In 1972 the best-selling singles of that year were a curious mix of boogie rock Boppin’ The Blues – Blackfeather, epic pop American Pie – Don McLean, teen heartthrob bubblegum Puppy Love – Donny Osmond and Cherish – David Cassidy, along with some seriously MOR instrumentals The Rangers Waltz – The Mums and Dads and Amazing Grace – The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, so it was no real surprise when two folkies from the Illawarra Region of NSW scored a hit with an original folk song, about a whale!Terry Fielding (above) and Fred Dyer were two folk singers from Woollongong (NSW) who won the New Faces competition on Bandstand in 1971 with a song called Big White Horse, and were signed to a recording contract with Spin Records, the brainchild of Clyde Packer and Harry M. Miller, and the label on which the Bee Gees recorded their breakthrough hit Spicks and Specks.Fielding and Dyer were inspired by Herman Melville’s (above) 1851 classic Moby Dick, an epic tale of one man’s fatal obsession and his willingness to sacrifice his life and that of his crew to achieve his goal. The story follows the fortunes of Captain Ahab and the eccentric crew of a whaling ship, the Pequod, a ship on its last voyage in pursuit of Moby Dick – the great white whale which removed one of Ahab’s legs in a past encounter, and had now become his quarry. The battle with the elements, the sea, the dangerous confrontations of the whale hunts are embodied in the thrilling narration of the survivor Ishmael.Captain Ahab was an eerily compelling madman who focused his distilled hatred and suffering into the pursuit of a creature as vast, dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself.More than just an adventure novel, it was a haunting social commentary populated with some of the most enduring characters in literature. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby Dick was a profound and timeless inquiry into character, faith and the nature of perception, and Fielding and Dyer’s song proved to be just as vivid and engaging. The Whale is a moving lyrical narrative, it captures the danger, violence, and vengefulness of a man- versus-beast battle for survival, the sea shanty melody is disarmingly affecting, but we know how this whale-hunting adventure is going to end.The song is evocative of 19th. century sea shanties, which were maritime work songs devised to keep sailors focused on the boring and repetitive tasks that they had to perform during the international era of wind-driven packet and clipper ships. The Whale shares some of the characteristics of a sea shanty, with its “Blow The Man Down” sensibility and the call and response of the verses interspersed with the “di,di, di di,da,di,di,di di …” refrain; but it was very much a folk song with a maritime narrative.The melody and lyrical content are more complex than a simple sea shanty, acoustic guitar, percussive hand claps, and banjo underscore the dramatic theme, based on Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the great white whale, which drives the verses along “… bend your backs and row me lads/ and take me to my whale… but the finale is dramatically brutal – “The whale it came so close it almost tipped the boat/ The captain took his spear and rammed it down it’s throat/ The whale it gave a mournful cry and lifted its great tail/ And brought it down a crushing their small boat just like a gale.”
Moby Dick has been the subject of stage plays, animated features, several unlikely sequels including one set in outer space, comics and graphic novels, numerous movies, the original in 1926 starred John Barrymore, but the definitive version was probably the 1956 version starring Gregory Peck and directed by John Huston.A tele-series of Moby Dick starring Patrick Stewart (now better known as Captain Jean Luc Picard in the Star Trek series), and Gregory Peck as Father Mapple, was made in Australia in 1998, and included several local actors in the cast including Bruce Spence and Norman Yemm. It is excerpts from this mini-series that are featured in the promo clip that accompanies the song. The duo took two years to write the song, it was recorded at Nat Kipner and Ossie Byrne’s St. Clair Studio in Hurstville (Syd) with producer Gus McNeil (Greg Quill and Country Radio, Pirana, Jeff Phillips) and is recognized as a genuine Australian folk classic. The Whale epitomized the diversity of music charting during the 70’s, when it went to #22 nationally and was Fielding and Dyer’s biggest hit. The duo followed up with The Ghost in 1973 which was a minor hit at #62 and their last release was a Greatest Hits compilation released in 1995, entitled The Whale and Other Story Songs.