Farnsy, as he is lovingly known to the Australian public, is nothing short of an icon in the pop music industry. That said, many of you will likely be unfamiliar with his work as he never ventured outside of Australia, throughout his highly successful solo career, instead choosing to make Australia his permanent performance home. As a result, he has gained an unprecedented level respect from a country that too often loses its great artists to fame and fortune abroad.
No, we’re not bitter that so much talent is taken from our shores, but I strongly believe our little Aussie band, AC/DC, should still start and end their tours on home turf. Of course, that is now solely dependent on their continuation to record and perform. That said, they’d have to do a better job than their Sydney performance in 2015. Let’s just say that the balance and levelling was way off and what should have been a stellar experience, was somewhat lacklustre. Someone clearly didn’t do a proper sound check for that concert!
I know quite a few people that adore live performances, but the unknown elements are always an aspect that worries me when I pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket. As a result, I don’t go to many live performances; instead I wait for the obligatory live album. That said, Farnham provides one of the greatest live performances that anyone can experience. Unfortunately, he is no longer stadium touring like he used to, but he is doing a series of more intimate concerts in 2017. If you can’t make these performances, I can wholeheartedly recommend his recorded performances Classic Jack (with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) and Chain Reaction. If you can’t get a hold of these in your region, then the album Full House offers an exceptional overview of his power and finesse on stage.
The one thing that I have noticed, and appreciated, over the years is how unique Farnham’s vocal style is. He is arguably without peer, although some correlation could likely be found if I looked hard enough. I guess what I am trying to say is that you can identify the timbre of his voice immediately. With modern ‘manufactured’ pop music, uniqueness is not always a guarantee.
Another key aspect of Farnham’s vocals, that I value, is being able to understand the lyrics he is singing. There is absolutely no need to refer to the liner notes for guidance on Farnham themed karaoke nights. Other artists, by comparison, tend to slur their vocals to an extent that you have no true idea of what they are trying to express. I’m not just talking about death metal music, although I often wonder if that style of music isn’t merely grunts derived from our ape-like ancestors. Perhaps that is a little harsh, but the truth is that many of us fall into the mondegreen trap whereby we misinterpret a lyric we hear. The mondegreen trap is arguably a key reason why I have classed vocals primarily as an instrument, rather than the story telling element of a song.
While Whispering Jack is known as Farnham’s breakout album, it certainly wasn’t his first outing as a performer. Previously, Farnham had been a pop teen idol (the Justin Bieber of his day) and lead singer of the Little River Band in the early 80s. Despite this prior modest success, Whispering Jack would be his most successful album with sales of an incredible 1.68 million copies, as of 2006. Remember, this is superstardom for an Australian artist where the population of the country is just over 24 million (16 million, upon the release of the album, in 1986).
Unbelievably, it has been 30-years since this landmark album was released. To mark this occasion, a 30th Anniversary box set is on the horizon that will feature the album on vinyl and CD, along with a concert DVD from the associated tour. Needless to say, I have pre-ordered this individually numbered (5,000 copies) release as it is associated with some of my earliest memories of music appreciation. The collection will also include a 30-page booklet detailing various, never before seen, content surrounding the recording process. I will certainly undertake a review of the collection, here on Subjective Sounds, when I receive it.
While this review specifically looks at the original 1986 mastered edition that is presented on TIDAL Hi-Fi, I also have the original cassette and to say I wore it out would be an understatement. It has been stretched and warped from years of usage, but it still plays and I loved every moment of it. It was also the first cassette I ever owned that had the clear case so you could see the entire reel of tape. Yes, that was a big deal back in the day when cassette tape was largely hidden from view. I recall sitting for hours, listening and watching intently, as the tape moved from one spool to the other. This simple ‘do nothing’ activity was nothing short of pure bliss. Even as I listen to the TIDAL Hi-Fi edition, knowing that it is perfect and as close to that original master as I can currently get, I find that I still recall the exact areas where my cassette tape had stretched, thereby permanently altering the sound. I mention this because every time I hear the song Going, Going, Gone I think that I have to get up and change the side of the tape. No, I haven’t lost my mind, I just listened to that cassette too many times. I also didn’t have a lot of pre-recorded music at the time, so this tape had to work hard.
The truth is I could probably write a complete book about how this album has not only influenced my love of music, but influenced Australian culture. Farnham’s history and the way the album came about is legendary and it would be a perfect candidate for defining the meaning of the ‘Little Aussie Battler’. On that note, it should also be acknowledged that Glenn Wheatley, former bass guitarist for the Masters Apprentices, was responsible for primarily funding the recording of Whispering Jack and without his support, this exceptional recording may have never seen the light of day.
Pressure Down, on TIDAL Hi-Fi, has a very intriguing entrance as it appears to have whispering in the first few seconds of the song. The reason why I am captivated is that I don’t recall having ever heard this before. I should note that it is also on the 20th Anniversary release that is also available on TIDAL Hi-Fi. Yet, it is not on my iTunes Matched edition, nor can I hear it on my original cassette release. Although, that part of the cassette is a little wobbly. Yes, I dug into the archives to get to the bottom of this oddity.
In each case, I put my Oppo HA-2 into high gain mode and listened at ear bleeding levels. Such are the lengths I go to for you, my dedicated readers. Initially I had thought that the spoken word was ‘a restructure of subject or language.’ Of course, Google is our friend and as such directed me to Jane Gazzo’s Herald Sun column (behind a paywall, but Google ‘How Whispering Jack saved John Farnham’ and it appears as the first link). Gazzo details the spoken words as actually being ‘there is no restriction on subject or language.’ Yes, there is an interesting and somewhat humorous story behind this revelation, but I implore you read Gazzo’s piece for the full story. Jane Gazzo has also recently published John Farnham: The Untold Story. I’ve yet to read it, hence this isn’t an endorsement, but I’m looking forward to checking it out as it is the first biography on John Farnham that I can consciously recall.
That said, Pressure Down will take you immediately back to the 80s with a pop-synth sound that was revolutionary at the time and strangely doesn’t feel that detached from modern pop music.
You’re The Voice is perhaps one of the most iconic and emotionally moving songs ever written and recorded. It is arguably more relevant today than it was upon its release, though that could be said of the many famous songs that promote peace over conflict. If you don’t listen to any other song from Farnham’s catalogue, you have to listen to this song. It will inspire and put humanity into perspective with simple, but clearly defined lyrics.
The inclusion of the bagpipes and a guitar solo in the chorus is nothing short of pop/rock gold. The clapping introduction is like a click track for the mind as you are guided through the song. Farnham’s vocals on this song are incredible and simply world-class. Very few performers can sing with such raw honesty and I truly believe Farnham has never sung another song with such passion and conviction, yet it was not a song that he wrote. Chris Thompson, Andy Quanta, Keith Reid, and Maggie Ryder all deserve credit for writing such an incredibly beautiful song. While it has been covered numerous times, it is Farnham’s song and I’ve yet to come across anyone who has done it better.
One Step Away is a song that has never really resonated with me. Perhaps it is simply because it follows one of the greatest songs ever written and recorded. It just feels out of place and I would personally class it as a B-Side.
Overall, One Step Away isn’t a bad pop song, but I only ever listen to it as part of the album experience.
Reasons is a song I love because it was my first introduction to the whiplash sound in music. Yes, this synthetic sound was available before a hundred whiplash apps made it to your smart phone and popular culture. The beat is addictive and the atmospheric backing, especially in the first half of the song, is rather interesting as there are so many elements to listen to, yet the soundstage never feels crowded. Reasons is what pop/rock is all about and you will definitely want to turn the volume up to 11.
Going, Going, Gone has a strange introduction that I feel detracts from the song. While it may appeal to some, it isn’t a personal favourite of mine despite being a solid addition to the album. Interestingly, this song is memorable for me as it would mark the end of Side A. As I didn’t have an auto reverse cassette deck until about 1993, this would require getting up off the couch and flipping the tape over. While the flipping of cassettes and vinyl can become an added task, it is a moment that I truly treasure; along with every bit of deterioration the formats are known for. It essentially adds character to one’s music collection. TIDAL Hi-Fi, and all digital versions (including CD), simply can’t offer these tactile moments. That said, as much as I love the process of playing my analogue collection, I have to be completely honest in saying that the bulk of my listening is now done via TIDAL Hi-Fi. Yes, convenience has somewhat won, but only because of the incredible sound quality that can be had via TIDAL’s Hi-Fi subscription. Seriously, don’t even bother with their premium plan.
No One Comes Close has a bass guitar intro that I thoroughly enjoy. In my opinion, the bass guitar is one of the most underrated instruments in music. I would love to hear more bass notes in modern recordings and I’m not talking about synthetic bass sounds either.
Overall, No One Comes Close is a fantastic song for the album. While it doesn’t break any new ground, it is enjoyable and ticks all the relevant pop music boxes.
Love To Shine is a smooth 80s pop song that again favours the bass guitar. The beat and groove, as with most of the songs on this album, is addictive and will encourage you sing-a-long in the shower.
As I listen to this song, I am drawn to the analogue sound that has made it through the digitisation process. In-fact, the entire album is very warm and welcoming from a sonic signature standpoint. Yes, these terms are somewhat irrelevant and are dependent on your individual setup. However, they are used to express the feeling I get as I listen to the album and the associated songs.
Trouble is a pop song that I have enjoyed since I first heard the album some 30 years ago. Yet, I’m still not too sure what the appeal is. What I do know is the backing vocals grab me every time. Not because they are exceptional, but because their introduction makes it feel as though two completely unique songs and artists have been merged to make one killer track.
A Touch Of Paradise is, in my opinion, a sonic masterpiece. It is incredibly soothing, but also encourages you to turn the volume up and sing along to a simply gorgeous chorus. Farnham has sung many incredible ballads, such as You’re The Voice and Burn For You, but there is something special going on with this song and I’m not just talking about the exceptional soundstage and saxophone performance. A Touch Of Paradise truly showcases Farnham’s vocal delivery and proves what a spectacular vocalist he is.
Let Me Out sets the beat from the get-go in this edgy pop song that is a perfect track to end the album on. It is rock-pop and has a very 80s sound, but don’t let that deter you as some of these 80s songs are becoming as essential to the history of popular music as those styles founded in the preceding decades. Let Me Out, interestingly, also has a jazzy feel with strong emphasis placed on brass instrumental backing. Think Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love.
Whispering Jack is exceptional and while I would change the tracking slightly, there really are no significant flaws in song selection.
The mastering of this original was excellent with an average 13 out of 20. That said, it wasn’t a perfect mastering and while the 20th Anniversary release in 2006 reduced the dynamic range to an average of 6 out of 20, remastering engineer Martin Pullan certainly respected the original and added emphasis on the mid and low end that may result in a more appealing listen for music lovers. In this instance, mere dynamic range figures don’t tell the complete story and you need to listen and decide for yourself. Personally, I enjoy both versions and I’m glad that they have not removed the original from sale; as is often the standard process when a re-master is released. While I have no information pertaining to mastering used for the upcoming 30th Anniversary collection, I trust that it will stay true to the incredible releases that have come before it.