The Wiggles put everything your child needs to learn into capsules of preschool songs that stay with you forever. Very little analysis has been done to understand the magic of their songwriting and their music. At least, their original members, Anthony Field (Blue), Greg Page (Yellow), Murray Cook (Red), and Jeff Fatt (Purple) are called the Fab Four of children’s music.
Intentional knowledge and a unique passion are behind the success of this Australian band that started in 1991 when three of the members met at a class for early childhood education. Field, who comes from a musical family, had an early experience starting a band called The Cockroaches with his brothers. This explains how a degree in early childhood education inspired him to start The Wiggles.
The Wiggles dominated children’s music in Australia, and by appearing on Disney’s Playhouse four times a day, they became a household name in America.
My inner child grew up listening to them while mothering my own, but as I listen to them again I see that the magic of their songs comes from a mix of the right amount of words, the right amount of music, the right amount of sound effects and the right amount of dance that makes up every song of theirs. Even colors become alive through their characters.
“Hot Potato, Hot Potato,” “Fruit Salad, Yummy, Yummy,” “Dorothy the Dinosaur” and “Toot Toot, Chugga Chugga, Big Red Car,” they all start playing in my head as soon as I hear the name The Wiggles.
The band had a major turning point in 2006 after a rare, chronic illness forced Page to quit. Field also battled depression during his career, but continued working with the band. They both wrote books on how they found their way out. “How I got My Wiggle Back: A Memoir of Healing” by Field was published in 2012.
After Cook and Fatt retired, Field recruited new members: Emma Watkins (Yellow), Simon Pryce (Red) and Lachlan Gillespie (Purple). To the children of the last 7 years, these are The Wiggles. They are making their first visit to D.C in nearly a decade on Aug. 29 for a performance at Warner Theatre.
My children used to ask me, “Who is your favorite?” and my answer was: “Greg, then Anthony.” I could not believe my eyes when I read the email: “Anthony Field of The Wiggles is available for an interview.” We had this conversation over the phone right after one of his big performances; his voice was scratchy but full of spirit and, of course, his Australian accent:
I would like to know why four young men would be interested in an early childhood education class. Because this is how you met, right?
FIELD: That's right, yeah. It was really unique because at our university, in our year there were 190 women and Murray and myself were early-childhood trained, Jeff wasn't. So, three of us, there were three gentlemen and 190 women doing early childhood, so it was very rare to have men learning to be preschool teachers or educators. But, it was real neat to do it--being a part of children’s lives as much as women, really, or they should be anyway.
I agree. I totally agree. I'm a mother and I know how important it is, but I really would love to know more about you. What took you to that path?
FIELD: Well, for me ... I was in the Australian Army, a full-time army man, and I really needed a change from the world of armed forces. And my sister told me about early childhood education, that it combines a lot of music and encourages creativity amongst children. And after not really using my brain for years when I was in the army, I thought, “You know what, I'm going to try this because it sounds really wonderful ... it's about empowering children, and I can use my musical skills in the classroom.” It was the total opposite of being in the army, and that's why I liked it.
What are the biggest values you got out of that course that shaped your vision for children’s songs?
FIELD: I think, what was behind university education was understanding what developmental level the children are at. Each child is different. Understanding and investigating what their interests are, and furthering that, and trying to develop their language skills and mathematics skills through what interests them, through play, through music. It was all about treating every child as an individual, with different sets of skills. You can't just say, “I've got a classroom of two year olds and they're all the same,” because they all develop at different levels, and as a teacher, you got to try to understand each child and where they are, because they are so different. And they develop at different levels and mature at different levels at different times. So, I think it was all about understanding the children and reflecting their world and reflecting their language and celebrating their differences.
I also think your songwriting skills and the way you arrange your music is what made you the Fab Four of children’s music. Your songs are catchy, so what makes your songwriting skills different?
FIELD: When we set down to write a song--and now it's second-nature--but in the early days … which we learned at the university...is that there's an objective for each song. So, if it's a singing song, if you want the child to sing along, you take a developmental approach to that. You might only have two or three notes in that song. If it's a dancing song, it's about the rhythm, a steady rhythm, so you have lots of music, lots of different notes in the song, different melodies. If it's a story-telling song, it's just about the story, how to understand the story, what language are you going to use? If it's a song that you want to marry actions, like “Hot Potato,” very simple words, but the actions are repetitive and the words are repetitive. It's not a singing song, that one, believe it or not, because it's got a lot of minors in there, but it's a real action-dancing song. That's just three examples.
Interesting. What did you major in?
FIELD: Early Childhood Development.
And did you take some music classes as well?
FIELD: That was part of it. Music in Education and Music in Theater, Child Psychology, it was a really great program. We also had Aboriginal Studies, where we learned about the indigenous children, culturally. As teachers we shouldn't have the same expectations because, culturally, what are good manners for indigenous children in Australia was “Don't look at the adult while they're speaking to you.” But, as a teacher, you expect the children to look at you, but if you have the education to realize that they're actually showing a sign of respect, you don't have false expectations in children. What was really good about the university is empowering the children, and it also empowered us to manage the classroom a lot easier because we understood better where the children came from.
I read that Greg Page was behind the idea to produce a children's album as part of the Early Childhood Education class. Is this how the band started?
FIELD: I brought Greg into it because Greg wasn't actually at the university at that stage. Murray was in the class; Greg was younger than us, but I'd heard him sing so I asked him to join. Jeff was an old friend from a rock and roll band we were in. So, when we started off it was my idea, but I wasn't a genius, I didn't know we'd still be doing it 30 years later.
How is the chemistry between you and Greg?
FIELD: Really good. I think the chemistry between the original Wiggles was not forced, it was very natural. Whenever we see each other, we still get on really well, we still have a laugh and it was a real natural chemistry.
Yes, I can see that. I think it's part of the Wiggles’ huge success as well. Did you choose to be the color blue?
FIELD: Originally I was green, believe it or not, but we had green screens when we did television, so then I became blue. We actually had...it really did happen this way...we were at a clothing store, and they had a bin full of t-shirts, and we went, “Okay, whatever color you pick out is your color.” And Greg got yellow, and Murray got red, and Jeff got purple, and I got green, but then later it became blue.
How did it become blue?
FIELD: You know the green screen on television where you put a background in? Because I had a green shirt I kept becoming nothing, so I had to change my color and I became blue.
Wow. Interesting. I'll ask you some difficult questions if you don't mind. Just correct me if I'm wrong. Some people are irreplaceable. Greg's passion and vision, I think, was part of what distinguished The Wiggles. As a result, his absence impacted The Wiggles.
FIELD: Definitely. When Greg left, we took about five years to find our feet again. But [in] the last seven years, with Emma, signing the new Wiggles, it's quite incredible; to the children of the last seven years, these are The Wiggles. You are totally right, when Greg left, there was a big hole for us to fill, and we were a bit lost for a while, but we're really rocking again and wiggling again, and Greg's very happy. His children love The Wiggles now, too, so it's really good.
Also, do you agree or not that being on Disney's Playhouse made The Wiggles a household name?
FIELD: Totally agree. It was amazing. We were on four times a day, and then Disney decided to make their own sort of Wiggles, so they came up with the Imagination Movers and that moved us off the television station. We would have loved to have still been there, so that happens in showbiz.
I asked some children to tell me what questions they want to ask you, and one of them, when she heard about you going through depression, she was concerned and asked “Why did Anthony get depressed?”
FIELD: It's a funny thing; I went to a doctor and it has nothing to do with my lifestyle … I was clinically depressed, I was diagnosed with it. And there was no reason for it because life was great, and that's really hard to understand, but I was encouraged to speak to my family, to a doctor, and I'm doing a lot better now. So, I do understand a lot more about depression and that it can be depression that's caused by situations, situational depression, where someone's been really bad to you and really hits down or bullying you, but I had none of that, it was just a physical thing.
Is “The Toilet Song” part of the “Party Time!” album?
FIELD: I don't know. Maybe it is. That's a good song; for years people have been asking for something to encourage children to use the toilet. It's a sensitive issue, you don't want to be crass about it, so we tried to do it so it's very honest with children and enjoyable … There is a great fear of children using the toilet, a lot of children have been helped by that song…
What is special about the “Party Time!” album?
FIELD: It's just what it says it is. If you've got a party, it's got a lot of the classics on it: “Do The Hokey-Pokey,” “The Ants Go Marching In.” It's got lots of great Happy Birthdays on it. It's a good album to put on at a preschooler's party.