Growing tired of the faded denims and the 'suck more piss' Aussie pub rock ethos, Thorpie left Australia in 1976 to try his luck in Los Angeles. He produced a series of inventive, futuristic concept albums which sold remarkably well in the USA, but were overlooked locally. He returned to Australia in 1994 as a conquering hero, issued the three-CD box set Lock Up Your Mothers, was interviewed on 60 Minutes and relaunched himself on the Australian pub and concert circuit. There have been few more remarkable careers in Australian rock'n'roll.
Thorpie was born in Manchester, England. He immigrated to Australia with his family when he was nine, and settled in Brisbane, Queensland. By the time he was ten years old, Thorpie was performing on Brisbane television (billed as Little Rock Allen). He toured country areas with singer Reg Lindsay. By the time he was 15, Thorpie had worked in stage shows, variety television, clubs and even vaudeville at Brisbane's Theatre Royal with George Wallace. He also toured with the likes of Johnny O'Keefe and Col Joye. In late 1963, as a seasoned 17-year-old, Thorpie moved to Sydney and joined his first band The Aztecs. The original Aztecs line-up comprised Vince Maloney (lead guitar; ex-Vibratones), Val Jones (rhythm guitar), John 'Bluey' Watson (bass; ex-Vibratones) and Col Baigent (drums). Just prior to Thorpie's arrival, The Aztecs had issued a surf instrumental single, 'Smoke and Stack'/'Board Boogie', on the Linda Lee label (January 1964). Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs became a major attraction at promoter John Harrigan's Surf City discotheque.
Englishman Tony Barber (guitar, vocals) replaced Jones, and the band issued its next single, 'Blue Day'/'You Don't Love Me', on Linda Lee (April 1964). Written by Barber, the single scraped into the lower reaches of the Sydney Top 40. Two days before The Aztecs were to record two more of his songs for the next single, Barber received The Rolling Stones' first British EP, Rolling Stones, sent over by his brother from England. The Aztecs heard The Stones' version of Leiber and Stoller's 'Poison Ivy' and decided to record it themselves. Backed by Barber's 'Broken Things', 'Poison Ivy' became The Aztecs' first #1 hit single in June 1964. The single heralded the arrival of beat music in Australia, and Thorpie and the Aztecs became the country's biggest pop sensations. In Melbourne, where The Beatles had played to 52000 screaming kids, Thorpie and The Aztecs drew 63000 at the Myer Music Bowl. In July, the band signed to the Albert Organisation (home to The Easybeats). The Aztecs' first single for EMI/Parlophone, 'Mashed Potato'/ 'Don'cha Know' (August), reached the Top 10 in most states. 'Sick and Tired'/'About Love' (October) followed 'Mashed Potato' into the Top 10 (#2 in Sydney, #7 in Melbourne and #3 in Adelaide). The band recorded its debut album Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, and ended a successful 1964 with the release of the schmaltzy ballad 'Over the Rainbow' taken from the film The Wizard of Oz. 'Over the Rainbow'/'That I Love' reached #1 in Sydney during December, which precipitated Tony Barber's departure. By the beginning of 1965, Maloney, Watson and Baigent had all left The Aztecs, leaving Thorpie to assemble a new line-up. Tony Barber initially joined forces with Maloney in Vince and Tony's Two (with John Shields on bass and Jimmy Thompson on drums), before striking out as a solo artist. Maloney formed The Vince Maloney Sect, before travelling to the UK where he joined The Bee Gees as lead guitarist. He returned to Australia with Fanny Adams in late 1970.
Meanwhile, Thorpie had his new Aztecs on the road: Col Risby (lead guitar; ex-Ray Hoff and the Off Beats), Mike Downes (rhythm guitar; ex-Ray Hoff and the Off Beats), Jimmy Taylor (piano; ex-Ray Hoff and the Off Beats), Teddy Toi (bass; ex-Max Merritt and the Meteors) and Johnny Dick (drums; ex-Max Merritt and the Meteors). Tony Buchanan (sax) also joined in 1966. Following the success of 'Over the Rainbow', Thorpie's next run of singles were all ballads. Marty Robbins' 'I Told the Brook'/'Funny Face' (June 1965) was #1 in Sydney and #4 in Melbourne. The Platters' 'Twilight Time'/'My Girl Josephine' (July) was #3 in both Sydney and Melbourne. 'Baby Hold Me Close'/'Hallelujah I Love Her So' (September) went Top 5 (#4) in Sydney, but only managed #24 in Melbourne. Ketty Lester's 'Love Letters'/'Dancing in the Street' (December) reached #2 in Sydney.
In March 1966, Thorpie was given his own television show, It's All Happening, on the Seven Network in Sydney. With The Aztecs installed as house band and Rory Thomas as musical director, It's All Happening is still considered to be one of the best pop shows of the 1960s. Thorpie's tenth single, 'The Word for Today'/'The New Breed', reached #14 in Sydney during July. Despite his high profile during 1966, however, the next single, 'I've Been Wrong Before'/'Wee Bit More of Your Lovin'' (October), failed to chart. At the end of 1966, the Seven Network took It's All Happening off the air, and by early 1967 The Aztecs had broken up. Thorpie kept busy during 1967, but only issued one (flop) single on Festival, a cover of Roy Orbison's 'Dream Baby'/'You Don't Live Twice' (Sydney #36 in October). By 1968 he had ditched the middle-of-the- road crooner bit, and adopted a 'General Custer' look replete with moustache and fringed jacket. In January, he formed a new backing band with Johnny Dick, Mick Liber (guitar; ex-Python Lee Jackson) and Dave McTaggert (bass) who was soon replaced by Paul 'Sheepdog' Wheeler (ex-Affair).
In August 1968, Thorpie accepted a few lowly gigs in Melbourne, and ended up staying for eight years. On the eve of the Melbourne trip, Liber and Dick quit. Thorpie recruited Jimmy Thompson (ex-Vince Maloney Sect, Tony Worsley and the Fabulous Blue Jays) on drums. Reverting to the Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs name, the band played as a trio for four months with Thorpie handling all guitar and vocals for the first time. Australian guitar legend Lobby Loyde, freshly departed from The Wild Cherries, joined The Aztecs as lead guitarist in December 1968. Under Loyde's direction, The Aztecs spearheaded the burgeoning Melbourne underground blues and heavy rock movement. Alongside the likes of Chain, Spectrum, Company Caine, Carson and a host of other new bands, The Aztecs began to rule over the southern club and pub circuit.
With Thorpie's spirits revitalised and his music changed forever, The Aztecs became the loudest and heaviest blues band of the day and the biggest drawcard in the land. Thorpie's voice became a guttural, ferocious roar. Few groups of the day could hope to match The Aztecs for sheer volume, visceral impact and raw energy. 'Aztecs Energy' it was dubbed at the time, and Thorpie and the Aztecs became festival mainstays. The band appeared at Australia's first rock festival, Pilgrimage for Pop, held at a farm near Ourimbah, NSW over the Australia Day weekend in January 1970. That was followed by an appearance at 'The Odyssey' Festival, Wallacia (NSW) in January 1971 and, most famous of all, the Sunbury Pop Festival in January 1972.
The first recorded example of Thorpie and the Aztecs' raucous, blues-rock sound was the single Willie Dixon's 'Good Mornin' Little School Girl'/'Rock Me Baby' on Festival (March 1970). B.B. King's 'Rock Me Baby' became an Aztecs live staple, as did the likes of Ma Rainey's 'C.C. Rider' and the 18-minute showstopper 'Ooh Poo Pa Doo'. By the time the single appeared, Kevin Murphy (ex-Wild Cherries, Rush) had replaced Thompson on drums. Warren 'Pig' Morgan (piano, vocals; ex-Chain) joined The Aztecs in July 1970, and in September the band cut the live-in-the-studio album, The Hoax is Over, for Festival's new progressive label Infinity. Issued in January 1971, the album contained just two long, bluesy jams (including Johnny 'Guitar' Watson's 'Gangster of Love') and two short, rocky tracks. Only Loyde's fiery guitar work saved the album from being monotonous and tedious. Nevertheless, it reached the national Top 10 (#7) and achieved gold status.
By the time of its release, Lobby Loyde had left to record his solo album Plays with George Guitar and to form a new version of The Wild Cherries with Toi and Dick. He formed Coloured Balls in March 1972. Murphy had likewise moved on to join King Harvest. Thorpie took over all guitar duties, and Gil 'Rats' Matthews replaced Murphy on drums in May (preceded by a two-month period with fill-in drummer Steve Innis). As a child drumming prodigy, Matthews had toured the USA with The Mouseketeers. He started in rock music with John Konrad's Kaydets in 1960, moving on to The Silhouettes and The Scorpions before joining Max Hamilton and The Impacts as lead guitarist in 1965.
That popular Melbourne R&B band also comprised Max Hamilton (vocals), Ron Sheedy (guitar), Ron Cork (bass) and Daryl Feddon (drums). The band issued three singles on EMI/HMV, Little Richard's 'Jenny Jenny'/'Shake with Me' (September 1965), 'I'm Blue'/'Bull Moose' (April 1966) and 'Foolish Little Boy'/'Now Hear This' (June 1966) before breaking up in 1967. Matthews spent time with a number of bands like Levi Smith's Clefs and The John Rupert Group before joining The Aztecs. Matthews also issued a solo single in 1971, 'Little Dove'/'Gil's Thing' (December).
In June 1971, The Aztecs headlined a concert at Melbourne Town Hall, which resulted in the Aztecs - Live album (December 1971). The album came out on the band's new label, Havoc, and reached the national Top 10 (#8). The lush 'Dawn Song'/'Time to Live' (October) also returned Thorpie to the Top 40 singles chart (#29) for the first time in five years. Morgan left The Aztecs in August to form the duo Pilgrimage with Phil Manning (guitar; ex-Chain). Bruce Howard (ex-La De Das, Levi Smith's Clefs) took Morgan's place on keyboards.
Thorpie and the Aztecs' legendary performance at the inaugural Sunbury Pop Festival in January 1972 spawned the Top 5 hit album Aztecs Live! At Sunbury. The album peaked at #3 on the national chart during September, sold over 80000 copies and remains a milestone in the annals of Australian heavy rock. The crunching 'Mamma' also appeared on the Various Artists live album Sunbury, issued by EMI. Just after Sunbury, alongside La De Das and Friends, The Aztecs were responsible for drawing one of the largest crowds ever assembled in Australia at Melbourne's Myer Music Bowl (estimated at over 200000 people).
The perennial and autobiographical 'Most People I Know (Think that I'm Crazy)'/'Regulation 3 Puff' (March 1972) reached #3 on the national chart (#1 in Sydney). The follow-up, 'Believe It Just Like Me'/'Get to Hell Out of Here' (October) peaked at #21. Meanwhile, the RAK label issued 'Most People I Know (Think that I'm Crazy)'/'Regulation 3 Puff' in the UK during June, and the band duly left for an English tour in November. By all accounts, the English punters found it difficult to contend with The Aztecs' massive sound, and the band made little headway. Thorpie was back in Australia in time to headline at Sunbury 1973. The live track, 'Going Back Home', appeared on Mushroom's triple album set The Great Australian Rock Festival Sunbury 1973 (April 1973).
Warren Morgan rejoined The Aztecs, and he and Thorpe issued the album Thump'n Pig & Puff'n Billy which yielded one of the best singles of 1973, the pounding rocker 'Captain Straightman'/'Bow My Head' (#26 in April). Although only credited to the infamous duo, the album featured Gil Matthews, in addition to Chain's Phil Manning (guitar) and Barry Sullivan (bass). 'Captain Straightman' later won Thorpie an award at the 1975 American Music Festival.
Paul Wheeler was sacked from The Aztecs in April 1973. Teddy Toi (by then ex-Wild Cherries, Duck) took his place on bass. The band also signed a new deal with WEA (Atlantic) and issued the singles 'Movie Queen'/'Mame' (June 1973) and 'Don't You Know?'/'Yes I'm Tired' (August). 'Don't You Know?' was the first single lifted from the band's next studio album, More Arse than Class (May 1974). With raunchy blues/boogie tracks like 'Boogie Woogie' and 'Back on the Road Again', More Arse than Class was the most successful studio album the band issued. It peaked at #12 on the national chart during July.
In November 1973, The Aztecs became the first rock band to perform at the prestigious Sydney Opera House. The concert spawned the band's third live set, Steaming at the Opera House, and the single 'Cigarettes and Whiskey'/'Back Home in Australia' (August 1974). At Sunbury 1974 Thorpie revived 'Over the Rainbow', and when issued as a single, backed with the rip-roarin' 'Let's Have a Party' (April), it provided him with another Top 30 hit (#27). The hard-driving rendition of Eddie Hodges' 'New Orleans' appeared on the Various Artists live album Highlights of Sunbury '74 Part 1.
In March 1974, Johnny Dick rejoined The Aztecs, giving a dual drum line-up. There was a short-lived three-piece line-up of Thorpie, Toi and Matthews in early 1975, but soon after the singer disbanded The Aztecs to lay plans for his move to the USA. By that stage, Thorpie no longer saw himself as the manic blues rocker. He had cut his hair and dispensed with the faded denims for more stylish attire, and was not content to sit on his laurels. His next two albums, Million Dollar Bill and Pick Me Up and Play Me Loud, featured a sophisticated mix of funk, Adult Oriented Rock (AOR), country and blues with a definite American slant. Million Dollar Bill produced the delightfully breezy single 'It's Almost Summer'/'Drive My Car' (November 1975) which was a minor hit in Melbourne and Sydney (#39). 'Do the Best You Can'/'Mama Told Her' (March 1976) was the second single. The basic line-up on the album was Thorpe, Matthews and New Zealander Billy Kristian (bass; ex-Max Merritt and the Meteors), aided by the likes of Warren Morgan (keyboards, by then a member of John Paul Young and the All Stars).
Thorpie and Matthews formed a touring band, dubbed Million Dollar Bill, with Kristian, Derek Griffiths (lead guitar) and John Le Vine (keyboards). That line-up reverted to the Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs name when Morgan returned to the fold in April 1976. The new line-up recorded Pick Me Up and Play Me Loud, which produced the single 'Blue Mary'/'Good Night Out' (August 1976). Between July and November 1976, Thorpie worked live with the revived Aztecs line-up of Morgan, Toi and Matthews before splitting the band and moving to Los Angeles in December. Back in Australia during December 1977, Thorpie and the Morgan/ Toi/Matthews Aztecs embarked on a four-week national tour. Following that, Matthews went on to work with Mondo Rock, Cybotron and Southern Electric among others, and as an in-demand engineer/producer.
In 1979, Thorpie signed a deal with American producer Spencer Proffer's Pasha Music Organisation, and recorded the science fiction/rock opera concept album Children of the Sun. One side featured AM radio-styled pop rock, with the second side being taken up with the spacey, side-long 'Children of the Sun' suite. Backing musicians on the album were American session legends Leland Sklar (bass), Alvin Taylor (drums), Larry Brown (synthesiser) and Mike Boddicker (synthesiser), with an appearance by Australian expatriate Steve Kipner on backing vocals. It produced the singles 'Wrapped in the Chains of Your Love'/'Goddess of the Night' (July, 1979) and 'Children of the Sun'/'Simple Life' (September). Children of the Sun reached #1 in Dallas, Memphis and New Orleans, before climbing into the American Top 20. Thorpie toured arenas across the American mid-west, and the album sold 500 000 copies before the distribution label Capricorn Records (home to The Allman Brothers) went bankrupt. For his second American-recorded album, 21st Century Man, Thorpie called on Gil Matthews to play drums. It also attained US gold status (500000 copies) and gave rise to the single 'In My Room'/'She's Alive' (February 1981) which went Top 10 in Canada.
Stimulation and the single 'Just the Way I Like It'/'Rock Until You Drop' (October 1981) featured the basic line-up of Thorpie (guitar, vocals, synthesisers) and Matthews (drums) plus American session players. Thorpie returned to Australia in October for a tour, which took in an appearance at the Tanelorn Rock Festival. Thorpie's fourth American album, East of Eden's Gate (1982), was not issued in Australia. Thorpie undertook one more Australian tour (January 1983) with Matthews and Americans Bruce Turgon (bass) and Jeff Northrup (guitar) before retiring from the music business in 1984. He concentrated on a new business developing electronics for companies such as Disney, Mattel and Universal. His work took him to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, and he spent six months living in Beijing, China.
By 1986 he had set up a production and recording facility in Los Angeles and began writing and scoring music for many Disney, Paramount, Universal and Lorimar TV shows such as War of the Worlds, Star Trek, Colombo, Eight is Enough and Hard Times on Planet Earth. In 1987 he formed a partnership with Tony Barber in the Sunshine Friends soft toy company, and together they issued a series of children's books, cassettes and videos. That year he also recorded three new songs which were combined with the 'Children of the Sun' suite and 'East of Eden's Gate' as the album Children of the Sun . . . Revisited. In 1990, he joined Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood in his band The Zoo, which also featured singer Bekka Bramlett. The band issued the Shakin' the Cage album and single (March 1991), and toured Australia. That year Thorpie was inducted into the Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Hall of Fame.
On 31 July 1993, Thorpie re-formed The Aztecs line-up of Warren Morgan, Paul Wheeler and Gil Matthews for a one-off showcase gig at the Jail House Rock concert held at Brisbane's infamous Boggo Road Gaol (closed down in 1992). The Aztecs were back for an Australian tour in October. Thorpie assembled the box set Lock Up Your Mothers, which contained 38 prime Aztecs tracks (some previously unissued) spanning the 1969-73 period. The Aztecs toured again and the box set reached the Melbourne Top 10 in August 1994, launching a Thorpie revival to rival the peak of his popularity during the 1970s. His return resulted in front-page news articles and extensive television coverage, culminating in appearances on top-rating television shows such as Hey Hey It's Saturday, Denton and 60 Minutes. ('Was it really all sex and drugs and rock'n'roll, Billy?' cooed reporter Tracey Curro.) Riding on a wave of nostalgia, Thorpie took The Aztecs on the road for a successful national tour over the 1994/95 summer.
The Aztecs also recorded three new songs, 'Rock'n'Roll City', 'Southern Comfort' and 'Let Love Show the Way', which were included on the 15-track compilation The Best of and the Rest of Lock Up Your Mothers (December 1994). In 1996, Thorpie assembled the Billy Thorpe Band with Randall Waller (guitar, vocals, keyboards; ex-Avion), Steve Edmonds (guitar, vocals; ex-Head Hunters), Andy Cichon (bass, guitar, keyboards, vocals; ex-Rose Tattoo, James Reyne Band, Peter Wells Band, Judge Mercy) and Paul DeMarco (drums; ex-Scattered Aces, Rose Tattoo, Head Hunters, Peter Wells Band). Thorpie returned to Australia in July 1996 for a national tour with his new band. In November, Pan Macmillan Australia published Thorpie's first book, Sex and Thugs and Rock'n'Roll: A Year in Kings Cross 1963-1964. Its release also coincided with a profile of Thorpie's life and career on television show This is Your Life. Thorpie was back in Australia during 1997 for a tour, and to write his second book, Most People I Know (Think that I'm Crazy). Billy Thorpe’s first book, Sex and Thugs and Rock’n’Roll, turned out to be a rollicking good read, and went on to sell over 150 000 copies. By the same token, Thorpie certainly never let the truth get in the way of a great story. October 1998 saw his second book, Most People I Know (Think that I’m Crazy), hit the shelves. With Thorpie on the promotional/chat show circuit once again it swiftly became the #1 selling book in Australia.
In the meantime, with Mushroom Records having obtained the rights to The Aztecs’ early material (via the Lock up Your Mothers release), ‘Most People I Know (Think that I’m Crazy)’ appeared on the Mushroom Story: Hits of the Seventies CD compilation. The song originally came out on the Havoc label in 1972, so its inclusion on that collection involved a not so subtle rewriting of history on the part of Mushroom. Likewise, Thorpie and The Aztecs (Warren Morgan, Gil Matthews and Paul Wheeler) appeared on the bill of the Telstra Concert of the Century/Mushroom 25th anniversary at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 14 November 1998. Nevertheless, they played a solid version of ‘Most People I Know (Think that I’m Crazy)’ before ripping into ‘Oop Poo Pa Doo’, during which the venerable Lobby Loyde joined on lead guitar to the delight of about 10% of the audience and the bemusement/indifference of the remainder.
In the meantime, Thorpie continued to tour Australia with his new band which comprised Paul De Marco, Dai Pritchard (lead guitar), Jerome Smith (bass; ex-X-Pensive Winos, Divinyls) and Clayton Dooley (Hammond organ; on loan from the Jimmy Barnes Band). Thorpie also announced that, having set up his own 24-track studio in Sydney, he would be recording a new album in 1999. Mushroom also issued a new CD compilation, The Very Best of Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs (November 1999).
Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs albums: Poison Ivy and Introducing ... Johnny Noble (split album shared with Johnny Noble, Linda Lee/Festival, 1964), Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs (EMI/Parlophone, 1965), The Best of Billy Thorpe (EMI/Parlophone, 1965), Don't You Dig this Kind of Beat? (EMI/Parlophone, 1965), Great Hits (compilation, Calendar/Festival, 1971), Gold (compilation, Atlantic, 1975), It's All Happening (compilation, Albert/EMI, 1981), Live at Sunbury (reissue of Aztecs Live! At Sunbury, Ultimate, 1989), 20 Greatest Hits (CD reissue of It's All Happening, Sony, 1994), Lock Up Your Mothers (box set, Mushroom/Festival, 1994), The Best of and the Rest of Lock Up Your Mothers (compilation, Mushroom/Festival, 1994), The Very Best of Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs (Mushroom, 1999); Aztecs albums: The Hoax is Over (Festival/Infinity, 1971), Aztecs - Live (Havoc, 1971), Aztecs Live! At Sunbury (Havoc, 1972), More Arse than Class (Atlantic, 1974), Steaming at the Opera House (Atlantic, 1974); Thump'n Pig and Puff'n Billy album: Thump'n Pig and Puff'n Billy (Atlantic, 1973); Billy Thorpe albums: The Billy Thorpe Rock Classics (compilation, M7, 1974), Million Dollar Bill (Festival/ Infinity, 1975), Pick Me Up and Play Me Loud (Festival/Infinity, 1976), Children of the Sun (Festival/ Interfusion/Capricorn, 1979), 21st Century Man (Mushroom/Festival, 1980), Time Traveller (compilation, Blue Goose, 1980), Stimulation (Mushroom/ Festival, 1981), East of Eden's Gate (US only, CBS, 1982). Children of the Sun . . . Revisited (US only, CBS, 1987).
Further reading: Sex and Thugs and Rock'n'Roll: A Year in Kings Cross 1963-1964 by Billy Thorpe (Pan Macmillan, 1996).
Billy Thorpe is one busy person. The year 2000 saw the Australian rock legend concentrating on writing and recording songs for his new album due for release in late 2001. This will be Billy’s 1st studio album in 20 years. One of the songs on this album, “Oh My Country” was co-written with Mandawuy Yunupingu, lead singer of Yothu Yindi, and premiered at the opening of the Sydney Paralympic Games to an audience of 100,000 and a worldwide tv audience of millions.
Live, Billy has continued to woo crowds and play special shows around Australia with multiple full houses, including Melbourne’s Crown Casino and sell-outs at other major venues in each state.
He continues to tour with his band, Jerome Smith, Paul Demarchio, Di Pritchard, and Clayton or Lachlan Doley on Hammond.
Billy also spent late 2000/2001 working on a script for a musical of his best seller, Sex, Thugs and Rock n Roll. He is in the process of writing his 3rd book which should be ready for release in early 2002.
On the live front, audiences have already heard a lot of new songs which have been enthusiastically received and in August/September 2001, Billy will be road testing these new tracks at shows booked in various states of Australia.
Don’t miss BILLY THORPE…live and loud…
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