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Remembering Jon English: a risk-taker with a raspy voice

From Jesus Christ Superstar to the Pirates of Penzance, Jon English rocked it all. Youtube

Remembering Jon English: a risk-taker with a raspy voice

Jon English, the very model of a Great Aussie Rocker, is dead. At 66, after a career both sustained and extraordinary, English has died after complications following surgery for an aortic aneurysm. I guess all good things come to an end and English did have a very good life.

Many will be thinking back to the first concert where they saw this dynamic singer, or of his many mighty performances, as Judas Iscariot, as the swashbuckling Pirate King, as Jonathan Garrett in Against the Wind. Over his career, he won four Mo awards, four ARIAs, and a Logie. With his striking physical appearance and hypnotic eyes, he was a hard person to ignore.

Johnathan James “Jon” English was, as you might have guessed, English. A post-war baby, born in 1949 in Hampstead to working-class parents, he and his family emigrated when he was 12, and eventually wound up in Cabramatta in Sydney’s west.

After abortive musical efforts at Cabramatta High School, his first musical success was in a Rolling Stones-esque blues band Sebastian Hardie, which eventually morphed into a significant early symphonic rock band.

English left Sebastian Hardie in 1972 to play Judas Iscariot in the first Australian performance of Rice and Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. It was a demanding, high-octane, countertenor role, which he played to acclaim for four years.

Jon English performing Heaven On Their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar.

His Judas acted as a springboard for other opportunities. He once joked that he’d performed on every Australian cop show in the 70s – always as the drug-crazed, axe-wielding hippy. He both appeared in and helped score the acclaimed miniseries Against the Wind (1978), set in Australia’s colonial era.

In the 80s, he started appearing in, of all things, Gilbert and Sullivan, performing in lauded productions of The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, and HMS Pinafore, as well as stage musicals such as Rasputin and Big River.

These shows didn’t stop him releasing rock albums. English never had a number one, but his albums and singles usually charted, sometimes very well. Probably the best-known of his early songs was Turn The Page (1974), from his second studio album It’s All a Game.

The violent guitar strum of the opening, the rhythmic chorus, and the raspy voice telling a tale of a singer on the road is all classic English. Other hits included Hollywood Seven (1976) and Words are Not Enough (1978).

English performing Hollywood Seven on Countdown in 1976.

Surprisingly, given his gravelly voice and the almost country-rock sound, strong narrative lines, and strongly Australian topics in his music, English did not come from the urban pub-rock scene, nor from the country scene. He was unique, popular in both worlds by melding elements of each.

English performed until the end. Last year he got into a very public spat with Virgin Australia about the in-flight destruction of a beloved guitar when travelling between Sydney and Coffs Harbour.

He was due to go into a studio in Sweden next month to record an album. He had plans also to perform the role of King Arthur in the musical version of Spamalot later this year.

Few other artists straddled the worlds of rock music and theatre with such authority and honesty. But he has a legacy beyond mere performing and recording. He was a risk taker.

Jon was always game to have a go at something, to put himself out there, risking very public failure, but usually succeeding beyond anyone’s expectations.

At one stage in his career, he’d be a countertenor Judas, screechingly chastising Jesus for his contact with Mary Magdelene. At another, he’d be releasing records and songs in a mainstream Australian rock style. At other times, he might perform Gilbert and Sullivan, or pen musicals, or act on television.

Performers with such a wide range of talent or success are rare beasts indeed; but along with this comes a great deal of hard work.

In his ARIA award-winning concept album/musical Paris, the titular character sings “You can lay down and die, or put up a fight/But that’s it, there’s no turning back”.

One could always rely on Jon English never turning back.



CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article gave incorrect release dates for Turn The Page, Words Are Not Enough and Paris. These have now been updated.

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