You’re the Voice (Qunta/Thompson/Reid/Ryder) – John Farnham 1986
Before the release of You’re the Voice, John Farnham was in serious financial difficulties, he had sold his house and car and was living with his family in a rented property in Bulleen (Melb). He had departed the Little River Band after a three- year stint between 1982-85 with only minor success and his solo career was non-existent.
He barely survived twelve hitless years between 1974 -86 with the minor exception of a #8 single in Australia with a histrionic cover of the Beatles Help in 1980, the RSL clubs and vintage rock tours were beckoning.
Farnham’s teenage pop domination of the Sadie era had become a monkey on his back, and even though he was a more mature performer and still possessed an impressive voice, he was regarded as uncool by hip FM radio stations, record labels saw no future for him, and songwriters rarely sent him great songs to record.
You’re the Voice was written by four British music industry insiders with impressive credentials – Chris Thompson, former lead singer/guitarist with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band had been inspired by a 100,000 strong Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament march to Hyde Park in London in October 1985, and this provided the impetus for him to write about using your own voice to make a change.
Thompson invited Procol Harem lyricist (Whiter Shade of Pale) Keith Reid, former Cockney Rebel keyboard player Andy Qunta and Eurythmics keyboard player and backing singer Maggie Ryder to collaborate on the development of the song.
The anthemic quality of the melody was undeniable, it was a protest song, but the lyrics weren’t as defiant or assertive as other protest songs of the early 1980’s, such as 99 Luftballoons (Nena), Sunday, Bloody Sunday (U2), Biko (Peter Gabriel) or Straight to Hell (The Clash), so the vocal interpretation and quality and impact of the recording would be important to lift it to major hit status.
Chris Thompson, who had grown up in New Zealand, became aware that Farnham wanted to record the song and flatly refused to allow it, he recalled the cringe-worthy Sadie and vetoed the deal.
The song was to be included on Thompson’s upcoming album, but his record company rejected it because they believed there was no market for protest songs such as You’re the Voice.
Andy Qunta (ex-Cockney Rebel) had been working in Australia with Icehouse on their upcoming releases, he co-composed Crazy, a hit for Icehouse in 1987, heard that Farnham was still looking for material for his upcoming album, so he gave the cassette tape of You’re the Voice to Farnham’s team.
Farnham and Wheatley were ecstatic as the song had hit written all over it, which was fortunate, as Farnham had previously passed on the song From A Distance, a big hit for Bette Midler several years later, which had been written for John to record, but he couldn’t relate to the message inherent in the lyrics “God is watching us from a distance”. Wheatley and Farnham had also rejected an offer to record We Built This City which became a US #1 hit for Starship, so there was a lot riding on the final decision to make You’re the Voice the centre-piece of the album.
Record companies were not so convinced, Farnham’s manager, Glenn Wheatley, had to set up Wheatley Records, and mortgage his house in Toorak, to raise the money to record the album Whispering Jack, from which You’re the Voice was lifted. The Whispering Jack moniker was inspired by Farnham’s clever impersonation of Pot Black’s “Whispering Ted Lowe” during pool games in the local pub.
The album had been demoed on Farnham’s basic four-track recording equipment at his rented home, he had agreed to work with Ross Fraser, but this was the first album Fraser had ever produced, RCA had no local artists on their books at the time, but agreed to distribute the record, so all the stars would have to align for the album and the single, You’re the Voice, to succeed.
The anthemic power ballad, complete with handclaps in the intro, a skirl of bagpipes, slamming car doors doubling for sampled percussion, a cheap $5,000 promo video shot in Melbourne’s Ormond Hall and some inspired application by David Hirschfelder of the latest Australian invention; the Fairlight CMI synthesizer, the brainchild of two Sydney tech whiz kids Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie; ensured that the buzz around this Farnham comeback record kept mounting.
Impressive booming vocals by Farnham and excellent backup vocal support from Rozzi Bazzani, Sandy Weekes, Helen Cornish, Penny Dyer, and Colin Setches, lifted “the little record that could”, to become the Aussie battler international hit of the year.
Wheatley’s marketing strategy to promote Farnham and the album was pure genius, revealed to the public via an extended appearance on the most popular show on national Saturday night television, Hey Hey It’s Saturday with 1.5 million viewers.
The following day radio stations were bombarded with requests for the song and forced to add it to their playlists, this was followed by the national Jack’s Back tour which played to 120,000 people, the album which had cost $150,000 to make, ultimately grossed $57 million from global sales.
You’re the Voice won the Aria award for single of the year, it charted #1 nationally and in Germany and Sweden, as well as top ten in three other European countries, #6 in the UK and top 20 in Canada.
Whispering Jack was the first million-selling domestic album in Australia, ultimately topping out at 1.7 million copies, You’re the Voice, was successfully covered by Heart in the US in 1991 who took it into the top 20 there. Farnham’s career was resurrected, the Whispering Jack album would sit atop the album charts for six months, and he would continue to storm the charts over the next decade, no longer concerned about whether he was called John or Johnny, because he was Whispering Jack.