Waves, Towradgi Beach Hotel
Friday, December 14, 2007
The Gaelic Theatre, Surry Hills
Saturday, December 15,  2007

Words and Pictures by THE BARMAN

You were entitled to expect less than this, 15 years after their last appearance. Their detractors certyainly would have. Ahhh, but the simple fact is that the reanimated Hitmen delivered in spades at Shows Number Two and Three on their fortnight-long run of reunion gigs. Granted, it was a Greatest Hits Set Live, with the occasional curve ball - and one new tune - thrown in, but it was more than enough to satisfy.

The band’s excuse was the deluxe re-issues of “The Hitmen” and “It Is What Is Is” on Savage Beat/Shock and better value packages of early ‘80s Australian rock and roll you’re unlikely to see. My excuse is I grew up on the Hitmen and their ilk, so if the opening show of the tour at Newcastle was a freeway too far on a school night, damned if I was going to miss the Gong gig or the expected bumper return to Sydney the night after.    

Friday night and a small crowd was on hand at Waves, whose cavernous scale had been reduced to a more intimate size for this gig. The reason for a moderate attendance seemed to be that the Divynils had been through a week earlier and had sucked a lot of pre-Xmas money out of the local rock and roll economy. Paying customers were thin on the ground when local 60s punkers The Unheard started cranking out their Yamaha-and-fuzz repertoire – more’s the pity because they do their thing so well.

The irony tonight was that a line-up change had resulted in The Unheard blowing out a scheduled support to – wait for it – the Hitmen at the nearby Cabbage Tree Hotel almost 20 years ago to the day. Yes, The Unheard have been around, off and on, for that many years but are still a match for most bands half their collective age. There’s the crop of semi-obscure covers and punchy originals, delivered with passion and precision. Pat’s keyboard looks like it’s ready for a new set of legs but you can’t say that for the band itself.

With any luck, a long-awaited album of old recordings from these guys will see the light of day in ’08 and they’ll be busy in the live sense as well. The year 2007 probably saw more shows from The Unheard than in the previous two decades.    

Next support The Lazys are a bunch of kids in their early 20s from the New South Wales Central Coast and if it seems they’re on this on this tour by virtue of being in the promoters’ management stable, Messrs Kannis and Masuak from the headliners have a buzz on them regardless, and were quite taken with their live act the night before.

What are they like? Let’s say that The Lazys and I don’t share the same love for AC/DC and that their pedal ends up a bit too close to the metal to be part of my usual listening fodder. That said, Bon-era Accadacca is way preferable to Brian-era Accadacca and I’ve rarely seen a bunch of kids with so much confidence and bravado.

This is meat-and-potatoes, pub rock and roll reveling in all the traditions and conventions that this carries and if a song like “Drink, Drugs, Fucking and Rock and Roll” (or whatever the show closer was called) cuts too close to the bogan bone for many, that’s too bad because if and when these kids hit the US or Europe they’re going to sit people on their arses.      

Singer Leon is a finger-pointing, stage-dominating showman who’s keen on being shirtless and wears jeans that are slung lower than Iggy’s. He’s more Bon than Pop but is seized with the same manic sense of exhibitionism that infected both. Bugger can sing too.

Left-handed drummer Tyler monsters his kit and lets that bottom-end swing, which is no small advantage. The lead-guitarist gets around like a street rat on speed and if his rhythm partner is buried in the mix the first night that’s at least corrected the following evening. The bass player is less demonstrative but rock solid.

Two stand-out things I noticed were: (a.) The Lazys actually got there early enough to watch and applaud and the opening act – in sharp contrast to some of the too-cool-for-school types on your typical undercards and (b.) they all wear their Access All Areas passes on stage as if they’re one of the most precious accoutrements they own – which for five young fellas living the dream, they probably are.

It’s an entertaining and energetic set, punctuated in part by Leon strapping on a drum and helping out in the solo department. It’s probably more melodic than Bon’s bagpipes. 

And so to the Hitmen and the crowd’s ranks had swollen appreciably by the time they take to the stage as an intro tape belatedly cracks into action. There’s a fair smattering of former Sydney inner-city types who’ve made the lifestyle move to Wollongong, as well as the odd long-distance traveler.

Masuak and Kannis re-convened.

Overheard:  “I remember seeing these guys when Johnny Kannis wore a white suit and shoes at the Civic Hotel” – which carbon dates that particular punter to 1979. He's not alone.

 “Pay Up Or Shut Up” is as good a starter as anything in the back catalogue and gives way to a double-punch of "Big Love" and I Want You", the first two songs from the first album.

This is a “new” line-up in the sense that the combination had never previously played together at the same time. Johnny Kannis, Chris Masuak and bassist Tony “The Kid” Robertson were the backbone of a classic line-up, but guitarist Tony Jukic hails from Kannis solo bands. As immaculate as his pedigree is (notably the Screaming Tribesmen and the Fun Things) Murray Shepherd never actually was a Hitman. No issue in the end, as there’s a commonality of backgrounds and spirit that makes this line-up as “authentic” as it needs to be. The Hitmen – save for one line-up – were always Kannis and Masuak, plus others.      

Wollongong table dancer.

Johnny Kannis might have shorn his flowing locks - and his sweat-caked hair eventually peaks in a shape eerily reminiscent of the Zippy the Pinhead character that he used to wear on his T-shirt -  but he hasn’t lost much else. He looks (and sounds) like he’s reached match fitness with some off-season work. Demeanor-wise, there are the customary wide-eyed glares, the on-the-spot stage jumps and the James Brown-esque shimmies across the stage.

A bit of aggro cuts in when he’s accosted by some guy during one of six or seven forays into the crowd. This ends in tears with the punter and his girlfriend being given marching orders from the stage, mid-set. Zeus: 1 - Yobbo: Nil.

As to the choice of songs – well, it’s a matter of what to leave out. It’s a fair spread across the entire back catalogue with a few tunes (like “It’s So Hard”) meriting a word-for-word introduction as per the “Tora Tora Tora DTK” live album.  The patter might not be original but it’s very effective and The King of The Surf (“here’s a song that’s been very good to me”) has the crowd eating out of his hand.

The Hitmen always had a knack of making other bands’ songs their own and King of the Covers is a photo finish between “Shake Some Action” and the Sonics’ “Have Love Will Travel”.

Tony Juke.   

 A further word on the line-up: Tony “Juke” is an ideal foil for “Klondike”, playing the sheet anchor role for most of the set with a full-sounding tone that really bristles. Ever the perfectionist, Masuak isn’t happy with his own work tonight but I have to say there wasn’t much to complain about, out-front.  As for the engine room, “The Kid” and “Muzza” must have needed all of 10 minutes to lock into each other’s work cos it looked like they’d been living in each other’s pockets. Such is the bedrock that great gigs are made of.

Just quietly, Shepherd must be a logical replacement in Birdman for Russell Hopkinson too, not only given his sterling two-song performance as a stand-in at the ARIA Hall of Fame show but by virtue of him being a motherfucker of a player.

Great show and a couple of hundred patrons go noisily into the Wollongong night with smiles plastered on their faces.

- - - - -

 Is it Saturday night already? 

I can’t tell you who the opening support was as I spent too much pre-show time at the pub, avoiding my wallet being raped by the obscene beer prices at the Gaelic. Nonetheless I’m in place, gripping a six-dollar bottle (it ought to be a commemorative one at that price) by the time The Lazys trot out.

Tonight’s set is a notch above last night’s in the energy stakes – so much so that four of the five ended up shirtless and hanging off various parts of the PA stack or drum riser. The band seems a little edgier, a bit more intense, no doubt spurred on by the bigger crowd. The venue is fairly full before the end of their set.

At the risk of seeming obsessed with AC/DC comparisons can I throw in the Screaming Jets too? Someone else offers up The Radiators on the night but that’s just too lame to entertain, in my view.

The Lazys look a little hazy as they drum up a storm.

And “entertain” is exactly what these guys do. It has to be said that crowd opinion is divided with half the punters standing back, waiting to be impressed, and the other half really enjoying the set.

Again, I dunno if I’ll be rushing out to buy the box set, but someone needs to get these boys on a festival bill somewhere, maybe with Doomfoxx or Airborne sharing a dressing room with them.

Andf so to the headliners and the air is thick with anticipation. The expectations are bigger than a Macquarie Bank broker's wallet at bonus time.

Can the Hitmen deliver?

Hell, yes.

They don’t vary the set much (if at all) from the previous night but seem to be tighter and substantially more fired up. Zeus enters, stage left, a few bars into "Pay Up" with a shit-eating/vodka-swilling grin and wearing his dancin' shoes. The band clicks into high gear like a well-tuned muscle car engine.

It's near criminal how good they are with just two shows under the belt, but rehearsals had been a ball, by all accounts. They're clearly enjoying their work. Song choice-wise, again, there’s no “Reaper” in the set but “Shake Some” and a sublime “Suspicious Minds” (the encore, naturally) bring the house down.

It’s only right that we’re reminded, about a third of the way through proceedings, that the Hitmen are The Rock and Roll Soldiers. For mine, their cover of the New Order song shaded the original AND the demo Radio Birdman recorded.

Of the originals, an earthy “Bwana Devil”, “It’s So Hard”, the dark “15 Hours” and a really sharp “Gonna Be Late” really take the (birthday) cake. Speaking of which, there's no better mindless moment than the good-times, fun blast of "I Don't Mind" with Klondike and Tony Juke tearing it to shreds. Sales of T-bone steaks would be higher in the Surry Hills district and surrounding suburbs the following day, you'd expect.

Sales of ice, too: The Kid suffered an apparent broken toe in an on-stage accident with the set barely started and was hobbling into the early hours.  

These guys were Solid As a Rock. And that was another peak.

Is it nostalgia? Probably in one sense, given the understandable reliance on old songs, but everything has to start somewhere. And so what if it is? Plenty of old faces are in tonight, making like they all want to wind the clock back. And of course JK’s back in the crowd, howling at the moon like it’s 1980 again.

There will always be room for reunions that are convened not only with an ear to the past but an eye to the future.

This is anything remotely near cabaret shtick. It’s lean, loud and vibrant. The band seems hungry. That they’ve taken the trouble to work up a new song is a pointer. Hopefully the desire to do a new album will translate into something special, as risky as that is, using all necessary means.

Be prepared for the odd surprise, too, next time this band of Hitmen resume their War Against The Jive in early ‘08.