Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Two Young Brothers Named George

Angus, Malcolm, and George 

Why the Easybeats Were No Flash in the Pan, and How AC/DC Sprung Up from Grapefruit Seeds

Pretty much everyone who knows anything about popular music knows that the Young brothers knew how to make potent, visceral, ballsy rock n’ roll. For decades Malcolm and Angus Young made feet stomp and eardrums bleed as the guiding forces of AC/DC. What fewer people know, particularly those outside of their home country of Australia, is that the band might not have existed if it were not for the influence and guidance of their older brothers George and… George.

You read that right. George and George.

George Young was a little bit more than six years older than Malcolm, and was a teenager when the Young clan emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1963, just one of many families seeking a fresh start and warmer climate in Australia. Adjusting to life in a new country, in which new immigrants usually lived in spartan “migrant hostels” consisting of barracks made of corrugated iron (it’s interesting to note that the Villawood Migrant Hostel in which the Youngs first stayed now functions as the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre), his social life was mostly based on connecting musically with other new arrivals, mostly kids from Great Britain and the Netherlands.

The Easybeats. George Young at right.
Thus The Easybeats were born.

To most Americans, The Easybeats may be a one hit wonder, but even so, what a hit it was. “Friday On My Mind,” is indisputably one of the great pop-rock songs of mid-sixties beat music. In their home country, though, they were beyond a sensation. They ruled the charts and ignited such a frenzy among the youth down under that “Easy Fever” became the Australian counterpart of “Beatlemania.” The band also experienced significant success in England and Europe after the band relocated to London in 1966.

It was there that George Young reconnected with his brother George.

George Alexander was born Alexander Young in 1939 and was already a working musician, playing sax with a band called the Bobby Patrick Big Six, when the rest of his family emigrated. In 1962, like several other British bands at that time, they traveled to Hamburg to do a residency at the Star Club. It was around that time that they played gigs backing English singer Tony Sheridan. Now does this career trajectory sound familiar? Then it should come as no surprise that the Bobby Patrick Big Six would cross paths with another band that was doing the exact same thing (I’m talking about The Beatles, just in case you hadn’t figured that out).

So at some point during this time, Alexander Young took on the stage name of George Alexander. Since both Georges have since passed on, one can only speculate as to why. It’s not like his name was some of kind of tongue twister or was (gasp!) too ethnic.  What is known is that is when the Young family emigrated and Alex stayed behind to pursue his musical career, it didn’t sit well with the rest of the clan. Whether it was out of insolence or hurt feelings, supposedly Alex told his family that they were a “bunch of mugs” for leaving. Apparently, that’s a serious insult to Scottish people. In any event, Alex would have no communication with his family for several years.

Alexander Young (bottom left), with his band, Grapefruit,
as rock royalty hovers over
Did he ditch his last name in response to that breach? It’s a thought but, again, mere speculation. It is interesting that he would take as his new first name that of his younger brother with whom he clearly had a musical affinity. Whatever the reasons, voila, presto, there you have it: The two Georges.

And when the Beatles launched Apple Publishing in 1967, one of the first outside artists signed was George Alexander. Lennon and McCartney were so taken with Alex’s songwriting that Apple basically assembled a band around Alex to showcase him. John  Lennon suggested a name for this new combo, borrowing the title of a conceptual art book of Yoko Ono’s entitled Grapefruit. Miles and years away from the clubs in Hamburg, the Beatles connection was bearing fruit. (Get it? Apples? Grapefruits? Sorry.)

So George and Alex were both riding high in swinging London when they reconnected in 1968. George Young recounted at the time: “Mum used to tell me he was a stubborn sort of fellow and we just didn’t communicate with him… [He] reluctantly agreed to meet me last week and we had a good old booze-up. He’s not such a stubborn bloke after all – although when Mum reads this, she’ll probably go mad at me, too!”

Evidently, Deep Water sank
As it turned out, even though the brothers had no idea at the time, both of their bands had essentially peaked by the time they reunited. Grapefruit’s newly released debut album, Around Grapefruit, was a fine record of sparkling, Technicolor, melodic pop, but it didn’t have quite the success it may have deserved. Their follow-up, 1969’s Deep Water, tried to break free of the Beatles-esque sound of their debut and leaned towards the heavier, bluesier, sound that was becoming popular, but sadly it fared even worse. Evidently the Beatles’ endorsement was both a blessing and a curse.

Meanwhile, George, along with his writing partner, Easybeats’ lead guitarist Harry Vanda, were writing songs for their band that were more and more melodic, thoughtful, and innovative, but they never recaptured the success of “Friday on My Mind.” As their band gradually disintegrated, for all too common reasons (increasing drug use, mental health issues, you name it), Vanda and Young seemingly became too ensconced in writing songs and recording demos to even notice.

By 1970, both brothers were bandless and exiled in London, and found themselves frequently working together. George and Harry Vanda would write songs, Alex would write songs, and they would all record them with a group of musician friends collectively referred to as “The Glasgow Mafia.” These tracks would be released under a variety of different names such as Tramp, Paintbox, and Haffy’s Whiskey Sour. They even put out one last single under the Grapefruit moniker, “Sha-Sha” b/w “Universal Party,” written and sung by Alex and featuring George and Harry Vanda playing just about everything else. Ultimately, though, the working relationship between the brothers would largely end when Harry Vanda and George Young returned to Australia in 1973 to embark on fruitful careers as songwriters and producers, become the most prolific and successful team in Aussie pop. Alex eventually would relocate to Germany and continue writing for other artists.

George Young and Harry Vanda
Though he does not have the same stature in America as in his adoptive home country of Australia, George Young is pretty well known to AC/DC fans and anybody who ever binge-watched a VH1 Behind the Music marathon (way back when they used to do that) for guiding the careers of his kid brothers Malcolm and Angus. Not only would he produce all their early albums (along with Vanda), but also help them hone their sound, all the while helping them steer clear of the more nefarious sides of the music business that George himself had fallen victim to.

Alexander Young, on the other hand, is today a largely unknown figure. Still, he was the first of the family to throw caution to the wind and pursue a career in music, and he was respected and admired by his younger brothers who would later go the same route. With all of this, I don’t think that it’s hyperbolic to say that AC/DC would not have happened without the influence of the elder Youngs. Drummer John  Proud, who worked with both George and Malcolm on numerous projects, put it quite succinctly: “I think Malcolm and Angus were lucky to have brothers like George and Alex.”

Exploring the Georges: Required Listening

The Easybeats

I have to assume that everyone reading this knows the glistening pop-rock glory that is “Friday on My Mind.” Some may even know “Good Times, though mainly from the cover by INXS and Jimmy Barnes that graces the Lost Boys soundtrack. However, for many, it usually stops there, and this is unfortunate as a deeper dive into their catalog will prove to be deeply rewarding. Though they were definitely more of singles band than an album oriented unit, Harry Vanda and George Young wrote ever increasingly sophisticated pop songs after they had hit their commercial peak with “Friday on My Mind.” Singles like the quirky “The Music Goes ‘Round My Head,” the gorgeously melancholic “Land of Make Believe” and lush despair of “Falling Off the Edge of the World” (a song which Lou Reed proclaimed to be “one of the most beautiful records ever made”) show how far they came from their early R&B influenced beat music, and are certainly worth checking out.


The band’s 1968 debut album Around Grapefruit, is jam packed with sparking, paisley pop gems penned by Alexander Young. A personal favorite of mine is “Ain’t It Good,” also released as the B-side of their third single. The album also features a song called “Lullaby.” Intended as a single, the band had recorded another version prior to the album sessions with John Lennon and Paul McCartney producing. However, that original version of the song was never officially released until the 2016 compilation Yesterday’s Sunshine. Evidently a favorite of Lennon’s, a tape of the song was found among his possessions after his death, and for a time was assumed to be a lost Beatles track.

Marcus Hook Roll Band

Marking a unique moment in the story of the Young clan, The Marcus Hook Roll Band was the only project in which Alex, George, Malcolm, and Angus all participated in the studio. Mind you, this is not as profound as it sounds. The so-called band originally was really just members of the “Glasgow Mafia” getting together to record a couple of singles penned by Vanda and Young. The name of the “band” was simply an afterthought suggested by producer Wally Waller (formally of the seminal English psychedelic garage rock outfit, The Pretty Things) . Alex had played sax on one of these initial singles, “Louisiana Lady,” recorded in London in 1972 during Vanda and Young’s post Easybeats exile. Quickly forgotten by the public and band alike, Over a year later, Waller was approached by Capital Records asking that the “band” record an entire LP. Vanda and Young, by now back in Australia, and damned if they’d return to England, put together an entirely new band including George’s younger brother Malcolm, and also asked Angus to tag along, intending to give his kid brothers an idea of what working in the studio was all about. While Angus observed the sessions, and participated in some in-studio jams, it is unlikely that he featured on any finished tracks. So the claim that the Marcus Hook Roll Band featured all four brothers is a bit dubious and misleading. Still, the album and the previous singles are killer, bluesy, swaggering rock n’ roll, and should be listened to on their own merit.

I’m a Rebel

A coveted rarity to AC/DC fans, that band were coaxed into the studio to record brother Alex’s song after a gig in Germany in September of 1976. Supposedly, Alex himself handled the lead vocals, with a drunken Bon Scott backing him up. I say supposedly, because the recording was never released and memories of the recording are hazy. Members of the German heavy metal band, Accept, who recorded the song for their second album, had heard the AC/DC demo, and guitarist Wolf Hoffmann stated that he preferred that demo to his own band’s final version. In spite of the fact that it was never released, some claim to have heard it and if you go to YouTube you can find a recording that purports to the be the one made that night. However, the authenticity is unconfirmed. Jesse Fink, who wrote the book  The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, believes that recording to be authentic, and states that Bon Scott can definitely be heard providing backing vocals to Alex’s lead. I wasn’t so sure, and I actually reached out to John Tait, author of Vanda and Young: Inside Australia’s Hit Factory, the definitive book on the duo, to ask him what he thought, and he stated he had no real reason to doubt it, but I still got the sense that he was somewhat dubious. Take a listen and judge for yourself.

Flash and the Pan

In spite of the duo’s utter disdain for touring and promotion, Harry Vanda and George Young’s new-wave studio project had significant success in Australia, was huge in Europe and, according to a friend of mine, had an inexplicable following in rural Pennsylvania. Flash and the Pan released their first album in 1978. Up to this time, Vanda and Young had spent most of the decade behind the scenes, writing and producing hits for other artists (it was around this time that Vanda and Young would let go of the production reins for AC/DC). Even if they initially tried to preserve their anonymity, recording under a cryptic but self-consciously punny moniker, it was still the first time in a dog’s age that the duo went into the studio to record their own material. A far cry from the earnest, rich, and tuneful songs of latter day Easybeats, Flash and The Pan’s debut album was robotic and cold, yet atmospheric, and eminently danceable. They seemed to eschew melody whenever possible, with the verses to the songs largely being spoken rather than sung, but still the record is packed with deep grooves and killer hooks, with lyrics that were sneering, snarky, and darkly satirical.

Their first album is fucking brilliant and the obvious place to start with this project. It contains their first single “Hey, St. Peter,” a enigmatic ode/condemnation of New York City which was released two years earlier. Could the song’s lyrics be interpreted as a psychic reading of the monumental changes then going on in the New York music scene coming from a couple of dudes on the other side of the planet? Doubtful, but it’s still a good song. “Walking in the Rain” is another highlight, though a cover by the exotic, androgynous pop diva Grace Jones would give the song greater visibility. “California,” the only song on the album not written by Harry and George, postulates the accidental nuking of the American west coast. Brooding, angrily hip, apocalyptic, the whole song is a dark cloud with a Cheshire cat smile. The writing credit went to an “M. James,” but it was just another pseudonym that older brother Alex published songs under (evidently the name of his wife). “I thought that song would be perfect for Flash and the Pan,” mused Harry Vanda, “I really liked Alex. He was very much his own man.”

Get through those and then we’ll talk.

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