Happy Australia Day to our readers Down Under. The future shows up so fast in Oz that it's already Post-Australia Day in Australia, but the national holiday takes longer to work its way around to my neck of the woods, and the great merit of our tardy overseas jubilations is that they don't seem to be afflicted by the paroxysms of self-loathing, virtue-signaling and guilt-tripping with which the Aussie media now observe the occasion (which may be why my old chum Julie Bishop is celebrating the day from the safe distance of Earl's Court).
Anyway, this is the first Australia Day since Olivia Newton-John pulled off an impressive double: in the Queen's Birthday Honours last June, she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia; in the Queen's New Year Honours a couple of weeks back, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. I am not generally in favor of knighthoods for rockers, but, since they seem de rigueur, I'll take Dame Olivia before most of the alternatives. (I'm having a run of bad luck at the bookies, but I'll bet on Dame Kylie before the Twenties are out.) We all love Livvy, not just for the early stuff but also the luster of her presence in the more recent undoubted Australian cinematic masterpiece A Few Best Men.
So it seems appropriate to pick a Newton-John smasheroo for our Australia Day Song of the Week. Unfortunately, most of her greatest hits were written by either UK songwriters (including our friend Don Black) or US songwriters (Grease). This, however, was a blockbuster - our new dame's first Number One in America and Canada (and Sweden) - and it was written by Australia's most successful pop songwriter:
So who wrote it? Well, fourteen years ago, I found myself stuck in traffic in George Street in Sydney behind a taxi bearing a big ad for Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz – The Peter Allen Musical.
How many other Australian popsters have a Broadway musical written about them? In the course of a too short life, Peter Allen wrote "I Go To Rio", "Arthur's Theme (When you get caught between the moon and New York City)", "Don't Cry Out Loud", "I Still Call Australia Home" - and let's face it, what could be more Australian than a gay Judy Garland accompanist?
Actually, in that Sydney production of the Broadway show, poor old Peter and his lover were denied their big ol' tongue waggle. As The Sun-Herald reported, "A gay kiss has been given the kiss-off in the new Australian production of The Boy From Oz, with Hugh Jackman no longer required to lock lips with a male co-star." As it happens, the lack of a tongue sarnie is more in keeping with the lyric of the song:
If we both were born
In another place and time
This moment might be ending with a kiss...
"Might". Instead, the moment ends without one.
"I Honestly Love You" was a hit around the world for Olivia Newton-John in 1974. It was just another song for Peter Allen's co-writer Jeff Barry, the Brill Building hit machine whose songs include "River Deep Mountain High" and "Da-Doo-Ron-Ron". But it was Allen's breakout hit, the song that gave him his songwriting career. Here's his own pre-Livvy take on "Honestly":
Hmm. There's a fine line between honestly and whinily.
While young Livvy grew up in suburban Melbourne, Peter passed his time in what most of us think of as a more quintessentially Australian burg - although demographically that isn't the case. He was born in Tenterfield, a country town in New South Wales where his grandfather was the saddler. Which all sounds pleasingly pastoral. But his dad was abusive and killed himself when Peter was fifteen. Such patriarchal affection as the lad could find came from the old man at the saddlery, who never got over the suicide of his son.
The old music-biz line on Livvy was that, if white bread could sing, it would sound like Olivia Newton-John. But in fact her childhood was tougher than you might think. She was a lonely girl, and more so after her parents bust up when she was eleven. In this department, we celebrate songwriters rather than singers, but, before we get too deep into Peter Allen's voluminous catalogue, I thought I'd tip my hat to one of the very few published songs composed by Dame Olivia. Here's a twenty-three-year-old Livvy channeling her experience of divorce into a song called "Changes":
There are some nice moments in that. And it makes you wonder, given the Eurovision schlock and other stuff she did record in the years that followed, why she didn't write more of her own.
Olivia and Peter Allen both wound up in England, but the latter took a more circuitous route. Judy Garland had spotted him when he and his partner (in every sense) were performing as the Allen Brothers in the Starlight Room at the Hong Kong Hilton in 1964. After bringing them to London as her opening act, she took young Peter from Tenterfield under her wing. The fetching Aussie hunk found himself (more or less simultaneously) Judy's pianist, her husband's lover, and her daughter's husband. Back in the mid-Forties, Miss Garland had come home one day and found her then husband, Vincente Minnelli, in bed with another man. There followed her first suicide attempt. Two decades later, Liza Minnelli could top that: she caught Peter Allen, her new husband, in bed with his boyfriend on their wedding night. Peter had been recommended to Judy by her fourth husband, Mark Herron. And Judy in turn pressed him on Liza. And Herron and Allen carried on a sexual relationship during their respective marriages to Judy and Liza.
One is all for being broad-minded and tolerant about these things and Peter Allen was certainly a good-looking lad in those days, but, how heartless does a guy like Mark Herron have to be to screw his stepdaughter's husband? The boy from Oz, like the girl from Kansas, was lost in a strange world of deficient creatures: miring Liza Minnelli in her own pathologies as a toxic inheritance, Judy has no brain; blithely rogering his step-daughter's husband, Judy's spouse Mark Herron has no heart; and, unable to resist her mother's scheming, Liza has no courage. The best exchange in that Peter Allen musical with Hugh Jackman was the following: "I'm not marrying you, I'm marrying her," Peter insists to his mother-in-law-to-be.
Judy appraises him coolly. "If only that were true," she replies. Her father, two husbands, and now a son-in-law were all Friends of Dorothy, though not such good friends of Judy as it turned out.
The Peter/Liza marriage didn't last. But it got the boy from Tenterfield a ticket to America and a Green Card that divorce couldn't take away. The big bloke from the outback had found his Emerald City in America; like the Wizard of Oz, he was mostly an engaging charlatan – "I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love" is an anemic love song hung on a very unconvincing premise; "Everything Old Is New Again" is a cheesy attempt at an anthemic showbiz valentine; "I Go To Rio" is a bit of ersatz Latin that cemented his reputation as the Liberace of the disco era and led to his apotheosis at Radio City, entering on a camel accompanied by the kicking legs of the Rockettes. But the hit years started with Olivia and "I Honestly Love You". It's an interesting study in Allen's songwriting:
Maybe I hang around here
A little more than I should
We both know I got somewhere else to go
But I've got something to tell you
That I never thought I would
And I believe you really ought to know...
That's not bad. I like that "hang around here/A little more than I should". It's a very conversational opening. But look at what he's leading up to:
I love you
I Honestly Love You...
That's it. That's the entire chorus. Or hook, really. Actually, it's not even a hook. Or, if it is, it seems totally unconnected from what's gone before. But boy, was it big in the Seventies:
You don't have to answer
I see it in your eyes
Maybe it was better left unsaid
This is pure and simple
And you should realize
That it's coming from my heart and not my head...
And then that hook again:
I love you
I Honestly Love You
I Honestly Love You...
I was a bit surprised to learn that Peter Allen's life had been turned into a musical. The director of the original production Down Under in 1998 was Gale Edwards, a distinguished Australian director whom I once had a couple of meetings with on a project that didn't go anywhere. Gale didn't care for my approach to the thing. "You can't take all these pop songs and then shoehorn them into a plot," she said, dismissively. Oh, okay. Yet a couple of years later there she was down in Australia doing the Peter Allen musical: she'd taken all these pop songs and then shoehorned them into a plot.
To write the story, she'd turned to Martin Sherman, a gay American playwright based in London whom I used to run into around town from time to time. He's a very smart guy and The Boy from Oz is undoubtedly the dumbest thing he's ever written. But it did have one treasurably camp moment, when "I Honestly Love You" was sung to Peter by the ghost of his boyfriend, which probably is more dramatic weight than an Olivia Newton-John pop ballad can bear. With hindsight, the film The Wedding Planner got it right: picking "I Honestly Love You" as your wedding song ensures the marriage won't last beyond fourteen months - because that "honestly" can sound perilously like special pleading. On the other hand, it seems absolutely right for the song playing over Chief Brody's radio just before the second shark attack in Jaws.
As for whether Peter Allen loved anyone honestly, I defer to Michael Feinstein, whom I heard talk a while back of how much Peter cared for Liza post-divorce. But he certainly loved voraciously, dying of Aids in 1992. I met him just once, during the very brief run of his musical Legs Diamond. "Even a critic can't kill me!" he crowed in that show. In the end, they didn't need to. He lived a brief, blazing life, died young, and survives so much in the affections of his countrymen that The Boy from Oz wasn't even the last word in Peter Allen stage memorials. Some years ago, my late pal Sheridan Morley got a lucrative little touring show out of Noël and Gertie, about the "love" between Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. Flash forward to 2017, and Amelia Ryan and Michael Griffiths are on stage in Sydney as Livvy & Pete, an attempt to turn them into the Noël and Gertie of the soft-rock set. Reviewer Jason Whyte was skeptical:
Did these two legends of Australian pop music influence each other ...or even meet?
On the latter point: well, kind of. This is an early example of the now routine practice of exhuming the dead for posthumous duets: Natalie Cole and her dad, Barbra Streisand and Elvis, Martina McBride and Dino... Livvy and Pete are separated by twenty-two years and brought together by the magic of technology to conjure one of Allen's most personal songs, as personal as "Changes" was for Olivia. A lot of his big numbers may come across as burlesques of their various forms, with the music sounding as if it was assembled at a factory from random parts that happened to be lying around. But, like "Changes", "Tenterfield Saddler" is the story of the writer's childhood - the town, the saddlery, the old man, the lost son, it's all here:
The end, where Olivia reaches out to the dead Allen across the decades is very affecting, although somewhat marred by his characteristic choice of shirt. I'd put that up there with his song "Quiet Please, There's A Lady On Stage", an accompanist's poignant salute to Judy Garland on nights when it all fell apart.
As for Dame Olivia, she's never stopped singing Allen's original breakout hit. Here she is in 1998 reviving the number with the assistance on backing vocals of Babyface:
Another Number One? Not quite. Number 67 on the Billboard Hot 100: Not everything old is new again. But the original nevertheless made an impressive Number Eleven on VH1's countdown of the Top 40 Most Softsational Soft-Rock Songs of All Time, and, outranking Kenny Loggins and Phil Collins and Peter Frampton, Livvy is the only Aussie in that illustrious pantheon. In a long career, this remains a great Australian singer's greatest success with an Australian song: Happy Australia Day.
~If you're in the mood for more Aussie music this Australia Day, you can hear Mark with some of Dame Olivia's fellow Melbourne musicians in this SteynOnline podcast. And do give a listen to our annual Twelfth Night music special featuring live performances from The Mark Steyn Show over the years - including Peter Noone & Herman's Hermits, Patsy Gallant, Loudon Wainwright III, Elisabeth von Trapp and many more.
Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn's Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we thought we'd do the same for our musical features. Just click here, and you'll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Randy Bachman to Liza Minnelli; Mark's interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse's songs, John Barry's Bond themes, Simon after Garfunkel, and much more. We'll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you'll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from the woes of the world.
What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, it's an audio Book of the Month Club and a video poetry circle, and a live music club. We don't (yet) have a Mark Steyn clubhouse, but we do have other benefits - and the Third Annual Steyn Cruise, on which we always do a live-performance edition of our Song of the Week. And, if you've got some kith or kin who might like the sound of all that and more, we also have a special Gift Membership. More details here.