When Peter Combe was a little boy he loved to visit Unley Oval to watch SANFL team Sturt battle it out on the footy field. “I should have been a West Torrens supporter,” he says. “I was brought up in the west Torrens area [Underdale] but my best friend’s father was a Sturt supporter and he first took me to a match here at Unley Oval when I was about eight.” Peter has been a double blues supporter ever since.
“I grew up during the Sturt years when they were the best team in the competition by a country mile. This was 1966 to 1970. They won five premierships in a row and almost won a sixth. John Halbert, who was the captain of Sturt, was my high school teacher. He won the Magarey Medal the year I was in his class.”
The muso takes a seat on a bench overlooking the patch of suburban green. “I had a very happy childhood. I was lucky to feel loved by my parents. Maybe that’s why I have a sunny disposition.”
Peter was particularly happy during family trips to Port Elliot. “It was a regular two-week trip every January. It was a sleepy little town and not much happened there but I have gorgeous memories of playing tennis with my father and brother. We grew up in a very sporty atmosphere. I love tennis, football and cricket. I played them all. I wasn’t very good at footy but I loved doing it and gave it my best crack.”
What he did excel at was music. But you probably knew that already – especially if you’re one of many Australians whose childhood was shaped by his music. Songs like ‘Juicy, Juicy Green Grass’, ‘Newspaper Mama’, ‘Mr Clicketty Cane’, and ‘Toffee Apple’ filled ears and shaped young minds for decades. Witty lyrics such as “Wash your face in orange juice, clean your teeth with bubble gum, fix the fence with sticky tape, brush your hair with a toothbrush,” made us smile. They still do. In addition to entertaining kids, these days Peter performs gigs across Australia specifically for adults. They’re a hoot. His foray into 18+ shows started by accident during local German festival Schützenfest in 2008. “It was a 41-degree day and I thought ‘why have they invited me to do this? There are hardly any children here’.”
“It was almost entirely adults. They went crazy and stormed the stage.”
The gig took place in a tent packed with adults, many of whom grew up in the eighties and nineties (and had a few jugs of German beer under their belt). “It was almost entirely adults. They went crazy and stormed the stage. I started to think, ‘What was all that about? Why did they do that?’ After the show, I chatted to a few of the less inebriated people in the crowd and realised they just loved the songs. It was very touching. I felt very honoured.”
The experience led to another gig for adults, then another. “I set off on the road and did an entire national tour. Every show sold out. If I hadn’t done Schützenfest that wouldn’t have happened.”
His most requested song? “There’s no competition. It’s ‘Mr Clicketty Cane’. It’s become my own personal ‘American Pie’. I can go anywhere in Australia and when I sing it, kids will sing it back at me. It’s lovely but it means I have to sing it at every single concert. I’d love to give it a two-year rest but I can’t!”
“This is my famous person story. I’m name dropping but it’s all true. In 1988 I won my second ARIA for second album Newspaper Mama. At the big celebration in Sydney they’d have a keynote speaker. That year it was George Martin, The Beatles producer who produced Abbey Road, Sgt Pepper and basically everything they did. After the event finished and all the winners went into the winners’ room. It was the year Kylie Minogue kind of broke. She suddenly became this superstar and the press just couldn’t get enough of her. George Martin was there too and all the press just flocked to Kylie. There’s George Martin, the man who did the orchestration for ‘Yesterday’ and who produced Abbey Road and Sgt Pepper… standing there drinking a cup of tea all by himself. No-one was interested. I thought ‘get some perspective: Kylie is really cute and everything but she’s hardly that important in the scheme of things. This guy produced the greatest rock band in the world. He discovered them’. I didn’t want to do anything dumb like ask for his autograph. I thought that’d be shallow so I went up and talked to him about how he did the arrangement for ‘A Day In The Life’, the last track on Sgt Pepper. It has an amazing chord at the end that goes forever. We just talked about music. He’s a lovely, charming man.”
Peter’s latest album Live It Up! includes a song dedicated to Carrickalinga. “It’s a love song to Carrickalinga, probably my favourite spot in South Australia.” Peter and his wife Carol’s first visit to the small coastal town was in 1989 when he was working on ABC children’s radio program Ticklepot (voted best children’s radio program in the world in New York in 1991). “The producer thought I was looking incredibly tired and said, ‘Why don’t you spend a few days down at Carrickalinga? I have a house there’.”
They fell in love with the place and bought a home of their own there. “We’ve been going there regularly ever since. We go there more now because, being a hopeless workaholic, it’s the one place I can actually go and not work. I switch off there. It’s a really therapeutic place to be,” he says.
The album also includes climate change song ‘The Sun Comes Up, Sun Comes Down’. “I wanted children to know about climate change. Not in a heavy way but just to say, ‘This is happening and you’re the ones who are going to suffer from it over the next 50, 60, 70 years’.”
“I had a very happy childhood. I was lucky to feel loved by my parents. Maybe that’s why I have a sunny disposition”
In 2006, Peter also wrote a song called ‘Free David Hicks’. “I am a political animal. I think politics matter. The trouble in Australia is we have a number of people who have so much free press and are just misleading the public. People like Andrew Bolt are a disgrace. He just tells lies. It’s extraordinary. He’s on television, he’s on radio and has a regular newspaper column. He says things like climate change has paused but it hasn’t.”
Don Dunstan is Peter’s favourite politician of all time. “I think he was a brilliant man. He was actually passionate about and really believed what he was talking about. There was no spin, he just believed it. He’d have made a wonderful prime minister. I met him once and I was so awestruck that whatever I said would have sounded silly. I didn’t know what to say to him except something like ‘I’m really grateful for everything you’ve done for South Australia.’ He was such an amazing person. Extraordinarily intelligent.”
It’s one of the reasons Adelaide Festival Centre’s Dunstan Playhouse has a special place in his heart. “He loved the arts. Calling it the Dunstan Playhouse was so appropriate. It’s a venue that means a lot to me in different ways. It’s a lovely venue to perform at. I launched the new album Live It Up! there and it’s a venue I started doing about 40 years ago as part of Something On Saturday.”
Peter’s career has taken him all over the globe, including Sydney and London during the late seventies where he hosted television program Music Time. “Britain is the most frustrating place [for children’s entertainment]. I adore Britain but they’re hopeless when it comes to kid’s music. They’re so conservative. It drives me insane.” He chuckles. “They are the leaders in outrageous comedy but for kids they’re conservative. This is the country that produced Monty Python and The Goodies. When it comes to kid’s music they’re hopeless. I say that endearingly because I adore the UK.”
He and Carol returned home after the birth of their third child. “We wanted to have the support of grandparents and other family around us, so we came back to Adelaide. We have wondered whether it was the right thing to do. I adore Adelaide, it’s a wonderful city. I think it’s finally being valued the way it should be. I think it has been undervalued for years.”
The self-confessed workaholic shows no signs of slowing down. Peter is on a mission to maintain the standard of creativity in his industry. “There are very few people who do what I do: make a living out of writing children’s songs, recording them and singing them. I’d love to see children’s music considered seriously and given the respect it deserves. Parents understand because they see how much the albums affect their kids but the mainstream media yawns. Why do they do that? Do they not find it cool or something?”
He smiles. “Every track should be a wonderful surprise. Those are the kinds of albums I love. I have a passion for elevating children’s music to the level it should be. One of my passions is to raise children’s music to the level of children’s literature.”
It’s good news for little locals.
“Any music that is worthwhile always has a timeless quality to it. If it doesn’t last more than three or four years, it’s probably because it wasn’t very good. Songs like ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’ [written by Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow and performed by Peter, Paul and Mary] are timeless. That’s about a little boy growing up… and that’s always going to happen. It doesn’t matter if you’re five or 35, they’re just terrific songs.”
It’s not all catchy tunes and ludicrous lyrics. Peter’s ongoing success is down to hard work, tenacity and resilience.
“You can’t just be talented. You’ve got to have a whole lot of other things that work together. There’s a whole list of things I’m not good at but you have to believe in yourself. A lot of people give up. Hard work is underestimated.”
Peter Combe’s new album Live It Up! is out now.
What’s your favourite Peter Combe song? Let us know in the comments, below.