R.I.P. BERNARD “DOC” NEESON (4 January 1947-4 June 2014) – By Ian McFarlane
Bernard ‘Doc’ Neeson, lead singer of legendary Australian band The Angels during their most popular phase, has died following an agonising battle with brain cancer. Neeson was diagnosed with a brain tumour in January 2013 and despite undergoing rigorous treatment, the singer finally succumbed to the disease.
One of the most indelible images in all of Aussie rock ‘n’ roll must surely be the sight of the maniacal Neeson, atop a massive amplifier stack, arms raised above his head, hands stretching his white scarf aloft, announcing “this is it folks – over the top!” as The Angels thundered into the mighty ‘Take a Long Line’.
Neeson was originally the band’s bass player as well as singer when they formed in 1974. It soon became obvious that he was far better suited out front unencumbered by an instrument. Chris Bailey (who also died from cancer in April 2013) took Neeson’s place on bass and alongside the guitar-wielding Brewster brothers, John and Rick, and the propulsive, swinging drive of drummer Graham “Buzz” Bidstrup, Neeson came to define everything that was great about rock ‘n’ roll. As the consummate frontman, the charismatic Neeson injected a strong theatrical edge into the band’s on-stage antics.
Alongside Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil and Rose Tattoo, The Angels made a profound impact on the local live music scene of the late 1970s / early 1980s. The Angels helped redefine the Australian pub rock tradition, with an incredible brand of no-frills, hard-driving boogie rock that attracted pub and concert goers in unprecedented numbers. In turn, The Angels’ shows raised the standard expected on the live music scene. Perhaps one of the band’s major disappointments was never really succeeding on the massive US market where they were highly regarded by many and hugely influential on bands the calibre of Guns N’ Roses.
One of the great things about Neeson was that as well as being a phenomenal frontman, he was a lyricist of rare intensity. The Brewster brothers came up with the buzzing guitar riffs that helped shape the band’s music but it was Neeson’s lyrics that added the necessary sharpness to proceedings. When you consider that it was Neeson’s words that populated many of The Angels’ classic such as ‘Take a Long Line’, ‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again’, ‘Marseilles’, ‘Shadow Boxer’, ‘No Secrets’, ‘Face the Day’, ‘Fashion & Fame’, ‘Dogs are Talking’ etc, then it becomes obvious there was a rare talent at work here.
Much has been made in recent years of the bitter split with Neeson and Bidstrup on one side and the formidable Brewster brothers on the other. (The Angels have continued with ex-Screaming Jets singer Dave Gleeson out front.) A recent edition of ABC-TV’s Australian Story (A Very Good Rascal) highlighted the situation but it’s not the intention here to go into any further details.
It’s difficult as an observer to even consider what Neeson was like as a person. There have been numerous dedications posted, such as Buzz Bidstrup who described the man as: “a thorough gentleman, he was such an innovator and one of Australian rock’s most underestimated singers”. Rick Brewster was full of praise for his former band mate: “Doc stood out as one of a kind, a totally unique performer,” he said.
In the end, it’s his public persona that will prevail and Australian music fans will simply remember Doc Neeson as one of the greatest performers this country has ever produced.