October 3, 2019.
Eleven years next month John Brewster-Jones lay in St Andrew’s Hospital, Brisbane brushing aside the fact he had been minutes from death and within hours would need to survive a quintuple heart bypass. It was that close.
He recalls worrying about only one thing: his golf. “If I live, will I still be able to hit the ball as far?” he recalled asking himself. “Will my handicap go out to seven?”
Absurd, of course, for non-golfers anyway; part of his persona that life will always be great.
John is now about to celebrate November for other incredibly personal and amazing reasons. He turns 70 on November 9, and it will be 50 years since forming his first rock band with his brother Rick, the Moonshine & Jug String Band, which led to creating one of Australia’s greatest rock bands, The Angels, 45 years ago.
The Brewster brothers – with Bernard ‘Doc’ Neeson – wrote The Angels’ famous song Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again. It was a gem in a wild era of hard rock diamonds, yet for all this decibel madness it may surprise many that their family symphonic brilliance has always been deep within.
The classical chords first ran through John’s lifeline from his pioneering great-grandfather who was a singer of note in South Australia’s outback. John’s grandfather, Hooper, gave his first concert at the age of seven at the Adelaide Town Hall, and having been described as the most promising student to have ever entered the Elder Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide, won a scholarship to study at the London College of Music.
His full name was Hooper Josse Brewster Jones, but while at the college there were three others with the surname of Jones so they each had to hyphenate a first and middle name to avoid their mail getting mixed up.
Hooper also wrote more than 600 works including a symphony called Australia Felix, and co-founded the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.
John’s father, Arthur, was director of music at the ABC and principal cellist in the ASO.
Given such family orchestral magnificence – ‘bravo, bravo’ the audiences echoed with such fervor – and for our own John Carrington Brewster-Jones, with his brother Rick, to go on and peel the treble clefs off an upper staf on the song sheets represents one of life’s admirable examples of daring to ‘being one’s self’.
When asked to review their years with 11 bands spread over 50 years, John said one of their most treasured moments came when they performed as The Angles alongside the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra last year.
“We walked on stage to a small piece from one of Hooper’s symphonies,” John said. “I turned to Rick and said, you know, I can hear Mr Damage in this, one of our songs. “I realised by doing our songs through the ASO and with the choir that a lot of classical background had actually rubbed off in our songs even though we were a pretty full-on rock band.
“Rick won the Eisteddfod when he was 16 on the piano; he is still magnificent. The genetic connection of musical talent has definitely come down the line.”
However, according to John life in the concert halls have differed somewhat to a tough gig in the bowels of music dives that epitomised the phrase “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll’, first used in a Life magazine 60 years ago.
“We lived in a day where everyone did something,” John said. “We were certainly smoking a bit of stuff. It was wonderful actually; quite convivial really.
“We could play every night of the week, but a lot were dives. We’d play at Checkers in Sydney for five hours and get paid $100 – not each. We needed the $100 to pay for the accommodation in Cockroach Mansion in Neutral Bay a day later.
“It was always an absolute roller-coaster in those days. Yeah, we had some real tough times, but we also had some absolute highs.
“Through 1974-78 trying to get somewhere was such a short time, but to us it was an eternity. Meeting AC/DC in ’75 and while doing three gigs with them in Port Pirie, Whyalla and Port Augusta they saw something in us.
“They went back to Sydney and told Harry Vander and George Young (songwriters/producers) about us, and they gave us a contract. We thought we had made it. We moved to Sydney and we thought everything would fall at our feet, but of course it didn’t. It took years.
“Arguably, as The Angels our most famous song is Am I Gonna See Your Face Again, but it was a flop at the time. It did nothing. It was not until my brother wrote Take a Long Line that we became successful in ’78.
“Yet, we had to still work every night of the week. We had an old VH Holden station wagon that I sold to the band for four hundred. That car did at least 100,000 miles, yes miles because it was that old.
“We’d do a gig in Melbourne and drive overnight to Sydney dodging thousands of trucks along the way. Cold Chisel will tell you the same story. Being so tall, Doc Neeson was so uncomfortable in the back seat that he’d ride in the boot and bang on the metal every now and then to tell us he hadn’t died from the exhaust fumes.
“Being young and burning the candle at both ends and surviving was incredible. It wasn’t always fun, but we made it seem like that.”
John said the highs of the industry were illustrated in 1980 when they performed at The Marquee Club in London. “We were standing on the same stage as the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix, and The Beatles had performed,” he said. “It was amazing. We looked at each other and said, here we are.
“Playing any gig with AC/DC was a highlight. We did a lot with them in the Bon Scott days and later with Brian Johnson.
“We toured with David Bowie; it was incredible that he chose our band because he liked our music… we did the Bondi Lifesaving Club one night and he and his whole band came along to our gig. We couldn’t believe it. That was massive.”
But 1980 brought its lows. The band’s truck stolen in Chicago. “Rick and I lost guitars that we still miss today,” John said. “We had a second truck stolen in Hollywood in 1985, our last run of touring full-on overseas.
“It has been an amazing career. When you do a show the relationship with you and the audience is absolutely amazing. You’re on cloud nine.
“People probably think that being in a rock band when the show finishes that’s when the party starts, but it’s not that way at all now. The dressing room is boring, particularly for Rick and me being the age we are.
“The thing is, the family thing to me is now the big deal, playing music with my brother, playing music with my son Sam, a bass player. That’s special; a son and a brother in the band with me.
“My brother is amazing. My three sons – Sam, Tom and Harry – are all terrific musicians and play on stage with Rick and me sometimes. Rick’s young son, who is only 14, got on stage and played Take a Long Line with us before 5000 people and was note perfect. He was brilliant.”
The Angels were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in October, 1998 with the line-up of Chris Bailey (died 2013), the Brewster brothers, Brent Eccles and Neeson (died 2014).
John said the proudest moment of his career was a July night last year when The Angels played with the ASO, an orchestra of which his grandfather Hooper was a founder, and his dad Arthur used to run and was its principal cellist.
“Dad was proud of us and our achievements with The Angels, but he never actually listened to the music until one day he called me and said, ‘son, I’ve been listening to your music. I nearly fell over’. I said, really? He said, ‘yeah, I never realised how good it is. It’s really good’. I said, dad you don’t know what this means to me.
“You can listen to the applause, you can talk about awards, achievements and the records you produced, but to me hearing those words from my dad meant everything. He died a few months later.
“These days I just see myself as just an ordinary guy playing in a successful rock band.”
After completing a Rock the Boat Tour on a cruise ship this month there is no end to this Australian rock legend performing with The Angels. That is, in between playing golf at Victor Harbor Golf Club and Kooyonga, and enjoying life with his lovely wife Sue in a family home in Encounter Bay built in 1831, making it possibly the oldest stone home remaining in South Australia.
After the cruise tour The Angels will journey an yet another interstate tour including 14 performances of Symphony of Angels with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra at the QPAC Concert Hall.
The Brewster brothers can be heard occasionally at local gigs, and they still write new material for The Angels. With a sigh of disappointment, but understanding, John said they could produce the world’s best song but it would not get airplay.
“Radio stations play music from back in the old days because that’s the way it is,” John said. “The Stones and AC/DC don’t get their new music played either. They don’t perform it at concerts because that’s not what people pay their money to hear. They’re there to hear Jumpin Jack Flash.
“I don’t see it as living in the past, although there is a connection. People wonder why there are 18 year-olds out there listening to our music. I feel that it still has that cutting edge element and feels as fresh as it ever did.
“That’s the exciting thing about being in a rock band. If we sat around all those years ago writing lubby-dubby pop songs I think we’d feel like idiots singing them now. If you sing about the highs and lows of young love now at the age of 70 it will feel a bit weird. But if we sing Shadow Boxer it still feels great.”
No matter the show or ages, the fans want to hear The Angels sing the line Am I Ever Gonna Hear Your Face Again prompting an expletive-laden audience response, once described by The Guardian’s Darryl Mason as one of the most famous chants in Australian rock history.
However, behind this aggressive hard rock anthem lay a heart-softening story of what the song is really about – the tragic death of a friend, a young girl who died riding her motorbike into a Stobie pole after school in Mount Gambier.
Like the Brewster brothers’ threads of classical music hidden behind their life of hard rock, you should never judge a song by its cover.