Sold-out arenas teeming with over-stimulated, screaming fans. Gold records and massive merchandise sales. Enormous financial success. Constant touring—more than 200 shows a year. Thousands of frenzied, underage fans desperate for face time with their favorite band. No, not the latest boy band, metal act, hip-hop impresario or U2 clone—this is The Wiggles, the world’s biggest preschool band.
But how big could a band that plays music specifically for toddlers actually be? Well, The Wiggles have recorded dozens of albums and made an equal number of DVDs. There’s a TV series on the Disney Channel, and they’ve franchised the act, so there are Wiggles performances literally around the globe. And then there’s the merchandise: clothes, musical instruments, toys, lunchboxes, backpacks, ring tones—you name it. Later this year, they’ll have an on-demand website so kids everywhere can watch the latest Wiggles video or download the latest song.
So, wait, how big are The Wiggles exactly?
In 2005, BRW, an Australian business magazine, reported that they made more money than any other Australian entertainer. That means they made more than Nicole Kidman. That means they’re bigger than AC/DC. But unless you’re a breeder and have, in fact, bred, The Wiggles may well have sailed under your radar.
“People who have kids know all about us, but people who don’t have kids often have never even heard of us,” says Murray Cook, the band’s guitarist, who’s often referred to as the Red Wiggle. All four members—three have been playing together for 17 years—wear brightly colored shirts to make them easier for the especially young members of their audience to identify. Anthony Field wears blue, Jeff Fatt is in purple, while Sam Moran, the newest member, sports yellow.
Folks who don’t have kids or who haven’t yet gone down The Wiggles’ road with their offspring often have a hard time understanding the band’s appeal. But for those of us with Wiggles-crazed children, the answer is obvious—this is your child’s first rock band.
Seriously. The Wiggles aren’t purple dinosaurs. They aren’t steam engines. They aren’t animated construction workers. They’re a rock band, pure and simple, albeit one that studied early childhood development and plays songs like “Can You Point Your Finger and Do the Twist?” and “Toot Toot Chugga Chugga Big Red Car.” For a long time, kids discovered music in their early teens, but let’s face it—children are getting into things much younger. The first band you were fanatical about might have been Zeppelin, The Police or even Backstreet Boys, but the idea is the same. These are real guys, playing real instruments, and small children get into them in precisely the same way teenyboppers do when they first discover top-40 radio.
Cook, who played in several bands for grown-ups before meeting up with Field and former member Greg Page while all three were studying to be preschool teachers, says he understands that not all adults get what it is he does for a living.
“Sometimes people think it’s kind of strange, kind of a bizarre thing to be doing,” he says. “And, I mean, I guess it is. I guess I can see that point. But we don’t think about it too much.”
The Wiggles’ songs are usually accompanied by fairly simple dances that the band often screws up. That’s intentional—so if their fans can’t get it right, they won’t feel bad about themselves. The music is generally influenced by nursery rhymes, folk music and the sounds of ’50s and ’60s rock, and their concerts are jammed with grooving kids and their parents. The Wiggles work brutally hard at those events, putting on high-energy kiddie rock shows that leave performers and audience alike in serious need of a nap.
Cook says that as a musician, recording for the pre-K set actually has a number of advantages. “If you’re in a rock band, you’re kind of tied to one style of music,” he says. “But we can do nearly anything. Or, we’re allowed to do nearly everything. We’re not tied to a genre so much. So we can do jazz, in a way, or folk music, or have a string quartet. We can be eclectic.”
Every time they go back into the studio, he says, they try to do something a little different. “Sometimes it might be a different approach to recording, or using different instruments,” he says. “We’ve had some recordings that have been quite orchestral, with a bunch of strings on it, and others where we decided to go a bit more live, where we all play together as a band.”
Like any famous band, of course, The Wiggles have had their ups and downs. In fact, the group is currently in a transitional period, as founding member Greg Page, the heartthrob frontman, left the band in November 2006 after being diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder. Perhaps taking a cue from Judas Priest, which famously hired Ripper Owens, the singer of a Judas Priest tribute band, to replace original frontman (and Hillcrest resident) Rob Halford, The Wiggles hired Moran, Page’s understudy, to be the new permanent yellow-shirted Wiggle. But it’s not quite that simple.
“It is a pretty big deal when your singer leaves,” Cook says. “It’s the biggest change to your sound. Greg’s background was similar to Anthony’s and mine; we all got started in early education. So we could come up with something quickly on stage, if something happened spontaneously. It’s sort of in our beings, I guess. But for Sam, it’s taken a little bit longer, though he’s done amazingly well. We’ve never felt like we had to carry him or anything. He’s a smart guy. But it is a bit different, just having a different person on stage.”
And there are other distinctions than just the different voices of Page and Moran. The new Wiggle is at least 15 years younger than his mates, which creates a bit of a generation gap. “It’s different at sound checks,” Cook says. “He comes from more of a musical-theater background. We kind of jam on things at those and he often doesn’t know the songs we know. But we’re slowly educating each other.”
Having a new Wiggle in the mix has actually made the band stronger, Cook says. “It’s been a year, and we’re still finding our way a little bit. But in some ways, it’s given us a new lease on life. You take a fresh look at what you’re doing and rethink things, and that’s been a really positive thing.”
Plus, he says, they have an advantage over Halford’s mates, whose fans had to come to terms with a new singer. “The great thing that we have that, say, Judas Priest or someone else doesn’t have, is that if it all goes well, in three or four years the kids who are in the audience won’t even know who Greg was. Our audience is always changing.”
The Wiggles play at Cox Arena on Tuesday, April 1 (no joke!), at 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $20-$37.