Poison Ivy (J Leiber/M Stoller) – Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs 1964
The Thorpe family migrated to Brisbane from Manchester when Billy was nine, and as a talented yodeler he got early exposure on local TV shows under the stage name Little Rock Allen. At age 17 he relocated to Sydney and joined surf rock band the Vibratones, who already had one surf instrumental record to their credit – Smoke and Stack. As the band were already contracted to the local Festival Records, a subsidiary of Linda Lee Records, Billy Thorpe moved quickly to usurp incumbent frontman Johnny Noble, re-named the band Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, and the group were now poised to lead the mod rock transformation of the local music scene.
Vocal harmonies were critical to the new beat music genre, the lead singer and guitarists all had to front the microphone and sing in harmony, it became imperative for bands to recruit such capable front men as Billy Thorpe, Ray Brown Jim Keays, Glen Shorrock and Stevie Wright if they were to succeed.
Poison Ivy was a breakthrough #3 hit for the band, it was a beat cover of the 1959 Lieber and Stoller hit for the Coasters (#7 in the US) and was influenced by a Rolling Stones EP version of the same song that guitarist Tony Barber had heard.
The original version of the song traded on an ebullient chorus and a lead vocal melisma on the word “ivy,’ to this the Aztecs added the thundering rhythm section of John Watson (bass) and Col Baigent (drums) and the intimidating guitar riffs of Vince Melouney (lead) and Tony Barber (rhythm).
Melouney and Watson played distinctive Burns Bison guitars with inward curved body horns and batwing headstocks, as they moved to the beat behind the suited and well-booted, boyishly good -looking Billy Thorpe up front.
The Aztecs would successfully trade on the engaging Billy Thorpe vibrato, as well as a dynamic stage act, with Billy’s hands either clutching his lapels or firmly held behind his back, in a move borrowed from Billy J. Kramer, the B-side was Broken Things written by a newcomer who called himself Anthony Arthur Barber.
Billy Thorpe recalls in his memoir Sex and Thugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll that recording songs in 1964 was a primitive affair “The band was recorded live on one track and the vocals were recorded simultaneously on the other, no mixing afterwards…it was a live recording…reverb and tape echo were generated live as the band recorded…Festival’s all-brick bathroom downstairs from the studio had a pretty good natural reverb…the live sound from the studio was sent to a speaker in this toilet, a microphone was placed in the cubicle and that was the reverb! The only problem was the toilet had a habit of flushing itself in the middle of a take and we had to start again!”
Poison Ivy was a smash hit and the 18th biggest-selling record in “64, the Beatles were touring Australia at the time and the Aztecs knocked the Fab Four’s EP Beatles Requests off the top of the charts, and were granted an audience with John, Paul George and Ringo at the Sheraton Hotel in Kings Cross.
The beat music scene exploded across Australia, Billy and the Aztecs became the kings of John Harrigan’s Surf City, a cavernous beer barn at the top of the Cross in Sydney, they would soon be performing in front of 60,000 fans at the Melbourne Myer Music Bowl, and the rest was rock and roll history.
In 2009 co-composer Jerry Lieber confirmed that the “poison ivy” referred to in the song, was a metaphor for a sexually transmitted disease, and on a less profound note, that he was proud to have written the only rock song with the words “calamine lotion” in the lyrics.