Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sunnyboys Shine Bright Over Australia

In the early 80s I was still residing in the southern Australian state of Tasmania, but during the summers of 80/81 and 81/82 I had occasion to spend an extended period of time in the more northern, and much warmer, state of New South Wales. The hot and balmy summer days of that period led me to become a fan of an ice confectionary called Sunnyboys. Anyone familiar with that era more than likely will recall them. Sunnyboys were an orange flavoured ice treat, but what set them apart was the packaging. They came in a triangular shaped tetra-package, which you would pop in the freezer, then cut the tip off to consume - simple right? It probably wasn’t the most consumer (or ecologically) friendly design, but it set Sunnyboys apart from the competition. It’s been a while since I checked, but I’m sure that Sunnyboys are still available, if not the same, then at least in similar guise.

Now, I’m aware that the above paragraph has absolutely no relevance to popular music - at least on the surface. But at time of writing (I pen my first drafts a few weeks in advance) it’s one of those hot and humid summer days, with the mercury pushing 36 degrees Celsius (about 100 on the Fahrenheit scale), so it’s entirely possible that I’m suffering from heat exhaustion, because all I can think about is consuming refreshing ice confectionary, like a Sunnyboy. It just so happens that today I was planning to review the career and works of a great Australian band called Sunnyboys. A ludicrously long bow to draw? Possibly, but after 400 plus posts it’s becoming increasingly difficult to conjure up fresh sounding introductions, hence the apparently flimsy link by word association. To be fair to myself, it’s highly likely my ears began to appreciate the music of Sunnyboys, the band, around the same time as my taste buds fell under the spell of Sunnyboys, the ice confectionary. Aside from that possibility, many more people, including fans who attended Sunnyboys gigs at the height of the band’s popularity , have made the connection between first rate band and iconic ice treat. To those of you who Googled ‘Sunnyboys’ in the hope of learning more about the deliciously refreshing ice confectionary - I apologise for offering you no more than my own hazy and scant reminiscing. For those of you who Googled ‘Sunnyboys’ in the hope of reading about one of Australia’s pre-eminent pop-rock acts from the 1980s - fear not, I’m about to get to the point you’re seeking.

The pre-dawn era for the Sunnyboys began in the northern New South Wales township of Kingscliff. Brothers Jeremy (vocals/guitar) and Peter Oxley (bass), along with school mate Bil Bilson (drums), had played together during high school in various garage bands such as Wooden Horse, Jerry and the Jets, and Golden Syrup. Though the experience didn’t lead them to the City of Troy, it imbued the trio with a passion for all things music, and by 1979 Peter Oxley and Bil Bilson had both made the trek to the big smoke of Sydney to pursue their musical dream. The Sydney music scene at that time was bursting at the seams with talent, with a venue on almost every city block, more than often offering nightly line-ups of up and coming bands/artists, all keen to cut their teeth in front of houses packed with a music hungry public. Another keen to try his luck in the big city, was guitarist Richard Burgman, hailing from Wagga Wagga. Burgman was a few years older and had already played with a rough and ready rock outfit called the Kamikaze Kids. Bil Bilson’s first gig was with The Playboy Lords, whilst both Peter Oxley and Richard Burgman had joined the outfit Shy Impostors, alongside charismatic vocalist Penny Ward and drummer Michael Charles. During the few short months they were together, Shy Impostors recorded a handful of songs on eight track, one of which, ‘At The Barrier’, was released on single by independent label Phantom Records, but only after the band had imploded during June 1980.

Bil Bilson had already started playing with Peter Oxley and Burgman around that time, and post-Shy Impostors, the trio hooked up with ex-Radio Birdman vocalist Rob Younger, with a view to starting a new band. The quartet rehearsed for a few short weeks in that form, before Younger took the decision to leave. Enter eighteen year old Jeremy Oxley. After a short stint with a Gold Coast band called the Strand, Oxley junior had followed his older brother Peter to Sydney, and was the logical choice to fill the void following Younger’s departure. The enigmatic singer/guitarist had already written a slew of songs, and shared the same pop-rock sensibilities as the other three. The quartet chose the name Sunnyboys (at the suggestion of Peter Oxley’s girlfriend), because it represented something bright, happy and fun, though later on when testing out new material at Sydney gigs, the quartet occasionally adopted the pseudonym of ‘Kids In The Dust’. On August 15th 1980, the Sunnyboys made their live debut at the Chequers night club in Sydney, on a double bill with Lipstick Killers. Offering a melodic brand of post-punk power pop, with roots tapping deep into 60s pop (think the Kinks, Beatles, Flamin’ Groovies), the Sunnyboys were a runaway hit with audiences, right from the get go. Within a few weeks the quartet were playing to packed houses on an almost nightly basis at venues across Sydney’s pub and club circuit, often inundated with dozens of those very same Sunnyboys ice treats, brought to gigs by fans.

The quartet struck up a tight chemistry on stage, feeding off one another’s high energy playing, and delivering audiences an infectious brand of power packed pop-rock. But it was Jeremy Oxley’s songs that were also a strong factor in setting the Sunnyboys apart from the competition. His 60s influenced, power-pop melodies were married to poignant and insightful lyrics, with melancholic themes of loneliness, alienation and male angst, juxtaposed brilliantly against the light and breezy feel of the music. Among the band’s early fans was Phantom Records’ label owner Jules Normington, who already knew some of the band from their tenure with Shy Impostors. Normington arranged for the Sunnyboys to record an EP of four tracks. During October 1980 they recorded their eponymous EP under the production expertise of Lobby Loyde (ex-Aztecs, Coloured Balls), who was one of the most respected producers on the Australian music scene. The EP ‘Sunnyboys’ featured among its tracks an early version of ‘Alone With You’, a song destined to become an Australian pop-rock classic. An initial pressing of 1000 copies sold out within two weeks of release during December 1980, prompting the big labels to sit up and take notice. Sell out gigs on a nightly basis, and a debut EP that sells like hot cakes…hmmm, these Sunnyboys just might have something going for them.

In early ‘81 Melbourne based label Mushroom took the, until then, unprecedented step of signing a Sydney based band. Sunnyboys released the catchy single ‘Happy Man’ on the Mushroom label during July 1981. The single made an immediate impact on the national charts, and eventually peaked at a very respectable #26. Written by Jeremy Oxley, and once again produced by Lobby Loyde, it gave the public (beyond the band’s Sydney fan base) a taste of the finely crafted, melodic pop-rock, laden with exuberant hooks, that would arise from the Sunnyboys with future releases. Mushroom also released ‘Happy Man’ as Australia’s first ‘cassingle’, featuring two bonus live tracks, and during August the Sunnyboys organised their own independently produced EP ‘Happy Birthday’. Pressed on red vinyl, the EP was given away to fans attending the Sunnyboys first anniversary show.

During May and June of ‘81, the Sunnyboys had laid down the tracks for their debut album, alongside producer Lobby Loyde at the acclaimed Albert Studios. In September ‘81, ‘Sunnyboys’ the album hit the stores and soon after hit the Australian charts. The album was a showcase for the Sunnyboys infectious brand of pop-rock, infused with R&B tones, driving dance beats, and a surging rock and roll energy. The album effectively captured the very essence of the Sunnyboys at that time, a young, exuberant, and dynamic musical unit. The aforementioned ‘Alone With You’ was released as the next single, and by November ‘81 had peaked at #28 nationally (#15 Sydney). Featuring smooth vocal harmonies, and a seamless interlacing of crisp guitar licks, ‘Alone With You’ had a feel good disposition that belied the melancholic lyricism within. A second appearance on ‘Countdown’ helped raise the band’s national profile further, and sales of the ‘Sunnyboys’ album eventually pushed it to #13 on the Australian charts (going on to sell over 50,000 copies). The album was actually offered for sale in two versions. The standard issue included the first hit single ‘Happy Man, but for fans who had already purchased that single, a limited edition release of 2000 copies were pressed on sunshine yellow coloured vinyl, with a slightly altered track listing, which replaced ‘Happy Man’ with the otherwise unavailable track ‘Tell Me What You Say’ (needless to say the ‘yellow vinyl’ version is much sought after by collectors today).

Within eighteen months of their formation, the Sunnyboys had risen to become a headlining attraction on the Australian music scene. By late ‘81, they were in the midst of a seemingly relentless tour schedule, criss-crossing the nation (sometimes playing ten shows a week). But the gruelling nature of life on the road, and the increased expectations upon the band, particularly front man and songwriter Jeremy Oxley, would soon lead to the first clouds appearing on the Sunnyboys’ horizon.


secondhandrose said...

Nice job.
I saw The Sunnyboys quite a few times. My housemate had the 7" of Happy Man and we played it to death. Saw early shows that were free and the close to final shows where they recorded the Real Live album. Danced on a table while that was happening!! Would love to know the name of that venue at the back of the Cross.
'You know you're really attractive' from Alone With You is one of my favourite power pop lines. I also enjoyed the Get Some Fun album although it didn't see a lot of success. The Show Me Some Discipline film clip is hilarious!!!
Met Jeremy Oxley at an Ian Rilen's X gig! Killer smile ...
Brilliant band!

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Hi secondhandrose,
thanks for sharing your memories about the Sunnyboys - very cool! I don't often wish I was older these days, but had I been just a few years older I would loved to have seen them live in their heyday. You're spot on about them being a brilliant band.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info. I saw the band numerous times throughout the early 80s and thought they were simply the best live band going around. To this day, they are still my favourite band of all time. The members went their own way. I think Peter still has a pizza place in Newtown and I believe Jeremy ended up in Ipswich, Qld. Richard Burgman went on the play with the reformed Saints - another great band of the 80s under the direction of Chris Bailey. What a great time for Australian live music! oh, for the memories!
Cheers, Craig D, Melbourne