Australian entertainment history was effectively re-written 25 years ago by a clever Australian conceptualist with a wicked wit, a passion for playing with words and an outstanding art for mimicry, who was able to deftly tickle the national funny bone by ‘borrowing’ the persona of a revered icon and imbuing it with a verbal dexterity and dimension.
The conceptualist is Billy Birmingham who, as ‘The 12th Man’, has become one of the most successful spoken-word recording artists in the world (certainly the most successful in Australia, ever) and the only Australian recording artist in history to have seven (7) consecutive Number 1. albums on the ARIA charts. The revered icon was – indeed, still is for a little while - Richie Benaud, the cricketing and commentating legend whom Birmingham has made the thematic centre piece for his string of phenomenally popular 12th Man comedy masterpieces which have sold in quantities beyond the reach of all but Australia’s ranking rock royalty.
Into Mr. Benaud’s stoically accommodating mouth – and those of his fellow cricket commentating legends Tony Greig, Bill Lawry, Ian Chappell, Max Walker, Mark Taylor and co. and, indeed, sports presenters and stars from around the globe, Birmingham has placed words their mothers would probably have washed out with soap, as well as quips, twists, stumbles, responses, asides and observations which Richie and the boys could only ever have dreamed of unleashing within the vicinity of a microphone. Tied together with artful timing and a glorious sense of the absurd, the 12th Man albums have sent sports fans, cricket fans and comedy fans into involuntary spasms. Such is ‘The 12th Man’ cult that his most inspiring utterances have become part of the language. For 25 years, kids have hurled them across playgrounds, adults across workplaces and sports fields.
That particular ability – to coin phrases and expressions that will live long after him – began before Birmingham became ‘The 12th Man’ and sold a couple of million records of his priceless mock commentary. In 1983, this former French and Latin student who has “good memories of taking the piss out of teachers at school”, fashioned a series of puns – some fair, some foul, all funny – into a comedy monologue for Austen Tayshus, an emerging stand-up comic whom Birmingham was helping out. The result was ‘Australiana’, a five minute piece of stupidity penned by Birmingham that spent thirteen (13) weeks at Number 1. on the ARIA singles charts – beaten in almost fifty years of chart history by only two other acts, ABBA and The Beatles. “Australiana” sold over 300,000 copies, becoming the biggest selling domestic single of all time.
Birmingham, a former record company executive, jingle writer (his Tooheys radio commercials have won many awards), television commercial producer, music industry consultant and jack-of-more-trades-than-we-can-go-into-here, approached the microphone himself the following year – 1984 – to record the ingenious ‘It’s Just Not Cricket’, a maxi-single which targeted Benaud and the Commentary Team from Channel Nine Australia’s hugely popular T.V. coverage of One Day cricket. The single stormed straight to Number 1. and sold over a quarter of a million units (quad platinum). “The 12th Man” was born.
Three years later, in 1987, Birmingham released his first full “12th Man” album, ‘Wired World Of Sports’ – a piss-take of Channel Nine’s other iconic program of the time, Wide World Of Sports. The album went triple platinum, hitting the Number 1. spot on the album charts in Christmas of that year. Three years later, in 1990, it was back to Number 1. with the cricket-themed album ‘12th Man Again!’. The nineties continued to be kind to Birmingham. In February 1992, the musical single ‘Marvellous’, by “The 12th Man featuring M.C.G.Hammer”, became a Number 1. platinum single. ‘Marvellous’ was a bizarre dance/groove song that had ‘Richie and the boys’ movin’ and groovin’ with their own rap about the joys of the Aussie cricketing summer. Premier league Aussie rock heroes Jimmy Barnes, John Farnham, Diesel and Glenn Shorrock provided back-up vocals on this opus, in what some saw as a desperate attempt to ride on the coat-tails of “The 12th Man’s” success !!
In December of the same year (1992), a third album, ‘Still The 12th Man’ became the fastest selling Australian artist recording EMI had ever handled, selling more than 200,000 units in a couple of weeks. The fourth album, ‘Wired World Of Sports 2’, did even better. Released in December 1994, it won not only another ARIA award for “The 12th Man” for Best Comedy Release, but took out the most prestigious award of the night as well – ARIA for Highest Selling Album Of The Year. It seemed that rather than (as is often the case with comedy projects) the joke wearing thin, ‘The 12th Man’ was taking on more potency.
The fifth ‘12th Man’ album, which also went straight to Number 1. in just two weeks, was a slight departure from Birmingham’s normal playground. “Bill Lawry…This Is Your Life” continued to take the piss out of Birmingham’s usual subjects, but obviously set against the backdrop of Channel Nine’s hugely popular ‘This Is Your Life’ television programme. It was another triple platinum success. Next came “The Final Dig?”, the album which addressed the burning issue of who would take over from Richie as Captain of the Commentary Team if and when he should retire. “The Final Dig?” became Birmingham’s sixth consecutive Number 1. album, sitting at the top of the ARIA album charts for five (5 ) weeks through December 2001 and January 2002 and earning him his second nomination for the ARIA award for Highest Selling Album Of The Year.
The most recent ‘12th Man’ release, the 2006/2007 double disc saga entitled “Boned”, was Billy Birmingham’s record-breaking seventh consecutive Number 1. album. It sold almost 300,000 copies in just two weeks, and garnered Birmingham a third nomination for the ARIA award for Highest Selling Album Of The Year. The album centred around Channel Nine CEO, Eddie McGuire’s cost-cutting decision to ‘bone’ the entire Cricket Commentary Team, and replace them with Billy Birmingham, who could impersonate the whole Team calling the cricket, and Nine would, therefore, only have to pay one salary instead of seven.
This year, 2009, marks the 25th anniversary of ‘The 12th Man’, and, like the great man himself, Richie Benaud, ‘The 12th Man’ has also announced his intention to hang up his microphone. EMI Music will be marking the occasion with the release of “The 12th Man – The Box Set”, a 25th Anniversary Collectors Edition featuring all seven of The 12th Man’s ARIA No.1 albums and various bonus tracks recorded over the years. “The 12th Man – The Box Set” is released on November 6th, 2009.
The 12th Man’s final project will be delivered in 2010 in the form of a documentary style DVD, chronicling the history of this uniquely Australian success story. The DVD will be a combination of rare archival footage, fly-on-the-wall home video of 12th Man recording sessions through the years, animated clips of some famous 12th Man segments, TV performances, special guests from the sporting and entertainment communities, as well as interviews, stories and bizarre anecdotes from the past 25 years of The 12th Man phenomenon.