I wrote this after a special show Billy did in 2012.
This night was going to be an event cooked up by Billy Miller. An exceptional and highly individual player of music in Melbourne for many years. A soldier, an officer and a dude.
Billy Miller usually held court at the time down in the bottom bar of the old George hotel every Sunday with his band, the Love Brothers. They played on the floor. Callow indie musicians would have been killed by the ferocious, close fighting in that red brick room but Billy is highly skilled. Unlike most of his generation he is a pop player rather than a bluesman and can play anything at will and with great conviction. You could sit and marvel as he played the Kinks and the Stones and Michael Jackson and Free and the Bee Gees with his son Eddie and John Annas and KD Firth and the entire crowd singing along. Hardly needs a PA! Billy and KD were once in the Ferrets and they power through some of their own back catalogue. Billys our Alex Chilton.
By that I mean he’s always been into songs and pop music and never went down the road of roots and blues. “Rootless and toothless” as he calls that generic dead end. He began playing in the early 70s in a band called Buster Brown that morphed into Rose tattoo. Its not like he hasn’t hung with badass types. That band broke up on a trip (by train) to Perth and Billy had to make his fare back by busking Beatles songs. Shit was really real then. Beatle Billy! The Ferrets and Countdown era pop stardom came in time.
After the Ball, as they say, he’s been a player. I played with him and learned so much, mainly about conviction and how great it is to play with people who are UP for it. No sooks.
Tonight he was doing a set of songs based on the first gig he ever went to, Festival Hall in 1968 with Paul Jones (from Manfred Mann), The Small Faces and the Who. He had a crack band – James Black (from RockWiz) on keys, Bill McDonald on bass, John Annas on drums, Eddie Milller on guitar and guest vocals from Stu Thomas and Mick Pealing. It was Bills show though. Oh and it was also the Who and the Small Faces show. I used to turn my nose up at tribute bands years ago, but I then got to respect their hard-core showbiz attitude. It’s different if it’s an ongoing week after week things. In shows like that, all the weirdness usually gets shaved off and the basics are trotted out. Then there is the phenomenon of bands getting back together. The Who themselves, came here in the early 2000s for a car race gig. “The Two” they were derisively called. A friend of mine, a guitarist from Sydney, made me think differently when he said he went to the show just “to see the man who actually write and played all that great stuff-play it!” It made me think that it was true, this stuff has lasted (mostly thanks to oldies radio) but it’s also worth hearing and people love it! What’s the problem? Ruth Rogers Wright, an English woman living in Melbourne, does an amazing Nina Simone show. It is difficult stuff to inhabit and pull off, for the players and the singer. She does it brilliantly well. Henry Manetta and the Trip did a Sun Ra show, complete with conga line of freaks chanting “Nuquelar War” as they weaved about the room. Again it was great to hear the music for real, being pushed out into a room by real people. Tex Perkins plays Johnny Cash as well as doing shows of country standards. Who couldn’t do that stuff any better? His amazing voice and his really demanding standards for any player who steps on a stage with him? People love it! Those songs are stone tablets!
So I was really looking forward to the show. Its valid to play music you love to people who wanna hear it!
Billy came on and did the Paul Jones songs first. “pretty flamingo”, “do wah diddy” and “the mighty quinn”. Bill plays a 1963 Strat that he makes absolutely sing. Battered and worn, he gets the cleanest sounds then power chords and works the tone constantly with the pots on the guitar, very few pedals. His voice is outstanding, getting all those screaming notes and totally controlling it. Screams ,squalls, melodies and mugging all present. They launch in to the Small Faces songs. “Itchy coo park”, “you really got a hold on me” (a song he insisted they covered on the night in 1968) “sha la la la lee”, “natural born boogie”, “lazy Sunday afternoon”, an obscure b side “I’m only dreaming” and ending with the amazing “tin soldier”. It was beyond great to hear. People were dancing crazily. Antique moves from back in the day. Led by the women first, as always.
A short break and they came back fro the Who set. A man with a shaved head and quite ordinary suit stood in front of me. As the chords to “substitute” rang out he began to move violently all by himself in the crowd. (The Whos music talks to men) .Making windmill guitar arm moves and riding the cymbals and clapping in a flamenco style. Stuff as hell. Not drinking at all. Song by song he first removed his coat, then tie, then shirt and ended the gig in a drenched old t shirt. The band played superbly, all the dynamics, harmonies, solos , key changes and other weirdly Who-specific arrangements. “I can see for miles”, “I’m a boy” “pictures of Lily” ,”magic bus”, “see me –feel me”. Stu Thomas added backing vocals, and percussion and trumpet and then sang lead for “Pinball Wizard”. People were absolutely loving it. Mick pealing sang “My Generation” (complete with arpeggiated bass solo from Bill McDonald), then they played a trio of amazing hard rock lessons in dynamics and arranged, delayed and suspended and released power. “Behind Blue Eyes”, “Baba O’Riley” (with the long synth introduction and violin solo by James Black) and an amazing “won’t get fooled again”. People know every note of these songs and Bill sang the hell out of them and made all those licks on the guitar totally happen. Nailed it all. Joy! “Won’t Get Fooled again” is so full of weird dynamic changes and vamps on a single chord. A song written and recorded by a band in their own world and at its very peak. The edge of their world. It was so exciting to hear. Within these songs you heard all sorts of other musics by people like the Rasperries and Big Star who totally tripped out on the 60s mod style.
Like a recital of music in the classical world, played by modern players who were still close to it. Outstanding experience.