In an era where every Australian band who found an audience in the 1980s has reformed, the reunion of Sunnyboys will go down in history as one of the least expected, and most warmly received. The beloved Sydney power-pop quartet peaked early, releasing a classic debut album in 1981 before flaming out like a comet, derailed by overwork and lead singer Jeremy Oxley’s long struggle with schizophrenia.
After a reunion in 1998, no one expected the original quartet – singer, guitarist and songwriter Jeremy, his bass-playing older brother Peter, guitarist Richard Burgman and drummer Bil Bilson – to ever play again. That they did, Burgman insists, was a miracle: “There were about 150 to 250 things that had to go right. And if any one of those hadn’t, or if anyone along the way had said no, it wouldn’t have happened.”
It all went right in 2012, when the band reunited to play a show at Sydney’s Enmore theatre with the Hoodoo Gurus, performing under the name Kids in Dust to defuse expectations. Since then, they’ve seen their slim catalogue reissued, released multiple compilations, played a sold-out show at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall and many more sold-out tours – the very last of which begins next week, on the Gold Coast.
As someone once said, it’s time. The band are all in their early 60s, and Jeremy’s condition needs careful management. “We’re all getting on,” Peter says. “The music we play is still pretty high energy, even though it might be slightly slower than we used to play it. But it does take a big effort, particularly for Jeremy.” Nick Cave has the right idea, he laughs: slowing his music down “so he doesn’t have to prance around like the dark prince”.
There was something impossibly pure about Sunnyboys. Their name was taken from the old tetrahedral-shaped ice block treat that instantly evokes summer for Australians born in the 1970s and 80s. Jeremy’s singing was straight and true, as were his lyrics: unabashedly romantic, vulnerable and devoid of irony. It made the band a breath of fresh air on the hyper-macho Sydney rock scene.
He also eschewed effects pedals, plugging his guitar directly into his amplifier: “He just uses his tone knobs and his fingers to get the different sorts of sounds that he likes,” Peter says. On Alone With You – the band’s debut single, and still their best-known song – he made room for three solos in four sweat-soaked minutes, each more exciting than the last. There wasn’t a better live act in the country.
But there was darkness, too. Sunnyboys songs could switch abruptly from major to minor keys, plunging from euphoria into melancholy. By 1984, it had all unravelled: while the first album was a hit, they lost their way between their second, Individuals, and last, Get Some Fun, as Jeremy’s health deteriorated. (The full story of his return to health and the stage was told sensitively in the 2013 documentary The Sunnyboy.)
Today, if you were playing in a band with the world at your feet in your early 20s, having it all snatched away by one member’s battle with a much-stigmatised illness might be cause for extended counselling. But the other Sunnyboys simply got on with life. “It all happened so quickly that we never, ever thought of it as a profession,” Peter says. “We never thought that this was something you could do for a long time.”
It was a very different industry then. Today, with better management and support, the group might have been advised to put their health first before touring and recording. Instead, Peter says, “we were told, quick, you’d better go off and make another album, because if you don’t your fans will forget about you.” But it wasn’t just Jeremy’s illness: the whole band was burnt out.
All of which only made the band’s unlikely return, decades later, all the sweeter. “I just thought it was the most magical thing to ever happen,” Peter says. For Burgman, too, the past decade has been nothing but a gift: “I was living and working in Canada, raising my children and doing the single parent thing, so when this came along, I was like, oh, right – I’d better go and talk to my boss. Um, what do I do now? Where’s my guitar?!”
Writing new material, though, was not an option. A few old songs were re-recorded, but Jeremy was no longer the fresh-faced wunderkind who wrote Happy Man, or even the more foreboding Trouble In My Brain. “And that’s totally OK,” Peter says. Many people have asked Burgman whether he gets bored playing the same songs. “And my answer is, hell no!” he says. “I love those songs; I love playing them. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here.”
The unique circumstances have meant that the band’s legacy has not been tainted. “We would never play if we didn’t sound any good, and we would never play if we weren’t the original band,” Peter says.
Burgman remembers a moment from that 2012 gig at the Enmore. The band was waiting in the wings when, oblivious to the audience, Jeremy wandered on stage to adjust his amplifier. “And the place just erupted,” Burgman says. “So Pete, Bil and I looked at each other and went, ‘oh well, we’d better go join him!’ So out we went, there were smiles all round, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was just wonderful.”
And what does it mean to Jeremy? Peter says his younger brother first started asking him about playing again in 2010. He needed more convincing than the others, but Peter can see the look of contentment that comes over his brother when he is lost in a solo. Burgman agrees: “He comes alive when you put a guitar on him, put him in front of a microphone and tell him he’s a Sunnyboy. He just wakes up; he plays like an angel.”
Is he aware of how loved his songs are? “Oh, yes. I think he’s quite well aware of that.”
First published in the Guardian, 4 January 2023