Adam Hills of ‘Spicks and Specks’: “Anyone that managed to make a TV show during lockdown deserves a medal”

The host of the beloved Aussie music quiz show talks reviving the series during a pandemic, his “awful connection” to the classic song ‘Down Under’ and whether the show will continue

Since we said goodbye to Spicks and Specks in 2011, Australia’s struggled to let go of the beloved ABC music quiz show. And even a spate of one-off specials in recent years has only made its absence more widely felt.

With host Adam Hills returning from London last year, the stars aligned for a proper revival of Spicks and Specks, complete with team leaders Myf Warhurst and Alan Brough. Delightful as ever, the new 10-episode season – which premiered April 18 – is a careful blend of classic segments and familiar names alongside new games and faces.

With guests like Mo’Ju, Amy Taylor of Amyl & The Sniffers, G Flip and Zoe Coombs Maar, not even COVID-19 restrictions could ruin the fun. If anything, the eagerness to be back in the studio made things more frenetic than ever. Over Zoom, NME chatted to Hills about the new ongoing season, why he would nail a Weird Al-themed quiz, and how one Spicks and Specks question inspired a monumental lawsuit.

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You filmed during Melbourne’s lockdown last year. What was that like?

“It’s a weird one! I’m about to complain, but I want to temper it by saying I’m aware of how lucky we were. The upside for all of us was that it was a chance to get out of the house and do what we do.

“The downside was we couldn’t have an audience. The hurdles were immense. We couldn’t share buzzers. If someone rode the bike that powered the record player, we had to sterilise it before the next person. We couldn’t book any guests from outside of Melbourne… Anyone that managed to make a TV show during lockdown deserves a medal. I think they should give us extra ratings every week. [laughs]

“But the first band we filmed was The Teskey Brothers, and when they sang live in the studio, there were tears behind the camera. None of us had seen live music for six months. It was a really good reminder of what music gives people.”

“‘Down Under’ by Men At Work is such an iconic, beloved Australian song, but I’ll never hear it without knowing that I’ve got this awful connection to it”

Let’s play some Spicks & Specks trivia. Do you know who your most recurring guest is?

“I have a feeling it’s Dave O’Neil?”

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Nope, it’s Hamish Blake, with 54 appearances [though if you count the 2014 single-season reboot without Hills and co., it is O’Neil, at 57]. Do you think he’s learnt anything about music yet?

[laughs] “What was great about Hamish was that it didn’t matter whether he learned anything about music – he knew how to run with something and make it funny. Especially in those early days, he saved a lot of shows and made my job so much easier.

“It’s hilarious that we’re up against him now he’s hosting Lego Masters [which airs at the same time as Spicks and Specks]. It’s like a Darth Vader-Luke Skywalker thing where I’ve trained him up as my son, and now we’re going head to head.”

Spicks and Specks 2021 interview Adam Hills pandemic revival new season
Adam Hills hosting the new ‘Spicks and Specks’ season. Credit: ABC

Which Australian band ended up in court over plagiarism claims after Spicks and Specks pointed out the similarities between their biggest hit and another Australian classic?

“It was Men At Work. I still can’t hear ‘Down Under’ without feeling bad.” [Ed Note: In 2010, Men At Work were ordered to pay 5 per cent of their royalties dating back to 2002 to Larrikin Music for similarities between ‘Down Under’ and campfire song ‘Kookaburra Sits Over The Old Gum Tree’, with the publishing company prompted to sue by a Spicks and Specks question about the two songs.]

“What was worst about it was [Men At Work frontman] Colin Hay and I were friends. I’ve not really talked about this to be honest, I’ve never been asked about it. But I remember getting a call from him saying, ‘Hey, when I was on Spicks and Specks, what did I say about ‘Down Under’?’.

“We’ve kind of spoken about it, and I wouldn’t say it’s ended the friendship, but it’s made things ridiculously awkward between us. And I ended up getting horrible messages on social media. Someone said I had a bloodstained Logie after [Men At Work member] Greg Ham’s death [in 2012].

“It’s such a weird thing to have happened – that a throwaway question on a music quiz show leads to a court case. I don’t think anyone saw that happening. It’s such an iconic, beloved Australian song, but I’ll never hear it without knowing that I’ve got this awful connection to it.”

Spicks and Specks 2021 interview Adam Hills pandemic revival new season
G Flip, Linda Bull, Dilruk Jayasinha and Frank Woodley on a recent episode of ‘Spicks and Specks’. Credit ABC

What’s the oddest fact you’ve learned from Spicks and Specks?

“The one that sticks in my mind is that Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’ was originally banned from some shops because they thought it looked like he was urinating on the American flag.

“But what’s fascinating about that is that ‘Born In The USA’ is a protest song, it isn’t patriotic, and that the photographer of that album cover is Annie Leibovitz, who doesn’t take any photos accidentally. Then you go back and think: it could be this patriotic guy looking at the American flag. Or it could be this guy who’s come back from Vietnam unhappy with the way he’s been treated.

“That’s my favourite fact – that it’s entirely possible Bruce Springsteen was urinating on the flag.” [Ed Note: Though The Boss has denied he’s pissing on the flag on the cover, telling Rolling Stone in 1984: “I didn’t have any secret message. I don’t do that very much.”]

“We’ve always said as long as people were enjoying it, and we think they’re still good shows, then we would definitely keep making it”

If you were a contestant, what themed round would you want?

“I never had a crack at ‘Substitute’, I’d love to do it. And for a theme round, either songs from the ’80s or the work of Weird Al Yankovic.”

“Myf and Allen were music nerds growing up – for Allen, his big moment on the show was meeting Robert Forster from the Go-Betweens or Ari Up from the Slits. And for Myf, I think it was John Toogood from Shihad. But for me, it was having Weird Al. If there was a performer that summed up my music experience as a kid, it would be him.”

Finally, which one-off episodes did you enjoy making the most, and the inevitable question: will we get more Spicks and Specks?

“There’s been no talk of whether there’ll be another series. I think [the ABC is] waiting to see how the big four way battle goes on Sunday nights between us and MasterChef, Lego Masters and Big Brother. [laughs]

“We’ve always said as long as people were enjoying it, and we think they’re still good shows, then we would definitely keep making it.

“And of the one-off episodes, the one we enjoyed the most was the 2010s special. Because we finished making the show in 2011, we had nine years of music that we’d never talked about before. Maybe we just needed 10 years off for new music and artists to come about.

“And I’d just really love to have another crack at it with an audience.”

Spicks and Specks airs each Sunday, 7.40pm on ABC1, with episodes available to stream on iView

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