By Ian McFarlane.
Was he the greatest frontman in the sphere of Australian pop during the 1960s?
Born 20 December, 1947 (Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK)
Died 27 December, 2015 (Moruya, NSW, Australia)
Who was the greatest frontman in the sphere of Australian pop during the 1960s? Billy Thorpe? Normie Rowe? Gerry Humphreys? Jim Keays? Jeff St. John? Russell Morris? Of course, they were all incredible but the honour really belongs to the extraordinary Stevie Wright. The Easybeats wouldn’t have been The Easybeats without his presence.
He had the charisma, he had the passion, he had the drive, he was a dynamic performer and you could tell that he enjoyed his position in the spotlight immensely. And the kids loved him. He was godlike youth personified. It’s amazing, even now, to consider that Wright was only 16-years-old when The Easybeats formed, 17 when their first single came out, 18 when they recorded their greatest moment and still only 21 when they broke up.
The Easybeats story is multi-layered and expansive, a glorious rush of highs and lows, so it’s not our purposes here to restate the legend. A couple of things you need to know: The Easybeats were masters of the killer mod / beat pop single; and Wright co-wrote – with guitarist George Young – all their unforgettable early hits. ‘For My Woman’, ‘She’s So Fine’, ‘Women (Make You Feel Alright)’, ‘Come And See Her’, ‘Sorry’ (as well as its fabulous flip side ‘Funny Feelin’’), ‘Wedding Ring’ and ‘Sad And Lonely And Blue’ were all Wright/Young compositions.
It could be suggested that Stevie Wright’s career trajectory faltered the moment Harry Vanda took over as George Young’s song writing partner. The event in question was the writing and recording of ‘Friday On My Mind’, a classic single and still one of the most magnificent artefacts in all of Australian rock history. From then on, The Easybeats were the Vanda and Young show with Wright relegated to the sidelines. Did it set off his slide into prolonged drug and alcohol abuse? There are so many questions left unanswered but it might have been a contributing factor.
Fast forward to 1973 and Vanda and Young are ensconced as house producers in the Sydney studios of Albert Productions. There’s unfinished business to be resolved and the pair set about reviving the career of their former band mate. Wright is up for the challenge, in fine voice and on his best behaviour. The resultant album, Hard Road, is a punchy rock album bursting with quality songs and powerful studio backing. It reaches #5 on the national chart (#1 in Melbourne) and produces the legendary, 11-minute, #1 hit ‘Evie (Parts 1, 2 & 3)’. Mission accomplished: Wright is a star again.
The singer contributed six songs to the album, ranging from the memorable pop rock of ‘Life Gets Better’ and ‘Commando Line’ to the bluesy, ironic ‘Movin’ On Up’, the funky, horn-driven ‘The Other Side’ and the passable boogie of ‘I Got You Good’.
The real pulse of the album, however, comes with the three Vanda/Young contributions, the title track, ‘Didn’t I Take You Higher’ and ‘Evie’.
‘Hard Road’ exhibits a swaggering self-assurance, a howling monster of rock’n’roll as pure release. Stevie’s got everything he owns on his back (“I carry such a heavy load”), he’s got his dog and his radio (“living on rock’n’roll”) and he’s hit that southbound highway for a better life. It’s not going to be easy – “it’s a hard, hard road that I travel down the line” – but he’s “digging what I’m doing and I’m doing it as fast as I can” and “nobody’s hanging things around my neck, put me in a pigeon hole”. Wright sings with such sheer conviction and gravelly force that it’s a wonder he didn’t burst a lung in the studio. Rod Stewart covered the song on his album Smiler, but somehow his customary vocal firepower seemed lame by comparison.
‘Didn’t I Take You Higher’ is another driving rocker with a glammy vibe, a powerful fuzzed guitar riff, cheesy synthesizer punctuations, a killer vocal hook and a cruising percussion / chicken scratch guitar breakdown. Form over content maybe but pure enjoyment nonetheless.
Of course, the album’s centrepiece is ‘Evie’, a work of emotional grandeur that remains Wright’s commercial highpoint and possibly Vanda and Young’s artistic zenith. Over three distinct sections (‘Let Your Hair Hang Down’, ‘Evie’ and ‘I’m Losing You’) and across 11 exceptional minutes, it explores the ups and downs of a romantic relationship, from lust to family life to tragic heartbreak. When issued as a single, ‘Evie (Part 1)’ sat as the 3:55 A-side while ‘Evie (Part 2)’ and ‘Evie (Part 3)’ made up the 7-minute flipside. Fortunately, radio programmers had the sense to play the song in its entirety and for that we can be eternally grateful. Aside from being nudged by the likes of the 6-and-a-half-minute ‘The Real Thing’, no other Australian hit has attained such a magnitude of both form and content.
By the time he came to record his second Vanda and Young produced album, in late 1974, Wright had slipped back in to serious heroin addiction. While Vanda and Young presided over the recording in their usual fastidious and attentive manner, overall Wright sounds less committed to the vocal task at hand. Black Eyed Bruiser is a mixed bag of hard blues rock, funky soul and country-tinged material which is less supercharged and lacks the cohesiveness of Hard Road.
Still, there’s some decent material here. The title track comes charging out of the gate with an archetypal, kick-ass riff and attitude to burn: “If you see me walking down the street / You better get out my way / I’m a real king hitter / Always have my say”. Rose Tattoo later recorded a version that sticks close to the arrangement here which suggests there was no way of improving it. ‘The Loser’ and ‘You’ bring things down until ‘My Kind Of Music’ and ‘Guitar Band’ come back in with the riff rock.
Alongside ‘Black Eyed Bruiser’, ‘Guitar Band’ is the album’s highpoint. It was a Top 10 hit single but probably didn’t have enough pulling power to help haul the album into the charts. Nevertheless, it features a funky beat and a killer guitar riff and at least Wright sounds like he’s having fun with the lyric. There’s a great film clip (from February 1975) of Wright prowling around the Countdown studios singing ‘Guitar Band’. With a cheeky grin plastered across his face, he’s resplendent in stack-heeled black boots, extravagant black leather belt and red jump suit emblazoned with a lightning flash and a silver ‘S’ symbol across his chest. Stevie as electrified Superhero no less!
Vanda and Young had previously recorded ‘The People And The Power’ as part of their Marcus Hook Roll Band album Tales Of Old Grand-Daddy, and here it gets a laid back, funky treatment. ‘Help, Help’ is bland but at least ‘Twenty Dollar Bill’ is a fun country rocker that is reminiscent of Leo Sayer’s ‘Long Tall Glasses’. Wright ends the album with another strong moment in the self-penned ‘I’ve Got The Power’. It’s his attempt at affirmative action – “I’m getting stronger every day” – but while musically it stands tall one gets the feeling that lyrically it’s hollow grandstanding.
And that was pretty much it for Stevie Wright’s solo career. While he continued to pop up for the occasional moment in the sun – performing ‘Evie’ at the Concert Of The Decade, on the steps of the Opera House in front of 100,000 people, November 1979; the 1986 Easybeats reformation; as part of the 2002 arena rock spectacular Long Way To The Top – his light slowly dimmed. Farewell Stevie.
Hard Road (Albert Productions APLP-005) 1974
- Hard Road (Vanda/Young)
2. Life Gets Better (Stevie Wright)
3. The Other Side (Stevie Wright)
4. I Got You Good (Stevie Wright)
5. Dancing In The Limelight (Stevie Wright)
6. Didn’t I Take You Higher (Vanda/Young)
7. Evie (Vanda/Young) – Part 1 (Let Your Hair Hang Down), Part 2 (Evie), Part 3 (I’m Losing You)
8. Movin’ On Up (Stevie Wright)
9. Commando Line (Stevie Wright)
Produced by Stevie Wright, Harry Vanda and George Young
Black Eyed Bruiser (Albert Productions APLPA-012) 1975
- Black Eyed Bruiser (Vanda/Young)
2. The Loser (Vanda/Young)
3. You (Vanda/Young)
4. My Kind Of Music (Vanda/Young)
5. Guitar Band (Vanda/Young)
6. The People And The Power (Vanda/Young)
7. Help, Help (Vanda/Young)
8. Twenty Dollar Bill (Stevie Wright)
9. I’ve Got The Power (Stevie Wright)
Produced by Vanda and Young