Ted Albert was the man behind the Easybeats, Vanda & Young and the explosion of Australian music that came to define our culture. Ashley Zukerman plays him in the new ABC series Friday On My Mind and wonders what we have learned in 50 years.
The screaming girls had just run down Enmore Road following the skinny, young frames of the Easybeats, when Ashley Zukerman quietly slid into the outdoor bench at the back of a busy café.
A few days before returning to the USA, where he is starring in the network drama Designated Survivor, the award-winning Melbourne actor (winner of the AACTA for best lead in a TV drama for The Code) wasn’t being mobbed, but probably should have been. If not by the teenage fans then by any Australian musician and record company executive earning money here.
In the ABC mini-series Friday On My Mind, following the rise of Australia’s first great rock band, Zukerman plays Ted Albert, the man who not only backed and produced the Easybeats but along the way created the most important recording company in Australian music, Albert Productions.
That was the home of AC/DC and the Angels, Rose Tattoo and Billy Thorpe, John Paul Young and the writing and production powerhouse Vanda & Young, two of the three songwriters from the Easybeats, who formed in the Villawood migrant hostel.
Softly spoken, polite and deferential, the 33-year-old Zukerman is not that far away from Albert who, in an industry of spivs, sharks and fast-talking dealmakers, was known through his long career for genuineness and integrity - as someone, Zukerman says, who “moved from positivity”.
“I was curious about what was he like as a young man, because all the reports, unanimously, was that he was a gentleman, that he was very interested and focused and everything spoke to this air of an old soul,” Zukerman says.
“But he must have been a kid at one point. But what made it interesting is perhaps he wasn’t. Maybe he was that guy from the beginning. I think what made him so special was what made him so productive: he had a very positive career goal, from the start.”
This show is still the Easybeats story and Albert, who is in his late 20s, is a catalyst, but maybe also the lab technician and the project leader. And on top of all that, the man who saw there was a place for Australian music made to and for Australians, that could still look beyond. It’s an attitude which still feels revolutionary in this supposedly confident 21st century nation.
“I think we are making a very contemporary story,” says Zukerman. “We are making a story about five people who end up becoming the voice and sound of Australia and thinking about it through the lens of our time I can definitely understand our cultural cringe, Australia really not knowing who it is still. It’s hard for us to trust our voices.”
While conceding that “every now and then we get one voice which stands out, a really unique voice we embrace, like a Josh Thomas”, Zukerman, who was born in the USA but grew up in Australia sees national identity and (lack of) confidence at play from the Easybeats to now.
“In the 1960s the charts were full of either re-recordings of American or British tracks, or the original British or American tracks themselves and at the same time these five guys show up at Villawood migrant hostel and they become the voice of Australia. That’s a pretty remarkable story.
“Through that lens, Ted, whether he was socially aware there was something missing from a culture that we need to start identifying ourselves as Australians, he was engaging migrants to do that, it’s fascinating and something we can learn from.”
One of the interesting elements of Zukerman playing Albert is that a kind of restless energy, internal and external, has defined his best known local roles in Rush and The Code. Even a legendarily calm and centred man as Ted Albert must have had that energy coiled inside him.
“I think that’s probably true that whoever thought of me as a possibility [for Albert] did see that. I think our still waters a very different and I think mine are more of an arresting, confused stillness,” he laughs. “While my suspicion is he genuinely didn’t have that. [But] I think it’s true that neither of us imposed ourselves on the world in the way others do.”
Which is another thing about Ted Albert: he wasn’t trying to prove himself, he wasn’t reacting from negativity as Zukerman might put it. Why couldn’t Australians tell their own stories to each other and then sell those stories to others?
“I do think with Ted, that has been the most remarkable thing: to see how unnecessary those things [insecurity, fear] might be and how productive one can be when we don’t have judgement and aren’t encumbered by that,” says Zukerman.
“I think we can all take from that and I hope that stays with me.”
Friday On My Mind screens on the ABC on November 26 and December 3, and on iView.