Aztecs

The Aztecs were an Australian rock band formed as a Shadows-style instrumental act by guitarist Vince Melouney. When beat music hit, they welcomed singer Billy Thorpe, a rising Sydney star. 

Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs scored multiple 1964–65 hits on Linda Lee and Parlophone, including “Poison Ivy,” a summer ’64 No. 1 that eclipsed The Beatles‘ arrival Down Under. In 1966, Thorpe assembled a second Aztecs lineup and hosted the music program It’s All Happening.

After a fall-back period, Thorpe reformed the Aztecs as a post-psychedelic band with guitarist Lobby Loyde, who features on their 1971 hard-rock release The Hoax Is Over. Between the 1974–76 Aztecs albums More Arse Than Class and Pick Me Up and Play Me Loud, Thorpe launched his solo career with Million Dollar Bill.

Members: Vince Melouney [aka Vince Maloney] (lead guitar, vocals, 1963-65), Val Jones (rhythm guitar, 1963-64), John “Bluey” Watson (bass, 1963-65), Colin Baigent (drums, 1963-65), Billy Thorpe (vocals, guitar, 1964-76, 1977, 1993-95), Tony Barber (guitar, vocals, 1964-65), Col Risby (lead guitar, 1965-67), Mike Downes (rhythm guitar, vocals, 1965-67), Jimmy Taylor (piano, 1965-67), Teddy Toi (bass, 1965-67, 1973-75, 1976, 1977), Johnny Dick (drums, 1965-67, 1968, 1974), Tony Buchanan (saxophone, 1966-67), Mick Liber (guitar, 1968), Paul Wheeler (bass, 1968-73, 1993-95), Jimmy Thompson (drums, 1968-70), Lobby Loyde (guitar, 1968-70), Kevin Murphy (drums, 1970-71), Warren Morgan (piano, vocals, 1970-71, 1973-75, 1976, 1977, 1993-95), Gil Matthews (1971-76, 1977, 1993-95), Bruce Howard (keyboards, 1971-73), Derek Griffiths (lead guitar, 1975-76), John LeVine (keyboards, 1975-76), Billy Kristian (bass, 1975-76)


Background

The Aztecs formed when members of Sydney surf rockers The Sierras joined The Vibratones, a fellow instrumental band that cut one single, “Expressway” (b/w “Man of Mystery”), in 1963 on Leedon, a label co-founded by Australian rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Johnny O’Keefe.

The original Aztecs featured bassist John “Bluey” Watson, drummer Col Baigent, and guitarists Brian Bakewell and Vince Maloney. They linked with the Festival Records subsidiary Linda Lee and cut the January 1964 single “Smoke and Stack,” a tiki-vibrato instrumental backed with Maloney’s “Board Boogie,” an uptempo paradiddle (ala “Wipe Out”).

From the outset, The Aztecs served as the audition backing act for Billy Thorpe (b. March 29, 1946), a singing prodigy who (a decade earlier) landed in Brisbane with his family from Manchester, England. As a child, Thorpe entered talent contests and sang at school dances. He roused audiences with his yodeling and opened local shows by O’Keefe and Jerry Lee Lewis.

In early 1963, Thorpe moved to Sydney and employed The Aztecs for auditions at Surf City, a 5000-seat venue situated in the historic Kings Cross Theatre. As instrumental rock gave way to Beatles-style Merseysound, Australia’s Shadows-inspired acts added singers (Pat Aulton & The Clefs, Colin Cook & The Strangers, Ray Brown & The Whispers). Thorpe and the Aztecs followed suit as a merged entity without Bakewell, who cleared for guitarist–songwriter Tony Barber.


Linda Lee Singles

In March 1964, Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs released their first joint single: “Blue Day” backed with “You Don’t Love Me,” both Tony Barber originals issued on Linda Lee (Australia, New Zealand) and its parent label Festival.

In April, The Aztecs released their breakthrough third single: “Poison Ivy,” a Leiber–Stoller cover backed with Barber’s “Broken Things.” Thorpe and the Aztecs based their version of “Poison Ivy” (a 1959 doo-wop hit by The Coasters) on the recent R&B–beat adaptation by The Rolling Stones.

“Poison Ivy” reached No. 3 on the Australian singles chart in June 1964, just as Beatlemania swept the antipodes. In Sydney, the song reached No. 1 in June, denying The Beatles the top spot just as they arrived in the city during their only trip Down Under. Noting the coup, John Lennon summoned the eighteen-year-old Thorpe to the Sheraton Hotel in Kings Cross, where the Fab Four stayed for their visit.

Linda Lee capitalized on the Aztecs’ newfound stardom with the split record Poison Ivy / Introducing… Johnny Noble, which gathers the six pre-released Aztecs sides (Side A) with six tracks by Noble and his band, The Mods.>


’64 Parlophone Singles

Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs signed with Albert Productions, a nascent publishing company started by producer Ted Albert, whose contacts landed the band a deal with the Parlophone division of EMI. Under this arrangement, the Aztecs spanned the second half of 1964 with three singles.

In July, Thorpe and the Aztecs released “Don’t Cha Know,” a Barber original backed with “Mashed Potato,” an R&B chestnut popularized in 1959 by Nat Kendricks & The Swans.

A. “Don’t Cha Know”
B. “Mashed Potato”

In October 1964, Thorpe and the Aztecs dropped “Sick and Tired,” a Searchers cover backed with “About Love.”

A. “Sick and Tired” (Kenner, Bartholomew)
B. “About Love” (Mize)

In December, the Aztecs released “That I Love” a Barber original backed with “Over the Rainbow,” a showtime from The Wizard of Oz.

A. “That I Love”
B. “Over the Rainbow”


Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs

Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs greeted 1965 with their self-titled debut album, comprised of twelve covers, including songs by The Beatles (“I Call Your Name”), Ben E. King (“Stand By Me”), Chuck Berry (“I’m Talking About You”), and Jackie DeShannon (“When You Walk In the Room”).

The Aztecs played state-to-state at packed houses where audience screams drowned out the band. Despite the noise, they thrilled crowds with their stomp-dance moves and matching suits. At Melbourne’s Myer Music Bowl, they played to their biggest crowd of 63,000.


Lineup Change

Despite their success, Thorpe fell out with the Aztecs, purportedly over financial disparities tied to their manager, John Harrigan.

Maloney and Barber formed the short-lived duo Vince & Tony Two. When Barber split for a solo career, Manoney formed The Vince Maloney Sect, a garage-rock quartet that cut a 1966 EP on Kommotion. Vince followed the Bee Gees to the UK and played on their 1967–69 albums Bee Gees’ 1st, Horizontal, Idea, and Odessa.

Thorpe assembled a new Aztecs with bassist Teddy Toi, drummer Johnny Dick, pianist Jimmy Taylor, and guitarists Colin Risbey and Mike Downes. The Kiwi Toi first played in The Sundowners, a pioneering New Zealand rock ‘n’ roll band.


1965 Singles

A. “I Told the Brook”
B. “Funny Face”

A. “Twilight Time”
B. “My Girl Josephine”

A. “Baby, Hold Me Close”
B. “Hallelujah, I Love Her So”

A. “Love Letters”
B. “Dancing In the Street”


It’s All Happening!

On March 27, Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs began the house-band stint on It’s All Happening!, a live weekly music–variety program on the Seven Network. The show featured weekly musical guests and numbers by the Aztecs, augmented by the show’s brass-playing music directors Tony Buchanan and Rory Thomas. Seven Network aired It’s All Happening! until its autumn 1966 cancellation.


1966 Singles

July 1966
A. “The Word For Today” (Martin Seigel)
B. “The New Breed” (Jimmy Easter)

October 1966
A. “Wee Bit More Of Your Lovin'”
B. “I’ve Been Wrong Before”


Don’t You Dig This Kind of Beat

Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs released their second album, Don’t You Dig This Kind of Beat, in 1966  on Parlophone.

Thorpe folded the second Aztecs after It’s All Happening! Toi resurfaced with his Aztecs predecessor Maloney in Fanny Adams, which cut a 1971 hard rock album on MCA.


Image Change

In 1967, Thorpe’s business woes forced him to bankruptcy. He went through a quiet spell, interrupted by an autumn cover of Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby.”

As psychedelia gave way to headier rock and progressive styles, Thorpe abandoned his prior pop personae and adopted a new image (beard, long hair, hippie clothes) and sound (bluesy caterwauling hard rock).

In 1968, he formed a rock quartet with guitarist Mick Liber (ex-Python Lee Jackson), but they collapsed before a two-week August residency in Melbourne, where Thorpe fronted a trio with bassist Paul “Sheepdog” Wheeler and drummer Jimmy Thompson (ex-Tony Worsley & The Fabulous Blue Jays). Thorpe, who’d practiced guitar for some months, floored audiences with his guitar–vocal rendition of “Be Bop a Lula.” In December, the new Aztecs added Lobby Loyde, an emerging guitar hero (ex-Purple Hearts, Wild Cherries) who mentored Thorpe on the instrument.

A. “Good Mornin’ Little School Girl”
B. “Rock Me Baby”


The Hoax Is Over

The new Aztecs released their first studio album, The Hoax Is Over, in January 1971 on Infinity.

A1. “Gangster of Love” (24:35)
A2. “Goodbye Baby” (3:34)
B1. “Mississippi” (19:35)
B2. “Truth” (4:05)

Recorded At – Armstrong Studios
Producer – Aztecs
Engineer – Ern Rose, Richard Batchens

Lead Guitar – Lobby Loyde
Percussion – Kevin Murphy
BassPaul Wheeler
Piano – Warren Morgan
Rhythm Guitar, Harp, Vocals – Billy Thorpe

Cover Design – Ian McCausland


Live

In late 1971, Aztecs released Live, a forty-minute document of their June 13 concert at Melbourne Town Hall. Live was the first of two back-to-back Aztec concert albums on the rock-specialty label Havoc.

A1. “Somebody Left Me Crying” (10:50)
A2. “Time to Live” (7:34)
A3. “Be Bop a Lula” (4:39)
B1. “Momma – Part 1” (5:33)
B2. “Drum Solo” (6:31)
B3. “Momma – Part 2” (6:33)

Recorded Live at Consolidated Rock Concert No. 4 in the Melbourne Town Hall, June 13, 1971.

Sep 1971
A. “The Dawn Song”
B. “Time To Live”

Feb 1972
A. “Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy”
B. “Regulation 3 Pufff”


Aztecs Live! at Sunbury

In August 1972, Havoc issued Aztecs Live! at Sunbury, a document of the band’s set at the inaugural Sunbury Music Festival, which took place on Australia Day (January 26) 1972.

A1. “C.C. Rider”
A2. “Be Bop a Lula”
A3. “Momma”
B1. “Rock Me Baby”
B2. “Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy”
C1. “Time to Live”
C2. “Jump Back”
D. “Ooh-Poo-Pa-Doo”

Four-fold cover opens to a cross shape.

Oct 1972
A. “Believe It Just Like Me”
B. “Get To Hell Out Of Here”

June 17, 1973
A. “Mame” (3:53)
B. “Movie Queen” (2:52)


More Arse Than Class

The Aztecs released their second seventies studio album, More Arse Than Class, in 1974 on Atlantic.

A1. “Boogie Woogie” (4:23)
A2. “Walking Down the Street” (4:52)
A3. “Don’t You Know You’re Changing” (4:46)
A4. “No More War” (5:26)
B5. “I Wanna Know” (5:22)
B6. “Back On the Road Again” (4:14)
B7. “Slowly Learning How” (9:11)

Recorded At – Armstrong Studios
Producer – The Aztecs

Vocals, Bass – Teddy Toi
Vocals, Drums, Percussion, Engineer – Gil Matthews
Vocals, Guitar – Billy Thorpe
Vocals, Piano, Organ, Harpsichord – Warren Morgan

Dec 1973
A. “Don’t You Know You’re Changing”
B. “Yes I’m Tired”


Steaming at the Opera House

In December 1974, the Aztecs released Steaming at the Opera House, a two-record document of their 1973 live act at the recently opened Sydney Opera House.

A1. “All I Can Do Is Sing” (5:51)
A2. “Cigarettes And Whisky” (5:04)
A3. “Don’t You Know (You’re Changing)” (5:10)
A4. “One Day You’ll Lose It” (8:22)
B1. “Imagine Normal Days (War Part 1)” (5:07)
B2. “What Year Is It (War Part 2)” (5:18)
B3. “No More War (War Part 3)” (7:34)
B4. “Not Another Bloody War (War Part 4)” (1:55)
B5. “Last Moments (War Part 5)” (4:20)
C1. “God” (9:46)
C2. “Time To Live” (8:00)
C3. “Be Bop A Lula” (4:17)
D1. “Ain’t Going Down Again” (9:33)
D2. “Ballbiter” (5:26)
D3. “Oop Poo Pa Doo” (6:17)

Engineer – David Few, Graham Owens, John French

Vocals, Guitar – Billy Thorpe
Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Bass Guitar – Teddy Toi
Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Drums – Gil Matthews
Vocals, Keyboards – Warren Morgan

Guests
Guitar – Lobby Loyde
Drums – Kevin Murphy
Drums, Percussion – Johnny Dick


Pick Me Up and Play Me Loud

The Aztecs released their final studio album, Pick Me Up and Play Me Loud, in 1976 on Infinity.

A1. “Movin’ On the Sound” (4:53)
A2. “Blue Mary” (5:00)
A3. “Good Night Out” (3:05)
A4. “Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy” (6:05)
B1. “Baseballs” (3:30)
B2. “See What I Mean” (4:17)
B3. “Let Yourself Go” (4:42)
B4. “You Keep Me Hangin’ Around” (4:07)
B5. “Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll” (4:44)

Recorded at Festival 24 Track Studios, Pyrmont, Sydney, Australia (April-May 1976).


Discography:

  • Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs With Poison Ivy and Introducing Johnny Noble (1964)
  • Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs (1965 • Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs)
  • Don’t You Dig This Kind of Beat? (1966 • Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs)
  • The Hoax Is Over (1971)
  • Live (1971)
  • Aztecs Live! at Sunbury (1972)
  • More Arse Than Class (1974)
  • Steaming at the Opera House (1975)
  • Pick Me Up and Play Me Loud (1976)

Sources:

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