The Beatles took Australia by storm in 1963. The British Invasion followed, a seemingly endless procession of original hit acts, many of whom made a personal appearance in Australia despite the rigors of travel in that epoch. The Stones, Kinks, Yardbirds, Zombies, Troggs, Who, and many others, became household names or very nearly so. By 1966, however, home-grown Australian acts were featured on the airwaves with very nearly equal regularity. The Easybeats had some claim to being the best band of all. They almost out-Beatled the Beatles, producing an amazing run of smash radio hits and inciting girl hysteria every bit as frenzied as the Fab Four (as documented so perfectly for the Beatles by the film A Hard Day’s Night). The Loved Ones, conversely, had some claim to producing the deepest and most exciting music of this time. The Bee Gees, underage upstarts on the Australian scene, had a marvelous hit rarely if ever heard in the northern hemisphere, then left for England to embark on one of the greatest pop careers ever witnessed. And the well was deep, with many bands and artists bringing out unique and exciting music. Strange to think how little of it ever crossed the equator.
The first Australian hit to compete with the British Invasion was “Poison Ivy” by Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs. True, there had been a previous monster hit, “Bombora” by the Atlantics, but that was instrumental surf music (a genre at which Australians naturally excelled). Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs took a Rolling Stones EP track and gave it a performance to render all other versions obsolete. Curiously, the Stones had simply copied the original by the Coasters, giving it a lackluster performance into the bargain. The Aztecs‘ rendition is notable not only for the reconception of the song as British rock, but also for the excellent performances by vocalist Billy Thorpe and guitarist Vince Maloney, teasing out rhythms hidden deep in the underlying form of the song. This record was noteworthy for its release on a small Australian indigenous label, Linda Lee, and it was the last that they would record on that label, since at this point EMI snapped them up and put them on the Parlophone label of Beatles fame. The illustration at right is of the second pressing with its design conforming to the Festival family of subsidiary and associated labels. Possibly the majority of copies were sold in this form, because the impact of the record was huge and continued long after the initial burst of popularity. The follow-up on Parlophone was a remake of a tune entitled “Mashed Potato” originally recorded by James Brown under a pseudonym. More straightforward, it once again was a transformational cover with infectious rock magic. Thereafter the band based itself more comprehensively around the singing talents of Billy Thorpe and was less influential.
Most of the bands, including the Aztecs (with English-born Billy Thorpe), had a significant British or European component in their personnel, but Australian recorded music had already seen a long train of development in the rock’n’roll, country & western, and other genres. Some bands attempted to harness nostalgic elements deriving from an older country sound and its romantic associations with drifters and swagmen, as well as folk elements based on convict themes. One of the best among the early Australian bands of the British Invasion era was Ray Brown and the Whispers, who did not lose touch with older and more indigenous sentiment. Hits such as “Pride” and “Fool, Fool, Fool” are in roughly the same class as the better things put out by Gene Pitney, an American who was a fixture on Australian radio in those times. In keeping with their roots orientation, this band was also accessible to deep soul, recording a stirring rendition of Wilson Pickett‘s “The Midnight Hour.” They were a dab hand at British Invasion style, too, as “Go To Him” and “Ain’t It Strange” demonstrate. Their label, Leedon, long in existence, had a curiously prophetic name, for it led on into the peculiar association between indigenous radio hits and indigenous recording labels that was so prominent a feature in the heady days of 1966. Leedon also recorded all of the earliest music of the Bee Gees, yet the brothers Gibb were never a great success on Leedon and were eventually dumped, only to be resurrected on another Festival subsidiary, Spin, to a much higher degree of public interest.
Meanwhile, EMI was easily the largest recording company in Australia, and a considerable part of the British Invasion catalogue was published by them, since they manufactured not only their own standard British labels – HMV, Columbia, Parlophone – but also a large quantity of British music released through manufacturing and distribution agreements with labels that did not have operations in Australia. This included above all the Decca catalogue, to which one must add especially Motown from the American side.
Having brought the Beatles to Australia, EMI’s Parlophone label proceeded to sign an indigenous sort of Beatles, the storied Easybeats. None of the five members of this group was actually Australian. Two were Dutch, two English, and one Scottish. That does not prevent the Easybeats from being the most representative Australian rock band of the 1960s. Early hits in 1965, “For My Woman” and “She‘s So Fine,” catapulted them to the top of the charts and held out extraordinary promise, but the onslaught came in 1966, with a string of hits that competed easily with the Beatles and must continue to rank among the greatest rock music ever, even if none of them has ever been considered (or even heard, let’s be frank about things) by Rolling Stone Magazine. As a music situated in a given time frame within music history, “Women (Make You Feel Alright)” in my opinion must rank among the top five or ten radio hits of the British Invasion era. Then followed “I’ll Make You Happy,” which develops an idea from a fifties tune called “I Want You To Be My Baby,” namely going from one to two to three syllables in the first three lines of the verse (“I...I want...I want you...”), but without plagiarizing. This was a radio hit derived from an EP called Easyfever, which drew its name from a then unfolding social phenomenon characterized by mass hysteria at any public appearance, let alone performance, by the Easybeats. The EP was brilliant, with all four tracks superb and highly original as compositions and performances, and one could sense that one was dealing with something culturally valuable, given that it was sold on its own merits, not as a repackaging of preexisting hits as was the norm with EPs.
The best was still to come. First “Sorry,” an encapsulation of all of the Easybeats’ frenetic tendencies and to my mind one of the great unsung classics of rock. This was a chartbuster in Australia, but unheard of anywhere else except perhaps in neighboring countries. With “Sorry” at No. 1 we were already hearing the radio play “Friday On My Mind,” a tune recorded in England. Here the Easybeats essentially saw the one song dethrone the other at the top of the charts. “Friday On My Mind” sounded different, and initially one was not so happy about that, but clearly it was good. After repeated listenings it would eventually become clear that this was one of those very rare accomplishments, where a tune had a legitimate claim to being the best rock recording ever, an honor that I would reserve to a handful of Beatles tunes, plus Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” but also to another Australian band noted below.
At this point the Easybeats brought out their Australian-made third album, and lo! it was a very solid effort, not quite as good as the Beatles, but vastly better than most albums coming out in America at this time. The previous Easybeat albums were somewhat derivative of the Beatles and cannot be mentioned in the same breath, although the second in particular contains a selection of great songs. So in 1967 the world was essentially their oyster. Yet now things began to change and eventually to fall apart. “Friday On My Mind” was a worldwide success, and the Easybeats moved to England for the long term, but their interaction with English producers and artist-repertoire management was far from healthy. Superb songs were recorded and left in the vaults. Conversely, tolerable or even questionable material with slick production and inadequate arrangements was included on the British LP Good Friday. Taken critically as a whole, this was a less-than-great album and did not come out in Australia (unless of course as an import) due to a complex contractual situation. Recordings for a second English album looked more promising, including the lost classic “Amanda Storey,” but the deal fell through and no one now knows what that album would have looked like, though many suspect that it would have been incredibly good if it had approached completion. The actual second English album came out much later, and for the most part it was a far cry from the expectations of Easybeat aficionados, despite its merits. The band folded soon thereafter.
EMI’s Columbia imprint was also quite active, in the first place on account of the Seekers. This was an Australian folk band who made some obscure recordings, travelled as on-ship entertainment to England, found themselves in an advantageous situation, and produced a string of remarkable hits rewarded by a Royal Command Performance. Their success was not a product of the Australian recording industry, although they returned to the warmest imaginable appreciation in Australia. The Columbia banner in Australia was carried forward primarily by the Twilights, a six piece band with two singers, who developed a reputation for exact replication of British and other new music. In the course of 1966 they became very popular, first covering “Bad Boy,” a difficult-to-find Beatles track, and then covering “Needle In A Haystack,” an obscure Motown tune. Their performance style was very rhythmic and energetic and ideal for promoting those two tunes, of which the second must certainly rank among the best singles of that year. They then won the newly instituted Hoadley’s band contest, first prize being a sea voyage to England replete with contacts, studio time and gigs upon arrival. Accordingly, towards the end of the year they appeared in England to record their next Australian smash hit, an arrangement of the Hollies’ “What’s Wrong With The Way I Live” that sounds uncannily close to the original version, which came out (on LP) at roughly the same time: the main difference was that the Twilights, like the Hollies, had their own distinctive vocal sound. In England they were also able to record a couple of originals, including “Young Girl,” which demonstrated a shift toward top-notch original compositions with arrangements to keep pace with the burgeoning psychedelia. The double A-sided “The Way They Play” / “Cathy Come Home” followed, and by this time the Twilights had reached the same artistic plateau as the Easybeats.
His Master’s Voice, the third of the EMI imprints, did not present much of the classic Australian rock of this period. They seem to have concentrated on Melbourne bands, but were unable to discover the gold mine that was hidden there. The best they managed would be the Moods’ obscure but fascinating “Rum Drunk.” Parlophone, conversely, concentrated on the Sydney area and found several further remarkable bands, the most famous being the Throb, whose version of “Fortune Teller,” copied fairly exactly from the same early Rolling Stones EP that “Poison Ivy” came from, is another great unsung rock classic. The pity was that the record company had little esteem for the Throb, withdrawing their second single before publication; the third single, “Black,” is often highly praised, but not so easily assimilated. The celebrated Missing Links began on Parlophone, but unlike the Throb they managed to jump labels almost immediately to Philips. One suspects that Parlophone did not like the scruffy long-hair image of those bands. The Allusions, by comparison, played Merseybeat in conventional suits and could do no wrong. They actually managed to record an album, which included their excellent singles “Gypsy Woman” and “The Dancer.”
A story parallel to that of the Easybeats was meanwhile being written by the Bee Gees. But first they had to get onto the Spin label, a Festival subsidiary, and for this to happen Spin needed to form. The first step was the formation of a label in conjunction with the Packer empire’s teen magazine Everybody’s. Four singles were released, including two remarkable ones. “Saturday Date” by Toni McCann, concerning a night spot rather than a person, encapsulated in its no more than two minutes all of the excitement of the home-bred Australian rock scene, and is enduring for that very reason. Enduring entirely on its own merits, conversely, was Steve and The Board’s “The Giggle-Eyed Goo.” This is essentially a reworking of “Louie, Louie” with an energetic and crisp arrangement, quite unlike the Neanderthal versions coming out in various parts of the world, each successive version a further stage of degeneration from the Richard Berry original of 1957. Yet “The Giggle-Eyed Goo” also has some madcap antics and a unique message. The flipside was a cover of the Pretty Things’ “Rosalyn,” where the lyrics had to be changed considerably so that the radio censors would not ban it. This was after all a nation where radio stations bleeped over the word ‘bloody’ whenever the Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” was played, and the Troggs’ “I Can’t Control Myself” was banned owing chiefly to its reference to “low cut slacks.” Co-composer of “The Giggle-Eyed Goo” and “Saturday Date” was Nat Kipner, artist-repertoire manager for the Everybody’s label, who recognized that being associated with a teen magazine was holding the company back. The label was then reformed as Spin.
A noteworthy feature of the Everybody’s label logo was directly inherited by Spin: the spindle hole was incorporated into the lettering of the label name. But with Spin the lettering was by necessity offset to one side, leading to a trance-like effect as the record revolved on the turntable. Onto this label landed the Bee Gees when Leedon was no longer interested in them. They were still schoolboys, but had done a few original and interesting things for Leedon, such as “Wine And Women” and “I Was A Lover, A Leader of Men,” and appeared to be improving as they matured. On Spin they gave us the magnificent “Spicks And Specks,” voted the best record of 1966. This simply meant that it had the most general appeal of the original Australian hits of that year: it could be enjoyed by the conservative radio public as well as by beat-crazed youth. The song, the label – the effect was mesmerizing. Another song with a similar impact on the psyche, though enjoying lesser popularity, was “Big Time Operator” by the Id featuring Jeff St. John. Arriving from Everybody’s onto the Spin label, Steve and the Board (Steve being Nat Kipner’s son) captured the label’s inherent mesmerism on their single, “Now I’m Older,” by means of a digeridoo effect created with ordinary studio instruments, plus some backwards vocal tape in a bridge section. The Bee Gees soon left for England, taking the Board’s drummer with them, and the label color changed to deep orange with black diameter stripe. Spin nevertheless retained the Bee Gees’ contract and published the Australian editions of their great run of hits in the following years.
Just as the 45 rpm disc spins, so do the fans go for the music (or become enthused by it), and the Go!! label carried some especially significant music. Throughout its existence the label had a close connection with The Go!! Show, a Melbourne-produced weekly evening television special that ran from mid-1964 to mid-1967. The first artists to appear on the Go!! label were Bobby and Laurie. Their biggest hit, however, was “Hitch Hiker,” a Roger Miller cover with the duo by then recording for Parlophone – it is a fine example of early Australian rock music drawing on country and folk roots. The Go!! label meanwhile became genuinely iconic when in mid-1965 it brought out “Little Boy Sad” by MPD Ltd. This disc was greatly ahead of its time. Neither hard rock nor punk existed as yet, but MPD Ltd. gave a performance that can serve as a basic definition for either genre. A national smash hit like few others, “Little Boy Sad” can also be recognized as one of the finest accomplishments in the music of these years. The song itself was originally recorded by Johnny Burnette in 1961, but in MPD Ltd.’s hands it was totally transformed. Indeed, the normal processes were reversed as Herman’s Hermits evidently heard it on an Australian tour and recorded virtually a note-for-note cover upon their return to England, though one doubts that it was much appreciated by their English or American fans, who were accustomed to a more conventional vibe.
In actuality MPD Ltd. were neither hard rock nor punk, but ordinary Australian rockers with a flair for live performance, and their further singles were not so radical. Covers of Paul Anka’s “Lonely Boy” and the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walkin’ In the Sand)” tell part of that story, even while hidden gems of original composition remain to be uncovered within their limited corpus. For the moment, plenty of other bands were there to carry the Go!! standard forward. The longest-lived were the Cherokees, and here a note of explanation is required. The Cherokees are of course a native American nation, even perhaps an especially honored one. But the Australian pop group derived their name from something quite different, namely a popular Australian ice cream company, Cher-O-Kee, which as I seem to recall specialized in prepared and packaged items such as ‘drumsticks’, which were sugar cones filled with syrup-streaked ice cream and topped with crumbled nuts and frozen chocolate, a very useful complement to the Australian summer sun. This band then brought out a series of singles, some of which possibly bore a metaphoric resemblance to such ice cream products. The one I like best is the one I heard most at the time, “A Woman With Soul,” a transformational cover of the Impressions’ “Woman’s Got Soul.” The finest music on the Go!! label, at least in my opinion, however, was by one of the shortest-lived bands, the 18th Century Quartet. Their “Raechel” was well noted at the time, but did not sell many copies, and its follow-up, “Drawing Room,” was even better, yet ignored entirely.
This was a time when everything having to do with pop music excitement, together with paraphernalia such as fashion, food, party games, and art posters, was said to be in. Having produced a Go!! and a Spin, the Australian music industry clearly needed an In label and won it somewhat begrudgingly from W&G, a recording company of many years’ standing. For the In label were reserved the greatest achievements of all, the first two singles by the Loved Ones. It is necessary to emphasize that this music was not regarded as a local phenomenon. Rather, it was seen objectively as the best thing going on the radio – not quite as refined as the Beatles, but probably deeper. The band’s repertoire consisted predominantly of original compositions, and most of them incorporated the word ‘love’ in the title, with the first single repeating the band name, “The Loved One.” This is one of those rare candidates for consideration as the greatest rock single ever, however rarely it may have graced turntables outside Australasia. It is mainly in 9/8 time, and to describe it beyond that would be pointless. Incredible as it may seem, the follow-up, entitled “Ever Lovin’ Man,” deserves equal esteem and consideration. It compares favorably with “The Loved One” on almost any basis, so there can be no doubt about its greatness. The mood is somber, however, unlike the good-natured bemusement of its predecessor. In all there were five Loved Ones’ singles, each unique and powerful. The last was “Love Song,” which had some nice lead guitar lines that have yet to reappear on CD editions, even though the rest of the song is there. Of two EPs, one featured the radio hit “Blueberry Hill,” while the LP entitled The Loved Ones’ Magic Box was essentially a compilation. These were issued on the parent label, W&G.
The most successful indigenous label was Sunshine, largely on account of the kind offices of Normie Rowe, a teen heart-throb who excited widespread girl hysteria as a solo artist, though not quite so ubiquitously as the Easybeats did as a group. At the time I listened with annoyance whenever the DJ span the latest Normie single, but I now hear those records gratefully enough. Sunshine, again a Festival subsidiary, certainly had much more interesting music to offer, granted that the most interesting things may have been far less successful. The greatest Sunshine band was the Purple Hearts, best remembered for their daft mime of “Early In The Morning” shown repeatedly on the Kommotion show. Despite its origin in traditional black music, this was more restrained and reflective than the normal Purple Hearts recipe of frenzied rhythm & blues, but it does fit their modus operandi of a fatally good cover drawing on an impossibly rare original.
Another Sunshine accomplishment deserving mention is the Atlantics’ three singles in late 1966 and early 1967. The Atlantics regularly performed studio backing for solo artists such as the old-time rocker Johnny Rebb, and Johnny Rebb joined forces with them for this eminently successful foray into the contemporary Australian sound. Extraordinarily good as those Atlantics tracks were, a more important contributor to Sunshine were the Librettos. Voted the best band in New Zealand in 1964, they arrived in Sydney to try their luck and soon jumped from HMV to Sunshine. They picked up an Australian drummer, moved to Melbourne, and eventually reduced their number to three. Their best remembered record is their last, “Kicks,” where they entirely superseded Paul Revere and the Raiders’ original version. It is a little remembered but indisputable fact that this was a double A-sided single, the other half being a cover of the Small Faces’ “Watcha Gonna Do About It,” where again the Librettos rendered the original version practically obsolete. Both sides received repeated play on the daily afternoon music show Kommotion, but for some reason the record did not sell very well. When after long and careful consideration I went into central Melbourne to purchase it, the clerk treated me as though I were a long-awaited guest. The Librettos had paid their dues in Australia, and this was Australian music rather than specifically Australasian. It may have been the best thing to come out on Sunshine.
In one way or another Sunshine managed to spawn further labels, as for example Everybody’s described above. The most notable was the Kommotion label, which in its brief existence compiled a short but respectable catalogue. The success of the afternoon half-hour music show Kommotion led to the creation of an associated label, among whose artists the Vince Maloney Sect came to my attention at the time. This music seemed suitably experimental, definitive and authentic. Unfortunately there was very little of it, just the double A-sided single “No Good Without You” / “She’s A Yum Yum.” In the final analysis Mike Furber and the Bowery Boys were a better proposition. Mike Furber was English and closely in touch with English music, which enabled him to cover some rare jewels, like the Mockingbirds’ “You Stole My Love.” This second single appeared first on Sunshine and then on the new Kommotion label. The third single was the double A-sided “You” / “That’s When Happiness Began.” Both sides were excellent, but the latter track was probably more exemplary of the significant Australian rock music of 1966. This band also managed to put out a fairly pleasant album on Kommotion. It begins with three single sides and then wends its way through an assortment of obscure soul and invasion tracks. Mike Furber then abruptly went solo, probably not a good career move. With the demise of Kommotion he passed back to Sunshine, but, like Normie Rowe, was called up into the army.
Also a member of the Festival family was the Clarion label, which in 1966 assumed a virtual monopoly over hit music produced in Western Australia. There was one particularly significant item, the national No. 1 hit “Step Back” by Johnny Young & Kompany. This was a double A-side disc, with the reverse side featuring “Cara-Lynn.” Both sides are very strong slices of Australian rock leaning somewhat in the direction of pop. The record is important to the documentation of the Easyfever phenomenon, since the song “Step Back” was penned by Easybeats Wright and Young and essentially intended for Johnny Young, whose Dutch background was shared by two other members of the Easybeats. The story behind “Cara-Lynn” was still more interesting. It had been a modest hit for the Strangeloves, an American studio band who sought to exoticize their public persona by claiming Australian origin (few Americans of this time actually knowing where Australia even was). Where the Strangeloves basically missed the point, Johnny Young & Kompany hit the song on the nose, parlaying its rudimentary rhythms into a veritable definition of a second A-side hit suitable for car radios and dance floors.
The Festival label per se was not entirely remiss in taking on Australian indigenous rock acts. It had been a major player in the days of rockabilly, but it did not seriously sponsor indigenous music of the British invasion era until 1966. Festival employed at least two different color schemes on 45 rpm discs featuring Australian artists and others, the more familiar being white with light blue diameter stripe and black lettering. Passing onto Festival from Leedon were important bands like the Sunsets and Ray Brown and the Whispers. Of the bands signed directly to Festival, the Black Diamonds and the Wild Cherries stand out especially for their original material and the quality of the performances, but ultimately, sadly enough, for the rather limited number of their recordings. The Black Diamonds made only two singles, but these tracks are of extraordinary interest. The first single had “See The Way,” a tune full of teen angst and a superior example of that genre, while the flipside, “I Want, Need, Love You,” is widely recognized as a psych masterpiece. The Wild Cherries, who arrived somewhat later, were a product of the same milieu as the Loved Ones. They picked up guitar wizard Lobby Loyde when the Purple Hearts folded, and in 1967 they put out two of the better singles of the era – “Krome-Plated Yabby” and “That’s Life” – complex rock compositions by Loyde. Were it not for their limited output, the Wild Cherries would certainly figure among the most celebrated bands of all.
It was late in 1966 that the Masters’ Apprentices appeared on Astor, an otherwise familiar Australian label that had carried the Kinks, Searchers, Petula Clark, as well as many American artists, and had also distributed Go!! records, but only now was showing significant interest in indigenous rock music. The Masters’ Apprentices began in a slick punk vein reminiscent of the Missing Links. For some time thereafter, however, they appeared to suffer an identity crisis that mirrored the crisis of popular music at large. By their third single they were immersed in psychedelia and would later settle into hard rock with a progressive slant. This third single, “Living In A Child’s Dream,” was undoubtedly a superbly realized track, as was the flipside, “Tired Of Just Wandering.” The mood is somber with a hint of resignation, yet the performances remain bright. The first single’s flipside, “Wars Or Hands Of Time,” is similar in mood and contains veiled reference to sentiment, already widespread, against the Vietnam war. It can be questioned whether the Master’s Apprentices were subservient to British examples, and here one thinks primarily of the Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things. They appear to have been more influenced by those models than, say, the Wild Cherries were by Cream and Hendrix. They are reasonably regarded as one of the classic early Australian bands, but in their process of development they left most of their true cohorts behind. Having outlived the Loved Ones and the Easybeats, they passed from one era into the next.
The end of the British Invasion era was signalled in Australia in a peculiar way. The afternoon television music program Kommotion emanating from Melbourne was cancelled owing to a lawsuit by Actor’s Equity, which objected to the practice of miming songs, since the mimes were capable of being misunderstood as performance representations by persons other than the actual artists. The show was cancelled in August 1967. From as early as 1964 up until that time, Australia had produced a unique corpus of rock music, sensed as equal and in some cases superior to northern hemisphere products, and for the most part unsaddled by any perception of regional limitation, if not on an economic level, at least in aesthetic terms.