Greville St Bookstore

Robert Forster & Billy Thorpe
November 11, 2009, 2:39 am
Filed under: Music


by Jason Walker
pb $35.00

Amongst the dozen or so photographs in Walker’s book, there is a shot of Billy Thorpe with Lobby Loyde, taken during Loyde’s induction into the Aria Hall of Fame in August 2006. Loyde, who had been fighting cancer for some time, looks old, frail, almost cadaverous. Thorpe, on the other hand, positively glows, a picture of ruddy good health. To have predicted that Thorpe would be dead two months ahead of Loyde, in February 2007, at age sixty, seems unthinkable.

Rock n’ Roll was different back in the sixties. Australian artists who pioneered the music were pretty much washed away with the tide long before the decade was over. The prim innocence and tight suits morphed into a counter-culture that demanded more from their music than simple dance steps. The family fare of Brian Henderson’s Bandstand gave way to the ABC’s GTK, and music careers were measured in years, not decades.

Thorpe was in many ways an exception to this rule, having not one but two major careers that spanned this musical divide. Perhaps nowhere was this more on display than Thorpe’s two performances during the Long Way to the Top concerts, the only artist to do so under his own name, firstly with the original Aztecs, then with the Sunbury Aztecs. Labelling Billy one of rock’s great survivors seems like an understatement.

Jason Walker’s biography covers all aspects of Billy’s many lives. But so vast is the subject that it feels, at times, as if we are reading a condensed outline rather than the full story. Walker gives us Thorpe’s early years in Queensland, beginning with his performances as a ten year old under the guise of Little Rock Allen, before shifting gear to recount Billy’s success with the original Aztecs in Sydney in the early sixties — playing nightly gigs at Surf City, driving girls wild, and charting at #1 with ‘Poison Ivy’ in 1964. This was a time Billy revisited himself, albeit fictionally, in Sex and Thugs and Rock n’ Roll.

I suspect most readers will be more familiar with the second life of the Aztecs, often referred to as the Sunbury Aztecs, dating from the time Thorpe moved to Melbourne in 1968, teamed up with Lobby Loyde, cranked up the decibels and almost single-handedly inaugurated pub rock. For a handful of years, he could do no wrong, blazing a trail into immortality with his incendiary performances at the Sunbury Festivals 1972-74. It seems incredible that, with so much music history behind him at the time when he went to live in the States in 1976, he was barely thirty years of age.

Like so many artists of his generation, Punk’s ground zero swept Thorpe and his brand of hard driving rock and blues into oblivion. Tired, and partially burnt out, he headed for the US, going off the radar for most listeners. For that reason, I found the most interesting part of Walker’s book to be his account of Thorpe’s twenty or so years in the States, a complex time that yielded success and failure, including ventures as varied as recordings, television soundtracks, electronics, toy companies, children’s books, and the Zoo project with Mick Fleetwood. Thorpe’s late career back in Australia, from 1996 until his death, is better known. It was a decade that saw him garnering the sort of elder statesman adulation that such a legendary music career warranted. He remained passionate, both performing and working on the Tangier recordings, right up until his sudden and untimely death.

If anything, there’s a slightly annoying tendency in Walker’s book to overly portray Thorpe as the irascible larrikin he no doubt was, and to view his career as an endless series of highlights. If there’s a dark side, and there must have been, we get too little glimpse of it. Nor does Walker cast a critical eye over the recordings. After all, Thorpe’s best years coincided with the infancy of the independent recording industry in this country, and his legacy consists largely of live albums, sometimes poorly recorded. No doubt those who followed his endless live gigs have their own memories. Some of the best insights in Walker’s book come from Aztecs drummer Gil Matthews, the man behind the superb re-packaging of this music via his Aztec label. One can only hope that, as keeper of the flame, he someday provides his own personal account. Till such time, Walker’s generous and endearing portrait of the great musical maverick will have to suffice.

reviewed by Des


by Robert Forster
pb $27.95

Anyone who regularly reads the Monthly will be familiar with Robert Forster’s music reviews that grace its pages. It comes as a surprise therefore to learn he’d published virtually nothing before editor Christian Ryan approached him in 2004 to take on the role. But then again, the Forster/McLennan songwriting team that made up the Go-Betweens always wore their literary influences lightly, marrying poetry with infectious pop hooks, bright as a summer’s day. Forster brings this same songwriter’s skill — an almost compressed poetry — to bear on his second career as a prose writer; that, along with an inquiring mind and eclectic knowledge of music history. In fact, calling these pieces ‘reviews’ is to somehow miss the point — the best of them are beautifully conceived and written mini-essays, models of music journalism. For we mere scribes, utterly lacking in musical talent, it seems unjust that Forster could prove so competent plying this his secondary trade.

The book consists of some forty essays, five or six pages apiece, most of them culled from the pages of the Monthly between 2006 and August 2009. There are album reviews, book reviews, concert reviews on pretty much anything that takes Forster’s fancy: Dylan, Paul Kelly, the Monkees, Phil Spector, the Saints, AC/DC, Bonnie Prince Billie, Delta Goodrem, Augie March, Glen Campell, the Big Day Out, the Countdown Spectacular. On almost all, Forster has something of interest to say. He is thoughtful and considered, knows how to get to the nub of his subject, have his say, and exit gracefully. The book also includes two moving pieces on fellow Go-Between Grant McLennan, one of which was previously selected to appear in the prestigious US series Best Music Writing in 2007. At their best, these pieces read like stories, bristling with a narrative drive that, unlike much journalism, keeps the reader engaged. Given this, it seems fitting that Forster ends the collection with a short story about Normie Rowe, along with an imagined account of ‘The 10 Bands I Wish I’d Been In’. As a fellow reviewer, I’d like to say to Forster: “Don’t give up your day job”. But, on the evidence of this book, and much to my chagrin, I reckon he probably could.

reviewed by Des


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