Song Of The Day 7/9/2015: Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs – “Most People I Know (Think That I’m Crazy)”

Australian Pop with Colin Donald: Today’s SOTD is part of the soundtrack of my life, but I will sidestep that issue to bring you the remarkable facts of Billy Thorpe (1946–2007) and the many versions of his Aztecs.

There must have been a boring time at some point in Billy Thorpe’s life. It probably maxed out at three minutes. I feel chastened to write about the great man’s life when he did it so well himself in two autobiographies. A few dollars can be well spent on Amazon getting hold of Most People I Know (Think That I’m Crazy) or Sex, Thugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll. But boss man Paul says “Do it,” so somehow I’ll manage to squeeze together decades of hits, dead fish, Star Trek, cuddly toys and 200,000 other people. [Just for that, I’m doubling your salary, Colin! –P]

The first Aztecs were a beat band, formed in 1963/64 in the furnace of the notorious Kings Cross area of Sydney. The Cross has been the ruin of many a poor boy. Building on the hysteria surrounding their club performances, the band released a few singles with “Poison Ivy” turning them into Australia-wide hit makers. The fledgling Alberts label came knocking for their first-ever pop signing. John Harrigan, nominal owner of the Aztecs, firmly rebuffed the approach from the new kids on the block. But John didn’t reckon with his own mother, ‘Ma’ Harrigan, who turned up at the Alberts office while son John was out of the country. “I trust you to look after this band for a few years. Where do I sign?” Wasn’t John’s approval needed? “My son will do what he’s told.” And so a number of careers were launched.

Alberts could not have been happier with their first release, the three-word song “Mashed Potato”. At this stage Billy was only handling vocals. Hits and TV shows kept coming but popularity can be fleeting, and by 1968 the group had disbanded amongst money disputes and falling sales. But it wasn’t long before Billy was putting together Version 2 of the Aztecs, bringing a much louder, power-blues approach through the inclusion of guitar hero Lobby Loyde. Billy himself had picked up the guitar by this time due to one of the other Aztecs going AWOL. Loyde would shortly leave to form The Coloured Balls, but he was instrumental in convincing Billy to be true to himself and his guitar playing. The genesis of Aussie hard pub rock can be traced to this point.

Billy Thorpe didn’t invent volume, but he and The Aztecs put it to use like no others before them. Billy’s own description: “We were standing on a pair of Boeing 747 engines. It cracked the foundations and broke windows in neighboring buildings.” In defiance of the saying “with great power comes great responsibility,” the band turned their amps beyond eleven at a 1974 indoor gig. Upstairs the venue owners found their tank of tropical fish had perished in the aural onslaught. Perhaps he thought he was back at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl in 1972, where they played to a claimed 200,000 people and stopped the traffic. (Side note: I know the venue and surrounding grounds. There would have been no room for oxygen if that many people crammed in.)

By now “Most People I Know (Think That I’m Crazy)“ had burnt itself into most people’s eardrums and the open air music festival at Sunbury was beckoning. Our own Woodstock took place just outside Melbourne and for its few short years was owned by Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs. Thunderous sets from the small man with the big voice, exhorting the crowd “Suck more piss!” and the assembled masses raising their beers and screaming “Thorpie!” ”Most People…" was added to the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia registry in 2008.

Boundaries meant nothing to Billy. Personal and collaborative projects abounded. He had a principal role in the rock opera Tommy and a farewell gig to the Aztecs was played at the Sydney Opera House in 1975. By 1976 he was in America, setting up a number of music and business projects. In 1979 he released his solo space opera “Children of the Sun”, which got onto the Billboard Top 40 album chart. In 1984 Thorpe stopped performing live music to start an electronics consulting company, working for Disney, Mattel and Universal Studios. Come 1986 he owned an L.A. recording and production studio, where he worked on scores for television series, including Columbo, Eight Is Enough(!) and Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Make it so, Billy” (Sorry, I had to say that.)

Former Aztec bandmate Tony Barber had written a series of children’s books, collectively called The Puggle Tales, from 1981. Barber and Thorpe formed a soft toy company in 1987, Sunshine Friends, and also released children’s songs on cassettes and video. In 1989 Barber and Thorpe co-wrote three more Puggle Tales.

In 1991 Billy was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, the same year he returned to touring in The Zoo, a Mick Fleetwood side project. The rest of the ’90s saw more composing and more live gigs with The Billy Thorpe Band and various nostalgic versions of the Aztecs. After recording material for a new album, Tangier, with the Symphonique Orchestra du Maroc in Casablanca, Morocco late in 2006, Billy died from a heart attack in Sydney in February 2007. In October 2010 Sony released Tangier at the ARIA Hall of Fame in Sydney. Billy’s final effort was awarded the first-ever posthumous ARIA for Best Contemporary Adult Album in 2011.

He was also posthumously appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (OAM) on 11 June 2007, with the citation, “For service to the entertainment industry as a musician, songwriter, producer, and as a contributor to the preservation and collection of contemporary Australian music.”

But perhaps a more fitting obituary comes from one of his contemporaries, Little Pattie: “He wasn’t crazy, unless we’re all crazy. He was a gem. He was just what I tell you what he was, he was an inspiration.” -- Colin Donald
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