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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Get Ready To Wiggle with The Wiggles

Hello, everyone!  And, I want to single out any readers who may be reading this blog entry from Sydney, Melbourne, Cairns, Adelaide, Perth, Darwin, and any other city and town in the country of Australia, and wish them a very happy Australia Day!

Australia Day is celebrated each year on January 26, and it was previously known as Anniversary Day, Foundation Day, and ANA Day.

The date is special to Australians because it was the exact date that the First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove, New South Wales, Australia.  January 26, 1788.

It took about a hundred years before the day was officially christened as “Australia Day”, but it is estimated that it was celebrated as early as 1808, according to records kept within the country.  The first celebration of the formation of New South Wales was held in 1818.

Australia Day is easily considered to be one of the largest civic events in Australia, with celebrations similar to those held in Mexico every Cinco de Mayo, in Canada on July 1, and the United States on July 4. 

So, on behalf of “A Pop Culture Addict’s Guide To Life”, I would like to wish every single Australian a happy and safe Australia Day (even though by the time I publish this article, it may already be the 27th).  I hope you enjoy yourselves.  You guys have a really cool country, and I have it on my bucket list to visit it one day.  Here’s hoping that I get the opportunity to do so.

So, considering that today is Australia Day, I thought that for today, I would make this post one hundred per cent Australian.  The problem is that I don’t know too many television cartoons or children’s programs that were entirely filmed in Australia.  As it so happens, Australia Day is on a Saturday this year, and I was at a loss as to what to do the blog about.

It’s not like I didn’t try.  I logged onto Wikipedia and did a search on Australian children’s programs, and came up with a list of shows that I had never even heard of!  The only Australian programs that I have ever seen episodes of are “Neighbours”, “Home and Away”, “Blue Heelers”, “Water Rats”, and “Heartbreak High”, and I wouldn’t consider ANY of those to be shows for young children.

The television show, “Play School” sounded promising...until I did a little research and discovered that it was almost an exact replica of the “Polka Dot Door” (which I have already done an entry on).

I also recognized the show “Bananas in Pyjamas” because I was forced to watch it years ago when babysitting my niece and nephew...but with each episode only lasting a few minutes, there really wasn’t a lot of information that I could insert into the blog.

And, then I came across a rather interesting article online that detailed a major shakeup within a band that has been entertaining Australian audiences since the 1990s.  The band - which was made up of four men - performed a pair of concerts in the days leading up to Christmas Day, 2012.  One concert was at the annual Carols in the Domain on December 22, 2012 in Sydney, Australia, and the second one was held on Christmas Eve at the Sydney Entertainment Centre.  Now, under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t have been that big of a deal.  But to the band members themselves, as well as the millions of fans all over the world, it was a bittersweet time.

After the Christmas Eve concert, three of the four band members would depart the group to go on their separate ways, leaving the fourth to carry on the band as the last sole original member.  The three replacements were brought on board in January 2013 to transition the band to the next phase of their career.

Now, the changing of band members within this band was nothing new.  The band actually began as a quintet in 1991, with one member departing the group within the band’s first year, and another member being temporarily sidelined due to medical issues.  But this was different, as three-quarters of the band were leaving.

As of right now, it’s unknown as to how successful the three replacements are going to be, but one thing is for sure, you can’t keep the band from wiggling their way into the hearts of young children all over the world.

This week’s Saturday feature will be on the Australian children’s entertainers, “The Wiggles”, and their various triumphs, struggles, and change in personnel over their twenty-two year history.

First, let’s take a look at how they began.  And, yes, there will be a reason why I am colour-coding their names.  You’ll quickly figure it out.

Our story begins in the late 1980s in Sydney, Australia.  In those days, people were glued to the escapades of Scott and Charlene in “Neighbours”, bands like INXS and Midnight Oil were touring the world, and a band known as “The Cockroaches” were playing various gigs all over Australia, recording 1960s inspired pop songs.

The members of the band were Phil Robinson, Tony Henry, Jeff Fatt, and a trio of brothers, Paul, John, and Anthony Field.

The band formed in 1979, and for the first nine years of “The Cockroaches”, the band became a hit in Australia.  They averaged about three hundred gigs a year, and their first record went gold (despite the fact that no major record label in Australia would sign them, and that a lot of the promotion costs came at the band’s own expense).

In 1988, one of the members of “The Cockroaches” suffered a very personal loss, as lead singer Paul’s eight-month old daughter passed away in September from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.  The band took a few months off while Paul grieved the loss, and attempted to tour again in 1989, but by the early 1990s, the band had split up.

With “The Cockroaches” disbanded, the other members went on their separate ways.  Anthony Field ended up enrolling as a student at Macquarie University to work on completing a degree in early childhood education.  While he was at Macquarie, he formed a friendship with mature student Murray Cook who had left a job as a clerk at the Australian Tax Office prior to studying at Macquarie.  Murray Cook had also fiddled around with music in his younger years, playing the guitar for “Bang Shang a Lang” and “Finger Guns”.  During this time, Field had offered a recommendation to the then-nineteen year old Greg Page, (who went on the road with “The Cockroaches” as a teenager during the band’s later tours as a roadie/back-up singer) to take the same early childhood education course that Field and Cook were taking.

Hmmm...Page, Cook, and Field met up studying an early childhood education course, and all three were familiar with the music industry.  I can’t imagine where this is leading, can you?

As it turned out, all three men worked together on a class project within their course, and the project involved creating high-quality children’s music.  This project inevitably ended up being the master copy of what would become a debut album for a group that was about to form...only Page, Cook, and Field didn’t know it at the time.  The project was dedicated in memory of Field’s deceased niece, and the three men treated the project like a university assignment, creating folders of essays explaining the meaning and educational values of each song that was composed.  But the three men needed a little bit of a boost in order to make the project pop.

Hence came the re-entry of Jeff Fatt, who contributed keyboards to the album for what he believed would be a one-off assignment.  Rounding out the group was Phillip Wilcher, a student at Macquarie’s early childhood music program, allowing the group to use his home to record the songs.

After the first album was completed, Wilcher decided to part company with the band...but don’t feel too bad for him.  He’s since made a decent living as a classical music artist in Australia.

The album was completed in 1991, and Cook, Fatt, Field, and Page had used old songs written during “The Cockroaches” heyday and reworked them to fit a younger audience.  But the band still needed a name, and as it so happened, they got their name from a previous Cockroaches song!

The song was “Mr. Wiggles Back In Town” was reworked to this song (and this is one of the few where Wilcher is included...he’s the one in the white and red shirt).

And, this was apparently before the time in which the Wiggles ended up with their signature coloured sweaters (the colour each member wore was the same colour that I highlighted their names in earlier in the entry).

At any rate, the album was distributed to the remainder of the students in the class to test out the effect of the songs on the children...and one young mother returned the tape the next day because her child would not stop listening to it and it drove her crazy.

That’s how the Wiggles knew that they had something special together.

From the period between 1991 and 1993, Cook, Page, and Field completed their teaching degrees and began to embark on teaching young children, but the thought of recording music full time never really left their minds, especially since their debut album sold 100,000 copies in Australia alone.  On school holidays and weekends, the band performed small gigs at small venues, and attracted a modest crowd at first...but when the band began attracting crowds by the hundreds, the Wiggles decided to take a year long break in 1993, just to see if they could make it as a children’s band.  With a desire to remain an independent entity, the band handled most of the production of their albums and videos themselves, with Field taking on the majority of the work on production. 

TRIVIA:  You know the secondary characters that appear alongside the Wiggles in their videos?  They were originally played by the band members themselves!  Murray Cook put on the Dorothy the Dinosaur costume, Jeff Fatt played Henry the Octopus, and Anthony Field did double duty as Wags the Dog and Captain Feathersword.  Greg Page did not wear any costume, which made sense, since he did most of the lead vocals for the Wiggles entire discography in the early years.

By the end of the 1990s, the Wiggles became a media sensation, and children and their parents flocked to see them in concert.  By 1995, the band had broken records for sales in both albums and video sales, and the band filmed a full-length film, which ended up being Australia’s top-grossing film for 1998.

But one thing that the Wiggles never did in Australia was have a successful television series...and this is where the United States/United Kingdom market came into play.  In 1998, Disney had arranged for them to play at Disneyland, where they were discovered by representatives of Lyrick Studios (the same studios that produced “Barney & Friends”).  They were uneasy about signing the band, fearing that their Australian accents would be a roadblock, but those fears faded when they saw how positively American children responded to the band.  Of course, the climb to stardom would be difficult for the band at first, and they spent three years performing in near empty parking lots, and relying on stores like FAO Schwarz to distribute their albums and videos.

But within three years, the band’s popularity was cemented in the United States, and the band were embraced in New York City when word got out that they were one of the few bands who kept their commitment to perform in New York City in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  That small gesture earned the band a lot of respect, and by January 2002, the sales of their videos and albums in the U.S.A. soared (likely aided by the fact that the Disney Channel started playing their music videos on air that same month).  This eventually lead to the band signing a deal to produce their own television show for Disney, and found their concert gigs doubling in the United States to around 520 shows a year!

The Wiggles had arrived, and were here to stay.

Unfortunately, the years of touring did wreak havoc on the personal health of three of the four band members.  While many fans may not have been aware of it, Anthony Field had a life-long struggle with depression and anxiety, along with fits of chronic physical pain, and he almost quit the band in 2004 because of it.  With help from his family, band members, and a chiropractor, he made enough of a recovery to stay with the band.

Jeff Fatt, as the oldest member of the Wiggles (he is currently fifty-nine years of age), underwent surgery to insert a pacemaker in July 2011 after feeling ill for weeks prior, and ended up having to be sidelined for two months while he recovered...the first time in twenty years he had to do such a thing.

Greg Page, on the other hand, had a double hernia operation which was performed in late 2005.  By the summer of 2006, he was experiencing serious health setbacks which included slurred speech, fainting spills, and extreme fatigue.  He was diagnosed with dysautonomia, which his doctor had estimated that he had been dealing with for at least a decade prior, the symptoms intensifying since his surgery.  The decision was made in November 2006 for Page to retire from the group to focus on getting better, and in 2007, Page was replaced by Sam Moran, (see above)  who stayed with the group from 2007 until January 2012.  Although Page’s return to the group in January 2012 was considered controversial (as some believed that Moran got a raw deal), Moran did get a decent severance package, which allowed him to collect song royalties and to have free access to the Wiggles recording studios whenever he wanted.

And now we come to January 2013, and the band has changed again.  Murray Cook, Jeff Fatt, and Greg Page announced that they were leaving the Wiggles in the spring of 2012, and that their last sets of concerts together would be performed in December 2012.  This makes Anthony Field the sole remaining original Wiggle.  But although the other three Wiggles won’t be performing on stage, they remain committed to the Wiggles as they transfer their focus on the backstage component.

A search was done to replace the three departing Wiggles during the summer of 2012, and by 2013, the replacement Wiggles were announced as Lachlan Gillespie, Simon Pryce, and Emma Watkins (the second female to play a Wiggle since Australian singer Kylie Minogue temporarily became the “Pink Wiggle” in a Wiggles song).

You know something though, as long as the band continues to perform educational songs for children and never lose sight of why they make music, I think it’s possible that the three new faces will be welcomed.  After all, children adjusted when Sam Moran took over for Greg Page for five years.  Just consider them as brand new friends!

And, that’s our look back on one of Australia’s most successful children’s bands on this Australia Day.  And with 17 gold records, a dozen platinum records, and several multi-platinum records to the band’s credit, I have a feeling that this new incarnation will continue to make beautiful music together...

...well, beautiful to the average preschooler anyway.

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