As the 1970’s rolled on Billy Thorpe was beginning to mellow. Well, just a tad at least. As lead singer and guitarist of “multi-decibel rockers” the Aztecs, Thorpe was one of the earliest pioneers of Australian heavy rock, performing gigs so ear shattering that they soon became the stuff of legend (he purportedly killed off an entire tank of tropical fish at one venue due to the enormous volume). So, going from rough as guts pubs with beer and blood stained carpet to the recently opened and prestigious Sydney Opera House was quite a step up for the Aztecs in terms of location as well as etiquette. As the band’s pianist recalled: “We thought that if we could keep sober during rehearsals, that would help, given that this wasn’t a pub gig in Melbourne… where no-one gave a shit if you were pissed because everyone else was in the same condition.”
The show was divided into three parts, meaning that this was intended to be a big event. The Aztecs were joined on stage by former member Lobby Loyde (guitar), Kevin Murphy and Johnny Dick (drums), augmenting what was already a pretty powerful arsenal of players. Recorded in November 1974, Aztecs Steaming At The Opera House was issued as a double LP the following month, and is an absolute tour de force of blues-rock at its best.
CD one documents the first set, which was (largely) all acoustic. We begin with a rousing “All I Can Do Is Sing”, followed by a stirring “Cigarettes and Whisky”, introduced by Thorpe as a song he used to sing on the toilet as a five year old. “Don’t You Know You’re Changing” bears more than a passing resemblance to the classic “Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy”, the song he is perhaps most identified with, but that’s ok, since even John Lee Hooker used to repeat himself on occasion.
Thorpe could easily have given Terry Reid a run for his money, and he does just that on “One Day You’ll Lose It” and “Imagine Normal Days” before the band wander off into the land of progressive rock with the spacey “What Year Is It”, and ‘I believe in flying saucers’ “No More War”. The Aztecs rev the engine on “Not Another Bloody War”, before Warren Morgan unleashes a semi-rock/classical assault on the listener with “Last Moments”, like Rick Wakeman, only without some of the pretentious musical posturing. So instead of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, this is more like Journey to the bar at the call of last drinks.
The second CD kicks off with the cosmic “GOD”, an extended instrumental on which Thorpe and Lobby Loyde attempt to blow each other’s amp into the upper atmosphere. Both “Time To Live” and “Be Bop A Lula” will already be familiar to those who have heard the Aztecs Live and Aztecs Live! At Sunbury albums, so there’s little new going on here, except for the slow blues of “Ain’t Going Down Again”, a song with plenty of slide guitar, and lots of attitude. Thorpie sings and plays his arse off, even scat singing on occasion, while Loyde launches into an extra terrestrial guitar solo with a tone and technique I’m sure the likes of Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck would be impressed with.
Now, long guitar solos are one thing, however drum solos are a different matter entirely, fun for those in the audience but boring for those relaxing in their living room. Fortunately we are treated to some psychedelic guitar noodling towards the end, which if nothing else, manages to break up the monotony. The band attempts to burst the listener’s eardrums on final number “Oop Poop Pa Doo”, a traditional sounding rock song given a major hard rock makeover (imagine Little Richard backed by Deep Purple).
For fans of Billy Thorpe Aztecs Steaming At The Opera House is another vital although perhaps far more obscure chapter in the late guitarist’s career. This was an era of extended guitar workouts, let’s not forget, unlike today, where the average listener has the attention span of a couple of gold fish, and even that might be stretching it a bit. If you’re a fan of old school rock and roll, with an Australian accent, then this album is definitely for you.