The Sunnyboys: ‘We Really Want To Make The Most Of This’
Confirmed this morning for the Meredith Music Festival, Richard Burgman from reunited power pop legends The Sunnyboys tells PATRICK EMERY they’ll keep playing for as long as there’s an audience.
The last time The Sunnyboys contemplated a reunion – to promote the release of Feel’s This Is Real compilation – things didn’t get out of first gear. Jeremy Oxley, the creative genius behind their picture-perfect power pop, was unable to even discuss his former band without resorting to the excessive alcohol consumption that he’d come to rely upon to quell his tortured mental state.
So earlier this year when The Sunnyboys agreed to reunite for the Dig It Up! Hoodoo Gurus testimonial, there was an air of trepidation among Oxley’s bandmates, says guitarist Richard Burgman. “[Promoter] Tim [Pittman] had approached Peter and Jeremy about doing an acoustic set at one of the smaller venues,” he says. “And Jeremy said he couldn’t do that, but he could do electric, so then [drummer] Bill [Bilson] and I were approached.”
Three days before the Sydney event, the four members of the band – who’d already identified the songs they’d be playing on the day – convened in the rehearsal room. “Up until midday on Thursday we had absolutely no idea if it was going to work – we were really dealing with the unknown. We plugged in, and Jeremy was really, really loud! The first song started to sound really good. By the end we thought is going to be really, really good. Jeremy was smiling, and Bill was so good on the drums – he was frighteningly good, in fact. It felt amazing! We did a version of ‘Shaking’ that almost made me cry!”
It was a far cry from the tumultuous circumstances in which the original Sunnyboys line-up had last played, way back in 1984. Five years before then, Burgman had met Jeremy Oxley through Oxley’s elder brother Peter, with whom Burgman was playing in the Shy Imposters. When Jeremy Oxley followed his brother to Sydney from the regional city of Kingscliff, Peter Oxley and drummer “Big” Bill Billson asked Burgman to join the fledgling band. While Peter was the eldest child of a musically talented family, by his teenage years Jeremy had already displayed plenty of the talent that would underpin The Sunnyboys’ brief, but illustrious career.
Within a short period, The Sunnyboys were hot property on the Sydney live scene; the band’s blend of garage rock and power pop drawing a very loyal following. Alongside contemporaries on the live scene such as Mental As Anything, Midnight Oil and Le Hoodoo Gurus, The Sunnyboys were the object of heavy industry attention. “We were intrigued by the process,” Burgman says, “and we thought we’d be able to make a living out of music. So we were very enthusiastic.”
The Sunnyboys eventually signed with Mushroom and released their now classic eponymous debut album (1981). In hindsight, it’s possible to see the early signs of Jeremy Oxley’s subsequent mental illness in tracks such as ‘Alone With You’ or ‘Happy Man’. Burgman, however, sees only the thoughts of a teenager. “That first album is all written about a girl Jeremy had broken up with,” he says. “It’s very much a teenager’s record. And if you look at that first album in that light, the songs are just stories. The filter of hindsight suggests more, but that was not part of it at all.”
By now The Sunnyboys were playing regularly, and feeling the weight of popular and industry expectation. A second album, Individuals, wasn’t well received, and Jeremy Oxley was starting to show the signs of the erratic behaviour that would take over his life. With producer and mentor Lobby Loyde assuring the band that “it’s the third album that makes a band”, The Sunnyboys headed to the UK to record Get Some Fun (1984). “We were in a hopeful state at that stage,” Burgman says. “We were happy with what Nick Garvey did with the album, and the way that he did it. It wasn’t his record – it was him helping us make our record.”
By 1984 Peter Oxley, Burgman and Bilson had realised Jeremy’s behaviour was out of control. “When Jeremy told me he was drinking to drown out the voices, I realised there was a very big problem.” The Sunnyboys broke-up in mid-1984 and save for Jeremy Oxley’s revival of The Sunnyboys name some years later, a line seemed to have been drawn under the once bright power pop quartet’s live career. (In 1998, Jeremy, Peter and Tim Oxley – substituting for Burgman – and Bilson played two songs at the Mushroom Records 25th anniversary event.)
“When Jeremy told me he was drinking to drown out the voices, I realised there was a very big problem.”
Burgman moved on to other musical projects, before relocating to Canada with his Canadian-born wife, raising a family and working in IT. While back in Australia in July 2011 for his grandmother’s 90th birthday, Burgman caught up with Peter Oxley. “He said Jeremy was in a relationship, and that his girlfriend – who’s a nurse – was looking after him, and that he seemed good. So I went up to Brisbane and met Jeremy, and he was in a really good place,” Burgman says. Whereas the mere mention of The Sunnyboys had once driven Oxley to drink, this time Oxley was happy to remember the good times. “We pulled out the guitars and played some songs, and then some Sunnyboys tracks. We had a great two or three hours and Mary, his now wife, was really lovely, and happy for him to remember The Sunnyboys.”
On stage at Dig It Up!, everything clicked for The Sunnyboys (who were billed as “Kids In Dust”). “We were playing on the same bill as our friends and contemporaries like Rob Younger and Deniz Tek, The Hoodoo Gurus, The Hard-Ons,” Burgman says. “And we were playing in front of 2000 people, most of whom knew the band, and the lyrics to the songs we were playing. There was this amazing energy in the room – it couldn’t have happened in a better way!”
The Sunnyboys had already been approached to play Meredith, and the success of Dig It Up! proved the band still had what it took to play live. “When we were approached to play Meredith, we were like ‘Really?’,” Burgman says. “I had no idea what Meredith was – I’ve been living in Canada for 22 years, and Meredith’s been going for 21 years. So I looked it up, and it looks to be a remarkable festival. It’s a great location, it’s got great policies and it’s had some amazing artists play there, so we thought it’d be great to play there.”
With each member of the band having domestic commitments – and in Burgman’s case, a professional and familial life on the other side of the world – future sightings are likely to be restricted to the occasional festival appearance. “We think that while there’s an audience, we’ll respond,” Burgman says. “There is no way we can do what did when we were 21, and we know full well that it’s not 1984 anymore. We want to give the fans the songs they want to hear, for as long as we can. We really want to make the most of this. We just want to play, and if we have a positive attitude and an appreciative audience, then everyone wins.”