Turning full circle: Wiggles’ operations manager Paul Field

Personal tragedy led Paul Field, founder of pop group The Cockroaches and operations manager for brother Anthony’s group, The Wiggles, to reassess his musical success. He told DAN McALOON how faith and family helped him find new directions.

Today Paul Field is happy the spotlight shines upon his brother Anthony, founder and artistic heart of children’s group, The Wiggles. Working behind the scenes as Wiggles operations manager suits this father of four just fine.  But a decade ago it was Paul who was leading brothers Anthony and John in his own pop group, The Cockroaches. The band’s debut album released in 1987 went gold, then achieved platinum status.  Yet, within two years Paul and his wife, Pauline, experienced a loss which essentially turned Paul’s life full circle.  One of seven children taught music from an early age, Paul started The Cockroaches while his brothers Anthony and John were still boarders at St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill. “Within the family we three boys were very close, each of us being born almost exactly a year apart,” Paul explains. “So there was always that bond. We were altar boys together at St Bernadette’s, Lalor Park, which was then a very young school. Mum and Dad ran the Parents and Friends, Mum played the organ at Mass. Music was always a very big part of all the services.
“Everything we did there was united, so when we went to high school, the same thing continued.”John and Anthony played the violin at school, while Paul sang in a band. His first career was in teaching, with three years spent back at St Joseph’s teaching English, history, drama and religion whilst continuing with the band.
“We had a good following around the unis, pubs and colleges. We had a reputation as a good live act. The 80s was a very vibrant scene for local music, you could get TV exposure on shows like Simon Townsend and Hey, Hey it’s Saturday, so we got a recording contract, with a record released in 1987. “I had a difficult choice - to teach or sing. I followed my heart, gave the teaching away, and we started doing a lot of touring.”
  As he was now the father of a son, Luke, the decision was not easy. A rapidly changing music scene also had repercussions for The Cockroaches: the group was perceived as a teen band and lost radio air-play. “Luckily we had a strong reputation for playing live and we continued for years, playing everywhere around the country on the success of our live name,” Paul says. The sons of a chemist from working class Lalor Park, Paul was not tempted by the rock ‘n’ roll drug scene: “My father would dispense methadone and also counsel addicts,” he explains. “We’d seen Dad go out for people who’d overdosed, and the rest of it. Dad was a very open and liberal guy, and he’d say, ‘well, that’s because this guy’s taking this’ and ‘poor guy, look at him’. So we’d seen it all. All this stuff offered absolutely nothing to us.”
  While touring was exhausting, it also offered some benefits: Paul could walk his son to preschool every day and joked with his wife about getting their retirement years at a time when they could enjoy them.
Then the couple had a second child, their daughter Bernadette: “She was beautiful,” Paul says. Seven and a half months later Bernadette died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). At the time Paul was touring in North Queensland and Pauline was visiting her parents at Cessnock in the Hunter Valley.
“Bernadette was a very robust child, hadn’t had a day’s sickness,” Paul explains. “She was a very peaceful and serene child, totally happy and content. Pauline put her down to sleep, and she woke about one in the morning, crying, but there was nothing wrong with her. She was just standing up in her cot laughing. “Pauline put the dummy in, then went back to sleep.” The next time she saw her baby, Bernadette was dead. “Pauline screamed and they took Bernadette out and drove at a mad pace to the hospital but she’d died hours before. Pauline stayed for hours and hours, obviously coming to terms with it, holding our daughter.”
Paul’s memories of the morning are vividly etched. father had just retired after more than 30 years in the pharmacy and was touring with the band. “Looking back, I’m glad he was there for me. It was meant to be, I think. I was having a shave and he knocked on the door, and without a word I thought ‘something is dreadfully wrong’– he had that look,” Paul recalls. “He sat me down and just said to me ‘Bernadette’s dead’ And then Pauline was on the phone saying ‘I’m so sorry’. It was a shocking, shocking time. It was a very primal moment. I really just groaned, it just flattened me. “From then on, most of what happened was trivial. I searched for what has meaning, and luckily in our case we got through it together, and we’re closer because of it. “But 70 per cent of marriages break up after a cot death, because it’s the most traumatic thing you could ever go through. This questions everything in your life. “I wouldn’t have been a great bloke to be around at that stage for anyone outside my immediate family because I had no time for a lot of stuff. I was very angry with God, with doctors, with life – it seemed so unfair to me.
“The whole pregnancy Pauline didn’t drink, wouldn’t even take an aspirin so it wouldn’t hurt the baby. She was such a great mother and we cherished Bernadette. I’d hear parents going mad at their kids in supermarkets, which is natural. I’d get really angry, thinking, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got’.” after the baby’s death, Paul went back on the road, eventually ringing his wife in the early hours of the morning to admit he needed help. Although unfashionable for men at the time, Paul followed his wife’s lead in taking grief counselling, something he now feels helped both of them reconcile themselves to the their loss.
But Paul still found touring hard: “Life for the other guys would be normal and I’d be furious,” he admits. “And that certainly impacted on the band. After that the real motivation to be on the road went. It was Anthony who first said ‘this isn’t fun anymore’.”
Anthony decided to study early childhood education at Macquarie University, and came up with the idea of combining his past musical experience with his new world of early childhood. It is also where he met fellow Wiggles member Murray Cook, and asked a former Cockroaches fan Greg Page to join them. They took their first record to the ABC, and the group grew from there.   “We’re all incredibly proud of what Anthony’s doing with The Wiggles,” Paul says. “It didn’t threaten us because only Anthony could have done that. Once in The Cockroaches he’d said ‘We should make children’s music’ and I remember people we had working with us at the time considered it a stupid idea.”
While Anthony built The Wiggles, Paul made a career change: “I took what I thought was a time-out job for 12 months with Justice Wood at the Supreme Court, thinking I’d go back to teaching at the end. “That year turned into three years because Wood headed the Royal Commission into Police Corruption. If you believe that some things are meant to be, that time really was. Wood was a great bloke, really nice, compassionate, funny, plus what we did was really interesting.
“This gave Anthony time to develop away from John and me. Had we done it together it would have been me, older brother saying ‘do this’, John, the songwriter saying ‘do it this way’. Anthony pulled us in when he felt comfortable with us. John contributes songs and I work behind the scenes.” Paul and Pauline now have another three children – Clare, Joseph and Dominic. They live in the Lalor Park house where Paul grew up, and attend St Bernadette’s primary school where the older generation of Field children were educated.
“I think we go back to what we know,” Paul says. “The trees that shade my children’s school playground were planted by my mother. The things that have happened to us have happened to us as a family. I think with Bernadette’s death the kids have been put in touch with a spiritual side that a lot of other children don’t experience. We acknowledge her life and death as often as we can. We pray at her grave, and pray for her before we go to bed.
“I find faith and what we do and who we are, are all one and the same thing, really. I’m very lucky to have had the example of my parents, and I hope I can give their wisdom to my kids.”