William Richard Thorpe was born in Manchester, England and emigrated with his family to Brisbane in the fifties. A precocious child performer, he participated in amateur talent quests as a yodeller and sang at local dances. He performed as a youth under the pseudonym ‘Little Rock Allen’ and played on bills supporting the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and our own Johnny O’Keefe. The yodelling quality to Billy’s voice can be heard in the vocal style of some of his early recordings.
Billy moved to Sydney in early 1963 and soon auditioned for singing work at the premier beat-music venue of the day, Surf City in Kings Cross. His backing band for these auditions was Sydney instrumental group The Aztecs. They had formed from the remnants of two popular Sydney surf-instrumental outfits, The Vibratones and The Sierras. Billy’s strong voice and charismatic stage presence impressed the Aztecs, who immediately offered him the job of lead singer. They quickly gained the attention of entrepreneurs keen to spot “the next big thing” and the newly-christened Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs rapidly became a popular drawcard on the burgeoning Sydney beat-dance circuit, and set about honing their sound.
The group was offered a recording arrangement with the small independent label Linda Lee, and in the closing stages of the year they recorded the tracks that became the first single.
Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs
The first recorded output from the band appeared in April of 1964. “Blue Day” was written by rhythm guitarist Tony Barber, and displayed his nascent songwriting skills. The record garnered moderate notice on Sydney radio, but became a hit when it was re-released in the wake of The Aztecs’ subsequent breakthrough.
The second single was the follow-up that set the benchmark. Their cover of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller “Poison Ivy” is rightfully honoured as Australia’s first ever ‘beat boom’ hit, reaching number one on the national charts, and remaining an oft-compiled classic of the era. As happened with so many other Aussie cover versions of songs made known by significant British groups of the time, The Aztecs’ version of this Coasters original outshone the record upon which it was based the Rolling Stones EP rendition.
They were an early signing to the newly formed Albert Productions, one of Australia’s first independent pop music production companies, established by young publisher and producer Ted Albert, a member of the family that owned the venerable Australian publishing firm of J. Albert & Son. The Aztecs became the frontrunners in a stable that soon grew on to include The Easybeats, The Missing Links and The Throb. They followed up the huge success of “Poison Ivy” with a series of strongly charting releases, among them “Mashed Potato” (notable mainly for its gormless, repetitive three word lyric), and the confidently slinky Searchers cover, “Sick & Tired”.
By the time The Beatles hit our shores in June 1964, The Aztecs were already creating pandemonium at their own shows around the country. They famously kept the Fabs from the #1 position while the Beatles tour was in full swing! Indeed, John Lennon summoned “this Billy Thorpe character” for a meeting which took place at the their inner sanctum at The Sheraton in Kings Cross, where the teenage Billy apparently impressed his hosts with his precocity and charm.
Concert footage from the time shows the band barely able to complete a number without wild stage invasions from hysterical fans. The Aztecs epitomised the polish and professionalism of the leading acts of the day, with their natty matching suits, menacing looking Burns Bison guitars, and their mastery of the legendary Stomp dance moves! But in concert they suffered from the same sound reinforcement problems endured by all performers at that time since concert amplification just could not compete with the sheer volume of the audiences’ screaming. If the Aztecs’ musical chops suffered as a result of not being able to be heard, few seemed to mind the concerts remained thrilling events which drew ever increasing crowd numbers and reinforced their national popularity.
The group went from strength to strength, consolidating their position with appearances on such TV pop shows as Bandstand. Their debut LP, released on EMI’s Parlophone imprint, featured a strong mix of Barber penned originals and well chosen covers. At this stage, it could be argued that only Ray Brown & the Whispers (who had inherited the Aztecs residency at Surf City) could rival the Aztecs to any significant degree, although the scene was soon to undergo a seismic change with the emergence of a new swag of bands like The Easybeats and The Twilights and solo star Normie Rowe.
Towards the end of 1964, Thorpe signalled a not so subtle change in musical direction, with a decidedly ‘MOR’, string drenched version of Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”. The group entered 1965 with its biggest hit to date, but it also marked the swan song of the original Aztecs lineup.
The early part of 1965 saw the band continuing to play to sold out houses and earning a clutch of gold record awards. They supported such overseas acts as Tony Sheridan and Screaming Lord Sutch, and, notably, attracted a then record crowd of 63,000 to a headlining performance at Melbourne’s Myer Music Bowl. Then, at the height of the group’s popularity, Thorpe unceremoniously jettisoned his original backing group in favour of an all new line-up. The precise reasons for this drastic change remain unclear, but it’s thought that a dispute over money was the main catalyst.
The new “Mark II” Aztecs released another MOR ballad, “I Told The Brook” (although its flip, the rollicking, bass dominated “Funny Face” hinted that Thorpe hadn’t completely abandoned his rocking roots). Meanwhile, former Aztecs Barber and Maloney formed the short lived Vince & Tony Two, and Tony embarked one brief solo career. Vince was subsequently summoned to England to join the emerging new Bee Gees line-up in late 1966.
The Aztecs continued to ply the national concert circuit and released another album, supported by strong chart entries for a batch of singles which mainly mined the soppy ballad vein introduced with “Rainbow”. The advent of fresh new bands like The Easybeats, The Twilights and The Masters Apprentices could not dampen the ardour of Aztecs fans, and the group continued to enjoy an avid following.
By 1966 many pundits were predicting that the so-called “Beat Boom” was coming to an to end. Sensing the change, Billy decided to expand his horizons to become an all-round entertainer. Backed by the “Mark II” Aztecs, he notched up further hits with “Twilight Time”, “Hallelujah I Love Her So”, “Love Letters” and “Word For Today”.
On March 27, the Seven Network broadcast the premiere episode of It’s All Happening!, a weekly one-hour live-to-air pop variety show, in which Billy and the band, were augmented by brass players Tony Buchanan and Rory Thomas (who was also the show’s musical director), a troupe of go-go dancers, and weekly local guest stars like The Easys, Ray Brown and Normie Rowe, alongside visiting acts such as Helen Shapiro, Neil Sedaka and Bobby Rydell. Although it’s considered one of the better examples of the infant pop-TV genre, It’s All Happening! was canned by Channel 7 at the end of the year, and its demise also marked both the end of the second Aztecs and a watershed in Billy’s career. Aztecs Johnny Dick and Teddy Toi went go on to forge lasting careers in Aussie rock (notably becoming members of the Alberts’ All-Stars house band), while each returned to the Aztecs fold occasionally over subsequent years.
1967 – 1968
These two years were a frustrating period for Thorpe. By various accounts, he had become disenchanted with his career direction, and wanted to explore the more radical forms of music emerging from the UK and US, but he also had to battle with business problems and other personal upheavals, including a widely publicised bankruptcy. His only recording in this period was his largely ignored late ’67 single, a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby”, which scraped into the bottom end of the Sydney Top 40 (#36, October).
Realising that his cutesy, middle-of-the-road image and musical approach had no place among the new psychedelic, blues and ‘head-music’ styles now finding favour with fans, Billy began the process of breaking the shackles of his earlier pop persona, a process that culminated with his re-emergence in 1969-70 as the macho, bearded, long-haired, blues wailing rocker we have come to revere.
The turnaround in Billy’s career began in 1968 — he changed his visual image, creating a “General Custer” look by growing a moustache and donning a fringed suede jacket. In January he put together a new backing band with respected guitarist Mick Liber (guitar, ex Python Lee Jackson), Johnny Dick (drums) and Dave McTaggert (bass), who was soon replaced by Paul “Sheepdog” Wheeler.
The turning point came in August 1968, when Thorpie was offered a two-week engagement in Melbourne”. Just before he went down there, both Mick Liber and Johnny Dick quit the band, so Billy recruited drummer Jimmy Thompson (ex Tony Worsley & The Fabulous Blue Jays). The new band reverted to the name “Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs” and they ended up performing around Melbourne as a trio for several months, with Thorpie doing both lead vocals and playing lead guitar. He later recalled:
“…as luck or fate would have it, the guitar player quit. I’d never played guitar on stage and had to learn the whole set in a night. To make up for the songs I didn’t know, I threw in tunes like “Be Bop A Lula” that I’d done years before and, to my amazement, a lot of people went: ‘Whoa – what’s this?!’ And that’s how the whole thing got started”.
In December 1968 Aussie guitar hero Lobby Loyde joined the “new” Aztecs and he played a major role in establishing the hard-rocking style and ear-splitting volume that are indelibly associated with the “new” Aztecs, as well as encouraging and mentoring Billy as a guitarist.
In early 1969 Billy was reportedly offered a recording deal in England by expatriate Australian entrepreneur, Robert Stigwood (manager of The Bee Gees and Cream). Billy moved to Melbourne to prepare for his overseas. As it transpired, the overseas offer wasn’t taken up. Instead, Billy proceeded to build his new band and sound, abassorbing the many exciting developments and influences in Melbourne’s growing progressive scene:
“Melbourne in 1969 was unbelievable. I’d never seen anything like it. I got there and realised I was a pop star with a lot to learn. I thought – ‘fuck me! Why am I going to England when it’s all happening here?’ I went to Melbourne for two weeks and stayed eight years”.
The first recording fruits of this newfound musical style appeared in ’69 with the determinedly blues-based single “Rock Me Baby” / “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”. The A-side was to become a mainstay of The Aztecs’ live set and one of its most popular songs for years. With plaited ponytails, tight jeans and a new blues-based hard-rock style, Thorpie and his new Aztecs blitzed Melbourne’s ‘heads’ with an explosive presentation that forever laid to rest his clean-cut ’60s pop image.
To paraphrase Murray Engleheart’s liner notes for the Lock Up Your Mothers anthology, the next release by the new Aztecs was an ambitious jam-filled album called The Hoax Is Over, which was recorded in September 1970, recorded with new drummer Kevin Murphy. The album was an unequivocal signal of the Aztecs’ new direction, containing just four long tracks, three of which were Thorpe originals.
The LP is dominated by two tracks that were of unprecedented length for an Australian “pop” recording — Side 1 featured the Aztec’s version of Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s “Gangster Of Love”, which clocked in at a whopping 24:35!. On Side 2 it’s Billy own “Mississippi”, (19:35). According to Thorpe, the band (comprising himself, Murphy, Warren Morgan, Lobby Loyde and bassist Paul Wheeler) was flying on LSD, with engineer Ernie Rose able to little else except let the tape roll. The result heralded the fully fledged arrival of the Aztecs Mark III, par excellence. Live shows at Melbourne’s premier venues like Thumpin’ Tum and Catcher, consolidated the band’s reputation and drew solid enthusiastic response.
Not all the Aztecs’ gigs in those early months were so well received, however. Away from their home base in Melbourne, where they were soon the undisputed kings of the nascent pub rock scene, the Aztecs encountered stiff and sometimes brutal resistance to their new style. Punters who turned up expecting to see well-groomed young men in neat suits, performing “Poison Ivy” and “Mashed Potato”, sometimes reacted violently when confronted by the raw, aggressive blues and crushing volume of the new Aztecs.
One particularly nasty episode, which Billy recounts in the liner notes to Lock Up Your Mothers, occurred when the Aztecs played in the country town of Queanbeyan, just north of Canberra, in early 1970. A large fight erupted after the gig, and the band were forced to escape by car, but they were chased down the highway towards Canberra by a group of hooligans, who pursued them at speeds in excess of 100mph, firing shots after them! The Aztecs sought refuge in their hotel, but the local hoons stormed in, carrying the fight into the foyer. The resulting melee demolished the hotel foyer and spilled out into the street, resulting in several members of the band being badly injured, as well as members of support group Fraternity, including lead singer Bon Scott who had waded in to help. Next morning, the band was escorted out of town by police, and were warned, for their own safety, not to return.
Ian McFarlane, Aztec Records and Desperate Records
© Copyright by Tony Senatore 2019.
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