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INTERVIEW: ALEX BARRY, co-writer of BLOOD + THUNDER – The Sound Of Alberts

| 24 June 2015 | Reply

INTERVIEW: ALEX BARRY, co-writer of BLOOD + THUNDER – The Sound Of Alberts
By Shane Pinnegar

Premiering on ABC TV this Thursday, 25th June at 8:30pm is part one of a new, two-part documentary, BLOOD + THUNDER – The Sound Of Alberts. I talked with co-writer Alex Barry, and rock legend, Rose Tattoo frontman Angry Anderson, to learn more about the importance of the Alberts Studios sound to Australian rock and pop music.

Blood & Thunder ABC TV

Let’s start with an obvious question. How important was Alberts to the evolution of Australian music?

“I think it was hugely important,” says Alex Barry. “The main reason for that, I think, is that in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, Australian artists recorded American and British music and [did] it in a British or an American style as well. They were dressing in similar ways and styling themselves in a very similar way.

“Ted Albert was one of the third or fourth generations of the Albert family. The Albert family were a music publishing company. They’ve made a fortune in their business publishing American and British songbooks [sheet music]. Ted Albert had this feeling that there was a great amount of music in Australia, really good quality bands that should be recording their own music and giving it to the Australian people.

“In ’64, he presented this idea to the board of Alberts,” he continues, “that they should start looking into the idea of producing music rather than just publishing songbooks and selling harmonicas – because that was another part of their business – that they should actually record and produce local artists for the local audience first but then also take that [music] to the world. That was the real leap forward – this idea that we can do our own music. We don’t have to just do England’s and America’s music.”

The result was a flood of epic talent. Alberts started by recording The Easybeats and Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs. After The Easybeats returned from an unsuccessful attempt to break it big in England, Ted Albert recruited Harry Vanda & George Young from the band to be resident songwriters and producers for the studio.

Vanda & Young (George Young on the left) at Alberts

Vanda & Young (George Young on the left) at Alberts

Watching Blood + Thunder, it seems obvious that if Ted Albert hadn’t teamed up with Vanda & Young, if he hadn’t gone into producing music, the biggest bands in Australia wouldn’t have got an audience, certainly not internationally.

“That’s very true,” agrees Barry. “Vanda & Young were iconic figures in Australian music, and you can’t really separate Alberts from Vanda & Young. Their names as producers are on so many of our greatest and most loved records. There’s a record shop owner in Maldon called John Tate who wrote a book about Vanda & Young, actually. He mentions that he was looking through some of his favourite albums – and also the albums that are most desirable and highly sought after, collectible albums – and he realised that the vast majority of them had the same two surnames on them: Vanda & Young. You really can’t separate the history of Alberts and Vanda & Young.

“The other thing is that they had some really very delightful people that [were] pushing the music, and Fifa Riccobono is foremost among them. She starts at age 16 as a secretary, as an assistant and quickly works her way up and by the mid-70s is taking control of the PR and then A&R for Alberts. She really became instrumental in pushing these bands, getting them gigs.

“Then,” Barry continues, “when Countdown emerges just in time for colour TV, she [has] a very close relationship with Molly Meldrum and with the producers of Countdown, and she’s providing them the best artists so that this wonderful relationship that develops between Alberts and Countdown. As Molly Meldrum says in the film, he can safely say that without Alberts, Countdown probably would have lasted six months.”

The program also says that during those heady days Alberts was supplying Countdown with something like 25% of their content, which is staggering for a small, family-run label.

“Yes, and they had a similar percentage of the charts,” says Barry. “Countdown was obviously closely tied to the charts. Towards the end of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Albert’s artists were occupying about a quarter or maybe a fifth of the Australian charts!”

What followed was some of the most glorious years of Australian music, years in which a truly Australian sound – the Alberts sound – was forged by AC/DC, The Angels, Rose Tattoo, The Choirboys and Stevie Wright.

Rose Tattoo’s leader Angry Anderson says that the Alberts legacy lies not just in this country, but the bands they influenced overseas.

“Dave Grohl – Foo Fighters. You have Metallica. You talk to the guys that were Guns N’ Roses, Skid Row, Motley Crue. The list goes on. Some of the greatest rock bands and inevitably the trail of their influences comes back to four bands: AC/DC, The Angels, Rose Tattoo, The Choirboys. It’s the Alberts sound.

“None of those four bands,” he continues, giving full credit where it is due, “and the other artists, none of us would have turned out to be the songwriters that we became without George and Harry.”

Alex Barry says there are two storylines running through the programme – one of the Alberts rock n’ roll sound, one of Vanda & Young’s explorations into new pop.

“They spent what they call their four-year binge in London after the fall of The Easybeats, learning how to write every type of song you could – everything from jingles through to jazz through to reggae, whatever.

“When they came back and set up the studio with Ted Albert, Ted really wanted to capitalise on that as well and use these wonderful skills. They [were] given the freedom so that they can create great and interesting pop music which would satisfy a different portion of the Australian public, which wanted to watch Countdown and wanted to sing along with John Paul Young, William Shakespeare, Ted Mulry [and Vanda & Young’s own quirky pop duo Flash & The Pan]…because he had Vanda & Young writing these wonderful songs.”

Blood & Thunder - Ted Albert circa 1964

The link between the Alberts family and the Young family – George Young and his younger brothers Malcolm & Angus, who formed AC/DC – is at the heart of Blood + Thunder, and it’s a united front that Barry says was not easy to break through. In a coup for the producers, however, AC/DC guitarist Angus Young agreed to give them a rare interview.

“Paul Clarke who’s the director, had made a series called Long Way to the Top, a very seminal series about Australian rock and roll,” explains Barry. “During that time, they managed to secure an interview with Angus. Of all the interviews that have been done with Angus – which are very few – that’s a really strong one. It was about two hours long I think, [and] that was arranged through Alberts at that time.

“Alberts… it really is very literally a family company, even to this day,” Barry confirms. “The family includes the Youngs – Malcolm and Angus and George Young. Stan Holsborough who is one of the main people at Alberts these days is the son of Margaret Young who’s Malcolm and Angus’s older sister. We communicated through Stan largely who would then talk to Angus and the other members of the Young family.

“It was a gentle process of convincing them that we were going to do it justice, that we’re going to be sensitive and that we were telling the right story. It was important to the Young family, [and] to AC/DC, that we weren’t just telling [AC/DC’s] story because on the whole, they haven’t been interested in that. They don’t really want films or books [about the band]. They have been quite private generally about having things written or made about them in particular, but because it was a broader story about Alberts, they were more keen in that regard… [but] it took some negotiation.

“There is an image, I think, generated by a lot of the people who have written books about the Youngs or about AC/DC that they’re difficult people and that they’re clannish and they won’t give anything away. Some authors have actually been quite hostile about that. They felt they’ve been snubbed but I don’t really think that’s the case at all. Actually, it’s just that the Youngs are a private family.

“What they don’t give or haven’t given in terms of interviews, it’s important to remember how much Angus and Malcolm and the band give to fans every time they’re on stage. They are the most incredible live act. If you’ve seen an AC/DC show, you’ll know how much they absolutely freely and completely give themselves when they’re performing. I think that’s been their way of giving rather than [through] interviews with the press.”

The Young brothers together at Alberts (Angus, Malcolm and George)

The Young brothers together at Alberts (Angus, Malcolm and George)

The concept of ‘family’ is of paramount importance to the Alberts company. Ted’s deal with Vanda & Young never involved contracts, just a handshake between gentlemen. The inner circle of Alberts staff have long closed ranks and protected their own. I ask Alex Barry if that made it harder to break through the united front and get to the nitty-gritty truth that lay underneath?

“In some ways, yes, I guess,” he replies thoughtfully. “They’re a family that they’ve always been run on this principle of family which is that you look after your own and you do what is in the best interest of your own.

“In one sense, yes, it can be difficult to get them to talk about certain things, or they won’t want to [talk about] certain things because it’s a private family issue.

“In another sense, it’s actually very good dealing with people like that because you get very clear answers and you know where you stand all the time. You don’t deal with PR people. You don’t deal with middlemen. You deal directly with them and you say, ‘we would like to explore this.’ They say yes or no and they give you the reason. Then, you know where you stand. It was a process of negotiation sure but then it’s not like they’re a stone wall. You can talk to them and they’ll give you a reasonable answer. Then, their answer is final generally.”

Barry goes on to talk about the revelations the producers got from their interviewees.

“There were definitely things that I found just wonderfully fascinating. From the more personal level, it’s about how the relationships within Alberts develop and the closeness of the bonds between the different artists.

“We saw funny stories about that family culture. For instance, John Brewster from The Angels told us this great story… at that time in the early ‘80s he was smoking a lot of pot and using other drugs… I’m not sure exactly what it was, but he would have these dark moods, [and] one morning he was in the studio and he was having a bit of a ‘moment’…” Barry explains with a chuckle. “He was lying on the floor and Ted Albert, the boss of the company, is showing some people around – showing some suits around, as John basically described it – showing them the studio. He comes down to the studio with these two distinguished guests and there’s John, lying on the floor in a drug-induced high, having a bit of a moment. Ted just looked down at him and said, ‘oh, hello John.’ John looked back up and said, ‘hello, Ted.’ Then, they all just stepped over him.

“It goes to show that family thing again, which is that they accept one another. They’re not judgmental about personalities or people with vices or that kind of thing as long as they were committed to the idea of family and producing good music, then he was happy.”

Ted Albert loved sailing. He's pictured here on Sydney Harbour behind George Young, Fifa Riccobono and Harry Vanda

Ted Albert loved sailing. He’s pictured here on Sydney Harbour behind George Young, Fifa Riccobono and Harry Vanda

Importantly, Blood + Thunder doesn’t only focus on the hard rock bands Alberts produced, but also explores the enormous pop legacy that Vanda & Young wrote and produced.

“Yeah, in a sense there are two storylines going on there inside Alberts,” says Barry. “One is this search for that Australian sound that was different to anything that was coming out anywhere else in the world, and which would later be the bedrock for the hard rock bands in the ‘90s like Guns n’ Roses, for instance, who really took that big, fat guitar sound and tried to make it their own. Of course, they made it more commercial. So there’s that thread, which is satisfying this roughness and the side of Australian culture [of] heavy drinking and hard partying and good times.

“Then, there’s this other thread which is that Vanda & Young, when they spend what they call their four-year binge in London after the fall of The Easybeats, they had basically spent four years learning how to write every type of song you could, everything from jingles through to jazz through to reggae, whatever. They have this incredible arsenal.

“When they came back and set up the studios with Ted Albert, Ted really wanted to capitalise on that and use these wonderful skills. They were given the freedom so that they can create great and interesting pop music which would satisfy a different portion of the Australian public which wanted to watch Countdown and wanted to sing along with John Paul Young. John Paul Young became who he is, became such a success, because he had Vanda & Young writing these wonderful songs.”

And Barry’s own favourite Vanda & Young moment?

“I love their revival as pop stars in the form of Flash & The Pan, [with singles] Hey Saint Peter and Down Among The Dead Men and Midnight Man. They’re sort of quirky europop, sort of disco-ey, bizarre songs and very catchy. They became enormously successful in Europe on German and Dutch and French dance floors, people were loving them. And they produced these hilarious videos that they starred in themselves. They would get up in all sorts of funny costumes and do all sorts of very silly things.

“They’re just wildy entertaining. I didn’t know about that and I’m a record collector, [so] I went out and bought some of those Flash & The Pan records. They’re great songs. They really did know how to write a song.”

Blood + Thunder finishes abruptly with Ted’s sudden death in 1990. Obviously, the studio continued but Barry says it was important for the producers to focus mainly on what was achieved there during his lifetime.

“It was, yeah, because that’s the real [story] arc. [Alberts] go on to have great successes after Ted’s death, there’s no doubt. In fact, at the end of the film, even though Ted had died, we see footage from AC/DC performing live at Donington in the UK to an enormous record crowd that’s about 90,000 people. Then, The Razors Edge album has just been released shortly before and Thunderstruck is the big single off it and they’re playing Thunderstruck to this heaving crowd which is just enormous, unimaginably enormous. That’s a couple years after Ted’s death. It gives this sense of Ted’s legacy, his death and they continuing on even though he’s gone.”
An edited version of this story was first published in X-Press Magazine’s 24 June, 2015 issue.

Read our full interview with Rose Tattoo frontman Angry Anderson HERE

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