John Brewster (The Angels) reflects on old songs, new singers and Aussie rock history

Before they head out on tour with Mi-Sex in July, The AngelsJohn Brewster took some time to talk to me about where the band has been and where it’s going. Strap yourselves in for a few lessons in Australian music history.

More than forty years later and The Angels are still rocking. Back in the 70s, did it ever cross your mind that you’d be doing this for the rest of your life?

Oh hell no. No way! We had no idea what was going to happen. I mean the book of rock and roll hadn’t been written I guess. Having said that, the band is 42 years old now. Obviously there’s been changes, but then I can’t think of a band that hasn’t had any changes. But I suppose it just shows the power of rock and roll and the power of great songs! I’m proud of those songs. They don’t date, really. “Take A Long Line” sounds as fresh today as it did when we wrote it.

Many of the guys I’ve spoken to from that era have expressed the same sentiment. But I love that your music has endured because so many more generations now get to experience it.

Yeah that’s great. It was a pretty amazing era. I mean we haven’t really stood still either. Dave Gleeson has now been singing with us for five years, and we’ve recorded two albums of new material in that time. We’re working on a third at the moment which maybe will surface next year. Writing new songs keeps us motivated. We acknowledge that we have a bunch of songs that people want to hear when we play live, but I’m really proud of newer material too, like the Talk The Talk album. And you know, my son plays bass in the band now – so it’s as much about forward motion as reminiscing.

Is it a good feeling watching the younger generations coming to your shows and singing along?

Absolutely yeah, that’s what it’s all about for us. I sort of see it as a mutual celebration. We love playing, we love our repertoire, and we love the band. So it’s always great to be able to celebrate that mutually with the crowd. They give us energy for sure. I mean we played overseas last year in Paris and London. And we had amazing reactions over there. In fact, in Paris, that audience was singing the guitar solos back to us.

So it’s nice to know that the music has had such a wide influence…

Yeah, it actually left me thinking what the hell was out manager at the time thinking in not pursuing the European market further. We’re clearly strong there! We hadn’t played there for 35 years and we had 150 people lined up at 2pm with all this memorabilia. I’m looking at them thinking, ‘I don’t reckon most of them were even born when we first toured there.’ I guess our reputation was built there on Marseille somewhat, which probably still gets airplay.

How has Dave fit into the band? He seems to us outsiders like the perfect choice. His voice is a great match for Doc’s.

Well that’s the thing. Dave came into the band well before Doc was even diagnosed with that horrible bloody disease that took his life. Doc actually left the band at the end of 2010 and Dave joined in 2011. He was immediately really well received by fans, which we loved. Dave has never tried to step into anyone’s shoes, he just brings his own thing. But he has the right sounding voice for our songs, no doubt. Having Dave in the band has been wonderful for us, he’s a great guy and an incredible front man. He is a magical mix of theatrical and clown.

Do you still feel Doc’s presence at the live shows?

Ah look, the answer to that is no, I don’t think so. But then in reality, Doc and Chris were huge parts of this band. Of course, we reflect and talk about them. For example, when I play “Be With You” I’ll often say to the audience this is a song I wrote with Doc in the piano room where Bon Scott used to do his vocals. And of course at that moment I’ll remember. But I don’t compare Dave to Doc or anything like that. Dave now calls himself the custodian of the songs, and I can tell you the songs are in very safe hands. But yeah, we remember, most of the time without regretting.

Being an Adelaidian myself, tell me about making music here in the early 70s.

I think Adelaide was absolutely right on the cutting edge. And that’s a big reason why so many great bands came out of Adelaide in that era. If you go back to 1964 when The Beatles visited, they estimate half the population of Adelaide turned out to see them. It was the biggest public reception they got anywhere in the world.

Obviously, it had a lot to do with the large English migrant population that moved into Elizabeth in the 50s, you know – the ‘ten pound pom’. I mean that’s Jimmy Barnes, Swanee, Doc Neeson, Glen Shorrock, Bon Scott. The thing is we met all those people with a common interest. I was a middle class private school boy but totally into music. So when we met them there was like this cross pollination of ideas. And Adelaide being a smaller town meant that there was just something special about the way the arts has been cultivated there over the years.

God it was exciting in those days, though. In the late 60s and 70s, you’d walk around town and there was a club every 50 metres or so. Little basement clubs like Headquarters. You’d head downstairs and there’d be some great little band playing. It was just all around us.

I’ve often said if I had a time machine, I’d go back to that era in Adelaide. Just because of the unbelievable amount of Australian music talent that was bred here.

Yeah, and the wonderful things that used to come of that scene, like the Myponga festival which preceded Sunbury’s. And you know guys like Billy Thorpe were around. He was one of the pioneers of the pub scene. But we had a part in that too, along with AC/DC of course. We really opened up that whole pub scene.

Your son Sam now plays bass with the band. Does he get involved with the song writing as well?

Yeah, Sam’s a wonderful musician. He’s got great original ideas. I’ve actually got three sons and we’ve been doing this show called Brothers, Angels and Demons. Where the whole three boys have joined me and Rick, so you’ve got five Brewsters on stage! It’s amazing for me as their father to see where they go with their music. But yeah, Sam definitely gets involved with writing. And I hope he’s really involved with the new material.

The press release intimated you might head to Europe again next year. You clearly haven’t lost any fervour for the tour life. What keeps you motivated?

We’re a very happy camp. We don’t have any handbreaks in this band and that goes a long way to making you want to keep doing it. I mean if you have people that don’t want to be there it’s like pushing the proverbial uphill. We really enjoy the three different generations in the one band. We all pile into the touring van and have a great time.

Musically, I feel we are playing as well as we ever have and with just as much passion. Like any group of people, we’ve had ups and downs. Kids, divorces and other pressures do creep in. But these days the band is so established. Back in the 70s, it was out on the road for weeks at a time. Now, people don’t go out on weeknights to see a rock band like they used to. So we fly in for a weekend of shows and then head home for the week. It’s actually a nicely balanced life!

My unashamed favourite song of The Angels’ is “Take A Long Line”, because when I was kid my uncle used to blast it out in the car a lot. So what is your favourite track to play live?

Well that’s one of them, actually. That song was written by my brother. He had this really quite complex chorus. And my contribution was saying, ‘That chorus is too complicated,’ (Laughs). So we stripped it back to just the D and the E. I have fond memories of that song. I’d say probably my absolute favourite to play live is “Marseille”. It’s a just a brilliant live number. Because of the groove it’s like riding a wave.

The Angels kick off their Hardwired tour in July. Visit their website for ticketing information.




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