Jon is smoking on the hotel balcony when I am ushered in. As a greeting I joke, “Is that how you maintain your voice?” He grins, sheepishly replying, “Ahhh no, no not that.”
Jon is preparing for the Adelaide tour of The Rock Show, a tribute to 60s and 70s rock, conceived by Stuart Smith. Jon recounts how he became involved; “Stuart calls me one day and says 'We need you Jon – you were actually there!'” Jon laughs that aside from himself, the average age of the cast is 24, but if you include him, it’s 50.
He is now one of the producers of the show, and was dragged to the role kicking and screaming. “It’s a hard show to describe, which makes it even harder to sell. So we don’t bother with much publicity – just put the show on, and tell enough people to get the first shows sold out. Word of mouth will fill the rest of the seats.”
With such an era of music to cover, his greatest difficulty is picking which songs to perform – “our biggest fear is the Sin of Omission!” To make up for what he has to miss in this show, Jon is rehearsing for The Rock Show More, so he can include all the classics they couldn’t bear to leave out.
So, which songs are the audience favourites? He ponders the question. “Bobby Magee goes over good. And the Beatles compilation, and some Zeppelin goes down well.” His personal favourite is the Space Odyssey – “we have a lotta fun with that one.”
The show won’t be a standard re-hashing however. So far, they have delighted audiences with their versatility. Jon says “They love it when we put away the guitars and become a string quartet.”
He also promises costume changes, though clarifies that they won’t be dressing up as the original bands. “Everyone does those tribute shows. We’re not. The only tribute show I’ll ever do is to Jon English.”
He recalls a story that Ian Mossey, the guitarist from Cold Chisel, was doing a solo show in Melbourne once, and at the same time there was a Cold Chisel tribute show on down the road. The tribute show pulled more people than Ian Mossey. Jon grins, “Don’t know if its true, but it makes a good story.”
The Rock Show do it their own way, and after two years of performances, this is the show’s first foray to Adelaide. Jon is pleased to be returning to the city where he got his ‘big break’ in Jesus Christ Superstar, which he performed for the first time 40 years ago this March. He sang to a thousand people at the Memorial Drive tennis courts. The producer then took the show on the road while they waited for the Capitol Theatre to be ready for their official premier.
About that first performance, Jon says “I guess I was nervous. Yeah, I must have been.” It was his first time on stage to a serious audience and as he recalls, “There was a thousand Gough Whitlams out there in suits and bow-ties.” However, he says it went down a treat with everyone except the angry Christians, who protested out the front.
From this beginning, all throughout his incredibly varied career, he has returned more often to stage than to film or TV. “I prefer the immediacy of stage. TV and film is all just ‘Hurry up and wait.’ I live for instant gratification.” From the time his sister took him to a Beatles concert in 1964, he has lived for performing.
He doesn’t take it too seriously though. There is a myth that he wrote the song Oh Paris to see if people actually listen to lyrics. He says the rumour is partly true. He wanted to write a song about the Trojan Horse, and “How Paris f---ed it all up.” It then developed as a listening comprehension test from the moment he sang it in the studio and a sound guy asked him, “So, have you been to France?”
He tells the all too similar story of his song Carmilla. He once got a letter from a man who had married a woman called Carmilla, and walked up the aisle to his song. Jon couldn’t believe the man hadn’t noticed the song was about a 17th century lesbian vampire.
His favourite role so far, and arguably his most popular, was as the Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance. “We took terrible liberties with that script. We had a bloody ball.” On the show’s opening night, the audience gave With Cat-like Tread a standing ovation, calling for more. So Jon looked to the band and cast and shrugged, “Alright, lets do it again!”
Backstage, he faced a furious director who demanded “What are you doing to my show?” Jon said “It’s not your show mate. The audience wanted more – what are you gonna say? No?”
He almost didn’t get the role in Pirates, because the producers were looking for someone with operatic skills, and were not overly keen on casting rock-god Jon. Jon shrugs and grins, “So I can’t sing opera, but I’ve been known to hold a tune.”
His comic timing made the Pirate King a performance to remember, and he says he’s lucky to have learnt from the best. He used to sit in the Rock Chair on Blankety Blanks, with Graham Kennedy. By watching Graham, he learnt the art of treading the line of timing that is just perfect, or just off. “It’s a difficult thing to know, when to shut up and listen, and when not to.”
And Jon has no intention of slowing down, determined to pursue further goals. He wants to see a professional Australian production of his musical, Paris. Professionally produced in Germany, it has only had amateur stagings in Australia. “It’s hard to get Australian work done in Australia. I think there’s still a cultural cringe towards our own work. It’s sad.”
Beyond The Rock Show and Rock Show More, Jon plans to write his autobiography – “It would be a cliche if I didn’t!” He wants to look back on the days of true Rock ‘n’ Roll. “People sometimes say that something is “Like the Beatles” or “Like it was in the 70s.” No way. It simply can’t be like it was back then. Us Baby Boomers, we were the biggest generation. There were so many of us, and we made the biggest, craziest audiences. The hugest audience Australia has seen was in Adelaide, right on Rundle Mall, when the Beatles flew in. I remember those days, and I’m telling you, there’s nothing like it now.”
But that won’t keep him from trying. He plans to perform until the day they carry him off stage in a box, and beyond that, well, at least we’ll have the Jon English tribute bands.
The Rock Show performs in Adelaide at Her Majesty's Theatre, Friday 20 January and at Barossa Arts and Convention Centre Saturday 21 January, 2012. Further details www.therockshow.com.au
Top right – Stuart Smith and Jon English
Bottom right – cast of The Rock Show