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The Angels, with John Brewster standing centre.

IA entertainment editor John Turnbull talks to Australian rock legend John Brewster, rhythm guitarist and founding member of The Angels.

Independent Australia: Thanks very much for your time today, John.

The Angels released their first album the same year that I was born how do you think the Australian music industry has changed in the past 40 years?

John Brewster: It’s pretty hard to compare, you know? It’s definitely a different era.

I’m really not an expert on the music industry, I’ve just been lucky enough to be in a successful band and play music. 

We just do what we do, and the industry does its own thing. I see things I don’t like these days, like the TV talent shows, but I suppose it’s all entertainment.

IA: Are you listening to any new Australian bands at the moment?

JB: There is a band in Adelaide that I like a lot called Tracer. They’re fantastic, but I think it’s a bit sad that they’ve done better in Europe than they have here in Australia.

IA: They had that album called El Pistolero, right?

JB: Yeah, that’s them. They supported us recently at the Governor Hindmarsh and they’re amazing.

There’s another Adelaide band called Walking With Thieves that I really like. Aside from that, I’m probably not the best person to ask about modern music, because I think I’m a bit out of touch! [Laughs]

IA: Let’s talk about The Angels for a bit. When you started out you had the awesome name of the Moonshine Jug and String Band, then you became the Keystone Angels and then finally The Angels. Can you tell me about those early days and the reason for the name change?

JB: It was really a change of name because it was a change of band and style, you know?

The Moonshine Jug and String Band was a thing we did for fun, and for some reason we started to become really successful. We really had no major ambitions, we were just having a wonderful time. We were all at uni studying, and as the Jug Band started to get more successful it gave us a taste for the whole thing. My brother Rick and I were always really into music, so we just started writing songs. 

We had a bit of a hit with an EP we put out in about ’73, I think, and then we decided that we couldn’t really continue to be a Jug band, because that style of music was based in the 1920s and we were trying to use it to play rock and roll. So we decided to bite the bullet – much to our fans distress – and announced that Moonshine was no more.

We were actually offered a record contract by EMI, so we could have gone on with that band and who knows where we’d be today!

IA: So you put down the jug and picked up a guitar?

JB: Yeah, we started writing electric songs.

Initially we weren’t the best, you know — we didn’t go from being a really good jug band to a really good rock band. We went from being a really good jug band to a pretty bloody ordinary rock band, but we kept playing and gradually got better.

The thing is that we were lucky because we could play in front of people and get better that way. There was always a gig, and no matter how bad we were there was always an audience. So we started to write some better songs, and we developed the Angels sound by just playing and playing.

IA: For a while, during the mid-80’s, you left The Angels and joined The Party Boys. Can you tell me a little about that time?

JB: I was a bit disillusioned with things and I was probably a complete pain in the arse. We did a tour of the U.S. and things were just going crazy, and it was a good time for me to leave. 

I didn’t actually volunteer to leave the band, I was asked to leave. And that’s okay, I understand that.

The band then got a new lease of life for a while and then when that ran out of steam they asked me to come back! It all panned out well.

I had great fun in The Party Boys, playing with a bunch of different musicians which I’d never done before, so I have no regrets. I think it was a good thing for me and Rick to have a break from constant working together.

IA: I imagine working with your brother for that long would cause some friction?

JB: Yeah, it certainly did back in those days. We have a much more balanced life now, it’s not as crazy as it was.

We were out on the road for months on end so relationships suffered, family life suffered. These days it’s a lot better — we go away for a week or so and then come home again.

IA: Aside from yourself, The Angels have had a fair few members come and go over the years, but one of the hardest changes for a band to make has to be to replace their lead singer. I know you’ve been playing with Dave Gleeson for a few years now, how did you select him as your new lead singer. Was there an audition process? A reality show perhaps?

JB: Ha! We didn’t really audition anyone, we just got lucky. You have good and bad luck in a band and that was a bit of good luck.

Doc decided to go off and do his solo thing – this was before he got sick – and we were all fine with that. We’re not manacled together, but at the same time we wondered at the time if we had a band anymore.

So we were playing a Brewster Brothers gig one night and Dave just showed up. We asked him up on stage to sing with us and asked if he knew any Angels songs. He replied that he knew all of them.

I remember standing on stage and looking over at Rick just going: “Wow, this is the guy." We had no idea whether he would actually say yes, but fortunately he did. Dave still has his Screaming Jets, and we have no issue with that at all.

These days you can do a bit of that — Rick and I do our Brewster Brothers thing and Dave plays some gigs with the Screaming Jets, but The Angels is a big priority for all of us.

IA: Along with the 40th Anniversary Tour you’ve released two triple albums, the first a collection of studio recordings and the second a collection of live tracks. How did you go about choosing the songs?

JB: The studio tapes were fairly easy. They basically chose themselves, in a way.

There are some alternate versions of some songs that we really wanted, like Am I Ever Going To See Your Face Again. I really wanted the original recording of that track with Charlie King on the drums, because I think that version of the song is great.

IA: What’s your opinion of internet music piracy?

JB: It’s a hard question to answer. It’s harder to get on radio these days, particularly for young Australian bands, so the social media side of things is really important.

I understand sharing, but I think the fact that someone can download and ‘own’ music without paying for it isn’t a good thing. I know it happens, but I’m not keen on that at all.

IA: Last but not least, do you have any advice for young musicians?

JB: Keep in mind that I have no idea how the music industry works, so I might not be the best person to ask.

Taking that into account, I can say that it was never easy. I certainly can’t look back at the early days of my career and say that it was easy. Luck was a big part of it, as was the ability to get better by playing gigs in front of real people.

It’s a lot harder to do that these days, so young bands have to find other ways of pushing their barrow, if you like. Social media plays a huge role, but I think young people with a passion for music will always find a way.

When you’re young and hungry the whole world is in front of you, but you have to be into it. You have to really love music to break down the walls.

IA: Sounds like solid advice. Thanks again for your time, John, and good luck with the rest of the tour.

JB: Thanks very much!

John Brewster (Image via therockpit.net)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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