INTERVIEW: JOHN PAUL YOUNG ON HIS ADMIRATION FOR THE SONGWRITING GENIUS OF HARRY VANDA & GEORGE YOUNG

John Paul Young, OAM – ARIA Hall of Famer, former King of Pop – owes a lot to the songwriting skills of Harry Vanda & George Young. He has released nine studio albums over the course of his career and across those releases he has recorded over fifty of their songs himself.

In March, Young will and his All Star Band will be playing at the Dunstan Playhouse, bringing his current show, The Vanda & Young Songbook, to Adelaide. This show promises to include not only the songs the crack songwriting duo wrote for him to sing, but also those they wrote for their own band, The Easybeats, as well as a broad selection of those they wrote for the myriad of  other artists they also provided hits for.

The Upside News caught up with ‘Squeak’ at home in the idyllic surrounds of Lake Macquarie to speak with him about the impending tour and his long and fruitful relationship with, arguably, Australia’s greatest ever songwriting duo – and to hear some of his surprisingly strident political views on an issue that is very close to his heart.

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The Upside News: Congratulations on such a long and successful career. You’ve been an Australian institution now for, what has it been, well over 45 years now?

An old work colleague of yours allegedly once said to you, ‘Never mind Johnny, the first forty years are the worst’. If you could chat to him today could you tell him, definitively, that he was wrong? 

John Paul Young:  Ah well, you see, he was relating [that to something else]. That was actually a guy that I worked with in the sheet metal work [industry] when I was an apprentice. He was relating to sheet metal work and the first forty years probably are the worst! [Laughs].

TUN: So there’s no parallel between the two careers?

JPY: No. Not even a bit. But I was just so grateful for his fortune-telling, in a way, because he just crystallised my choices. Just with that one little sentence. There was never any question where I should concentrate my efforts after he said that. [Laughs]

TUN: Harry Vanda and George Young have been so pivotal to your success and your musical longevity, haven’t they?

JPY: Yep.

TUN: Did you sense your destiny when you first found yourself singing over George Young’s guide vocal on Pasadena all those years ago?

JPY: Yeah, you know, I think I did. That’s a very, very good question. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that one before. [Laughs]

I think I did. Not that I would have ever uttered a word about that to anybody, but I suppose somewhere deep inside I thought, ‘Ooh, this could be the springboard. This could be the big chance.’

And, indeed, it was.

TUN: Can you still tap into the way you felt at that time? What were you feeling? Was it disbelief, bemusement, or the thrill of expectation?

JPY: Yeah…I was scared, of course. I mean, there were a lot of things going on. I also went into my first ever acting job, in a musical, which only lasted for a couple of weeks.

So there was a whole heap of turmoil going on in my life.

I left the factory and I went down to Melbourne to be an actor in a musical. It finished in two weeks – and all of a sudden I was back in the western suburbs of Sydney with no job, no money and no chance in hell that I was ever going to go back to sheet metal work. So I didn’t know what I was going to do. That was [a] very confusing [time].

It lasted about two weeks and then I luckily got a telegram from Jim Sharman asking me to audition for Jesus Christ Superstar which, again, was another defining moment in my life. That changed everything, forever.

TUN: And when that finished, of course, Vanda & Young got back in touch with you…

JPY: Yeah, yeah. They came back to Australia in the last year of Superstar and I went in there [to Alberts studios] and did a couple of demos, and did the odd thing. We had a couple of flops that didn’t work at all, and then eventually we got Yesterday’s Hero.

Two of my very good friends from [Superstar] were the ones who are pretending to be journalists at the start of Yesterday’s Hero – one was Joe Dicker, who played King Herod. And the other one you will know – and his name is Michael Caton!

TUN: Really?

JPY: Darryl Kerrigan from The Castle! [Laughs] It’s his voice on the lead tape and the outro of Yesterday’s Hero.

TUN: I never realised that…

Now, I’ve done the maths and across your studio albums, Vanda & Young songs represent two thirds of your recorded output. so does your latest show mostly focus on the songs they wrote specifically for you and those other songs that you recorded on your album Now, that were covers of their songs that were originally recorded by others, or have you gone outside of that particular set for the show?

JPY: No, I’ve gone right outside that. This show’s about George and Harry. It’s not about me. But, of course, I’m there – I’m part of it, but it’s mainly about their career, and their life and how clever they were…how successful they were.

You know, when they finished up as Flash & The Pan with Hey St. Peter and Down Among The Dead Men. Those songs are just a delight to play.

It’s a very special feeling to be able to get up there and sing all three parts of Evie on behalf of our dear departed Stevie [Wright].

You know, it’s a little walk through Australian music history in a way, so it’s a very gratifying show to do.

TUN: How broad a scope does the show have? I mean, will you be covering any of Cheetah’s hits, for example?

JPY: [Laughs loudly] Well…no! And I can’t sing Willy Shakespeare’s hits because his range was so high. [Laughs] There’s no way I can get up there!

It’s a bit of a jostling game, you know? When you really start to look at all these hits and try and work out what you are going to do, and how you’re going to present it as well.

So, some songs made it, some songs didn’t. And there’s probably only one song in the whole show that people won’t really count as a hit. And that’s one that was a ballad on my very first album that George and Harry wrote. That’s basically the only one – the rest have all got a legitimate chart history.

We go back to The Easybeats days, and right up until George and Harry stop recording.

TUN: So we’re not going to get a Sandshoe Willy encore, or anything like that?

[***NOTE: Sandshoe Willy & The Worn Out Soul Band put out one single in 1979, at Melbourne Cup time, called, How About A Beer For The Horse? It was actually a novelty single recorded by JPY and His All Star Band but under a silly name!]

JPY: [Bursts out laughing] That’s another question I’ve never been asked! [Continues laughing] My god, you have been reading up!

TUN: Well, the song did make it on to the Alberts’ box set…

JPY: [Still laughing] That’s insane!

TUN: Are there any of George & Harry’s songs, that they gave to other artists, that you wish you had been offered first?

JPY: Oh yeah! [Laughs] Yeah, quite a few! Especially the ones they did for themselves. I mean, I would loved St. Peter and Down Among The Dead Men. They were fantastic songs.

I mean I am – I really am – the ultimate fan, so anything they wrote…

More than once they’d give me a choice of two or three songs and I’d just throw my hands in the air and say, ‘Look, I don’t care. You just tell me which ones you want me to record!’

So I have no preference when it comes to their writing. I just love their writing.

TUN: Looking back at those years with Alberts [Productions], and working with George & Harry – you guys seemed to monopolise the radio waves for a solid few years in the mid to late seventies – as well as the Countdown running sheets. Were you ever concerned that the sound was in danger of reaching saturation point back then or did it just seem to you that you had hit a golden vein…

JPY: Well it kind of did. At the end of the seventies it all, everything, was thrown out the window really. It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just George & Harry, it was everything.

I mean, all of a sudden, there was no more Ted Mulry Gang, there was no more Sherbet, there was no more Hush.

You know, we all went straight down the plughole.

I think it was a weird case of ‘cultural cringe’, and some of that element still exists today.

It’s amazing how many radio stations today can ‘relive’ our past in the seventies and ignore just about every one of those artists I just mentioned.

TUN: Yes, you’re right.

So was there a master plan at work to achieve that chart domination, or did it just evolve organically?

JPY: Yeah, I think there was.

Harry often describes their frustration when they came back to Australia [from England] that overseas opinion of recorded Australian music wasn’t very high at all. So they set about trying to correct that – and the way they did it was to go out to the pubs and watch bands. They basically came up with the opinion that there were some great bands out there playing some great music but it wasn’t being transferred onto record. So they made it their job to make that happen.

TUN: I always remember marvelling at the quality of musos you got into your band.

JPY: Yeah…

TUN: They had an exceptional musical pedigree when you look back at all the bands they’d been in before, and they have remained pretty loyal to you over the years too, haven’t they?

Did you have a hand in putting the All Stars together originally yourself back then or did the group come together through other means?

JPY: Not really. It was ‘Pig’ Morgan, you know. The All Star Band was put together for Stevie [Wright]. And when everything fell apart for Stevie, my star was on the rise and by then. I had toured with the All Star Band – singing backing vocals for Stevie where I’d get on and do Pasadena and Yesterday’s Hero.

So, basically, there was a light that came on in my head and I thought, ‘Well. if Stevie’s not there and that band is just hanging about…’, which was exactly what was going on.

So I spoke to Pig Morgan and asked him, ‘Can you do for me what you did for Stevie?’ – because Pig was the one who put the band together for him.

So that’s what we did. We cobbled together a band and off we went! And I’ve still got [Pig] in the band, and I’ve still got Ronnie Peel [aka Rockwell T. James!] in the band.

TUN: That’s incredible.

JPY: Oh, it’s just marvellous you know? The three of us have been together for forty three years!

TUN: Incredible. So there were no initial qualms? And I don’t mean to be disrespectful here – but they went from being ‘credible’ rock musicians to being pop musicians. They had no problem with that?

JPY: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think anybody in the [band] would have a problem with that.

I do think there’s some sort of weird snobbery that goes on when it comes to that sort of thing, and I’m glad that none of the boys that I’ve got – and don’t worry I probably have had them in my time – believe in that sort of division, and the snobbery factor. Which I don’t either.

I’m really saddened that we haven’t got a radio station, or an anything anymore that doesn’t just play one kind of music, that plays all kinds of music the way it used to be in the sixties and the seventies. I long for those days again. I do get a bit of that through community radio – but they are the only ones doing that. It’s really disappointing that people have this attitude of ‘if you like one kind of music then you’re not allowed to like anything else’, you know, which is really strange…

TUN: Yeah, it is such a young adolescent mindset isn’t it?

JPY: [Laughs] Indeed it is! But the trouble is, it has permeated Australian radio since the late seventies.

TUN: Well, talking about radio songs, and songs that have formed the soundtrack to our lives, we tend to link those songs in our brains to our experiences. Does that phenomenon work for performers too?

Do your songs still have connections to specific vivid memories in your life even though you may have, by this stage of your career, performed them hundreds of times?

JPY: Not as much to me as it does for the audience. It really does affect them.

You know there’s the old joke – people always say, ‘This song reminds me of this thing or another’,  and I say, ‘It reminds me of last night!’ [Laughs]

I just continually do that stuff!

I suppose it would be different if I sat down and listened to some of the recordings from way back, that might provoke that response, but I’m not really good at sitting down and listening to my own music.

But the audience do love that, and they say, ‘You’ve given me back my childhood for a couple of hours’, and they just love it.

TUN: And as you get older, too, and I know you get a little bit more sentimental, even songs that, at the time, you might have dismissed yourself come to mean something later because of the associations they have and the reminders of the past that they provide…

JPY: Unbelievably so. I often use the story of how when I hear Gene Pitney sing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance I can actually smell the upholstery in a 1954 Ford Zephyr because we were on our way to Melbourne, when I was a kid, when that song came on! [Laughs] That’s how amazing it is, [music] can even provoke a smell…

TUN: Yeah, I heard someone play She Loves You by The Beatles recently, and I had not heard it for thirty years probably…

JPY: Yeah!

TUN: …and that was [out at the time] that our family left Wales to emigrate to Australia. I was with my sisters and our friends, and we were walking through a building site in Radyr stomping in puddles and we were all holding hands and singing that song. Every time I hear it I can smell the rain and mud…

JPY: You’re straight back there! What would that have been? 1964?

TUN: Yeah. Incredible stuff!

JPY: Yeah – fantastic!

TUN: So, you were once King Of Pop, you are in the ARIA Hall Of Fame…

JPY: [Another burst of laughter…]

TUN: …You’ve got an Order of Australia Medal – some fairly heady honours. Do those titles mean more to you now than when they were first awarded to you?

JPY: Oh yeah, I think the whole package means more me to now than it ever did. It’s just the whole idea that I’m…you know…

It’s terrible. I have this problem with lifting myself up into the…

TUN: The pantheon?

JPY: The company of others, you know? I’m sort of in the same company as Col Joye and Johnny O’Keefe…

It pinched me you know? I still can’t believe that I’m part of the fabric of Australian music.

TUN: And of the culture…

JPY: Yeah! [Laughs] You know, I just go out and do what I do, and I’m happy doing what I do.

I don’t know, it’s not something that I like to dwell on, but it is a wonderful feeling.

TUN: Your Adelaide Vanda & Young Songbook show is scheduled for Saturday March 30 at the Dunstan Playhouse – that’s a sensible date, it’s just after the mayhem of Mad March in Adelaide has begun to die down…

JPY: [Laughs]

TUN: …and there will be no reason for people to have other commitments on the night.

You must have played Adelaide dozens of times by now, I think I first saw you was on a bill with AC/DC, Sherbet, Hush and maybe TMG at Memorial Drive years ago…

JPY: Oh, I’d say so, yeah…

TUN: Shows like that must have been just like having a big party with your mates? Do you recall any specifically memorable Adelaide onstage moments you can share with us?

JPY: Well you mentioned Memorial Drive. We had a big gig there with Sherbet and then I think the Doobie Brothers were on the night after? And we had a big party with Skunk Baxter and some of the boys…[Laughs]

TUN: That must have been pretty cool?

JPY: Yeah – it was great!

It’s just remembering little things like that, and you go, ‘Oh shit! I did do that! [Laughs] Because a lot of it just goes under the carpet. You know, you just forget about it. I don’t know where it goes, different years, until somebody brings it up…

TUN: I had to look it up to remind myself who was on that bill because, in my memory, I was sure it was Skyhooks. It’s funny how your brain tends to cross-reference memories and store them in the wrong order.

Do you still keep in touch with Harry?

JPY: Yeah. We played the Crown in Melbourne before Christmas and Harry turned up, which was lovely. It was really lovely to see him, and his wife and his son, so it was great.

He looked really happy. He said he enjoyed the show…[Laughs]

TUN: You must have felt a great sense of loss when George passed away a couple of years back?

JPY: Oh yes, and it’s always difficult when you lose someone you have been fairly close to, but [more so when] they are basically an interstate or overseas relationship. You don’t see them that often anyway, so when they die it is really difficult to understand that they are gone, because in your own life nothing has changed but you haven’t seen them in a while. Yeah, it is a very strange feeling.

TUN: It was a great loss.

JPY: Oh, it was…

TUN: You used to say that you preferred a quiet day out fishing to the crazy madness of the pop music world. What’s your preference these days? Do you now find yourself craving the stage because you are getting too much fishing in?

JPY: [Laughs] No. I think I’ve found the perfect balance. I live up here at Lake Macquarie and, as I said to a previous interviewer, all you’ve got to do is buy a boat and then you’ll have no time to be on it, because as soon as you buy a boat your workload increases! [Laughs] So go out and buy a boat!

No, actually I’m living a lovely life and I’m very happy. I’ve got three grandchildren. You know, I’ve reached that stage of life where everything’s just fantastic.

TUN: And your son’s got his own band?

JPY: Yeah! He’s out there doing all sorts of stuff. He also does audio for the ABC here on the Central Coast. The A League – he does the audio for that. So, he’ll work two or three times a week, at least. He’s working tonight in a place called Frankie’s Pizza Bar in the heart of Sydney. I think he’s finally realised that being a singer in this country really is a secondary job – your primary job is driving! [Laughs]

TUN: John, I have really appreciated you giving us so much of your time, so one last question.

Can you offer up any other tempting and alluring bits of info about your impending show that might just convince those ‘umm-ing and ahh-ing’ about whether to get a ticket or not to get online and grab a ticket?

JPY: Well, I will say one thing. I have finally cracked the gender divide. I get a lot of men coming to my shows these days. And that’s very different [to how it used to be]. And I don’t know if they’re being dragged along or whether they are finally admitting that my music was pretty good? [Laughs] But they are there! [Laughs again]

TUN: They’re not trying to tear off your sailor shirts are they?

JPY: No, no! Certainly not. Even the women aren’t…[Laughs]

I think people should just remember the seventies. Remember the fun you had, and come along and experience a slice of it. Because you will laugh. You will cry. You will sing. You will dance. And you will have a good time.

TUN: It sounds like it will be a great show.

JPY: And one more little comment, if I may, seeing as I am up on my political horse at the moment.

I just want to say that we should have a Royal Commission into the [state of the] Murray-Darling, because there’s too much self-interest in discussions about it at present, and it’s time the politicians were taken out and a bit of common sense, and a bit of law and order, were put in place.

TUN: I think a lot of South Australians would support you in that because we often get the raw end of the stick on water rationing…

JPY: Yeah, yeah…I’m doing a gig in Adelaide, and I’m doing shows in Albury and Wagga Wagga too. And I’ve just got to say something, because what is going on is disgraceful and it’s got to stop!

 

 

John Paul Young & The All-Star Band Play The Vanda & Young Songbook will be performed at the Dustan Playhouse on Saturday 30 March.

Tickets are available here: Vanda & Young Songbook

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