Interview: Peter Combe
King Of The Kids
By Caitlin Welsh
When someone asks you what your first ever gig was, what do you say? Many people my age will carefully qualify it so the question becomes the first “cool” band they saw, or the first one they saw that wasn’t all ages, and fair enough – Dinosaur Jr. sounds a whole lot better than, say, 5ive (and it’s hard to call the latter a “gig” anyway). I came to the realisation recently that the first live show I ever went to was not, in fact, Blink 182 at the Entertainment Centre back in 2001. It was infinitely cooler: Peter Combe, Castle Hill RSL, ’92.
You might remember him (and his ersatz Hammer-pants) from such classic hits as ‘Newspaper Mama’, ‘Toffee Apple’, ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’ and ‘Mister Clickety Cane (Wash Your Face In Orange Juice)’ – but in fact, Combe has more indie cred right now than the last five bands you “signed” to your cassette-only label. After a hugely successful string of self-released albums in the late 80s and early 90s, and having paved the way for one of the biggest Australian bands of all time, he’s now enjoying a renaissance that includes regular national tours with sold-out shows at venues like Oxford Art Factory, and Melbourne stalwarts like the Corner and the Espy. While Combe continued singing old and new material to preschoolers through the 90s, since 2007 he’s also been playing evening shows around the nation and twentysomethings have flocked in their thousands, sporting newspaper jackets and skirts, and waving a toffee apple in one hand and a Cooper’s in the other while bellowing every single word.
“It started by accident, really,” explains the singer from his home in Adelaide. He was playing the city’s German beer festival ‘Schutzenfest’ (for reasons still lost on him) to a motley, raucous crowd. “They were quite drunk, which is what happens at German beer festivals. Someone formed a moshpit for ‘Toffee Apple’, and started crowdsurfing. After that song the crowd started surging towards the stage, and we thought, God, what is this? … So I talked to a few people after the show, and realised that the ones who weren’t totally drunk just loved hearing the songs again.” A little Dutch (or German) courage doesn’t go astray; Combe concedes that at first, the older crowds tend to seem self-conscious. “People come along not knowing quite what to expect – they don’t know how to react,” he says. “There’s a little bit of taking the mickey that happens at the beginning – but once the concert gets going, they just get absorbed in the songs.”
Researching for this interview, I hunted down some of the old tracks on YouTube. As I sat there hitting ‘Add To Playlist’ again and again, I tried to figure out what was so addictive about the songs. Combe thinks it’s the simple fact of having them burned into your brain so deeply at such a young age. “If you’re a five-year-old child, and you love a song, you don’t play it ten times, you play it 150 times – so the words are just stuck in [your] head,” he says, with the confidence of a man who’s been watching this happen for a quarter-century. “The atmosphere at the concerts is quite extraordinary; you get a few hundred young people, average age about 24 to about 26, who grew up on … all the songs, and they just love being there. And they sing really, really loudly.” So loudly, in fact, that Combe says he has to tell incredulous sound guy after incredulous sound guy to give him maximum volume on the foldback speakers. “If you’ve got 400 people singing every word, every verse, every chorus at you … you need loads of foldback to cope with that,” he says with a chuckle.
Hearing this, it’s hard not to wonder if in five or ten years’ time there might be pubs full of tipsy youngsters in lurid skivvies, bellowing every word to ‘Wake Up, Jeff!’… Combe predates the Wiggles and Hi-5 by a considerable margin; even contemporaries like Don Spencer and Franciscus ‘Singing in the Kitchen’ Henri benefited from the shot in the arm that Combe’s success gave children’s music in Australia. The ABC Kids label which now dominates the market was founded to distribute his records, and now is home to the wiggly millionaires themselves. But Combe’s longevity and recent rebirth seems to have something more to it than just semi-ironic nostalgia; he says the only explanation he can suggest for why he’s playing now to three generations at community festivals and hipster clubs alike is that, to paraphrase slightly, he gives a crap. “As a songwriter, I’ve always thought that if you put as much effort into songs as someone like Paul Kelly, Neil Finn, Paul Simon – I always thought that, writing songs for kids, [one] should be as serious about it as they are,” he says, very seriously. “That’s always been my philosophy. I never wanna talk down to kids, I never want to patronise them. I think kids deserve the best you can possibly do.”
This could somewhat account for the level of passion at a Combe gig that may be starting to rival the Gathering of the Juggalos. “I should tell you one interesting thing that happened about a year and a half ago,” he begins, with an audibly cheeky smile. “During ‘Mr Clickety Cane’, the bit where you sing ‘Bellyflop in a pizza – ERRGH, YUCK!’, this one young guy stepped out of the audience, as if it were all planned, very theatrical, and he had this enormous box with a pizza in it. He opened the box very slowly, placed it very gently on the floor, removed his t-shirt and then, very elegantly, bellyflopped into the pizza in the middle of the floor. It was astonishing.” This guy, I decide, is my new personal hero. “People get carried away,” Combe goes on thoughtfully. “If I’d seen that in the early days [of the shows] I would have thought it was the alcohol. But I know now it’s not – it’s something much deeper and much richer than that.”
Where: Oxford Art Factory
When: Friday April 15; kids show at 11am / 18+ Renaissance Show at 8pm