18 June 2005

Bizarro Shadows World Down Under

Standing in the shadow of The Shadows:
Melbourne band The Phantoms, from Canetoad's W&G Instrumental Story.

How many Australian and New Zealand bands of the 60s started out playing instrumentals in the style of the Shadows but transformed themselves in the wake of Beatlemania? See, for a start, The Strangers, The Questions, The Cherokees and The La De Das.

When a bunch of teenagers formed a band in the early 60s their main passion was often to emulate The Shadows or The Ventures (not only in Australia: see my post ¡Viva Los Shads!). Apache and Walk, Don’t Run were standards of the repertoire.

In Australia, this amounted to something like a movement, a phenomenon I like to call Bizarro Shadows World Down Under.

Aussies were always fond of a guitar-based instrumental. The Shadows were as big here as they were in the UK, and they were still charting alongside the Beatles into the mid-60s: their last hit in Oz was Bombay Duck in 1967 (#3 Adelaide, #10 Brisbane). The Americans preferred The Ventures, but we liked them as well: best of both worlds, down here. When surf music came along we took to it in a big way, and it melded in nicely with the guitar instrumental genre.

We also had our local heroes. Sydney steel guitarist Rob E. G. was often on the radio and the charts in the early 60s, often (but not always) with his own compositions: Railroadin', Si Senor (I Theenk?) and 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Zero. In 1963 Sydney band The Atlantics produced Bombora and The Crusher, two stunning examples of the surf instrumental that give Pipeline and Wipeout a run for their money. The Joy Boys - without Col Joye - had a national Top 5 hit in 1962 with Southern ‘Rora, inspired by, of all things, a new Melbourne-Sydney train service.

Melbourne band The Strangers first charted in their home town with a guitar version of Frankie Laine’s hit Cry of the Wild Goose (1963), a far cry from the soul-tinged vocal pop of 1968’s Happy Without You. Progressive New Zealand band the La De Das were, in their embryonic form, a high school band called The Mergers who played Shadows-styled instrumentals. At the website of guitarist Rod Stone, later with The Playboys and The Groove, you can hear a snatch of his 1962 version of Skye Boat Song, recorded in New Zealand as a 17-year-old in immaculate Shadows style.

It’s not that the instrumental bands didn’t sing at all, but looking back it’s hard to avoid the idea that it was cooler, even more manly, to pick out those precise guitar instrumentals than to sing soppy love songs.

There are a number of Bizarro Shadows World Down Under tracks on W&G Instrumental Story, released by the Australian reissue label Canetoad. W&G was a Melbourne record label.

Some of these tracks sound a bit cheesy, even clunky, at this distance, but that’s a feature of instro-guitar in general. Even so, there’s a good mix of remakes and originals that often stand up well beside their British and American models.

About half the tracks are by Melbourne showband The Thunderbirds, who were really too big, too brassy and too versatile to be put strictly in the mould of the Shads. Their version of The Rebels' Wild Weekend is an Aussie instrumental classic.

Otherwise, tracks by The Cherokees (Thundercloud), The Chessmen (The Rebel [Johnny Yuma]), The Breakaways (The Wheel), The Strangers (Undertow) and The Phantoms (Stampede) wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Shadows or Ventures album.

When Beatlemania hit, many Aussie instrumental bands did just what the boys in my Australian town did: they shampooed their hair, brushed it down over their foreheads, and never again darkened the doors of traditional barbers’ shops.

Pictures of the Beatles before Ringo illustrate the contrast. Pete Best looked fine and he still had a loyal following. He had that detached, moody, brushed-back look that went back to James Dean and the late-50s teen idols, but (unless my perception is skewed by hindsight) he already looked oddly out of place.

More than just changing the idea of what looked cool, Merseybeat made singing an imperative. The Strangers developed a hip pop sensibility that gave them vocal hits in the late 60s with Melanie Makes Me Smile, Western Union and Happy Without You. The Cherokees dabbled in a number of styles, but they had their greatest success with the comic revivals Oh, Monah and Minnie The Moocher that for some reason never seemed out of place on the charts of the late 60s.

The Atlantics ventured into Brit Invasion recycled R&B with the likes of I Put A Spell On You, featuring Johnny Rebb, an experienced rock’n’roller who had joined the band, and Rob E.G. re-emerged as Robie Porter, this time singing on his records (When You’re Not Near). Sydney band, The Questions also hired a vocalist, and his name was Doug Parkinson.

You thought I was going to say, "And the rest is history...", didn't you?
See also:
Cicadas and Flies: Bizarro Merseybeat World Down Under

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