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LITTLE ALBIE GOES TO BURWOOD
SYDNEY AIRPORT IN late June 1963 was a long, long way from the Cranhill housing estate in Glasgow. The fearful look on the face of young Angus McKinnon Young made that very clear; in fact, he was decidedly green around the gills. As the family members – among them Angus's 52-year-old father, William, his mother, Margaret, soon to turn 50, and brothers Malcolm and George, who were aged ten and sixteen respectively – took in their new surrounds, the pint-sized eight-year-old who'd soon be known as 'Little Albie' emptied his guts all over the tarmac at Kingsford Smith Airport. Welcome to Oz.
Reaching Sydney was the final stage of a long journey, an escape from the United Kingdom after the coldest winter in 200 years. The Youngs of Cranhill had signed up to what was known as the 'Ten Pound Pom' plan – an affordable way for British families to start a new life in a country that needed migrants.
It was a TV ad that had convinced the Youngs to shift to this strange place on the other side of the planet. 'Come over to the sunny side now: Australia, a great place for families,' chirped the cheeriest of voice overs. 'You could be on your way over to a sunnier future in the new year.'
Sunshine? That was more than enough for the longtime unemployed William and Margaret (whose maiden name had also been Young, a happy accident that saved a lot of paperwork) to sign up as Ten Pound Poms. Glasgow had just been hit with its first white Christmas since 1938. Snow piled more than two metres deep froze everyone and everything for two months straight. It was a great time to leave. The requirements were virtually nil: an applicant simply had to be a resident of a Commonwealth country and healthy enough; skills weren't a necessity. Angus, when asked why his family had emigrated, gave a simple response: 'Me dad couldn't get work up in Scotland.' Maybe Australia would provide William with better opportunities to feed his large family.
The Youngs had been ready to say goodbye to Cranhill, the housing estate in the east of Glasgow that had been home to the clan. Purpose-built in the early 1950s to ease the postwar housing shortage, the estate was hardly the stuff of Grand Designs: four-storey tenement blocks, divided into what locals referred to as 'closes'. As another Glaswegian, Jimmy Barnes, observed in his memoir Working Class Boy, the city was a bleak place: 'It seemed to be grey everywhere. The sky was grey. The streets were grey. Life was monochrome and depressing.'
Yet Angus later acknowledged that he carried something of Cranhill with him throughout his life. While it was a good place to leave, life there had hardened the Youngs. It was always going to be them against the world. 'Our Scottish background gave us a good grounding,' he said. 'We had a kind of doggedness and determination. We kept at it and never let go of what we wanted to achieve.'
The Youngs were typical Glaswegians: pragmatic, plain-speaking, no-bullshit folk. Glasgow gave them the toughness they would need a little further down the line when they came face-to-face with that peculiar beast known as the great Aussie beer-swilling yobbo.
As far as Angus and all the Young boys were concerned, a spade was a fooking spade; why call it anything else? But they weren't dim, as some have suggested. In his book Dirty Deeds, AC/DC bassist Mark Evans insisted that Malcolm and Angus, though not bookish, were 'sharp thinkers'. While he found neither the 'most sociable guys on the planet ... I believe they were basically very private people [and] they never kissed arse or "networked".'
As for the boys' parents, those close to the Youngs described William and Margaret as 'polite but quiet; they were honest, decent, fair people'.
Australia in 1963 was in many ways an antipodean 'little Britain'. Robert 'Pig Iron Bob' Menzies was the country's very conservative prime minister, an Anglophile who proudly described himself as 'English to the bootstraps', and a man who reigned over the nation with a cocked witchetty-grub eyebrow and a hefty whiff of condescension towards 'average' Australians. Cinema patrons stood in silent respect as 'God Save the Queen' was played before the feature began. Cricket remained the national summer sport, yet another reminder that Australia was proud to remain a nation that was culturally close to the Old Dart, even though it was on the doorstep of Asia. The Youngs' sport of preference was football – or soccer in the local lingo.
A royal tour had concluded just two months before the Youngs landed in Sydney. The nation had oohed and aahed as Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh did the usual rounds of waving and smiling. PM Menzies was so awestruck that he gushingly cited the Elizabethan poet Thomas Ford: 'I did but see her passing by / and yet I love her till I die'. Television wasn't the ubiquitous device it is today, but for those lucky enough to own one of those beasts on legs, Coronation Street, a soapie documenting working-class life back in the Mother Country, was even more popular in Oz than at home. Yet for all its familiarity, the geographical isolation of the place was stark.
Almost 16,000 kilometres separated Sydney from Glasgow, and the family felt every bit of it as they boarded their transport at Mascot airport and headed for suburban Villawood. Everything they saw looked unfamiliar: the buildings weren't crammed together as they were in Glasgow, and the landscape was vastly different, as were the people. Angus immediately picked up on the way Aussies spoke – it was as though they ate their words as they came out of their mouth. He couldn't grasp half the things that were being said. 'I had to learn how they talked,' he said many years later. 'Australians have a mix of American and the old England.'
As for life in Oz, there were upsides: the average weekly wage for a male worker was around £15, while the average price for a modest Sydney home was somewhere between a very manageable £5000 and £6000. Unemployment was at a low 2.3 per cent, soon to dip below the 2 per cent mark. Back in Scotland, the number of unemployed had risen to almost 100,000. Until recently, William Young had been one of them.
Australian teenagers at the time were tuning into an odd mix of the terribly English – Cliff Richard's squeaky-clean 'Summer Holiday' was a big hit in 1963, as was Gerry and the Pacemakers' 'You'll Never Walk Alone' – and the saccharine strains of weepies such as 'Hey Paula' and 'Big Girls Don't Cry'. Hugely popular locals Johnny O'Keefe and Col Joye were in thrall to America, the heartland of rock and roll, even though the creative heyday of their heroes, Elvis, Little Richard and Bill Haley, had passed. Like the country itself, popular music in Australia was in an awkward phase. The Beatles were starting to make inroads in Oz – 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' and 'She Loves You' were two of the biggest singles of the year – but they hadn't yet peaked. O'Keefe was one of the few Aussies to have a song among the 25 biggest hits of 1963 – and then it was merely a cover of American Johnny Thunder's 'Move & Groove', retitled 'Move Baby Move'. Given that a third of the Australian population was aged under twenty, the time was ripe for a rock and roll revolution.
In broader terms, the Australia in which the Youngs arrived wasn't quite sure what it was or where it belonged: was it an English outpost or a new nation about to find its own way in the world – or a peculiar mix of the two? For this Scottish family, destined for the Villawood Migrant Hostel on the western outskirts of Sydney, the place was as confusing as it was familiar. It did, however, rain for six weeks straight after their arrival – at least some things were just like home. They'd traded the big freeze for the big wet.
* * *
In mid-1963 the Youngs settled into life at the Villawood Migrant Hostel. The site comprised numerous horseshoe-shaped, World War II–era Nissen huts, built from corrugated iron, amid a landscape coloured by a thousand different accents, or so it seemed. Villawood was about to hit its peak occupancy of 1500 residents; Australia's migrant intake for the 1960s alone was close to 1 million. Each uninsulated hut housed two families, with separate living areas and a 'common room', so privacy was hard to come by. (This might explain Angus's later habit of locking himself away in hotel rooms, noodling endlessly on his guitar.) Food was cooked over a kerosene heater; cockroaches had the run of the shower and laundry blocks – at least until they were eaten by the resident snakes. A British flag mounted in the hostel's dining room, alongside a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, reminded 'new Australian' families such as the Youngs where their adopted country's allegiances lay.
More than twenty of these camps were scattered across New South Wales; the first had been established in 1948. Some were off in the country – Bathurst, Leeton and Lithgow – while others, such as Bankstown and Matraville, were relatively close to the centre of Sydney. Villawood was 40 kilometres west of the city.
Life inside the fence at Villawood wasn't vastly dissimilar to life in Cranhill; several times a week the local coppers were called in to investigate the latest break-in, usually the work of a resident, while the ambulance service also did a lively trade, as the combination of lousy food, confined quarters, the frustrating search for full-time work and invasive weekly checks by hostel staff manifested itself in violent flare-ups. Fortunately, booze was banned at Villawood, or the situation could have been much uglier.
Angus sometimes joked that his family first settled at Tasmania's Port Arthur, an old convict site. Villawood wasn't that dire – the sight of green, open land was a pleasant surprise for Angus and his kin – but it was hard going, a tough introduction to life in Oz. All the talk of sea and sun in the TV ad that had lured them now seemed a terrible con.
On their first night at the hostel, Angus walked in on his parents, who were both crying – with relief, it seemed. 'We took strength from that and tried to stick it out,' admitted Angus, who'd already wanted to turn around and go back to Cranhill.
Villawood played a key role in the musical evolution of the Youngs. While 'wee Angus' looked on with no small amount of awe, big brother George hooked up with two like-minded Villawood 'inmates' – the Dutch-born Harry Vanda and Dick Diamonde, as well as expat Poms Stevie Wright, who was just fifteen years old, and Gordon 'Snowy' Fleet – to form a band in late 1964. Deeply influenced by the 'British Invasion' acts, especially the all-conquering Beatles, in both look and sound, they called themselves The Easybeats. The rapid rise and fall of the 'Easys' would have a massive influence on Angus's musical future, in a number of ways.
'They had a very good sound, a unique thing between [George] and Harry,' Angus said of The Easybeats during the documentary Blood and Thunder. 'Harry was doing the same thing I'd do with Malcolm; George had that very high rhythm and Harry provided the highlights, the colour.'
Even before Angus left Cranhill, music had assumed a place in his life. One of his many older brothers, Alex, had stayed behind in the United Kingdom to chase his rock and roll dream, eventually signing a deal with no less a label than The Beatles' Apple, as part of the band Grapefruit. (Their name came from a book of 'instructions and drawings' by Yoko Ono, extending the Beatles connection just that little bit further.)
The Young household in Cranhill had an open-door policy, which they'd continue in Australia. William and Margaret would regularly host parties, where friends and rellies would gather around an old piano and belt out tunes. And Angus's siblings always seemed to be working on something musical, as he would recall in Blood and Thunder: 'Each brother would show you little bits of music, of what they liked. Even my elder brother Stevie was trying to put me behind a piano – "No, you do it like this, with these fingers".'
The first musical thunderbolt that hit Angus came courtesy of the half-mad, piano-pounding African American Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard. Dripping sweat, his eyes rolling back in his head, his sky-high pompadour collapsing as he played, Richard would thrash away at the keys, wailing 'a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-awop-bam-boom' like a man possessed, while describing the joys of someone – or something – known as 'Tutti Frutti'. It was a smash hit all around the globe in 1955, a red-blooded cry of craziness that was one of rock and roll's seminal songs. 'Keep a-Knockin'', another Richard hit, also seared its way into Angus's DNA.
'From when I was pretty young, old rock and roll songs, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, it was always being played in the house so I picked up on that,' Angus revealed in an interview with Countdown's Molly Meldrum. His sister Margaret was a big influence; she'd heard such acts as Richard and Holly, as well as Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, back in Glasgow, where new records were a little easier to find.
The American rock and roll master Chuck Berry, in particular, became a firm favourite. 'Chuck Berry brought together blues, country music, folk music, a bit of jazz and blended it all into this thing that we called rock and roll,' Angus said of the man. 'He's the one that inspired [me] most. And he was a great entertainer, so he had a lot of elements. He was a pure talent and an inspiration.'
'When I watched someone like Chuck Berry,' Angus continued, 'especially when he was singing, he always had little raps with the audience that he had going, you know. I figured that if Chuck could do it with his voice, I could do it with my guitar.'
As a kid, Angus gazed slack-jawed at footage of Chuck's famous 'duckwalk': Berry would turn sideways and strut, knees bent, duck-like, as he crossed the stage, playing all the while. The guy was on fire. In some ways, Angus's future was set from the moment he saw Berry in action.
* * *
Sporting matching suits and shaggy haircuts, by 1965 The Easybeats had secured regular work at a few Sydney discotheques, such as Surf City – an old movie theatre converted into a 5000-capacity venue deep in the red-light heart of Kings Cross – and, aptly, given their influences, a club named Beatle Village. Violent 'sharpies' put the fear of God into local punters at these venues. Long-haired teenager Richard Clapton, who frequented these gigs, was one of many Sydney kids often cornered by sharpies. 'I had the shit kicked out of me more times than I care to remember,' he wrote in his book The Best Years of Our Lives. While the Youngs had come a long way from Cranhill, big brother George was now in the thick of the type of violence that was commonplace back on the estate.
Fortunately, the Easys weren't stuck in the bloodhouses for long. Music publisher Ted Albert, the astute head of the revered Sydney family business, signed the band to Albert Productions in 1965. The well-spoken Albert came from a background of affluence – the Sydney summer season was said to have only truly begun when his father, Sir Alexis Albert, sailed his yacht Boomerang through the Heads. The Alberts resided in a stately waterfront mansion in Elizabeth Bay also called Boomerang; both were named after the popular mouth organ that had earned the family their first fortune.
Ted Albert was excited by the rough and ready sounds of rock and roll. It seemed an unlikely collision of cultures – a sophisticated Sydneysider, a man of wealth and taste, mixing it up with some reprobates straight out of the migrant hostel – but Albert didn't care; he recognised a magical spark within The Easybeats. They were madly energetic onstage – Stevie Wright could out-backflip a gymnast – and they looked good, and while they could play hard and fast, they also had a well-tuned ear for melody.
'Ted seemed very unaffected by his family's history and affluence,' future AC/DC manager Michael Browning wrote of Albert, in his book Dog Eat Dog. 'I met an immaculately dressed, charming and astute man with a passion for music and recording studios.'
'Easyfever' hit Australia like a tsunami throughout 1965 and 1966. The hits that flowed, initially written by Young and Wright, then by Vanda and Young, still define the great Australian rock and roll songbook: 'She's So Fine', a number one hit in Melbourne and Sydney in June 1965; 'Women', their next Sydney number one in January 1966; and 'Come and See Her', yet another chart-topper in May 1966. 'Sorry', perhaps their first truly great track and one of the earliest songs to feature the use of guitar feedback, ruled the airwaves in November 1966.
When Harry Vanda started to write with George, their creative union quickly flourished. Their co-written singles included 'Wedding Ring', a hit in September 1965, and 'I'll Make You Happy', yet another smash, released in August 1966. Working out of Boomerang House in Sydney – a building that was part of his family's hefty property portfolio – Ted Albert produced all these trailblazing tracks. Some early recordings were produced at the abandoned 2UW theatre, another Albert family holding. To the Youngs, it must have seemed as though the Albert family owned much of the city.
Excerpted from "High Voltage"
Copyright © 2018 Jeff Apter.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Opening Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, 20 September 2016 1
1 Little Albie Goes to Burwood 7
2 'If they Ever Want to do Something, Send them to me' 30
3 'We Cancelled Them; They Didn't Cancel Us' 48
4 'Leave My Little Brother Alone' 68
5 'Are We Rich? We Just Bought Big Ben!' 84
6 'My Bum is Better-Looking than My Face' 101
7 'I'll Buy a Guitar When all I can Afford is a Pair Of Socks' 118
8 'Hogwash - We're Calling it Highway to Hell and that's How it is' 134
9 'Bon's Dead' 150
10 'If he Could Bottle the Secret to His Stamina, He'd Make a Fortune' 169
11 'I Haven't Been to a Black Mass in Years' 187
12 I'm Up Every Day at 6 AM, Every Day, Working on New Songs' 215
13 'How Did Such Big Balls Get in Such Short Pants?' 235
14 'Can You Imagine - You Know Where You are, But Your Mind's Playing Tricks?' 251
15 'It's Always Good to Say at the End of it, "I've Done all I Said I Would Do"' 271
Postscript Sydney, January 1977 294
Where Are They Now? 298
Selected Discography 305