Book excerpt

The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC

Jesse Fink

St. Martin's Press

1

THE EASYBEATS

 

“Good Times” (1968)

It took a teenage vampire movie and nearly two decades for “Good Times,” The Easybeats’ maracas-driven thunderclap off 1968’s Vigil album, to break into the charts, reaching #2 in Australia, #18 in the United Kingdom and #47 in the United States. The only other song by the band to break the top 50 in all three markets was “Friday on My Mind,” and that had happened round about the time it was supposed to: in 1967, not 1987.

There has never been any rhyme or reason to success in the music business, especially the fortunes of The Easybeats, and this confirmed it. The movie was The Lost Boys, starring Kiefer Sutherland and directed by Joel Schumacher, and easily the best thing about it was the Australian song, a duet for Jimmy Barnes, former lead singer of beer-soaked pub giants Cold Chisel, and the late Michael Hutchence of INXS, featuring the backing of his five bandmates.

Containing three talented Australian brothers of its own—Andrew, Jon and Tim Farriss—INXS was on its way to becoming an arena act with 1987’s megaplatinum Kick, while Barnes was pushing hard to do the same thing with the self-titled and radio-geared Jimmy Barnes, a repackaged version of the For the Working Class Man album that had gone to #1 in Australia.

But unlike INXS, he had failed to fire in the States. Now, though, the Glaswegian shrieker had an accidental American smash on his hands. A hit no one involved with the recording saw coming, “Good Times” having been initially covered to promote Australian Made, a loss-making Australia-only summer concert series conceived by Barnes’s manager, Mark Pope, and INXS manager Chris Murphy as a means of showing that a homegrown festival featuring homegrown acts could compete with big international tours for bums on seats.

That all changed when Ahmet Ertegun got personally involved, as he had with AC/DC in the late 1970s. With his elder brother Nesuhi, the urbane Turkish-American co-founder of Atlantic Records came to belatedly get behind AC/DC, even after the band’s second US album, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, had been rejected by his own artists and repertoire (A&R) department.

Ertegun heard the INXS-Barnes cover by chance in February 1987 and was bowled over. “They don’t make rock records like this any more,” he said. Accordingly a “softened up” US radio–friendly remix was put on The Lost Boys soundtrack and went on to sell a couple of million units.

“Good Times” was a shrewd choice by Pope and Murphy: a four-on-the-floor ripsnorter begging for the sweat and spittle of Barnes but which also managed the feat of transforming the normally effete, slightly soft Hutchence into a figure so ballsy and cocksure with the microphone it was like the ghost of Jim Morrison or Bon Scott had entered his body. Mark Opitz, who produced the single, could see similarities with AC/DC’s late figurehead, at the time only seven years dead: “Like Bon, Michael was a real gypsy. A singer in a band that wasn’t necessarily the same as the rest of the band.”

But beyond the two impressive lead singers, then at the height of their powers, and the not-too-shabby group of musicians behind them, the choppy guitar riff was the star. It felt familiar, almost AC/DC like. For good reason, hinted at by the mysterious credit. This remake of a forgotten Easybeats song was the first time much of the MTV generation on both sides of the Pacific had heard something composed by George Young, the Jor-El of AC/DC.

*   *   *

When it was released as a single in 1968 under the US title of “Gonna Have a Good Time,” having been recorded and produced the year before by Englishman Glyn Johns, “Good Times” sank without a trace, not even the backing vocals of Steve Marriott of Small Faces or the piano of Rolling Stones session pianist Nicky Hopkins able to cut the Australian band some chart slack. The only love it got in the States was an obscure but totally rocking, organ-scorched 1969 cover by a group of previously uncorrupted Mormon sisters from Utah, The Clingers, a cleancut rival act to The Osmonds. Looking for an image buster, they recruited Michael Lloyd and Kim Fowley as producers and released it under its US title.

“Michael and I found it on an Easybeats album,” says Fowley, a notable songwriter for Kiss, Alice Cooper and Warren Zevon, among others, who went on to create, manage and produce the greatest female rock band of all time, The Runaways, and would guide Guns N’ Roses before they exploded on the rock scene in 1987. “We played The Clingers the song and they learned it and we recorded it.”

Like so many bands, The Easybeats were just too far ahead of their time. The spate of covers of the song—some 40 of them and counting—was mostly to come in later years. Before 1970 had rolled around they broke up, “Friday on My Mind” both their biggest hit and their albatross.

“The good thing about that Easybeats version is the high backing vocals,” says Mark Opitz. “Marriott just happened to be in the next studio. I was a schoolkid when I first heard The Easybeats’ ‘She’s So Fine’ on the radio. I just thought, ‘Fuck, what’s this? This is great. That’s just brilliant.’ I was blown away.”

Doug Thaler, keyboardist/guitarist for Ronnie Dio and the Prophets and later AC/DC’s first American booking agent, heard “Good Times” in 1967 while on the same bill as The Easybeats in upstate New York on the Gene Pitney Cavalcade of Stars roadshow. Thaler went on to record the Vanda & Young tune but couldn’t replicate the same swing.

“It really grooved,” he says. “I thought it was pretty funny that 20 years after The Easybeats played that song every night on tour over here somebody finally had a hit with it.”

Now intoxicated kids around Australia, England and America were throwing up on front lawns, down stairwells and in sand dunes as it shook the walls of house parties or reverberated from parked cars in makeout spots. “Good Times” was exactly as its title suggested: the kind of song you played on a Friday or Saturday night as a gee-up before you went out on the town. An unapologetic boozing and shagging song: exactly what it was intended to be in 1968.

But back then it couldn’t resurrect The Easybeats’ toxic career. There were rumors of drug use—heroin, no less—by one member (and it wasn’t lead singer Stevie Wright) tearing the band apart. This and the band’s failure to write another hit of the caliber of “Friday on My Mind” and the fact that for all their success they couldn’t rub two pennies together cut George Young deep. He went off cursing under his breath about managers and record-company swindlers, hung around in London playing and recording music with Harry Vanda and older brother Alex Young, then returned to Sydney in 1973 from a “four-year binge” of creativity that his two pimply younger brothers were fortunate to absorb by osmosis and which ignited the beginnings of AC/DC.

Some of the best work of this “binge,” as George called it, is found on Marcus Hook Roll Band’s Tales of Old Grand-Daddy, a 1973 album he started in London with Alex then finished in Sydney with the help of Malcolm and Angus. “Quick Reaction” and “Natural Man” are steeped in the sound of AC/DC. The bass line and power chords on “Natural Man,” especially, are replicated almost note-for-note two years later on TNT’s “Live Wire.”

Martin Cerf, reviewing “Natural Man” for the Los Angeles–published Phonograph Record Magazine in 1973 when it was just an import on the Regal Zonophone label from England, described it perfectly as a natural progression from “Good Times” and saw the revolution that was coming when no one else did, not least a bunch of record companies in the United States that didn’t know what to do with Marcus Hook.

“If you can imagine what The Easybeats would have sounded like four years on should they have stayed together, then you know what ‘Natural Man’ is all about,” he raved. “It’s got a snare that tears speakers. It’s got protest lyrics. It demands you dance. It’s got Beatle harmonies. It’s got a riff the best this side of The Hollies’ ‘Long Cool Woman’ and ‘Heaven Knows’ by The Grass Roots, and a hook, well, now I know the reason for the group’s name.”

Marcus Hook, incidentally, is a town outside Philadelphia.

Declared John Tait in Vanda & Young: Inside Australia’s Hit Factory: “The album is pure power rock—a prototype for the sound that was to become the signature of AC/DC.”

*   *   *

In Why AC/DC Matters, Anthony Bozza writes that nothing in The Easybeats’ catalog “touches the musicality of ‘Friday on My Mind.’ It is their most innovative track, and the only one relevant to a discussion of AC/DC.” Which is wildly wrong and underscores just how little some American critics really know about the music of The Easybeats, outside of AC/DC the most important Australian band of all time.

Wrong because three other songs—“Sorry” (1966), “Good Times” (1968) and especially “St. Louis” (1969)—set the tone for and laid the musical path of AC/DC. You can hear AC/DC in George’s rhythm guitar in all of them, the violent swipe of a claw across the strings. The same riffs that have become the signature sound of Malcolm Young and the bedrock of everything AC/DC does.

The Australian music website Milesago describes the “killer hook” in “Sorry” as emblematic of “George’s innovative (and much-imitated) guitar technique, in which he scratched the pick across the stopped strings to create an arresting percussive effect” while “St. Louis,” The Easybeats’ last single and which scraped into the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States, is “an unmistakable signpost of the direction AC/DC would take a few years later.”

“I was pissed off it didn’t do well chartwise,” says Ray Singer, who produced it.

The riff of “St. Louis,” a true companion piece to “Good Times,” was so infectious it got the attention of Motown’s creator, Berry Gordy Jr.

“The following year I went to the States with my then–business partner [future Marc Bolan and Wham! manager] Simon Napier-Bell. We were invited to Motown, which was still in Detroit in those days, and introduced to Berry, who had just launched a subsidiary label called Rare Earth Records. They were releasing white rock music—quite something for an all-black label like Motown. One of their first releases was ‘St. Louis.’”

Stevie Wright, who lived for a period with the Youngs, remembers 4 Burleigh Street being a hive of creativity.

“I can remember seeing Angus practicing and I said, ‘Jeez, he’s dedicated. He’ll be a great guitarist one day.’ And he sure enough is. [Angus and Malcolm] started getting it together early when The Easybeats were chasing women and drinking. I thought the Youngs would do okay. I didn’t know just how well.

“I’ve never had such a good time as I did living with them. They spoiled me. It wasn’t long after I met George that I was over there at Burwood writing songs with him. I was just too tired to go home one day and George said, ‘Stay here’ and I never left. George was the first to invent the chooga chooga chooga chooga choo. That was in ‘Sorry.’ Since then there’s been many imitators. The Easybeats were a rock band as much as we were a pop band. I’m really proud AC/DC continued the job we set out to do.”

American producer Shel Talmy, the man behind The Who’s “My Generation,” The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and The Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind,” agrees: “I always considered The Easybeats as a rock band and not a pop band with all those negative connotations attached to being one. So with all those [Young] connections, I hear some of The Easybeats in AC/DC.”

But it was a sound that was also rooted way back further: to the music of Chuck Berry and piano player Winifred Atwell.

“I’ve said it for years and people have said it to me for years: AC/DC got our recipe and stayed with it,” says The Easybeats’ first drummer, Snowy Fleet. “It’s that basic 12-bar boogie rhythm that they come down on and then they work around it. They don’t deviate from it.”

*   *   *

Enigmatic producer Glyn Johns, renowned for his work with The Faces, The Who, Eric Clapton and Eagles, wouldn’t be drawn on “Good Times” for this book, saying he didn’t recall anything about the 1967 sessions that ended up on 1968’s Vigil and offered only this: “The Easybeats were a great band and I enjoyed the sessions I did with them enormously. ‘Friday on My Mind’ was easily the best track I cut with them.”

But Shel Talmy, who actually gets the producing credit for that timeless song (Johns was his engineer), is more generous: “The Easybeats were very important and should have been more recognized for their contributions and should have achieved a much higher status. I thought when we were doing ‘Friday on My Mind’ that it was a natural and knew it was going to be an instant hit.”

But he has nothing kind to say about the boss of Alberts, Ted Albert, and in actual fact blames him for sowing the seeds for the demise of The Easybeats. According to Talmy, suggestions that there was a falling out between himself and the band over “musical direction”—alleged in the Stevie Wright biography Hard Road by Glenn Goldsmith—are a crock. It was about money.

“I hope Ted Albert brought some sunblock with him. He’s gonna need it where he went,” he says. “I was young, naive and stupid enough to think the person I was dealing with was honest and trustworthy. He wasn’t, as I discovered to my chagrin. Unfortunately, I signed a contract to produce The Easybeats directly with Ted, one of the biggest mistakes I ever made, and one I never repeated, albeit that most everybody else I dealt with was not like Ted, but he sure as hell permanently soured my attitude toward trusting so-called managers or any others purporting to rep a band.

“Ted screwed me. He refused to pay me and I have never received one penny in the royalties I’m due for ‘Friday on My Mind’ or any of the other tracks I produced. The fact that he’d pissed off back to Australia [from England] made it financially impossible to sue him and his company as I also knew what a big man he was there, so I realized I stood a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding and decided not to spend a fortune proving how right I was.

“Ted could get away with it as he rightly concluded I wasn’t going to go to the expense of trying to collect what was owed to me on the other side of the world. History was on his side as other scumbags like [Beatles and Rolling Stones accountant] Allen Klein, [Roulette Records founder] Morris Levy and [Small Faces manager] Don Arden had been getting away with it forever.

“I’m guessing [he did it] because of a massive ego and jealousy because when he came to London and started producing The Easybeats, [their record company] United Artists told him to stop as it sucked: the reason why I was approached. So my producing an international hit first time out of the box had to be a huge blow to his ego. That’s my pop-psychology take on it.

“After he kicked off [in 1990], none of his associates jumped up to declare, ‘I’ll make it right.’ [Easybeats manager] Mike Vaughan was just a stooge who was no help, as he was more interested in covering his butt. Bottom line is lots of my bread is sitting in Australia with Alberts and I hope they’ve been choking on it, as obviously none of the legatees had the decency to redress an egregious wrong.”

It’s an extraordinary outburst and casts the history of The Easybeats and Australian rock music in a whole new light. It also jars with the reverence in which Ted Albert is generally held in the Australian music industry.

As former Alberts A&R vice-president Chris Gilbey says: “I always thought that Ted was a real gentleman in his business dealings. If anything, far too generous, and willing to take things on trust.”

But Talmy’s is not an isolated sentiment among people I spoke to for this book—Alberts is not held in universal high regard—and it prompts a question that begs asking: Had Ted Albert actually set in motion the demise of The Easybeats and unwittingly created the incendiary, us-against-the-world atmosphere that would give rise to AC/DC?

*   *   *

How did George Young, a Scottish-Australian multi-instrumentalist who could bridge musical and social barriers enough that one of his songs was picked up by the founder of Motown, not get the recognition and material success he deserved while he was still a young man?

“You could put any kind of instrument in front of George and he had that kind of determination that he could play it within half an hour,” says Mark Opitz.

Mark Evans was equally mesmerized by George’s talent. His own bass playing couldn’t compare to that of AC/DC’s producer: “They’re night and day. While George can play straight, he’s capable of being quite busy on the bass. Which is something you wouldn’t necessarily relate to the AC/DC style. The single ‘High Voltage’—that’s George playing. You listen to that; it’s very notey. He’s a little bit similar to how Ronnie Lane was with The Small Faces. Very loopy and very notey, but he always picks the great lines. My style is based on how he nurtured me.”

Not only was George versatile and talented. He was crafty.

Anthony O’Grady relates a bizarre story about Bon Scott that involved George: early in AC/DC’s recording career Scott had laid down a vocal track and gone on tour with the band for a couple of weeks only to return to Alberts to listen to the finished product and find lyrics had been added by George to songs he’d already recorded.

“Bon said [putting on his best impression], ‘You know what? They changed some of the lyrics … and it really worked!’ And I went, ‘Bon, that means they would have had to change the vocal as well.’ And he said, ‘Yeah!’ I took that to mean Bon was saying George would actually replace Bon’s original line.”

How would he do that?

“Punching in’s no problem. It’s the imitation. Bon was saying George could sing just like him.”

Says Mark Gable: “When I first heard The Easybeats I was astonished at the songwriting standard; George was largely responsible for this material. I knew at an early age that this guy was world class and if this band had been from England they would have been much more successful than they were. The Youngs’ complete understanding of pop, blues, soul and rock is beyond compare. I remember sitting down and playing a couple of tunes with George on one occasion while he was playing bass and it was without a doubt one of the most magical moments of my life. All three know how to swing, how to take their time and when to beat the living shit out of things.”

Indeed, George was “every bit as talented as John Lennon,” according to Liverpudlian emigrant Snowy Fleet, but didn’t get the same exposure because he was Australian. Like the Youngs, Fleet comes from a big family. Six sisters, four brothers. He met George in the Villawood migrant hostel in Sydney.

“The connection was straight away; it was right there. George is a very deep sort of bloke, a nice guy. He was always a quiet, shy loner but he was a little fireball. I didn’t realize how talented he was back then until recently. The guy has written over 300 songs. Malcolm Young used to say to me, ‘George is a frustrated Beatle.’”

Fleet hasn’t seen George since 1986, when The Easybeats came together for a reunion tour. But even back in the 1960s George was loath to do any publicity; Fleet and Stevie Wright would go to radio stations to do interviews. Since then, he’s more or less shut up shop completely.

“These days George is what I’ve heard is an ‘angel,’” says Opitz. “The Youngs have made a lot of money and what George likes to do is look at projects that need funding and come out of nowhere and help fund them as a silent partner. I believe he lives in Sydney and London a lot.

“When we were mixing ‘Love Is in the Air,’ both Harry and George told me how much they hated mixing. They basically hated music. They were just over it. I couldn’t believe it. And they said, ‘One day you’ll understand.’

“I think it was significant when Alberts held their 100th birthday party—when AC/DC were in Sydney—that George didn’t go. AC/DC didn’t go. I didn’t go. I wasn’t invited. It probably said a lot about what they thought, even if Alberts is still their publishing company. But [the Youngs] weren’t ever ones for bullshit. It was arranged as a photo opportunity rather than as a genuine family reunion; as it should have been, because Alberts was always a family company from day one. You always felt that when you were in there. It was us against the world.”

A mentality George took straight into AC/DC.

*   *   *

Mark Opitz made a pretty penny off Ahmet Ertegun’s executive decision to plant “Good Times” on The Lost Boys soundtrack. The first time he got a royalties check for the single from Atlantic, he saw more zeros than he was expecting. He still gets payments to this day. He’d visit the record company’s headquarters in New York to be “treated like fucking royalty” and was offered all sorts of projects—some balm for turning down Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, one of his enduring regrets.

But relations were tested between INXS and Jimmy Barnes, who’d come to a deal for a 50:50 split of royalties (Barnes: 50 percent; INXS with its half-dozen members: 50 percent) in Australia, having thought “Good Times” was only ever going to be released there and not anywhere else. But when Ertegun went nuts over it, the split arrangement was farcical. This, remember, was 1987. INXS, who’d gone to #1 with “Need You Tonight,” was huge in America. Barnes didn’t even register on the radar.

In Barnes’s authorized biography, Too Much Ain’t Enough, there’s a brief and cryptic mention about the behind-the-scenes horse trading that went on over royalties: “Difficult negotiations took place as a song recorded for fun made its way into the international arena.”

“It didn’t end well,” laughs Mark Pope, who managed Barnes from 1984 to 1987 and says those were “the most interesting eight years of my life, the four years of managing him.”

What is most extraordinary, though, about this resuscitated and re-energized Easybeats classic is that it almost didn’t happen, even before Ertegun heard it.

“INXS wanted to do ‘Turn Up Your Radio’ by The Masters Apprentices, which wasn’t a bad song, and we’d go up on a weekend to Rhinoceros [Studios] and record it,” says Opitz. “Jimmy and I lived in Bowral [in the Southern Highlands outside Sydney]. I remember the night before, Mark Pope came down and he’d got [Australian rock historian] Glenn A. Baker to put together a bunch of songs to listen to, and of course Baker being a sycophant for The Easybeats had of stack of them on there.”

When Pope heard “Good Times” he knew it was a no-brainer: “I thought to myself, ‘Well, that’s a fucking killer.’ A standout. It evoked the whole feeling of what [Australian Made] was about. Nothing serious. Just a song of fucking celebration, I guess. There was something about ‘Good Times’ that was calling it.”

“So by the time we got to the studio,” continues Opitz, “there’s INXS, with Jim Keays from The Masters Apprentices, and as the producer I called a meeting with both camps and said, ‘We should do “Good Times.” “Turn Up Your Radio” is a good song but it’s a bit too awkward. It doesn’t flow as well as “Good Times.” And a good time is what we want to have at this fucking thing.’

“Mark, Jimmy and I felt it was better. We were able to convince Michael Hutchence pretty quickly. And once we had Hutch the rest followed on. Jim Keays sat out there for hours and finally went home. I had the unfortunate task of telling him that we weren’t doing it. That we’d give it a shot if we got around to it. But we didn’t.”

What Opitz had learned working on Powerage with AC/DC he brought to bear on “Good Times.”

“I hadn’t lost the Vanda & Young ideology. Feel and rhythm are so important to me. I used tons of acoustic guitars, just thrashing it, distorted acoustic guitars—chunka chunk chunk—and I still play the ‘Good Times’ version without Jimmy’s and Michael’s vocal in the studio, all the time, just to listen to it. The way Jon Farriss comes out of that drum fill in that first verse, it’s unfuckingbelievable.”

The best result, though, for Opitz, INXS and Barnes, beyond making a damn fine record and reaping the royalties that would flow from it, was getting a seal of approval from the notoriously po-faced George Young himself.

“At the time I was recording Hoodoo Gurus’ Blow Your Cool at Alberts, and with great dread and trepidation I took an acetate over in the morning before I started the sessions to play it to George and Harry,” remembers Opitz. “In the past I’d played them David Bowie’s cover version or Rod Stewart’s cover version or whoever’s cover version of Easybeats songs, and they’d go, ‘Nah, that’s crap, that’s crap, that’s crap. No, it’s crap. That’s fucking shit.’ So I took my cover version to them and both of them were sitting in Fifa Riccobono’s office and they said, ‘Oh, g’day, mate.’ And I’m very sheepish. So they’re treating me as such, lounging back, looking at me. ‘Yeah, what do you want?’ I said: ‘I’ve got this cover version of INXS and Jimmy Barnes.’ I played it to George and Harry and I sat with them, played it once, and they went, as if they were unimpressed, ‘Mnnn mnnn.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll just leave my copy with you.’

“At eight o’clock that night, I was doing a guitar overdub with my engineer, Allan Wright, and in through the door stumbles a very drunken George. I never saw George pissed, at all, ever in my life before that time. He goes past Allan and shoves his hand in my face. ‘I just want to shake your hand. It’s the best fucking recording of any of our covers. Ever!’”

*   *   *

Nearly 50 years after laying down the song’s original vocals for The Easybeats, Stevie Wright remains nonplussed.

“I liked our version,” he wheezes, his body and voice, if not his mind, paying a heavy price for all those years lost to heroin and alcohol addiction. “It’s now become a standard rock ’n’ roll song. If you can’t cut your teeth on that, you shouldn’t be playing rock ’n’ roll.”

Ahmet Ertegun is dead. Mark Opitz continues to produce music and get checks in the mail but his heyday is behind him. Jimmy Barnes is still performing, though his voice has diminished. INXS, the greatest band to come out of Australia since AC/DC, is no more, having called it a day in late 2012 after conspicuously failing to quickly record an album of new songs with a new singer when their charismatic frontman unexpectedly passed away.

George Young, of course, made sure his two younger brothers didn’t make that mistake. As always, he was far too clever by half.

 

Copyright © 2013 by Jesse Fink

JESSE FINK worked for five years as a senior editor of non-fiction for HarperCollins Publishers before becoming deputy editor of Inside Sport magazine. He has won or been commended for several Australian Sports Commission Media Awards and had his feature writing collected in a number of anthologies. Fink is the author of the critically acclaimed 15 Days in June and the memoir Laid Bare: One Man’s Story of Sex, Love and Other Disorders. He lives in Sydney, Australia.