Rob Farnham places his hand on his heart as he talks about his father, unwittingly drawing attention to a bold tattoo poking through the top of his shirt. The swirling cursive letters spell the title of his favourite song, Playing to Win, one of his dad John Farnham’s biggest hits, and a mantra the family has lived by for decades. “I was in my 20s when I got it. I thought it was a good outlook to have on life,” says the 42-year-old actor and musician, noting that the script forever inked on his heart has taken on new significance of late.
“You have to keep positive and not get bogged down,” he tells The Weekly, referring to his father’s recent battle with cancer. “It’s cruel and brutal but they’re the cards you’re dealt in life and cancer doesn’t care who you are. We are really proud of him. He’s inspiring us every day, but then again, he always has.”
In August last year, the nation held its collective breath when the Farnham family announced that their adored husband and father, John, would immediately undergo a marathon 13-hour surgery after finding a cancerous tumour in his mouth. The diagnosis was an especially brutal blow because John was still reeling from the passing of his dear friend, Olivia Newton-John, just weeks earlier, and the sudden death that February of his long-time manager and best mate, Glenn Wheatley, from complications related to COVID-19.
Mercifully, John’s operation was a success. Indeed, he has recovered so well that the Farnham and Wheatley families have now turned their attention to a project dear to all their hearts – finishing the film that Glenn started before his death, John Farnham: Finding the Voice.
“It’s a glorious story about a beautiful love affair – John and Glenn’s,” Gaynor Wheatley jests. “They had something truly special and it was a great privilege to be part of it. It’s been cathartic for us all to fulfil Glenn’s wish.”
In February last year, after saying a heartbreaking goodbye to her husband of 39 years, Gaynor Wheatley returned to the family’s Melbourne home intending to draw the curtains and quietly begin picking up the pieces of their broken lives. But, when she came across a notepad on the music impresario’s desk, she immediately changed tack.
“Glenn always had a to-do list and it was always very long,” she muses. “On top of the list was this film. He had a real bee in his bonnet about getting it made, and he’d completed about half of it before he suddenly died. I knew how special it was to him, so I thought, ‘Right, we are going to finish this – he and John deserve it’.”
The biopic had John’s blessing, but when it came time for him to be interviewed, he was so bereft from Glenn’s loss, he felt unable to speak. So, Gaynor called the one person who could always buck John up, his long-time friend, Dame Olivia Newton-John.
“John was really sad,” Gaynor explains, “so I thought ‘I’ll ring Olivia. She knows exactly what to say.’ And of course she did. In typical Olivia style, she said, ‘Yeah darling, I’ll give him a call. He needs a kick up the backside!'”
It worked a charm and with Olivia’s voice ringing in his ears, the ARIA Hall of Fame inductee opened up about his family, friends and his incredible career, and the film was back on track.
“I got out the microphone, full of bravado, to interview him,” Gaynor adds. “Then we started talking about Glenn and we were both inconsolable. It was painful for us both but it means so much now. The film wouldn’t be complete without John’s voice in it.”
Little could they have known that Olivia, who was also interviewed for the film, would soon pass, the news breaking as John was driving to hospital for a pre-surgery meeting with his own medical team.
“Olivia’s death was another huge blow for John, for everyone,” Gaynor says. “Two people he really loved and respected gone in a short period of time. It totally changed the context of the film. It’s even more precious to us now because it was Olivia and Glenn’s last interviews and then John … It’s quite profound when you watch it, and takes it beyond whatever Glenn imagined it would be. It’s something I’m really proud of.”
On a hot summer’s day in June 1987, John Farnham was bouncing around a Munich stage looking every bit the ’80s rockstar. Dressed in tight leather pants, his ripped t-shirt dripping with sweat and his blonde mullet flowing in the breeze, he absolutely owned the German stage, soaking up the electric vibration of a 100,000-strong audience singing along to his number #1 hit, You’re the Voice.
Yet, one year earlier, John had been curled up in the foetal position in the passenger seat of his wife Jill’s blue Corolla, broke, broken and crying his eyes out, overcome with anxiety as she drove him to the launch of his make-or-break album Whispering Jack.
“I said to him, ‘Listen, if you don’t get out of this car and walk in when we get there, it’s not going to happen,” Jill says in the film, recalling how she almost had to push her husband out of the car to get him to attend his own party.
The story of how Glenn and Gaynor Wheatley mortgaged their home to bankroll the making of Australia’s biggest selling album, Whispering Jack, is the stuff of legend, but few (including John’s own children) really knew just how tough times were for John and Jill before You’re the Voice broke into the charts.
The curse of his early pop hit, Sadie, had been very real. ‘Johnny’ Farnham was yesterday’s news, record companies wouldn’t touch him, and after Little River Band fell apart, he was forced to sell the family’s home, drowning in debt. In the film, Glenn remembers the shock of seeing his old mate performing before just a handful of people in a Gold Coast club: “I thought, ‘How can this be John Farnham, the best singer I’ve ever heard?'”
John says: “I remember, one night, my mother-in-law said, ‘Let’s take Robert to McDonalds for dinner,’ and I actually couldn’t take them because we didn’t have the money.” With the Wheatleys’ backing, the Farnhams rented a home in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs and John pulled together a band which rehearsed in the garage. Jill backed him all the way, bringing tea, biscuits, and a trusted ear to the marathon sessions they held to write and find songs for Whispering Jack. They listened to more than 2000 songs before they found You’re the Voice. However, as the documentary reveals, the song was almost over before it began because the writers didn’t want John to sing it.
“The only thing they knew of John Farnham was Sadie (the Cleaning Lady) and they didn’t want him to have it,” says the album’s producer, Ross Fraser.
With the trademark chutzpah he’d shown on stage with the ’60s-’70s rock band The Masters Apprentices, Glenn decided John should record the song anyway. After all, he reasoned, John was broke and he’d mortgaged his home – they had nothing to lose. It’s worth noting that, incredibly, Glenn and John never had a formal contract – their four-decade partnership was inked in friendship and loyalty.
“Glenn wanted to be in the studio when they recorded You’re the Voice,” Gaynor tells The Weekly. “But we’d been out for dinner and by the time we got there, they’d already recorded it. We were really excited to hear it, so they played it through the speakers, but it just wasn’t as good as an earlier demo that we’d been playing ad nauseum in the car and at home.
“John could see we were disappointed. It was obvious that we weren’t whooping it up and popping the champagne, and he said, ‘You don’t like it, do you?’ Glenn was like, ‘Ah, sorry mate, I prefer the demo.’
“John was furious. He stormed back into the studio, and in a fit of anger, he recorded it again, singing the version it is now. The hairs on the back of our necks were standing up as he sang. It was fantastic, and everyone agreed it was so much better. I’m glad we spoke up because we got John’s quintessential vocal. He trusted Glenn’s instinct – that was the sort of relationship they had.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
The song took off like a rocket and reached the top of the charts in Germany, Sweden, Austria, Ireland, Switzerland and the UK. It was the ARIA Single of the Year in 1987, while the album Whispering Jack remains the highest selling album by an Australian artist in history.
“All of a sudden we were part of this tornado that was gathering intensity,” Gaynor says. “We were all swept up and sucked into this orbit and thoroughly enjoying the ride. I was really proud of both Glenn and John for what they achieved. It was a special time.”
Although he was very young, Rob recalls seeing his dad burst into tears taking the phone call telling him they’d reached number one on the charts.
“And I remember that life started to change then,” he says. “We’d lived in a bunch of different rental houses and they weren’t great, and then slowly things developed and until we were in this beautiful house. It wasn’t overnight, it was a slow progression, but the shift in our life was noticeable.”
You’re the Voice wrote a new chapter in the Australian songbook, but the song and its singer have achieved legendary status beyond our shores too. John has since performed with Celine Dion, Richard Marx, Tom Jones, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Coldplay, Queen, Jimmy Barnes and of course, Olivia Newton-John. Coldplay’s Chris Martin describes the song as “the unofficial national anthem of Australia” and Robbie Williams, who sang the hit as a tribute to John at last year’s AFL Grand Final, says the song is “religious without being religious”.
In the film, Daryl Braithwaite shares how You’re the Voice and John’s unlikely return to the top of the charts inspired him to quit his day job fixing roads for the local council and get back to singing. John later sang with Daryl on As the Days Go By.
“I knew that dad struggled to get to where he was,” says John’s younger son, James, 34, “but I didn’t know just how big the struggle was, with basically no one wanting him.
“It was much more difficult for them than I realised, and the film has made me appreciate him and how hard he worked even more. What he did was remarkable. But he has always seen the positive – he’s never let things get to him and he has always pushed through.”
One of many rare pieces of private Farnham family footage in the film shows little ‘Johnny’ Farnham bounding into the camera shot and dancing around entertaining his family. He was probably eight or nine years old, but even then, the trademark swagger and cheeky, childish smile that made him a star decades later was obvious.
“There was always music going on,” John’s late mother, Rose, said. “John and Jean [his sister] used to go around entertaining the old people in England. One time they were performing and Jean had to sit on Johnny’s lap. She fell off and John just carried on with the show. From that moment, my father-in-law said, ‘He’s going to be a showman’.”
For the Farnham boys, seeing their family story on the big screen has been incredibly uplifting after such a difficult time. Rob was four years old when You’re the Voice was released; James came along in 1988. Although John and Jill were fiercely protective of the boys’ privacy while they were growing up, they were both aware from a young age that their dad wasn’t quite like the other dads at school.
For Rob, the penny dropped during a concert when he was around 10 years old. “I was standing on the side of the stage and Dad was in the middle of singing one of his big power ballads when a woman climbed over the barrier and onto the stage and made a bee-line for Dad. She jumped on him, wrapping her arms and legs around him, and I can still remember the look on Dad’s face. He was mid-song, laughing his guts out but still singing. One of the crew put his arm around me and said, ‘That’s your dad, mate!’ And I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit! This is full on!'”
Both boys have forged careers in music and James has worked closely with his dad on a number of tours. “It’s slightly weird, sharing your dad with the nation,” says James, who is a concert audio technician, adding that the family has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love in cards, letters, flowers and well-wishes since John’s diagnosis.
“When I was younger, I’d sometimes get upset because he was away a lot and I didn’t really understand what he did, but working with him was a big eye opener. I realised how much he makes people happy, and watching him walk out on stage and make that many people smile was mind blowing. He did it night after night. I understand why people love him as much as we do. The joy he brings people is the same joy he has brought to us.”
While the launch of the film is cause for celebration after a difficult year, it’s bittersweet that the man behind it all, Glenn Wheatley, won’t be there to see it come to life on the big screen. Gaynor will be forever grateful that one of the last voices Glenn heard was that of his best mate.
“I was on the phone to John to tell him Glenn wasn’t going to be with us much longer, so I had the phone up to Glenn’s ear and one of the last voices he heard was John’s. I’m glad about that,” she says, wiping away tears.
“Dad didn’t cope for a while after Glenn’s death, which is understandable,” Rob adds. “The loss of your best friend and someone that’s been there your whole life is tough. I don’t think that will ever heal properly … that’s what love is.”
Love and loyalty are the overwhelming themes of this film and while John’s recovery is on track, despite his recent respiratory infection, questions remain about whether fans will ever hear ‘the Voice’ on stage again.
As the Farnham boys prepare an extra special celebration to mark their parents’ 50th wedding anniversary this year, they say that whether their dad makes a return to the stage or not simply doesn’t matter. “He’s got nothing left to prove,” James says. “I don’t know what else he’d want to do. He’s done it all, he climbed the mountain and his flag is still on top.” Gaynor agrees. “Luckily for all of us, John found his voice and shared it with us. Whether he sings again or not, that music will be a part of people’s lives forever.”
But the last word remains with ‘the Voice’ himself.
“I’m glad to have affected people’s lives with music,” John says in the film. “It’s nice that you can do that sort of thing. It affected me greatly so I would hope it affected other people greatly too.”
John Farnham: Finding the Voice airs on Channel 7 at 7.30pm on July 24.
You can read this story and many others in the April issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.