Tagged: Julia Zemiro

Beer, bass notes and the Bee Gees

I am sitting on the edge of a crowd of several thousand people gathered at Riverstage in Brisbane, and suddenly I’m feeling very nervous. I am about to be part of the latest (and, so far, biggest ever) live rendition of Pub Choir, and the legendary Barry Gibb, the sole survivor of the Bee Gees – who began their performing careers here in Pub Choir’s birthplace – is appearing on a screen above the stage.

He tells us the song we’re about to sing is their early hit To Love Somebody, and he promises “it’ll be about as easy as it was in 1967 for me”, but that he’s sure it will sound wonderful. I am less convinced – or at least, am unsure I can get even close to the orchestral pop classic’s complex melody, let alone pitch. Fortunately, I’ll be drowned out by everyone else, which is (a) merciful and (b) the whole point, but all I can think is that this is going to be a disaster.

Of course, if Pub Choir was about virtuosity, it would not exist. Founded by conductor Astrid Jorgensen in 2017, it works on the same principle as other community choral groups, including churches: that everyone can sing, no matter how well or badly, and that it feels good, especially when it’s done in large groups and alcohol is added. We’ve also got Jorgensen and her musical partner Waveney Yasso there to encourage/yell at us.

It’s a blend of music, standup and theatre, and it’s very successful: in 2019, Pub Choir sold 60,000 tickets in Australia, before embarking on a tour of the US in early 2020. The Covid pandemic forced that to be abandoned, and soon the Couch Choir concept was born, with singers participating via video link. Debuting with a version of the Carpenters’ Close To You on 22 March last year, it has since hosted tens of thousands of singers from more than 50 countries.

In June, Pub Choir will make its small-screen debut, rebadged as Australia’s Biggest Singalong by SBS, hosted by Julia Zemiro and Miranda Tapsell, with Jorgensen. After decades of singing talent quests, it’s a no-talent-required karaoke session for everyone, and the first song – again, highlighting the human need to connect in a time blighted by separation and grief – will be Hunters & Collectors’ Throw Your Arms Around Me.

In the meantime, the return of Pub Choir to the stage in its hometown has special significance, because the communal joy of gathering and singing in a safe space has more meaning. It hasn’t come without a fight, either. Around the bend of the Brisbane River, an AFL match is taking place at the Gabba to a full-capacity crowd. Jorgensen is literally preaching to the choir when she asks, rhetorically, how is a live music event less safe than a sporting event?

As it is, Riverstage is at around half capacity, with seating and social distancing in place throughout the amphitheatre. To the left of the stage we have the “high ladies” voices (think Cyndi Lauper, the PowerPoint slide tells us). In the middle are the “low ladies” (think Cher). I’m over on the right with the men (think Paul Kelly – the singing one, naturally), wondering how the heck we’re going to pull this off.

That’s where Jorgensen and Yasso come in. Jorgensen implores us to follow the instructions on the PowerPoint, which are entertainingly amateurish and enhanced with memes and gifs. But it’s hard to take your eyes off her, because she’s full of charm and exaggerated movements as she guides everyone through their respective parts, switching to a male voice via a vocal effect on her microphone when it’s time to instruct the blokes.

It all starts off well. The high ladies in particular are in enthusiastic spirits and easily up to the Bee Gees’ higher register. It’s over the other side of the stage – mine – where things get wobbly. I forget what my natural range is. Am I a baritone, tenor or just plain crap? I lose my way entirely in the section where Gibb sings “And I’m blind, so, so, so blind” and my lungs struggle with the song’s longer phrases. Jorgensen reminds us all to breathe.

After the intermission, an orchestra is brought on to the stage, and it’s time to do the whole song. We’ve been learning it for the better part of two hours, and I’m still cringing at the sound of my own voice. It’s all over the shop. But it doesn’t matter: the visceral effect of more than 3,000 people singing a song in unison is euphoric. That we are privileged enough to do it at all during a time of global misery is celebratory in itself.

Mostly, though, I’m just grateful it wasn’t Stayin’ Alive.

First published in the Guardian, 10 May 2021

Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine: Get Yer Dag On!

DAMIAN COWELL was the guy in TISM. We know because he told us so (in a song called I Was The Guy In TISM, recorded with the DC3). Anonymity can be a tough mask to shed. Think of Kiss without the war paint, or the Residents without the eyeballs: what lies beneath can only be a disappointment. Years ago, a friend of mine ripped off Ron Hitler-Barassi’s balaclava in a mosh pit. Stupidly, I asked him who it was. “Some guy,” he replied. Who did I expect?

But amid the constant clamour for TISM to reform (how many original members would it take? Who would know? Would anyone care?) Cowell, the artist formerly known as Humphrey B Flaubert, has been quietly building a catalogue that’s not far short of his old band. And if people aren’t as interested in listening to an advertising copywriter in his mid 50s as they are in TISM, maybe they’ll listen to him alongside a supergroup featuring the cream of Australian satire. Hence the Disco Machine.

The first Disco Machine album boasted cameos from Shaun Micallef, Tony Martin, Kathy Lette, John Safran and the Bedroom Philosopher, along with a bunch of other celebrities and fellow musicians: Lee Lin Chin, Julia Zemiro, Tim Rogers and Kate Miller-Heidke. That, if nothing else, speaks of some serious pulling power and the esteem Cowell is held not just in Australia’s musical community, but especially in comedy circles.

TISM were the rarest of joke bands (their first gig was poetically called The Get Fucked Concert) in that the joke has remained as obnoxious, funny and true as it ever was – and the music was frequently as good, if often let down by the production. They cut to the quick of Australian society and manners, pricking the left’s self-righteousness and the right’s mendacity in equal measure. Sometimes they even played it (almost) straight: The Philip Ruddock Blues is as good a protest song as anything written by Midnight Oil, though they’d probably cringe at the comparison.

Get Your Dag On! is the second Disco Machine album, and Micallef and Martin are again present, alongside another stellar roll-call of guests: Celia Pacquola, Judith Lucy and many more. There’s an irony in there being a slightly identikit anonymity about many of these pounding dance-floor grooves, but that doesn’t matter, because (a) irony is central to everything Cowell does, and (b) Cowell can sing: his melodies and phrasing make many of these songs instantly memorable.

And then there are the lyrics.

It is honestly difficult not to quote some of these songs in their entirety. My favourite is 365 Lemmys, featuring Henry Wagons, which points out how everyone’s favourite rock & roll outlaw made fundamentally conservative music by never deviating from a proven formula: “Lemmy turned it up to 10 / Lemmy did it all again / And again and again and again and again / Lemmy was totally Zen.” In a similar vein, Can’t Stop The Music* (*conditions apply) observes that the most common revolutions in rock now are in the modes of distribution and consumption.

Come On Waleed features Henry Rollins (who just gets the title line) and Melbourne songwriter Liz Stringer. It rattles off a list of fallen heroes, both artistic and sporting: “No means yes, I learned that from Lance Armstrong / And Pistorius left us no leg to stand on.” The chorus then begs the beloved polymath columnist/academic/musician/co-host of The Project, Waleed Aly, not to follow them down the celebrity S-bend: “Don’t go changing on me!”

Another inspired duet is between Micallef and Regurgitator’s Quan Yeomans on When You’re Incredibly Good Looking, which imagines a beautiful person’s secret fear that they might not have got where they were on the basis of merit alone: “Thank God I’m ugly!” goes the chorus. Myf Warhurst guests on two songs: I Smell M.A.N., with Machine Gun Fellatio’s Pinky Beecroft, and My Baby Is Interested In Geopolitics But I Just Wanna Dance (with Tony Martin). The delight of these tracks is just how well she sings them.

Best of all is Barry Gibb Came Fourth In A Barry Gibb Lookalike Contest. Pairing Cowell with a purring Adalita, it shamelessly borrows its hook from Prince’s Controversy, and starts with an oblique reference to his own dilemma: “The truth is horrid / Never quite as good as fiction / That’s why we run away from it / How else do you explain religion?” Later comes this middle-eight: “Young girl with passionate views says journalism is the calling for me / Then finds out that her job at the news is to keep the public stupid and angry.”

It seems sadly unlikely that TISM are about to get back together anytime soon. But while Get Your Dag On! might not reach the heights of Great Truckin’ Songs Of The Renaissance (what could?), it stands tall alongside much of what came after. Cowell is an ad man you can trust.

First published in The Guardian, 16 February 2017