If you were growing up in the Australian suburbs in the 1980s and early 1990s and had any interest at all in what later became known as alternative music, you have probably heard the Hard-Ons. Against considerable odds – starting with their name – the band once racked up an astonishing run of 17 consecutive No. 1 songs on the independent charts.
It’s tempting to say they’re back. But the priapic Hard-Ons never really went away. They did break up in 1994, but bassist Ray Ahn and guitarist Peter Black (known to all as Blackie), soldiered on as Nunchukka Superfly. They reunited with singing drummer Keish de Silva in 1997, but de Silva quickly became disenchanted and moved on again.
Still, the band carried on, with Murray Ruse on drums and the prolific Blackie singing. Actually, prolific doesn’t begin to describe Blackie: the influential guitarist recorded a song every single day in 2016, adding a cover of Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water on New Year’s Day 2017 for good measure.
It’s de Silva – whose honey-sweet vocals and energetic drumming style was a big part of the band’s appeal – who’s back, with the release of the band’s 12th studio album So I Could Have Them Destroyed today. It’s a welcome return, and the band’s mix of bubblegum pop, punk and metal is well intact, led by a wonderful single, Harder And Harder.
But it’s also not the same. Firstly, the band is now a four-piece, with Ahn and Blackie unwilling to part ways with Ruse. “We love Murray, we love his drumming and we like him a lot personally,” Ahn says. De Silva is now purely a frontman, a role he first explored on the band’s 30th anniversary tour in 2014.
Ahn says the new look suits the band. “What wouldn’t work would be a big muscle-bound guy with his shirt off, doing that stereotypical thing, pacing up and down the stage and screaming into the mic. I don’t think that would suit the Hard-Ons, because we’re way more melodic than that,” he says.
Which is pretty funny, because one of the Hard-Ons’ most successful singles was a collaboration with Henry Rollins, the archetypal muscle-bound punk screamer, on a cover of AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock. “Yeah, but he suited that for that one song,” parries Ahn, quite reasonably.
Despite their name, sound and image, the Hard-Ons, Ahn says, were never really punks. Growing up, Blackie loved classic rock, while de Silva was a James Brown fan. “You know how punks have got so many rules, what you can do and what you can’t do? It didn’t really fit three migrant kids,” Ahn says.
Straight out of Punchbowl, in Sydney’s west, the original trio is indeed one of Australia’s best multicultural success stories: Ahn is of Korean parentage, de Silva’s is Sri Lankan and Black’s Slavic. The three met in primary school in the 1970s, and have sold over a quarter of a million records worldwide.
The Hard-Ons learned to play to their strengths and work within their limitations. “We were friends before we became a band,” Ahn says. “When we started, none of us had to audition or prove ourselves. It was very natural – it was just the three of us, and any shortcomings or extra talents that we had, we formed the band around that.”
Blackie was always a shit-hot guitarist. In time, Ahn became a formidable bass player, but his main gift initially was drawing, and he has been responsible for the band’s distinctive artwork. De Silva, meanwhile, was multi-skilled: he could play piano and guitar, he could sing and write songs, and he was good at all of it.
Then he started playing drums. “I actually said to him, I didn’t know you could play the drums, and he said, ‘Neither did I’,” Ahn recalls. “You know how some people are just naturally talented? I think he just got bored of playing drums and singing, that’s why he quit. But he’d never been just the frontman before, so I think that held interest to him.”
Ahn acknowledges that if you were one of those fans who grew up with the band, your favourite Hard-Ons release might be their delightfully named 1986 mini-album Smell My Finger, or any of a dozen-strong singles: quicksilver pop-punk gems like Where Did She Come From or Girl In The Sweater.
“That’s good for them,” Ahn says. “But we have a duty to our band to constantly make the music that we like. I know some bands go out there and do the greatest hits set over and over again, especially a lot of punk bands. That’s good for them, too. But you can’t really pretend that it’s punk anymore, can you?”
First published in The Age (Shortlist), 10 October 2019
On 14 April last year, an unusually poignant gig took place at the Prince of Wales Hotel in St Kilda, Melbourne. The Beasts of Bourbon – the self-styled ugliest, most badass rock band on the planet – played what would be their final gig in what was perhaps the only way the band could have ended.
Bass player Brian Henry Hooper, for whom the gig was a benefit, was surrounded by half a dozen nurses and wearing an oxygen mask. No one had been sure whether he would be able to play until the moment arrived; the band’s original bassist Boris Sudjovic was on standby. Guitarist Spencer P Jones was also playing one of his final performances.
Hooper passed away from lung cancer six days later, aged 55. Jones died on 21 August, aged 61. And the Beasts of Bourbon – the band that stubbornly refused to die, and had been through numerous permutations and reconciliations during a 25-year history of inebriation, as demanded by the band’s very name – was officially dead.
By comparison, Tex Perkins, the band’s frontman, is in rude health, a few streaks of grey through his leonine mane of hair being the main giveaway of his 54 years. His latest blood tests have come back clear – the first thing he tells me, in response to a benign greeting.
But with that comes survivor’s guilt. The singer is virtually a symbol of old-school Australian masculinity – in his height, his low growl, and his band’s well-earned reputation as hard livers. Until their livers, collectively, started to scream for mercy.
The last year, he says, has been “a long, long slog”, and it’s left him vulnerable.
“Psychologically, it’s been a tough year, not only for the grieving but for the self-reflection that comes with seeing friends go – and we all have a similar history,” he says. “I had a lot of self-examination, which was unfruitful, really. I didn’t really come up with a good answer.”
That doesn’t mean he’s not trying to find it. His conversation is notable for long pauses and longer stares into space, across the beer garden of a pub on the far north coast of New South Wales. In the end, the best he can come up with is time: “You’ve just got to keep going and you obsess about these things a little less, hopefully.”
Out of that grief, the band has risen again, in new/old form, as the Beasts. Sudjovic returns alongside original, previously estranged guitarist Kim Salmon, who joins his replacement Charlie Owen, and drummer Tony Pola.
On his deathbed, delirious, Hooper had demanded that Perkins book studio time. Perkins rang around and, while the bass player didn’t make it, the surviving members – gathered together in Melbourne for his funeral – bashed out an album, Still Here, in a single session.
It was similar to how the Beasts of Bourbon had recorded their debut The Axeman’s Jazz in 1984, though perhaps not fuelled by as many intoxicants. The “freakish takeaway”, Perkins says, is “this magnificent new version of the band which I’m really excited about”.
The name, though, had to go. Most fans knew them in shorthand as the Beasts anyway, but Perkins says he’s tired of shouldering what he calls the mythology of the Beasts of Bourbon. “I don’t want to have to carry around that history any longer,” he says. “And I really feel that also, just quietly, it’s a bit of a curse.”
If that’s the case, he acknowledges, it was a curse of the group’s own making. The Beasts of Bourbon made a handful of Australia’s hardest, meanest rock & roll records this side of AC/DC, but the legacy of the band was mostly on stage, where they set a benchmark of live performance.
The price, though, has been immense. The Beasts of Bourbon “[broke] the bar record every time we played – that became part of our reputation”, Perkins says. They were “always drunk, always belligerent”, and songs like Chase The Dragon detailed the harder edge and habits of some of the members, Jones and Hooper most certainly included. In the last year, Perkins says, “we saw the results”.
“Spencer didn’t get away with this one,” he says. “Spencer died many times, and miraculously came back. So did Brian. Brian was the ultimate phoenix, rising from the ashes over and over again, and actually I thought his illness was going to be another example of Brian wilfully just kicking adversity in the arse.”
Jones did manage to play on one of his last songs on Still Here. It’s called At The Hospital – where, the guitarist noted wryly, “there’s so many class A drugs”.
Apart from grief, Perkins says, “to see it all catch up with us, for me and possibly other people … There’s a whole lot of regret and guilt.”
At the same time there’s been healing, especially with Salmon, who had left the band in 1993 to pursue his own project the Surrealists – a continuation of his earlier, legendary band the Scientists. “I’ve always loved Kim. I started out as a Scientists fan, I was an every-gig fan, one of those fans.
“And not just a pleasure to play music with him, but to be around him. And possibly it’s the other way too, I think I’m a better version of myself for him, and for most of the musicians I work with. I think we’re all less ready to hit the anger button – these are some of the good things about being older.”
In a song called Time, which Jones covered, New York songwriter and poet Richard Hell said that you only see things for what they really are when you’re stepping into your hearse. “If you don’t learn anything on the way, that’s true,” Perkins says. “But I don’t know, that’s a …” he trails off. “There’s always regret that you’ll never shake.”
For him, the next test will be singing the songs on stage. “I’ve got no idea how it’s going to go, whether it’s going to be as emotional, whether I’ll have to just sing the fucking song and not think about what [I’m] actually singing about. I’ve got no idea. But I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
Spencer P Jones wasn’t a household name of Australian rock music. But he worked with many who were (Tex Perkins, in their band the Beasts of Bourbon, as well as Paul Kelly and Renée Geyer) and was held in high esteem by many beyond these shores, notably Neil Young.
His work as a guitarist and songwriter also influenced many, including the Drones, who covered one of his songs and whose principal members, Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin, recorded an album with him under the name the Nothing Butts in 2012.
The news of his passing from liver cancer on Tuesday, aged 61, was no surprise. He’d been forced into retirement from the stage (a place you otherwise couldn’t keep him from) a few years ago, and was advised of his terminal condition in June.
His rare appearances had been limited to guest spots, one of his last being for the Beasts of Bourbon’s bass player Brian Hooper in April. Hooper came out of hospital to perform, took the stage in a wheelchair and wearing an oxygen mask, and died days later, aged 55.
If this paints a familiarly grim picture of the rock musician’s fate, it might be worth mentioning that Jones’s first album with the Johnnys, recorded in 1986, was called Highlights Of A Dangerous Life. The highlights from Spencer’s could easily fill a book.
But unlike most rock stars, Jones didn’t look away from the consequences of his choices. One of his later songs, sadly never released, was called The Monkey Has Gone. A sad lament punctuated by clashing guitar chords in the chorus, it was about cleaning up, and owning it:
The monkey has gone Time to move along Get on with my life Say sorry to my wife But that’s a different song Thankfully, the monkey has gone
Born in Te Awamutu, New Zealand in 1956, Jones arrived in Sydney in 1976. In his first week there, he saw Broderick Smith’s country rock band the Dingoes, Radio Birdman at French’s Tavern in Darlinghurst and a much-bootlegged show by AC/DC at the Haymarket.
Those three gigs and their respective influences – country, punk and hard rock – all informed his later work. The Johnnys, Jones’s first band of note, were dubbed “cowpunk”, and they played the image to the hilt, wearing Stetsons, chaps and Cuban heels.
They also kept bar fridges on stage, painted as black as their amplifiers, which they’d open between each number to take beers from – a gimmick that helped prevent their riders from being pilfered.
The beer poured in rivers from the bar taps, too, but other stunts made them a publican’s nightmare. At the end of shows, the band would cut the twine holding the hay bales on stage, scattering straw throughout the venue. (This back in the days when everyone smoked at gigs.)
The Beasts of Bourbon, a supergroup featuring Perkins and the Scientists’ Kim Salmon, were an even more lethal proposition. Their first album, The Axeman’s Jazz, was recorded in a single eight-hour session, fuelled by three cases of beer and, well, who knows what else.
By the band’s fourth album, The Low Road – led by a song called Chase The Dragon – the band’s hard edge and habits were becoming obvious. They were ferocious live, Jones lurking in the shadows, puffing smoke from under the hat that obscured his receding hairline.
As a guitar player, he was highly rated, coming in 17th in a poll of Australian musicians that was topped by Cold Chisel’s Ian Moss. His Stratocaster chugged and wailed, always a bit behind the beat, and he held the history of rock & roll in his right hand.
At that stage, Jones wasn’t a prolific writer. The two Johnnys albums were padded with covers, and he contributed a minority of songs to the Beasts of Bourbon. But the quality control was high, and after his first solo album, Rumour Of Death in 1994, he blossomed.
For much of the 1990s, Jones played in Paul Kelly’s band. Jones once told me that Kelly taught him that songs didn’t just fall out of the sky: “You’ve got to do the work,” he said. After leaving the band, Jones hit a purple patch, recording a string of terrific albums through the 2000s.
Looking through his body of work – with the Johnnys, Beasts of Bourbon, Hell to Pay (formed with another hellraiser, Ian Rilen) and his solo records, what stands out above all is the consistency. You’d be hard pressed to identify a bad song on any of them.
It’s easy to imagine Bleeding Heart, a single recorded with the Johnnys with a little help from Kelly, as being a big hit in the latter’s hands. In time, we may view Jones as a songwriter of Kelly’s equal, but Jones’s snarling delivery and reputation undoubtedly scared many off.
There’s another story to be told here, about the Australian music industry’s cowardice and ageism. Had Jones been based in Austin, Texas and started a little earlier, he might have been venerated and celebrated for both his songs and transgressions, in the way of other outlaw country artists such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
But that’s a different song. Paraphrasing one of his best, The Day Marty Robbins Died, he’s with Mother Maybelle Carter and Hank Williams now, in that Grand Ole Opry in the sky.
Early in Jimmy Barnes’ memoir Working Class Man, he tells an anecdote about Cold Chisel guitarist Ian Moss. In 1974 the band, formed in Adelaide a year earlier, was living on a farm outside of Armidale in northern NSW. One day, in the middle of winter, the group went into town leaving Moss behind to practice while wearing, in Barnes’ recollection, only a towel.
Late that night, as it started to snow, the band returned and were startled to spot Moss ahead of them in the headlights, miles from the homestead by Barnes’ estimation, wandering starkers in the middle of the dirt road. “Mossy was always on another planet,” Barnes concludes, “but we loved him.”
At home in Sydney’s inner west, where he lives with his partner, jazz singer Margeaux Rolleston and their son Julian, 14, Moss seems perfectly earth-bound, albeit shy. A white Gretsch guitar sits on a stand next to sheet music for the torch song You’ve Changed. On the dining table is a booklet from the funeral of the late AC/DC guitarist, Malcolm Young.
On a shelf behind him sits Barnes’ book, which he admits he hasn’t finished. So, what actually happened that night in 1974? At a minimum, you’d think finding Moss in such a state would warrant an immediate trip to hospital for hypothermia. “I don’t want to rain on Jim’s story, but there’s definitely a fair bit of poetic licence there,” he says with a wry chuckle.
The way he tells it is this. “About as naked as I would have gotten in that particular instance was a pair of boxer shorts, and I remember wearing a blue jacket with some real or fake lamb’s wool. I was having some issues with what’s popularly become known now as panic attacks. It was getting the better of me, and I just had to get out and run it off.” He was also only a few hundred metres, not miles, from the house. He was barefoot, though: “Barefoot was natural for me.”
Moss, who is about to release his seventh solo album, remains an elusive, almost spectral presence in Australian music. The writer and lead vocalist of one of Cold Chisel’s most celebrated songs, Bow River, hasn’t written too many more over the years, leaning heavily on others (usually the band’s piano and organ player Don Walker) for material.
He was born in 1955 in Alice Springs, the third of four children to Geoffrey and Lorna, who both worked for the local council. The way he speaks of the town’s wide open spaces might explain his case of cabin fever on a cold night outside of Armidale. “I’m a claustrophobe from way back, so I had no problems out there [alone in the dark],” he says. At 11, Moss picked up the guitar, and has barely put it down since.
As a boy, he visited Adelaide on summer holidays. He recalls seeing the ocean for the first time with a child’s innocence, expanding his arms: “Like, woooow!” He moved to Adelaide to finish high school and started an electronics course in 1973, but according to an interview with the ABC he only lasted a term after “daydreaming the whole time”, before working a series of factory jobs.
Barnes writes of Moss: “He seemed to look down at his feet a lot … When he did look at you, his eyes seemed to look deep inside you, searching [for something] he could reach out and connect with.” Walker describes the guitarist as “quiet, intelligent, very funny, not pushy, not overconfident, and the most gifted musician I’ve ever seen. He has a punctuality problem. I owe him. I trust him.”
Moss doesn’t need to be told he has a punctuality problem. “I’ve always been a bit lazy,” he confesses, though most weekends will find him on stage somewhere, mostly solo and acoustic. He speaks slowly, and long, long pauses punctuate his conversation. He still lives, seemingly, on Alice Springs time. “I have had this habit of getting great ideas, and they’ve laid moribund for a long time, on the wrong side of the finishing line.”
Bow Riverwas a case in point. “The first thing that came to me was what you might call the bridge,” he says. He sings: “Listen now to the wind, babe / Listen now to the rain / Feel that water, licking at my feet again – just that.” He sang it one day at a rehearsal, off the cuff; the band’s drummer, the late Steve Prestwich, encouraged him to keep at it. It took years.
Imagine, for a moment, being Ian Moss. He is blessed with one of the finest white soul voices anywhere, a prodigious songwriting gift, and palpable on-stage charisma. He could easily have fronted any other band in the world. But in Cold Chisel he was surrounded by songwriters, every one of whom contributed hits, the majority by a genuine great in Walker.
He sang lead on a handful of songs, including My Baby, but you only have listen to the final verse in Bow River – when Barnes swoops in and tears the song to shreds – to understand why it was easier for Moss to remain in the background. In a 2014 poll, his musical peers rated him Australia’s greatest guitarist, pipping Malcolm Young (not the popular fancy Angus) as No. 1.
Tim Rogers, whose band You Am I covered Cold Chisel’s Houndog on a tribute album, describes Moss as “a quiet gentleman who explodes with passion and vigour on stage [with] finesse and fire that mesmerises me … Soulful and supple of voice and a deft, romantic songwriter. That he’s handsome too is just ridiculous.”
Yet Moss admits he lacks self-confidence. In a way, it’s easier for him in Cold Chisel. “Jim’s the frontman, he can take all that pressure. I do still enjoy it when I get out there, but it’s always a little bit easier if someone [else] has got that pressure and you can just sit back and play guitar, sing the occasional song and do the backing vocals.”
You’d think the success of his first solo single, Tucker’s Daughter, released in 1989, might have cured him of his anxiety. Co-written with Walker, It went to No. 2, won an ARIA for Song of the Year, and the related album Matchbook went to No. 1, with double platinum sales. But releases since have been sporadic: his new album will be his first since 2009, and the first of all new material since 1996’s Petrolhead.
Did he enjoy the attention after the initial flush of solo success? “I guess so, yeah. Whether I was ready for it or not, I don’t know. And then … I guess there seemed to be that real or imagined pressure – oh well, you’ve had a really successful album, what’s going to happen if the second one’s not, how are you going to cope with that?”
The second album, Worlds Away, wasn’t as successful; it was released in 1991 as a wave of younger bands led by Nirvana swept aside the old guard. Moss faded into the background again. The 1990s had their share of difficult times; he split with his partner of more than a decade, actor Megan Williams, who in 2003, died of breast cancer at just 43.
On this album, he bears the lion’s share of songwriting credits. As usual, it’s been a long time in the making, though his voice is as strong and his guitar playing as tasteful and subtle as ever. The initial studio sessions were held in 2011, when Moss met Sydney songwriter Sam Hawksley, now based in Nashville and playing in the BoDeans.
In 2014, Hawksley called. “He said, ‘How you going with all those ideas lying moribund?’ I said ‘They’re still there, they’re not dead, but they’re still on the wrong side of the finishing line’.” Hawksley told him to gather them together, and in August that year Moss flew to Nashville, then returned to Cold Chisel as they prepared to record The Perfect Crime.
The songs sat around some more. Moss slips into the third person. “Sam was insistent that all I had to do was just relax, get into it, be Ian Moss – sing as well as Ian Moss can sing and play guitar as well as Ian Moss can, and it was all going to come together,” he says. “But the songs had been such a long time coming, and I just wanted to be really sure about them.”
If all this makes Moss sound obsessive, or at least an over-thinker, he’d learned from the best. “Don would play songs and [ask], ‘What do you think?’ He’d play the whole thing, and we’d say, let’s do it, it sounds great. He’d say ‘No, no, I’m not happy with the third syllable in the fourth word in the third line of the second verse!’ That level of detail.”
Since initially reforming in 1998, Cold Chisel have remained together for longer than during their original existence, save the tragic loss of Prestwich, who died of a brain tumour in 2011.
Chisel were arguably the Australian band of their generation before imploding in 1984, but it has taken far longer for their reputation to spread beyond Australia. The band undertook a disastrous tour of the US in 1981, playing mostly on the bottom of mismatched bills, an experience that prompted Barnes to write the seething single You Got Nothing I Want.
Moss, though, had a ball. “My playing went from here to here,” he says, raising his hand to indicate improvement. “But we were really starting to get sick of living in each other’s pockets. [Some of the] guys had met their future wives and some of the guys hadn’t … Jim had met [wife] Jane, and was obviously missing her like crazy.”
He motions to the picture of Malcolm Young on the table, and ponders whether things might have been different had they gone earlier. “I wish we’d done what these guys [AC/DC] did … To me someone should have said get overseas now, while you’re still young and all the energy’s there. I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t have been a massively different story.”
Perhaps, but one wonders how Moss might have fared had Chisel made the jump to world stages. You couldn’t take Alice Springs out of the boy then or, seemingly, the man now. Bow Riveris a song about escaping, of going home, even if – after that barefoot run through the snow back in Armidale – Moss is lucky to have any toes left for the water to lick at.
“I’d go back to Alice Springs on holiday and at least feel like I could relax, like I was at home, it just seemed a little bit more real,” he says. “That’s what Bow River was about, really. I’d had enough of the speed and the rat race and the insincerity and I was going back home, where people are real, and to the countryside I love.”
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 9 February 2018
Like millions of others, I have fond memories of live entertainment at Festival Hall. Sure, the room was lacking in atmosphere, bonhomie, charm and sound quality – almost anything, actually, that makes a great music venue – but that doesn’t stop me treasuring the experiences of seeing the Ramones in their late-career dotage and Nirvana at their absolute apex, despite Kurt Cobain being obviously ill.
So it was a sad day in Brisbane when, in 2003, the building was demolished to make way for the construction of an apartment block. We’d been through it all before too many times, most notoriously when the beloved Cloudland Ballroom was knocked down in the dead of night in 1982 by the Deen Brothers, the premier/hillbilly dictator Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s demolition firm of choice. Their slogan was “All we leave behind are the memories”.
For Melbourne, the potential loss of its Festival Hall for another proposed block of flats has nothing to do with acoustic or architectural aesthetics – unlike, for example, the historic Palace Theatre. Like Brisbane’s version, Festival Hall was designed for sporting spectacles, mainly boxing. It was the simultaneous arrival of television and rock & roll that resulted in the room throwing open its doors to live music, most famously the Beatles in 1964, as also happened in Brisbane.
It’s about memories, the loss of a rare mid-sized venue that can hold between 4500 and 5500 punters, and the blow to the self-image of Australia’s self-proclaimed live music capital. The local industry first flexed its muscle in January 2010 after the (mercifully temporary) closure of the punk venue The Tote in Collingwood – an event that prompted a rally of more than 10,000 people to march through the city against punitive liquor-licensing regulations.
So the music sector’s muscle is built on solid economic foundations. That’s to say nothing of its priceless cultural contribution. Try, for a moment, to imagine the cities of Liverpool, Manchester, London, New York, Sydney (particularly during the 1980s) and smaller centres such as Brisbane and Dunedin in New Zealand without reference to the artists who helped to define their history and legacies.
The subsequent passing of the agent of change principle by the Victorian government in 2014 imposed obligations on developers to protect existing live music venues from noise complaints by residents. This means that the onus is on developers to provide noise attenuation measures should their plans fall within 50 metres of an existing venue, unless it is the venue which plans to expand, in which case the onus is reversed.
But that hasn’t insulated Melbourne’s music scene from the cold, hard commercial realities of real estate. Since the 2010 groundswell, Melbourne has lost not only the Palace Theatre but the Ding Dong Lounge in the city (which held its last drinks only 10 days ago), the Caravan in Bentleigh and a number of St Kilda venues, including the Palace, the Greyhound Hotel and the Esplanade, although the latter is scheduled to reopen in October.
In a statement, Music Victoria’s CEO Patrick Donovan urged the developer and local and state governments to retain and protect the “iconic” Festival Hall. “The developer’s proposal comes at a time when all eyes are on Melbourne and Victoria as a world leader in live music,” he said. “Melbourne has been recognised as a global music city, hosting the international Music Cities Convention in April.”
But Festival Hall’s owners have made a commercial calculation that there is more money to be made from selling the site than in continuing to compete with similar more modern venues, including Margaret Court Arena (which is slightly bigger, with a capacity of 7500 people). And as much as the City of Melbourne and the state government have done to work with the music sector, there’s no agent of change principle or heritage listing at stake here.
And that’s why the pleas of Music Victoria will probably fall on deaf ears. At the end of the day, the city is not in the business of protecting memories. At the entrance to what is now Festival Towers in Brisbane, there’s a rather sad collection of photographs from gigs gone by that few other than the building’s residents will ever see. The application for the Melbourne development speaks blandly of “harness[ing] the emotional aspects of this venue”.
Which will mean absolutely nothing to anyone who ever passed through its doors to see the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Kanye West and homegrown acts including AC/DC and Courtney Barnett.
Back in Brisbane, Hutchinson Builders’ Scott Hutchinson – a music tragic who also built the Triffid in partnership with former Powderfinger bassist John Collins and the band’s manager, Paul Piticco – is now starting work on a 3500-capacity venue to “replace” Festival Hall in inner-city Fortitude Valley.
Perhaps Music Victoria might consider sounding out the state government or a similarly philanthropically minded developer, should any exist, about a long-term investment in a purpose-built mid-sized music venue – one with better acoustics and atmosphere than Festival Hall could ever offer.
Between his work as a guitarist and songwriter with the Easybeats and as a producer (along with fellow Easybeat Harry Vanda) for AC/DC, there is a very strong case to be made that George Young was the original sonic architect of Australian rock & roll. Other than Vanda – and with no disrespect to anyone who came before them, or followed after – the legacy of Young, who died yesterday aged 70, arguably outstrips anyone’s.
Those are big claims to make, so let’s start at the beginning. Young was born in Glasgow in 1946, migrated with his parents and younger brothers Malcolm and Angus to Sydney in 1963, and met Vanda at Villawood migrant hostel (now shamefully a detention centre) the following year – an event Australian Musician magazine selected as the most significant event in this country’s rock music history, in 2007.
That’s another big call, but the Easybeats, Australia’s first and finest response to the British Invasion (and the Beatles in particular) all but justify it by themselves. Their second single She’s So Fine, released in May 1965, launched them to local stardom. Their fifth, Sorry – led by a propulsive, serrated Young riff that prefigured younger brother Malcolm’s rhythm work with AC/DC – took them to the top of the Australian charts.
That was in October 1966, by which point the Easybeats had relocated to England. Until then, Young had written music for singer Stevie Wright, who contributed lyrics. It was the year of Revolver and Blonde On Blonde, and there were murmurs that the wild, colonial Easybeats lacked polish by comparison. Young was subsequently teamed with the Dutch-born Vanda, who was still learning English. Their first recording was Friday On My Mind.
The Easybeats’ joyous paean to the end of the working week was a worldwide smash, covered in years to come by everyone from Blue Öyster Cult to Bruce Springsteen, as well as David Bowie, who recorded it for his album Pin Ups. In 2001, the Australian Performing Rights Association voted it the best Australian song of all time; it was added to the National Film and Sound Archives registry in 2007.
If that had been all, Young’s legacy would have been secure. But it was his ongoing work as a songwriter and producer for other artists that turned he and Vanda into giants. As house producers for Albert Productions, they started out by rescuing the doomed Wright’s career with the magnificent three-part opus Evie in late 1974. Around the same time, another Scottish immigrant, Bon Scott, joined AC/DC.
A few stories sum up George Young’s contribution to that band. First, as Clinton Walker has pointed out in his biography of Scott, Highway To Hell, Young insisted that AC/DC should never deviate from straight, hard rock & roll: following trends, he believed, had been the Easybeats’ undoing. He also identified the silence and space in Malcolm Young’s stop-start riffs as crucial to their early sound: “It’s the stops what rocks,” he said.
The most famous story is of smoke billowing from Angus Young’s amplifier as he laid down the climactic solo for Let There Be Rock. From the control booth, George gesticulated and screamed at the guitarist to keep going, with Angus just managing to finish before his Marshall melted. “There was no way we were going to stop a shit-hot performance for a technical reason like amps blowing up!” George said later.
The work Vanda and Young produced for AC/DC – Let There Be Rock, especially – had a tougher edge than the sound Robert “Mutt” Lange gave the band for their international breakthroughs Highway To Hell and Back In Black, recorded after Scott’s death. Vanda and Young were by then also working with the likes of the Angels and Rose Tattoo, who would go on to influence a new generation of hard rockers, notably Guns n’ Roses.
And yet again, there was still more to the story. For as much as Vanda and Young can be credited for birthing the sound of what we now know – sometimes somewhat derisively – as “Oz rock”, they were also writing and cutting huge pop, and even disco hits: Can’t Stop Myself From Loving You, performed by glam rocker William Shakespeare, followed by a string of songs including Love Is In The Air for John Paul Young (no relation).
Vanda and Young even formed their own studio project, Flash & The Pan, whose first single Hey St Peter, released in September 1976, prefigured new wave just as punk was breaking worldwide. The song’s B-side, Walking In The Rain, was covered in 1981 by Grace Jones on her iconic album Nightclubbing. The mesmerising synth-pop of Waiting For A Train, released in 1983, featured Wright on vocals and hit No. 7 in the UK.
The story of Australian rock & roll, from the Easybeats to the Saints to the Hard-Ons and beyond, is of migrant kids. We should all be forever grateful for the day George Young met Harry Vanda at Villawood. And if it sounds like too much of a stretch to say Young defined the sound of Australian rock, listen to that manic, choppy riff from Sorry again – then try to imagine it without him.