On TV right now you can watch a documentary on The Wiggles, or OG Wiggles as apparently we must refer to them now that there have been at least two iterations of skivvy-wearers under that name since Greg Page, Murray Cook, Jeff Fatt and Anthony Field (and the briefly present but nonetheless foundational Phillip Wilcher) came straight outta Macquarie Uni in 1991.
On your devices, or a gig, you can listen to Cook in his power soul group with vocalist Lizzie Mack, The Soul Movers, whose new album is Dumb Luck. And if you look up (as most of us will need to do given the towering figure) at a gig there’s every chance you will see him near by. The man likes his music. A lot.
Which is why in 2004 there came a knock at the door of Cook’s inner-city home and a request to see what he had on his shelves and hear some of the stories behind them. He was accommodating.
MURRAY COOK REVEALS, with an endearing, if unnecessary, note of embarrassment: “I’m a nerdy collector, I know.”
Though there isn’t a circle of fellow sufferers greeting him with a “hello Murray”, you do get the feeling you’ve joined the Red Wiggle in step one of his 12-step program.
The Herald has come to trawl through his record collection and there is no hiding for the man who is one quarter of the most successful children’s show group in the world. (How successful? They’ve sold more than 11 million videos and nearly four million CDs worldwide. Their August tour of the USA sold more than 220,000 tickets and on their current US tour they took part in the massive Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York for the third time and sold out 12 shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden Theatre – that’s 72,000 people.)
Let’s consider the nerdy collector evidence. He’s got three stereos in the house, two of which are on - playing completely different music - as I knock at the front door. He has several thousand CDs and maybe half again in vinyl, some stored in the front living room (including box sets such as the three-disc edition of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album), most stacked floor to ceiling in a cupboard-like space upstairs. Fairly nerdy, fairly collectorish.
He buys CDs at the rate of “a few hundred [each year], maybe. It wouldn’t be one a day but more than 200. The record companies like me because I update whenever a new version is released, especially Elvis Costello. I’ve got my fourth versions [of many Costello albums] now”. He never travels without his iPod on which are another thousand songs. Pretty nerdy.
Cook is an inveterate gig goer, christened the Rocking Wiggle and seen at everything from ‘60s legends Love to New York underground noisemakers the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to the Big Day Out set by alternative stars Wilco.
At that show Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy recognised Cook (who at nearly 190 centimetres is hard to miss) and said excitedly, “my kids will freak”, prompting the young woman standing next to Cook to ask him “are you on TV or something?”
But here’s the final test: how does he file his CDs? Cook breaks down and confesses: alphabetically and chronologically within each artist.*
Oh yes Murray Cook, you are a nerd.
It didn’t start this way of course. Born in 1960, he grew up in Cowra and Orange where “we didn’t even have a record player” most of the time, and when they did the “family record” was the soundtrack to Sound Of Music.
Not surprisingly that album is not on his shelves. What is there though is the first LP he bought, from the Orange Sound Centre, A Collection Of Beatles Oldies.
Still in good condition, that Beatles album began Cook’s life-long love affair with the band and he quickly pulls out Revolver as one of his essential records: “It’s a great collection,” Cook says. “To have Yellow Submarine and Tomorrow Never Knows on the same album is pretty audacious.”
Around the time he began buying albums Cook took up the guitar, finding his early heroes in Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and briefly entering what can be called … Murray’s Metal Years.
Though professing himself more a song man than a riff fan – hence his strong affection for Led Zeppelin III – he nonetheless is tempted occasionally to play Deep Purple’s Machine Head album: “Highway Star still pumps along” he says, barely resisting the urge to launch into some air guitar.
As an aside Cook reveals that during the Wiggles live show there is one segment where the kids are encouraged to “play guitar like Murray”. The Purple Wiggle, Jeff Fatt, has the audience playing air guitar that magically becomes the real thing when Cook, who is offstage, plays a tune.
Normally Cook will play a Zeppelin riff “to give the parents a laugh” but at one US gig, after seeing John Fogerty of Credence Clearwater Revival in the audience Cook made a last-minute decision to play the famous guitar line from Proud Mary.
Unfortunately, he stuffed it up and “I was almost too scared to go back out on stage in front of him but I just took comfort in the fact that I played it so badly he wouldn’t recognise it.” As it turned out Fogerty came back stage later to congratulate a too-stunned-to-speak Cook on the show.
But this country boy was an equal opportunity fan. The first band he saw live was Sherbert (Favourite song? “Cassandra”. Correct answer sir.). “They toured the country so we’d get them and Hush and I saw AC/DC a few times.”
Punk entered his life via TV, catching his first glimpse of the Sex Pistols on that one-time family staple, Weekend Magazine. The punk band that mattered most though was The Clash, as the vinyl version of London Calling propped up on the floor of his record room confirms.
But along the punk route he still cites The Saints’ Eternally Yours and seeing the Ramones in New York in 1985 (“It was a wild night with the band on at 3am.”) as key moments.
Punk didn’t force him into denying his past then or now as he flips through the collection for Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure. “People slag off the early ‘70s but there’s a lot of good things there,” he says, before revealing a possible explanation for the Wiggles’ particular dress sense.
“When I was young I liked that [Roxy Music] looked like that. I liked the flamboyance. That’s why I like [young New Zealand retro-rockers] The Datsuns: they put on a show. I like a band with a look.”
That thought sends him further down the alphabet to You Am I’s Dress Me Slowly and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “A lot of the rock bands I like are ones where they like lots and lots of different music,” Cook says before pulling out Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, a record he discovered in Orange via his friendship with future Reels guitarist Colin Newman.
“I don’t think many people in Orange had it,” he says, explaining that his love of soul continued to grow thanks to the Reels. “The Reels did [Marvin Gaye’s] What’s Goin’ On in the Reels By Request tour and I thought ‘that’s a great song, who is that?”
From Gaye it was a natural step to the Atlantic soul collection (in his early impecunious ‘20s Cook bought the entire multi-album collection they issued), Dusty Springfield (he has several copies of Dusty In Memphis and raves about a modern equivalent, Shelby Lynne’s I Am Shelby Lynne) and even Prince.
“It’s hard to choose one Prince album but Sign O’ The Times he was at the height of his powers and he was saying something.”
We’ve been at it three hours now and we’ve barely scratched the surface, particularly of his love of pop from the Kinks (Village Green Preservation Society) on.
There’s still XTC (English Settlement), Bernie Hayes (Every Tuesday, Sometimes Sunday), Squeeze (Argy Bargy: “Pulling Mussels and Another Nail In My Heart is a great opening double”) and of course Elvis Costello (“Get Happy was like another step, an indication he could do just about anything”).
We could go on like this for days. Nerds.
*I can’t deny that I also file my records and CDs in alphabetical order, and chronologically within artist.
I must also confess that every album mentioned here is also on my shelves. Including at least four versions of all the Costello albums.