Tagged: Hey Hey It’s Saturday

Kamahl, Hey Hey and cancel culture

When Daryl Somers, former host of Hey Hey It’s Saturday, told the Daily Telegraph that “you probably could not get away with half the stuff you could on Hey Hey now because of political correctness and cancel culture”, it reminded many viewers of two things.

First, that Hey Hey It’s Saturday had already been cancelled twice: in 1999, after a 28-year run, and in 2010, when a brief reboot of the series was marred by an infamous blackface sketch.

The second was the type of humour the Australian variety show traded in.

A montage on Twitter, compiling a series of incidents in which the singer Kamahl was racially mocked and belittled on the show, went viral. In another cartoon, he was depicted in a stew pot with a bone through his nose.

The now 86-year-old said he often felt “humiliated” by his experiences as a regular guest on the show. Speaking to Guardian Australia this week, he said he had been invited repeatedly to appear on the show during the reboot, but “found reasons not to go” at the time.

Kamahl has been the most recognised Australian voice of lounge and easy-listening music in a career spanning more than 60 years, performing on stages ranging from the Sydney Opera House to the Big Day Out rock festival. He has also raised millions of dollars for charities, including the World Wildlife Fund, via his 1975 hit The Elephant Song.

Kamahl accepted he had benefited from the publicity generated by his appearances on the program. “My basic philosophy as far as television is concerned was, if you’re an entertainer, if they don’t see you on television, they think you’re dead,” he said.

But, he said, he had little control over how he would be portrayed on the program, and that when he first appeared “I didn’t realise it was going to be a minefield, of sorts”.

“There were a number of instances where I felt humiliated, but I didn’t want to raise any objections or protest about it. I kept smiling and pretending all was OK.”

The worst incident occurred in 1984, when Kamahl was hit in the face with a powder-puff while performing, rendering him in whiteface. Somers’ off-camera sidekick John Blackman quipped: “You’re a real white man now Kamahl, you know that?”

“I found that quite offensive,” Kamahl said. “Friends of mine in America saw that and to this day they can’t believe that somebody would treat an artist with that amount of disrespect.”

Kamahl headlined the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York City the following week, where he was introduced by comedy legend Bob Hope.

Kamahl did not blame Somers. “I always got along reasonably well with Daryl. I’ve never had any quarrel with Daryl at all, and I don’t think he had any ill-feeling towards me. I don’t think he encouraged it, nor stopped it. He was a bystander.”

Somers Carroll productions declined to comment when approached by Guardian Australia.

Kamahl has been asked about racism and his relationship with Hey Hey and Somers before. In 2009, in the wake of the blackface sketch, it was reported that Kamahl was prepared to sue Channel 9.

Kamahl, who had not seen the program at the time it aired and only became aware of it when a news crew turned up at his house the next morning, said that this had never been the case.

“They tried every angle to get me to say something that was controversial. And just as they were leaving the house, the journalist said ‘Kamahl, are you going to sue Channel 9?’ And I said ‘Oh, what a great idea’, which was a joke, but the next day it was on the front page.”

Kamahl, who was born in Malaysia to Tamil-Hindu parents, said that he had tried to explain that racism was a worldwide, societal, structural problem, referring to the so-called “untouchables”, the lowest-caste members of Indian society.

“I said, frankly speaking, I am more racist than Hey Hey It’s Saturday! But they were not interested in finding out my take on racism,” he said.

“I married an Indian. The Sri Lankans think that they’re a cut above the Indians. In India they have the untouchables, and no one talks about it. That is worse than slavery. I’m part of it, and I haven’t done anything to stop it. So we all have to be carefully taught,” he said.

As for whether Hey Hey would be cancelled were it to be brought back to television screens a third time, Kamahl said “I know they call it cancel culture, but they’re not stopping culture. They’re only trying to limit unnecessarily vulgar or crude terminology or gags or whatever.”

“If something has merit, if it is witty, if it’s clever, so be it. If it’s crap, maybe we can do without it.”

First published in the Guardian, 27 March 2021

(I want my) music on TV back

For two hours on Sunday night, it felt like a good proportion of Australia was gathered around a gigantic campfire. That campfire was burning on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, where Paul Kelly and his band were holding court – not just for the tens of thousands of people lucky enough to be there, but for hundreds of thousands more tuning in around the country, watching the ABC livestream and tweeting simultaneously.

Some say it’s rude to talk at gigs, but for me, watching from home, the excited chatter about what we were seeing added to the communal feel as #PaulKellyLive became the top-trending hashtag in the country. There was a collective awareness that we were witnessing a celebrated songwriter at the top of his game, and at a peak of popularity – at the age of 62, Kelly’s most recent album Life Is Fine was his first No. 1, a richly deserved success for a recording that’s up there with his best work.

Then someone said on Twitter: “We should have live music on the ABC every Sunday night.” Funny he should mention it: only two hours earlier, the ABC had screened its latest instalment of Classic Countdown, a restored best-of the vintage program which has also been a big hit for the national broadcaster. Cannily, it screened in Countdown’s original time slot of 6pm Sunday, adding to the nostalgia of a sizeable audience who grew up on the show between 1974 and 1987.

Of course, the music on Countdown wasn’t strictly live, and the warm glow of nostalgia helps us forget the reality: at the time, great Countdown moments (last night’s highlight was Divine performing You Think You’re A Man) could sometimes be a bit like finding diamonds in dog turds. Such moments, though, were miracles of Australian television that probably wouldn’t be allowed to happen today.

So it’s reasonable to ask why we don’t have a dedicated live music program, the endless parade of canned karaoke quests aside. If we did, perhaps we wouldn’t be wallowing in nostalgia for shows like Countdown and Recovery, at least not to the same degree. Australia has a rich history of music on television going back to TV Disc Jockey in 1957, which evolved into Australia’s version of the American program Bandstand.

In other words, Australia has had rock & roll on television pretty much as long as we’ve had both television (which launched in this country in 1956) and rock & roll.

After Bandstand, we had Six O’Clock Rock hosted by Johnny O’Keefe, The Go!! Show, GTK (Get To Know), and the Seven network’s Sounds, on to Rock Arena, SBS’s Rock Around the World (whose host Basia Bonkowski was the subject of a memorable tribute by Melbourne’s Painters & Dockers), Beatbox, The Noise, Studio 22 and Nomad – the show which introduced us to a trio of teenagers called Silverchair.

Variety shows gave priceless additional exposure to Australian artists. Even Hey Hey It’s Saturday had its moments: other than that time Iggy Pop greeted Molly Meldrum with “Hiya Dogface!” before terrorising innocent teenagers with a microphone stand, not even Countdown threw up anything to match TISM’s performance of Saturday Night Palsy, the like of which has not been seen before or since.

Perhaps that’s the problem. Even mimed performances on live television carried that tantalising possibility of a few minutes of anarchy. All it took was a performer, or group of performers, willing to break the format’s fourth wall and strip the carefully constructed reality of television away – at which point things perhaps got a bit too real for executive producers to handle.

Which brings me to the events of 2 November 1988.

On that evening, a Sydney noise-rock group called Lubricated Goat, led by one Stu Spasm, performed the lead track from their just-released album Paddock Of Love on Andrew Denton’s program Blah Blah Blah. The song was called In The Raw, and in the raw was exactly how the group played it – much to the horror of sensitive viewers who jammed the ABC switchboard, not to mention tabloid editors and talkback radio hosts.

Eleven years after punk, it was Australia’s version of “The filth and the fury” – that Daily Mirror headline that followed the Sex Pistols’ infamous appearance on Bill Grundy’s Today program in December 1976. Tim Bowden, the genial host of the ABC’s popular feedback program Backchat, responded to the moral panic by appearing shirtless behind his desk while reading outraged letters to Aunty aloud.

An ABC spokesperson told Guardian Australia the network hoped to build on the success of the AusMusic Month broadcasts: Paul Kelly last night and Crowded House last year. They said music programming, including live concerts, “is something we continue to be very committed to … the upcoming reorganisation of our content teams will provide more opportunities for our music and entertainment teams to work closely together”.

I hope they’re right. It has been far too long since live music was a regular part of our Sunday evenings, not to mention our Monday water-cooler discussions. Sure, it carries an element of risk – but as Paul Kelly showed, it has the potential for joy as well. And without the risks, we’d have none of those classic moments that we continue to celebrate today.

First published in The Guardian, 20 November 2017