Jon English’s current production The Rock Show is a look back at great songs of the ‘60s and ‘70s, delivered through his trademark comic timing and sense of the spectacular. The Beatles play a large role in the 50+ song list. “My sister Janet took me to see them as a 14th birthday present, and it was definitely life changing,” English says. “That was when I put the radio and the event together. It was history, but I didn’t know it.”
The Who are also represented: The Kids Are Alright and Won’t Get Fooled Again provided the soundtrack to his lanky gawky teenage days. Also in the show are tunes from The ‘Stones, ‘Zeppelin, Queen, The Kinks, Cream, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Elton John, AC/DC, The Mamas & The Papas, and English’s own hits such as Six Ribbons and Hollywood 7.
The show has had rave reviews in the past two years (“even in Tamworth, the country capital, they asked us back!” he laughs). Part of its in-built excitement is that music was gleefully breaking the rules at a time when society was going through a major upheaval. “At no other time were there more teenagers on this earth,” explains English. “The baby boomers were convinced we were going to change the world, and the anti-war movement became entrenched in society. Musicians would suggest something and it’d be reality, rather than the other way around.”
What comes through, in an endearing way, is how the nine-piece band of young multi-instrumentalists aged upwards from 19 years (and including English’s son) have a sense of reverence for that period. “They do have an utopian memory of that time because they’ve read about it,” English chortles. “I don’t have the heart to tell them that The Doors weren’t as big as all that, and neither were most of the bands on the Woodstock movie. Sex was better then, of course, because there was no AIDS,” he chuckles. “But I remember the reality of rock festivals and all!”
This week’s show at The Palais may be filmed for a DVD. They’ve tried it three times but were never happy with the visuals. The Palais might be cool, English says: he spent a lot of time there doing the Australian version of Jesus Christ Superstar in which he played Judas.
He was 22 then, and it was English’s first major role. Until then, he had played guitar with Sebastian Hardie, a band made up of mates from Cabramatta High in Sydney, and studied English Literature at college. The producers took one look at his “haunted face” and cast him as Judas. The role called for him to be hoisted 20m in the air: he was petrified but he wanted the gig so much he’d close his eyes.
It was a controversial production and the “religious loonies” were furious, he remembers. Someone lobbed a Molotov cocktail onto the stage in Sydney, while another time, someone in the balcony kept throwing 20 cent pieces at him, leaving him with five stitches. “We worked it out later that it was about 30 pieces of silver! The caught the guy. The cops told me, ‘For $20 you can get into the back of the van with him for 10 minutes’.”
The rock side of English has worked well for him. He notched up a number of chart toppers through Europe. US funk band Tower Of Power wanted him to join as their singer. So did Thin Lizzy, as did LA act Night, the band formed by Chris Thompson of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. “But I just kept coming back to Australia,” English chuckles.
In between, he’s done musicals, theatre, TV and opera, always a fan of dynamic story telling. His early ‘90s musical Paris about the Trojan war (“someone thought it was about Paris Hilton!”) looks like getting interest from a German producer. He’s just written the theme song for his fave team the Eels and plans to do some recording in June. Time certainly hasn’t slowed down English, or his love of rock ‘n’ roll.
THE ROCK SHOW, starring Jon English, plays The Palais Theatre this Friday April 15. Tickets from ticketmaster.com.au and 136 100.