’70s Aus Rock: ‘We Can Pinch What We Like Because We’re So Far Away’
The ‘Boogie’ compilation's 1970s time capsule spurs PATRICK EMERY to revisit a classic era of Australian rock ‘n’ roll with journalist Jen Jewell Brown and members of Buffalo, Spectrum and The Dingoes.
If rock ’n’ roll was conceived in the 1950s and came of age in the 1960s, it was in the 1970s that the once-maligned and marginalised genre entered its period of maturity and adult indulgence. Spiked into action by iconic films such as Rock Around the Clock, rock ’n’ roll in Australia was constructed in the image of its American progenitors, aided and abetted by the efforts of promoters such as the infamous Lee Gordon.
By the early 1960s the wave of European post-war migration brought with it the seeds of the Australian rock ’n’ roll scene, courtesy of English expats including George Young and his brothers Malcolm and Angus; Buffalo’s Dave Tice; and, over in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, Cold Chisel’s Jimmy Barnes and Steve Prestwich and The Angels’ Bernard ‘Doc’ Neeson.
It was a cultural shift reflected in popular music tastes. The blend of sharp-edged R&B and smiling adolescent pop that characterised popular music in the 1960s had been outflanked by the psychedelic experimentation of the latter part of the decade. In the late 1960s, albums overtook singles in popularity and the balance of artist control gradually shifted – albeit never completely – from record labels to artists.
By the early 1970s one-time teen idol Billy Thorpe, who’d topped the charts in the mid-1960s with covers of tracks such as ‘Poison Ivy’ and ‘Mashed Potato’, had ditched the tailored suits and clean-cut pop image for bellbottom jeans, singlets and waist-length hair. By this time Thorpe had been taught the rudiments of rock ’n’ roll and blues guitar by the legendary and indefatigable Lobby Loyde; the result could be seen with Thorpe’s incendiary performance at the inaugural Sunbury Music Festival in 1972.
In Australia, social and political times were also changing. Gough Whitlam ended 23 years of conservative Commonwealth government, Australian troops were recalled from active service in Vietnam, fees for tertiary education were abolished and State governments began the process of updating liquor licensing laws to bring an end to the infamous six o’clock swill. Suburban hotels, long a haven for the working man’s alcoholic indulgence, gradually opened their doors to the young rock ’n’ roll bands of the day.
Bands such as Buffalo (pictured above), Chain, Spectrum, Madder Lake, Lobby Loyde and Coloured Balls and Band of Light (featuring a young Ian Rilen) pervaded the Australian rock ’n’ roll scene with a distinctive heavy blues-rock style known colloquially as ‘boogie’. In Melbourne, Skyhooks blended the boogie-rock sound with glam-rock fashion and an Australian lyrical sensibility to become a national pop sensation, following in the footsteps of the now iconic Daddy Cool.
It’s this aspect of Australian rock ’n’ roll history that’s captured on the new Australian ’70s rock compilation Boogie!. The brainchild of Dave Laing – and featuring tracks from Buster Brown, Chain, Daddy Cool, Skyhooks, The Angels, Cold Chisel, The Dingoes, Kahvas Jute, Lah De Das and Ted Mulry Gang – Boogie! captures the mood, style and frequently bare-chested macho bravado of the Australian boogie and blues scene.
In the 1970s Jen Jewell Brown was a freelance music journalist – then known as Jenny Brown and Jenny Hunter Brown – contributing to publications such as RAM, Planet/Daily Planet and Nation Review. Brown, whose recollections on the boogie scene can be found in the liner notes to Boogie!, locates the Australian scene of the time in context with its more derivative antecedents.
“Popular music in Australia started off in a very derivative fashion,” Brown says. “We used to often see not much chart action or sales for Australian product. Johnny O’Keefe was a huge figure in the ’50s and ’60s scene. There were often cover versions being performed, so you’d have bands like The Mixtures doing Mungo Jerry’s ‘In the Summertime’ and it’d do battle with Mungo Jerry and quite often be swamped by the English version as it came out. So when our bands started working this rootsy sound, they were quite influenced by the Alberts sound, which fixated on a certain style of boogie which really took off and worked in the beer-barn atmosphere that grew up and continued to have huge sway through the ’80s.”
Dave Tice had migrated to Australia along with many of his future contemporaries in the Australian rock ’n’ roll scene. After paying his dues in a number of local bands, Tice would eventually achieve a level of popular fame as lead singer for the blue-prog band Buffalo. “As a young boy I heard my parents’ collection of country songs and classic showtunes, although frankly I didn’t much care for them,” Tice recalls. “On arrival in Australia I met other English kids in a Wacol migrant hostel. Through them I was introduced to the music of the British “beat” bands and black American blues artists.”
The role of the Australian suburban pub circuit has become part of local rock ’n’ roll lore. The regular grind of playing to difficult audiences – perhaps two or three times a day – was said to instil in Australian bands a mental and physical toughness that’s not necessarily present in contemporary young bands. The use of pubs as rock ’n’ roll venues was a radical departure from the social position of pubs in previous generations. “[The presence of rock ’n’ roll in pubs] was due mainly to young people who were big fans of live music,” Brown says. “They started to approach the hotel owners to get into some of the rooms that had been the ‘Ladies Lounge’ and hadn’t really been going anywhere social very much, especially with the old-style drinker sitting around on his barstool telling lies.”
Broderick Smith grew up in St. Albans in the western suburbs of Melbourne. Raised initially on a diet of “classical music, folk, jazz and TV Western themes,” Smith eventually graduated to John Lee Hooker and other legends of the American blues scene before forming The Dingoes in 1973. Occasionally referred to as ‘the Australian Eagles’, The Dingoes seemed on the verge of American success before the band’s proposed support slot on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s US tour evaporated in the wake of the plane crash that claimed a number of that band’s members. The Dingoes reformed briefly in 2009, releasing a new album.
Smith challenges the prevailing view on the positive impact of playing the suburban pub circuit. “The suburban pub circuit actually stunted the growth of acts, as it was mainly about ‘Play something we can understand while we’re drunk,’” Smith says. “But then again, blues music came out of juke joints anyway, so go figure.” For Buffalo, pubs were largely an irrelevancy. “I’m always surprised when people suggest this to me, because Buffalo did very few ‘pub’ gigs,” Tice says. “We played in local halls, school dances, Police Citizens youth clubs, discos, nightclubs and outdoor concerts. The ‘pub scene’ wasn’t really all that important until the late ’70s [and] ’80s, by which time I was living, performing and recording in England.”
Mike Rudd was born in New Zealand before moving to Australia with his then-band, Chants R&B, in 1966. In 1969 Rudd formed Spectrum, a psych-prog band that would develop a loyal – albeit cult – local following before breaking up in 1973. Rudd, who would go on to form Ariel in the wake of Spectrum’s demise, puts more weight on the regularity of performance than the nature of the pub audiences. “I think bands thought that constant playing was the one big advantage Aussie bands had over their UK contemporaries,” Rudd says. “It didn’t always lead to superior recordings, however.”
In his recent biography, Dirty Deeds, former AC/DC bass player Mark Evans – who these days can be found playing blues alongside Dave Tice – suggests that Malcolm and Angus Young were always aiming for commercial and global success. Such naked financial intent is generally a rarity in rock ’n’ roll circles; Dave Tice admits that his “main concern was where to find the next party … and it seemed to be a good way to pick up girls – it amazes me that a pick-up line became a 40-year career in music!”
John Baxter, original guitarist in Buffalo, suggests there was a commercial imperative, even if bands – including his own – were reluctant to admit it. “To survive as a professional band, you needed to be at it all the time. So you had to earn to live and for the band to survive, but we did not sacrifice our integrity too much or too often,” Baxter says. “I actually got the chop from Buffalo after the third album because they wanted to be more commercially productive. I don’t think it worked out, though.”
And while AC/DC would evolve from a local boogie band into a global rock ’n’ roll phenomenon, Rudd and Smith agree there was little overseas interest in Australian rock ’n’ roll at the time. “Spectrum was signed by EMI’s Harvest label and that was a big deal,” Rudd says. “The push was almost exclusively towards the UK in those days, although I suspect the Aussie hybrid was at least as suited to the US market.”
Broderick Smith points out that, notwithstanding AC/DC’s geographical origins, the band and its management were canny enough to realise that simply being Australian was not going to be a major commercial drawcard. “You must remember that AC/DC, in order to crack England, made use of their British heritage and downplayed the Australian connection,” Smith says. “They were very smart and had siblings that had worked in The Easybeats and who had learnt a lot which they could pass on. Plus, they had a wonderful mistrust of music moguls. That’s why they’re rich, coupled with the fact they have the best rock rhythm guitarist that I know of – Malcolm Young. He simply does not move. Rock solid – actually, titanium solid!”
Jen Jewell Brown points to Billy Thorpe as a rare example of an Australian musician who was confident enough to take his music to the world. “In Thorpie’s case, he always had enormous ambition,” Brown says. “As much as he was a man who loved his bandmates, he always had enormous ideas. He could go into completely different styles of music and still score these huge hits. He was a leader, a power guy, a bright spark.”
With bands such as Coloured Balls linked with the Sharpie movement and Chain a favourite of biker gangs, the boogie scene was characterised by a sense of violence, both real and perceived. Later on, X and Rose Tattoo gigs would become the stuff of drunken urban legend. “The average gig would have at least one colourful punch-up, and that was part of the entertainment,” recalls Brown. “It was just part of the everyday situation. You’d walk through a gig and a fight would break out just near you, and you’d try to shrink away from it. It’d be like a little maelstrom going on, and guys would jump in and it’d turn into a big fight and the bouncers would come in and kick people out. They’d leave, lick their tails and wait for the next gig.”
Dave Tice is matter-of-fact about the spectre of violence at live gigs. “If you had a few hours spare, I could probably relate loads of incidents we faced,” Tice says. “In those days it was rare to see a security guy at a gig. None of this is very surprising – youthful exuberance generally expresses itself in this manner and actually still does.” Mike Rudd recalls his youthful concern at the prospect of encountering the feared Sharpies. “My first band, Chants R&B, was terrified of Sharpies,” Rudd recalls. “When we came over from NZ, we cut our hair so we wouldn’t be too provocative. A very young Michael Gudinski – he was still at school – gave Spectrum a residency at The Bowl in Degraves Street when we first started, and that was a notorious Sharps hangout. The biggest, toughest Sharp took us under his wing on our first gig there and we never had any trouble.”
Amongst the rollcall of notable Australian boogie bands, it’s challenging to find many prominent female artists. Wendy Saddington, the enigmatic frontwoman with the piercing voice, finds a place on Boogie! with Nina Simone’s ‘Backlash Blues’, as does Renee Geyer with her cover of Elmore James’ ‘Dust My Blues’. Jen Brown says this reflects the very male-dominated scene at the time: “Ninety-eight per cent of the bands were male; there were very few musicians who were women who were picking up an instrument. Stiletto had two to three women who were in there over time. Then there were singers like Wendy Saddington and Renee Geyer, who were very gutsy, very skilful, soulful frontpeople, but it was definitely a very sexist scene – especially for me as a journalist. There were frequent signs backstage [reading] ‘No women or drugs’ [and] ‘No women on the road’ – all those things, all the time.”
By the late 1970s the boogie scene was under apparent challenge from the so-called punk scene, including The Saints and Radio Birdman (neither of whom purported to be ‘punk’ bands) and a Melbourne art-punk movement led by The Boys Next Door. Despite its dubious social underpinnings, punk was constructed by many of its protagonists and sections of the music media as a radical alternative to the mainstream music industry. While no one could ever accuse Madder Lake or Buffalo of being ‘mainstream’, in the frenetic, amphetamine-fuelled punk and garage world there was neither room nor time for a bunch of long-haired blokes in denim playing 10-minute stoner-rock jams.
Some 35 years later, the musical and sociological influence of punk on the boogie scene remains a matter of contention. “Punk went through the Aussie scene like a dose of salts – like everywhere else, really,” muses Mike Rudd, who was playing with Mike Rudd & The Heaters by the end of the 1970s. “Old-timers like ourselves tried to adjust and managed to lose the plot a bit. Ironically the punk bands were so self-destructive that it remains a largely unrepresented era, while dinosaurs like us meander on.”
But for Broderick Smith, punk wasn’t something particularly significant. “Punk didn’t really take hold here in a true sense of the word,” Smith says. “I think Joe Strummer was right when, visiting here, he said, ‘How can you have punk music in Australia when you can go on the dole and spend all day at the beach?’” Punk in a way was a fashion thing here and, when I think about it, bands like Rose Tattoo were more Aussie punk than the ones that looked punk.”
Dave Tice sees the boogie scene as having the staying power that punk lacked. “Have a look at how many boogie/blues acts continue to gig regularly around Australia,” Tice says. “I can guarantee there are many more of those than there are punk acts. In fact blues and boogie underpin most of modern music and have assimilated/incorporated uncounted ‘fads’ along the way.” Tice has a point: Smith, Tice and Rudd – whose rejuvenated Spectrum can still be found playing around Melbourne – all continue to perform live, albeit predominantly to a fan base forged back in the day.
Deconstructing the nature of Australian identity, and its distinctive sociological attributes, remains a favourite academic pastime. Australian rock ’n’ roll was inherited from the United States and England, both of which had appropriated large chunks of musical influence from the blues and folk scenes of yore. Listening to bands such as Madder Lake, Spectrum and Buffalo now, the parallels with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin are obvious.
With Australian radio dominated by overseas acts, it took a while to overcome the cultural cringe – not that the mother country was particularly sympathetic to the Antipodean cause. “Our albums went to Germany, Holland, France and some others,” says Buffalo guitarist John Baxter. “The English wouldn’t release us, I believe because of prejudice: the convicts from Australia; they’re better than us, etc. I guess we’ve set that straight now! We always wanted to go overseas but needed the record company Universal [then Polygram] to finance it, but never did. Not very longsighted, because our best market was overseas. Such is life.”
So is there a distinguishing feature of the Australian boogie scene? For Broderick Smith, it’s important to locate the Australian boogie scene in a broader historical narrative. “Back then and still now to a slightly lesser degree, there was the unconscious feeling that we can pinch what we like because we’re so far away. But now we have the web and it’s hard to do that,” Smith says.
“Australian thought in our music comes through the lyrics,” he continues. “The music side is still developing as we develop as a culture. From Buddy Williams and before that Jack O’Hagen, we’ve had Australian music for a long time. It’s simply unfortunate that each generation that comes along eulogises the era they grew up in and wrongly assume that ‘Australian music’ started with them. It started with the first person singing about their life here. There was probably somebody on the first fleet who made up a song about here: something like ‘There’s no women in Botany Bay, so Dobbyn will have to do.’”
Buffalo’s Dave Tice offers a more slogan-ish assessment of the unique nature of Australian rock ’n’ roll. “It’s uncomplicated, hard-edged, committed, hard and heavy,” Rudd says. “Forget the bullshit, let’s rock!”