BILLY THORPE in "The Daily Telegraph"

-Entertainment Section-

by David Bentley

Nov. 30, 1998



Return of the Rockin' Rebel

After years based in the US, Billy Thorpe is back in Australia to prove himself to his home crowd. David Bentley reports:

The baby face is remarkably unlined. The compact frame has stayed in shape. At 53, Billy Thorpe figures he has enough in reserve for one more shot at The Title. By this, he does not mean the King of Pop. He means the rock 'n roll crown last worn, according to Thorpe's reconing, by The Wild One - the late Johnny O'Keefe.

He had it once and wants it again. Billy Thorpe talks about music like a boxer planning a a comeback. Come the new millennium, he promises, his records will dominate the charts, just as they did in the 1960's and early '70's.

But he's not interested in regurgitating old hits such as "Shout!","Mashed Potato", "Poison Ivy,"Sick and Tired", or "Over the Rainbow." An older but smarter Thorpe intends to surf into the future on a wave of modern grooves.

"Age, well, maturity has done two things for me," he explains. "One, I can see the creative curves coming in a way that enable me to capitalise on them and, Two, I can recognise the breaks a good year before they happen."

"When I came back to Australia in 1994, for instance, I meant to stay just a fortnight. Then the "Lock Up Yor Mothers" thing (a retrospective CD set supported by a promotional tour) went through the roof. I moved into the Ritz Carlton at Double Bay and ended up staying there 5 1/2 months."

"I called my wife and said, 'I won't be back for a while.' she said, 'What do you mean?' I said: 'I've just got a feeling."

Thorpe passed through Brisbane recently to promote "Most People I Know (Think That I'm Crazy)"- the autobiogaphy, not the song. It's his second book. The first, "Sex And Thugs And Rock And Roll" sold more than 80,000 copies. His new book has already topped 50,000 sales and delighted publishers Pan Macmillan Australia are planning to reprint before Christmas.

Thorpe obviously enjoys this authorial episode. As befits a writer on the promotion trail, he chucks in words such as "milieu" and makes passing references to fellow literati such as Kenneth Slessor and Ernest Hemmingway. If anything, writing has come to him too easily: "I think, rightly or wrongly, there's a certain credibility given to people who have managed to write books," he says. "I don't see it as that big a deal, you know. I was always in awe of writers. Now, having done it, I find it a very natural thing to do."

On a good day, Thorpe releases a torrent of 10,000 words. Before publication, "Most People I Know" had to be trimmed by 100,000 words.

his books barely mention his formative years in Brisbane, possibly because, until his debut on local television, aged 10, bullies at Moorooka State School made his existence a living hell.

"Billy's parents had a couple of shops - mixed groceries, post office, that sort of thing," recalls guitarist Lobby Lloyd, who attended the same school and who would join the late 1960's edition of Thorpe's band, The Aztecs. "They were pretty tough old days. Little guys copped a lot.Remember, Billy's parents were English. I understood that because my parents were English too. I copped it: 'Get that plum out of your mouth!"

Lloyd's recall of events differs from Thorpe's. He cannot recollect ever clubbing anyone with his guitar ("Lobby had his guitar by the neck," wrote Thorpe in "Most People I Know", describing an attack by hooligans at a dance in Queanbeyan. "I could hear Whoosh, Urgghh, Whoosh as he laid it upside any head he could reach.")

It would also be interesting to discuss the official version of Thorpe's confrontation with a King's Cross constable in 1963 ("I reached over my left shoulder and grabbed the front of the copper's collar with my right hand," he recalled in "Sex And Thugs And Rock And Roll." "Dropping down slightly at the knees, I forced myself up sharply, bending forward at the same time, and brought him flying over my head in a perfect shoulder throw").

Or to compare notes with one or more of the six TAA air hostesses Thorpe claims to have bedded simultaneously during a night of sexual athleticism at Lennon's Hotel in Brisbane in 1970.

According to an oft-told musos' tale, Thorpe obtained his first US contract by loudly strumming and singing through a battery-powered amplifier outside a recording company until someone took notice. It's a story which, if apocryphal, expresses the determination of a feisty squirt willing to do whatever it takes.

Not that Thorpe enjoyed a wide variety of options back then. By 1976, he'd reached the end of his rope in Australia.

"I wasn't even 30 and I was being talked about like a totally old fart and a dinosaur," he says. "That's the reason I went to the States, to get into new things."

He recalls the roar if indifference whith which Australia greeted his first US release, "Children Of The Sun," in 1979: "I had a song screaming up the charts in 38 or 40 states, headlining my own tours, on the covers of every magazine, doing Tonight shows, and I couldn't get arrested in Australia.

"There was still a feeling that anybody who left the country was a traitor. I decided to concentrate on the States. I made four albums, one platinum, two gold. I toured all over the states and South America."

After 23 years in Los Angeles, Thorpe's yearning to re-establish himself on home turf has a poignant edge. "Everybody needs a pat on the head," he says.

Only a few years ago he was thinking about moving back to Brisbane with his wife Lynn but today he perceives himself as a citizen of the world. he maintains a home in Los Angeles but divides much of his time between New York and Sydney.

"I'm not sure where I live at the moment," he says. "I've been in New York for the past two months, but I spend more time here than in the States. I've made 32 trips to Australia in the last four years."

In an industry where marriage tends to be a temporary institution, Thorpe has been married to Lynn for 27 years. They have two grown-up daughters, Rusty, who works in television, and Lauren, who dances with a New York Troupe.

Anyone reading Thorpe's boosted tales of booze, babes, brawls and illicit substances is ill-prepared for the helpful and business-like family man who now inhabits his body. He enjoys reminiscing about wild times but that is about the extent of it. Besides, being a crazy man 24 hours a day can wear thin.

During the mid-1980's, Thorpe joined forces with former Aztecs guitarist Tony Barber (Not his "Sale Of The Century" namesake) to become a designer of cuddly toys. Barber was already established in the toy industry in Australia. He asked Thorpe to negotiate a legal agreement with a California-based firm.

"I hadn't seen Tony for about 20 years when he phoned out of the blue," recalls Thorpe. "And he said:'I'd love to come to the States, would you like to get involved?'

"My albums were making lots of money but I was sick of it. I'd been doing it since I was 10 years of age - and I was back on the treadmill I'd left Australia to escape.

"Well, we struck Gold. To cut a long story short, we wound up as consultants to all the major toy companies - Disney, Mattel and Universal. We built talking toys and we developed from toys into electronics."

After a few years, Baber tore himself away from this rampant success story to take his homesick wife back to Australia - inspiring the ever-resourseful Thorpe to forge a new career as a composer of TV themes. For the next two years, he wrote for "Colombo,""Eight is Enough", and "Star Trek."

"Then, in 1990, my eldest daughter Rusty brought home a really tall, skinny English girl whose name was Lucy Fleetwood," he recalls. "She was Mick Fleetwood's daughter, and Mick and I became good friends. We formed a band called The Zoo with Kenny Gradney from Little Feat, a keyboard player called Michael Smotherman and Bekka Bramlett, who is the daughter of Bonnie and Delaney Bramlett."

"We came to Australia, sort of unannounced, in 1993 to try the thing out. Mick got me back into playing again. Without that, I don't know where I'd have gone - probably I'd have followed the production route and stayed there.

"In Australia, I hooked up with Michael Gudinski of Mushroom Records and he said:'Where are your old tapes?' and I said "I own them all'. He said, 'Let's do "Lock Up Your Mothers" and that's why we're sitting here today, OK?"

Billy Thorpe is polite to a fault, though your get the feeling he's weary of explaining his lost years to people who figured that he'd simply been swallowed by obscurity. And you wonder why, in an apparently contented and prosperous middle age, he is trying to slither up the greasy pole of rock 'n roll at all.

But he says:"Much as I love the old material and I love to do it, I don't want to be out there earning a living playing a set I'd been doing 25 years before. There's stuff I want to do that's relevant to today's music and what I'm doing today." - David Bentley


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