[INTERVIEW] John Brewster – The Angels

It seems inconceivable that as a musical entity, the two driving forces behind The Angels, John and Rick Brewster, have been making music for just under fifty years. That’s half a century.To celebrate this milestone, and as a way of thanking their fans and giving them a glimpse into how the current day Angels morphed into their present incarnation, the band had put together a retrospective of sorts, starting in the unlikely setting from which one of Australia’s greatest rock and roll bands spread their wings.

To celebrate this milestone, and as a way of thanking their fans and giving them a glimpse into how the current day Angels morphed into their present incarnation, the band has put together a retrospective of sorts, starting in the unlikely setting from which one of Australia’s greatest rock and roll bands spread their wings.

“The album is pretty interesting,” John gushed. “It’s like an accompaniment to the book that is coming out around the same time, so the book is obviously about our history, which goes back 47 years. The double album features a few tracks from the Moonshine Jug and String Band, two of which Doc Neeson sang on, which we love. That was our very first band, and it also features the Brewster Brothers and songs we wrote for Rick and me when Doc left the band way back in the early 2000’s, and some of the tracks are live with my three sons playing with us, so they’re very special to both of us. Of course, there are songs on the album with Dave Gleeson and songs we wrote when Dave joined the band, so it’s an interesting accompaniment to the book because it tells a story. The second CD is Doc Neeson with us, and they are tracks that Rick and I have chosen that weren’t singles. However, I think they were some of our best songs ever written outside of the singles and that CD finishes with six tracks that were recorded live with the Adelaide Art Orchestra back in 2010, and it has turned out great. Songs like ‘Dawn is Breaking’, ‘Fashion and Fame’ and ‘Straight Jacket’ all feature with a symphony orchestra, so it’s pretty special.”When coming up with a title for the album, John says the brothers were looking for something that would encompass the many changing and

When coming up with a title for the album, John says the brothers were looking for something that would encompass the many changing and uniting factions that have run through the backbone of the group, and ultimately settled on Brothers, Angels, & Demons.

“We’re a brothers band,” he explained, “but brothers can also extend to the other people around that were in the band with you, and there’s a kind of brotherhood there, and it’s not always happy camping (laughs). It wasn’t necessarily happy with Rick and me all the time; I can tell you that (laughs). God, we used to have some amazing arguments. People would think it was the end of the band when they heard us arguing and it was only about where a song should go. Because we were brothers, it would always get personal, so we had some pretty nasty disagreements back then. We don’t do that anymore. In fact, we get along really well. If I say now the middle eight should go in a certain spot, Rick will just say ‘okay’ (laughs).”

The first of two CD’s starts with the outfit that would eventually go on to become The Angels, but at that stage of the band’s evolution, the music and the ability of the people creating it were vastly different to what you hear now.”The Moonshine Jug and String Band was a wonderful thing,” John recalled fondly. “We didn’t start the band with any vision other than making something for us to do on the weekends. My friend Spencer and I were mad surfers, and we would sleep on the beach and get up with the sun and go surfing but on weekend’s we’d go to parties and probably have far too many beers and take an acoustic guitar. At the party, I would sing songs – mainly

“The Moonshine Jug and String Band was a wonderful thing,” John recalled fondly. “We didn’t start the band with any vision other than making something for us to do on the weekends. My friend Spencer and I were mad surfers, and we would sleep on the beach and get up with the sun and go surfing, but on weekend’s we’d go to parties and probably have far too many beers and take an acoustic guitar. At the party, I would sing songs – mainly Bob Dylan ones – and Pete said to me one day that he would like to play with me. I said it was a good idea but asked what he could play and he said he didn’t play anything (laughs). So I said that’s a slight problem to get over so we came up with this idea of starting a jug band because he could play the washboard bass which he became brilliant at. Then we went to my brother Rick who had not long before won the South Australian Eisteddfod on piano and he was an incredible pianist – possibly heading for a career as a concert pianist. We asked Rick if he wanted to join and he said, ‘Yes, what do you want me to play?’ and it ended up being the washboard, and he was fantastic.

“Others started coming into the band, and it wasn’t until about a year after it started that Doc Neeson joined. Mark Holden‘s brother Craig was our first guitar player, and the thing is, it was something that we started doing just for fun, and it became quite serious because we became the number one band in Adelaide at one stage. So that got successful, and then we started writing songs. We wrote a song called, ‘Keep You on the Move’ and recorded it and had a hit with it – only in Adelaide. I went to Rick and said we couldn’t continue the jug band because we keep writing songs and the jug band is the wrong vehicle for them because that music is based in the 1920’s, so we have to form a rock band. Bearing in mind, we’d seen Daddy Cool and AC/DC, and I always wanted to do something like that, so we started the Keystone Angels. If you read the foreword to the book, it is written by Jimmy Barnes, and he explains how he was watching these incarnations and scratching his head, wondering what we were doing. Then he realised what we were doing was learning how to play (laughs) because we hadn’t played the electric guitar so everything that we’ve done.

“I have to say, I’m really proud of this, but everything that we’ve done over all these years we’ve always done in front of audiences. We’ve never hidden away and tried to come up with some concept. It’s always been when we write a new song; we put it out in front of an audience. If you get a pretty dull response to it, then you know you’ve gotta write another song (laughs). In that Keystone Angels period, we met AC/DC quite early in the piece, and they saw something in us. They went to Harry Vander and George Young and told them about us, and long-story-short, we signed with them. We were in the Alberts stable with Rose Tattoo, John Paul Young, Ted Mulry Gang and AC/DC and us, and what an amazing stable of artists and it was incredible to be around. We learned so much.”

It was this introduction with AC/DC that was to usher in the next phase of the band’s existence, with the brothers deciding to act on some advice from one of the Young brothers in regards to their name.

“It was George Young, Angus and Malcolm‘s older brother who, in my opinion, was the most inspirational person I have worked with outside of my brother. George was amazing, and he just had this sort of nous. He asked us one day, ‘Why have you got the Keystone in your name?’ to which we replied, ‘We don’t know!’ It was just a hangover from the Moonshine Jug and String band because that was a zany band, and we were into things like the Keystone Cops movies and Mae West and Buster Keaton and all that kind of stuff. But George said The Angels would be a much better name for a rock and roll band, so we said, ‘Okay, let’s do that’. He also suggested we cut our hair short which we were pretty resistant to, but we did it, and it made us stand out from the crowd because everyone had long hair then (laughs). George was always for the entertainment factor. Music number one, of course, but then it was a case of: how do you present the music? If you look at Angus Young and you see him in his school uniform today in his 60’s, you say: ‘Yeah, that’s fine’, but that’s there because it’s entertaining and people expect to see him in that, and it’s fantastic. It’s the entertainment factor that makes the difference.”

After being fronted by on again/off again singer Doc Neeson for the majority of their musical life, Rick and John found themselves at the crossroads when Neeson left for the final time before vocalist for the Screaming Jets, Dave Gleeson, stepped up and righted the rudderless ship.

“He chose himself actually,” John laughed at Gleeson’s initiation into the band. “Doc had left, and Rick and I didn’t know whether we were gonna be able to continue, but then we decided to throw caution to the wind and replace him because he had left. Doc left the band six or seven times over the years, but this time we knew that was it, so we either had a career as The Angels with those songs we had written over the period or we didn’t. Just by sheer serendipity and good luck, we were doing a Brewster Brothers show in the Adelaide Hills at a place called Harndorf. Dave came along, and he was there having a beer. He sidled up to us at the front, and I asked him if he wanted to get up and have a sing, and he said he would love to. I then asked if he knew any of The Angels songs and he said he knew all of them (laughs). He said he was a huge fan and grew up on the music, so he got up and sang and Rick and I just looked at each other, and we were knocked out. We were blown away because he sounded so great. Rick said to me: ‘We’ve gotta ask him to join the band,’ and I thought there wasn’t much chance of that because he was in the Screaming Jets. As it turns out, they were in a bit of a hiatus themselves at the time, so Dave was able to do that. Now, of course, he is in both bands, and we’re very happy with that. We’re respectful of him and the Jets, and it works for us as well. I can’t believe it’s been six years now he’s been singing with us, and we’ve recorded two albums of brand new songs with him.”

All of this seems to be leading to a fade out from the airwaves for this iconic band, but when I ask if Brothers, Angels, & Demons is The Angels’ swan song, John quickly corrects me.

“Oh, God no!” he exclaimed. “We’ve got another album recorded and waiting to go. We haven’t finished it, but it’s in the can, so to speak. The band is very much an ongoing thing. While Rick and I can stand up and play our guitars, we will be doing The Angels. We love it. It’s an incredible band, and I’m proud to be in it. My son Sam plays the bass, and he’s wonderful and Nick Norton our drummer is an incredible drummer and an amazing songwriter, and we’re all still good friends. It’s funny in a way because there are three generations in the band now and we go down the highway in the eight seater van, and we get on incredibly well. It’s a very happy camp. We will be continuing; this is in no way the end.”

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Written by Kris Peters

Kris has been writing freelance for about 20 years. Kris always found his taste in music a little too eclectic for the mainstream market but has found his niche writing for HEAVY. Based in Brisbane, Kris also runs a promotions company, KSP Productions.

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