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Friday on my Mind TV review: an immigrant story

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The second half of Friday On My Mind: The Easybeats Story airs on ABC TV on Sunday night. Peter Farnan (Boom Crash Opera) reviews the series and asks ‘Is there a secret musical code for international success? Is it in the air, is it in the land, is it in the genes?’

The cultural cringe – that feeling that Australia can’t do art/culture/society as well as the rest of the Western world – manifested itself most strongly in the pop music industry from the 1960s through to the 1990s.

To a certain extent it was true. We had some magnificent, snappy pop groups in the 1960s (The Master’s Apprentices, The Loved Ones, The Twitlights/Axiom) but no production skills or industry infrastructure to support them. And we were chasing trends, not setting them. In the ‘70s the Little River Band, with the help of an American producer, succeeded magnificently by virtually becoming an American West Coast rock band. Meanwhile Daddy Cool and the Skyhooks flopped in the US. Major inroads were made in the ’80s by a handful: the Divinyls, INXS, Midnight Oil, Men At Work.

Friday on My Mind inadvertently or not, presents the case for the cultural cringe.

All the acts that ‘got through’ worked with international producers, as did my own band, Boom Crash Opera. We felt constantly berated; ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. You need an international perspective’. It seemed there was a mysterious formula that was well understood by everybody but beyond the grasp of the actual music creators. It was a magic spell, a secret code.

The excellent mini series, Friday on My Mind: The Story Of The Easybeats inadvertently or not, presents the case for the cultural cringe. The members of the Easybeats arrived by boat from England, Scotland and Holland, formed a band and then returned to conquer the charts in the Old World. The Bee Gees pulled the same trick. Then, consider the slew of Australian rock bands following in their wake that were partially comprised of immigrants; most of the 1960s contingent I’ve already listed, and AC/DC, The Angels, ‘our’ Jimmy Barnes. What if the secret code is not a product of cultural practice but a deep mystery carried in the genes of immigrants?

The Easybeats jumped out of the gate in the mid ‘60s and went straight for the prize. They produced a clutch of stunning pop gems – She’s So Fine, Wedding Ring, Sorry – and then a masterpiece; the song, Friday on My Mind (made with an international producer). Subsequently the songwriting team of Harry Vanda (Mackenzie Fearnley) and George Young (William Rush) succeeded internationally (producing themselves) across diverse genres in the 1970s and into the 1980s. They had sussed the secret. They had cracked the code.

The show reminds us in a most charming way that we are (nearly all of us) immigrants.

I’m not sure if the creators of Friday On My Mind, in their atmospheric time-warp recreations, intended to drag us back into the vortex of the cultural cringe discourse (a time-warp in and of itself). The show does, however, remind us of the bleeding obvious, and in a most charming way. We are (nearly all of us) immigrants.

I loved the early migrant hostel scenes. Despite the sentimental gloss of the production design (everybody looks so clean in their retro gear – the reffo huts are so tidy), we are subtly haunted by the fact that the name ‘Villawood’ is now associated with ‘detention’.

In the first episode migrants are pelted with eggs. New arrivals are set upon by gangs of youths; a bit of ‘biffo’ ensues. Bass player Dick Diamonde (Du Toit Bredenkamp) is torn between being a Jehovah’s Witness and being in a band. The band is picked on for their long hair. More biffo ensues. The misty-eyed lens of an art-directed past almost distracts us from the fact that these underlying themes still persist: racism, sectarianism, homophobia. Welcome to Australia.

Our attitude to ‘other’ and how we treat recent arrivals is still fraught. These days there’s incarceration; ‘… we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ In one scene the press, when interviewing the band, are constantly flummoxed by ‘who is from where?’ One journalist, in frustration, asks, ‘are any of you Australian?’

Friday On My Mind manages to immerse us in brief moments that reveal character and the deep strain of family that runs under this story.

As a musician I was interested in the recreation of the ‘60s vibe. Just as the look is lovingly retro, the music – both the reproductions of the hits and the incidental music – is nerdily spot on. So often actors look awkward addressing musical instruments; not the case here. They mimic the actual parts and in many scenes they actually play. And the instruments they play are also accurate (I own a 1959 Hofner Clubman very similar to the one George Young played).

Of course nerdy accuracy is only relevant for musical trainspotters. But when done effectively there’s a confluence of obscure technicalities and drama. When Ted Albert (played with quirky dignity by Ashley Zuckerman) records the band for the first time there are awkward pauses and hovering uncertainty as he makes arcane technical adjustments. Singer, Stevie Wright (Christian Byers), suspiciously sits out the session. George Young is tense and angry at Stevie. He is also bewildered by and curious about the recording process. The scene plays out on two levels; technical and emotional. We are all caught up in the swirl of frustration, anticipation and confusion. We don’t have to know that the bass was actually distorted and the bass drum needed dampening; only that something was not ‘optimal’.

These reproductions of 1960s music-making are lovingly evinced; the chunky knobs and vu meters on antique recording equipment, the whirring tape machines and clunky vintage microphones. In one private moment Ted Albert, while manipulating these tape machines, locates Stevie Wright’s scream of frustration at an earlier failed take. Ted dubs it onto the intro of She’s So Fine, not only creating the memorable sonic signature to that song, but also bringing into being an essential character-defining rock’n’roll moment; a nice way of demonstrating how the manipulation of time and space provided by technology is an act of creation. And you don’t have to be a nerd to get it.

The performances feel almost improvised; crackling lines delivered overlapping, no eye contact, food being hurriedly slurped.

Historic bio-pics are often thin and slight. They skate across the surface of events merely marking milestone moments. We are expected to feel something because of the cumulative significance of the story arc rather than the depth of any particular scene. It’s like watching mountain climbers from a helicopter. It’s an amazing feat but what’s going on down there? What are they saying to each other? Who are they, really?

Friday On My Mind manages to immerse us in brief moments that reveal character and the deep strain of family that runs under this story. In an early scene we witness this exchange between George Young and his sister, Margaret (Hannah Day):

Margaret: What (kind of music) do you play

George: Everything

Margaret: That doesn’t mean anything

George: ¥eah, it means everything

Margaret: It means nothing

George: It means everything. Piss off Margaret

Margaret: Oh that’s lovely

George: Sorry

Margaret: (at the same time) Very nice

The performances feel almost improvised; crackling lines delivered overlapping, no eye contact, food being hurriedly slurped. Youthful George is alternately impatient and narkily repentant. There’s an economy here that expresses the abrupt intimacy of siblings. Margaret’s character figures in only a few scenes but we feel the import of the family bond. And it’s funny.

The series lost me a little in the second half. For some reason the ‘successful phase’ of the band’s career was less interesting than Villawood, the family and Ted Albert’s seer-like quirkiness in the first episode. Events are compressed and conflated. Stevie Wright’s eventual journey into hard drugs starts here (much earlier than I originally thought in real-life). There’s international success. There’s a scene at Andy Warhol’s Factory.

Despite the fact we see the band faltering, the end is experienced as an inevitable dramatic climax and resolution rather than the dull petering out that it actually was. The band’s closing years in London were excised from the story. But I was already hooked by the acting performances – William Rush’s tart smarts, Christian Bryers’ impish charm, Mackenzie Fearnley’s taciturn wisdom – so I went with the flow.

In the second episode a journalist once again presses the band on the issue of where they are from:

Interviewer: What makes you an Australian band?

George: The music, mate

I’m not sure it that’s a bit too tidy a resolution to the complex stew of identity and nationality at the heart of the Easybeats’ story. When Australian music did start to break through (dare I include my old band in this?) ‘international ears’ claimed to discern an Australian attitude; a freshness fired and hardened by years playing in pubs.

Except for the original occupants of this land we are all immigrants. Friday On My Mind: The Easybeats Story sweetly reminds us of that. And that in coming here and being here this land has made and changed us all.

Peter Farnan is guitarist and songwriter with Boom Crash Opera. His latest project, Pesky Bones, features Paul Kelly, Deborah Conway, Tim Rogers, Ali Barter, Rebecca Barnard and Paul Capsis.

11 responses to “Friday on my Mind TV review: an immigrant story

  1. It was so VERY VERY EXCITING to see an Australian musical biopic that genuinely took time to develop characters. You’re right to highlight the Ted Albert studio scene; I can imagine a commercial network fighting to excise it or cut it to shreds, which would have ruined it. Patience brings the dividends; the message of the scene, reflected beautifully in its execution.
    And the performances are great. I was about ten minutes into it and suddenly thought: I’m already onboard with at least three of these characters, not just because of smart writing but because of underplayed, confident delivery.
    I’m not surprised to hear that the second half is more unwieldy, because I woulda thought it couldn’t help but slide into some of those global-rock-stardom tropes. But the first half is so very good that I’m willing to forgive a whole swag of that now. Take the charm that Alan Parker found in “The Commitments” and cross it with a harder edge, a sharper script and a more ambitious and accomplished directorial eye, and that’s “Friday On My Mind” for mine. I was well impressed. (You might be able to tell.)

  2. Peter Farnan writes “…no production skills or industry infrastructure to support them…”. Biased, inaccurate and unfair comment. There was excellent and even ground-breaking work being done in places like Gamba studios in North Adelaide in those early days.

    1. Yes. It sounds like there was groundbreaking work being done at Gamba. How exciting that a modular Moog was in Adelaide in the ’60s. Bill Armstrong (in a more mainstream vein) was pioneering recording in Melbourne as was Ted Albert in Sydney. Towards the end of the ’60s engineers like John Sayers and John French were doing great work – Russell Morris’s the Real Thing was a (once again mainstream) remarkable example. However, the industry was in its ‘immature’ phase. Bands would make records hastily under the auspice of labels that could not provide the support required. Ignorance and short-termism was the norm. Bands were chasing overseas trends. Compare the fate of, say Led Zeppelin in London in ’68 versus the Masters Apprentices at the same time. One was enormously supported. The other was left to wither on the vine. My point was not not to overlook individual examples like Gamba but to make the point that there were systemic shortcomings as the industry (the art and commerce aspects) developed.

  3. I read an article on the ABC site bemoaning the fact that there’s not much Aussie music getting a go in the charts lately- Ladies and gentlemen if you were as inspired and gifted as the Easybeats you would be breaking through irrespective of the era. Go hard or go home.
    In short just be better!

  4. Nice review. I thought this might turn out like the INXS hagiography but it had real characters in it (first part anyway) and not simply a join the dot career line

  5. Great review Pete.
    As with most rock movies I found it sanitized, tame, and mostly unbelievable.
    I have sat in multiple vans circling this country. I wish they could make an x rated version of these bio rock films.
    To me it is cringe worthy, I watched the whole show and wondered, where was the drug taking? The morning after vomiting? The naked women?
    Ugh, one day someone will make an honest rock bio. One day.
    I’ll be six foot underground by then.
    At least it was 10% better than that lame duck INXS rubbish rock bio.
    Yes it did at least contain correct vintage amps, guitars etc, but as for the accuracy of events, I’d rather watch a documentary.
    Great review though Pete. As usual your insights are spot on and praise worthy.
    Keep on donning what you are doing.
    Mick Valance.

    1. Hi Mick,

      I have a friend who was in the music scene in the 80s. She also wished the series was grittier: more emphasis on Villawood’s bleakness and violence, more of the drug-taking horror scenes, etc.

      But that was just one of several angles that could have been taken. I saw an Easybeats doco this week and many of the series’ lines came straight from the Easybeats. For a 3 hour series it did touch on the Villawood violence, drugs and naked girls. As a viewer I knew each such scene was the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t need more to hammer it home.

      I was just as interested in the successes, relationships, management and needless to say the music.

      I watched because I was a fan at the time and still am. I am also left extremely distressed about the toll of drugs on Stevie Wright and his struggle with life for decades.

  6. I enjoyed part one. However, Im wondering why the actor playing Stevie doesn’t have an accent, as Stevie certainly did. If he did bother to act with Stevie’s accent it would have been a lot better and more believable. Apart from that fact he is quite Steviesque.

  7. Overall a nice review. By ‘nice’ I mean it didn’t say too much I didn’t want to hear, LOL. I was enthralled, absorbed and emotionally engaged by the series. I am now ‘obsessively’ seeking out all the YouTubes of the Easybeats – and it’s a little sad as well. It was a time and a band – a time gone. But that’s life.

    Nice to see the series so well received.

  8. The Gentlemen playing Stevie certainly caught his essence. But he didn’t even bother with an accent, which really took me out of things for a while. Probably my biggest complaint with this overall great two parter.

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