Flash and the Pan were the alter-egos of Harry Vanda and George Young; the former Easybeats guitarists had established a creative partnership over many years, and after mentoring George’s younger brothers Malcolm and Angus Young to global hard rock success as AC/DC, they were writing hits for other artists and enjoying commercial success. Without any pressure to make hit records for themselves, they unleashed their creative instincts, began to explore left-field musical pathways, and quixotically found even more commercial success.
Upon their return to Sydney in 1973 after four years as jobbing songwriters-for-hire in London , they became a songwriting and production juggernaut at Alberts Music, delivering hit songs for a whole stable of artists including Stevie Wright, John Paul Young, AC/DC, Alison McCallum, William Shakespeatre, Cheetah, Rose Tattoo, The Valentines, The Angels, Ted Mulry, Pyramid, Ray Burgess, and others.
Harry and George would become the archetypal session group, who recorded songs that were quirky, surprising, funny, and occasionally found a local and international audience, they never intended to perform live, but did make some excellent music videos, they actually craved anonymity, but produced six albums and three top ten hit songs in eight years, they were enigmatic, gloriously unfashionable, and surprisingly successful.
Positioned in front of their 16-track Alberts recording inner sanctum at Boomerang House, King St. (Syd), they used their spare time, and the seemingly endless indulgence of their employer Ted Albert, to create pop oddities, they called themselves Flash and the Pan, because they believed that any success would be as ephemeral as “a flash in a pan”, with Flash a crazed poet fronting Pan the band. Strangely for recording artists they wanted to preserve their anonymity, their record covers were mostly abstract modern artwork, and any publicity photos of the duo were usually distorted or blurred.
They emerged as a new-wave studio group who created a kind of post-disco, pre-house percussive dance music, which resonated in overseas markets particularly throughout Europe, in such countries as Germany, Holland, France, England, Spain, and Sweden. But their records were never supported by Flash and the Pan tours, so limiting the extent of their commercial success, while nevertheless still developing a cult status and garnering respectable sales for no less than six studio albums –Flash and the Pan (’78), Lights in the Night (’80), Headlines (’82), Early Morning Wake Up Call (’84), Nights in France (’87) Burning Up the Night (’92).
They released their first original self-produced single in 1976, Hey St. Peter was a song inspired by a random comment made to George Young by a hotel doorman in New York, when commenting on the weather, the African-American said “Oh well, man, when my time comes, I’m going to St. Peter. You can’t send me to hell, I have done my time in hell, in New York.”
With its accessible yet inventive Omni synthesizer -based pop rock sound, and an emphasis on George’s spoken-word vocals and Harry’s shouted chorus, it was an early example of the rap genre, and when blended with highly atmospheric keyboards, it surprised and delighted fans. Frequent airing of the promo video on Countdown helped lift the song to a surprise #3 hit in Australia in November ’76, and it was also a top ten hit in the Netherlands and Belgium. This video set the standard for quirkiness and vaudeville for Flash and the Pan, shot in Sydney at the lower end of Macquarie St, Moore Steps and Circular Quay, it featured St Peter with a Peters Ice Cream cart, George dressed like little brother Angus in shorts and cap wielding a guitar, and as a gangster in white suit, Harry “plays” violin and bass, and George smokes a cigar and wears cricket pads – they really ransacked the dress-up box for this one.
The follow up eight months later in July 1978, was Down Among the Dead Men, which was thematically based on the sinking of the Titanic, while playing fast and loose with the actual facts. Musically the song was based on a late 1960’s Easybeats song, The Shame Just Drained, that had had been written by George, whose riff was perfect for the new song they were building in the studio. The promo video was shot in the ABC Studios at Gore Hill (Syd) and featured the duo in souwesters and raincoats battling the storm in a barely-concealed mock-up set, they also appeared as pirates, along with the hapless Titanic Captain Smith with his bedside reading, “Everything You Wanted to Know About Fog and Ice and Where Afraid to Ask.” The boys barely suppressed smirks throughout the clip and it was more humorous slapstick than dramatic disaster epic.
Dead Men … charted top 5 in August ’78 locally, and top 50 in the UK, they would issue their eponymous debut album in late 1978 which stiffed in Australia but hit #14 in Sweden, #80 in the US, and is generally regarded as an under-rated classic.
In 1982 Vanda and Young decided to go round once again with a third single, Waiting for A Train, which was a typical Flash and the Pan recording, George Young delivered essentially spoken word lyrics which were cryptic and underscored by a melody which was lilting and simultaneously upbeat and melancholic. Stevie Wright also contributed vocals and it has been suggested that the subtext to this song was Wright’s drug dependence and his battle with heroin addiction. The song is similar in structure and mood to an earlier V&Y song Standing in the Rain, it was featured in Guy Ritchie’s 2008 London gangster movie Rock’n’Rolla, and in the 2016 movie Sing Street, and was the ninth single lifted from their Headlines album.
The sparse but insistent groove and electronica of the recording with echoes of Krautrock; blended synth-guitars and organ with a Europop dance beat, and it was lapped up by the Brits who sent it all the way to #7 there, and it charted top thirty in both Belgium and the Netherlands, but was essentially ignored in Australia, where it stalled at #66.
The promo clip was typically offbeat and haunting with George sitting on a railway platform waiting for a train as he sings to camera and people pass by- a busker, a young dancing couple, a mother and child, a signalman in cloth cap, a melancholy woman/mannequin, Mahatma Gandhi, and others who all form a conga line down the platform at the outro – the passing parade of life.
Vanda and Young were one of the original inductees into the ARIA Hall of fame in 1988, George Young sadly passed away in 2017.