Saturday, August 12, 2017

Under the Influence - Shortis & Simpson

Moya Simpson OAM and John Shortis OAM
in Under the Influence
Photo by Sabine Friedrich

Under the Influence by Shortis & Simpson.  At Ainslie Arts Centre, Canberra, Friday August 11, 2017.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

When we reach a certain ‘aaagh’ (that’s French for ‘age’ pronounced arj), we tend to look back in some wonder with an academic objectivity at what has made us what we are today.  Shortis & Simpson’s Under the Influence, recalling their own musical history, rang bells last night for an audience of just the right demographic.

It was genuinely poignant to know that Moya Simpson and her father (in Twickenham, UK) were at odds over her teenage interest in jazz and rock in favour of country and western.  It didn’t help that a strict school music mistress objected to Moya’s singing harmony (in Polly Wolly Doodle!) before the teacher had taught harmony singing.  Moya was tossed out of the class for ‘singing differently’.  It took 20 years of independent living before she felt able to sing in public.  Though her story, for us, was a humorous note, it was amusingly ironic that she had picked up harmony singing from her father as he (privately) sang along with his cowboy LPs.

Fortunately, for us, Moya’s chance encounter with Bulgarian girls singing their native folk songs – now in Sydney in the early 1980s – sparked an ‘aha’ moment. Encouraged by the enjoyment of public group singing with the Martenitsa Choir (in eastern European languages from Albanian to Hungarian), she stopped teaching as she found her voice, nowadays with a remarkable pitch and tonal range, and a great talent for accents.

John Shortis was rather more lucky with a father who conducted an amateur choir in his lounge room in Sydney ‘on the opposite side of the earth’ from teenage Moya.  As she had done, John picked up doing music, wrote his first (admittedly awful) song at 13 and failed in his audition for a radio talent quest – being told by an adamant Scottish auditioner (faithfully performed by Moya) that he couldn’t sing in tune. 

When John became a teacher, in Bomaderry while Moya had arrived unbeknowns in Sydney, he was expected to teach his class to sing something worse than Polly Wolly Doodle: the Eton School Boating Song, about rowing “with our bags between our knees” of all things!  There was no piano in the school, so John taught himself to play guitar in class, so the children were learning basics like chords along with him.  Spike Milligan’s children’s poems came to the rescue, with words like:

A baby sardine
Saw her first submarine
She was scared and watched through the peephole.
“Oh come, come, come”
 Said the sardine’s mum
“It’s only a tin full of people.”

By now our very mature audience responded to Moya’s recitation to John’s accompaniment with as much laughter as his Bomaderry class of youngsters must have done.  While we also recognised the truth in John’s new song for this show, Everyone’s Father Did, about how they each as children naturally assumed that everyone’s father did what their fathers did.

From the time they each turned into teenagers in the early 1960s, each had ‘seminal moments’ musically.  Presenting these made up a fascinating show over two 50 minute segments, brought together in a ‘now it’s time to go’ finale bracket –

Goodnight by The Beatles;
So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya by Woody Guthrie;
That’s No Way To Say Goodbye by Leonard Cohen
Farewell Angelina by Bob Dylan;
The Way We Were, (written by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman), sung by Barbra Streisand;
You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, (originally a 1965 Italian song by Pino Donaggio and lyricist Vito Pallavicini: '"Io che non vivo (senza te)"), sung by Dusty Springfield; and
Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, (written by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss), sung by Elvis Presley.

Baby Boomers stamped their approval, and were rewarded by an encore.  Moya took us right back to George and Ira Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me, significantly  as sung by Linda Ronstadt.  Sentimental?  Not in this context.  The song now seemed to be partly about the Shortis & Simpson relationship, 33 years of being and working together.  The photo says it all.

But it seemed to me also to be about the serendipity of day-to-day history. 

In John’s song A Catholic and an Atheist, it was the music – from Bing Crosby singing Cole Porter’s Don’t Fence Me In, through Thomas Aquinas’ Pange Lingua, Dusty Springfield’s Silver Threads and Golden Needles, Slim Dusty’s When the Rain Tumbles Down in July, Shortis’ own memorial to Elvis’ Heart Break Hotel called Elvis Has Left the Building, Irving Berlin’s You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun, a swag of Streisand including Brother Can You Spare a Dime?, a stack of Beatles in which Eleanor Rigby and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds set this audience cheering, to Shortis’ contemplative celebration of the 50th Birthday of Sergeant Pepper, called Happy 5-0 – it's the music that has held these two apparent opposites together and with their audiences here in Canberra for more than 20 years. 

And that was just up to interval.  The second half gave us Marlene Dietrich Falling in Love Again, Gracie Fields’ Walter, Edith Piaf’s style in Je Ne Regrette Rien, Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right followed up by Shortis’ satirical If It Were Not For My Lyrics, quoting one-time Prime Minister John Howard, who famously said Dylan was his favourite – but only politically correct people would like his lyrics just because they liked his music.

You can check this gem out at

The influences that surprised me after reviewing Shortis & Simpson’s mainly humorous political commentary since the days at the Queanbeyan School of Arts Cafe in 1996, were Woody Guthrie (John’s tribute is called Three Chords and the Truth), Leonard Cohen in Famous Blue Raincoat (John’s tribute is a sad piece called simply Mr Cohen), and the highly original music from the 1920s by Erik Satie, the effect of which is remembered by John in Felt I’d Come Home.

The value of Under the Influence is that it shows us the unexpectedness of life and the particular moments which become serendipitous, as well as the sensitivity needed to pick up on those moments, and the work needed to build skills and quality in performance.

And finally this show explains why Moya Simpson and John Shortis have a special place in Canberra.  They are not ‘politically correct’ but neither are they ideologically incorrect.  Their humour is for the most part gentle, but still telling.  They are entertaining, but not mere entertainers.  When sadness needs recognition, sadness gets is due – in this show perhaps most significantly for the poet Leonard Cohen. 

The audience last night knew its theatre, knew its politics, and its social history.  We felt at home with the lights and shades of the story of these two artists who have found their own ways separately and then together to live, create and perform for us.

We enjoyed last night and wish them well, As Time Goes By (written by Herman Hupfeld in 1931).