Keeping the dream alive: a review of the John Laws Morning Show

Laws: portrait of the artist. File photo.

The Sentinel tunes into 2SM to find out what the legendary (and octogenarian) Golden Tonsils are up to these days.

“Hello world, this is John Laws.” The voice is still there – albeit a little worn at the edges. But then, the dude is in his eighties.

He defined radio. He defined federal elections. He wrote songs (about trucks). Then he retired. Then, inexplicably, he came back – on the 2SM station which was, unfortunately, a shadow of its former self.  

But then, times change – even for someone as iconic as John Laws. How much? Uh, a lot, it turns out.

Out of curiosity, we tuned into the John Laws Morning Show on Monday to hear him speaketh, “What’s on your mind, Australia?” as he’s probably done a billion times before.

For those who haven’t been paying any attention, these rituals have remained the same for just about eternity.

That includes the famous musical theme: the legendary ‘El Presidente’, a song by Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass from the 1964 album South of the Border, whose regal brass evokes a sense of a gilded yesteryear … and is, in that respect, pretty appropriate.

‘El Presidente’ – the John Laws theme song. Media Archive/YouTube.

Okay, the Mexican vibe is a bit odd if you think too much about it – but, you figure, this is basically Lawsie’s song, dammit, and he’s sticking to it.

Weirder is the continued use of ‘Keeping the Dream Alive’ – a 1988 tune by German band Münchener Freiheit (!) – which is always played after a few opening salutations and thoughts.

Where once, in Laws’ heyday, it might’ve seemed triumphal (albeit in a really thick blue-vein cheesy way) there seems almost a poignancy to it now, particularly considering his personal circumstances. A bit depressing for a Monday, where we struggle at the best of times. Undaunted, however, we listened on …

Oh great, the Prime Minister’s here

To Laws’ credit, the PM phoned in for an interview. Nothing of much interest was said – because it was an interview with the Prime Minister. But it’s a reminder of Laws’ lingering cache.   

Morrison, displaying all the personality of a press release written by a robot vacuum cleaner, talked variously about Covid-19, the possibility of an election this year, the economy, relations with China and, uh, Craig Kelly. Under the circumstances (i.e. dealing with a void in a suit), Laws did his best to elicit something that wasn’t the party line.

Moving on, the show was about the man in the street – and, for the record, they were all men (today, at least). His callers often seemed a bit bereft (there’s none of the rage of 2GB here, thankfully) – as if they were calling in just to say hello.

Politics, it must be said, was rarely mentioned. It was a more like a men’s group meeting for the clinically ignored.

It was also clear some were regulars – including “Mick from Mudgee”. Mick proudly told John that, while in recovery from getting his prostate cancer treated, he took the chance to “befriend a woman who has few pounds on her … let’s call her plump, but she’s also got a couple of dollars behind her”. We don’t judge.

But the star was and is the man himself, compelling as a fading icon – crusty, gristly, sad, a bit wistful. True, he was also empathetic and warm, too.

Nostalgia is never far away: a caller enthusiastically rambling on about an “electric plane” and the advances being made at Newcastle University somehow spurred John into a reminiscence about a fish ‘n’ chip shop at the end of Hunter Street, Newcastle.  

He can be endearingly ratty with his callers – hanging up one guy for being “a waste of time, goodbye” – and his listeners more generally, saying at one point: “Simply pick up the phone and tell me what’s on your mind, assuming you have one.”

Technology also seems to confound him. Periodic glitches would cause heavy sighs – and, on at least one occasion, to audibly mutter “Jesus” (not that we’re easily shocked or anything). Bizarrely, the Mamas and Papa’s ‘California Dreaming’ was played without explanation midway through the broadcast – and during the song’s fade out he quietly admitted “it wasn’t the song I meant to play”.

In fact, music in general was an issue for him, declaring – out of nowhere – 1959’s ‘Come Softly To Me’ by The Fleetwoods “boring” and “stupid” midway through playing it. You put it on, mate!

Maybe he just doesn’t like Mondays.

Golden years

Snark aside, it’s easy to forget how he shaped the course of Australian broadcasting. Whether you love or hate what his brand of talkback represents, you can’t deny how important he was in shaping political and cultural debate in the pre-internet era.

At his best – which was a long time – he was a consummate broadcaster.

As Paul Keating once famously said: “Forget the Press Gallery; if you educate John Laws, you educate Australia.”

Keating did many interviews with Laws – and the one where he schools a few rednecks on native title is still pretty compelling.

Paul Keating with John Laws on 2UE in 1992. Video: Luke McMahon/YouTube.

Aside from that, there was that singular voice – for a certain generation those ads he did are seared in the collective unconscious (all we have to say is “Valvoline” and you automatically think “you know what I mean”).

Laws has earned wide respect along with a tonne of money despite various controversies, including the cash for comment scandal; using terms such as “pillow-biter” and “poof” to describe gay men (for which he was sued by anti-vilification activist Gary Burns, who donated the $10K settlement to charity); to maligning Chinese drivers (he denied being a racist); and making a few weird if not outright creepy latter-day comments.

Which all really makes you wonder why, in 2021, the show goes on. Perhaps sentiment and nostalgia is the point – but that’s never been very good at keeping the dream alive.