Take It To The Streets
The first Angels album without Doc Neeson is a gutsy move that doesn’t entirely pay off, writes PATRICK EMERY.
The link between Hugh Stretton and The Angels is tenuous at best. Hugh Stretton was an academic historian and sometime senior bureaucrat in the South Australian Government. Stretton proclaimed history as the most noble of all the sciences; as head of the Housing Trust, Stretton counselled against the construction of high-rise apartments that became a feature of public housing in the eastern states.
The Angels were born of a platonic and artistic liaison between Bernard “Doc” Neeson and Rick and John Brewster. Neeson had migrated to Australia from the UK, presumably taking advantage of the single-storey, red-brick South Australian public housing rolled out under Stretton’s leadership. Neeson was studying at Flinders University in Adelaide’s south-western suburbs when he joined the Brewster brothers’ Moonshine Jug and String Band. That band morphed into The Keystone Angels and subsequently The Angels. (The more mature reader may remember an elder patron of the band giving a long and laborious history of The Angels at a Countdown Awards ceremony at the dawn of the 1980s).
Headed by the irrepressible Neeson and backed by the impregnable Brewster brothers’ guitar attack, The Angels became a staple of the Australian pub-rock scene – admit it, we’ve all found ourselves chanting the Shakespearean refrain “No way, get fucked, fuck off” at some suburban establishment in some stage of our misguided suburban youth. And fuck it was funny.
In the 1990s Neeson’s fortunes took a dive after a car accident; in the 21st century The Angels’ name became the subject of a seemingly intractable legal feud between Neeson and his former bandmates: The Angels, Original Angels, Doc Neeson’s Angels. (Why didn’t anyone institute a class action against Paul Hogan for Almost An Angel, even simply on cinematic grounds?) An uneasy truce was reached a few years ago to coincide with the re-release of the band’s classic Face to Face album.
The reunion lasted long enough to rekindle the band’s popular flame on stage, but the withdrawal of Neeson and drummer Buzz Bidstrup from the reincarnated Angels line-up suggests the band’s internal relationships have reached a terminal point.
And, with that potted history in mind, The Angels – now with former Screaming Jets singer Dave Gleeson assuming lead vocal duties – have returned with a new album. The unavoidable yardstick against which Take It to the Streets is measured is historical in nature: if it’s The Angels, it’s gotta have a certain sound, surely? Conversely, if it’s got that sound isn’t that sort of wrong, ‘cause Doc’s not there?
‘To the Streets’ is, objectively, a solid rock song, albeit on the pop side of the pub-rock equation. The odd organ flourish in the background is unexpected, and does enough to keep the track from degenerating into commercial radio sludge. ‘Wounded Healer’ is closer to the mark, the Brewsters’ chunky power chords channelling 1986 in all its mulleted glory; it’s tempting to wonder if the lyrics are exploring Neeson’s health dramas, but that’s gratuitous and could earn a lawsuit if approached in the wrong way.
Part of me was hoping that ‘Waiting for the Sun’ would be a cover of the Doors track of the same name – surely that’d be some weird form of culture jamming – but it’s anything but. Legs akimbo, a sneer and some cardboard-flavoured beer in hand, and you’re in the zone. ‘Life Gets Better’ is the slow and heavy event; as Gleeson leans on every word, it’s not entirely sure life is actually getting any better. But maybe that’s the point. ‘Telephone’ is the ballad: deep, meaningful and a recipe for lighters waving in the air. When the guitar solo appears in all its indulgent glory, there’s barely a dry eye in the proverbial house.
Order is restored on ‘No Sleep in Hell’ – yes, it’s open to accusation of rock by the numbers, but the sums add up and you can see all the working out. Top marks. ‘The More You Give’ harks back to the boogie groove of yore; a casual thrust of the hips, a shuffle of the feet, a hint of John Stewart’s ‘Gold’ and a readymade spot on the commercial radio station of your choice. ‘When the Time Comes’ could be a classic hit from Sydney’s ’80s power-pop scene – if The Trilobites had recorded this, they might’ve become something more than a footnote in Australian independent rock history. Elvis Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’ is a surprise inclusion and comes up trump – Gleeson’s voice does perfect justice to Costello’s snotty punk vocals, and who could possibly deny that riff?
‘There Comes a Time’ isn’t particularly offensive, and therein exists its pejorative assessment. ‘Small Price’ has the sole benefit of a chorus even the most inebriated of punters can recite, plus an underlying melody that reminded me of Midnight Oil’s ‘Section 5 (Bus to Bondi)’ and an interlude in the realm of AC/DC’s ‘Jailbreak’. ‘Getting Free’ is speedway rock, no seat belts or random breath tests; it’s liberating and invigorating. ‘Some Kinda Hell in Here’ is saved by a Ray Manzarek organ moment; ‘Free Bird’ is lockstep with boogie blues and a hint of John Lee Hooker for good measure.
It’s a gutsy move to release a record when your iconic lead singer is no longer in the fold. Hugh Stretton was never, to the best of my knowledge, an Angels fan, but he’d agree that Take it to the Streets necessarily exists within a broader historical narrative. In the context of The Angels’ rich narrative, this is a tough album to make, and an even tougher proposition to succeed. As an absolute product, Take It to the Streets is good enough; as relative achievement, it’s a more complex equation.