Rick Springfield was born Richard Lewis Springthorpe to Norman and Eileen of Merrylands, in Sydney’s western suburbs, on August 23, 1949, his older brother Michael (1946) was his only other sibling. Music was a part of Rick’s life from childhood, his piano-playing father, Norman Springthorpe, a lieutenant-colonel in the Australian Army, also possessed a rich baritone voice, but he never performed professionally. Rick began the typically peripatetic life as part of a soldier’s family, following his father’s military career path via Sydney (NSW), Bandiana and Broadmeadows (Melb), Surrey (UK), and Syndal (Melb). The gypsy lifestyle made it hard for Rick to settle into long-term friendships, and new schools often meant the “new boy in town” was bullied and ostracized, until he physically proved himself to his detractors, like many so-called “army brats”, Rick would grow a hard protective outer shell and adaptive social dexterity, as a result of his rootless upbringing.
The five years that the family lived in England were a formative period for Rick, and he was heavily influenced by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other popular bands of the time. Upon returning to Melbourne in 1962 Rick was enrolled at Ashwood High School until he was “invited” to leave in 1967 at the age of 17, with the onset of puberty Rick struggled with depression, and at this time he unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide. He had played in several teenage garage bands including Icy Blues, Jordy Boys, and Moppa Blues whilst at school, but his professional musical career didn’t begin in earnest until after he left high school, and hooked up with Pete Watson.
Watson was a rock road warrior who had tasted local success in 1965 when as a member of the beat trio MPD Ltd. they took three songs into the top 40, after which he formed Pete Watson’s Rockhouse, a good-time cabaret-style band that delivered a mix of early rock/doo wop and mod rock covers, and invited young Rick to join him, after suggesting he change his name to Springfield. MPD Ltd. below – Pete Watson, Mike Brady, Danny Finlay.
Late in 1968, the band headed off to play to Australian troops in Vietnam (Rick below), where they were surrounded by artillery fire and forced to deal in black market goods to survive. The band didn’t last long after returning to Australia, and in early 1969 Pete Watson fell ill, and sadly passed away after contracting a lung disease in Vietnam, Springfield was now looking for a new band.
After turning down offers from The Avengers and The Valentines, he became a member of Brisbane-based band Wickedy Wak, one of Ivan Dayman’s stable of groups, recording on the Sunshine label, and performing at Dayman’s Cloudland Ballroom in Brisbane.
A Johnny Young psych-pop song, produced by Ian Meldrum, entitled Billie’s Bikie Boys, was recorded by Wickedy Wak but it sank without a trace, however the session bass player on the record, Beeb Birtles, was a member of teen idol band Zoot, who suggested that Rick should “think pink” (their stage costumes were lurid pink jumpsuits) and join his group, which he did. Left to right Daryl Cotton, Rick Brewer, Rick Springfield, Beeb Birtles.
Rick would replace Zoot’s former lead guitarist Roger Hicks, the band had briefly flirted with bubblegum pop and taken 1x2x3x4 into the charts the previous year, but Rick’s arrival as the new guitar supremo, triggered a re-focusing of Zoot, away from bubblegum pop, and the pink jumpsuits.
The pink outfits were ceremonially “burned” on Happening 70, the band collectively bared their bums in a group photo shoot and fleetingly enjoyed a period of popularity on the Sydney gay scene, but more importantly they began to embrace meatier musical styles, which had emerged during the psychedelic era and were evolving, as such heavy metal UK groups as Deep Purple and Black Sabbath stormed the charts.
The Zoot’s live sets had included heavier makeovers of such songs as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City, Neil Diamond’s Shilo, and Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, but it was the beefed-up version of a song that was the finale to their live act, that would become their next single, and their biggest hit.
The concept of re-working a song and giving it a completely different interpretation was not new, New York’s Vanilla Fudge had given the Supremes You Keep Me Hanging On a monumental psychedelic turbo-charged rock treatment in 1967, slowing down the tempo, amping up the volume, blending epic organ flourishes with crashing percussion and thundering guitars, and in so doing revealed the true pathos and emotional angst of the original, and produced a new 60’s rock classic. The Fudge also released a psychedelic version of Eleanor Rigby in 1967 which was a 9 minute organ-drenched remake, different from Zoot’s punchier guitar-driven take on the song three years later. Other Beatles songs had been re-invented before, most notably the angst-ridden version of With A Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker, and the equally soulful treatment of Dear Prudence by Australia’s Doug Parkinson In Focus (below), only a year before.
Eleanor Rigby was essentially a melancholy Paul McCartney piano ballad, on the 1966 Revolver album, with an eerie hymnal quality, which endeared it to Beatle fans. George Martin had developed a string arrangement comprising violins, violas and cellos that had been inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s score for the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho, it reflected a peak of musical creativity for the Beatles and Rolling Stone magazine included the song in the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Zoot were however about to transform this song in a way not imagined by McCartney, they literally tore down the veil of sensitive introspection the Beatles had laid over Eleanor Rigby, completely re-working the melody whilst retaining the original lyrics. The thunderous opening guitar riff by Springfield and the pounding rhythm section of Rick Brewer (drums) and Beeb Birtles (bass), exposed the raw emotion of a song that had previously laid dormant, and with Daryl Cotton’s impressive lead vocals, delivered an amped-up cover version that was a far cry from the bubblegum pop of Zoot’s previous recordings.
Years later Springfield would recall that he had tried for a Jimi Hendrix-style guitar treatment, complete with live feedback and uncontrolled ambient noise, which he thought sounded “quite proto-punk”. At this time Springfield was having a raging affair with singer Alison Durbin (below), wife of Zoot’s record producer Howard Gable, they were inseparable, and Rick toured New Zealand with Alison on her homecoming tour of the country. Springfield said of their passionate affair in his memoirs Late, Late at Night (2010) “she was an insatiable and loving tutor, and I was her eager apprentice, …”, they would part in 1971 when he departed for the USA to pursue his solo career, and he would dedicate the song Allyson to her on his 1983 album Living In Oz. “Talk about life, imitating art/ Well I was sure that I heard the director yell/ Take it from the start/ And I could feel my body crushing yours/ Camera dollied into place/ Your husband’s in the front row, I couldn’t look him in the face”
Eleanor Rigby was as impressive as it was unexpected and provided Zoot with their only top 5 hit, and became the #10th biggest-selling record of 1971, as it was released in December 1970 after the pay-for-play dispute had been resolved between Australian radio stations and record companies.(See the 4TR blog The Great Australian Record Ban July 23-25, 2019)
Zoot proved to be a useful stepping stone – Rick Springfield went onto solo success in the US throughout the 1980’s, bassist Beeb Birtles followed him there in 1976 as a member of The Little River Band, vocalist Daryl Cotton recorded Stateside with Cotton, Lloyd and Christian, and drummer Rick Brewer was at #1 in Australia in 1977 as a member of the Ferrets with Don’t Fall In Love.