I owe the title of this piece not to geopolitics, but to my erstwhile collaborator. She and I were for many years domiciled in adjacent suburbs in what she chose to call The Middle East. She is now inner, I am outer, and the twain shall meet evermore like flies on lacquer bands back somewhere in the middle.
But this is a reflection on Murray Engleheart’s rollicking tome Blood, Sweat and Beers: Oz Rock from the Aztecs to Rose Tattoo and perhaps a nod to its spiritual homeland, the Whitehorse Hotel smack bang in the aforementioned Middle of the East. My connection to this down-low homeland is extremely tenuous, but Jo actually worked there for a time. I grew up in the country listening to 3XY late at night (the only time I could get reception). The thing that stuck in my mind was the Gig Guide, not for the bands, but for the names of the venues: South Side Six, Village Green, Bombay Rock, the Matthew Flinders, the Whitehorse. These were all in the suburbs, most in the middle east. When I got to Melbourne I was hanging out at The Prince of Wales and the Seaview, so the suburban gig barns still live somewhere on the mythic plane for me.
Engleheart’s book is hard to define or delimit somehow, perhaps because between the peaks of what we know there are so many hidden valleys. Most of us who consider ourselves old enough or interested enough to know Thorpie would not manage to put the Aztecs on the same page as Rose Tattoo, but the connections are there and fascinating. The deepest connection is the fans, most particularly the Sharpies. If you don’t know the Sharps check the link, but also think Bon Scott with the shrink wrapped clothes and add a haircut somewhere between a skinhead and David Bowie mullet. When I moved to Melbourne I lived in the lower middle east and knew a genuine Sharpie who was small and pathetic, but still scared the bejesus out of me – he was in a gang and he told stories about his friends, one of whom had set fire to himself and was clinging to a blackened life in intensive care.
The hirsute Thorpie and the Sharpies somehow clung together like wool and Velcro. According to Engleheart, the Sharpies followed Thorpie from the Whitehorse to his legendary Sunbury gigs. Sunbury famously burnt/hardened the likes of Skyhooks and Queen as the fans clamoured for Thorpie.
Perhaps the personification of the Sharpie connection between the Aztecs and the Tatts was the even more legendary Lobby Lloyde. Lobby was old enough to have been a sort of bogan hippy before he became a middle-aged father of all things Sharp. I remember my seriously cool mate Stewie (his brother was a jazz pianist, his sisters were gothic queens with alt-rock boyfriends) going to a Lobby Lloyde and the Coloured Balls gig in Bendigo. The hall was deserted, but the carpark and the surrounding bush was heavily populated – Lobby famously played so loud that not only did the gear usually vibrate to a standstill half way, but the audience found that their ears bled less if they listened from outside. There’s something beautiful about the image of an empty hall to frame the sound for the audience off in the dark unseen.
Can’t remember if Lobby made it to Countdown, but the Tatts certainly did, and they were genuinely scary. Angry Anderson had been around for a while, particularly in Buster Brown, much loved by the Sharps, and Pete Wells was also something of a veteran already. Curiously, they weren’t just scary guys who happened to have tatts – Wells was so in love with the tatt that he’d put the band together as a concept. Engleheart relates stories of musos getting tatts just so they could audition. My connection is Ian Rilen – from across the foldback speakers at the Seaview when he was in X. Rilen left the Tatts because they weren’t hard enough musically, and this is genuinely so, but somehow I felt totally safe at the Seaview whereas seeing the Tatts out in the Middle East would have scared me crapless.
My favourite story in the book… The Tatts did not so well in Australia, then did really well in the UK, and made the typical mistake of following the Grail to the US. They knew they were in trouble when they would walk down the street in LA and see people quite literally running away from them. This was at a time when tatts – particularly in the US – were still a mark of prison time or other serious outlaw naughtiness. They were a little reassured when they turned up at a record co meeting in their get out of bed clothes (jeans, bluey or t-shirt) and found that the execs didn’t seem bothered or frightened. Until, after the meeting the AOR guy thanked them and said, by the way, we appreciate the effort, but you don’t need to wear full make-up and costume for meetings. Yes, that’s right, they thought this was scary like KISS.
So, the downside is – which Engleheart acknowledges in a very sad postscript chapter – that almost all of the key players in the story are dead. And poignantly, they almost all died after the research for the book was done. So, Rilen, Wells, and pretty much all the Tatt’s original lineup except Angry, Lloyde, Thorpie – all gone in a very non rock’n’roll way.
The book also – incongruously I feel – follows The Angels. Doc is sadly next flaming boat to push out to sea…
But Angry is still around and now er running for parliament on an ultra-right-wing platform (shoe). .. Despite my political leanings I can’t help but hope he gets in – a bogan pollie called ‘Angry’ with a whole body covered in tatts crying out for their own moment in question time…