Tagged: Clinton Walker

George Young: the original architect of Oz Rock

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.

First published in The Guardian, 24 October 2017

Robert Forster: Grant & I

Fifty pages into this long-awaited memoir, songwriter, critic and author Robert Forster gets very meta. “If a film of Grant & I is ever made, it could start here,” he writes. It’s 1978, and he and Grant McLennan, the co-founders of the Go-Betweens, are driving from Brisbane to Sydney for the first time. After crossing the Tweed river into New South Wales, McLennan dashes into a shop, and emerges triumphantly waving a copy of Playboy, which was banned in Queensland at the time.

Of course, this being the Go-Betweens, they’re reading it for the articles – in this instance, Bob Dylan’s first full-length interview in three years, which McLennan ecstatically reads to Forster as the car races past cane fields on their left, Mount Warning on the right (“Cue thundercrack,” Forster says). The Go-Betweens always were the most self-referential of groups, as well as the most literate. Grant & I would make the most bookish of buddy films.

That’s not to say they were square. “On many occasions dark rock bands would encounter the Go-Betweens expecting namby-pamby, book-besotted, cocoa-drinking wimps, to find themselves partied under the table. We were a rock & roll band,” Forster declares. Yet it’s both a strength and a weakness that this often very moving book avoids the cliched recounting of rock & roll excess – until those excesses inevitably begin to catch up with them.

The obvious stylistic inspiration for Grant & I is Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which centres on her enduring friendship with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. But whereas Smith’s book skirts around her years of fame (like Dylan’s Chronicles, another reference point), Forster revels in his: each album, each single of the Go-Betweens’ career is lovingly charted – if only they had actually charted. This is a tale of cult stardom, of missing hits and hits-that-missed.

At one point, Forster writes of “the lengthy entry in the rock encyclopaedia that we felt the group deserved”. With Grant & I, he has all but written it himself. Some of the best passages of this book are clear-eyed critiques of his own band’s work as they navigate the usual artistic pitfalls: grinding poverty, unrecouped advances, unsympathetic producers, and drum machines used to tame a true original, Lindy Morrison, with whom Forster was in a relationship for eight years.

The heart of the book, though, is about a close friendship with someone who remained unknowable: a “naive boy” who kept a close watch on his inner life, only to pour it out in songs such as the revered Cattle And Cane and its companion, Dusty In Here. Both songs reference McLennan’s father, who died when he was six. Yet as Grant & I (and the band’s career) unfurls, McLennan recedes; as his friendship with Forster is attenuated to a few words or glances, it’s easy to lose sight of him.

And in this, there is an omission. The shadow of heroin hangs over this book, but we don’t know of it until Forster drops the bombshell of his own diagnosis with hepatitis C, a likely consequence of his own dabbling with the drug. It’s well known in rock circles that McLennan was a long-term user; Steve Kilbey’s book Something Quite Peculiar speaks bitterly of McLennan introducing him to opiates, and the journalist Clinton Walker has also written of his habit.

It’s obviously a charged topic. Yet towards the end, as McLennan begins to fall apart physically and emotionally – alcohol, Forster notes, was “eating him out, destroying him, and he knew it”, and songwriting sessions between the pair occasionally lapsed into therapy – it’s impossible for anyone familiar with the Go-Betweens’ story not to question the toll it took not just on McLennan, but on everyone in and around the band, not least his best friend.

The awful ending is already known and, as Forster has conceded publicly, McLennan’s death at the age of 48 from a heart attack came as a shock, but not a surprise. That’s another rock & roll cliche, and it’s to Forster’s credit that he avoids it in the beautifully written final chapters, which still manage to build tension leading up to the tragedy that finished the band 10 years ago. “I’ll carry it on,” Forster says, a promise to ensure the group’s legacy is not forgotten.

Behind the legacy lies enmity: Morrison and violinist Amanda Brown, who fought and eventually settled with Forster and McLennan for a share of songwriting royalties, are acknowledged at the funeral with just a nod – and, if there’s something missing, it’s an epilogue. If a film of Grant & I is ever made, it could end here: the surviving members leading the first walk across Brisbane’s Go Between Bridge, with Streets Of Your Town the soundtrack – the bridge an act of belated recognition that, cruelly, took the death of one of the city’s finest poets to bring about.

First published in The Guardian, 29 August 2016

The hitch-hiker: Andrew McMillan, 1957-2012

I first met Andrew McMillan in July of 1999. The place was Gove Airport, which services the north-east Arnhem Land mining town of Nhulunbuy. Andrew was acting as a media liaison officer for the inaugural Garma Festival, an annual cultural exchange program between the local Yolngu people and Balanda (whites) established by the Yothu Yindi Foundation. I was working on a story for the Australian edition of Rolling Stone. I spent nearly a week in Andrew’s company and only caught up with him on one other occasion, but he certainly left a mark on me.

I was already familiar with his work. When I was a teenager, growing up in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne before my family relocated to Brisbane, Midnight Oil was the band that changed my life. They were a rock & roll awakening, and a political one, too. McMillan’s book, Strict Rules, was a document of the Oils’ tour through the Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, an experience that led to the ground-breaking Diesel And Dust album in 1987.

Before that, Andrew had begun his writing career in Brisbane in the late ’70s. He’d been turned on by punk and had started Australia’s first fanzine (the horribly named Suicide Alley, quickly re-christened Pulp) with Clinton Walker. But his trip into the Dead Heart of the country changed his life, and he became one of the keenest and most honest observers of the tortured relationship between this country’s original inhabitants and their colonisers. In Strict Rules, he refers to himself as “the hitch-hiker”, marking himself as an interloper in a country that’s not his own. Yet he also had an affinity with the landscape that shone through in his frequently luminous prose:

“Out in the deserts of Central Australia, the razorback ridges of the Macdonnell Ranges split the plains like a wedge, splintering the earth with shards of granite and sedimentary deposits. A glowing, primeval spine from the air, they crease the desert like the ceremonial scars on an old man’s chest.

For thousands of years the region was the domain of tribes like the Eastern and Western Aranda, nomadic hunters and gatherers whose relationship with the land was so deeply spiritual that to harm the country of their ancestors would have resulted in unspeakable retribution.

In person (and I stress that I did not know him well), he seemed quiet, a listener. He was a slight, Livingstone-esque character with a mop of curly hair under a pith helmet and a severely cleft palate which left him with a slight lisp. Whether out of shyness, reserve or unusually good manners, he spoke quietly, and seemingly only when he had something genuinely useful to say; a quality to aspire to.

At the airport, I noted a bunch of Yolngu kids kicking around a football. Australian Rules is close to a Territory religion. Andrew noted my interest.

“Who do you barrack for?” he asked slyly. Among AFL fans, it’s a potentially incriminating question.

“Collingwood,” I replied. It’s the most incriminating of answers.

He regarded me sidelong, nodding. There was a pause. “We’ll be mates,” he said, unsmiling, but with a warm twinkle in his eyes. Remembering it is something that makes me wish I’d done better at keeping in touch with him.

But Andrew could be irascible. He certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly. And he liked a drink: on the last night at the bone-dry Garma festival, I found him swigging from a flask in his swag, earning him a rebuke from a Yothu Yindi backing singer. Of course, he was hardly Robinson Crusoe that evening. A couple of years later, I cold-called him at his home in Darwin in the hope of interviewing him about Brisbane for my first book, Pig City. I should have found another means of getting in touch first, for I fear I caught him on a bad night.

Many years later we reconnected, as he swung through Brisbane for a writer’s festival, plugging his Intruder’s Guide To East Arnhem Land, for which he’d won the inaugural NT Chief Minister’s Book of the Year award. I don’t think he’d been back here for a long time. He autographed a reprinted version of Strict Rules for me to replace my long lost original, and I had the pleasure of doing the same for him with a copy of Pig City. I never did find out what he thought, or even if he got around to reading it, but it doesn’t matter. It was a pleasure to meet and speak to him again.

I didn’t know he was sick until just before Christmas, when another Brisbane writer called Andrew McMillen came calling to borrow Strict Rules ahead of a planned trip to Darwin. The prospect of interviewing his near-namesake was too tantalising to resist, and apparently Andrew was intrigued too, as he’d been getting confusing calls and emails for a couple of years from people inquiring about new pieces they’d read which he hadn’t actually written.

Unfortunately, the two Andrews with only a vowel between them didn’t quite get to make the connection. Andrew McMillan died in a Darwin hospital on Saturday night, the result of a battle with bowel and liver cancer. He was 54. A bit over a year earlier, he’d attended a living wake in his own honour; he did well to make another 14 months, and he was apparently working up to the end.

To me, he’s a great example of how the briefest of encounters with individuals can leave lasting impressions on us. Andrew took the traditions of New Journalism and put a dry, dusty and uniquely Australian twist on it that I doubt anyone has matched before or since. I don’t think my friend Andrew McMillen will mind my saying, with affection to both, that there was only one Andrew McMillan.