Being on the set of a coming bio-pic of The Easybeats put me in mind of meeting one half of their second great writing team, and one half of the writing/producing powerhouse of the 1970s called Vanda & Young.
It's a jump to 2004, along the way to 1964
HE MADE YOU HAPPY
There’s a band in Melbourne who haven’t released a record yet, though there’s one planned for early next year, or made a name for themselves yet either.
But they do have the name, as The Vandas’ singer Chris Altmann explains.
“We were trying to think of a name and first of all I thought it had a good sound to it but we talked about it and Harry Vanda and George Young were probably the most important guys in the Australian music industry ever,” says the 26-year-old Altmann, who was born as Vanda and Young, already known as the main songwriters of the best Australian band of the ‘60s, the Easybeats, and the ‘70s production and songwriting brains behind the likes of John Paul Young, Stevie Wright, the Angels and AC/DC, were working as the mysterious but wildly successful pop oddballs Flash & The Pan.
“They are probably the best songwriters we’ve had, the Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards of Australia.”
Back in Sydney the Australian Lennon (or McCartney) is sitting comfortably in his natural environment, a low-lit recording studio with guitars against one wall and the noise, sunlight and distractions of the real world sealed away as it has been so often for 40 years.
Harry Vanda is 58 and looks a decade younger. He’s polite to the point of courtliness and quick to laugh, at his jokes usually but almost anything will amuse him.
Rich enough not to have to work again, with a track record substantial enough to never need to explain or apologise, he’s got every right to be sitting back and growing a proud belly.
But instead Vanda has set up this studio in which we’re sitting, and an accompanying record label, to record new bands, new singers, new acts to follow in his footsteps or at least his shadow.
Why? One of the reasons for this venture, known as Flashpoint, is sitting a few metres away from him: his partner, his engineer and co-producer … his son, Daniel.
Even taller than his lofty father, with a solid build and a tuft of hair on his chin, Daniel Vanda is 32 with a background as a musician and as an engineer and producer both here and in London.
The jointly operated studio and label was his idea and I ask him if this arrangement is a partnership of equals. But it’s his father who leaps in, beginning an easy banter between the two men.
“Yes, very much so: it’s the Vanda Family Affair,” says Harry. “We’ve always wanted to work together but I talked Daniel into getting a degree in economics and marketing, he wasn’t really interested in it but the poor guy still had to go to university …
“Four years,” Daniel interjects forcefully, though with a smile.
“Because I twisted his arm,” continues Harry smoothly. “And I promised him at the time that if he got his degree he’d have something to fall back on blah blah blah. But if he was still interested in music we could do it together, me thinking he’d be a banker that he would prefer an easy way to make money.”
You didn’t have something to fall back on though did you Harry?
“Me? No, I’ve always lived by my wits.”
Sighs Daniel: “That was one reason behind him being so insistent on me going to university.”
But Harry responds, with what you can tell is the practised clinching argument in this generation-long father and son debate.
“It’s such an insecure business. It was ok when I was a rooster but the times I was a feather duster it was not so good.”
Harry Vanda was never a feather duster. Ask Stephen Cummings who recorded Vanda and Young’s Wedding Ring with the Sports in the late ‘70s and last year recorded a cover of Flash & The Pan’s Waiting For A Train for his best-of collection.
‘The first Flash and the Pan album is I think a classic of its kind,” says Cummings. “No one was doing that kind of synth pop at that time. They really understood disco and dance too.
"And I loved all their later stuff with the Easybeats when they got more psychedelic. They were great songwriters and their songs were so well produced.
“With the Sports it was always my dream to record with them both because they were such fantastic producers. But because they were so tightly tied in with [label and recording studio] Alberts we could never work with them. It was such a shame.”
While Daniel was growing up, Harry and his partner, the much more reclusive George Young, were defining the Australian rock sound of the ‘70s, including the band featuring George’s younger brothers Angus and Malcolm, AC/DC.
Was Daniel one of those rugrats underfoot in the studio while dad was working?
“Not a lot,” says Daniel. “It was out of bounds.”
Adds Harry: “George and myself we worked some very odd hours and [he laughs] some of the things that go on in the studio you don’t want to have your kids hanging around.”
Daniel: “He used to come home when I was going off to school.”
“Daniel told me at some stage I didn’t know I really had a father until I was 13,” Harry says. “But I used to take him to lots of places. Do you remember the big pontoon gig? [he asks Daniel]”
Daniel: “I do. I’ve still got the Angus cap that was given to me that day.”
Interestingly while Harry, whose other son Simon is a drummer, gave Daniel his first guitar, he deliberately didn’t teach him how to play it.
“I wanted him to get his own style and taste. I’m like that with artists as well, I want to know what they’re like, their own thing, not me dictating. He didn’t need my help; he has always been able to figure things out himself.
"The best thing he does is he’s an ace engineer, that’s where he’s saved my bacon. For a bloke like me if I have to worry about technicalities of the sound it takes a lot away from my concentrating on what’s really important in what I do.”
They recognise that they’re complementary in the studio. But what are Vanda senior’s strengths?
“Obviously the songs, the ability to listen to something and almost instantaneously know what to do with it as far as the song structure, melodies,” says Daniel.
“I sometimes sit here and marvel as he goes bang and pulls something out of thin air. Another one is the vibe created in the studio. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned: creating the right vibe in the room making sure everyone feels comfortable and at their mental peak.”
That Harry Vanda vibe is recalled by Tim Rogers of You Am I who played with Vanda three years ago when the Easybeats song Friday On My Mind was voted the best Australian song of all time at the APRA awards.
“We were really nervous and he was just genial,” says Rogers. ”Anyone who wrote that body of songs has got my admiration really. It made an impression on me, as I’ve said before, the feminine and the masculine in rock music, the mix of the poncy and the aggressive. As far as pop music, let alone rock and roll, it wasn’t cynical at all it was just enthusiastic. He’s very inspiring.”
Recently they’ve been making a bunch of younger local musicians feel comfortable in the studio while remaking one of Vanda and Young’s decade defining moments, Stevie Wright’s Evie parts 1-3.
The fundraising project has brought together of Nic Cester of Jet, Bernard Fanning of Powderfinger, Chris Cheney of the Living End, Kram from Spiderbait, Davey Lane from You Am I, Phil Jamieson of Grinspoon and Pat Bourke from Dallas Crane.
While never being one for looking back – “To me what’s in the past is past,” he says. – Harry Vanda is chuffed at both the results and the creation of a bond between these thrusting young bands.
“I love the idea of the young guns doing it. It is a nice thing because I know what Nic’s getting at. There used to be a togetherness in the ‘60s and the ‘70s among rock musicians. So this project sounded good.”
Watching it all from the outside, at least for now, is Altmann.
“Personally I think the Alberts [studio] stuff, the sound they got out of that studio in the ‘70s had to be one of the best rock recording sounds they could get, as good as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and their contemporaries.”
Would you want to work with Harry Vanda?
“I would love to,” he says eagerly. “Hopefully one of these days.”