That Blockhead Thing
Aztec Music’s Archaelogical Dig
The Aztecs' album 'More Arse than Class', 1974. © Aztec Music
The ’60s, so the saying goes, didn’t start in Australia until the ’70s. Richard Nixon was well into his first term in the White House by the time any Aquarian gathering happened here, and it was 1972 when the Sunbury Pop Festival tried to replicate Woodstock in a paddock outside Melbourne. It’s a matter of record that Sunbury’s “three days of sun-filled togetherness” turned into something darker and more aggro. The headliners were Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, four denim-clad longhairs who stood before a wall of amps reforging old American blues tunes into thundering half-hour jams played at such blitzkrieg volume that grown men fled to the hills. Their fans were a flannel-and-denim horde united by a chant of their own devising: “Suck more piss!” It wasn’t the Summer of Love, but it was the start of something – a mongrel boogie from the Australian suburbs that became, for better or worse, a major cultural export.
Its Woodstock moment wasn’t the 35,000 people at Sunbury but a gathering six weeks later when Thorpe and his band played a free open-air concert at the Myer Music Bowl in the centre of Melbourne. The crowd that gathered on that Sunday afternoon 40 years ago was so vast that estimates still vary between 200,000 and 300,000, and police had to close streets to turn back the tide. It was Thorpe’s coronation as a new kind of yob rock’n’roller: he’d been a poodle-cut Bandstand popstar until he dropped LSD, grew his hair and turned his amp to 11. Somehow he skipped the hippy era entirely and helped invent a sound that the music journalist Murray Engleheart, in his book Blood, Sweat & Beers, calls “Australia’s other indigenous music”.
Admittedly, the world had no critical shortage of over-amped white-boy boogie in 1972, but what distinguished the homegrown strain was a certain simple brute wallop honed in the reckless atmosphere of the Australian pub. The guitarist Pete Wells, whose hell-raising band Rose Tattoo would become one of pub rock’s global ambassadors, theorised that the sound had something to do with cheap electric guitars played through massively overdriven Australian-made valve amplifiers, allied to the steady throb of single-note basslines: “that real straight ahead kind of blockhead thing – in a nice way, I’m not putting shit on it”. Phil Manning, a more gentle-natured guitarist, called it “moronic entertainment for yobbos” – not in a nice way.
Blood, Sweat & Beers – a work of exhaustive scholarship that may contain the highest expletive count in the history of non-fiction – is not the only archival project dedicated to resurrecting this artform. For the past six years the Melbourne record label Aztec Music has conducted an archaeological dig through the tape-vaults of long-lost Australian record labels such as Infinity and Havoc, re-releasing a slew of albums by bands such as the Aztecs, Band of Light and the Coloured Balls, whose hallowed Ball Power LP it will soon reissue in a faithful 12-inch vinyl edition. The label is the brainchild of Billy Thorpe’s former drummer, Gil Matthews, a qualified recording engineer who by some divine luck has a remnant of hearing left. Aztec Music’s forte is the reissue as labour of love: careful audio restoration, deluxe cardboard sleeves, extensive historical liner notes.
Gazing through their catalogue is like stepping through a time portal to a place where the fug of dope smoke and stale Victoria Bitter hangs in the air and the only chicks in sight are wearing ‘Band Moll’ T-shirts. Sunbury famously featured only one female performer in its first three years, the extraordinary Wendy Saddington, an Afro-haired blues shouter who appeared at the 1972 festival after recording her one and only album, then retreated from the scene. It wasn’t a time for anyone who had trouble dealing with the male id. The Aztecs sported nicknames like ‘Pig’ and ‘Rats’ and devoted the gatefold inner sleeve of one LP to a panoramic photograph of their bare arses. The cover painting of the Sydney hard-rock band Buffalo’s album Volcanic Rock depicted a castrated yellow creature holding aloft a giant severed phallus while standing astride a volcano shaped like a headless female torso, from which hot lava gushes in a manner that’s better seen than described. (“Our idea was to be controversial,” explains singer Dave Tice in the liner notes.)
These were bands that kept both feet planted in blues machismo even while they were astral travelling. Take Band of Light, whose album Total Union combined ‘blooze ’n’ boogie’ slide guitar with Eastern symbology and third-eye lyrical flights (“Want my mind to extend / Into cosmic forces / Where I can reach out my hand / To the source of sources” et cetera).
What transformed the scene, as Engleheart documents, was that great Australian architectural innovation, the beer barn. Out on the fringes of suburbia, where AV Jennings housing estates were breeding the delinquents of tomorrow, highway intersections hosted sprawling airport-sized taverns surrounded by acres of asphalt car park. The Waltzing Matilda, the Village Green, the Doncaster Inn – these were places where drinking was a blood sport and a 35-minute rendition of ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ at ear-bleed volume was the perfect soundtrack. Forced to play without PA systems – which were regarded by pub owners as an unnecessary extravagance – bands simply lined up multiple guitar amps and plugged them one into the other, a chain of escalating distortion known as ‘slaving’. Like some antipodean inverse of the rural bluesmen who moved to Chicago and went electric, Thorpe and his contemporaries ventured out to the ’burbs and were never the same.
The three live albums that Thorpe and the Aztecs released between 1971 and 1974 capture some of that raw power while offering a salutary warning that playing 12-bar blues on acid is no recipe for brevity. Aztecs Live from 1971 features an 18.5 minute boogie work-out called ‘Momma’, a third of which is taken up with a drum solo. Yet even as Thorpe was conquering the multitudes at the Myer Music Bowl, something harder and faster was being cooked up elsewhere in Melbourne by his former guitarist, the legendary Lobby Loyde.
Already 30, Loyde had a hippy’s heart and a punk’s defiance, a god-versus-devil dichotomy steered by whatever substances he’d ingested. His personal quest, as recounted in Blood, Sweat & Beers, was to achieve a guitar sound so physically overpowering that it “cleans the space in your mind, sweeps it out and then fills it”. His signature tune was ‘G.O.D.’ (aka ‘Guitar Overdose’) an immense, slow-building instrumental that ascended through accelerating chords for up to 30 minutes (he modelled it on Beethoven). As a guitarist he’d already passed through R’n’B, psychedelia and the Aztecs’ boogie when he collected three young musicians and alchemised everything he’d learned into one mad rush of noise called the Coloured Balls.
Typically, Loyde determined the band’s fate only a few months after they formed while driving through Albury in an altered state on the way to a gig. Shaggy-haired and bearded at the time, he spotted a country barber and was overcome with an impulse to free himself from the yoke of all that “hippy shit”. He emerged 20 minutes later with his head entirely shaved except for an ugly rat’s tail running down the back of his neck, a mutant variation of the ‘sharpie’ look then sported by the adolescent gangs of outer Melbourne suburbs like Box Hill, Frankston and Thomastown. After overcoming their horror, the rest of the band trooped across the street to have their luxuriant 1970s locks scalped back. Thus did the Coloured Balls align themselves with the most violent and reviled ‘youf’ of Australia.
Loyde always insisted that the sharpies were a misconstrued subculture whose ethos and style – skin-tight cardigans, crotch-hugging flares, platform shoes, proto-mullet hair styled after David Bowie – were entirely distinct from skinheads. But anyone who ran the gauntlet of Frankston or Jordanville railway stations on a Saturday night between 1970 and 1976 might beg to differ, and a glance at Greg Macainsh’s 1974 short film Sharpies on YouTube is enough to absorb a little of their Cro-Magnon malevolence.
Macainsh: “Waddya think of Melbourne?”
Sharpie [shrugging]: “It’s a hole.”
In the Coloured Balls, sharpies found a band whose ferocious energy matched their omnidirectional rage. Ball Power opens with a granite-hard power chord that lays the template for every AC/DC album that would follow; two songs later comes ‘Won’t You Make Up Your Mind’, which at 1.33 minutes prefigures the amphetamine rush of the Ramones and the Clash by several years. That Ball Power was a Top 10 hit and turned the band into pin-up boys in TV Week magazine is a wonder to contemplate. Across the brick-veneer wilderness, teenage bedrooms reverberated to the sound of Loyde’s 11-minute psychedelic metal wig-out, ‘That’s What Mama Said’.
Naturally, it all ended badly. The escalating violence of their shows made the Coloured Balls the favourite whipping boys of the tabloids; by the time they played Sunbury in 1973 the mood was already more Altamont than Woodstock. They split in 1974 after making one more album, Heavy Metal Kid, which betrayed a band succumbing to commercial pressures as the walls closed in. Loyde went to the UK, where he revelled in punk but perversely spiralled off into sci-fi prog-rock before becoming a record producer. He lived long enough to hear that “straight ahead kind of blockhead thing” conquer the world via AC/DC.
Loyde died of lung cancer in April 2007, a year after Aztec Music released a lovingly remastered CD of Ball Power. Ornery to the end, he complained in the liner notes that Australian studio engineers had never captured the full brutal majesty of his guitar in the studio. But the CD reissue of Ball Power ends with a revelation, a bonus track recorded live at the 1973 Sunbury Festival just after 3 am, when Loyde was seized by inspiration – or something stronger – and dragooned the Coloured Balls and other assorted musicians on to the stage as the audience slept.
The tapes were rolling – someone had thrown a can of beer at the dozing sound engineer – and they capture the moment around 4 am when Loyde rolls out the opening chords of his opus, ‘G.O.D.’. The drums fall in behind, then a deep throb of bass, and the tune lifts slowly as Loyde orchestrates the distortion pouring from his guitar, pulling the sound back and building it again inexorably, picking up the tempo for a tyre-burning solo and then, somewhere around the 10-minute mark, flipping his amp into great swathes of distorted chords, one on the other. When the band drops away, Loyde’s guitar is still going, the strings reverberating in a feedback loop he holds for four minutes of pure noise. It’s a sound as huge as Hendrix, the moment Loyde really does empty your head and fill it with sound. You can imagine the sharpies of Melbourne standing bleary-eyed in the darkness, sharing the transcendence.
Since publication, Aztec Music has gone into receivership. Recordings re-released by Aztec are still available at http://www.jimkeays.com/aztec/