MILESAGO - Groups & Solo Artists - Blackfeather
Lee Brossman [bs] 1976
Blackfeather were one of the most popular and successful groups of the early '70s, and produced one of the landmark Aussie progressive rock albums, but a major split early in the group's history disabled what should have been a promising career.
As indicated by the huge personnel listing above, there was a bewildering series of lineup changes, with Blackfeather going through at least six major incarnations between 1970 and 1983, with a huge personnel list for each version. The list is a veritable 'Who's Who' of the 70s rock scene. However it's the first two lineups - 'Mark I', who made At The Mountains Of Madness, and 'Mark II' who recorded Boppin' The Blues - that are the best known.
Blackfeather (Mk I) formed in April 1970 with the original lineup being John Robinson [gtr], Neale Johns [vcls], Leith Corbett [bs] and Mike McCormack [dr]. All but Johns had come straight from the split of the highly-rated Dave Miller Set, who were one of NSW's most popular live groups in the late 60s, and whose classic version of Mr Guy Fawkes was Go-Set's pick for the Best Single of 1969.
In these extracts from his memoirs, John Robinson takes up the story of how the band was formed:
"Just after Xmas 1969, Dave disbanded the group. He had done his five single deal with Spin, and wanted a solo career. Looking back from an almost 30 year distance, I can acknowledge Dave's contribution to Aussie Rock. He was a very savvy business person and a great showman. The business and PR side of music was something of a mystery to me. And I was just about to find out how hard it could be without a safety net. Mr Guy Fawkes had reached the national Top 5 by the end of 1969, and it seemed a fitting way for DMS to sign off.
Dave went into a solo project, Reflections of a Pioneer for Spin. Leith, Mike and I went looking for a singer. It didn't take long before Leith turned up with Neale Johns. A small guy with a huge voice, Neale was very taciturn. He was into the blues and had excellent range. We rehearsed in my garage in Epping at first, then at the Hornsby Police Boys Club on weekdays. We pulled up every blues standard and original we could think of and soon had an impressive song list. We were looking for a name -- a drummer friend of mine, Wayne Thomas ofFlake gave me a book which had about 500 possible band names in it. 'Whitefeather' & 'Heavyfeather' were two of them. 'Heavy' became 'Black' and we had it. At this point, I took some rolls of infra-red film, which became our first publicity stills. They were shot in a graveyard in Ashfield and looked very spooky.
At one session in Hornsby, an engineer named John Zuliaka taped us for a demo. This tape I would love to hear now. It was sent to EMI and Festival. Both sent back contracts to sign. We were to book through NOVA and one John Sinclair was our PR man. We signed up to Essex Music under John Brummel and to Festival's new Infinity label, headed by John's brother David Sinclair."
The new band had lots going for it - although only 18, Neale Johns was a powerful vocalist, and Robinson has already developed a strong following as a 'guitar hero', along with players like Lobby Loyde, Kevin Borich, Dennis Wilson and Tim Gaze. Corbett and McCormack were a powerful rhythm section in the Free/Led Zeppelin mould and Robinson and Johns quickly formed a strong writing unit, jointly composing all the material on their first LP.
Leith and and Mike left shortly after the band was formed, and were replaced by Fortesque and Kash. (Corbett reunited with Dave Miller and together they recorded the sought-after Reflections Of A Pioneer LP the following year (re-released in 2000 by the Vicious Sloth label.)
"Things were just beginning to happen when Leith and Mike defected. Dave Miller had poached them for his LP recording project and the new DMS. My career had stalled -- it had been months since I'd earned any money, and my marriage was heading for the rocks. I busied myself writing more riffs and an instrumental called Mango's Theme which was inspired by Leone's "Dollar" westerns.
Neale contacted me with good news -- he had found a rhythm section recently arrived from Perth. Al Kash, an American, played drums, and Bob Fortesque, bass. They were simpler players than Leith and Mike and the music gelled immediately. We were booked into the Manly Vale Pub soon after, and the crowd went wild. Blackfeather had finally arrived!"
Blackfeather began working consistently around the traps, cementing the strong fan base and critical interest that the Dave Miller Set had built up over the previous three years. As John noted, they became one of the first acts signed to Festival's newly-formed Infinity subsidiary.
It was this second lineup -- Robinson, Johns, Fortesque and Kash -- which featured on their debut album, the Australian progressive classic At The Mountains Of Madness, recorded in late 1970 and released early the following year. The LP was produced by Richard Batchens, who later worked with Sherbet. Fraternity's singer Bon Scott guested on recorder and percussion, and their keyboard player John Bissett also contributed.
Blackfeather 1971: (L-R) Alexander Kash, Neale Johns, Robert Fortescue, John Robinson
Here's how John recalls the making of the album:
"We started recording our LP soon after at Festival. Richard Batchens engineered and we did The Rat and Long-legged Lovely. Richard was a good engineer, and later in his career recorded the first Cold Chisel album. His background was in radio and specialised in live recording. By this time I was playing another Stratocaster and had swapped my sitar for a Watkins Copycat tape-echo unit. The tube pre-amp in the Watkins was great. It overdrove to front end of the Lenard amp perfectly.
We rehearsed in a venue owned by one John Spooner in lower Elizabeth St and he and I became friends. He also ranJonathon's Night Club in Broadway and the band used to drop in there after gigs for a drink and a blow. At that time he had two resident bands, Sherbet and Fraternity. The latter were very good. Bon Scott was their vocalist and his skill at jazz standards impressed me. We became close friends. The later sessions at Festival featured Bon and Johnny Bisset, their keyboard player, and I borrowed Mick Jurds' Strauss Guitar Amp for some songs. Seasons of Change had started life as a [Dave Miller Set] jam on stage at Coffs Harbour, and was developed at Hornsby Police Boys Club. Neale supplied the title and the chorus, myself furnishing the rest. It never made it on stage - always sounding empty and half-baked. It reminded me of 'Ye Olde English Tudor Music', but, as luck would have it, other people loved it. That included Bruce Howe of Fraternity, and the Flying Circus of 'Hayride' fame. Bon Scott played Recorder on Blackfeather's recording of the song, and the key was changed from E minor to E flat minor to accommodate Neale's range. We had a lot of trouble getting the recorder to play in tune and there are still notes that make me cringe when I listen to it. I used an old gut string acoustic of Richard Batchens', detuned a semitone. I remember Richard used a Neumann U67 valve mike on both instruments.
We were still stuck using to 4-track recorder, a la Sgt Pepper for the LP. Considerable time and audio quality was lost in the process of bouncing sub-mixes from machine to machine. At one point, we had to erase a brilliant vocal take from Neale to overdub a string section for Seasons of Change. He was NOT happy. The vocal that was released was not as good, as Neale was suffering from a cold at the time - he really had to push to reach the high B-flat in the verses. The following track was Mango's Theme -- this also featured a string section. Festival would not let me take a copy of the backing, so I had to sit in the studio counting the bars and cue points and then working from memory at home. Still, I was happy with the result and the section leader, Lal Kuring, was very helpful. The music was based on quasi-eastern scales and was basically an improvisation using a bolero rhythm in the middle leading to a key change of F sharp for the solo. The recorded version is only a shadow of what the track was like live - people used to riot at venues.
The Rat, last on the LP, had a free improvisation section in the middle. The concept was to blow and then edit the best bits together later. At the date, things were going well until I broke the whammy-bar off my Strat -- Al took over with a drum solo and Bon followed him on timbales. Upon playback, I felt it lacked something, and after a few sleepless nights, decided to add backward tape effects plus flanging and half-speed dialogue. Batchens scratched his head, then wheeled in two more tape machines. If you listen to this section carefully, you can hear where I broke the whammy bar plus make out the words: 'It's uptight, outta sight baby, oooh it feels good right up there'.
The cover art Sinclair decided on was good, but miles away from the original submission, which depicted the devil emerging out of the top of a mountain -- very similar to one part of Disney'sFANTASIA movie. The title, At The Mountains of Madness came from a H.P. Lovecraft novel.
At The Mountains Of Madness was released in April 1971and was a national Top 10 LP (#7) in May. The album has perhaps not aged as well as some others from the period; the title track and the ambitious suite The Rat sound a little dated now, although there is sterling playing by Robinson throughout. Still, there are plenty of highlights, including the heavy-riffing Long Legged Lovely (with some of the heaviest bass yet captured on an Aussie recording) and the classic Seasons Of Change, one of the most memorable and adventurous singles of the period. (Both songs were included on Raven's Golden Miles CD compilation in 1994).
[Click here to read John's own review of the album]
As John mentioned, the members of Fraternity were particular fans of Seasons Of Change, and with John's blessing they recorded their own version:
By the time the LP was released I had become a very good friend with Bon and all the members of Fraternity. They had wanted to cover Seasons of Change in the style of King Crimson, using mellotrons and such. So before they left to live in Adelaide, Bruce Howe, the leader, approached Sinclair for permission to cover the song. Bon, Bruce and I sat in the A&R office and extracted a verbal agreement from David that Festival would at no time release Blackfeather's version as a single in competition to Fraternity's. Guess what? ... Festival broke the agreement as soon as they saw Fraternity's version top the Adelaide charts.
If nothing else, it was an opportune commercial decision -- Blackfeather's version was an immediate hit -- #15 nationally, #39 in Sydney, and it charted for 16 weeks. But its release -- against John's express wishes -- effectively poisoned the relationship between band and label, and only added to the pressures that were building up in and around the group:
This really sullied my relationship with the guys. I could also no longer respect David Sinclair. To top all this off, my marriage had broken down permanently. Part of the reason was we were out touring in the boon-docks a lot and weren't getting paid for weeks after. I complained bitterly to Peter Conyngham at NOVA agency, but got very little response.
Although it ought to have been a great period for Blackfeather, but even as the album was released internal tensions were reaching breaking point, as John remembers:
"There was in-fighting in the group as well -- Al Kash, the drummer, particularly was very disheartened. As Seasons rushed into the national top ten, even more pressure was being applied. It got to the point where no-one was on speaking terms in the band. The album and single were doing very well in the charts and the press were having a field-day with us, but we had lost Al Kash [Kash left in March 1971]. Hastily, he was replaced with Terry Gascoigne, a jazz-rock drummer. It didn't work. Next Bob Fortesque left, Harry Brus replaced him and brought in new drummer, Steve Webb.
This was better, but the rift between Neale and myself was widening. We called it a day after a heated argument at Festival one afternoon. Unfortunately for me, when Neale left he took the name and agent with him. Peter Conyngham had registered Blackfeather as a business name of his."
The remaining members of the original band, led by Robinson, lost out to Johns' new group. Now legally prevented from working under the Blackfeather name, the remaining members of the group split up soon afterwards.
"Harry, Steve and I tried to continue but finding a suitable singer was a tall order in such a short space of time. We did a couple of gigs for Mike Chugg but my heart wasn't in it. We folded."
Paul Wylde performing keyboard magic in 1972
Conyngham soon asserted his rights over the name and formed the 'Mark II' Blackfeather, led by Johns, with Warren Ward (bs), Jim Penson (dr), guitarist Zac Zytnick (ex-Tamam Shud) and pianist Paul Wylde.
Zytnick left the new band in December (replaced by guitarist Billy Taylor (ex-Flake), followed by Penson at the start of 1972. By now the Blackfeather sound had changed dramatically -- the new material was simpler and rootsier, with Wylde's piano -- he played an electrically-amplified acoustic upright piano -- now the central feature.
In July they released a new single, Boppin' The Blues/Find Somebody To Love. The A-side was a rollicking makeover of an old Carl Perkins number, with Wylde's boogie-woogie piano to the fore. Since they were between drummers at the time, the single was actually cut with Aztecs drummer Gil Matthews. Drummer Trevor Young joined temporarily just before it came out. It became Blackfeather's biggest hit, reaching No.1 in August 1972. It did massive business and is now the song that they are probably best remembered for. Young and Taylor left soon after. Young was replaced by Greg Sheehan.
Taylor wasn't replaced, and Blackfeather remained a 4-piece for the next few months. At a time when the electric guitar was still the primary rock instrument, Blackfeather's new piano-bass-drums lineup was quite a radical departure (although one can only pity the poor roadies who had to lug Wylde's piano from gig to gig!) This lineup recorded the second Blackfeather LP, the Howard Gable-produced live album Boppin' The Blues, recorded at gigs at Melbourne Town Hall and the Q Club in September, and released in December 1972.
The next major change was when Paul Wylde quit at the end of 1972. He was replaced by two guitarists, Lindsay Wells (ex-Healing Force) and Tim Piper. Blackfeather returned to the harder, guitar-based style of the first album. They perfomed at Sunbury '73 in January and their set was recorded and released the following year as a live LP; with one track (I'm Gonna Love You) also featured on Mushroom's inaugural release, the triple-album recording of the concerts, released in April. Their third single, a version of Little Richard's Slippin & Slidin' had been released February 1973, by which time Sheehan had quit. He was briefly replaced by John Lee, but the group only lasted a short time longer, splitting in April, after which Lee moved on to the newly-formed Dingoes.
Blackfeather Mark III was formed by Johns in 1975, with Billy Taylor, Ray Vanderby (ex-Band Of Light) on keyboards, Billy Rylands on bass and Doug McDonald on drums, but this version lasted only a short time. In early 1976 Neale Johns formed the more pop-oriented "Mark IV" Blackfeather, with Vanderby, Lee Brosman, Warwick Fraser and Stewart Fraser (who was then aged only 14!). Johns quit in November 1976 and went overseas, but the remaining members stayed together, picking up John "Swannee" Swan on vocals and Wayne Smith on guitar and renaming the group Feather.
Johns came back to Australia in 1977 and after a spell in Fingerprint he formed the Mark V Blackfeather, reuniting the '72 lineup of Wylde, Ward and Young in June 1978. By October all except Johns had left, replaced by Ray Oliver, Rick Rankin, Jeff Rosenberg and Huk Treloar. Ex-Dingoes drummer John Strangio briefly replaced Treloar, but this version had folded by the end of the year.
Johns formed a final Blackfeather (Mark VI) in 1983 with Hinton, Cowan (ex-Madder Lake), Judge and Vizzone but this too was shortlived.
Both At The Mountains Of Madness and Boppin' The Blues were reissued by Festival in 1991/2 and are still available on CD.Long Legged Lovely and Seasons Of Change were included on Raven's Golden Miles CD compilation in 1994.
5/71Seasons Of Change /On The Day That I Die Infinity INK 4248
7/72 Boppin' The Blues /Find Somebody To Love Infinity INK 4721
2/73Slippin' & Slidin' / Fly On My Nose Infinity INK 4988
At The Mountains Of Madness[Robinson]
On This Day That I Die [Robinson]
Seasons Of Change Part 1 [Robinson/Johns]
Mangos Theme Part 2 [Robinson]
Long Legged Lovely [Robinson/Johns]
The Rat (Suite)
- Main Title (The Rat)
- The Trap
- Spainish Blues
- Blazwaorden (Land Of Dreams)
- Finale (The Rat)
Alexander Kash - Drums and Footsteps
Neale Johns - Vocals
Robert Fortescue - Bass Guitar
John Robinson - Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Effects
Recorders (Seasons of Change), Timbalis, Tambourine - Bon Scott
Electric Piano (The Rat) - John Bisset
Produced byRichard Batchens & John Robinson
Recorded at Festival Studios, Sydney
(Cover artist/photographer not credited)
Gee Willikers [Johns]
Own Way Of Living [Johns]
Red Head Rag [Johns]
D. Boogie (Mama Roll) [Johns]
Get It On [Johns]
Boppin' The Blues [Perkins/Griffith]
Lay Down Lady [Johns]
Neale Johns: vocals
Paul Wylde: piano
Trevor Young - drums
Greg Sheehan - bass
Engineer: John French
Recorded live at Melbourne Town Hall and Q Club, September 1972
Remixed at TCS Studios
Album Design: Ian McCausland
Photos: David Porter
Boppin' the Blues [Perkins-Griffin]
Get It On [Johns]
I Just Love to Rock 'n' Roll [Johns]
I'm Gonna Love You [Johns]
Let's Twist Again [Mann-Appell]
Slippin' & Slidin' [Penniman-Collins-Smith]
Still Alive & Well [Derringer]
References / Links
Ian Mc Farlane - Australian Encyclopedia of Rock & Pop (1999); Freedom Train (1996)
Noel McGrath - Encyclopedia of Australian Rock (1978)
John Robsinson's Blackfeather Productions
John Robinson: Autobiography
John Robinson: Return To The Mountains
Australian Rock Database
Chris Spencer & Zbig Nowara - Who's Who of Australian Rock & Roll (1993