You’re the Voice (A Qunta/C Thompson/K Reid/ M 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 accommodation, he had departed the Little River Band after a four- year stint between 1982-86 with only minor professional success, little to show financially, and his solo career was non-existent.
LRB were an international band with a proven track record of hits, and Farnham was convinced by his manager Glenn Wheatley, who was also LRB’s manager, that this was the right career move. Clearly Farnham had no idea how unrewarding this move would prove to be. LRB were a band that traded on solid three- part harmonies, they did not encourage their lead singer to do solos, or develop his own stage persona, jokey cabaret-style audience interaction, the forte of both Glenn Shorrock and John Farnham, was strictly forbidden by Graeham Goble. To limit Farnham’s onstage moves his mic cord was drastically shortened and often his mike stand was gaffer taped to the floor to prevent him from engaging too closely with the audience, it was most definitely Graeham Goble and Beeb Birtles Little River Band, not John Farnham and the LRB.
In 1986 Capitol Records dropped LRB from their roster and this hastened the departure of Farnham back to a solo career, he had done 385 live shows with the band, recorded three albums and toured the USA unrelentingly, but he had felt like a hired hand, with his naturally gregarious personality and blokey stage persona suppressed; but now he was battle-hardened for his next challenge, and he would need to be, financially he was broke, and living in rented accommodation in Bulleen (Melb). He barely survived twelve hitless years between 1974 -86 with the minor exception of a #8 single in Australia with a powerful, slightly overwrought 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, although he was a more mature performer who still possessed an impressive voice, and was tour-hardened after his LRB stint, he was regarded as uncool by hip FM radio stations, record labels saw no future for him, and songwriters never sent him great songs to record, he was seeking salvation.
You’re the Voice was written by four British music industry insiders with impressive credentials – Chris Thompson (above), former lead singer/guitarist with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (Blinded By The Light) and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (Thunder Child) had been inspired by a 100,000 strong Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament march to Hyde Park in London on October 25th. 1985, and this provided the impetus for him to write about using your own voice to make a change.
On that day Thompson met with former Cockney Rebel keyboard player Andy Qunta who had also written sings for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, and Eurhythmics backing singer Maggie Ryder at his Hendon studio to write a hit song, they all belonged to the same music publishing company Rondor Music. Above L-R Qunta, Ryder, and Reid.
Thompson recalled how the day unfolded “I’d overslept and didn’t make the march. We were watching it on TV. I was annoyed at myself and that’s where the idea for You’re the Voice came from. If you want to do something you have to go out and do it yourself.” After Qunta and Ryder left at around 5.00pm, Thompson came up with the ‘Wo-oh-oh-oh’ hook in the chorus, then Ryder called saying she’d come up with an idea for the chorus, a melody line which worked perfectly before his idea. “After that we never got in the same room again” said Thompson, they spoke on the phone about lyrics but he kept working on it in his studio, and as it progressed he got the title You’re the Voice and had verse lyrics and chorus lyrics. “I thought it was a good song but the lyrics weren’t as good as the music,” Thompson said; so he used a go-between to contact lyricist Keith Reid, who had co-written Procul Harum’s 1967 anthem A Whiter Shade Of Pale. Reid came up with some very important lines including ‘We’re all someone’s daughter, we’re all someone’s son’, and beefed up the general feeling and emotional content of the song, removing several overly sentimental lines.
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 from 1967 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 (above far right) 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 Chris Thompson’s demo of You’re the Voice to Farnham’s team.
They 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. Below- Farnham and Wheatley
Record companies were not so convinced, Farnham’s manager, Glenn Wheatley, had to set up Wheatley Records, and mortgaged 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 at the local pub. Below – Ross Fraser
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, and some inspired application by David Hirschfelder (above) 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. A cheap $10,000 promo video shot in Melbourne’s Ormond Hall, featured Farnham in a spot-on impression of newsreader Brian Henderson as images of war and conflict raged behind him, and as the video progressed Derryn Hnch and his then-wife Jacki Weaver appear as a warring couple in the suburbs, Skyhooks bassist Greg Macainsh, Vince Leigh the Pseudo Echo drummer and Farnham’s agent Frank Stivala also completed the roster of friends and relations who made up the cast.
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, for the first time Farnham appeared in a full-length Driza-Bone coat, with long wind-swept hair, he seemed to completely embody the spirit of this anthemic song.
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, sat atop the Australian album charts for 25 weeks and ultimately grossed $57 million from global sales. Below – ARIA Awards night 1987
You’re the Voice won the Aria Awards for Album of the Year, Single of the Year, Best Male Artist, Highest Selling Single and Album, and Best Contemporary Album in 1987, 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. John Farnham would go on to become the only Australian recording artist to have a number one charting record in five consecutive decades, from the 1960s to the 2000s, Whispering Jack, his 12th studio album, remains the highest selling album in Australia by an Australian artist, with 1.7 million copies sold
Whispering Jack was the first million-selling domestic album in Australia, 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 rebooted, the Whispering Jack album proved to be the vanguard of the Farnham career resurrection, 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. Below John with wife Jillian and their two sons James and Robert.
On Tuesday August 23, 2022 John Farnham endured a twelve hour operation to remove a cancerous tumour from his mouth, the extensive surgery will require the singer to remain in ICU for some time and undergo an extended period of rehabilitation and therapy. John’s health scare comes hard on the heels of the deaths of such musical luminaries as Olivia Newton-John, Judith Durham, Margaret Urlich, and Archie Roach already this year, so we look forward to John making a full recovery in the near future.