ONE HIT WONDERS – Baz Luhrmann

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Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) (M Schmich/N Swanston/T Cox) – Baz Luhrmann 1999.

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The pop charts occasionally turn up spoken word recordings that aren’t really songs but nevertheless capture the imagination of the record-buying public, they are not to be confused with the more recent trend towards internet memes, such as will.i.am’s video for Yes We Can, a song built around a recording of one of Barack Obama’s speeches, but spoken word songs have a long history of hitting the charts. Below L-R – Wink Martindale, and Buddy Starcher

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Such songs have several common features including being addressed directly to the listener like a secular sermon, they usually contain homiletic instructions on how to live a happy life, co-exist with others, or survive in a changing world. Their provenance is often disputed or unclear, and they usually generate responses, cover versions, and parodies.

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The most famous of these songs has included Deck of Cards (Wink Martindale ’59), History Repeats Itself (Buddy Starcher ‘’66), An Open Letter To My Teenage Son (Victor Lundberg ‘66), Desiderata (Les Crane ’71), and The Americans (Byron MacGregor ’74), clearly it has become a peculiarly American genre, but in 1999 film director Baz Luhrmann staked his claim to immortality in the world of the spoken word song, with Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen). Below Les Crane.    

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Luhrmann would score a surprise #1 hit in the UK and hit top ten throughout Europe, with this song, on which he did not sing, nor play any instruments, nor write any music nor 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. Below L-R Baz with wife Katherine Martin, Anton Monsted, Josh Abrahams.

In 1998 Luhrmann was working with associates Anton Monsted and Josh Abrahams in Sydney to produce his album Something for Everybody, there were performances by Doris Day, Christie Anu, David Hobson, John Paul Young, Quindon Tarver and others. But 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. Below L-R album cover, songwriters Tim Cox and Nigel Swanston, Rozalla.

In June 1997 Chicago Tribune journalist Mary Schmich had written a hypothetical college commencement speech to be included in her regular Wear Sunscreen column in the Tribune, 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 was a well-known journalist and columnist who had written the Brenda Starr, Reporter comic strip for over 25 years and had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2012. Below Mary Schmich

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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 kind of chain letter, in the form of 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 pop 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. Below – voice actor Lee Perry.

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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 became 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, and Tarver sang the chorus of this song on the final version of Luhrmann’s hit record. The album version of the song was 7.09 m in length which was cut down to 5.0 minutes for a more radio-friendly single version of the record

Here’s one more – Visit the 4The Record blog at least once in your life!

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 in the US (#45) and Australia (#65).

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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 continued to resonate, it was honest, humorous, inspiring in a homespun kind of way, and encouraged many to re-affirm their life choices and seize the day – and it made Baz a OHW! But his film soundtracks – Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby, Australia, and Strictly Ballroom – featured some of the most unique, imaginative, and adventurous music in the history of cinema, and albums such as Music From Baz Luhrmann Films performed by the Silver Screen Superstars, were global hits.

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