The Wiggles’ generational crossover

Since forming in 1991, Australian children’s group the Wiggles have pretty much seen it all. They’ve created a vast discography spanning 59 studio albums alone: last year, they were the second-highest streamed Australian act on Spotify across all genres.

In their heyday, the original group performed to more than 1 million people a year. More recently, they’ve noticed something new: a generational crossover. Their fans have grown up, many have formed their own bands – and they’re still fans.

This became obvious in 2018, when Brisbane hard rock duo DZ Deathrays invited guitarist Murray Cook to guest in their video Like People. In the clip, a demonically possessed Cook emerges from a bathroom stall and appears to be taken over by his former character, Red Wiggle.

Later that year, Cook (who retired from live performances with the Wiggles in 2012, along with original Purple Wiggle Jeff Fatt) appeared with DZ Deathrays at the Splendour in the Grass festival. The audience went totally Apple And Bananas.

This set the stage for last year’s all-conquering cover of Tame Impala’s Elephant, for which Cook returned. It went on to win the country’s biggest music poll, the Triple J Hottest 100.

“I just started noticing I was getting stopped in the street a lot by 20-somethings saying ‘the Wiggles were my childhood, you guys are legends!’” Cook tells Guardian Australia.

Now there is a full covers album, ReWiggled, with bands including DZ Deathrays, Spacey Jane, San Cisco and the Polish Club playing Wiggles songs, along with a second disc of the recently expanded kids’ group joining the originals to honour their favourite songs.

This is actually the second Wiggles tribute album. An earlier version, featuring the Living End, Washington, Sarah Blasko and Adalita, was released in 2011 and reissued late in 2021, capitalising on Elephant’s viral success. The new edition debuted at No. 1 on the Australian charts last month. Perhaps surprisingly, for a group with multiple gold and platinum certifications worldwide, it’s their first album to hit the top spot in their home country.

Cook, a pre-pandemic regular on the live scene, is tickled by the validation from younger musicians. “I find it particularly satisfying that so many people I meet tell me that the Wiggles were their entrée to music. To me that’s, like, mission accomplished.”

A new cover that made Cook laugh was the Chats’ version of (Can You) Point Your Fingers and Do The Twist. “In our version, there’s a spoken part where Anthony’s going, ‘What’s next Greg, what’s next?’ – and they did those bits as well.”

A children’s song isn’t an obvious fit for a ratbag punk band to cover, but the Wiggles returned the favour with their version of the Chats’ Pub Feed. “That was funny, too,” Cook says. “It took me three days to learn the solo for [Queen’s] Bohemian Rhapsody, but I knocked out Pub Feed in about half an hour – which I love, I think that’s fantastic! They’re great songs for different reasons.”

The Chats’ Eamon Sandwith is in awe at this. “They were the first band that I loved,” he says earnestly. “When they approached us to be part of the ReWiggled album, I couldn’t believe it. It’s not often I get starstruck, but I totally was. I couldn’t believe that they knew who we were, when I’d been listening to them since I was about two years old.”

Back then, Sandwith would get dressed up as Captain Feathersword for Wiggles shows; he texts through a photo as proof. “When I first heard their cover of Pub Feed, it honestly sounded like a Wiggles song,” he says. “Perhaps their style of songwriting has subconsciously influenced me since I was a child, because I was blown away at how Wiggly it sounded.”

Eamon Sandwith as Captain Feathersword (supplied by Eamon Sandwith)

Custard, who in age terms are closer to peers than descendants of the Wiggles, take on Do The Propeller. Curiously, it could pass for a Custard song. Singer David McCormack is now better known to millions as another icon of Australian kids’ entertainment: he voices Bandit, dad of Bluey, in the global juggernaut series named after her.

He became aware of the extent of the Wiggles’ reach when his eldest daughter, Rose, was born. “There’s a whole world of children’s entertainment out there and 90 percent of it is awful, but 10 percent is really interesting,” McCormack says. “It’s really hard to rise to the top of that pile, and they’ve done it for decades.

“They’ve got great craft and knowledge. They know how to get a lyric or an idea across that is seemingly inane and yet connects universally with kids all over the world, as well as parents. If it was easy to do and everyone could do it, everyone would do it. They’re massively successful because they’re very, very good at what they do.”

Cook and Fatt are semi-retired from the band, while remaining active as shareholders. Yellow Wiggle Greg Page left in 2006, then returned and left again in 2012. Blue Wiggle Anthony Field subsequently rebuilt the group with Simon Pryce, Lachie Gillespie and Emma Watkins. The popular Watkins departed last year and was replaced by Tsehay Hawkins, then just 15.

Now, both versions of the group are collaborating on a run of shows, with the new lineup doing the day shift and the originals doing the late gigs, joined by many of the artists they inspired. “It’s mind-blowing when you come out on stage and there’s this roar, but they’re all adults, not little kids,” Cook says.

Fatt and Page both left the group for health reasons, with Page suffering a heart attack on stage during a bushfire relief reunion in January 2020. Cook, 61, underwent open heart surgery in late 2020. Relentless touring had ground them all down, so this one is happening at a pace the original members can accommodate.

And after that? Will Cook put the red skivvy back in its box, until he’s possessed once more? “Yeah, probably for a little while,” he says. “But I think we’ll go on and do more of these, just because they’re so much fun, and while there’s an audience there. I don’t know if people are still going to want to come and sing Wiggles songs when they’re 40.”

First published in the Guardian, 5 April 2022

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