The Easybeats

 The Easybeats

 Stevie Wright – circa 1967

 “Everybody shake / Everybody move” – ‘Good Times’ (Harry Vanda, George Young)

In the mid-1960s, Great Britain may have had ‘Beatlemania’, but in Australia, teenagers had ‘Easyfever’.  Or so the publicists and journalists liked to make people think.  Setting aside hyperbole, The Easybeats are probably Australia’s greatest 1960s rock band.  If their status is not on a par with The Beatles in England, they are still more popular than any other antipodean combo of the day.  This is not bad when, by one definition, The Easybeats are not an Australian band at all.

If the nationality of a rock group is determined by the birthplace of the members, then Australia has no claim to The Easybeats.  All five members of the group are born overseas.

Following the Second World War, Australia experiences a boom in immigration.  People from many different countries receive assistance from the Australian government to settle south of the equator.  In this sense, The Easybeats, as ‘new Australians’, typify a significant portion of Australia’s population in the post war decades.

The first of the future Easybeats to arrive in Australia is Stevie Wright (born Stephen Carlton Wright, 20 December 1947-27 December 2015).  Stevie’s family emigrates from Leeds in England in 1958.  By 1964, ‘Little Stevie Wright’, as he is sometimes billed – as much in reference to his diminutive size as his youth – is singing out front of a group called The Outlaws.

Because of Australia’s ties to ‘the mother country’ of Great Britain, an English migrant like Stevie Wright perhaps has an easier transition to his new home than some other ‘new Australians’.  The Villawood Migrant Hostel in Sydney, New South Wales, provides accommodation to new arrivals while all the paperwork associated with their change of homeland is being processed.  In 1964, Villawood is home to two Dutch boys, Harry Vanda (born Johannes Vandenberg, 27 March 1947) and Dick Diamonde (born Dingeman Vandersluys, 28 December 1947).  In Holland, Harry Vanda played with a local band who approximated the style of The Shadows.  A rock band that played only instrumentals, The Shadows started out as a backing band for British pop star Cliff Richard.  Harry Vanda is keen to resume his music career, so he easily makes friends with another Dutch immigrant with musical ambitions, Dick Diamonde.

‘On one of their escapades into the Sydney city area’, Harry Vanda and Dick Diamonde catch a show by The Outlaws.  They soon become friends with Stevie Wright, who begins hanging around Villawood since it seems his two new mates may not yet be fully authorised to settle into mainstream Australian society.

At Villawood, Stevie Wright comes across George Young (born 6 November 1947), a Scots immigrant who shares the boys’ passion for rock ‘n’ roll.

The last of the future Easybeats to arrive in Australia is ‘Snowy’ Fleet (born Gordon Fleet, 16 August 1945).  Fleet was born and raised in Liverpool, England, the home of The Beatles.  Snowy meets Stevie Wright and company during a train ride.  It is Snowy who comes up with the name The Easybeats – perhaps inspired by having seen the British band The Easy Beats (formerly The Texans) at the Cavern Club in Liverpool – and suggests ‘the sharp image for the early group’.  This involves The Easybeats wearing dark suits and ties such as The Beatles were sporting in 1963 -1964.

The Easybeats line-up consists of Stevie Wright (vocals), Harry Vanda (guitar), George Young (guitar), Dick Diamonde (bass) and Snowy Fleet (drums).

The sound of The Easybeats is quite similar to the British Invasion groups.  The ‘British Invasion’ is a term relating to the ‘conquest’ of the American pop charts for the first time by acts from the U.K.  It refers to band like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks.  So The Easybeats produce a sound like these acts…’except that it seems a year out-of-date’.  This is because ‘rock music filters only very slowly across the Pacific’.  Purely because Australia is so isolated and far away, The Easybeats lag behind their U.K. peers.  Though The Easybeats may visually resemble the 1963 -1964 model of The Beatles, their music more closely takes after The Rolling Stones.  Sure, The Easybeats share The Beatles love of a catchy tune, but it is infused with a grittier, bluesier edge, more in keeping with The Stones.  However, there is a raw immediacy to the early Easybeats songs that the U.K. bands do not possess.  There is something gloriously unfiltered in their ability to tap into the veins of rock ‘n’ roll’s life-blood.

The Easybeats songs are, at this stage, primarily written by the team of Stevie Wright and George Young.  Wright supplies the lyrics and Young puts together the music.

After playing gigs around Sydney in late 1964, The Easybeats (now all presumably fully authorised Australian citizens) come to the attention of Ted Albert.  A music publisher, Albert also wants to become a record producer.  He signs The Easybeats to Albert Productions and licenses their releases to Australian EMI’s Parlophone record label.  At the time of their signing, The Easybeats have already worked up twenty original songs.  To his credit, Ted Albert demonstrates his nous as a producer when he takes the group into the recording studio.  ‘He simply lets the band cut [their songs], merely making sure the music comes out right on vinyl’.  This respectful, non-interfering style of production may help explain the vitality of the recordings and their ability to ‘score three top tens with their first five singles’.

Stevie Wright claims, “I was 26 when I started [on heroin]”.  This would mean that Wright is using the drug in 1964 or 1965, a very early stage of The Easybeats career.  Possibly, the singer’s memory is faulty.  If he is using heroin at this time, it is certainly not outwardly apparent.

The Easybeats first single is released in March 1965.  ‘For My Woman’ (AUS no. 5) is ‘an ominous garage punk bolero’.  Stevie Wright shakes maracas like a witch-doctor over this unearthly slice of musical voodoo, with its strangled guitar solo.  Although very striking, it is not very representative of The Easybeats overall catalogue of music.

‘She’s So Fine’ (AUS no. 1) is a better example of The Easybeats records.  It takes off ‘like a rocket, a frantic, hook-laden…two minutes of raw excitement’: “I woke up bright and early this morning / My little girl was not in sight / I’ve been lookin’ everywhere / Mornin’, noon, and daylight / ‘Cos she’s so fine.”  As the pace accelerates, Stevie Wright urges “Come on, Harry” before the guitar solo.

The Easybeats’ debut album, ‘Easy’ (1965) (AUS no. 4), is released in September.  It is described as ‘one of the best of all British Invasion albums’, though it is difficult to classify an Australian band (whatever their migrant origins) as part of the British Invasion.

In Australia, The Easybeats are ‘the reigning kings of rock ‘n’ roll from the summer of 1965 onward, assembling a string of eight top ten chart hits in a year and a half’.

That march of success includes ‘Wedding Ring’ (AUS no. 5), a jittery blast of speed.  Stevie Wright declares “All I want from you / Is a love that’s true / And all you want, want, want / Is a wedding ring.”  Obviously, Stevie’s not yet ready to ‘settle down’.

‘Easy As Can Be’ seems to be a deliberate pun on the group’s name.  ‘In My Book’ is a slow burning diary entry with Stevie’s gasps, sighs and chuckles.  ‘Sad And Lonely And Blue’ adds some stinging guitar to the melancholia.

‘Women’ (AUS no. 1) opens a new era.  Snowy’s drums kick off the song, a few guitar chords are plucked, and then worked into a shuffle as Stevie Wright slides in with the exclamation: “Mmmm! Women / All around the place / Come and see me / Face to face / If you got troubles / I’m the man for you / If you are worried / You’ll be smilin’ soon / I’ll make you feel alright”.  If The Easybeats earlier singles still seemed to use some characteristics from 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, ‘Women’ is undeniably contemporary.  It sounds slicker and musically more sophisticated – even if Stevie still baits the unfortunate drummer with a sneering “Come onnn, Snow!”

‘Come And See Her’ has the narrator so concerned for his love-struck girlfriend that he resorts to summoning a doctor.  The song is haunted by a sepulchral backing vocal (from Dick Diamonde) repeating the title over and over.  Stylistically, this is a throwback to the incantatory ‘For My Woman’.  ‘Come And See Her’ is ‘released in the U.K. without making an impression’.

Released in March, ‘It’s 2 Easy’ (1966) (AUS no. 3), encompasses ‘Wedding Ring’ through ‘Come And See Her’, and, by virtue of being so jam-packed with hits, it is probably The Easybeats best album.  Still, The Easybeats forte is the hit single, rather than albums.

Latter day re-issues of ‘It’s 2 Easy’ include two more singles from the same period that were not present on the disc in its original form.  ‘I’ll Make You Happy’ is notable for Harry Vanda being credited along with Stevie Wright and George Young as a songwriter.  The dynamic arrangement is abetted by the urgency of Wright’s vocals: “Give you lovin’ all the time / Give you kissin’ just like wine / Do his lips taste sweeter than mine? / No, no, no / I’ll make you happy / Just like your mama wants / I’ll make you happy / Just like your daddy said”.  ‘Too Much’ is built on a clipped riff from George Young and, contrary to its title, is marked by restraint in its stop-start tight performance.

The third Easybeats album, ‘Volume 3’ (1966) [or simply ‘3’] (AUS no. 7), is issued in November.  Its highlight is ‘Sorry’ (AUS no. 4), another sonic leap forward.  It opens with a startling, stuttered guitar riff that seems purpose-built for go-go dancers.  Negotiating the corners of the arrangement like a racing car driver, Stevie Wright notes, “Had a date at seven / With a girl named Fleur / Then I just remembered / Had a date with her / Sorry, sorry, sorry / That I / Didn’t go last night.”  This is the last great Easybeats song co-written by Stevie Wright.  Hereafter, Harry Vanda and George Young become the group’s usual songwriters.  This represents an important shift in the group’s balance of power and is possibly due to the drug problem Stevie Wright alluded to earlier making its presence felt.

‘Do You Have A Soul’ follows, and the EP ‘Easy Fever’ manages the unusual feat of topping the singles chart.

The Easybeats ‘make the jump that no Australian rock ‘n’ roll act had yet done successfully, and head to England’.  With producer Ted Albert in tow, they enter Abbey Road studios in London, where The Beatles regularly record.  The results do not impress The Easybeats U.K. record company who ‘decide the group could do better’.  In November 1966, Shel Talmy, producer for British bands like The Who and The Kinks, is brought in to supervise ‘Friday On My Mind’ (AUS no. 1, UK no. 9).  The song goes on to be ‘a hit throughout Europe’ and it ‘reaches the top 20 in the United States’.  It is The Easybeats definitive single.  Stevie Wright observes, “It’s pretty well every man, every woman’s sort of song: going to work and longing for the end of the week, head down, rear up, ready to go for Friday.”  Or, as the lyrics put it, “Monday morning feel so bad / Everybody seems to nag me / Come on Tuesday, I feel better / Even my old man looks good / Wednesday just won’t go, Thursday goes too slow / I’ll have Friday on my mind”.  Up to this point, the song has been slowly building in tempo, the tension ramped up by yammering backing vocals, but it now bursts into full bloom: “Gonna have fun in the city / Be with my girl, she’s so pretty / She looks fine tonight / She is outta sight to me”.  It then drops back to mutter, “Monday, I’ll have Friday on my mind,” as the guitars tick like clocks and the cycle begins again.

Accompanying their new international orientation, The Easybeats dump their natty black suits in favour of matching dark suits with white piping, a sort of over-stated pinstripe.

Promising as all this seems, it is actually the apex of their career rather than the beginning of a new phase.

The Easybeats spend seven months in England, ‘writing new, more ambitious songs’, before returning to Australia for a triumphant national tour in May 1967.  They decide to move their base of operations to London.

A number of factors contribute to The Easybeats change in fortunes.  Firstly, London proves less conducive to their work than Sydney.  Stevie Wright claims, “We were treated [by the English] with the contempt they usually reserve for those from a European country.  They just didn’t want to know.”  Secondly, their single, ‘Heaven And Hell’, is banned from radio in England ‘for one suggestive line’.  That would be: “Hell / Is knowing that your face has gone red / Discovering someone else in your bed.”  The problem derails their momentum and six months pass before a follow-up is released.  Third, ‘the members begin indulging in the chemical and other diversions at hand in still swinging London’.  And, finally, they are ‘composing ever more complex songs’ in an attempt to fit in.  The album ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967) by The Beatles sets new standards.  The Easybeats are not the only other group of the time struggling to adapt to the new era of psychedelic music, flower power and the dawning hippie movement, but it makes for an uphill struggle.  Some of the ‘lost’ Easybeats music of this period eventually surfaces a decade later on ‘The Shame Just Drained’ (1977).  Presenting this new music has its own hazards because it is difficult to reproduce the orchestras, studio trickery and effects.  Also, by this time, The Easybeats are ‘no longer as exciting a group to listen to or see, when they actually do perform’.

The album ‘Vigil’ (1968), released in October, includes the following songs.  ‘Hello, How Are You?’ (AUS no. 23) is soaked in strings with violins and cellos.  It is slow-paced.  The best of this bunch is ‘Good Times’ (AUS no. 22), a kinetic blast featuring Steve Marriott of British group The Small Faces lending his gut-bucket vocals to a duet with Stevie Wright on the chorus: “Gonna have a good time tonight / Rock ‘n’ roll music gonna play all night / Come on baby, it won’t take long / Only take a minute just to sing my song.”  ‘The Music Goes Round My Head’ is a pleasant piece of whimsy with a horn section augmenting the fable of a musician whose songs lead him to be credited as “a genius beyond compare.”  ‘Fancy Seeing You Here’ shoehorns some sharp guitars into a rather busy arrangement.  ‘Falling Off The Edge Of The World’ takes a stab at some adult marital drama, while ‘Land Of Make Believe’ is the polar opposite, a candy-coloured approach to heartbreak.

The Rolling Stones recovered from the backwash of psychedelia by recording ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, a track that focuses their most basic appeal.  Perhaps inspired by this, perhaps noting the comparative success of ‘Good Times’ from their previous album, The Easybeats strip away the frippery and attempt to return to the no-frills approach that went with their more successful works.  Now dressed in much more individual attire and hippie length hair, the band issues ‘Friends’ (1969) in January.  The nominal single is ‘St. Louis’.  A solitary horn sounds an introduction, the bass pounds, and Stevie Wright sings “Countrymen, friends, lend me your ears / I’ll tell you a tale of fifteen years / I’m an old man who’s all forlorn / I want to see the city where I was a-born / I got a feelin’ that I can’t stand / I wanna go home to my homeland / Ain’t got no money / I ain’t got a cent / I can’t get on that train / So help me.”  ‘St. Louis’ is an interesting example of Australia’s cultural cringe.  Rather than sing about a local place like St. Kilda or St. Albans, The Easybeats seek international legitimacy by singing about an American city, St. Louis.  It’s true that none of The Easybeats are Australian born, but none of them are from America either.  It can be argued that, as the lyrics suggest, it is a song reminiscent (at least verbally) of U.S. folk music, so an American destination seems fitting.  In any case, the song only ‘manages to scrape the very bottom of the American Hot 100 [singles chart]’.  ‘Can’t Find Love’, another muscular rock song from this disc, is also quite credible.

The Easybeats return to Australia for one more tour and then call it quits.

Harry Vanda and George Young go into business as a production and songwriting team.  They produce AC/DC (featuring George’s younger brothers, Malcolm and Angus Young), The Ted Mulry Gang, and The Angels.  Vanda and Young write and produce for John Paul Young (no relation), William Shakespeare and Cheetah.  They also record as a duo under the pseudonym Flash And The Pan.  Another one of their clients is Stevie Wright, whose solo career reaches its height around 1973, before drugs and alcohol bring him down.  Stevie subsequently cleans himself up and even does some counselling work with other addicts on behalf of The Salvation Army.  Still, the abuse has clearly taken a toll on his health.  Snowy Fleet takes over his family’s construction business in Perth, Western Australia.

At the end of 1986, The Easybeats regroup for a short Australian tour.  After this, they let their legend take on its own life.

Stevie Wright dies on 27 December 2015.  He was 68 years old.  The cause of death is unknown but it is acknowledged that Wright battled alcohol and heroin addiction for many years and suffered from liver and kidney problems as well as diabetes.

The Easybeats remain one of Australia’s finest bands.  However briefly, they showed that an Australian act could credibly compete on an international footing as something other than a novelty.  Their elemental fusion of pop smarts and powerful, straight-forward rock music can be seen as setting the pace for the Australian wave of pub rock bands from around 1975 to 1985.  The Easybeats lived with ‘the hysteria they were creating around the country [of Australia] with their live performances’.  They were ‘the real article, and a rare musical commodity in Australia’.

Sources:

  1. lyricsfreak.com as at 11 March 2013
  2. allmusic.com, ‘The Easybeats’ by Bruce Elder as at 22 August 2001
  3. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 64, 67, 68
  4. E-mails from Frank Townsend (of The Easy Beats U.K.) (2 June 2016)
  5. Stevie Wright interview (29 May 2001) on milesago.com
  6. wikipedia.org as at 21 January 2013, 29 December 2015, 2 June 2016
  7. Singles chart positions from ‘Long Way To The Top’ (Australia’s ABC Television) on abc.net.au/longway/discography 2011 (as at 21 January 2013)
  8. ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ (Sydney, Australia newspaper) – ‘Stevie Wright’s legacy haunted by controversial biography’ by Kate Aubusson (28 December 2015) (reproduced on smh.com.au)
  9. news.com.au – ‘How Stevie Wright changed the face of rock music’ by Cameron Adams (28 December 2015)

Song lyrics copyright J. Albert & Son Pty Ltd.

Last revised 3 June 2016

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