VANDA AND YOUNG 1965-1983

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Evie (H Vanda/G Young) and Guitar Band (H Vanda/G Young) and Hard Road (H Vanda/G Young) – Stevie Wright 1974

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Stephen Carlton Wright was born on December 20, 1947 in Leeds (England), his family emigrated to Australia via the assisted passage scheme in 1957 and initially settled in Melbourne, before relocating to Sydney in 1960.The family settled in the suburb of Villawood near the Villawood Migrant Hostel, a location that would become the epicentre of the creative forces that would shape the formation of the Easybeats. His parents George and Dorothy settled into life in their new country and young Stevie was enrolled at Sefton High School, where two of his fellow students – Fay Walker and George Young – would ultimately feature prominently in his life, Fay as his partner and carer later in life, and George as his bandmate with the Easybeats. Below – Stevie’s parents George and Dorothy Wright.

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Stevie was an indifferent student who was more interested in rock and roll, he fronted two local bands, The Outlaws and Chris Langdon and The Langdells, who regularly performed at Suzie Wong’s Cafe/Disco. They performed a mix of Shadows and surf rock covers, until their friends the Bee Gees introduced them to the music of the Beatles, thereafter they became a beat band. Below- Easybeats L-R – Gordon Fleet, Dick Diamonde, Stevie Wright, Harry Vanda, George Young.

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History records that the fledgling group who would gather in the laundry at the Villawood Migrant Hostel to practice would become the chart-topping Easybeats, with Stevie Wright as their front man and in partnership with George Young, one of their principal songwriters. By 1969 the group had disbanded, Stevie was only 21, the teen adulation and chart-topping days of his youth were over and he would cycle through a number of bands including Rachette, Likefun, Black Tank, and even briefly with the comedy act Aunty Jack, in search of career direction and a fulfilling musical partnership. Below L-R Stevie Wright and Trevor White in a performance of JCS.

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But it was not until he landed the cameo role of Simon Zealotes in the Sydney production of Jesus Christ superstar in 1972, that he found his niche. Stevie’s dynamic, show-stopping turn drew critical praise, and after two years in the role his career was resurrected, and he reunited with his old bandmates Vanda and Young. He would marry his teenage sweetheart Gail Baxter in 1972 and they would have a son Nicholas four months later, but the couple would separate after several years due to Stevie’s drug addiction, and later in life Fay Walker would become his soulmate and carer, until he passed away. Below Stevie and Gail Baxter

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The musical rebirth of Stevie Wright post-Easybeats would be his first solo album, Hard Road, jointly written and produced by the three former bandmates, Vanda, Young and Wright and supported by the Alberts Music inhouse team of A&R manager Chris Gilbey, renowned engineer Bruce Brown, with the overarching guidance and control of the avuncular Ted Albert. The album was bristling with potential hits, classic Vanda and Young songs like the autobiographical Hard Road, Didn’t I Take You Higher, and the epic odyssey of love and life in three parts Evie, which were well complemented by Stevie Wright’s songs Movin’ On Up, Commando Line, Life Gets Better, and Dancing In the Limelight.

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But it would be the three-part epic Evie, that became the stand-out track on Wright’s comeback album, using a song title inspired by George and Sandra Young’s little girl Yvette, better known as Evie.

The studio line-up was an extension of the Marcus Hook Roll Band line-up – George Young on bass, Harry Vanda, and Malcolm Young on guitars, John Proud on drums and Warren Morgan on piano.  Not surprisingly Evie began life as three separate songs but during rehearsals the emotional arc and complementary narrative of the songs became obvious, the only problem would be how to market a single that would eventually run for eleven minutes! 

The suite comprises Part 1 Evie (Let Your Hair Hang Down) which was an empassioned rocker evocative of the Easybeats Good Times, focused on love and lust and gave fair warning of the guitar-driven hard rock that was to be expected from Vanda and Young via George’s siblings AC/DC in the future.

“I got some money in my pocket/ I got my car keys in my hand/ I got myself a couple of tickets/ To see a rock and rolling band…”

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Part 2 Evie was a sensitive piano and string-driven ballad charting the euphoric good times of the relationship, while Part 3 Evie (I’m Losing You), laments the breakdown of the relationship with a gritty, bluesy, finale to complete the emotional rollercoaster of a ride thaEvie takes the listener on. The running time of this epic would have made it an unlikely contender for charts success had Vanda and Young not decided to split the song across the two sides of a single, with the irresistible full-frontal power rock of Evie Part 1 on the A side.  

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There was a moving connectivity, and obvious synergy, about all three parts of Evie, which made it a truly absorbing musical odyssey. Malcolm Young and Harry traded impressive lead guitar solos and George Young’s bass guitar was a legendary contribution to the rhythm section. Such is the craft and experience that Vanda and Young brought to this composition, and the sensitivity and control that Wright delivered vocally, that Evie is equally engaging as an 11- minute teenage rock opera with its three connected parts, or quite separately as a trilogy of great songs, each with their own emotional arc, lyrical narrative, four-on-the-floor rock and roll, and glorious musical arrangements. The song and the album from which it was lifted, Hard Road, restored the former Easybeats front man to chart prominence.

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At a live 2SM Rocktober Concert of the Decade staged on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House in 1979, Stevie delivered a trademark incendiary performance of this song to one hundred thousand adoring fans, backed by members of Sherbet – Garth Porter (keyboards), Alan Sandow (drums) and Tony Mitchell (bass), La De Da guitarist Rockwell T. James (aka Ronnie Peel) with exemplary harmony vocal backing by Chrissie and Lyndsay Hammond (Cheetah). Ten years after the Easybeats had folded, Stevie Wright was still the star of this show, which included a veritable Who’s Who of 1970’s Oz Rock – Russell Morris, Jim Keays, Doug Parkinson, Hush, Marcia Hines, Max Merritt, Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, Split Enz, Richard Clapton, Skyhooks, Jon English, and Sherbet.

Stunning location, the song was a Vanda and Young magnum opus, great backup band, Stevie Wright the star of the show, but still fighting his inner demons.

Stevie delivered what would be a farewell performance of amazing energy, vocal dexterity and control, he appeared lean and fit in his faded denims and white shirt, the glowing, clean-shaven face of the teenage star had been replaced by a neatly-trimmed full- face beard, he was now a seasoned veteran, and his solo career prospects seemed bright, but what most people didn’t know was that Stevie had just completed a course of rehab at Odyssey House, and his struggle to be free of a heroin addiction, was still a battle yet to be won. 

Evie was the only eleven minute- plus single to reach #1 anywhere in the world at the time, it charted for 26 weeks, and was the #3 biggest-selling record of the year. The album Hard Road was also a big hit, climbing to #2 in June, the old firm of Vanda, Young and Wright were back in business, and they set to work on Stevie’s follow up album, Black-Eyed Bruiser.

Solo Stevie Wright was once again on the cusp of greatness, Evie had been a huge hit, and had been covered by Suzie Quatro, while the song Hard Road would also covered by Rod Stewart on his Smiler album. His new songs were a tour de force of Vanda/Young compositions, and Stevie’s vocal dynamics had re-captured the energy and flair of his Easybeats period. But Stevie’s drug dealers were circling, and his heroin habit, acquired during his stint with JCS, was beginning to detract from his live performances, as well as the promotion of his second solo album.

Countdown 1975, Stevie looks emaciated in a very unflattering orange jumpsuit.

Black-Eyed Bruiser would include the song Guitar Band, which was released in advance of the album, and featured a great lead guitar break by Harry Vanda, and gritty vocals from Stevie, this song would echo several years later in AC/DC’s Rock and Roll Singer, a track on their High Voltage album. Guitar Band climbed to #13 nationally and the album limped to #61, marking a sad farewell to the charts from one of the great front men of the past decade. Despite the best efforts of his former bandmates Vanda and Young, and his manager Michael Chugg, Wright was in the grip of a serious heroin addiction, and he would never take another record into the charts.

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The contribution that Stevie Wright had made to Australian rock and pop cannot be under-estimated; with George Young he wrote five of the first six hit records for the Easybeats between 1965-66 when “Easyfever” was rampant- She’s So Fine, Women (Make You Feel All Right), Come and See Her, I’ll Make You Happy, Sorry, as well as Step Back for Johnny Young and Kompany – three #1 hits and three other top ten songs . He was only nineteen and he had already written six hit songs; his output was prodigious, he fronted the best band in the country and they were focused on international success, he would sing lead vocals on Friday On My Mind, the best Australian composition ever, as judged by APRA in 2001.

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When the Easybeats disbanded in 1969, Stevie was only 21, for a time he went back to work in a sheet metal factory, by the age of 24 he was a heroin addict, in 1976 after an overdose Wright submitted himself to rehab treatment at the William Booth Institute (Syd) which involved a course of methadone treatment to which he became addicted. In desperation he put himself in the hands of notorious Sydney quack Dr. Harry Bailey (above) and others at the Chelmsford Private Hospital (Syd, below)), who had concocted a ludicrous course of treatment known as “deep sleep therapy. This quackery combined tranquilising patients into a deep coma and then exposing them to repeated sessions of electro-convulsive shock treatment, often administered without the patient’s permission or knowledge, and over long periods of time.

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After two weeks at Chelmsford Stevie Wright’s brain was so badly damaged by fourteen shock treatments that he would be unable to write songs for the next ten years, and his drug dependency remained a life long struggle. Other Chelmsford patients included Toni Lamond, half- sister of Helen Reddy, who sought treatment for addiction to prescription medication, glam rocker William Shakespeare who was suffering from alcohol addiction and clinical depression, and aspiring actor Barry Hart, who was depressed after undergoing botched cosmetic surgery. All were adversely affected mentally by the treatment, but Wright, Lamond, Shakespeare and Hart were fortunate to survive at the hands of Bailey and his associates , as twenty-seven of their patients actually died as a result of “deep sleep treatment”, now better known as “permanent sleep treatment,” and a similar number of former patients committed suicide. Below- A protest by former patients in the 1990’s.

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A thoroughly discredited Bailey was facing committal proceedings for the death of patient Miriam Podio in 1977, goal time and disbarment were looming, when he committed suicide in 1985, but his damaged patients who survived Chelmsford, would remain in the grip of addiction for the rest of their lives, and were frequently so mentally damaged, that it was impossible for them to pursue their former careers.

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When Stevie did finally shake the drugs, he replaced them with alcohol, drinking a bottle, sometimes two, of Southern Comfort a day. He developed Korsakoff’s syndrome, a brain disorder associated with alcohol abuse, and his health rapidly declined. In 1984, at the age of 36,  he was found in a pub toilet choking on his own vomit, he checked himself out of the Westmount Rehabilitation Centre and was arrested soon after for breaking into a home in a drug and alcohol-induced stupor, he tried to enter his own third floor flat by climbing through the window and fell and permanently damaged an ankle, and he would need to use a wheelchair later in life. By the early 90’s Stevie was existing on a Disability Pension and living in caravan parks and rental accommodation, the bright-eyed, luminous, impish Easybeats front man had become a broken and bloated personification of the fallen junkie pop star. But most people will prefer to remember him fondly as a pint-sized ball of kinetic energy, a backflipping, foot-stomping, knee-trembling, streak of pure electricity, who showed Australian kids what it meant to be a rock star. Below- Stevie with his partner/carer Fay Walker.

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He reappeared in 2002 as part of the sold-out Long Way To the Top baby boomer nostalgia series of concerts, his performance of Evie each night was soulful and Stevie remained emotionally invested in this classic Vanda and Young song, Stevie Wright would sadly pass away in December 2015, it had been a hard road, he was only sixty-eight. Below – Stevie’s son Nick at his father’s funeral.

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