Blue Wiggle Anthony Field’s balancing act
Anthony Field doesn’t arrive in a Big Red Car. He doesn’t even pull up in an inner-city four-wheel-drive or a vintage sports car. Instead, the man better known as the Blue Wiggle – whose children’s group ranks second on the 2013 BRW 50 Top Entertainers list between Hugh Jackman and Cate Blanchett – rolls up on a well-worn, Tiffany-blue, fold-up bike. “They’re amazing, these bikes,” he says, his tattooed biceps poking out beneath his short-sleeved shirt, his hair close cropped. Enthusiastically he shows me how the pedal unclips from the crank and explains that the bike can fit into a suitcase. “I ride everywhere. It’s great for keeping the endorphins going.”
Those endorphins are clearly working. As we settle into the interview at a local café, the sinewy Field is humming with fitful internal energy that, at times, almost overwhelms him. After accidentally swiping over a salt shaker halfway through his second espresso, he laughs, apologising and explaining that “coffee’s my only vice these days”. It’s a long way, he admits, from his “crazy hedonistic lifestyle” as a guitarist in the legendary ’80s pub band the Cockroaches, a life captured by the first line of a song they covered, “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love)”: “Woke up this morning and my head was a mess, worst hangover I ever had.”
These days, the 51-year-old has swapped parties and dusty mornings for Pilates and sun salutations. He has three young kids and a small fortune as one of the co-founders and only remaining founding member of the Wiggles. In 2013, despite ushering in three new skivvy wearers after the original members retired, the group – he hesitates at the term “brand” – earned more than $18 million, estimates BRW. Field reportedly retains a 30 per cent stake in the group’s earnings. In the past 23 years, the foursome has played more than 6000 shows, sold millions of albums, become ARIA Hall of Famers and just had a Wiggles feature film written by Ben Elton.
But for the next few weeks, Field is ditching the jazz hands and block colours for two concerts with the Cockroaches. The shows, at Dee Why in Sydney’s north and Rooty Hill in the west, will coincide with the launch of their Hey Let’s Go! – Best of the Cockroaches album. “We’re just doing it for the love of it and the laugh,” he says of the one-off shows. “It’s all about the music and the hardcore fans. I just hope they realise we’re a fair bit older and greyer. We’re not like the Rolling Stones – they’ve never stopped so you’re used to seeing them a bit aged.”
It’s been more than 25 years since Field left the Cockroaches and the thrill of playing to tens of thousands in Sydney’s Domain, heaving, sweat-soaked suburban workers’ clubs or as support for INXS and Hoodoo Gurus. In that time, he says, he hasn’t listened to or even played a Cockroaches song. “When I went to the Cockies’ rehearsal, I wasn’t really excited at all,” he says. “But when I started playing, it reminded me of the wild times. Back in the early days, we weren’t really as accomplished on the music front compared to a lot of other bands, but it was something about the spirit of the Cockies that got us through.”
It was a spirit clear from the first gig the Cockroaches played. In 1979, the then 16-year-old boarder at St Joseph’s College in the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill formed the band with his brothers, John and Paul, and a schoolfriend, Tony Henry, and persuaded the Marist Brothers to let them play in a theatrette on the school grounds. They called themselves the Cockroaches, an alias used by the Rolling Stones in the ’60s, and charged 10 cents admission, donating the proceeds to charity.
“We raised something like $5,” says Field, who only took up guitar because he was being teased about playing violin in the school orchestra. “But the Brothers didn’t patrol, and when we started cranking this Bo Diddley number the guys in the audience just went crazy, wrapping ties around their heads, smashing the desks and yelling all sorts of obscenities. It was like they were in prison – and boarding school was a lot like prison. It just shows you how music can free you for a few moments.”
Soon after, Field was freeing himself. Along with John, who was also boarding at St Joseph’s, they scaled the school’s sandstone fence and climbed into a car with older brother Paul to play gigs at venues where the two schoolboys were still under-age. The first proper set they played was on a Sunday afternoon at the Heritage Hotel in Kings Cross, opposite the infamous brothel Nevada, whose signage claimed it had “the world’s biggest bed”. “It was really seedy,” says Field. “The crowd was basically a whole lot of prostitutes and people who were off their faces, but they loved it.”
Local music fans, including Greedy Smith from Mental As Anything, began taking notice and the band quickly moved from playing bars and dances to working the thriving Sydney pub rock scene. But, in his first year out of school and despite ballooning Cockroaches audiences, something wasn’t right. At the end of 1982, Field left the band and joined the army. “It sounds like I’m making this up but I was such a fan of Elvis that after I’d watched G. I. Blues, I thought, ‘Gee, joining the army looks like fun.’ That’s how stupid I was.”
Plunged back into an institutionalised life, Field quickly found himself as a rifleman in Holsworthy Barracks in Sydney’s south-west. Apart from playing guitar to some of his fellow soldiers, there wasn’t much Elvis about his life. On his one overseas deployment, he was stationed at a checkpoint just outside Berlin with an Uzi and told not to make eye contact with the Red Guards across the border. He watched Polaris rockets being guided by panzer grenadiers from briefcases. “I was just saying to myself, ‘What the heck am I doing here?’ During a NATO night exercise, I saw the sky light up and felt the horror of warfare.”
Was it a time he wishes he could get back? Remarkably, perhaps, for someone who was made a member of the Order of Australia and has two honorary doctorates, he says his Service Medal is the award he is most proud of. “I saw some things in the army that I wish I hadn’t,” he says, “but … there’s something about [the medal] that makes me feel like I did something good.”
In 1985, Field quit the army and rejoined the Cockroaches. Despite the band’s success, Field continued to search for his calling in life; he even worked as a car salesman. Eventually, he enrolled in an early childhood degree because “after years of only seeing men in uniform I saw all these women everywhere and I just wanted to meet girls”. He does admit – now – that “as the course went on, I got what it was all about”.
After only a year, however, Field deferred college for two years to give the then surging Cockroaches another go. It was a world awash with Jim Beam as well as a punishing touring schedule that had the band playing 300 gigs in one year and their self-titled debut album go top 10 and platinum. The late nights and late mornings weren’t good for Field’s general or mental health but he managed to avoid another more sinister and pervasive pitfall – heroin. Having earned the reputation early as “clean-skinned choirboys”, Field says his band was lucky not to have been approached by dealers offering “hammer”, the drug then coursing through the veins of the Sydney rock scene. It killed four of Field’s good mates. “I remember one of the guys in a band I was playing with saying, ‘Tony, you gotta do drugs, you gotta lead the rock’n’roll lifestyle,’” says Field. “We used to drink, and that was fun, but for some reason I didn’t do drugs.”
When Field returned to his early childhood studies he met Murray Cook (Red Wiggle), another musician enrolled in the course. By this stage Field had an idea for an album of kids’ songs and persuaded fellow Cockroach Jeff Fatt (Purple) to play on the demo tape. Greg Page (Yellow), a Cockroaches fan-turned-roadie, rounded out the quartet after being encouraged by Field to also become an early childhood teacher.
But it’s not like they were an instant hit. The ABC told the group their album would be lucky to sell 1000 copies. The initial resistance was unsurprising; the Wiggles were the first band just for kids. “I was passionate about music and especially children’s folk music by guys like Pete Seeger, so we knew what to do musically,” says Field. “But we played parties [and received] looks of suspicion. We didn’t have skivvies in those days, we had these crazy T-shirts that we called the ‘torture shirts’ because we only had one shirt each and half the time they weren’t washed. They were ghastly.”
The Wiggles played preschools and kids’ parties across Sydney. “We had to put up with eight-year-old hecklers. They were hard times but we all absolutely loved it. It was something we put together and the guys owned it.” After their first break on The Midday Show with Ray Martin, the rest is history – littered with gold records, platinum, multi-platinum, countless other awards and an uncomfortable blip, referred to as “the Yellow Wiggle affair”, when Page was replaced due to illness then returned in what some saw as less-than-happy manoeuvrings. They’ve sold seven million albums and 23 million DVDs. At the beginning of 2012, the other three original members announced they would retire to be replaced by three new Wiggles, including a female Yellow Wiggle, Emma Watkins. “We worked our arses off last year,” says Field, “because people didn’t know who the new members were.”
Field says he’s never really contemplated leaving the group, mostly because performing live is what he loves. But it wasn’t an easy transition. “We played all these shows to half-full crowds,” he says. “I still liked it, though; I can play to five people and love it. But from about September last year, when we put the new TV show together, the little kids really got to see the new members, and from then it’s been fantastic. Emma has become this idol. Us guys have started calling ourselves the Pips while she’s Gladys Knight. The crowds are back and for those little kids, this is the Wiggles.”
Despite what some regard as Field’s dream careers with the Cockroaches and the Wiggles, depression was a parasitic shadow stalking his accomplishments. “I’d think, ‘I don’t deserve any of this stuff I’ve got, I don’t deserve this success.’ Those thoughts just go around in your head all the time … It gets serious sometimes, and I’ve been to plenty of funerals, but I’m just glad I haven’t gone down that path.”
When the Wiggles were in full swing, Field’s father, John, decided to give up his job as pharmacist and join the tour to ostensibly help sell merchandise. In reality, he was coming to look after his youngest child. Field describes his father as being the Don Bradman of parents. “On days off I’d be in front of the pokies or binge eating or I’d clean out the minibar – though never, ever the night before a concert,” says Field. “Dad came with us not to sell merch but to gently counsel me. I still see the same psychologist that Dad got me way back in my 20s.”
There was a point where Field would come off stage after a Wiggles show and not feel anything. At other times, he’d go backstage halfway through a performance and lie down because of chronic back pain. As he wrote in his book, How I Got My Wiggle Back, the constant pain had worn him down. “But, thanks to a chiropractor I met in Chicago, I learnt that once I freed my body from pain through a good fitness regime and healthy eating, I could start to work on the mind. And, for me, staying away from the bourbon and Coke!”
Going public with his depression saw Field recast as a quasi-ambassador for mental illness – a role he’s not completely comfortably with. He only really opened up at the urging of his brother, and Wiggles manager, Paul. “But one day a guy came up to me in the street and said that he’d read my story and how he was having a really hard time of it,” says Field. “So I gave him a bit of advice about contacting beyondblue and other government organisations. I felt good that day, that I’d been able to help.”
It’s an ongoing struggle but Field says that the real battles are mostly behind him. “It’s all about learning how to live with your demons and how to get on top of them, surrounding yourself with positive, supportive people,” says Field. “Having the new members has been a new lease of life and I’m really loving it.”
Later this year, Field and his fellow Wiggles will head to the United States, Canada, parts of Australia and New Zealand. But for the next two gigs, Field is happy playing second fiddle to his brothers in the Cockroaches. “I was never the frontman so I’ll leave it to Johnny and Paul to do all that stuff. They’ll probably rip a hamstring. And if I know Johnny, he’ll take off his shirt like he did at North Sydney Leagues Club 30 years ago. Except instead of having a sixpack, he’ll have a beer gut.”
And with that, the gut-free, super-fit Field looks at his watch and fairly leaps from his seat. “Oh, God, sorry mate, I’ve got to dash,” he says, throwing a hasty goodbye to the barista and unlocking his bike. “I’ve got a Pilates class in 10 minutes.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 7, 2014 as "Balancing act". Subscribe here.