As a child born in the early 2000s in Australia, I grew up on the Wiggles, a children’s entertainment group that took the world by storm and were beloved icons in their homeland. The Wiggles were the first performers I saw live and they inspired me to take up music later in life. The crowd of children, all experiencing live music for the first time, was in awe of the four men in purple, red, yellow, and blue skivvies who danced around Australia’s biggest stages and sung about the iconic “Big Red Car”.
Recognised by the colour of his skivvy, “Red Wiggle” Murray Cook always stood out. Whilst the other Wiggles generally sung and danced around the stage, Cook entertained children and parents alike with his inimitable guitar riffs in songs like “Play Your Guitar with Murray” where he would channel his inner AC/DC. Now, complete with a rock-god mane of hair, he is recognised by many as a stalwart of Australian music for more than 30 years. Together with the other Wiggles, Anthony Field, Greg Page, and Jeff Fatt, the Wiggles created an unmatched legacy in children’s entertainment with their uncanny ability to connect with children, selling over 23 million DVDs and 7 million CDs and cementing themselves in Australian music royalty.
Even though Cook hung up his red skivvy in 2012, he still possesses all of the charm and generosity that made the Wiggles so likeable at their peak. As I talk with him, he is gentle and unassuming, without any hint of the ego that might be expected from someone of his stature. He is considered in his words, with a calmness that flows naturally from working with children for 20 years. Even wearing a black and white striped shirt and without his red skivvy, he radiates positivity through the barrier of a Zoom screen. A trained early childhood educator, Cook attributes his positive outlook to his parents, particularly his late father Russ Cook, who passed away last year after a battle with multiple myeloma.
“My dad was a very, very positive person,” Cook says, “even when he had cancer, he would say ‘I’m fine, I’m going really great.’ He instilled that [spirit] in us. And mum too. She said she became more positive, knowing him. So, I feel really fortunate that I had that upbringing. I think it’s one of the reasons why we [the Wiggles] were so successful–the way we looked at the world.”
At the height of their careers, the Wiggles played for nearly one million people every year, touching the hearts of generations of kids. For Cook, it’s this relationship that he misses the most. “I really miss the kids. Kids are a really great audience,” he says with a smile, “they have no inhibitions, so they’ll jump around and dance from the very first bars of the song.”
Although Cook speaks fondly of his time with the Wiggles, he concedes that being a Wiggle did take its toll in the lead to his retirement in 2012. “[Touring] can be great fun,” he says. “But after 20 years we’d been everywhere, and it became too much. It was always great when we were in New York or LA, but when we were in some tiny little place in Alabama, for the first couple of times it was alright but then not so much.”
In spite of the incessant touring schedule which would often involve playing up to three shows a day, the bond with the group meant that Cook struggled with his decision to retire. “It was difficult when I left,” he says, “there were times when I questioned whether I’d made the right decision. We became like brothers.”
It was this bond that made the Wiggles a public relations dream. At a time when other Australian children’s groups like Hi-5 and the Hooley-Dooleys were suffering from management scandals and breaking up, the Wiggles stayed together, avoiding even the slightest hint of controversy. Their bond was also special for another reason. Through the inclusion of Asian-Australian, Jeff Fatt, the Wiggles were amongst the first major bands to showcase diversity in Australia.
Although representation in the music industry has improved over the last decade, with artists like Dami Im and Isaiah Firebrace cracking the mainstream from The X Factor Australia, the music scene in Australia remains a fairly homogenous space. The social impact of showcasing diversity in the ’90s, was never lost on the Wiggles, especially given the ever-increasing multicultural makeup of the Australian population.
“[Diversity] was important to us because all kids need to have role models on stage growing up,” he says, “I think that’s critical. You have to be visible to make a change.”
While Cook says that the industry is “much more diverse than it used to be,” he concedes that there is still more to be done.
“I think the quick answer is there’s still a long way to go in terms of diversity in music but we’re getting there. I think it’s become a conversation now so it’s in people’s psyche,” he says. “Music has always had the potential to be very welcoming. But sometimes in the past, it hasn’t been as welcoming as it should have been.”
With the kids that grew up listening to Cook becoming adults themselves, Cook decided to make a change and diversify his music style. He has transitioned into the colourful Sydney soul-rock band, the Soul Movers, joining forces with powerhouse vocalist Lizzie Mack, a charismatic soul singer originally hailing from Perth. When she joins the interview, the camaraderie between the two is immediately apparent. Cook is calm and reserved while Mack epitomises the typical lead singer, with her bubbliness and exuberance shining through.
“We’re kids of the 60s,” Mack exclaims, “bright colours, music, it’s all in our DNA.”
Cook is also quick to compliment Mack, revealing the productivity of their collaboration. “It’s been great working with Lizzie. We write together and make all the decisions together. We’ve worked really hard over the last seven years and it’s been really fun.”
Whilst the Soul Movers would probably be broadly described as soul-rock, they aren’t afraid to step outside of genre lines. Their latest album Evolution (2021) is full of powerful original music which takes influence from a variety of different musical styles.
“We have all the great ’60s solo stuff like Aretha Franklin as well as more modern influences like Amy Winehouse,” Cook says, “I love that soul sound and I know Lizzie does too. But then, we have such eclectic taste like most people these days. There’s even sort of ’80s pop, “Strange Love” hints at Michael Jackson and that sort of stuff. It’s a really wide range.”
Cook and Mack are also unafraid to discuss social issues. Their latest single, also titled “Evolution”, addresses the climate crisis in an irreverent and playful fashion.
“We weren’t trying to write a song about nature in a didactic way but instead, we wanted to talk about being kind to nature when humans,” Cook says, clearly cognisant of the damage done to the planet over the last century, “but we wanted to say it in a gentle and joyful way. We featured a lot of young people in our video as they are the ones who are going to be making the change.”
As someone who has been in the industry for over 30 years, Cook’s musical taste certainly has a diverse flavour to it. Interestingly, Cook says his father, an Assistant Police Commissioner whom he speaks about frequently in this interview had no musical background whatsoever and it was up to Cook to develop his own musical style.
“I’m not sure where it [the love of music] came from. As a kid, I grew up in the ’60s, so the Monkees were on the TV and the Beatles were on the radio. I heard all this stuff and I just thought, ‘yeah, music is just the coolest thing.’ From quite an early age, I wanted to make that my life,” he says with a smile, “famously, someone in my family once said, ‘you’ll never make a living from playing music’ but after a few years in the Wiggles he said, ‘I was wrong’.”
Cook has leaned on all of these influences since leaving the Wiggles. He has played guitar with metal bands such as the DZ Deathrays, soul bands like the Soul Movers, and he’s even worked with new members of the Wiggles, covering Triple J’s “Elephant”. “We had a lot of fun with that,” he says, “I get stopped so much more on the street now and people tell me how much they loved our version.”
It’s clear that there is a lot of goodwill and respect for the Wiggles in Australia. When ‘Blue Wiggle’ Anthony Field shared his battle with depression and panic attacks in 2017, there was an outpouring of public support. Mack has noticed this same goodwill when fans of the Soul Movers, who were probably fans of the Wiggles in their younger years, come to the shows.
“During one show, Murray said ‘this one’s a bit of a quiet number’,” she says, “and we had like 150 20-year-olds sit down on the dance floor, ready for storytime. It was very sweet because there was just so much love and respect. When Murray says, ‘this one’s a quiet one,’ get out your blanket.”
At the forefront of inspiring and entertaining generations of young Australians, Cook and the other Wiggles have cemented themselves into the annals of Australian music history. Given that Cook has been such a key figure in so many Australian homes, it’s only fitting to ask him for advice for young musicians.
“Stay true to who you are,” he says, “occasionally we’d have TV people or record company people saying, ‘you should do this,” referring to new types of songs or television gimmicks. “And we just stuck to our guns. We knew a lot about children and I think other musicians know their audience too. If you believe in what you’re doing and you do it for long enough, you will make a breakthrough. But you have to be true to yourself.”
And for the musicians wanting instant fame and fortune?
“Don’t expect success straight away. It’s a lot harder nowadays but you still need to take that ethos and believe in what you are doing. Even the Wiggles took a few years to get into people’s psyche. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
The Soul Movers’ latest album Evolution [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] is available to stream on Spotify here.
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