Thursday, 1 March 2007
I wandered over to the Westernport Hotel on Sunday to see Thorpie and get a blast from the past, turns out that it was his last gig. To say that he was a major musical influence would be an understatement
I hitch hiked to Sunbury as a naive 15 year old and was blown away by the sheer energy and volume of the Aztecs, my ears were ringing for weeks afterwards, caught his act many times over the years and he was the consummate showman, always ready to smile and say g'day and always giving 100%. I'm gunna miss the bugger.
ALAN Howe writes:
In 1969, Billy Thorpe saw the future of rock'n'roll, it was him. He'd had a similar vision six years earlier. Just a teenager, he moved from Brisbane to Sydney where he saw a group called the Aztecs, whose latest surf instrumental was limping around the lower reaches of the charts. Billy told the Aztecs they needed a singer, helpfully, he added, he was that singer. If they argued with him, it was the last time anybody did, certainly no one was arguing by the end of 1969.
In August that year Thorpe set off for Melbourne with Dave McTaggert on bass and Jimmy Thompson on drums (Aztecs would come and go - 23 men can claim to have been an Aztec). Thorpe thought he would do a few low-key gigs before heading off to London, as bands did back then, but once here, he picked up an incendiary guitarist called Lobby Loyde and turned up at the Village Green pub on Springvale Rd.
Back then, your mum and dad went to the pub - young people attended Bertie's, Sebastian's, Maze and the Thumpin' Tum. These were unlicensed venues with back lanes that were nonetheless strewn with wine bottles whose labels read Sparkling Rhinegold, Stone's Green Ginger and Porphyry Pearl. A lot was about to change and unquestionably the architect of that change was Billy Thorpe.
The Village Green was soon packed with young people drinking beer and listening to the Aztecs, other pubs - the Croxton Park and the Matthew Flinders - soon caught on with any number of blues-based rock bands taking the stage. There was Spectrum, Chain, the Wild Cherries, One Ton Gypsy, Carson and Company Caine. It was called pub rock and it exploded across the suburbs.
Sydney bands came down to get in on the act: Tully, Fraternity, Tamam Shud and Kahvas Jute, then they came from everywhere, even New Zealanders caught the bug.
Victoria's licensing laws were changed to accommodate the phenomenon, pubs could stay open until 11pm and then midnight, but only if meals were served, these arrived on small plastic plates and consisted of a handful of cold chips and a fish finger or two. At least that's what they looked like.
And although his sets consisted of healthy servings of US covers - C C Rider, Good Mornin' Little Schoolgirl, Jenny, Jenny and Ooh Poo Pa Doo - Thorpe helped turn the local music scene away from a crippling acceptance that we were inferior.
He had been part of that problem himself in the early 1960s. Most people first heard of Thorpe when the Aztecs' Poison Ivy knocked the Beatles' Can't Buy Me Love off the number one spot in the charts - impertinently doing so as the Fab Four toured Australia, Poison Ivy was on the new Rolling Stones' EP and getting in early with copies of US and UK hits was a way of life for Australian bands, but by 1970 Billy Thorpe - while regularly playing the songs of others - brought a cocky Australian attitude to performing.
Some progressive bands dressed like characters out of Alice in Wonderland, taking their cue from the Kinks and the Sgt Pepper's cover, "Thorpie", as he had become known by then, dressed like us, even if he did have a ponytail snaking its way halfway down his back. He swore on stage, like we did at the bar. And he made a racket like . . . absolutely no one else. With amps turned up to 11 long before Spinal Tap, Billy Thorpe was so loud it hurt, he loved it loud, so did Lobby Loyde, told after one set that punters in the four first rows had their fingers in their ears, Loyde smiled with surprise: "Really? That's great!"
The Aztecs saw it as a patriotic duty to play louder than anyone else, and longer: Thorpe's final reworking of Ooh Poo Pa Doo clocked in at 18 minutes. Thorpe was certainly brave - a risk taker with a confidence that bordered on arrogance, he recorded 1970's The Hoax is Over live in the studio, nobody did that, not that many Australian acts recorded albums at all. And it only had four tracks, was he mad?
The whole thing came to a head with Thorpe's legendary Sunbury performances over the Australia Day weekends of the early '70s, in 1972, an entirely Australian bill was topped by a band we called our own - unthinkable just three years earlier, and in the previous six months Spectrum, Daddy Cool and Russell Morris had topped the charts with songs they wrote themselves. Australian music had come of age.
Thorpe outgrew Australia, went to live in the US, and recorded some adventurous albums, Children of the Sun grazing the Billboard top 20 in 1979. Back in Australia in 1994 and with a three-CD "best of" to promote, I asked Michael Gudinski whether Thorpe would be up for a competition in which a Sunday Herald Sun reader would win a backyard performance by the reforming Aztecs, more than 10,000 readers wanted Billy in their back yard. We telephoned the winner, Susan, with the news, remarkably, 30 years earlier, she had been one of Thorpe's go-go dancers. She and 150 of her friends gathered at her house in Gardenvale as Thorpe and his Aztecs loudly announced they were back. They had just finished the first song, C C Rider, when the police turned up, it was just like the old days.
At the end of the show, amid thunderous applause, Thorpe walked back to the microphone: "I might do this for a living," he said.
Thorpe changed music, he changed Australians' perceptions of themselves, and he even changed licensing laws.
Most people I know thought he was great.