Feel the rush: The story of the Tour Down Under’s polarising theme song
ADELAIDE, Australia (CT) – It’s the sound that defines the Tour Down Under. Three guitar power chords right out of the gate, with drums and bass holding down a solid rock groove. Rapid-fire electronics that underpin a gradually building verse. A powerful and catchy chorus vocal that implores the listener to “feel the rush”, to “hear the purr of wheels in motion”.
It’s the theme song for the Tour Down Under and if you’ve ever spent any time around the race, you’ve probably heard it a thousand times.
It’s played at podium ceremonies with great frequency, and has been since the early 2000s. To many, it’s long outlived its welcome; to others the Tour Down Under wouldn’t be the same without it.
The song was a collaboration between two Adelaide locals: ad man Peter Withy, who wrote the lyrics, and musician and producer Sean Timms who took Withy’s words and turned them into the song we hear today. It was originally much shorter, created for some ads to promote the race, but was later expanded into a full song of roughly three and a half minutes.
“Lyrically, I wanted to introduce non-cycling people to the excitement that is the colourful blur of a peloton in full flight,” Withy told CyclingTips this week. “Unlike motor racing, it doesn’t have a strong sound which is why I thought the notion of a rush was more appropriate – a surge of adrenalin fuelled by world champions in action.
“I gave Sean a collection of lines and words and it was his genius that pulled it together.”
Timms, the keyboardist and bandleader for prog-rock band Southern Empire, doesn’t specifically remember the writing process — it was around 20 years ago, after all — but says it would have been the same as what he does today.
“As soon as I see some lyrics, I start formulating a melody and a bit of an idea as to what needs to happen,” he said. “And then I might slightly re-craft the words to sort of fit in with the music that I write.”
Timms is hazy on the details, but says the ad agency that commissioned the piece wouldn’t have told him what sort of genre it needed to be; but rather what sort of emotion they wanted it to convey.
“It wouldn’t have been ‘We want it to sound like this’ and provide a piece of music [as a reference], it probably would have been more along the lines of ‘this needs to convey excitement and the thrill of the race’ and those sorts of things,” he recalls. “So probably a more emotional brief rather than a specific stylistic brief.”
Timms didn’t just write the music; he recorded the track as well. Among the session musicians were well-known Adelaide vocalists Ian “Polly” Polites and Vince Contarino who shared singing duties on the track. ‘Polly’ sung the first verse, while Contarino — the vocalist in Led Zeppelin cover band, Zep Boys — sung the second verse “and then all the screamy bits.”
Contarino doesn’t have the greatest memories from the project.
“I had no idea that I was going to be used for that song,” he told CyclingTips. “I thought I went in to do a demo. Because, you know, when the studio … or advertising agency or a particular client do a demo … they have a whole heap of demos. And they say ‘Ah, that’s the one we want’. Then they do that one. And I thought I was in there for the demo.
“Unbeknownst to me, after I’d done it, they said, ‘Ah no, this is the real deal.’ They’ve been playing it ever since. Financially, once again, I got stitched [up] because I wouldn’t have done that for a demo. You know what I mean? They’ve been using it for I don’t know how many years now. Twenty years? More?”
Using a demo as the final product is something that happens reasonably often in the ad world, according to Timms.
“That’s why I never do a demo as such,” Timms said. “I might call it that, but I’ll always treat it as if I’m doing a final. Because what happens is once you get demo-itis, which is: people listen to it, fall in love with it, and then any changes you make are never as good.”
Even today, Contarino harbours some bitterness about the project. While’s he’s in a good place now with Zep Boys — which he’s helmed since 1986 — he’s had plenty of experience getting a raw deal. He feels as if he wasn’t properly compensated for singing on “Feel the Rush”, not least given the fact the song is still being used today.
“I can’t remember what it was [that he got paid], but I remember thinking, ‘I wouldn’t even do this for a demo’,” he said. “But you know what: I never complained. I just I took it as one of those situations where I thought, ‘Don’t win every battle. Just shut the fuck up. Don’t say anything. And walk away. And you don’t need to do this.’
“Because I really am not into advertising. I don’t like working for advertising and doing jingles. I would rather just go out there and perform as a performer.”
If he was asked to sing on it today, he’d take a different approach.
“I would go ‘Ok, so you either pay me this lump sum. Or you put it on a commission and give me something out of it,’” he said. “Because when people ask me to sing a song and they’ve written it, I actually go into it and I go, ‘No, no, I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that’. And I kind of rearrange it and change it around myself so I figure I’ve earned the rights to be able to get a royalty off it or get paid well.
“I hope you don’t think I’m a mercenary — really I’m not, but I’ve learned to protect what I do because I’ve been exploited. I figure they’re asking me to sing because they can’t get a guy to do those bits. And when they need to get a guy to do those bits, they have to fly them in or get some superstar who will charge way above what I’m asking. And they still aren’t prepared to do that.”
Despite his frustrations, Contarino is glad the race still uses the song; that they still like it. Timms feels the same.
“Look, it’s always gratifying when a piece of your music has been well received and people are enjoying it, still playing it,” Timms said. “I have a lot of albums out that people enjoy overseas and I get messages on Facebook saying ‘Oh, just found this album. It’s brilliant. Thank you. When are you doing the next one?’
“So, yeah, I guess it’s always gratifying to know that your music’s appreciated and listened to. It doesn’t matter what it is.”
So what are the chances of the song changing in the years to come? Incoming race director Stuart O’Grady is keen for a change, but his isn’t the only vote that counts. Race boss, Events South Australia’s executive director Hitaf Rasheed, is more than happy with the status quo.
“People know when they hear that song that they’re at the Santos Tour Down Under in South Australia,” she said. “And, you know, it’s like a football club who has a song that they’ve had for 100 years. You may think, you know, it could be more modern, but really, it’s part of their history. It’s part of who they are and it’s part of who we are.
“History is important. Respecting history is important. And also it is a great song. Why would you ever want to change it?”