The news that Stevie Wright – solo artist, singer for the Easybeats and, thanks to that band’s immortal single Friday On My Mind, arguably Australia’s first international pop star – has died at the age of 68 will not be a surprise to anyone familiar with his sad story. That does not make his loss any less devastating.
The tiny Wright, who was billed as Little Stevie in his early years, was Australia’s prototype rock & roll frontman. Some of his moves, not to mention his leering grin, were lovingly copped by AC/DC’s Bon Scott. They also found an echo in Chrissy Amphlett, whose band the Divinyls covered the Easybeats’ I’ll Make You Happy.
Wright, along with his bandmates, was part of the first wave of migrants to jump-start Australian rock and pop. Born in Leeds in 1947, his family emigrated to Australia when he was nine, settling in Villawood. There he met Dutch-born Harry Vanda and Scot George Young (older brother of AC/DC’s Malcolm and Angus), both of whom were staying at the local migrant hostel.
Wright wrote lyrics for many of the Easybeats’ early hits, including She’s So Fine, Wedding Ring and fan favourite Sorry – a number one hit in Australia in 1966, and as tough a record as anything released to that point by the early Kinks, Rolling Stones or the Small Faces.
After that, his influence within the group waned, as Young began working with fellow guitarist Vanda. Friday On My Mind was the first fruit of a phenomenally successful partnership, for the Easybeats and as house writers and producers for Albert Productions in the 1970s.
Ultimately, this worked to Wright’s advantage after he was reunited with Vanda and Young as a solo artist. His full range as a singer – an inspired belter, capable of surprising tenderness – is best captured on his 11-minute single Evie (Parts 1, 2 & 3), which despite its prodigious length also went to number one in 1974.
But Wright, as the title of his first solo album Hard Road indicated, lost his way after his early fame. And although it contained some of his finest performances, the cover of that album was a giveaway, with a haunted-looking Wright photographed on a beach as though shipwrecked.
Addicted to heroin, he admitted himself to the notorious Chelmsford Private Hospital where he was administered deep sleep therapy, a combination of electroshock therapy and drug-induced coma which left him with severe after-effects. (The hospital’s practices, which were linked to 26 deaths, later became the subject of a Royal Commission.)
Wright performed only sporadically after that, headlining the Legends of Rock show at Byron Bay for his final show in 2009. With the Easybeats, he was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2005; in 2001, Friday On My Mind was voted the best Australian song of all time by the Australasian Performing Rights Association.
It’s the song for which Wright will be best remembered. From its opening stanzas charting the working week, through to its hedonistic chorus celebrating the coming of the weekend, it’s the definitive Australian working-class anthem. Wright’s vocal is by turns impatient, cheeky – “even my old man looks good!” – and exuberant.
It is sad that Wright’s struggles have obscured his enormous influence on generations of Australian rock & roll, from AC/DC to the Saints to You Am I. Each of their vocalists, in turn, owe a drink to the diminutive frontman with the who-me grin, the little shimmy and the loveable larrikin vocals.
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.
Now it starts to get hard! This is where I start to become ultra-conscious of who and what’s getting left out. The songs get harder to put in any kind of order. And I haven’t made it any easier for myself – I found I’d written Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat down twice in my initial list of 40 (hmm – should that make it higher?), meaning I now have to find an entirely new song that’s magically going to vault straight into my top 20! Choices, choices…
20. BILLY THORPE & THE AZTECS – Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy (1972)
This wasn’t the song, by the way. I always had this one in here. (I won’t cheapen which one it actually is by revealing it.) But, in short: what a wonderful chord progression this is, and what a great lyric, that anyone who’s ever got shitfaced in a bar with their friends should be able to relate to. Don’t we all, deep down, feel a little crazy as we try to navigate our way through a world we never asked to be born into? To be honest, I struggle to understand the fuss about much of Thorpie’s catalogue, but props to him for this brilliant common touch.
19. HOODOO GURUS – Like Wow Wipeout! (1985)
This one is all about the beat, hammered home by a human metronome called Mark Kingsmill (Richard’s older brother). Two chords and a chorus that rhymes “walk” and “talk” do the rest. But that beat! It’s a stomp made for football stadiums, and though the Hoodoo Gurus didn’t quite reach that level of success, it’s true that for a while, cricket fans would hold up placards reading “Like Wow Wipeout!”, usually after a six was struck in a one-day game. As a humbled Dave Faulkner noted, the real stars in Australia are our sports heroes anyway.
18. HUNTERS & COLLECTORS – Throw Your Arms Around Me (1984; re-recorded 1986)
A lot of folks would have this higher, and I can understand why. Crowded House recognised its potential by making it a staple of their live shows for years, but had too much respect for the song to even attempt recording it. (Of course, the Crowdies may have been biased; their bass player Nick Seymour was the brother of the song’s author Mark.) Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper have also covered it. So why wasn’t this now beloved tune a hit? It’s true that both the 1984 single and 1986 album recordings, by radio standards of the day, are rough and ready, and that probably cruelled Throw Your Arms Around Me’s chances at the time. But that surely says more about the tin ears of the fools that made such dumb decisions. Really, how could anyone not like this song?
17. SUNNYBOYS – Alone With You (1981)
Like Throw Your Arms Around Me, this song touches with its directness. But whereas the former track is a timeless soul ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place if recorded by Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett in the 1960s, the Sunnyboys were fans of the Kinks, the Remains and Radio Birdman, and the urgency of Alone With You is a reflection of that. Jeremy Oxley was a prodigy until tragically cut down by illness: his lyrics are straight to the point, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and his voice is effortlessly warm and natural. And just when you think this magical song can’t get any better – having already somehow found room for not one but two solos, with not a note wasted – he uncorks a third, pealing effort to take the song out. Wow.
16. RUSSELL MORRIS – The Real Thing (1969)
If you were under the misapprehension that Johnny Young was just that prat from Young Talent Time and that Molly Meldrum’s contribution to Australian music began and ended with Countdown, you need to hear this amazing song. Written by Young, produced by Meldrum, and sung/spoken in tongues by Russell Morris with unusual fervour, is this a hippy anthem or proto-punk madness? I’m not sure, but Little Richard would be proud of this inspired nonsense: “Come and see the real thing, come and see the real thing. Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow, oo-mow-ma-mow-mow.” Confused? Don’t worry, Morris can explain: “There’s meaning there, but the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing.” (And get well, Molly.)
15. THE CHURCH – Under The Milky Way (1988)
Like the Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet, or the Stranglers’ Golden Brown, or Johnny Thunders’ more direct Chinese Rocks, this could be an ode to heroin, which singer/bassist/writer Steve Kilbey has admitted to having a passionate relationship with. Or maybe that’s just a thought implanted by this song’s opaque, narcotic haze. It drifts blissfully by in a wash of 12-string acoustic splendour, with Kilbey murmuring gently in your ear like a slightly more stoned Lou Reed, with not even an e-bow solo destroying the effect (that’s the one that makes Peter Koppes’ guitar sound like bagpipes). After that unexpectedly noisy interlude, you’re back in a stoned stupor, Kilbey’s whispering again, and a more conventional but even more psychedelic guitar solo – with just a hint of wah-wah this time – drops you gently back to earth.
14. ARCHIE ROACH – Took The Children Away (1990)
“This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.” And with that declaration, Archie Roach tells you his story, and the story of his people, with such quiet, understated hurt that the challenge for the listener is to get to the end of the song without weeping. It succeeds for two reasons: Roach’s words forced white people to imagine – as Paul Keating noted we failed to do, in his famous Redfern Speech two years later – these things being done to us. But songs don’t work as essays or speeches, even when they’re this well written. The real power comes from Roach’s beautiful singing: full of humility, grace, and unspeakable pain, it never forces itself on the listener. But it compelled a nation to listen and – eventually – say sorry.
13. THE REELS – Quasimodo’s Dream (1981)
A mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a riddle, Quasimodo’s Dream – which writer Dave Mason has disparaged as “just complete rubbish when you listen to it” – doesn’t seem to add up to anything. That hasn’t kept other singers and songwriters including Jimmy Little (who gave it several new dimensions) and Kate Ceberano (who missed the mark with an upbeat dance pop/big band approach) from going back to it, trying to tease something fresh from its haunting, otherworldly beauty. The key to its effectiveness is the tender conviction which Mason invests in those spooked, baffling lyrics, making this slow, sparse song sound clammy and claustrophobic. Whatever you end up making of it, once heard, it never leaves you.
12. THE GO-BETWEENS – Cattle And Cane (1983)
Written on a battered acoustic guitar belonging to Nick Cave while the Go-Betweens were squatting with the Birthday Party in dank London, Cattle And Cane is nonetheless the ultimate expression of their “striped sunlight sound”. Its acoustic/electric texture and tension – thanks largely to Lindy Morrison’s quirky, shifting time signatures – created, as bass player Robert Vickers noted, a song that was “complex but also memorable, which is an almost impossible thing in music”. Every part works, even the perfectly weighted bass solo that underpins the guitar break, with the late, great Grant McLennan’s gorgeous, heartfelt vignettes of growing up in north Queensland front and centre. Has a singer ever had more sincere eyebrows than this man?
11. THE BEE GEES – Spicks And Specks (1966)
What do you say about this? Younger generations have the introductory piano theme tattooed on their brains, thanks to the ABC’s long-running and much loved music trivia show; older Australians will never have forgotten it. The military march of the drums and punchy arrangement, topped off by a trumpet finale, never swamps the best harmony pop/boy band Australia ever produced. It’s too bad that their lack of success in Australia at the time forced the Brothers Gibb to return to their native England in late 1966 – while still at sea, they found out Spicks And Specks had become their first number one hit.
It’sfunny how, 10 years since the advent of the iPod was supposed to mark the death of the album as a conceptual art form, great albums keep magically appearing. They appear about as regularly as articles proclaiming (yet again) the death of the album.
Cue Diana Elliott in yesterday’s Age. Given this isn’t exactly the first time this argument has been promulgated in the last decade, I presume Diana has crawled through a wormhole from 1965, back when pop charts were ruled by singles.
Remember singles? These marvellous seven-inch creations only had room for one song per side – you could squeeze maybe a couple more in to make an EP, but at the expense of sound quality and all-important volume. Ray Davies, the Kinks’ master songwriter, still speaks fondly of them as his favourite musical medium.
Back then, albums mostly were little more than filler padding out a couple of sure-fire hits. Then the Beatles and Bob Dylan came along and expanded the minds of a generation, at the same time spoiling the party for those unfortunate Baby Boomers suffering from what wasn’t then called Attention Deficit Disorder.
Last week, a couple of friends began frantically tweeting each other about the merits of a new album by Melbourne’s Witch Hats. It was streaming on a local music website for a day, so I tuned in, and was impressed enough to tweet back if it was available on – wait for it – vinyl.
Yes, vinyl. The medium that’s making a comeback for those that, you know, actually care about music and how it was created, and don’t like to see it defiled in cheap-jack formats that throw out half the product before it hits the ears. Put it down to me crawling out of a wormhole marked April 1971, when I was born.
The Rolling Stones put out Sticky Fingers that very month. Now that’s an album. A few great rockers (Brown Sugar, about the merits of interracial cunnilingus, being the best known); Wild Horses is perhaps the band’s most stunning ballad; and Marianne Faithfull’s tortured ode to addiction, Sister Morphine.
I could go through the rest of the track list, but there’s no need. A great album is like a good sexual encounter; it’s all about pacing – ebb and flow, climax and resolution. It’s a cheap shot, but what sort of sex is the iPod generation having? Elliott’s article makes me wonder if they can keep their minds on the job.
For those having trouble with diminishing attention spans, the Ramones should have provided the perfect antidote. Albums of between 12 and 14 songs in less than half an hour! Hey, if you don’t like Beat On The Brat (in which case I don’t trust you) at least you know Judy Is A Punk is just around the corner.
Actually, one of the real drawbacks of the CD age (and a good reason for the cursed format’s slow slide into oblivion) is how many musicians abused the fact that it provided them with 78 minutes to play with, instead of the standard LP length of between 35 and 45.
Suddenly albums that would once have qualified as doubles began to proliferate. It got worse when a few artists began issuing double CDs, the worst offenders being the Smashing Pumpkins, who gave us Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, aka Billy Corgan’s infinite ode to his own genius.
It’s true that double albums, let alone double CDs, do amplify the problems Elliott alludes to. That’s why there are very few good ones. I am one of the unbelievers, for example, that would quite happily junk half of the Beatles’ opus, the so-called White Album. I never want to hear The Adventures Of Rocky Raccoon again.
But if you can’t sit still long enough to listen to Revolver from beginning to end, maybe it’s you who needs to slow down. Not everything in life is an instant hit. Some things take a little longer to give up their secrets, and that is part of the reward.
I was at a friend’s party last weekend, and he’d lovingly assembled a song list on iTunes to impress and entertain his musically voracious friends. Like Rob from High Fidelity, whom Elliott also references, he understood the lost art of the mix tape, the importance of a perfect sequence that also underpins an album.
At one point, he began vehemently decrying the very notion of “Shuffle”. “How can you shuffle the soundtrack to your life?” he spluttered in indignation. It might work if the music fades into the background, like aural wallpaper. But if you’re actually listening, it doesn’t make any sense.