climbed into the top forty in Canada, Norway, Belgium, Netherlands and Sweden, and was a minor hit the US (#45) and Australia (#65).
The song was re-mixed, most notably by Mau Kilauea in his Tropical Remix in 2014, and mercilessly parodied by others, but many fans still recall that the song was a life lesson that continues to resonate, it was honest, humorous, inspiring in a homespun kind of way, and encouraged many to re-affirm their life choices.
Who was the first Australian performer to have a million-selling record in the USA with a song that had been originally arranged and recorded in Australia?
The Lord’s Prayer (Traditional) – Sister Janet Mead 1973
Janet Mead was a nun who belonged to the Catholic Order of the Sisters of Mercy, she initiated the first rock masses at the Adelaide Cathedral and built a devoted following, using popular music to communicate with young worshippers who were disenchanted with the more conservative services conducted in Latin.
Mead came from an Adelaide family imbued with the values of Christian humanitarianism, she was classically trained and had graduated from the Elder Conservatorium (Adel), in 1973 she was 36 years old and her life was about to change. A member of her Adelaide congregation, Arnold Strals had written a contemporary musical arrangement of the most famous prayer in the Bible, which she performed in her rock masses.
Sister Janet was persuaded by producer Martin Erdman, to record an up-tempo disco-pop treatment of a 2,000 – year-old prayer lifted from the King James Bible, at Matthew 6, verses 9-13, better known as the Lord’s Prayer, this would be the first time that the lyrics of a pop song would be attributed to Jesus Christ.
Incredibly it was intended to be the B-side of the record, the proposed A-side being a cover of Donovan’s Brother Son Sister Moon, the theme song from the soundtrack of the Franco Zeffirelli film.
Another Catholic nun had blazed a trail for Janet Mead back in 1963 when Sister Luc-Gabrielle (Jeanine Deckers) aka Soeur Sourire (The Singing Nun) had taken her French language folk song, Dominique to #1 in the USA and #3 in Australia.
At Erdman’s suggestion Sister Janet travelled to Festival’s recording studios in Sydney to record the song, Erdman’s biggest previous local hit had been by No.96’s Abigail (real name Abigail Rogan), and was a predictably steamy cover version of the Jane Birkin/ SergeGainsbourg soft porn erotofest Je T’Aime.
Some divine intervention would be required here for the shy, retiring Mead, and the more- worldly Erdman to make a hit record together. But they clicked, he was a very competent and sympathetic producer and Les Sands musical arrangement, which incorporated wah-wah pedal-inflected guitar with strings and percussion produced a catchy toe-tapping hit. Janet also possessed highly developed performing skills, a three-octave range with perfect pitch, vocal abilities not normally associated with members of religious orders, they would cut both sides of the record in eight hours.
Mead and Erdman could never know how this humble B-side, would be so transformational for them, and that it would ultimately sell 3 million copies worldwide and become the first Australian-produced record to sell a million copies in the USA.
She donated her share of the record royalties to charity, and although she swapped her habit for casual clothes in 1975, she has continued to support charitable causes via her own collective known as the Romero Community.
Sister Janet Mead may have been the classic ecclesiastical one-hit wonder who crashed into the decidedly secular and raunchy world of rock as a novelty nun, but she never lost her moral compass, always humble, charitable, media shy and personally conflicted about her celebrity status.
“It was traumatic. It wasn’t meant to happen at all. Some reporter came to the cathedral one afternoon and he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw thousands of people there, singing mass very enthusiastically. He wrote an article…I went on national TV to explain a few things… three weeks later they rang (from Sydney) and asked me “Would you record?” I said OK. The following two years were very traumatic, letters poured in from overseas, there was TV and radio all the time, it was terrible pressure for me…I finally became ill”. (Glad all Over – The Countdown Years 1974-1987- Peter Wilmoth 1993)
Yet she was only edged out by no less a performer than Elvis Presley for a Grammy award in 1974, she became the first Australian to have a locally -produced record achieve a million sales in the USA and the first former nun to be admitted to the South Australian Music Hall of Fame, along with rock heavyweights Jimmy Barnes, Doc Neeson and Jim Keays.
This song hit #4 in the USA, #3 locally, and was a top ten hit in Canada, Brazil, Japan and Germany, and remains an enduring tribute to a quiet achiever of the Australian music industry.
Which Australian song held the record for most sales until Gotye’s giant hit in 2012 “Somebody That I Used to Know” claimed the record?
Shaddup Your Face (J Dolce) – Joe Dolce Music Theatre 1980
#1 for eight weeks in Australia, #1 in the UK for three weeks, #1 in thirteen other countries, #2 in Canada, translated into 50 different languages, 25 cover versions around the world, sold over 6 million copies worldwide, and the highest-selling record produced in Australia for thirty-three years between 1980-2013 – this obviously must be the gold standard of local records – well sort of.
The three- chord novelty hit by Joe Dolce, has often been dubbed the most irritating song featuring the most annoying characters – Guiseppe and his Mama – in the history of Australian music.
Guiseppe was just one of the characters that Joe Dolce played in his cabaret show, the Joe Dolce Music Theatre, at the Flying Trapeze club in Fitzroy (Melb) – Chico Marx hat, hammy music hall Italian accent, miniature mandolin, arguing with his all-knowing Italian mama. But despite the critics, it was an international behemoth, a catchy sing-a-long chorus, with a kitsch Italian sensibility as recognisable as bomboniere.
When Joe finally appeared on Countdown, after being ignored until the song became a national #1, Molly Meldrum sauntered onto the set in costume as an Italian street busker, complete with beret, muscle T-shirt, pencil moustache, pretending to play a sqeezebox – Molly’s version of Guiseppe looked more like a Parisian boulevardier, but no one noticed.
Joe’s subtle lampooning of a migrant stereotype however, was completely ignored by the fans, who totally identified Dolce as the Guiseppe in the song, and ultimately the phenomenal sales of the record convinced Joe to play along with the joke.
It became a monumental hit, that knocked John Lennon’s Woman off the top of the UK charts, stopped Vienna by Ultravox reaching the top spot in the UK, and was covered by such people as Andrew Sachs (Manuel from Fawlty Towers) and a spoken word version by Samuel L. Jackson.
Joe, an emigrant from Painesville, Ohio (USA) to Australia in 1979, continues to reside in Carlton North (Melb) and to collect the royalty cheques from his accidental blockbuster of a hit, even though his song was not a hit in Italy, which he claimed it was in the song’s lyrics. Joe had the final word on his hit song “I think that most musicians have naïve expectations. Most artists see music as a holy sort of area, that they’re going to be recognized for the divinity in them, they don’t realize music is a business.” (Glad All Over – The Countdown Years 1974-1987- Peter Wilmoth 1993)