October 22, 1979
By David Huff
Leaving the Past to Find a Future
Almost everyone has something they want to do, or want to accomplish, at some point in their life. They may not know what it is exactly, but when the time is right, a certain feeling inside triggers a response telling them the time is now.
Knowing when the time is right and seizing the opportunity at hand has often been the key to making it - or breaking it - in the music business. Just ask Billy Thorpe.
Billy Thorpe left Australia two and one half years ago, leaving behind a musical legend that may never be surpassed. His rock group, the Aztecs, in more than a decade's worth of time, produced 20 albums, (fifteen of which were No. 1 hits) and etched his name forever in Australian rock n' roll history. Yet, with that all behind him, he gave it up to come to the United States.
"When I came here." explained Thorpe, "I was offered a deal the week I stepped off the plane. But, the deal was to re-release, rework and remix some of my old tapes. I own all of my own records in Australia because I released them all by myself. I didn't want to do that though. "I really decided that the material that I had in Australia wasn't relative to this market, or to American audiences. Parts of it that we do live are, but they are things people could relate to once the career had momentum.
"In terms of a debut album and getting into a new audience, I really felt that if we were going to do anything of significance, I had to get down and do it this way" Instead, Thorpe signed a publishing deal with Arista Records and set about the business of becoming a writer. Something he didn't have to fool with in the Aztecs.
"I planned to spend the first year here assimilating myself into the business, going to as many shows as I could see, going to as many studios I could go to, going to as many producers, players, writers, that I could," continued Thorpe.
"Generally, I was finding out what I was going to do here, where my peers were, who was playing similar sort of stuff and what direction would the best direction for me to launch a new career in. So, I spent the first nine months of my trip here writing with six different writers on a steady rotation. We would write from ten o'clock in the morning to six o'clock at night."
"It produced a phenomenal amount of material. About three hundred tunes in nine to ten months. Out of that, some of the basis of some of the material on this album came out. I mean, it was the start of a whole new direction for me because I had done very little writing in Australia. I had been involved in my band where the writing was kind of done between a lot of us and I was more or less the front man for the band. Although I had a lot to do with the direction the band went in, I was not a writer as such. The first year here turned me into a songwriter. I worked very hard at it, and I learned that I had a career as a writer as well as an artist."
Thorpe finally decided that it was time to go out and secure a recording contract.
Here again, he found that his past was of very little significance as far as impressing the different record companies.
"I went into people's offices with an acoustic guitar and played the new material," recalled Thorpe, "just like any other artist has to do it. The tact that I had been a major success is in my own country for years didn't mean a piece of dog shit in America, basically."
"The fact that I had a track record was interesting to people. My scrap book, which is huge because I have been in the business all of my life and the success that we've had, didn't really mean anything. It meant that there was perhaps a history there, you know, and there WAS a history there."
"But the people want to know what I am going to do now. So, I found that the only way to do it was to do it from the bottom up. So, that is what I did."
Thorpe admits he was a little teary coming to the United States.
"It was tough coming to a new country after having a band that was super successful, and being totally anonymous and unknown after having a career. I have never auditioned in my life until I came to America."
"To come to a strange country and have to start at the beginning is a little weird. I have been here nearly two and a half years, and in that two and a half years, I don't think I would have ever produced something like Children of the Sun, if I had stayed in Australia. The whole transition has been a major, major change in my life. I have thoroughly enjoyed it."
Children of the Sun, the success of the album and the smash hit single of the same name, is a tribute to Thorpe's patience, determination and musical genius. Thorpe himself is not really sure where the concept Of Children of the Sun came from. It just did.
"It was spontaneous," said Thorpe. "We had one cut, ‘Children of the Sun’ the title cut, and essentially we were going to the studio to cut a fairly conventional record. We were going to cut 16 tracks and pick the best ten or twelve, depending on how many we could get on the album. "When we cut ‘Children of the Sun’ it was so strong when we cut the rhythm section. I did some rough vocals, and I decided along with my producer, Spencer Proffer, to break recording. I went home and worked on some other material that I had for three or four days and came up with the whole side. We decided then and there to do something conceptual on one side of the record have the other side of the record fairly conventional. So, it was once again a spontaneous thing. It wasn't something that was planned in any way. It came out of the sessions themselves. ‘Children of the Sun’, is the story of a visit from outer space by the children of the sun to the earth. They invite everybody peacefully, that wants to go back into space with them, to join them, and everybody decides to leave."
The actual cut from the album that is played on the radio stations, are the spaceships arriving on earth and the announcement of their arrival on this planet. The rest of the side deals with the decision of the people on earth to go with the children of the sun, their boarding of the ship, and the actual journey
"I was very much surprised at the success of the album," said Thorpe. "You can never plan anything like this. There is no way to know I thought the A side of the album would have been picked up and then people would have gone over to the ‘Children Of The Sun’ side and hear that. The fact that radio, particularly the AM radio now, is ramming ‘Children of the Sun’, to me is phenomenal. It is great from a writer's point of view because it leaves me so much head room in terms of direction. I have so much freedom, so many directions in which to go now."
One of those directions Thorpe is speaking of, is feature movie based on Children of the Sun.
As for another album.
"I have a lot of material available for the next album," Thorpe said, "but, it is hard to know right now what I am going to do. The album is kind of an abstract story because I really didn't want to get down to specifics on the record. We were working kind of blind when making the record and of course, we didn't know it was going to be accepted or not."
"Children of the Sun" was nearly sixty minutes long, and we had to cut it down to twenty minutes to get it on the side. There is a possibility that Children of the Sun could become a trilogy, taken over the next two albums."
"There is also the possibility of doing other conceptual things. Continue to do the concept on one side, and conventional rock on the other side of the album. But at this stage, although I have material prepared and I could go in and cut a follow up to Children of the Sun, it is a little too early. I don't see myself in the studio until next January."
Thorpe came to America to find out as much as he could about the music business in this country. That is exactly what he did. From the production, the technical aspects, to the people who go to concerts and buy records, Thorpe learned, analyzed, and mapped out the direction he thought his career would take off in.
"I don't think there is a formula for success," Thorpe said. "I think there are alot of random elements combined with an unbelievable amount of luck and timing that really shape your future as a musician in the direction your music is going to be accepted."
"There is no definite formula, there is no way to write it down on paper. You can have a plan, you can do this, but there is so much of it that is random, it can't be projected. There is no way to know."
"There is no way to know for instance, that Children of the Sun is going to be accepted like this. We could have gone and planned a huge advertising campaign on one of the other tracks on the album. In that direction, the whole thing would have gone down the drain. There is no way to know what is going to happen. And, by and large, that is how most careers evolve. It's like leaps and jumps of random elements."
Timing has been the most crucial aspect in shaping Thorpe's career. There have been things happen to him he can't quite explain, but he says he knows there would have been no way for him to do what he is doing now, a year ago. "Once again, I think it is timing," Thorpe said simply. "Certain things happen that really affected us going in this direction. Observations, concerts that I saw and audience reactions to different kinds of music"
"I went to a KISS concert and I am not a KISS fan by any means-and I noticed that they were filming a segment of it for a TV special event. The audience was like ten or twelve years old. Before they came on they were playing old Beatle tapes, old Yes tapes, Purple, Zeppelin and these young kids knew every lyric to every song. Songs I didn't even know the lyrics to. It really flattened me."
"I said, 'Wow, there really is an acceptance to this kind of music in this country.' It was something by virtue of my career in Australia that I really never had a chance to get in to I was a straight out rocker in Australia, like Ted Nugent."
Thorpe had originally intended to have a six piece group on his first album. He signed a record contract with Warner Brothers in England giving them exclusive European rights to his work. With a budget to work with, Thorpe went into the studio to cut the album with himself on vocals and lead guitar, Leland Skier on bass and Alvin Taylor handling drums and percussion. He intended to overdub a lot of other parts later. He never got around to doing it.
"We were going to cut the backtrack three piece," said Thorpe, "and then come in and overdub a lot of other parts, but, it turned out so strong, that we decided to keep it as a trio. So there was no preconceptions you see. It just happened. It was really a spontaneous thing."
"It was obvious what it was going to be. What it was, was great. Do you understand? When it happened in the studio .once again we went in to cut the backtracks as a trio, and when we cut the first two songs, we realized that the trio was great."
"I mean it felt big and tight and everybody loved it. We knew we had something. So, there was no need to say I want to go in that direction. There was the direction, right there in front of us just waiting to be played."
It took Thorpe the better part of last year to record, mix and finalize "Children of the Sun". Since that time, Taylor left to play drums on the new Elton John album. His replacement is Gil Matthews, who played with Thorpe for eight years in Australia. Thorpe has also included three male vocalists. They are changing all the time."
"The group is the three of us, Leland, Gil and myself," says Thorpe. "The beauty of it is that we all thought, and saw it the same way, and we are very much wanting to augment in any way that we want. In other words, we can add a couple of keyboard players, another guitarist for one tour, and then we can go out and add twenty horns if we want to for another tour. But, the core of the band is still the trio. Do you understand?"
"It is a question of how important the other members outside of the trio are in the situation, I think that the core of the band is the trio. It is up to us to get our ass's into gear and be good, no matter what conditions we play under, and with who The band is essentially the trio, nothing else."
"The band is the trio and it happens to be carrying three male vocalist because there are a lot of harmonies on Children of the Sun. The next album might not have any harmonies. So, there is no point in carrying three male vocalist.
The other two members of Thorpe's group have an impressive list of credentials. Sider is one of the top bass players in the world having done work with such artists as the Section, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Billy Cobham. Last year he did about 150 sessions. As for Matthews he is a child prodigy. He toured the U.S when he was nine years old with Buddy Rich, and did the Ed Sullivan Show. He was a Mouseketeer for about four of five years and subsequently is known as Rats.
There has been a lot of talk of New Wave music when today's up and coming groups are mentioned. Many think New Wave as a resurgence of rock n' roll. Thorpe doesn't see it that way.
"I don't think that a trend has ever really gone," Thorpe said "I think that the production side of the record business has a lot to do with what becomes popular and what doesn't."
"In terms of it something is successful, so twenty bands jump on it. You find you have twenty albums being released with really similar material to one another. So, you get a trend started and an audience on that. Then it shills a little bit and you get little hybrid pockets of different styles that are realty happening at random."
"I think that there is a very little being done today that hasn't been done before. It is a little more refined technologically, and musically, I don't see any great new trends, or new wave. I used to tour as a kid with people like the Tremolos, Dusty Springfield and Gerry and the Pacemakers, When the Beatles came to Australia, I was like 15 and a half and we had a number one record at the time. What I was playing, was The Knack material. The old Aztecs of the sixties were in that vein."
"It is hard when you have been playing so long to really accept the tumultuous overtures, the quote 'New Wave', unquote or punk or whatever, because it has been done before. But there is a young audience that wasn't around when that was happening and consequently that is why the new momentum. But to a large degree, there is very little material around today that's not been done to some degree or another, recycled."
"No one knows why a group will catch on and skyrocket to the top. No one knows why a group disappears from the public eye. The music business is an intriguing as a detective novel, with cloak and dagger tactics very much a real part of the industry."
"Who knows why I will make it where others have failed," said Thorpe frankly. "I have no idea. I just feel there is a real market out there. Not a market so much as a real audience for something a little lifting like ‘Children of the Sun’. Something conceptual."
"I think that there is a big gap left by the Zeppelin’s, the Pink Floyd's and the Deep Purple's by virtue of the tact that they really aren't now - in the true sense of the word - touring, performing bands. They are phenomenon's that are enjoying the rewards, the success, the thrills."
"Consequently, there is a big audience out there that is not being satisfied. That was the realization I had when I first got here. It had an awful lot to do with the direction that I decided to go in I just feel that I am filling a gap."
The big test for Thorpe's theory will rest with the response he gets from his forthcoming tour that starts this month. He won't venture to guess why people will pay money to see him perform, but, all indications point that his concert could become one of the most dynamic of the year.
"We went around two months ago and in Dallas, we sold out two shows in an hour. Two 4,000 seaters in our very first gig ever in America," Thorpe said.
"Don't tell me what it is, don't ask. There is no way to know," said Thorpe in response to why people will come and see him perform.
"Why is the record 45 this week in the top 100. I can't answer that question. All I can do is to continue to do what I do, and be grateful that people are interested in Billy Thorpe's music. Those are questions that really can't be answered. There are people in the radio business and production business that tell you they can answer it, but by and large, that is bullshit. They can't. There is no way to know what it is."
"The right thing at the right time handled in the right way creates the right situations. And it seems that whatever we are doing right now, we are doing right, and it is being handled in the right way, and they are relating to it in some way. It is bringing them out."
"We are filling halls the first time, you know. I mean, it is impossible to describe how it feels like to release your first album in America, and six weeks later headline 4,000 seaters and selling out. If somebody would have said that is possible when we were making the album, I would have bet any amount of money in the world that was impossible."