Jimmy Barnes: “There Is Something Funny About Me Singing ‘Silent Night’”

22 December 2022 | 1:00 pm | Jeff Jenkins

“My brothers and sisters would huddle together and sing carols to try and let our parents know that we were okay.”

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Jimmy Barnes’ most vivid childhood memory of Christmas goes a little something like this…

Late one Christmas Eve, he snuck outside and peered through the lounge room window of his family’s modest home in Elizabeth, an outer northern suburb of Adelaide. Inside, his mum and dad were painting an old bike with a can of house paint.

“For the rest of the year, my parents would be throwing punches at each other, but at Christmas, they would be trying to find that love for each other,” Barnesy recalls.

“That night, I could see them looking at each other, trying to make something special for me.”

Feeling a little guilty, the youngster crept back to bed.

The following morning, he acted surprised when he found the bike waiting for him. He proudly went for a ride around the block, returning home with paint all over his hands, because it hadn’t dried.

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“It was a shitty bike,” Barnesy recalls. “But the best present was seeing my mum and dad painting it together.”

Singing Christmas carols at school was how Barnesy discovered he could sing – and that he enjoyed having an audience. “It made me feel special, or just good about myself,” he explained in his best-selling autobiography Working Class Boy. “I didn’t have a lot to be proud of as a child. Singing was the one thing that made me different from the other kids. I could sing; it was my gift.

“At Christmas time we sang carols. Not simple everyday Christmas carols, but songs about goannas and brolgas.” He remembers standing in front of the class and singing, “Orana, Orana to Christmas Day.”

“I sang it with so much heart and love. I didn’t have a clue what Orana meant. Still don’t.” 

Barnesy was no fan of Santa – “some big fat guy in a red suit promising things that never arrived” – but he loved singing Christmas songs.

Writing about his first Christmas album, Blue Christmas, Barnesy said: “My brothers and sisters would huddle together and sing carols to try and let our parents know that we were okay. Glaswegians always enjoy a singalong, so even when we had nothing else at Christmas, doing those classic songs together would always conjure our holiday spirits.”

Barnesy was amused when he saw The Music’s headline announcing the album:

“There is something funny about me singing Silent Night,” he admits. But the irony is Barnesy has pretty much put the scream away for this record, preferring to croon the Christmas classics.

“It was great for me to do that, to not just go back to my default setting, which is to tear the paint off the walls – or the decorations off the tree. I had to think a lot more about what I was singing.

“During lockdown, [wife] Jane and I sang a few hundred songs on social media, songs I normally wouldn’t sing. I had to use different registers in my voice. By the end of that I was ready to take on different types of projects.”

“You’ve got to be ready to do it,” Barnesy says of recording a set of seasonal songs. “A bit like Soul Deep. If I’d made Soul Deep when I left Cold Chisel, it probably wouldn’t have been as big a record. But by the time I’d made four solo records, I think I was ready to do it emotionally and vocally. And the same with this record. If I’d made it 10 years earlier, I don’t think that vocally I would have been ready to do it.”

Of course, Barnesy is not the first member of his family to make a Christmas record. In 1991, his kids – the Tin Lids – released their debut album, Hey Rudolph!, which hit the Top 10 and sold more than 100,000 copies. And Barnesy’s son David Campbell released Baby It’s Christmas in 2018.

Barnesy tackles two of the tunes that were on the Tin Lids record: Silent Night and Little Drummer Boy

“I think their album is much more original than mine,” Barnesy believes. “That was kids singing for kids, which was really great.”

Back then, Barnesy’s label boss and best mate, Michael Gudinski, was reluctant to sign the Tin Lids and he was also unsure about the Soul Deep record, fearing that both projects would compromise Barnesy’s “wild man of rock” image.

Nowadays, Barnesy is relishing the fact that he can do whatever he wants – whether it’s a cookbook or a children’s book or a Christmas album. 

Jimmy Barnes was five when his family came to Australia on the SS Strathnaver, arriving in South Australia at the start of 1962.

“The first Christmas here was so odd because it was so hot. From Glasgow, where we literally had to dig ourselves out of the snow, to Australia, where we were running under the sprinklers … it was a radical change.”

When Barnesy was growing up, New Year’s Eve – which the Scots call Hogmanay – was an even bigger celebration than Christmas. His parents would wake up the kids just before midnight and his dad would give them all a shot of whisky. After the countdown was done, everyone would sing Auld Lang Syne. “I never really knew what I was singing about but it sounded important, so I acted like I meant it.” 

Barnesy closes the Blue Christmas album with his version of Auld Lang Syne.

Barnesy also fondly recalls the Scottish tradition of “first-footing”, where the first person entering the house after midnight would be someone with dark hair, bringing gifts of whisky and a piece of coal. “It was all about warming the house and bringing good luck for the year ahead.”

Come this New Year’s Eve, Barnesy will reflect on a bittersweet year. 

For the first time in his career, he’s had two chart-topping solo albums in the one year, with Blue Christmas becoming his 20th number one (15 solo, five with Cold Chisel) after the Soul Deep 30 record topped the charts in June. He also got to sing with one of his heroes, Sam Moore, one-half of the legendary American duo Sam & Dave. Moore turned 87 this year, “but he still sings better than anyone I know. He’s one of my favourite singers of all time.”

But also in 2022, Barnesy lost his beloved big sister Linda and his dear friend Warren Costello, the founder of the Bloodlines label and Michael Gudinski’s right-hand man. Barnesy sang You’ll Never Walk Alone at Costello’s memorial service after performing Flesh And Blood at Gudinski’s state funeral in 2021.

“I miss them so much,” the singer says. “It’s been a very tough couple of years.”

Barnesy also ends the year off the road, laid up, after being forced to have back and hip surgery. “I’ve been jumping off PAs and stomping around stages for nearly 50 years, but it’s finally caught up with me.” He is, however, enjoying the break with his family. “Christmas is such an important time for all of us. We cook, we eat and we sing – it’s all the things we love.”

Christmas Day at the Barnes house is a big affair, with a sit-down lunch for nearly 60 people. Barnesy usually gets up early to prepare the woodfire ovens to cook the turkeys, chickens, ham and salmon. And his special job is to make the gravy. “I’m very good at making gravy,” he says.

Is there room for two gravy gurus in Oz rock? You better believe it! And no, Barnesy is not a fan of a dollop of tomato sauce for sweetness and that extra tang.

“No, no tomato sauce,” he laughs. “But Maggi sauce is important. And white pepper. The main thing is to never throw out what’s on the bottom of the tray. If you’ve got great produce baking in the tray, all that goodness will be there.”

And Barnesy’s gravy secret? “A huge dollop of butter, which makes it all shiny and glossy.”

Barnesy says he’s also a “good finisher” – “I’ll come in when everyone’s a bit frazzled after they’ve been cooking all day and I can get it all served up and on the table.”

After lunch, the family will gather around the piano for a singalong. Also on this year’s playlist is Vika & Linda’s Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas! “I’ve got it on vinyl,” Barnesy says. “I think it’s great that we’re now comfortable with Australians singing for Australians at Christmas. And I love Vika & Linda. They’re such warm people and you can hear that in everything they sing.”

And what’s the Barnes family’s approach to presents?

“When I started having my own family, I wanted to give them everything – all the things I didn’t have,” Barnesy says. “But that doesn’t work either, it’s not the right thing to teach your kids.”

Many years ago, Jane decided they would make presents, so the Barnes clan is busy baking, painting, cooking and creating. Barnesy still treasures the drawings his kids did for him, as well as the recording of Christmas carols, which “had me weeping like a baby”.

“We wanted the kids to understand that Christmas is not about shopping and consumerism. It’s about spending time thinking about the ones you love and giving a bit of yourself to them.”

In the pre-digital world, Barnesy loved making mixtapes. “I’m a really good DJ,” he says proudly.

If you’re not adept at crafting something for your loved ones, Barnesy’s website helpfully has merchandise for the whole family, from pyjamas to aprons and socks and even a screaming alarm clock.

For $45, you can wake up every day to Jimmy Barnes screaming at you.

“It’s hard to beat the alarm clock,” Barnesy says when asked to nominate his favourite piece of merch, “but I do like the shortbread as well.”

And, of course, this year many people will find a copy of Blue Christmas under the tree. The album includes Barnesy’s version of Chuck Berry’s Run Rudolph Run, a song that was Jo Jo Zep’s first single, produced by Ross Wilson in 1975.

“Joe Camilleri and Ross are singers I watched and learned from as a young man, so I was tipping my hat to them with that song.”

Remembering the bike he got when he was a boy, Barnesy recalls his dad saying, “The old ones are much better than the new ones.”

“I think he was trying to convince himself.”

Barnesy sings Chuck Berry’s words: “All I want for Christmas is a rock ’n’ roll electric guitar.” So what’s on Barnesy’s Christmas wish list this year?

“I’ve got everything I want,” he smiles. “As long as my family is around me, I’m happy.”

Blue Christmas is out now through Bloodlines.