Friday On My Mind: Jeff Apter Talks About His New George Young Biography

Friday On My Mind: Jeff Apter Talks About His New George Young Biography

easybeats 1966
(L-R) 'Snowy' Gordon Fleet, George Young (1946-2017), Stevie Wright (1947-2015), Harry Vanda and Dick Diamonde of The Easybeats circa 1966. Photo by Jeff Hochberg/Getty Images.

Australia's most prominent and prolific rock biographer has just notched up what must be a first. Jeff Apter has published the third of three separate biographies of three musical brothers. He's done it in reverse order of age – first Angus, then Malcolm, and now George – which has meant that each time he's been able to dig further back. These are pretty significant siblings, of course. The Young’s are the first family of Australian rock'n'roll (even if they are Scottish). And, given George Young's role in the Easybeats and subsequently as a mentor and producer for his brothers' band and others, as well as his role as mentor, producer and songwriter for others still, it's hard not to see him as the most significant architect of Australian pop and rock in the music's history. Of course, his songwriting and production partner and fellow-Easybeat, Harry Vanda was at George's side for most it, but George's familial involvement with AC/DC probably means he had that much more influence, on them at least. 

Check out this rare French TV clip of “Friday On My Mind”:

ILYOS caught up with Jeff for a quick chat about the book, which is called Friday on My Mind: The Life of George Young, and we came away very keen to find a jingle that Vanda & Young wrote and recorded in the UK for Toblerone chocolate. We're happy to say we've found it! We've included that for you here, along with a few of Jeff's George faves. Enjoy, and don't forget to grab Jeff's book! 

Jeff, the Easybeats showed an incredible progression, in particular in songwriting, in between those early demos that saw the light of day on Raven Records in 1979, and their first single "For My Woman", and especially their second single "She's So Fine.” What do you think might explain that?

JA: I'm sure the steady hand of Ted Albert, who was not just their backer but their producer and mentor, helped considerably. Having access to the 2UW studios in Sydney, where they recorded and rehearsed, would also have helped them hone their craft quickly. They were young, hungry and ambitious, they were playing live and they had the support of Alberts … they couldn't have been set up better. Their skills developed accordingly. And you're right; it was a swift progression. Maybe a little voodoo was involved, too … it often is!

“She's So Fine” 

Of course, later George, together with Harry Vanda, later became synonymous with the Alberts so-called 'Blood and Thunder' sound. A big part of that was the studio sounds they achieved as producers. How the hell did they get those sounds? 

JA: The story that springs to mind was told by Harry. When they returned to Australia from the UK in 1973 and started seeing bands play live, both he and George were surprised that producers were failing to capture that live sound in the studio. They felt the sound of locally produced records was thin and weak (which was true). George and Harry were hell-bent on trying to re-create that big live sound on record. It also helped that on early AC/DC records the band would often come into Alberts studio late at night after a pub gig. They were still buzzing from the show and their performances captured that. I'm sure it was the same later on with the Angels and Rose Tattoo. And perhaps the Alberts studio in King Street was one of those happy sonic accidents that resulted in it being a great room for rock bands … the photos I've seen resemble a clubhouse or someone's garage. George admitted that it was a pretty rough studio, but it had a certain magic. Who knows, maybe it was the sticky carpet.

What was the balance between George and Harry as producers? Did they have different strength? Specific roles? It's quite rare for people to produce as an ongoing partnership. 

JA: I think of them in the same way Angus once described his creative relationship with Malcolm: Mal was the bedrock, the rhythm, the 'jungle' of the band's sound; Angus, meanwhile, in his role as lead guitarist, was the guy providing the colour, the highlights, the fancy stuff on top. I think George was Malcolm to Harry's Angus; however, I think they could easily cover for each other, too. But there were individual things: George came up with the bagpipe idea for "Long Way to the Top," while Harry played the great final guitar solo in "Evie." Both of them were fascinated by tape loops, which they used to great effect on such hits as "Love Is in the Air". They were very progressive in that sense; likewise George's almost-rapping on such songs as "Hey St Peter,” which came out well before Blondie's "Rapture.” No-one I can think of was doing anything like that in the mid/late 1970s; certainly not two white guys living in the Sydney suburbs!

A rarely discussed side of Vanda & Young is that soul/dance side. They utilised contemporary black rhythms in a much deeper way than virtually any other white band did at the time. It started with some late period Easybeats stuff, there was some funky stuff post Easybeats, including on the Marcus Hook Roll Band album and then, of course, they brought it into some of their productions, from Allison McCallum to some JPY stuff. And Herm Kovac has spoken about a time when George started getting funky in the studio one time to show him a rhythm he was looking for when Vanda & Young produced a TMG B-side early on. What are your thoughts on that side of George?

JA: I discuss the Herm Kovac story in the book. George asked him to funk it up a bit, and Herm replied, “Fuck me, George. I'm white, I'm from Kurri Kurri, and I play in a rock band!” It didn't fly. Seriously though, George and Harry were incredibly adept as writers and producers … it amazes me that they could easily switch from a session with AC/DC to then tinker with tape loops and dance grooves for John Paul Young. I think a lot of this stems from what George called their "four-year binge,” when they based in London from the end of the Easybeats to late 1973 when they returned to Oz. During that time, they worked with everyone and anyone, across all styles of music; they even worked on ads and jingles. They needed the money, firstly, but they were also serving a handy apprenticeship as writers/producers. I also think, as a former music reviewer myself, that in the desire to categorise and pigeonhole everything, I'd find it hard to accept or understand that writers/producers like George and Harry could be adept at more than one style. Why should I be so surprised? They were good at their jobs … and you can master more than one genre. While they tend to be better known as masters of the Oz rock sound, they could funk it up, too, despite Herm's protestations. Think of songs like Flash and the Pan's "Ayla" and "Midnight Man" – they're some serious grooves.

What lessons did George hand down to AC/DC and other bands they worked with do you think?

JA: The really beneficial lessons that George passed along to bands were: find your sound and stick with it (which the Easybeats failed to do, for both good and evil); don't cater to musical whims and fads; know the business just enough to know when you're getting shafted; opt for soul and spirit over technical perfection. He also told the Angels to cut their hair, shorten their name and never borrow money, according to their biographer Rod Yates! I suspect he might have told brother Malcolm to ditch the glammy clobber he wore early on in AC/DC, but I can only speculate.

Did George and Harry lose interest in the hard rock stuff in the '80s do you think? Did getting ditched as AC/DC's producers ahead of Highway to Hell have an impact on them?

JA: I'm not sure they lost interest in it; perhaps it was more a case of those bands they'd produced and mentored … AC/DC, the Angels and Rose Tattoo, particularly … moving on with their careers. They'd set up each of those bands brilliantly; their work was done. As for getting sacked, that hurt the hell out of Harry and especially George … AC/DC was his brothers' band, after all, his "baby". But at the same time they understood that if they didn't step aside, the US label would drop the band. The delicious irony is that when Highway to Hell, and especially Back in Black, blew up overseas, those early records that George and Harry produced, and that the US label had previously baulked at releasing, suddenly began selling in huge numbers. Maybe they weren't so radio unfriendly after all.

For people who were famously so insular, Vanda &Young seemed to open up about the Easybeats – and open up the vaults - in the late '70s, possibly thanks to the urging of Glenn A Baker, who was part of a network of fans internationally who adored the band. George seemed a very pragmatic guy – was he actually touched do you think when people in the '70s really started taking the Easybeats' music very seriously?

JA: I'm not sure he would have had much time in the 1970s to reflect! But Glenn A Baker, who without doubt was instrumental in encouraging V&Y to open up the vaults, told me an interesting story. He said that he'd contacted George during the Melbourne leg of the Long Way to the Top concert tour and told him that Stevie Wright's closing performance of "Evie" "galvanised the audience.” "He replied, thanking me,” said Baker, "seeming almost moved by what I said. But of course, you never could tell with George." I think that sums the guy up … he didn't give too much away about these kind of things, even if a nerve had been struck. One of George's friends from the Villawood hostel, Brian Lee, who stayed close to George for a good ten years, said he never liked to tell people who he was or what he did. "They can find that out for themselves," George would say. Strikes me as a guy pretty comfortable in his own skin, who knew the value of his work, who didn't need smoke blown up his wazoo. I'm sure he was chuffed by the posthumous interest in the Easys, though. Why make music if no-one gets to hear it?

You must be the only guy in the world – the music world at least – who has written three separate books on three brothers. How did you go about handling the overlap between their stories?

JA: Surely there are some sporting-siblings books . . . Maybe not, Trevor Chappell wasn't much good, was he? How many Mortimers were there? My accidental trilogy, as I've been calling it (while laughing, usually), was just that: accidental. I certainly didn't set out with the intention of writing three books about three Young’s, but as a full-time author when the work is offered to you, you take it. The thing for me was to try and envisage the same set of circumstances that were unravelling through the eyes of the different people. For instance, Malcolm would have reacted very differently to Angus when it came to sacking George and Harry for Highway to Hell … to Malcolm, it would have been business and personal, for Angus mainly the latter. So I found ways to describe the same situations in slightly different ways. Of course, George's story is far more expansive than his younger siblings, so I didn't really find myself with the same problems narratively. And to be honest, George's story is the one I'd been craving to write for years, because it encompassed so much: coming to Oz, Easyfever, London, the end of the band, his 'four-year binge,' Alberts and the rest of it. It's a big story.

Given the Young’s were always so private – notoriously so - did you encounter difficulties in writing these books in that regards? 

JA: You're right, the Young’s and Alberts have always kept things pretty tight, but that simply meant I had to try and find other voices, especially people who knew the brothers well. In the case of Malcolm, people like Herm Kovac, who'd worked with Malcolm in the Velvet Underground, and remained a close friend, provided great insights about non-AC/DC business, which helped immensely. With George, his old friend from the Villawood Hostel days, Brian Lee, was an amazing source of insight into not just how George lived during those early days, but how "hostel hillbillies" like Harry and George got by. It was a pretty tough time for George early on. I also learned that there are some hardcore Easys/Vanda & Young obsessives out there, who know every step of their journey inside out. They were a huge help. I was very lucky.

What do you think George would've made of the book?

JA: With all due respect, the book wasn't written for George. I got the sense that he didn't need to be reminded, or congratulated, of his amazing body of work and achievements. I wrote the book for a broad audience, especially people who knew the music but didn't necessarily know about the various roles George played in the creation of these songs. But it was certainly written from the perspective of someone who had great admiration and respect for George. He's a legend.

A rare George lead vocal…


George on piano!

Last thing - could you tell us your favourite half dozen George-related tracks, your favourite 'lost'/unsung George-related tracks, and may your favourite half-dozen covers of George's songs?

JA: I just did a fun "Sonic Journey" with Simon Marnie on ABC Sydney where we played Easys' originals and then covers. We played the Saints' "The Music Goes Round My Head", the Divinyls' "I'll Make You Happy", the Sports covering "Wedding Ring", Los Bravos doing "Bring a Little Lovin'", Bowie's "Friday on My Mind," Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs covering "Sorry", among others. All of them are terrific. My favourite Easys' songs (today, that is) are: "The Music Goes Round My Head", "St Louis" (the first Easys record I ever heard and bought), "Good Times," "Heaven and Hell," "Friday on My Mind" and "Come In, You'll Get Pneumonia." No shocks there, really, I like a great pop/rock song. "For My Woman" is pretty damned terrific, too. There are dozens more. As for 'lost'/unsung material, there are curious things like Eddie Avana's Children (Avana was Harry in disguise), as well as early versions of "Pasadena" by bands like Buster. Some of the work George did with his brother Alex, usually under the Grapefruit moniker, are good, such as "Sha-Sha." George and Harry also did a cracking Toblerone advert . . .

Toblerone jingle 

(The original ad is lost but fortunately Toblerone reused the original jingle for a 1997 UK Campaign...)

Buster | “Pasadena” 

friday on my mind

Friday on My Mind: The Life of George Young by Jeff Apter is out on Allen & Unwin – check it out here. 

If you want a great example of what George Young (and Harry Vanda) were doing after the Easybeats and before they started working as house produced for Alberts, check out the one and only album by their "band" the Marcus Hook Roll Band. On tracks like "Natural Man,” "Watch Her Do It now,” "Quick Reaction" and especially "Shot In The Head,” you can certainly hear an early template for AC/DC. The album features small cameos from both Malcolm and Angus, so it really is where it all started. Listen on Spotify:

Listen to Easybeats on Apple Music:

Related Posts