Marc Hunter of Dragon said it was "crap" but sang Age of Reason on a demo his brother Todd was making for John Farnham. The song went No. 1 for a month, made chart history and remains one of Farnsey's favourite Farnsey songs. Here's how it was made, 30 years after its release.
Thirty years ago today John Farnham released a single called Age of Reason.
It was the first new music since his career rebirth with the record-breaking Whispering Jack album in 1986.
Age of Reason would enter the ARIA chart at No. 3 on July 24 and a week later hit No. 1, where it would stay put for a month. It become the first time an Australian woman, Johanna Pigott (Scribble, XL Capris), had written a No. 1 song — it was a co-write with her partner, Dragon's Todd Hunter.
Three decades on, the song remains a constant in Farnham's live shows — in fact, it is one of John Farnham's favourite John Farnham songs.
Here's how Age of Reason was made.
It's 1987. John Farnham is backstage at a Dragon concert at Melbourne's Palais Theatre, taking some time to decompress from Whispering Jack's phenomenal success (25 weeks at No. 1) and plotting the crucial follow-up album.
John Farnham: "I was a big Dragon fan. They were a great band. Marc Hunter had an amazing voice. I loved their songwriting so I asked them if they'd write me a song."
Todd Hunter: "Marc and I were standing in the dressing room and John said, 'Come on guys, write me a song for my new album'. I said yes. Obviously he was coming off the back of Whispering Jack …"
Dragon, who themselves had enjoyed a career resurgence with the hit Rain in 1983, were touring their 1986 album Dreams Of Ordinary Men, produced by Todd Rundgren. They'd also taken it to Europe where they opened for Tina Turner. While Marc and bandmates partied in Europe, Todd was busy working on Age of Reason as a bespoke song for Farnham with wife Johanna Pigott (who'd co-written Rain, Speak No Evil and Dreams Of Ordinary Men).
Pigott: "Todd was doing the music for Age of Reason all through the tour with Tina Turner. He took a portable studio with him."
Hunter: "It wasn't like a laptop today, it was this huge box and keyboards I was lugging around."
Pigott: "It was hilarious, it was like something out of Doctor Who."
When Hunter returned to Sydney, he and Pigott got to work finishing the track to submit to Farnham HQ.
Hunter: "It all coincided with our first son Harry being born."
Pigott: "I was pregnant as hell all through writing Age of Reason. Todd had the music structure down in Europe, I finished off the lyrics after Harry was born."
Indeed, the lyrics were inspired by Pigott becoming a mother for the first time — Harry Hunter is now a successful filmmaker.
Pigott: "Things opened up. It's about hopefulness. Having a child gave me this feeling of having a future and thinking about the next generation."
Once finished, Hunter asked brother Marc to record the vocals on a demo.
Hunter: "Marc just came in, sang it and left again. That was very Marc. He took the lyric sheet off the mixing desk and went over to the microphone. He got to the middle eight and went, 'I'm not singing that crap' so he never did. Later we got Sandi Chick to sing that part for the demo. It was done with a crappy little synth and a terrible drum machine. It was kind of eccentric."
Pigott: "Marc didn't do demos, it was very nice of him. But Marc was very uninterested in the song."
He may have been, but Farnham was hooked immediately.
Listen to the original demo version of Age of Reason with Marc Hunter singing.
Farnham: "It's quite a deep lyric for a pop song and that appealed to me. It delivered 100 per cent on music and lyrics. I was blown away. It felt like my song. When I listen to a song I try and hear myself singing it. It is difficult when Marc Hunter has sung on the demo! I kept listening to him and not putting me in the song. I have to make the song mine. I get a great kick out of people writing a song for me. It's interesting what they perceive I might want to hear."
Ross Fraser, who produced the song, remembers the joy of receiving the demo.
Fraser: "There was a lot of pressure to find songs. Off the back of Whispering Jack John was a worldwide priority for the record label. When I listen to Whispering Jack, You're the Voice is the standout. We felt that same way with Age of Reason, it just shone and it needed to be the first single. It was a good demo too, we didn't have to do that much. The bones of the song were all there. It just took us a long time to make that record — over six months."
It took so long, in fact, that Hunter and Pigott thought their song had been forgotten — however Fraser and Farnham insist it was always a contender.
Pigott: "We'd had this before, someone wants a song, you'd write it and it might not get used. We sent it to John Farnham as soon as it was done but we didn't hear anything for months. So Dragon actually tried it a few times."
Hunter: "We played it with Dragon but Marc would just say, 'This song's crap' and he didn't want to try it any more!"
Pigott: "We'd forgotten about it. It was a case of another one bites the dust. It's a funny business, you can write something and be excited about it and no one else wants it. You get used to that feeling of letting it go."
Hunter: "No one knows what a hit song is until it happens."
Eventually Fraser called; Hunter thought he was calling about production work with Dragon. Instead he found out Age of Reason was to be the first single, and indeed the title track, from Farnham's next album. It was a life-changing phone call.
Pigott: "It was so great to hear John's version. We spent a lot of time on that song, it wasn't something we just threw together. So it was so gratifying to work so hard on something (to then) see it done so well. It was incredible. Some songs come out easily, but this one was a real labour of love."
Farnham recalls the recording session for Age of Reason.
"I love what (keyboardist) David Hirschfelder did with that song, he played two solos, they were both extraordinary. It was agonising choosing one of them. There is an extended version with both solos on it. But I don't sit around listening to my own music. I haven't actually listened to that album since we made it. That's the same with everything I've recorded."
Fraser: "John's vocals are incredible. It's classic Farnham that one."
While the video for You're the Voice was shot for less than $10,000 and called in a string of favours, after his career rebirth the Age of Reason video budget flew past $100,000.
Director Stephen Hopkins (Highlander, Predator 2) helmed the video, filmed in areas including the Sherbrooke Frosest in the Dandenong Ranges and Cathedral Point in Victoria. Some scenes featured over 100 children surrounding Farnham. Two of the children (who all got a copy of the song on vinyl) were particularly familiar.
Farnham: "My boys (Rob and James) are in it. It's about the future and what's going on, so it was good to have my kids in there."
The clip also has an iconic shot of Peak Farnsey — the singer, with mullet flying in the breeze, wearing ugg boots while balancing on the top of a mountain belting out the song.
Farnham: "That was a weird shoot. They flew me up in a helicopter. I'm not the best at flying as it is. There are no doors and the pilot says, 'OK John, I'm going to rest on the side of the mountain, you just step out'. I would have much preferred to climb the mountain than go up like that. As I stepped out I felt the chopper tilt because my weight was gone, then I had to get back on it. That thought still wakes me up occasionally.
"I had a small speaker up there, I tend to wail away when I'm miming for a video. I hear these voices and there were few climbers coming up the other side. We had to ask them to duck! As far as the ugg boots, I was in the throes of being recommended what to do. The mullet ended up a lot bigger than expected, it was coiffured at one point there. I just wanted long hair. Now I haven't got any bloody hair!"
The single version of Age of Reason ran for five minutes (the b-side was a cover of Cold Chisel's When the War Is Over), still, most radio stations played the song in full.
Fraser: "Coming off the back of Whispering Jack that wasn't a problem. It needed to stay that long, it needed to go where it was going, you couldn't edit it. We didn't want to touch it."
The single spent four weeks at No. 1 and 11 weeks in the Top 10. It set up the album of the same name (also containing Two Strong Hearts) which went 11 times platinum and has sold close to 800,000 copies. (Whispering Jack remains the highest-selling album in Australian history with 1.7 million copies sold.)
Age of Reason also went Top 10 in New Zealand, Top 20 in Germany and the extended version was a club hit in New York.
Farnham: "It was a huge relief when Age of Reason went to No.1. You're the Voice is a really difficult song to top. The album didn't sell quite as many as many as Whispering Jack but it came close. I was very proud of that album."
It also made Pigott the first Australian woman to write a No. 1 song — a door she opened for Merril Bainbridge, Ella Hooper of Killing Heidi, Cheyne Coates of Madison Avenue, Kylie Minogue, Kasey Chambers, Delta Goodrem, Missy Higgins, Jessica and Lisa Origliasso of The Veronicas, Sia, Tania Doko, Gabriella Cilmi, Vanessa Amorosi and Amy Sheppard of Sheppard, some achieving multiple No. 1s.
Pigott: "I'm very proud of that. (Dragon's) Rain got to No. 2 (held off by Austen Tayshus' Australiana). I managed to make a mark there for the girls a while ago, which is great. I still hear it in the supermarket sometimes which is nice. I like having achieved something like that in my life."
In 2006 Hunter polished the original 1986 demo and released it on a Dragon album called Sunshine to Rain. He kept his late brother Marc's vocals intact, with Marc's daughter Bella stepping in to record the middle eight her father refused to sing. The band still perform it with singer Mark Williams, slipping it in next to Dragon classics April Sun In Cuba, Rain, This Time, Are You Old Enough and Still In Love With You.
Hunter: "Age of Reason is a great song. John Farnham recording it was like winning lotto. We're so grateful. It's the song that put our boys through school."
Pigott: "It's the song that paid for our house! Houses were a lot cheaper in those days though …"
Farnham still glows when the subject of Age of Reason comes up.
Farnham: "It's a special song. I don't think it's been out of the set since I recorded it. I often open with it because it's got such a great feel and everyone knows it. I love singing it. Age of Reason is right up there with You're the Voice for me. That's one of my favourite songs in the world to sing on stage still, it's just a joy."