Since releasing their now legendary debut single ‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again’ in May 1976, the band has gone on to enjoy an extraordinary career – through the release of a vast catalogue of recorded music and performing thousands of gigs over more than three decades. Now that the quintessential Angels line-up responsible for recording the landmark first four albums that laid the foundations for everything that followed have reformed, and are now touring together for the first time since 1981, we are again reminded why the band is so revered.
Indisputably throughout their history they have been venerated not only by their legions of dedicated fans – many of whom have grown up with their music from their youth; but can boast a fan club of some of rock music’s greatest names. AC/DC, David Bowie, Keith Richards, Aerosmith, Guns ‘N Roses, Meat Loaf, Kurt Cobain, Motley Crue, Great White, Cheap Trick, Pearl Jam and lastly, but by no means least, former Easybeats’ legends Harry Vanda and George Young, who also launched the recording career of AC-DC and a host of others via independent Sydney label Alberts – are members.
To trace the origins of The Angels you need to go back to Adelaide and Flinders Universities in 1970 – as friends got together and formed The Moonshine Jug & String Band. Its members included brothers John and Rick Brewster; and a Belfast born but Adelaide-raised Bernard ‘Doc’ Neeson – a distant relative of Ned Kelly. With their eclectic music rooted in a mix of 1920’s blues and jazz replete with washboard, washtub bass, banjo, harmonica and kazoos, their shambolic origins eventually gave way to genuine dexterity as they became a hit on the Adelaide arts scene. While studying to complete degree courses, Doc, John and Rick eventually succumbed to their appetite to pursue a career as professional musicians.
In 1974 and now emboldened by their academic grasp of the world of film, music and drama, the Brewster brothers and Doc decided to ditch the jug band and become electric warriors along with drummer Charlie King. Starting out with raucous cover versions of 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll and recycled rhythm and blues, it was only a matter of time before they would replace other people’s songs with their own. The first hint that they were putting together something special came with their appearance at the 1975 Sunbury outdoor festival where their good time rocking scored them a standing ovation and three encores from a wildly receptive audience in the tens of thousands.
Later in the year they thought they had struck rock ‘n roll gold when they were employed to act both as Chuck Berry’s backing band and his support. Undertaking a national tour with the man who some credit as the father of rock ‘n roll provided them with a priceless education in Berry’s distinctive stage craft and minimalism. But they also had to put up with one of rock’s most notoriously cranky, distrustful and generally unpleasant individuals. However, another support slot that year turned out to be both a heart-warming exercise and massively beneficial to their future when they toured outback South Australia with AC-DC – playing the three hot spots of Whyalla, Port Pirie and Port Augusta. In what resembled a rock tour variation on ‘Priscilla – Queen of the Desert’ the two bands got on like a house on fire.
Buoyed by the encouragement of Bon Scott and the Young brothers they moved to Sydney in early 1976, bolstered by a name change and evolving their sound to a more contemporary rock feel. Now as The Angels and following the recommendation of Scott and Angus and Malcolm Young, they were signed by Vanda and Young to join AC-DC at the Alberts label after successfully recording some demos of their new material.
“When I look back now on the band after all these years, I just marvel at what a great band we were and I don’t think we as a band understood it fully then,’ Doc says with the added benefit of additional experience now. ‘I think when we went overseas people at the record companies were a bit unsure what to do with these Aussies, even though I don’t doubt we were world class. In America they like to put types of music into boxes, and we got one reviewer who said we were a “new wave, hard rock, new romantic band”. The guy just didn’t know where to categorise us. But the audiences got it because to them we were just rock ‘n roll. But I think for the industry itself, given American sensibilities, they just found us difficult to pigeonhole.”
Putting that behind them now, the band has again hit the road with a documentary crew in tow to help capture the historic occasion for a future SBS documentary. How appropriate that in the 30th anniversary year since ‘Face To Face’, they’re back with a vengeance selling out venues again to make a special year in their long history even more memorable. As part of that process Alberts and Sony have put together a specially remastered and expanded edition of ‘Face to Face’ with five previously unreleased tracks taken from their legendary 1979 live concert at La Trobe University, as well as further special edition reissues of ‘No Exit’, ‘Dark Room’ and their debut album. Add to that schedule a feature packed DVD of the La Trobe concert in full Dolby Digital, and surely there’s never been a better time to embrace the good Doctor’s own advice – “this is it folks – over the top”!