The Definitive Account Of Shannon Noll’s Rise And Fall
Shannon Noll’s new single launch was half-empty and we’re all to blame.
Hermann’s Bar at the University of Sydney is not a venue most bands aspire to play.
Tucked behind the student food court and best known for its comprehensive selection of Skittle-flavoured vodkas, the lightless, charmless drinking hole has long played second fiddle to USyd’s relatively glamorous Manning Bar, which has hosted everyone from the Foo Fighters to Leonardo DiCaprio trying unsuccessfully to eat his lunch in peace.
Shannon Noll was supposed to kick off a national tour promoting his new single ‘Southern Sky’ at Manning, but lacklustre ticket sales forced a late relocation.
When he last played Sydney Uni, invited to do a surprise gig at the 2016 O-Week by the student union, it was at the height of his brief, weird run as everyone’s ironic fave. He was greeted by a delirious, hyperactive crowd of kids barely old enough to remember who he is, let alone the words to most of his songs.
“Noll’s only filled the room about a fifth of the way, pulling maybe 80 people”
Not many of those kids have shown up this Friday night. Despite playing Sunrise that morning, Noll’s only filled the room about a fifth of the way, pulling maybe 80 people.
Prominent among them is the small but fiercely loyal band of middle-aged rural women who travel at their own expense to as many of his concerts as they can afford. Before the show starts they move through the crowd with collection tins, soliciting donations for Shannon-affiliated charities.
If anyone’s told them their man is no longer the tongue-in-cheek darling of the rich, young and bored, they seem entirely indifferent.
For the past four years, Shannon Noll has occupied a concerning amount of my daily brainspace. His unlikely metamorphosis from Australian Idol also-ran to living meme in 2015, his short-lived status as the embodiment of “Straya” online culture and his dismal mini-implosion in January have captivated, delighted and appalled those of us who were paying attention.
Most fascinatingly, Noll’s bizarre career trajectory over the last three or so years has had remarkably little input from the man himself. An artist whose early career was micromanaged as only a reality star’s can be is now almost entirely at the mercy of forces no-one really understands, least of all him.
In a strange example of the post-meaning internet soup we find ourselves in, Shannon Noll has become something outside himself — just another amusing diversion for people at work or in lectures, like Candy Crush or YouTube prank videos.
Now that he’s been chewed up and spat out by the rolling internet-irony complex, what has Noll been left with? What does it mean to treat a hardworking, dedicated artist (and a flesh-and-blood person) as a disposable online plaything? What about him?
“Noll Never Seemed In On The Joke”
The first time I saw Noll in concert, he was still firmly in the purgatory of vague recognisability that most former Idol contestants will spend the rest of their careers in.
It was 2013, and a friend of mine who worked at ANZ Stadium scored free tickets to see Billy Joel. Rather than the usual headliner-with-support format, the organisers roped in a bunch of local acts, erected a stage at one end of the stadium and created Stone Fest, a strange almost-festival marketed at people who still regard Richard Wilkins as the last word in good music. Support acts played for 20 minutes, seating was strictly regimented by ticket price, and everyone was home in bed by 11.
When Noll came on at 5pm, most of the seats in the front-row VIP area were empty, and the punters’ mood in the stadium seating further back could best be described as ‘polite interest’. Guy Sebastian was not one but two slots higher up the bill, lending the whole thing the kind of tragic gravity you feel watching a kid’s balloon sail into the sky when they accidentally let go of it.
Thing is, no one told Noll the event was a bust.
He came out like Freddie Mercury at Wembley Stadium in ‘86, wearing a cutoff denim vest with a giant ying-yang symbol on the back and throwing his arms out to the crowd like a revivalist preacher. His 20 minutes onstage was a blur of fist pumping, guttural country-boy yells, “hey, I remember that song!” moments and a truly frightening number of power-lunges.
As he neared the end of ‘What About Me?’, the cover song that remains his greatest hit, he took his final bow in spectacular fashion. Belting out the final lines, he pointed dramatically at the audience and sang with all the daggy grandeur of an M Night Shyamalan twist: “What about me? What about me? What about…yoooooou?”
I was hooked. Not in the “check out this specimen” way people would rediscover him two years later (well, maybe a little), but in a real, honest-to-goodness fan way.
I downloaded his albums and played them through headphones so no-one would hear, secretly fist-pumping to the riff from ‘Drive’. I forced him on friends and people at work. When the Nollsy 2.0 phase began, fuelled by a flood of memes on a Facebook event for one of his gigs at Goulburn’s Astor Hotel, I egged it on eagerly.
The Dank Nollsy wave peaked in early 2016, when thousands of gurning punters signed petitions calling for him to be added to the Groovin’ The Moo and Splendour line-ups. Jokingly or otherwise, thousands of people clicked ‘Attending’ on a March gig at Balmain’s Bridge Hotel, a rough-as-guts pub perpetually wreathed in exhaust fumes coming off the A40.
That show — a raucous, borderline-chaotic affair that saw hundreds of rabid fans come out of the woodwork — was Noll the person and performer at both his best and worst. It’s easy to forget now, but after Idol Noll was a genuinely huge deal. His first album, 2004’s That’s What I’m Talking About, went platinum five times over and shifted a massive 350,000 copies.
More than that, he’s both a singer of rare talent and a hell of a showman. That night he was in fine form — hugging stage divers, taking selfies with people’s phones in the middle of songs, bantering between sets. He was funny and heartfelt and dripping with confidence, as you’d need to be to pull off the white sleeveless vest he wore.
Before singing ‘Now I Run’, he told the story of the song’s genesis as a tribute to his deceased father. Above all he was genuinely thankful that people were there to see him. “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have a fucking career at all,” he told the crowd. People expecting a bumbling, hokey cartoon character they could mock on Snapchat were in the wrong place.
“There was always more than a hint of class snobbery to the meme-driven Noll revival”
There was always more than a hint of class snobbery to the meme-driven Noll revival. Like Trent from Punchy or Ciggie Butt Brain, the laughter of well-off kids from inner city private schools putting on fake ocker accents has a ring of mockery to it.
That nasty edge was only made sharper by the fact that Noll never seemed in on the joke. Despite being frequently ridiculous (or perhaps as a result), Noll has never been anything other than completely earnest. His machismo, his paeans to forgotten people and dusty country towns, his aggressive patriotism and Southern Cross tattoos – he is deathly serious about all of it.
It’s that last part of Noll’s personality, the chest-bared brand of patriotism, that rubs up most uncomfortably with his embrace by the Brown Cardigan crowd.
Despite obviously being genuine and endearing him to fans and meme kids alike, it doesn’t take much for that Southern Cross zeal to turn sinister. Towards the end of the night, the Bridge Hotel gig went sour when Noll went on an angry, confused rant about politicians, foreign landowners and political correctness. At one point, egged on by people in the crowd, he yelled: “I’m gonna eat pork! I’m gonna eat pork!” in an apparent reference to the anti-halal food movement.
In that moment, the room felt less like a folksy, benignly patriotic love-in than it did a Reclaim Australia rally. People of colour in the crowd said afterwards that they felt unsafe. At one point, two fans pulled an Australian flag out of a backpack and handed it to Noll, who brandished it while leading the crowd in an aggressive, shouty rendition of ‘Waltzing Matilda’.
Swept up in his jingoistic fervour, it took Noll almost a minute to realise he was holding the flag backwards.
“Something Is Still Left For The True Believers”
The ride of 2015-16 wasn’t to last.
Shannon Noll dropped off the national psyche again by about June and wouldn’t make headlines again until January, when he was arrested for trying to fight a bouncer outside a strip club in Adelaide. The last word would go to a deeply confused kid with flippy hair uttering the immortal words “He got really aggressive and being like ‘I’m Shannon Noll, let me back into the Crazy Horse’”.
Cut to Hermann’s, where despite the tiny crowd and the second-tier venue, something is still left for the true believers.
Oddly enough, at least half the people who’ve showed up are young women. Seriously young – like, seven years old when Idol premiered young. When Nollsy appears onstage and everyone crams to the front of the room, the small crowd achieves an intimacy that sustains itself. With the edgelords winnowed away, everyone here is as genuine as Noll is about the whole business. Two hours on a Friday night and $40 on the door is a lot to take the piss out of something, after all.
Like at Allianz in 2013, he takes a potentially crappy situation and makes it work. ‘Southern Sky’ is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin (former immigration minister Amanda Vanstone wrote a song once that was not dissimilar), but renditions of Dragon’s ‘April Sun in Cuba’, Darryl Braithwaite’s ‘Horses’ and, yes, ‘What About Me’ are more than enough for the devotees.
Nollsy sings the hits, punches the air, and thanks the crowd again and again and again.
Alex McKinnon is a freelance writer based in Sydney, and a former editor of Junkee and the Star Observer.