The best lead vocalist in the history of recorded sound, Judith Durham, has died in her native Australia. She was 79 years old.
It’s astonishing how little attention this has got. I wouldn’t be so cruel as to hold lesser names up to hers, but the Queen of Soul got a 2018 sendoff worthy of Benazir Bhutto and I’m pretty sure the remains of a certain ham sandwich remain on permanent display at the Smithsonian. Such is our Godless, commercial, pornocracy that Durham’s death was buried under headlines relating to COVID, the Donbas War, Europe’s energy crisis, Britain’s water crisis, Glasgow’s historic ties to the slave trade and Kylie Minogue’s new vegan signature fragrance.
Judith Durham was everything that today’s music industry has taken from us. Her entire range held a quality of power and gentleness only rarely found in a few upper notes of exceptional sopranos. This etherial sound, which she levelled with The Seekers‘ three male vocalists, rolled from every wall of the recording studios and concert halls with an ease as if she never rose above her mezzo forte. Voices such as Edith Piaf’s and Amy Winehouse’s, though remarkable in their own ways, held audiences with the exhibitionism of naked #beutifulatanysize activists pogo-jumping on jackhammers. Proof, if ever you needed it, that ‘giving your 100%’ has its limits.
Durham was deeply unfashionable. A Christian and an explicit opponent of abortion, she made her own clothes in an industry which promotes the dangerously thin and radically obese (in any case, the hardly dressed at all). She was also impressionable enough to think herself fat. Little did she realise, of course, that she was the sort of girl who makes the sequinned and spray-tanned superstars mentally ill.
The Seekers’ PR strategy (attributable largely to their bassist Athol Guy), was to try their luck on the coal-fired liners which steamed between the free portions of the world. They made it from Australia to London where, in 1964, they topped the Beatles in the UK charts.
Hand-wringing empaths may dismiss the troupe’s kitsch, nostalgic innocence, but professional jealousy plays a part here. Thirteen years after Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of annihilation. Trailblazing blends of the evangelical, the political and the naif, The Seekers arose in the era whose shadows were only much later used to induce narcotic-hazed grievances for record labels and politicised audiences. By the late 1970s, middle-aged children seeking to ‘break the system’ were standing on the broad Edwardian shoulders of these twenty-year-old adults.
Ten years later, no jet-set commercial poet had the gravitas of The Seekers. Twenty years later, no-one had even the skill. I fear we now lack even the means to find such talent where re-emerges – but I shall posit anon my dictatorial policy proposal to change this.
It is a real struggle to imagine what other musical artefact we would take from the 20th Century besides The Seekers and the contemporaneous Shostakovich. Perhaps there is something but – forgive me – I seem to be having a junior moment. The last hundred years are pretty sketchy. The last forty are totally blank.
At least my generation don’t have to be embarrassed about listening to the music of our Grandparents’ generation.
Thank you, Judith and The Seekers. Your star shall never fall.