When he first sang Yesterday’s Hero more than 40 years ago, John Paul Young could have been telling his future.
Yet when he walks down the street, people don’t so much stop and stare and say haven’t they seen that face somewhere a long time ago; rather, they nod amiably and say hello - or occasionally mention he looks like someone they know.
“I was in Bunnings the other day and this woman said, ‘Does anybody ever tell you you look like John Paul Young?’ ‘Yes, my wife!’,” he recounts. “She just walked away.”
While he argues otherwise, John Paul Young has not become the subject of his 1975 hit single. Most popstars become yesterday’s heroes, but John Paul Young has transcended the years to have an ongoing presence in people’s lives. Of course, it helps that he recorded a string of songs in the 1970s that remains on the tips of tongues and embedded deep in hearts and souls: Pasadena, I Hate The Music, The Love Game, Standing in the Rain, and the worldwide hit, Love is In the Air.
Yet the prime reason John Paul Young remains present is he chooses to be. Rather than fizzle out, fade away or trade on past glories, the 67-year-old is a vital and active member of his community, caring for its well-being and involving himself in its life.
And the community he belongs to is in western Lake Macquarie. For 30 years, he and his family have lived in a historic cottage in Fassifern. Not that he presumes to call himself a local.
“No, I don’t think I can ever be a local, but I’m certainly not a blow-in,” Young says. “I’m here and I’m certainly part of the community, and I’ve tried to be part of the community ever since I moved here.”
When we meet for lunch at Vita in Wangi Wangi, the singer is still shaking off his annoyance after a phone call to an energy company, complaining about the price hikes and the reported large earnings of executives. I ask Young did the person on the other end know who they were talking to, or did he tell them.
“No. No!,” he repeats. “I never do that. People assume I’m John Paul Young after talking for a while, because I always say, ‘John Young’. I never raise that banner, unless I have to, unless I have a very good reason for doing it.”
One of those reasons is his fight for the rehabilitation of LT Creek, which flows along the back of his property. He has been negotiating, and arguing, with the state government and council for years to clean up the creek, particularly removing any industrial and mine pollutants trapped in the sediment.
“What’s on the bottom, the shit you can’t see; out of sight, out of mind,” he says. “And it’s my job to let them know it’s not good enough to be there. It’s just disgraceful.”
I ask him why he moved to western Lake Macquarie in the first place. He sips his water - “I’ll just stick to water”, he had said when asked what he wanted to drink - before replying.
“Well, the short answer is I went broke. My time in Sydney was over. My career was zero, there was nothing doing. It was almost as if when 1979 went and the big ’80 came up, it was like everybody who belonged to the ’70s just got wiped off the table. I couldn’t get arrested. It was horrible.”
As the hits, work and money dried up, Young had to shut down his band and sold the family home in Bronte overlooking the sea and rented a smaller house. With two children, he and his partner Lynette decided by 1987 it was time to get out of Sydney.
He knew a little about Lake Macquarie - “I used to come up here fishing” - and a friend recommended the house in Fassifern. Young grabbed the place, because it was cheap and on a large block - but it was short on mod cons. For the first two years, the family had to use a portable toilet.
“I was never really that worried about it, because I could exhale,” Young recalls. “I could actually go…” With that breath that has carried so many catchy melodies, he blows out forcefully.
THIS was not the first time John Paul Young had exhaled after breathing new air.
When he was 11, young John, along with his parents and three siblings, emigrated from Glasgow. He can vividly remember during the voyage to Sydney stepping off the ship in Fremantle. An English migrant in a 1953 Vauxhall - “a tiny vehicle” - offered to give them a sightseeing tour for free, to welcome them to their new land.
In Kings Park overlooking Perth, the kindly Englishman grabbed a handful of gum leaves, crushed them, and held them under the Scottish kids’ noses. Young may have a delicious looking Korean chicken burger before him right now, but his senses are filled with the memory of eucalyptus.
“It was like, wow, amazing,” he says. “because I’d come from a place where you wouldn’t see a blade of grass.
“I just admired that guy so much for what he did. What a wonderful person. You pick up things from people like that, they’re your real influences in life.”
Ever since that introduction to Australia, Young says, “I always knew this was a big country with plenty of nice places, and you didn’t have to be in Sydney”.
JOHN Young was living in Sydney, working as a sheet metal worker, when his singing career took off in the early 1970s.
He was playing in a band called Elm Tree, which was supporting a Newcastle band, Velvet Underground, at a concert in western Sydney. The Newcastle group included a couple of future members of the Ted Mulry Gang and guitarist Malcolm Young, who went on to form a rather successful band with his brother Angus called AC/DC.
That night, a producer watching the performance offered John Young a solo recording deal. He was to record Pasadena, a song co-written by Malcolm and Angus Young’s older brother George, and Harry Vanda. So began John Paul Young’s hit-making association with Vanda and Young, the powerhouse behind the 1960s band The Easybeats, and one of the great songwriting teams in Australian music history.
John Young was no relation to these other Youngs, but they were also Scottish migrants, “and they were from three streets away from where I grew up in Glasgow”.
John signed on to a couple of musicals in the early 1970s, including a successful run in Jesus Christ Superstar, but it was recording as a solo artist, giving voice to the Vanda and Young songs, that made him a popstar.
First, however, he had to come up with a middle name. After all, Australian music already had a Johnny Young.
“It was torture for at least a month coming up with a middle name,” he says. His given middle name, Inglis, was ruled out; so “Paul” it was. Not that it removed all confusion.
“I was in Melbourne once,” he recalls. “‘Your car’s downstairs, Mr Young’. So I go down, get in the back seat of the car and Johnny Young’s sitting there!
“And then [in the 1980s] Paul Young came along and stuffed the whole thing!”
In the mid and late 1970s, just about everyone knew “JPY”. They knew his face - largely thanks to being a favourite on Countdown - and they sang his hits.
While Love Is In the Air may be his biggest song, which had a second life on the charts in the early 1990s after it featured in the film Strictly Ballroom, Young’s favourite is Pasadena.
“If there had been no Pasadena recording, I would have been just another bloke to George and Harry,” he explains.
“Pasadena is actually a duet between me and George Young. I sang over the top of the recording, and the last chorus is just George.
“He and I have got very similar voices and very similar names. I’m sure we’re related somewhere along the line!”
We yarn about recording Yesterday’s Hero. In 1975, as he sang those words about a faded star, Young remembers thinking, “with a bit of luck, this might apply to me”.
“That’s exactly what I was thinking [while recording]. I’ll never forget it. I saw it as an amazing positive. The first thing I thought about Yesterday’s Hero was that he was a hero. I did not think, ‘what a loser’.”
“What do you think when you sing it now, 42 years on?,” I ask.
“I can live the part.”
“But you’re not yesterday’s hero,” I counter.
“Oh, yes I am. It’s just coming up 25 years since Strictly Ballroom. That’s the last hit I had.
“I’m basically a product of yesterday. That’s where it started and that’s where it finished.”
Yet audiences still love those products from yesterday. Young and his Allstar Band have been touring with the Vanda and Young Songbook. In the show, JPY sings not just the hits written for him but other iconic Vanda and Young songs, such as Friday on my Mind, and he shares anecdotes. To JPY, the show is more than a nostalgic journey; it is a tribute to a formidable songwriting pair.
“Honestly, when I think about it, they were no different to working with a couple of nice mates in the sheet metal factory, that’s how wonderfully normal people they are,” Young says. “A couple of working class boys who made an absolute fortune because of what went on up in their brains.
“I just have nothing but admiration for them, for what they’ve done for the Australian music industry. I just love it, and I just can’t believe I’m part of it. I can’t.”
Young is also reimagining a few of his hits for the Newcastle Music Festival. On Saturday night, he performs with the Christ Church Camerata Quartet.
“Music is such a delightful thing, by just changing one little thing, it takes on a new vibe, a new life,” he says, before explaining how thrilled he was at the first rehearsal to hear the violin line from the original recording of Pasadena. “I’ve performed that song for 40 years, never missed the violin, but then to hear it, ‘God, that sounds good!’.”
The grandfather of three is also reading to children at Toronto library on August 22. When asked why he was taking part in the library’s Stories from the Big Blue Chair, Young replies, “if someone in the community asks me to do something like that, it would be really churlish and stupid of me not to do it.”
The day after we talk, Young is setting off on a Variety Bash to Darwin. He also regularly performs at charity and fundraising events. For his services to the community and music, Young has received the Order of Australia, and he is an inductee in the ARIA Hall of Fame.
Yet his love and focus remain close to the lake. Young has a daughter, Amanda, and son, Danny, who is also a musician. Danny gets to play in venues that his father claims are off-limits to him because of his popstar past.
“That never leaves your profile,” he says. “The fact you were up there in a sailor’s suit with curly hair and everything else, it doesn’t go away!”
And he has been with Lynette for 45 years. Young wears on his wedding band finger an Irish Claddagh ring.
“Lynette and I were engaged for 27 years,” he laughs. They were hurriedly married in 1999, so that their daughter could qualify for a British passport before travelling.
“We went into the Newcastle Registry, got married there, had our reception at Squid’s Ink, and she [Amanda] got the passport and off she went,” Young says.
What’s more, he is a keen Knights supporter. So, all in all, John Paul Young is sounding very much like a Lake Macquarie local.
“I think I’m a local, yeah,” he concedes. “But I wouldn’t dare say it. It’d be kind of like running around saying you’re John Paul Young. I am. But I’m not going to say it!”