We keep no, we keep no, we keep no secrets from you at Wind Back Wednesday.
Still, some, maybe even a good number, of people had no idea that (a) The Angels were still going, (b) Doc Neeson wasn’t still frontman (c) Dave Gleeson had been the singer for 12 years, and (d) the Brewster brothers, John and Rick were the last originals standing. Let alone know that (e) Gleeson retired from the gig this week, (f) he would be replaced by the drummer Nick Norton doing an antipodean Phil Collins, (g) somehow Jon Stevens didn’t get this gig too, and (h) the Brewster quotient would be doubled with two sons-of in the band as the new rhythm section.
But all this is true. And now you know, all of you.
(As an aside: imagine the washing line at the Brewster homestead post tour: black, black, black, black and some sunglasses. Hope somebody sews names on those t-shirts.)
Wind Back Wednesday HQ decided to mark the occasion by going back to a far less comic moment of changing of the guard, the June 4, 2014, death of original Angels man-up-front, the Doc himself.
THE DEATH OF BERNARD “DOC” NEESON on Wednesday closes one more door on a period of Australian rock’n’roll which could never be repeated.
Though a brain tumour claimed him at 67, Neeson remains in many Australians’ minds as the intense and energised man who dominated stages in hundreds of venues, most of which gave up the ghost long before he even slowed down.
The livewire frontman of The Angels, one of the defining bands of pub rock in the 1970s and ‘80s, may have been born in Northern Ireland, but from Adelaide in the 1970s, along with founding members Rick and John Brewster, and later bassplayer Chris Bailey and drummer Graham “Buzz” Bidstrup, Neeson came to define a strand of very Australian music.
It was never as brutally simple as AC/DC, nor as heavy as The Aztecs but reflected instead what it took to fill pubs in every corner of Australia five, six or seven nights a week. So the guitar riffs were meaty and sometimes even punkish, the rhythm section played without flourish but never missed a step, and the songs could be sung along with, jumped up and down to and often enough bellowed back to the band by blokes – and it was not exclusively but it was mostly blokes – with a beer in one hand.
What set them apart was a singer who revelled in being the frontman and the showman.
While the rest of the band dressed in minimalist black t-shirt and jeans, a Brewster brother always in dark glasses and expressionless face, Neeson was decked out like a cross between a 19th century funeral director and a riverboat gambler.
The former drama student at Flinders University later wrote in the liner notes to a greatest hits compilation that he adopted the costume "from German Expressionism as a means to play up contrasts or distortions” – a line you were never likely to hear from Jimmy Barnes of Cold Chisel, the only band bigger than The Angels at their height.
(The classic lineup of The Angels - in civvies)
For those of us who saw them perform live, The Angels were relentless and uniform but in Neeson they had the flair. Tall and handsome, he made drama from small things and theatre from big things, looming over the audience, arms spread wide to engulf the room, with imposing grandeur. And some darkness. For there was also a sense of danger about the Angels and Neeson, in their songs about paranoia and isolation, and of course in their powerful slap of a sound.
Between songs, Neeson would divert into spontaneous rants or raves or diatribes, depending on his mood, and revealing a musician who read books, followed the news and watched films.
Beginning each show looking shmick and smart, he was incredibly physical and demonstrative so that by the end of the night he’d be dishevelled, sweaty, near-to-wrung out. He’d hold a white towel over his head, stretched taut, not as a flag of surrender but a signal to go one step further.
“This is it folks, over the top,” he’d say as the razor guitars began in Take A Long Line. And every night in every town, that’s where the audience, and Neeson, would go. Even when a horrific road accident damaged him and his ability to move as he once did, damaging too his self-confidence, even when he and the Brewster brothers fell out over the direction of the band and split the band into rival outfits, he could still exude that charisma and that danger.
And yet off stage he was a gentle man, erudite and caring, making a separate career using his voice and drama training as a voice-over artist. His children, Dzintra, Daniel, Aidan and Kieran, saw more of that than most fans and in their farewell to him said "We love you Dad. You couldn't have made any of your sons more proud of you if you tried. May your beautiful soul rest in peace sweet angel, fly high."
SOME OF THE HITS
Am I Ever Gonna to See Your Face Again?
The first song John and Rick Brewster and Doc Neeson wrote after changing their name from The Moonshine Jug And String Band and their first single as The Angels. A song featuring Renoir, death, loss and eventually, at live shows, a crowd chant in response which was profane, inappropriate but summed up the heady atmosphere of Angels’ shows. “No way, get fucked, fuck. off.”
Doc Neeson wrote "it's really an existential query as to what happens when or if you pass over. But the way the song has now found its way into Australian culture is something that really delights me and a really cool example of Australian humour."
Take A Long Line
A menacing introduction of drums and terse guitars before Neeson sets the tone for a whole slew of Angels’ shows with a muttered “this is it folks, over the top”. As he wrote later “it was my way of saying to the audience ‘here we go, fasten your seatbelts because it's going to be a great rock 'n' roll show’.”
I Ain't The One
Some of it sounds pure punk, guitar riffs not that far from the Sex Pistols and Neeson sneering over the top declaring he wouldn’t be the one to judge, but you knew he would be. Played even faster live it demanded body slams.
Aggressive, in your face and hinting at danger with a minor horror show section which came in shadows as Neeson sang "don't go walking out late at night, bolt your door, lock your windows tight, be much safer staying out of sight”.
A story of dreams – of being an actress, of having more – which works out differently: “With dilettante steps she’s quick to accept the weather and times turning screw”. It was condensed from confessions of a young woman hitchhiker Neeson once gave a ride to. “Late at night when the lights are all out, she slips off her stockings and shoes/She makes you her lover and lets you discover the smile she keeps, she keeps for you”.