Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs – Live at Sunbury


The Aztecs is a name few people outside Australia would be familiar with, which is a shame, because once upon a time they were one of the hardest, loudest, no bullshit rock and roll bands Oz ever produced. Their front man was none other than the legendary Billy Thorpe, who looked more like a Viking (sans helmet), and who could not only sing, but play some of the heaviest guitar on the planet. Backing him was Paul Wheeler (bass), Bruce Howard (keyboards), and Gil ‘Rats’ Matthews (drums), each of whom were no slouches either when it came to providing some major firepower of their own.

Aztecs Live! at Sunbury captures the band’s complete set at the Sunbury Rock Festival in 1972, which has oft been described as the closest Australia ever got to having a ‘Woodstock’ of its own, although with only about a tenth the number of people attending. Still, that was a massive turnout for a country with a relatively modest population. And true to form, The Aztecs managed to put in a performance so explosive that I wouldn’t be surprised if it took a few days for their amps to cool down.

First we open with “C.C. Rider”, one of the most covered blues songs of all time, but I bet you’ve never heard a version quite like this, where for the next six minutes or so, The Aztecs unleash enough energy to run a small town. Thorpe sings like his arse is on fire, while the rest of the group belt it out in a comparable manner. Next is the old Gene Vincent classic “Be Bop A Lula”, which has been transformed here into a hard-rock behemoth, with thumping drums and keyboards plus loads of heavy riffing. Thorpe also proves that his voice was a natural fit for this sort of material.

The last track on side one is a monster. “Momma” was co-written by Thorpe and Warren Morgan, who was not yet a member of the group, but soon would be. If I could use only one word to describe this tune it would be colossal. Even Black Sabbath (if they had of been present) would have slowly felt their genitals shrink with the sheer volume and authority Thorpe and co display on this one. Even on LP it sounds impressive, so imagine actually being there, close to the stage?

Jimi Hendrix had wowed the audience with an exciting rendition of “Rock Me Baby” at the Monterey Pop Festival way back in 1967, but the version Thorpe and the boys blasted out on this occasion bears little resemblance (except for the lyrics). My guess is that Jimi would have no doubt been impressed with The Aztecs own indomitably bluesy interpretation. And now we have the song which really put Billy Thorpe on the map, the autobiographical “Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy”. It would soon become something of an anthem, and I doubt if there is not a single baby-boomer in Australia who either does not own a copy or who hasn’t heard it at least once in their lifetime.

“Time to Live” is another quality song, and a vehicle for Thorpe to exhibit some serious chops on guitar. Although lasting at only six and half minutes, it has ‘epic’ written all over it. Once again Warren Morgan shares song-writing credit with Thorpe, on what is one of the finest post-hippie hard-rock compositions of the era.

The Aztecs finish off their set with two lengthy jams, the harmonica driven “Jump Back” and the blistering “Ooh Poo Pa Doo” (silly title but wait til you hear it). The former is a monstrously energetic blues romp, while the latter sees Thorpe initiate a call-and-response interval between himself and the audience. Such things usually don’t translate all that well on record (like extended drum solos), but one gets an impression of how excited (and stoned) the crowd must have been, and at a whopping fifteen minutes, it represents some of the rawest, heaviest jamming ever put to tape by an Australian group. One thing’s for sure, I would’ve hated to have been the poor bastards who were expected to follow on after these blokes!

Unavailable for many years, the album was finally remastered in 2005 for cd, and that is the copy I’m reviewing here. The sound is superb, although sadly, the original master tapes have gone underground, which meant that it was necessary to source it from a pristine vinyl copy (not that one can really tell). So until such time as whoever has the tapes comes forward (provided they haven’t been destroyed) this will have to do. But as I said, I really can’t fault it as it is. Live at Sunbury would go on to sell 80,000 copies soon after its release (a huge number in those days), and would long be regarded as the band’s finest and most iconic testament, as well as their most affectionately remembered. And though there would be other albums and performances at future Sunbury festivals, this has always been the one to own, and remains the definitive statement from one of Australia’s greatest musical acts.