By Ian McFarlane
MARCUS HOOK ROLL BAND – A Slice of Aussie Rock History
Like many dedicated fans of Australian music, I’m fascinated with the whole Harry Vanda and George Young story. I mean, this is the musician / song-writing / production team that steered The Easybeats to international success during the 1960s, oversaw numerous classic recordings for Stevie Wright, AC/DC, John Paul Young, The Angels, Rose Tattoo (Aussie rock and roll royalty one and all) and even scored hits with their alter-ego, new wave project Flash and the Pan.
Yet for me, the most intriguing aspect of the whole Vanda and Young saga is their recording venture under the banner of the Marcus Hook Roll Band. Marcus Who? What! The name is so mythological that only the most ardent Vanda and Young and AC/DC fanatic has inkling as to the identities behind the name. Young himself has been quoted as saying they thought the whole thing “was a joke”, so what hope does the listener have of taking this thing seriously? Read on!
Firstly, there’s some historical background to cover. As The Easybeats ground to a halt at the end of 1969 following a final, lacklustre Australian tour, singer Wright stayed in Australia while Vanda and Young returned to the UK. In London they set themselves up as freelance song writers / session men / producers, working on as many recordings as they possibly could.
A number of these boozy, good-time sessions with various friends and relatives (Young’s brother Alex, then known as George Alexander, was closely involved) were leased to a variety of labels in the UK and Europe and issued as singles under a range of names:
- Paintbox – ‘Get Ready for Love’ (Young Blood, 1970)
- Tramp – ‘Vietnam Rose’ (Young Blood, 1970)
- Moondance – ‘Lazy River’ (A&M, 1970); later issued in Australia as by Vanda and Young (Alberts, 1971)
- Eddie Avana – ‘Children’ (Young Blood, 1970)
- Haffy’s Whiskey Sour – ‘Shot in the Head’ (Deram, 1971)
- Grapefruit – ‘Sha-Sha’ (Deram, 1971)
- Marcus Hook Roll Band – ‘Natural Man’ and ‘Louisiana Lady’ (EMI / Regal Zonophone, 1972)
There was the further mythical name of Band of Hope with the single ‘Working Class People’ to be issued on Decca (1972) but that never eventuated.
For the MHRB tracks, Vanda and Young had teamed up with EMI in-house producer Wally Allen who’d been bass player in the Pretty Things so it’s more than likely he was prepared for the general booziness of the recording sessions. ‘Natural Man’ and ‘Louisiana Lady’ bear the stamp of the classic Vanda and Young rock song writing craft: the sprightly, open chord verse and anthemic chorus structure of the first (a la The Easybeats ‘Good Times’) and the swampy, sax-driven, staccato riffs of the second. As well as Vanda (lead guitar, vocals) and Young (rhythm guitar, vocals) the other musicians involved were Alexander (sax), Ian Campbell (bass) and Freddie Smith (drums). Another feature was the all-in-the-gang backing vocals on the choruses.
With the EMI connection, the two MHRB singles were issued in the US on Capitol during 1973. While neither charted, later in the year the suits at Capitol were calling for more. They wanted an album and a band to tour but it seems Vanda and Young were having none of that for the time being as they’d returned to Sydney and had set up home in the Albert recording complex.
By that stage, the Vanda-Young song writing credit had started to appear elsewhere on a regular basis. In the UK, artists who recorded Vanda-Young songs included:
- Savoy Brown – ‘Shot in the Head’
- Warhorse – ‘St. Louis’
- Whichwhat – ‘Vietnam Rose’
- A completely different band called Paintbox – ‘Come on Round’
- Peter D. Kelly – ‘Working Class People’, ‘Hard Road’
- David Bowie – ‘Friday on My Mind’
- John Miles – ‘One Minute Every Hour’
- With many more to follow thereafter, including Rod Stewart and Suzi Quatro
Likewise, by 1973 in Australia, due to their connection with Alberts Productions their song writing name as supreme pop craftsmen was getting around:
- Erl Dalby & Pyramid – ‘Can’t Wait for September’
- Flake – ‘Life is Getting Better’, ‘Quick Reaction’
- Ted Mulry – ‘Falling in Love Again’, ‘Ain’t it Nice’
- Alison McCallum – ‘Superman’
- Bobbi Marchini – ‘Working My Way Back to You’
- John Paul Young – ‘Pasadena’
- Johnny O’Keefe – ‘Working Class People’
Still, there was no escaping the pull of imminent fame for the Marcus Hook Roll Band. Wally Allen flew out to Australia and the crew set about recording the much-demanded album. With Vanda on lead guitar and Young taking up bass as well as his customary rhythm guitar and piano duties, the other musicians were drummer John Proud and the younger Young siblings Malcolm and Angus on guitars. Howie Casey overdubbed his sax playing in the UK on a couple of tracks.
George has been quoted as saying “We went into EMI-Sydney for a month and Wally supplied all the booze. We had Harry, me and my kid brothers Malcolm and Angus. We all got rotten, ‘cept for Angus, who was too young, and we spent a month in there boozing it up every night. That was the first thing that Malcolm and Angus did before AC/DC. We didn’t take it very seriously, so we thought we’d include them to give them an idea of what recording was all about.”
EMI Australia issued Tales of Old Grand-Daddy with little fanfare in March, 1974. The cover featured a drawing of an old timer with corn-cob pipe, reclining in his rocking chair. Young would have preferred a bottle of Old Grand-Dad Whiskey, which is what he had in mind given the booziness of the sessions, however that may have brought up the issue of image copyright.
EMI didn’t bother to issue a single locally, which was uncharacteristic of record company marketing of the day. Maybe because Vanda and Young themselves were unwilling to promote the album, EMI couldn’t be bothered chasing a hit single. EMI UK and BASF Germany (in picture sleeve) issued ‘Can’t Stand the Heat’ as a single, but no album! Even EMI Capitol in the US, the label that wanted the album in the first place, passed on the release. It finally appeared in the US during 1979 as a self-titled album with new cover art (still no whiskey bottle) and a reconfigured running order.
So what do we get musically – as all indications would have it, Tales of Old Grand-Daddy is a booze-soaked, bluesy rock album with a weird kind of heavy funk undercurrent and a huge dash of larrikin humour (and what might be termed these days as the occasional “un-PC” lyric turn). This is not a pop album. There is the occasional political statement in the lyrics (‘People and the Power’, ‘Red Revolution’) but it takes the form of simplistic sloganeering rather than advocating real action.
In general there’s little emphasis placed on musical grandstanding, being more of an ensemble recording. There’s a good deal of texture to the music, yet it’s hard to distinguish any significant guitar licks from either Malcolm or Angus for example. There’s the occasional slide guitar embellishment (‘Shot in the Head’, ‘Watch Her do it Now’) but that’s most likely to have been played by Harry Vanda. Once again, another key element is the all-in-the-gang chorus vocals.
- ‘Can’t Stand the Heat’, ‘Goodbye Jane’, ‘Quick Reaction’, ‘Shot in the Head’ and the salacious ‘Watch Her do it Now’ are the real riff-rockers
- ‘Red Revolution’ boasts a stomping, glammy vibe which adds to the overall swampy tang
- ‘Silver Shoes’ (or to give its later, expanded title ‘Silver Shoes & Strawberry Wine)’ is a slow-burning blues ballad that builds and builds with vocals, lead guitar, piano and sax battling it out in the climax
- ‘Cry for Me’ is a terrific torch ballad that’s similar to Paul McCartney’s ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ in its arrangement
- Finally, there’s the madcap ‘Ape Man’ with Vanda going all out simian-like with the vocal grunts mirroring the lurching nature of the rhythm. It’s kinda like a crude blend of Hot Legs’ ‘Neanderthal Man’, The Kinks’ ‘Apeman’ and Mungo Jerry’s ‘In the Summertime’. Totally goofy but enormous fun!
Although it seems Vanda and Young didn’t give a tinker’s cuss about the album as a whole, they must have liked the songs. Or at least they saw the commercial possibilities because a number of Alberts artists ended up recording songs from the album: John Paul Young (‘Silver Shoes & Strawberry Wine’); Stevie Wright (‘The People and the Power’); Alison McCallum (‘Cry for Me’) although it’s unlikely that any serious artist considered touching ‘Ape Man’!
The original album pressing rarely turns up these days. EMI later issued the Full File album (1981) which included the earlier singles (all four A and B-sides) plus the other non-LP B-side ‘Moonshine Blues’, but even that is difficult to find. There was a CD reissue on Sony in 1994 that added the two A-sides and featured completely new cover art (yes, there’s a whiskey bottle present in the fuzzy picture) but even that was soon deleted.
There are many more Vanda and Young tales to be told, but the Marcus Hook Roll Band name fell by the wayside. The two visionaries simply got on with the real task at hand – writing and producing hits for other artists, Stevie Wright, John Paul Young and Williams Shakespeare among them. And of course, they produced that run of classic albums for AC/DC and Rose Tattoo. The Vanda-Young hits for their artists are too numerous to mention here, but on an international level I’d nominate John Paul Young’s ‘Love is in the Air’ and their own Flash and the Pan’s ‘Waiting for a Train’ as two of the best.
As for Tales of Old Grand-Daddy, should we take this recording seriously? All I can say is – “I’m your Ape Maaaannnnnnnn…..”
MARCUS HOOK ROLL BAND – Tales of Old Grand-Daddy (EMI EMA-2518) 1974
Harry Vanda & George Young as Marcus Hook Roll Band
1. CAN’T STAND THE HEAT (All tracks written by Vanda & Young)
2. GOODBYE JANE
3. QUICK REACTION
4. SILVER SHOES
5. WATCH HER DO IT NOW
6. PEOPLE AND THE POWER
7. RED REVOLUTION
8. SHOT IN THE HEAD
9. APE MAN
10. CRY FOR ME
Produced by Wally Allen