Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Little Aussie Bleeder's Marching In The KISS Army

‘Weird’ Al Yankovic owes much to the Australian comedy character Norman Gunston, whether he knows it or not. By the time Yankovic started to break through on the charts with his comic take on hit songs in the early to mid 80s, the character of Gunston had already scored several hit singles in Australia with some very clever and immaculately timed pop parodies.

The character of Norman Gunston was the brainchild of actor/comedian Garry McDonald. McDonald had gained his big breakthrough as a performer via the cult TV comedy The Aunty Jack Show in 1973 (see earlier post). His main character on that show was the sidekick Kid Eager, but it was during the run of Aunty Jack that McDonald invented and introduced Australia to Norman Gunston.

In 1975 McDonald combined with a team of established comedy writers to bring the character to a starring role on Australian TV with ‘The Norman Gunston Show’. Aired on the ABC, it was a send up of the classic ‘Tonight Show’ format and featured Gunston as host of his own TV variety show. Over the next couple of years the show was a huge ratings winner and garnered McDonald, or I should say Gunston, the prestigious Gold Logie Award for the most popular television personality in Australia. During this period the character of Norman Gunston was affectionately dubbed the ‘Little Aussie Bleeder’ in reference to the strategically placed pieces of tissue paper stuck to Gunston’s face to cover up shaving cuts. Such was the character’s popularity during this period that it couldn’t be contained to just one medium. Gunston would often close his show by performing a popular song, and many of the guest interviews that were recorded for the show featured some of the superstars of the music biz, including The Who’s Keith Moon and Paul McCartney. It was logical that the Norman Gunston character should take the music world head on.

In 1976 the single ‘Salute to ABBA’ was released, a mock medley of ABBA hits sung by Gunston in his typically exaggerated Aussie strine accent. The song reached #9 on the Australian charts late in 1976, just about the time that the real ABBA were at the peak of their popularity down under. It wouldn’t be the last time that the team behind Gunston would display impeccable timing in their choice of material. Norman Gunston had also released a debut self titled album in late ‘76, which reached #40 and also featured Gunston’s unique take on the AC/DC classic ‘Jailbreak’ and Tom Jones’ ‘Delilah’ to the comic mix. In mid ‘77 with the punk explosion in full swing, Gunston released his send up hit ‘I Might Be A Punk (But I Love You Baby)’, the song reaching #57 on the charts.

1978 saw the release of Gunston’s second album ‘Nylon Degrees’ (I’m assuming that was a comic reference to the title of the recently released Boz Scaggs hit album ‘Silk Degrees’). All the while that the character of Norman Gunston was conquering the world of television and music, the man behind the character Garry McDonald was establishing himself as one of Australia’s most respected and sought after dramatic acting talents. After a sabbatical during which McDonald explored life outside the extreme demands that Gunston’s character placed upon him, he would once again unleash Gunston upon an unsuspecting world.

On an apparently unrelated subject, the groundswell of demand for rock powerhouse KISS to tour Australia had reached it’s peak on the back of the phenomenal popularity of the band’s 1979 album ‘Dynasty’ with its biggest hit ‘I Was Made For Loving You’. Finally in 1980 a window was found in KISS’ frenetic touring schedule to include a visit down under. One of the driving forces behind KISS deciding to make the journey to Australia was the Aussie division of the global KISS Army, a collective of KISS fanatics.

Once again showing perfect timing, Norman Gunston burst back into the national consciousness with the single ‘KISS Army’. It was released to coincide with KISS’ Australian tour and joined in the wave of hysteria or ‘KISSmania’ that was sweeping the nation. ‘KISS Army' peaked at #13 on the Australian charts late in 1980. The song used the music from ‘I Was Made For Loving You’ with Gunston’s parody lyrics inserted. Initially Gunston was initially in a bit of strife for using the music but in the end an agreement was struck and Gunston was involved in the documentary film ‘The Inner Sanctum’ built around KISS’ long awaited Australian tour in 1980. The B-side to ‘KISS Army’ was the track ‘Normdrum’, which was an affectionate comic tribute of sorts to the ever popular host of Countdown Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum who hosted a regular segment on the show called ‘Humdrum’.

McDonald then retired the character of Norman Gunston for a prolonged period during the 80s, focusing his attentions once more on his acting career. For several years he played the part of Arthur Beare in the much loved sitcom ‘Mother and Son’. In between times he appeared in the motion pictures ‘The Pirate Movie’ (see earlier post), ‘Ginger Meggs’, ‘Wills & Burke’ and ‘Those Dear Departed’ among others. After Norman Gunston bounced back with the 1992 comic hit ‘Amigos Para Siempre (Friends For Life)’ (OZ#24 - a send up of the Sarah Brightman/Jose Carreras Olympic theme, performed as a duet with another comic character Effie), McDonald attempted to revive the character in 1993 but sadly personal issues with depression forced McDonald to retreat from the spotlight again for a time. In the 15 years following McDonald has combined his work with a national depressive illness initiative with his ongoing brilliant output as an actor and writer.

Though the character of Norman Gunston may not be revived again, the man behind him Garry McDonald, like KISS, has established an ageless legacy of work to be admired.

The YouTube video below features Norman Gunston’s appearance on Countdown performing his ‘Salute To ABBA’.


Ann oDyne said...

The special 'Norman Gunston: The Golden Weeks" was truly brillliant.
One of those writers you mention was Morris Gleitzman and I assume The Chaser Gleitzman is his son.

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Thanks for your comment Ann. I'd say it's a fair bet there is a strong connection of the Gleitzman variety between Gunston and The Chaser. This revisiting of my Gunston post has prompted me to go and watch some of the 'little aussie bleeder' on dvd :)