"Am I ever gonna see your face again?"
That has to be among the most iconic phrases to come out of Australia’s incredibly rich popular music history, just as the infamous audience-generated response has become an essential part of the song’s performance. Is there a more emphatic rock'n'roll rallying cry than "This is it folks, over the top?" as Bernard "Doc" Neeson, his drenched towel held high above his head, bounds across the stage – if you missed his explosive entrance at Narara 1983, just check out the DVD for one of Australian rock’s defining moments.
And is there a figure more indelibly stamped on the consciousness of than the towering Neeson, eyes ablaze like some demented "cracked actor" clambering up the lighting scaffolding or standing, Christ-like, head down, arms outstretched, held up by his mic stand, as The Angels pulverise all before them? Or a guitarist so immediately imprinted in the darkest corners of your mind than Rick Brewster, statue-still, dark glasses ominously fixed in place, as his fingers rip out some of the most memorable guitar solos in rock history, while his brother John Brewster holds the madness down with his solid rhythm guitar, nailed hard to the propulsive power of rhythm section Chris Bailey on bass and Graham "Buzz" Bidstrup on drums? Will you make most welcome the one and only, The Angels.
And who would have thought all this could have evolved out of a quirky little jug band from the City of Angels? Yet it was exactly there, a year after they'd formed in 1970, in a combo called The Moonshine Jug & String Band, that the Brewster brothers, John having subverted Rick's classical concert pianist aspirations to his own need for a washboard wizard in the band, that the seeds of The Angels were sown, when their erstwhile manager John Woodruff suggested his young flatmate, Neeson, join as frontman.
"The jug band recorded a song that I wrote called 'Keep On The Move'," Neeson remembers, "and really it was a rock song. We recorded it as a jug band but we got a couple of players into Derek Jolly's studio in North Adelaide, and it went to #4 in the charts in Adelaide. The jug band pulled lots and lots of people and it gave us a bit of a taste of success. We realised we could actually write a song, record it, put it out there and have a hit!"
"We tried to do it again, and it was getting silly. Instruments started creeping in like a proper bass drum, and a bass guitar instead of a tub bass. I got an electric guitar and suddenly there was an amp on stage and we were getting more and more like a rock band, but still trying to be a jug band. Peter Dawkins from EMI flew over from Sydney, came and saw the jug band play and offered us a deal – a dream come true! But we turned it down because we'd made the decision to form a rock band."
"So we went into that with the idea that, 'if we can do it with a jug band, twelve months we’ll be a big rock band!' And our first gig was opening for Cheech & Chong, who’d wanted the jug band! But we said no, we wanted to be The Keystone Angels, and we went over like a lead balloon. They hated us, and for very good reason – 'cause we were shithouse! But we persevered."
Originally starting The Keystone Angels off with drummer Charlie King, with the Brewster brothers on guitars and Neeson on bass, they started to learn how to play rock'n'roll by playing the hits from the genre's birth and even scoring the gig not only opening for Chuck Berry when he came to Australia but also playing as his backing band. All the hard work was beginning to pay off as they got themselves onto the bill of the final Sunbury festival, in January 1975, winning over the happily boozed-up audience. By that time however, they'd already written the song that would change everything.
"They eventually had enough original material for us to come to Sydney," manager John Woodruff remembers, "and I took to them into EMI's studio to do Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again, went back to Adelaide to do a South Australian tour with AC/DC which I was promoting." AC/DC went back to Sydney raving about them and told their label, Albert's, about The Keystone Angels and, dropping the "Keystone" part of the name signed them up, releasing Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again? early in 1976.
The single proved to be something of a sleeper, slowly creeping into the popular consciousness than immediately embedding itself the bona fide hit that it became, and that turned out to be a bonus for the band. While it showed the way their music would eventually go, The Angels themselves were still finding their feet. Drummer Charlie King was replaced by another Adelaide boy, Bidstrup, as was bass player Bailey, whose addition to the lineup freed former Flinders Uni drama student Neeson to apply what he'd learned to the craft of being a frontman.
All that was left then was to find the right musical focus. An eponymous debut album, produced by Albert's in-house production team of former Easybeats, Harry Vanda and George Young, proved transitional, the band still sporting their "hippie" long hair, while John Brewster showed off his prowess on the harmonica on just a few too many country-blues-boogie workouts.
Something had to give, and the solution was right there, in the twin-guitar attack of the brothers Brewster. They went back into the studio and in 1978, released the career-defining Face To Face album, which peaked at #16 and remained in the charts for a staggering 79 weeks. On that album were songs that have become part of the national lexicon – After The Rain, Take A Long Line, Marseilles – and floodgates finally opened.
No Exit followed in 1979, peaking at #8 and spawning the single, Shadow Boxer, and the international label community began to sniff around the band. Signing to Epic in 1980, their next album, Dark Room followed Face To Face in an American edition, though the Yanks had to accept them as Angel City because of a name clash with a now forgotten Washington DC glam band. Dark Room gave The Angels their biggest single yet in No Secrets, which got to #8 nationally.
The pressure began to tell however, the constant touring seeing Bidstrup step away in 1981 – he would join The Party Boys and then GANGgajang before moving into management, most famously looking after Australia’s first Indigenous pop star, the late, great Jimmy Little, before returning to the fold – and was replaced by Brent Eccles, who came on board for that year’s Night Attack album. Then Bailey found the issue of touring the US problematic – he would join Bidstrup in GANGgajang – and American multi-instrumentalist Jim Hilbun was recruited.
That was the line-up that cut 1983’s Watch The Red album, followed in 1984 by Two Minute Warning, recorded in Los Angeles, and the band was touring the US solidly playing 5000 to 8000-seater venues.
“Sometimes 10,000 seaters,” Neeson recalls, “and touring with The Kinks we were playing 15,000, sometimes 20,000 seaters and getting encores – more than The Kinks were. We were doing so well Ray Davies had strips of tape put on either side of me to say 'If you go outside of that, you're off the tour.' So I stayed inside that – and we still got encores! That was just an indication of how well the band was building. He kicked us off the tour just before we were about to go to New York, which was very disappointing because it was another one of those times when you could almost feel the momentum was just about there, and to play a big stadium like Madison Square Gardens would have been a real breakthrough. So it’s that thing where luck plays its part and the dice didn’t roll our way that time.”
By now, John Brewster was himself feeling the strain of the constant touring and left the band early in 1986, young gun guitarist Bob Spencer, who’d been in Finch and Skyhooks, took over. With the American label going cold on the band, despite the fact that Angel City had a rabid following in places like Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, where a new generation of musicians were taking notes and preparing their own revolution – grunge – The Angels signed to Australia’s most successful indie label, Mushroom, for their next album, The Howling, which provided their biggest hit ever, a version of We Gotta Get Outta This Place, which matched the album in peaking at #6. Their live double album, Liveline, released the following year, in 1987, hit #2, and 1990’s Beyond Salvation album topped the chart. Sadly Hilbun had decided to quit the band during the recording sessions and been replaced by Australian bass player James Morley. By now too, The Angels were signed to Chrysalis in the US.
“Dogs Are Talking was released as a single,” Neeson remembers, “and on some test station out who knows where in the middle of America, it tested #1. But Chrysalis dropped the ball with it somehow, though it seems they did that with quite a few people, it wasn’t just us.” So much for American music industry wisdom!
The Angels carried on regardless, releasing another album, Red Back Fever, in 1991, but by now both Spencer and Morley had decided it was time to move on, and John Brewster and Jim Hilbun were invited to return to the fold, which they did, though apart from 1998’s Skin And Bone and The Hard Evidence EP, the next few years would be spent reviewing and rereleasing various parts of their back catalogue, as well as, once again, touring Australia consistently to always full and rabid house. That year, The Angels were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame.
Then, just before flying out to the East Timorese capital, Dili, to entertain Australia’s Peace-Keeping forces there Christmas 1999, the car in which Neeson was travelling was rammed from behind by a truck while he was stopped paying a highway toll and he suffered severe whiplash and serious nerve damage to his neck and spine. He managed to get through the week in Dili with painkillers but over the next three years he would experience extensive periods of pain and illness that necessitates time in hospital. It looked like The Angels were effectively over.
John and Rick Brewster decided to try their hand as a duo in The Brewster Brothers and there was a Moonshine Jug & String Band reunion in 2003, but things got a bit complicated in 2003 when the Brewsters were invited to play a fundraising concert in Perth for the victims of the Bali bombings, and they called in original rhythm section Chris Bailey and Graham Bidstrup to help out, billing themselves The Original Angels Band. Doc then put together his own lineup and things got a bit silly until, in 2008, the classic Brewster/Brewster/Neeson/Bailey/Bidstrup line-up once again reunited for a very successful series of dates celebrating the 30th anniversary of the release of Face To Face. In April 2010, The Angels completed the circle when they took to the stage of the Festival Theatre in Adelaide with the 30-piece Adelaide Art Orchestra to present an orchestrated selection of their most-loved songs, The Symphony Of Angels, something the classical composer/conductor father and grandfather of the brothers Brewster would surely have looked down on with some pride from their place on the other side of this veil of tears.
As 2011 dawned, the various members separated once again to take the opportunity to pursue other musical ideas and possibilities. With 2012 coming to an end and the 40th anniversary of the writing of the song that started it all, Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again?, draws closer, The Angels return in 2013 with frontman Doc Neeson, joined by fellow alumni guitarists Bob Spencer and James Morley, bass player/multi-instrumentalist Jim Hilbun and drummer Buzz Bidstrup.