The recent re-emergence of the Sunnyboys on stages around the country has been a genuine feel-good story. Between roughly 1980 and 1984, the band – singer and guitarist Jeremy Oxley, his brother Peter on bass, Bil Bilson on drums and second guitarist Richard Burgmann – were a flaming meteor across the Australian music landscape, adored by fans and critics alike. And then, like a meteor, they just fizzled out: the band’s momentum cruelled by changing fashions and Jeremy’s descent into a long battle with schizophrenia.
It’s a story well told in a recent documentary, The Sunnyboy, that has brought new attention to this great Australian band’s legacy. An earlier compilation, This Is Real, and the band’s tentative return to live performance via the Hoodoo Gurus-curated Dig It Up festival has cleared the path for a serious re-evaluation of their small but vital catalogue of recordings, and it starts here, with the classic self-titled debut from 1981 spread over two discs and stacked with more bonus material than any fan could dream of.
The Sunnyboys’ brilliance lay in a combination of sensitivity and toughness that distinguished them from both their predecessors (after raw beginnings in northern New South Wales, they emerged fully-formed from the late ’70s Sydney punk scene left behind by Radio Birdman) and those that followed, such as the Gurus. Lines like “I fall back into your arms / My body rests like a charm around your neck” (from I’m Shakin’) won them legions of female fans – something their more macho contemporaries could only dream of.
But listening to Sunnyboys, you’d be forgiven for wondering if these young lads ever dared to make the first move. It’s hard knowing what to say when you’re a teenager, especially to someone you’re attracted to. Jeremy’s social phobia is obvious from the first song, I Can’t Talk To You, a magnificent surge of energy powered by Bil Bilson’s drums (actually, the song is pretty much one long drum roll). Happy Man spells it out again: “I’ve got a hangup / I can’t communicate,” he confesses.
Elsewhere lies only confusion: “Watching the news I don’t learn anything / It all seems so far away,” he cries on My Only Friend, a sort of distant precursor to God’s epochal 1988 single My Pal. It would certainly be a mistake to suggest Trouble In My Brain is some kind of premonition about Jeremy’s later mental health struggles: as he points out, everyone around him is going insane. The only thing that matters in such a crazy world is being able to connect.
But how to do that, when “the conversation’s terror” and “death is coming to the phone”? This is pure teenage angst. Anyone who has ever been an adolescent can relate to this stuff. And it’s all delivered in one of the plainest, most honest voices you will ever hear, completely free of pretension or false accent, yet richly melodic: Birdman might have edged the Sunnyboys for energy, but would never get close to a tune to rival Alone With You.
Saying hello, of course, is hard enough; learning how to say goodbye is even worse. Let You Go captures the trauma of farewelling a lover, knowing in your heart it’s the right thing to do, only to then experience the visceral hurt of seeing them hook up again just a little too soon: “It still don’t seem right to watch you go and love somebody else.” There’s nothing especially musical about the solo that follows; it’s just a scream of agony.
It’s the eloquence of this music, its ability to match the mood of the lyrics, that still stuns. My Only Friend follows I Can’t Talk To You and immediately catches the listener off guard as its sharp strumming switches abruptly from major to minor chords, giving Oxley’s observations exquisite poignancy. “Doesn’t matter if I’m right, doesn’t matter if I’m wrong / Because I’ve got you,” he sings.
And what is there left to say about Alone With You, one of the very best singles of its era? As good as anything by the Kinks or the Only Ones, its indelible chorus should be tattooed on the brain every Australian of a certain age. And just hen you think this magical four-minute song can’t get any better – having already found room for not just one but two solos, with not a note wasted – Jeremy uncorks a third, pealing effort to take the song out.
The rest of disc one – the Complete Albert Sessions, from the studio where the album was made – is filled with a swag of extra tracks, most of which became beloved B-sides that would have been best-of material in the hands of any lesser band. If that was all, you would need this reissue, simply because this remaster lays waste to any previous CD version (although we should start petitioning for a vinyl release). But, for all that, it’s the second disc, New Kicks, that is the real revelation.
Certain Sunnyboys members have long maintained, while praising the work done by their producer, Lobby Loyde, that Sunnyboys didn’t really capture the power of the band’s sound on stage. This Is Real featured live material that went a long way to validating that caveat. New Kicks, a recently unearthed complete demo session for the album recorded in a single day, confirms it beyond all doubt. It is simply the sound of a red-hot band playing live – sans audience – in a great-sounding room.
Some of the takes here – notably My Only Friend, Let You Go and I’m Shakin’ – are better, and certainly more exciting to these ears than the more polished finished versions. The fact that these are arguably three of the best four songs on an album that’s extremely difficult to pick highlights from makes the discovery of these tapes all the more important. There are 17 tracks overall, recorded with such pristine clarity and ferocious commitment that New Kicks could easily have made a classic first album in its own right.
If you never much cared for the whistling on I’m Shakin’ – one of the original album’s most thrilling songs – here it’s absent, leaving the incredible interplay between the guitars of Oxley and Richard Burgmann laid bare. This pairing was a lead/rhythm combination to rival anyone, anywhere. Burgmann’s tough, gutsy counterpoints deserve special commendation for complementing Oxley’s wiry, mile-a-minute leads perfectly.
There are demos of many of the same B-sides featured on the first disc, as well as a few songs that ended up on the Sunnyboys’ next two, less successful albums, and a couple more previously unheard tracks. As fine as New Kicks, Thrill and I Don’t Want You are, the reason why they were rejected is clear: these are all fast songs, reflective of the band’s earlier origins, and unsuited to the final album’s moodier, more melancholic feel. Taken out of this context, they are still pretty much as good as rock & roll gets.
Suffice to say that whether you’ve loved this album for years, or are lucky enough to be hearing it for the first time, this reissue is an essential purchase. Long after you’ve outgrown adolescence – when all that youthful ebullience slowly gives way to a world of higher responsibilities, and you still don’t feel like you’re learning anything by watching the news – this album will be your friend. Maybe, at the times you most need it, your only friend.
First published by Double J, 30 April 2014