Posted January 30, 2005

Hitmen frontman Johnny Kannis:
Itching to re-declare
War Against the Jive

Sydney. The early 1980s. If you were a fan of live rock and roll and weren't even peripherally aware of The Hitmen, you desperately needed someone to check your pulse. In fact, you didn't even have to hail from Sydney - Australia's most bombastic and cocksure rock outfit toured all over Australia. Relentlessly.

The Hitmen were originally an outgrowth of Radio Birdman, with most of its membership passing through the ranks of what was originally a party band.Their all-enduring member was frontman Johnny Kannis, whose Greek-Australian lineage didn't preclude him from being a descendant of the Dictators' Handsome Dick Manitoba and Elvis Presley. He leaned his stagecraft as Radio Birdman's Master of Ceremonies and one-half of their back-up singers The Glutonics. The other constant in all but one post-Birdman Hitmen line-up was Chris "Klondike" Masuak, a Canadian-born teenage schoolmate of Kannis and close spiritual guitar kin of James Williamson and Ross the Boss.

Johnny and The Hitmen became The Hitmen soon after Birdman collapsed in on itself, reaching well beyond the radiitonal inner-Sydney haunts and staking a claim for the hearts, minds and dancing shoes of suburbia. With high-energy music breaking out all over Australia, The Hitmen became big business, signing to a major label and becoming part of "the industry". Just the sort of behaviour to burn bridges with fickle inner-city fair-weather friends.Carrying themselves with a swagger born of near fanatical self-belief and arrogantly brushing aside any detractor or musical pretenders deemed to be not up to the mark, The Hitmen were impossible to ignore.

Shifting line-ups and a music business that didn't know what to do with their derivative but always entertaining stock-in-trade meant The Hitmen never quite broke through to the big time. They were a band that packed 'em in live but their albums ("The Hitmen", "It Is What It Is" and "Moronic Inferno" in the studio, "Tora Tora DTK" live) never did the proportionate numbers in sales. Nevertheless, scores of beer and testosterone-fuelled Aussie youths grew up with the hard rock soundtrack that The Hitmen provided ringing in their ears, and discovered some fine music in the deal.

A near fatal car accident in 1983 all but buried Johnny Kannis and the band in the process, but for more than a decade, off-and-on, The Hitmen carried a torch for hi-energy fun. Kannis' injuries hampered his on-stage activities to the extent that he mostly moved into band management. A farewell tour and the occasional re-emergence (with the appendage "DTK" to the band name, to avoid an overseas copyright clash) kept things simmering into the mid-'90s, when Kannis' move interstate took the wind out of the sails. Rumblings of a reunion tour have been constant. THE BARMAN thought it was high-time to investigate and document the band's history in this rare interview with The Hitman himself.

Q Greetings, Zeus! You’ve been out of the Sydney scene for quite some time. What are you up to musically or on the promotion and management side?

Hey Barman…Yasou! Well, I moved to the Gold Coast in 1993 (soon after the Hitmen/Dark Carnival Tour) to promote some great Australian bands like The Hoodoo Gurus, Hunters & Collectors, Baby Animals, Screaming Jets and some International acts like No Doubt, Fear Factory, Buffalo Tom and many others. When the live pub scene started falling apart up here in 1997, I got into promoting some Outdoor Events like The Xtreme Games, a Hoodoo Gurus New Years Eve Outdoor Concert and DJ’d at a few Clubs here on The Gold Coast and Brisbane…

Somewhere in there, I managed one of Triple J’s unearthed bands from Brisbane called Communion in 1996, I remember having a wild one off reunion gig with The Hitmen in 1994 at The Lansdowne Hotel Sydney with Gerard from Moronic Sessions on drums, Tony ‘The Kid’ Robertson who I discovered was living in Brisbane on Bass, Klondike & myself... we did some Queensland shows as well… burnt the brain cells that week so I can’t remember too much.

I don’t have anything much to do with music at the moment except I’m still on a mission from Zeus, trying to get the band back together! Any line-up will do because they were all great in their own way. I’d love to tour with Chris, Robo, Brad and Mark again! We were a mad combo - full of hysterics and wild mayhem!

Q You and Chris Masuak go back a long time. Tell us about that friendship and your first band together.

I met Chris in year 10 at Maroubra Bay High School in Sydney. He arrived from Canada with his mum, stepdad, sister and brother Greg (Greg was in Super K… he also made our first clip for “I Don’t Mind” – became a big shot video director in the '90s).

Johnny and Klondike.

Chris and I used to talk music all the time at school and one day we ended up jamming at his house (I played rhythm guitar). I was blown away by his killer originals and guitar riffs. Chris was into stuff I hadn’t heard of before like Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Mott the Hoople, Traffic, Blue Oyster Cult, to name a few.

We ended up putting a band together one day for the school play “Bye Bye Birdie” where I ended up playing bass with Steve Harris (Visitors, Passengers, Johnny Kannis Explosion) on keyboards and Chris on guitar. That was the start. We later auditioned for a bass player and drummer, played a handful of shows like footy parties and high school dances as The Jackals and became great mates.

Actually, that’s how we first met Deniz Tek (at one of our gigs). He showed up with Chris Jones (TV Jones) at a Northmead High School dance (Chris Jones’s brother sang that night) and we had a great jam at the end of the night.

Q Were you born and bred in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs? I heard you played lower grade rugby league for South Sydney…

Born in Crown Street Women’s Hospital Surry Hills, moved to Maroubra when I was nine, back to Surry Hills at 16. At around the same time as being selected to play for South Sydney’s President’s Cup team (then under 21s), I met Birdman and gave up footy. That was in 1975.

I went into South Sydney Juniors football club in Kingsford last year and saw my picture up on the wall.. I wanted to rip it down as a souvenir. My most memorable game was when I tried out for Newtown when I was 15 and played against Ron Coote (international player) for 15 minutes.

I should have continued with the footy but it was difficult getting to training after I’d been up all night partying after a Birdman gig or rehearsal, drinking and partying…

Q I’m presuming Chris’ gravitation towards the Funhouse scene was the catalyst for you also becoming involved. Is that right? What’s your earliest memories of that?

After that Northmead High School gig, Deniz invited Chris and I to go and see Birdman play - we’d never heard of Birdman before that gig. We then used to go see them play in front of about 20-30 people sometimes at The Oxford Tavern… these guys were wild, loud and in your face.. The crowds picked up incredibly when Birdman won the RAM Levis Battle of the Bands.

Anyway…we got to know Rob and Deniz by hanging out at their pad for drinks every now and then in Darlinghurst – listening to Iggy Pop, MC5, Ramones, Blue Oyster Cult, Sex Pistols and some amazing 45s Rob owned. I’d never heard of any of those bands before. I was into The Stones, Ted Nugent, Eagles, Creedence, BTO. When I came back from my end-of-season footy trip, Chris had joined Birdman, which was really cool ,and The Jackals split up.

Birdman bassist and later Hitmen member Warwick Gilbert,
Birdman Minister of Defence/back-up singer Mark Sisto, Johnny Kannis
and Radio Birdman singer Rob Younger outside
Hurstville Civic Centre during the 1976 Blitzkrieg Tour.

Q How did you graduate from fan to back-up singer and MC?

Jules R B Normington was their sound man and manager when I first saw Birdman mid 70’s and when he left for an overseas trip, I took over the sound duties and became their sound guy. It wasn’t hard because they owned this small kick ass PA and all they miked up were their voices and kick drum (not enuff channels on the desk) for anything else).

I remember one gig where Cold Chisel supported us and they showed up with this huge PA system with a zillion lights. They asked us if we wanted to use it and we said no, worrying that their crew might screw us over. So, we set up our tiny PA, turned on the stage fluro and the crowd went nuts!

We used to meet at Rob’s late afternoon before the gigs to load up the Birdvan… we’d set up, do a soundcheck, have a few beeros and wait for the gig. They used to play 2-3 sets I think. I used to help out collecting money on the door sometimes. I remember one gig at The Funhouse when the PA blew up, the show was called off and we offered everyone their money back - but nobody wanted it!

Q One of the Birdman members reckons you changed when you started getting up on stage. When did John Kannis become Zeus and what was behind the transformation? Tell us about that white dinner jacket…

Actually, I officially became Zeus mid 80’s when I set up my management company to look after The Screaming Tribesmen and Psychotic Turnbuckles. John Kannis became Johnny Kannis….or, Kannis 1975 after a wild night at French’s Bar.

My first onstage with Birdman was when they played at a house party in Bondi Junction. Deniz, out of the blue, introduced me as the hardest working man in show business and got me up to sing back-ups for “Hand of Law” and “New Race”. You couldn’t get me off the stage after that.

Deniz then introduced me to the music of The Dictators and James Brown, telling me that show biz was waiting for a singer with a combo like that. I used to also read Cream Magazine regularly and one day I read that Handsome Dick Manitoba had worn white tails to a show, so I soon went and hired (pop singer) Mark Holden’s white tails from a bridal place in Sydney and I wore them on stage nearly every gig (didn’t give them back – yeah, I stole them).

When Mark Sisto got back from overseas (he used to come and go) we joined up as the Glutonics, singing back ups at most Birdman gigs. I think there’s some great video of us on stage (long lost) at the Hurstville Civic Centre. I sang harmonies on the first album while Sisto was overseas. When you listen to “Aloha” and “Anglo Girl”, that’s just Deniz and me doing those high harmonies.

Q What’s your recollection of those final Paddo shows and the following the band had attracted by then? It must have been a buzz rallying that crowd.

It was amazing seeing the growth of the band from no crowds to huge crowd. The followers were passionate, fanatical and loyal . I used to see many of the same faces at most gigs. The energy level backstage at those Paddo shows was incredible – it was electric on edge stuff!

I sang and MC’d at those gigs and knew that something big was happening… a new beginning in Australian music. Rallying the crowd was easy because the band already had them pumped by the time “New Race” came up (last song). As soon as they saw me hit the stage, the chants started: “Yeah Hup! Yeah Hup!” It was high-energy -you couldn’t help but get lost in every moment!

Q Do you remember what it was that prompted you to put together the first line-ups of the Hitmen? It was widely reported to be a “floating line-up”, so who were the earliest members?

I think (latter days Birdman manager) George Kringas, Deniz and Warwick prompted me because they knew I loved the spotlight! Our first gig was a party at The Spit - a pyjama party! I’ll have to look up one of those band trees that’s floating around the net to confirm the line-up or maybe give Steve Lorkin a call - he knew all the line-ups.
Okay, let me see…first version of The Hitmen: Ron Keeley, Chris Masuak, Warwick Gilbert, Angie Pepper, Charlie Georges (Hellcats). Pip Hoyle…then a different line up when Birdman went overseas…Deniz might have sung back-ups.

Q How did the solo single "King of the Surf" b/w "Under the Boardwalk" on RCA come about and did you record just the three songs?

I think it was Deniz and George’s idea - they suggested it to Charles Fisher and Mort (Bradley – Birdman’s live sound engineer) might have had something to do with it. I can’t really remember. I was only 17 at the time so I was influenced and persuaded quite easily. Michael McMartin from Trafalgar got the RCA deal. I was just rapt to be on Elvis’ label!

Yeah, just three songs with all Birdman members, minus Rob. (ED: Deniz sang back-ups and Hellcats guitarist Charlie Georgees played guitar). They were familiar with Trafalgar Studios so the recording was easy and it sounded awesome! Looking back, I wish we’d recorded more - an album would have been killer! Deniz did an incredible job producing those tracks.

Q Is it true that you did a few Hitmen shows while Birdman was absent in Europe? How many and who played in that line-up?

Yeah we played a couple, I think.. Steve Harris (Visitors), Clyde Bramley (Hoodoo Gurus), Angie Pepper, Lynne Phillips, Charlie Georges (Hellcats) and Alan Brown on drums (Passengers). There’s a bootleg tape floating around somewhere of that line-up.

We rented out a factory in Newtown as our rehearsal and gig room.. We had this wild party there just before Rob went overseas. Anyone could get up and play and it got closed down that night! We were actually called Johnny & The Hitmen and changed the name to The Hitmen when we got the Warners deal.

Two Hitmen feeling like hot men: Johnny and former Saints drummer Ivor Hay in
an early Hitmen line-up at Narabeen circa 1979.

Q How come you never went to Europe with Birdman in ‘78?

Wasn’t invited. It would have been wild but it was hard to push my way in…I really wanted to go but it would have been cramped in the van. I think, by that time, the idea of Johnny Kannis getting on stage with his white tails on European stages wasn’t a priority. I think my persona was starting to wear thin on some of the guys, you know. I got in the way on stage... smoked too many cigars and drank too much whiskey…couldn’t help myself.

Q Ron Keeley was a fill-in for the Hitmen when the Birdman guys started filtering back. How did you involve Chris and then Warwick?

Chris was the first guy back from Europe so he came up and told me Rob had quit Birdman and suggested we do some shows together.. I phoned Alan Brown and Steve Harris and we rehearsed for a couple of weeks, playing some songs that Chris had written overseas. like “15 Hours”, “Didn’t Tell the Man”, “Kicks Right Now”, “Death By The Gun”, “Tales” and lots of other great pop songs. We threw in “Shake Some Action”, “Suspicious Minds” and Johnny & The Hitmen were re born.

Warwick Gilbert on guitar, Phil Somerville on bass circa late 1978.

Warwick joined on guitar when he got back I think and Ron filled in for a while when Alan left or got kicked out.
Wow… can’t remember too much except that the first gig when Chris got back was at The Rex Hotel Kings Cross with Icehouse supporting us - I mean Flowers as they were then known. Everyone was expecting the new Birdman or something. There were a few disappointed people that night.. when we played Robert Palmers’ “Hotel Chambermaid” there was a bit of an exodus. We were just having fun.. nothing too serious… a party band.

Q The Hitmen actively played out in the suburbs. Was that a deliberate thing to maximise exposure and recruit fans? If so, how did you actually take that step and what was the reaction among the inner-city crowd?

Fuck the inner city crowd.. we did it to try and sell records and to build on our fan base. To play to the masses and , maybe somewhere along the way, make enough money to pay rent. It was tough selling albums when commercial radio was playing Australian Crawl, Sherbert, Mi-Sex and all that stuff, so we decided that we needed to get out to the ‘burbs. It worked in some areas but in other parts - let’s just say we were lucky to get out alive.

Q People used to call the Hitmen a “punk rock jukebox” which I know wasn’t entirely accurate, but you get the drift. (On one hand, the strong reliance on covers in your set seems a bit of surprise as you had so many songwriters in the ranks. On the other hand, a lot of those songs weren’t widely known outside a circle of people who had cool record collections). What was the attitude of band members to those "jukebox" comments?

We always played what we wanted to play: songs we grew up with. new songs we’d written. We were having fun, that was the priority. To tell you the truth, we had no direction or plans in the beginning so we played some really amazing gigs and songs. Best cover for me (apart from “Suspicious Minds”) was “Holiday in Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys.

The songs mostly came from Chris and Warwicks’ collections. When we signed with Warners, that’s when the pressure was on to sell albums: They paid big bucks for the recording!

We enjoyed supporting bands like Midnight Oil -they helped us get to bigger suburban crowds. We did some shows with the Clash, Stranglers – those shows were huge. We got to play to some big crowds but unfortunately it didn’t relate back to album sales. Q How did the deal with WEA come about and were many others bidding? I presume the advance was OK as they used Mark Opitz to produce and he was pretty hot at the time.

Sharing a dressing room with Cold Chisel "singer" Jimmy Barnes.

Mort Bradley got the deal for us because one of his mates, Phil Mortlock, worked for Warners. He saw us and Mort talked him into signing us. They didn’t know what to do with us… we didn’t know what to do with us!!! I used to go and hang at Warners offices quite a lot, eating their food and drinking their booze. They were really great guys. Mark Opitz was a good engineer but we (the band) produced that album, he got the sounds. He knew what buttons to push.

We mucked around with a couple of managers back in the early days so to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t know what money came from where. I just showed up with my gig bag, threw on the cockroach killers, downed some Pernod and beers and had a wild time mixing it up with whoever was up for it. I was shameless.

Q Was Tony Vidale’s exit a body blow or did Brad Shepherd slip in pretty well seamlessly? Brad told me he was basically a fan of the band who was lucky enough to get the call after lending you an amp while on tour in his home town of Brisbane. Is that a fair assessment and why did you guys pick him?

A body blow for me because Tony and I were great mates and drinking buddies. Let’s say we used to spend five nights a week at the Manzil Room (Springfields) in Kings Cross after gigs until 6am, and we shared common interests like cars and girls. He was so cool with that Keith Richards persona - he was a chick magnet.

Brad Shepherd on stage with the Hitmen.

Having said that, I think Brad fit in pretty well and we also became good buddies. I remember Brad having a great sense of humour and it was refreshing to be around his up-beat personality. He used to make me laugh.
I missed him when he left. I was a bit bummed out but we soldiered on. I can’t remember the amp thing with Brad, it might have been at some Brisbane gig; he was a really loyal fan – used to come to every gig in Queensland. I can’t even remember how we asked him to join. Chris and Warwick used to do all the hiring and firing.

We knew Vidale had to go because he was so lost in the studio and one day, he just gave up. Brad put down his guitar tracks in one day. He had a few tuning problems when he got started but when he settled in, he just blew us away!

Q Where you happy with the way the first album turned out? I read a Rolling Stone review back then time that unflatteringly compared it to Iggy Pop’s output at the time, which really had me scratching my head.

I liked the way the first album turned out. If we had to do it over again, I would have gone for a few more live recordings rather than some of the overdubs and layers Opitz tried to use. That wasted so much time in the studio. I remember I spent a lot of time in the sauna back then waiting for my turn to sing. They were killer songs and I think that’s what kept the album together. We did them justice.

The unfortunate thing was that nobody in the music biz knew what to do with us and what to make of the album. We faked our way through the business side of things. We were musically a bit ahead of our time in Sydney. They weren’t quite ready for us.

Q Where you happy with the way WEA promoted it? For that matter, what about the label that picked you up after them, RCA, and the way they pushed (or didn’t) “It Is What It Is”?

Warners did an okay job I think but I was pissed off when they gave us an ultimatum of "video clip for the single or tour support for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers". Guess what we chose? It was a great tour with Petty!

Our managers tried to do the right thing by us but gave in to the RCA bosses' demands most times. The best thing about “It Is What It Is” is the new mix Chris gave it a few years later.