It was November 2003 and over 2,000 people had turned up at the Sydney Opera House to cheer on their favourites in the final of the debut season of Australian Idol, a TV audience of 3 million had also tuned in, a record number for a talent quest final in this country.
Guy Sebastian with his disarming smile and flamboyant Afro sang Get You Along, by Robin Thicke, while the laconic country boy from Condobolin (NSW), with his “flavour saver” goatee sang the Moving Pictures 1982 smash hit, What About Me.
Sebastian won and went onto a successful recording career, the loveable larrikin Shannon Noll then blazed his own trail through the pop firmament, he was 28 and had already fathered two sons with his partner Rochelle Ogston, Cody (2001) and Blake (2002). He was definitely not your typical young, unattached, pop idol type, but he would take his first ten singles into the top ten as well as his first four albums, he didn’t look or sound like a guy who had just lost the biggest talent show contest in the country!
Following the Idol finale Noll went into Studio 301 and Eargasm Studios (Syd) with Bryon Jones (Rockmelons) to record his debut album, from which his cover of the Moving pictures hit What About Me was pre-released in 2004. The original version of this Gary Frost song was a melodramatic power ballad that featured the booming vocals of lead singer Alex Smith (above), pounding tympanic percussion and a grandiose orchestral arrangement, it was a #1 hit locally and charted overseas, Shannon Noll was about to bring this song back to the charts with a vengeance.
Noll was quick to realize that his appeal was linked to a country boy relatability that resonated with fans, in his early videos he wore flannel shirts, jeans, work boots and looked like the wheat and sheep farmer that he used to be, sporting an uncomplicated haircut and singing in a voice “that came from you and me”, to quote Don McLean’s description of Bob Dylan’s voice in his classic song American Pie.
He was so damned ordinary, unpretentious, unprepossessing, and unthreatening, that he became the battler underdog that Australians love to embrace – and they did.
He cannily chose the song he had performed in the Idol final as his first single release, he was aware of his vocal limitations, not for him a song like Guy Sebastian’s debut hit Angels Brought Me Here from the Cheiron Stockholm hit factory, with its key changes that were perfect for Sebastian’s tenor voice, but beyond the range of Noll. He would ultimately aim for a vocal style somewhere between Bryan Adams and Keith Urban, a vocal bridge between rock and country, that would serve him well.
In Noll’s hands What About Me was a more restrained, less emotive version than Alex Smith’s dramatic interpretation of the power ballad, the tympanic melodrama was dialed back, and the video had a folksy feel to it. Filmed in Condobolin, Noll’s home town in west central New South Wales with a population of 3,500 people, it recreated the scene at the “counter of a corner shop” and in the finale united what looked like the whole township in the main street, to cheer on their local hero, it was sentimental and manipulative, and very effective, the song went straight to #1 and stayed there for four weeks.
In Australia the record sold over 350,000 copies, was a #2 hit in Ireland and top ten in NZ, his debut album That’s What I’m Talking About, a mixture of rock, pop and country tracks, also debuted at #1 and sold over 280,000 copies, he would lift another two songs from this album in 2004 and take them both into the national top five.
Drive was a more up-tempo rock song co-written by Canadian singer Bryan Adams and Brit Phil Thornalley, formerly a member of Cure and co-composer of Natalie Imbrugiia’s smash hit Torn from 1997. The song is a guitar-driven ode to the automobile, the video depicts Shannon and a girl who has ditched her annoying boyfriend driving around country roads, she gets wet and strips down to her underwear, they “snowdrop” some clothes from a farmhouse, visit the local pub but the girl’s presence overly arouses the locals and they speed away into the distance – the metaphorical images of driving a well-oiled machine with a sexy female who loses most of her clothes were pretty obvious, Drive climbed to #4 nationally for Shannon’s second hit.
The final track released from his debut album was Learn to Fly, a cover of the British-Norwegian band A1’s composition, it was a pseudo-inspirational song about taking control of your life and charting a positive course despite obstacles and failed relationships along the way. The video was a muddled narrative of Noll pursuing a girl who flees in a taxi which he follows, intercut with concert footage. Vocally Shannon seemed to be channeling Keith Urban on this one, inexplicably it became Noll’s second #1 hit, but only charted for 15 weeks and sold 35,000 copies, possibly the Idol-edge was coming off by the time the third song was lifted off the same album.