Latest release: No Exit (Recharged) (Bloodlines)
2020 marks the fortieth anniversary of The Angels’ fourth album. Released in June 1980, Dark Room appeared at a time when the Australian pub rock phenomenon was at its peak, and The Angels were at their zenith. Like the two albums that came before it, Dark Room produced some of the band’s best known songs, tracks like No Secrets and Face the Day which are still radio fodder to this day and continue to sustain the group’s live repertoire. To celebrate the milestone, the veteran rockers will be re-recording the entire album with their current line-up, which now includes Sam Brewster, the son of founder John Brewster, on bass, drummer Nick Norton and, for the last eight years, Dave Gleeson of the Screaming Jets.
“We’ve done it with the Face to Face album, we’ve done it with the No Exit album, and now we’re about to do it with the Dark Room album,” John Brewster explains of the project in soft, measured tones. “We’ve actually been celebrating the 40th anniversary of the recording and release of those albums.”
He emphasises that the idea is about sharing the legacy of those albums with the band as it is now: “Part of the thing is to re-record them, and that’s not to replace them. It’s more to share the experience with my son Sam, and Nick Norton and Dave Gleeson. It was just about getting in the studio, we knew we could do it pretty quickly, and now they have a piece of those albums too. So we’ve been filming them, as well. We did that already with the Dark Room album at [Sydney’s] Bridge Hotel, one of the last live venues from back in those days. When we put the album out, one CD will be live and one CD will be in the studio. And I must say, it sounds great.”
In place since 2012, the current line-up of The Angels has been as busy as always with recording and touring. In 2019 they released No Exit (Recharged) and toured with the Baby Animals, a band they helped to launch in the early 1990s. To promote the tour, the bands recorded each others’ songs: the Angels did One Word and Baby Animals covered Marseilles.
“We’re the best of friends,” Brewster says, “and I think Suze’s one of the world’s best rock blues singers. So it felt like a tribute to me for her to sing Marseilles, because I wrote that!”
On top of that, The Angels performed another of their symphony shows, this time at QPAC in Brisbane, just two nights before this interview.
“It’s the fourth time we’ve done this show now and it was a full house, which is always nice. But the show itself was incredible,” Brewster says of the performance, which features his band in unison with a 32-piece orchestra and 40-member choir in a near two-hour set. “The choir doesn’t sing all the songs, but gee they were fantastic, as they have been at each occasion we’ve done this.”
One of those occasions was in their hometown, an event made even more special when the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra introduced them to the stage with a piece written by the Brewsters’ grandfather, Hooper Brewster-Jones. The event was captured on the album Symphony of Angels.
“Our grandfather was a founding member of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, [and] we walk onstage to the orchestra playing our grandfather’s symphony, Australia Felix. That was kind of a goosebump moment, walking onstage then, I must say.”
Brewster admits that goosebumps moments for The Angels are rare these days, even if there’s still “that little bit of nervous anticipation before we go on”. The announcement in 2011 that Gleeson was taking the vocal role, stepping into the breech left by their estranged and legendary frontman Doc Neeson, caused less of a controversy than the brothers expected.
“We were actually surprised about how little that was an issue,” Brewster recalls. “I think… the thing is, Gleeso brings a lot of himself to the party. He wasn’t trying to step into anyone’s shoes. I think it says a lot about the repertoire and the reputation this band has as a live band, and it’s a guitar band and Rick and I are still there and we’re still playing those same guitar parts we’ve been playing all these years. There’s been bands that have tried to survive when the singer has died or left, or whatever, and it hasn’t worked, but in our situation it’s worked brilliantly. We’re very lucky.”
Others have come and gone, but it seems as if The Angels have been the one constant on the Australian rock front since the mid-1970s. Even as the last 20 years have seen the group fracture and reform, reconfigure and resolve in the wake of the deaths of Neeson and bassist Chris Bailey, The Angels continue to stand strong. Brewster wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The band hasn’t lost anything. We had a great frontman in Doc Neeson and we’ve had great line-ups throughout the years. The original line-up with Buzz Bidstrip and Chris Bailey on bass and drums was fabulous. Brent Eccles and Jim Hilbun were with us for years. It’s as powerful and as cutting edge as it was then. When we go out on stage, we’re not going through the motions. We play it like we mean it, and that’s the big thing. If we go out and there and go through the motions, I’d tell my brother we should hang the guitar up.”
The Angels learned the ropes opening for bands like AC/DC, who were instrumental in getting them wider attention. The Angels learned a lot about stagecraft and songwriting from the Young dynasty, but Brewster is adamant that they were never copyists.
“We were on the same record company as AC/DC; in fact it was AC/DC who were responsible for introducing us to Harry Vanda and George Young and so we were often out there supporting them. One of the reasons we evolved the way we did was because they set the bar so high, we had to be as good as they were. And also, we had to be different: there was Angus running all over the stage and spinning around on his back, and here was Rick standing like a statue, but ripping up the lead breaks just the same.”
On a scene dominated by boogie bands, The Angels needed to find their own sound. Brewster found what he was looking for in the emerging punk/New Wave sound, and began to work it into his songs.
“I wrote a song called I Ain’t the One, which was probably the first song where we said, We’ve found our angle. Because at the end of the day, that’s what it is,” the guitarist explains. “You either get your own angle, or you don’t, and if you don’t, you just sound derivative. I was really influenced by the Sex Pistols and The Clash, the whole punk movement of the late 70s. If you listen to I Ain’t the One, you can almost hear a Sex Pistols song in there. But there is also AC/DC in there, that sort of twin guitar thing of the brothers. Rick and I totally related to that. We even recorded the same way as them, but we weren’t trying to copy them. I don’t think you’ll find any Angels song where you could say we just copied AC/DC. However, we were influenced by them.”
“When I look back I wonder how the hell we did it,” he reflects with a chuckle. “Obviously, we were young, but the amount of road miles we did in the old EH station wagon with the bass speaker on the roof and retread tyres, I’m surprised we survived! But we did. When the band first took off, we opened up that whole pub scene. There were bands before us doing that too, but I think it really took off with us.”
The Angels zigzagged the country as pub rock swept the nation, attracting crowds so long the queues to get in would snake around the block and venues had to shoehorn punters inside.
“There were no fire restrictions… we used to put insane numbers of people in the venues. And really, it was quite risky so it was probably quite right that things changed and we had to start limiting the numbers we could get in. They did have limits on the numbers, but no one was policing it. The Stagedoor in Sydney was licensed for 400 and one night we had just shy of 2000 people in there.”
Over 40 years on, The Angels still pack ‘em in. This summer they are on the road with the somewhat unfortunately if appropriately named Red Hot Summer Tour with James Reyne, Hunters & Collector, The Living End, Baby Animals, Boom Crash Opera and Killing Heidi. The Angels have also added sideshow dates with Boom Crash Opera. No doubt the perennial road warriors will have plenty of other shows to come this year, and plenty of fans to come out and see them. Like rock music itself, The Angels are eternal.
“We’re a rock band, and rock music is, in a funny sort of way, like folk music. It’s there forever. You can put ZZ Top on the turntable now and it’s going to sound as fresh as it ever did. WIth AC/DC, you can say the same thing. It’s not fashion-based music, but it’s the best music!”