Harry Vanda and George Young were one of the most successful songwriting and production teams in the history of Australian popular music. While the Bee Gees certainly had more individual chart success, and their record sales exceeded an astounding 200 million, at the local level Harry and George were the go-to gurus at Alberts Music throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, composing hit songs for such diverse artists as the Easybeats, Ted Mulrey, Alison McCallum, William Shakespeare, Stevie Wright, Cheetah, Flash and the Pan, The Valentines, The Angels, Ray Burgess and many others.
They were also the steady hands that produced the first six AC/DC albums and returned later in that band’s career to produce several more albums and cement the reputation of AC/DC as one of the greatest rock bands in the world. George passed away in October 2017 followed one month later by his younger brother Malcolm who had succumbed to dementia.
The three songs profiled here represent the skill and musical range of the Youngs, from the anthemic riff-rocking of AC/DC’s High Voltage, to the glam rock of William Shakespeare, and finally the international earworm of a hit song by John Paul Young, that is Love is in the Air
High Voltage (M Young/A Young/B Scott) – AC/DC 1975
Brothers Angus and Malcolm Young formed AC/DC in 1973, their sister Margaret suggested the band’s name, after noting an electrical product warning, on the family’s sewing machine. Their older brother George, former Easybeats guitarist, was their mentor and a creative force in their evolution, they were a Scottish migrant family and clannish in their belief that AC/DC would become a world force in rock music.
George took his young brothers under his wing, he was determined that his siblings would not repeat the mistakes that had prevented the Easybeats from realizing their full potential.
The band had limited success with their debut single Can I Sit Next to You, Girl and decided to replace the incumbent front man Dave Evans, a Gary Glitter/Brian Connolly (Sweet)-style glam rocker.
The sacking off front- man Dave Evans was brutal, Malcolm and Angus had already sacked two bass players, two drummers and two managers before that, and the current bass player (Rob Bailey) and drummer (Peter Clack) would both get their marching orders soon after.
In 1974 there was no obvious replacement for Dave Evans when the Youngs scanned the roster of available talent at Alberts. William Shakespeare had a good falsetto voice but a cringeworthy image, John Paul Young was a pop balladeer without the necessary grit and mongrel in his voice, Stevie Wright was enjoying a peak in his solo career and did not want to join a band with George’s little brothers, and then there was former Valentines/Fraternity front man, Ronald Belford “Bon” Scott.
The long-haired hippie from the Adelaide Hills did not wear shoes, favored bib and brace overalls, consumed industrial quantities of bourbon and weed daily, was 28 years old and still recovering from a near-fatal motorcycle crash, and he hadn’t had a hit with anyone for five years.
Bon was also a Scot, a tattooed, hard-living, raspy-voiced, gap-toothed, mischevious, magnetic, profane front-man, half cock-rock shenanigans, and half British music- hall comic burlesque, leeringly suggestive and endearingly cheeky at the same time, according to Mal and Angus, he was perfect for the job, and George agreed, the clan was now complete.
Scott’s idol was Little Richard and he brought a similar flamboyance and theatricality to the group, his chemistry with the Young brothers was instantaneous, despite early reservations about the age gap, Bon was 28 and Mal and Angus were 21 and 19 respectively.
Where Bon was gregarious, trusting and generally good-humored, the Young brothers were suspicious, tight-lipped, combative, and dour, the trio represented the very essence of the Yin and Yang of the human dynamic in a rock band, and together they were magnificent, as long no one got offside with Angus or particularly Malcolm.
Baby Please Don’t Go, which had been a hit for Van Morrison’s Them as the B-side of their seminal R&B hit Gloria in the 60’s was the band’s next single and it became their first top 20 hit in March 1975. The Young brothers and Bon Scott teamed with a rhythm section of Rob Bailey (bass) and Peter Clack (drums), in a session produced by George Young, and his former Easybeats bandmate, Harry Vanda.
The band was still evolving and the more recognizable rhythm section of Mark Evans (bass) and Phil Rudd (drums) had yet to form, High Voltage was released in July ’75 with Peter Currenti on drums joined by the Youngs, Scott and Bailey with bass guitar support from older brother George.
High Voltage became their first top ten hit, the sound was not yet the fully-formed riff rocking, anthemic assault of future releases but the template was cast – the sing-along chorus, the call and response chant of “high” in the bridge at live performances and the antics of schoolboy-clad Angus – he wore the Ashfield High School uniform – improvising manically whilst Bon Scott shamelessly leered into the cameras at their Countdown performances – would all become standard AC/DC burlesque.
It was Chris Gilbey, Albert’s A&R promotions manager, who had added the lightning flash to the AC/DC logo, and also conceived the album title High Voltage, if a smart-arse asked Bon Scott if he was the AC or the DC in the name, the Captain Sparrow of Rock would reply that he was neither, because he was the streak of lightning in the middle.
High Voltage, Powerage, Flick of the Switch, Live Wire, Heatseeker, TNT and Thunderstruck were all songs that would exemplify the AC/DC fascination with the metaphorical link between electric power and horizontal folk dancing, Harry Vanda once observed that the best way to get a performance out of Angus was to “get a couple of chicks in the studio”.
Bon Scott’s bawdy lyrics certainly caused Ted Albert conniptions, and he was particularly offended by the lyrical content of several early songs, She’s Got the Jack and Big Balls, but ultimately both were recorded without change or censorship by the avuncular Ted.
Initially they were scorned in the USA and panned by Rolling Stone magazine, the self-appointed arbiters of hard rock credibility, whose critique of the High Voltage album opined “the genre has unquestionably hit its all-time low”. But without deviating too much from the formula set with High Voltage, AC/DC went on to sell over 200 million albums and now sit comfortably inside the list of the top ten biggest-selling rock acts of all time.
Can’t Stop Myself from Loving You (H Vanda/G Young) and My Little Angel (H Vanda/G Young) – William Shakespeare 1974
The glam rock period produced some genuine curiosities, internationally Gary Glitter proved to be more than just curious, but the local scene could boast Skyhooks, Supernaut, and Johnny Cave (real name John Stanley Cave), a Sydney car detailer who became Johnny Cabe, and who at George Young’s suggestion, ultimately adopted the sobriquet of the world’s greatest literary figure, William Shakespeare. Why not, the names Gary Glitter, Alvin Stardust, Elton John, and Barry Blue had already been taken, and Johnny’s alternative suggestions had included the less catchy Chico Runt and Erx McGlerx
Johnny was convinced that he was the pop reincarnation of the Bard, as he postulated in the Real Thing by Toby Cresswell and Martin Fabinyi (1999) – “What we’re getting at is if Shakespeare the poet had been alive today in the rock & roll age, those are the sort of things he would have done…George and Harry write my stuff at the moment, that’s because I’ve been pretty busy with the costumes, and all, and haven’t got around to writing anything yet. But I thought up the name William Shakespeare and built up the character…” so far, all’s well that ends well as Will might have said, although history tells us that there is nothing more dangerous than an ego in search of talent.
The George and Harry to whom Johnny referred were Alberts Music songwriting royalty Vanda and Young, who had written Can’t Stop Myself from Loving You, and recorded the backing track for another singer who lacked the necessary vocal range, but Johnny’s falsetto was deemed to be adequate for the song.
The diminutive pop star was subsequently taken down to Kings Cross to be kitted out by a shop which specialized in dressing drag queens. They dressed him up in a gaudy green suede medieval outfit replete with puffy sleeves, fake costume jewelry, platform boots and all topped off with a damson-hued bouffant as he teetered around the Countdown set much to the adulation of his army of mostly pre-pubescent female fans.
This song was a substantial hit at #2 in July 1974, occupied the charts for 32 weeks, and was covered in the UK by one Billy Shake, gettit William/Billy…, Tina Charles also issued a cover version. An album entitled Can’t Stop Myself from Loving You comprising nearly all Vanda/Young compositions climbed to #27 in November 1974 and then Alberts released his biggest hit in time for Christmas. My Little Angel was another Vanda /Young composition with a “jingle bells’ accompaniment and seasonal setting, it told the story of a little girl who comes home from school upset because someone has told her that angels do not exist, must have been my old high school.
It was a smash hit, went straight to #1 and stayed on the charts for 23 weeks, it has been voted one of the daggiest songs written in Australia, and often features on “Worst Of” and “Most Embarrassing” compilations, but it gave Shakespeare his second consecutive hit song.
But what had been Johnny’s Midsummer Night’s Dream of success, was merely the calm before The Tempest that would engulf him, when an incident, that initially appeared to be Much Ado About Nothing, became a Comedy of Errors; when the pop star was found guilty of having carnal knowledge of one of the members of his fan club, and placed on probation for two years.
In a classic case of Love’s Labor Lost his next two singles stiffed, something about which William/Johnny could relate.
Ultimately alcoholism and mental illness took its toll on Shakespeare’s personal life and he passed away suddenly in 2010.
Love Is in The Air (H Vanda/G Young) – John Paul Young 1978
The diminutive JPY was one of the most popular stars of the 1970’s via his regular Countdown appearances and a string of sprightly and extremely catchy pop hits crafted by the venerable team of Vanda and Young. These hits included Yesterday’s Hero, I Hate the Music, Standing In The Rain and his biggest hit Love Is In The Air.
Vanda and Young had noted the success of their previous hit Standing in The Rain in Europe, and were aiming for something similar here, fusing their familiar drum loop with the popular Euro disco sound and a catchy ascending chord progression, with some Georgio Moroder -inspired electronic clicks and buzzes thrown in.
Lyrically the song’s development is fascinating as described by John Tait in his book “Vanda and Young- Inside Australia’s Hit Factory”- “Vanda and Young had been toying with a verse starting with “Love is in the air, everywhere I look around…” but they needed a “musical staircase that lifted the song up to the chorus … when they got it to the studio, the full chorus had not actually been completely written, so they told John to sing “whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa”. It sounded so good that it remained that way.” A similar magic moment had happened during the recording of The Real Thing by Russell Morris when he had temporarily dropped some “ooh mow ma mow mows” in as filler until a suitable guitar riff could be added, but producer Meldrum had the nous to realize that the improvisation was unique, and he left it in. Phil Spector did likewise with the Righteous Brothers on their classic hit You‘ve Lost that Loving Feeling when he got Bill Medley to throw in some bass baritone whoa, whoa, whoas, just before Bobby Hatfield took that song up a notch with his plaintive tenor. John Farnham would similarly replicate the whoa whoa whoas in his classic comeback hit, You’re the Voice.
The opening lines to the song are delivered so casually, it’s almost as if you have just walked into someone else’s conversation and they are sharing an attitude about how they feel with you, it is complicit in an unusual way, and it connected with fans all over the world who found it completely accessible and unforgettable.
Mark Opitz worked with Vanda and Young on the record, but it was Ted Albert who ultimately nominated the final tape mix.
The song was a huge international hit, charted #1 in South Africa and Asia, top 10 in Australia, Europe, the UK and #7 in the USA and was revived as a top 10 hit again in 1992, when included on the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s acclaimed film Strictly Ballroom.
Love Is in The Air was the 23rd biggest-selling record locally in 1978 and won the APRA Award for Most Performed Song Overseas in both 1992 and 2004, a nine -minute version of the song was featured in the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.John Paul Young was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2009.