Share DANCING TIME ’78-’79 – The Hitmen (Savage Beat/Shock)
When Radio Birdman imploded on the road in Europe in 1978, the natural place for ex-Birdmen Chris “Klondike” Masuak and Warwick Gilbert to land (the latter reverting to the guitar he’d played in the Rats pre-Birdman) was the Hitmen, a band fronted by Birdman backing singer Johnny Kannis which had its genesis in a party outfit that first graced the board in late 1977. Savage Beat completes their exhaustive Hitmen reissue series with this double disc of demos, live artifacts, and a couple of released items – Kannis’ solo singles and Masuak’s one-off country-rock project Chris Boy King and the Kamloops Swing.
The material, some of which existed only in cassette form, has been lovingly remastered for maximum sonic impact with the kind of attention to detail for which Aussie labels are justifiably well known, and comes with a 28-page book crammed with photos, memorabilia, session details, and an informative essay by the I-94 Barman his own self.
The Kannis solo tracks “King of the Surf,” “Pushin’ Too Hard,” and “Under the Boardwalk” are pure, uncomplicated fun, while the first Trafalgar demo session reveals a band as reflective of Birdman’s dark, brooding side as the fun, party-time one. The spirit of "Radios Appear" is very alive here. Masuak cuts loose and plays with unbridled abandon on “Come With Me,” while always simmering with the disciplined fire that characterized his Birdman fretwork. Kannis sings with great expressive range, skirting the territory that last-angry-man Rob Younger staked out with the New Christs in “The Tales,” adopting the same tone of feverish dementia Mark Sisto sometimes employed with the Visitors in “Wise Guys.” By their second demo session, they were already honing their songwriting chops, adding pop touches like hooks ‘n’ harmonies as they went. Warwick Gilbert’s compositional contributions are highly noteworthy; “Night Is Over” in particular is a great song that should have been released back in the day.
Among the live sessions, the one 2JJ broadcast from the Stagedoor Tavern boasts ace sound, electric energy, and a set list that includes a smokin’ cover of the Masters Apprentices’ “Wars Or Hands of Time.” The next set, from “venues unknown,” highlights the Hitmen’s range, from a suitably hyper version of the MC5’s “High School” to an unironic take on Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds.” The well-recorded set from the Local Inn in Ryde shows the band’s Birdman roots still strong, with a version of “Dancing Time” that wins in spite of an out-of-tune guitar. It’s proof positive, as if any more were needed, that from the gate, they were an ace live act, with energy, chops, and songcraft on a par with their ‘Meercun brothers-in-arms the Flamin’ Groovies and the Dictators. The Chris Boy King tracks definitely lean toward the rockier side of “country rock,” like the Celibate Rifles covering “Six Days On the Road.” Indeed, “How Could He Resist” is downright power-poppy.
While longtime owners of all the ‘riginal releases might not find this set essential, for a Johnny-come-lately furriner like myself, these shiny silver discs make a strong case for the Hitmen as a world class band, one worthy of their illustrious lineage. - Ken Shimamoto
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"St Valentine's Day Massacre" by Niagara & The Hitmen reviewed here
TORA TORA D.T.K. – The Hitmen (Savage Beat/Shock)
Living in the States, the Hitmen weren’t even a blip on my radar, although I understand that in the early ‘80s, this Radio Birdman offshoot had an impact that arguably surpassed that of the parent group itself during its existence. From a teenage Birdman fan, Chris “Klondike” Masuak had evolved into a power player with an impressive command of all manner of punk rock ‘n’ roll, blues-rock, and Hendrixoid guitar ramalama, while former backup singer Johnny “Zeus” Kannis had become quite a formidable frontman in his own right.
By the time they played the run of farewell shows documented on the live Tora Tora D.T.K. album, they were arguably the best live band in Orstralia – just ask Masuak, he’ll tell you, or even more persuasively, listen to this album. Starting from the fever-pitch hysteria level of the first side of MC5’s "Kick Out the Jams", with tighter execution to boot, these Hitmen sound like the Ur rock ‘n’ roll band, as though they’d swallowed the beast whole and belched up only the good parts. You’d never guess that Kannis, who was recovering from a near-fatal car wreck at the time, had to be taken back to hospital immediately after performing some of these shows. The bonus tracks offer up more of the same fiery brew. Particularly meritorious are the juxtaposition of Elvis and MC5 signifiers on “Suspicious Minds,” and a truly unhinged, gospel-revue-on-acid version of “Louie Louie.”
By the time they regrouped as the Hitmen D.T.K. for the U.E.L.A. mini-album at the ass-end of the ‘80s, Masuak had been to the States with the Kannis-managed, nearly-hair-metal Screaming Tribesmen (which reminds me, I need to snag the copy of "Bones and Flowers" I’ve been sleeping on at Doc’s Records here in Fort Worth). The "Moronic Inferno" album was recorded at Sugar Hill Studios in Houston, stomping ground of crazy Cajun Huey Meaux and employer of ex-Birdman soundguy Mort Bradley. With their sparkling production and massed backing vox, songs like “Surfing In Another Direction” and “Ready To Ride” sound like the poppier side of Birdman’s swansong "Living Eyes" (“More Fun,” “Do the Moving Change”) brought to its ultimate fruition. Elsewhere, there are shades of the Tribesmen and Masuak’s growing interest in SRV-style blues-rock.
The Surfin’ In Another Direction CDEP, recorded at the end of the Moronic Inferno sessions, marked the return to music of Deniz Tek, then recently separated from the U.S. Navy – a brotherly gesture between old bandmates who haven’t always seen eye-to-eye since then. From the solo he peals off on “Little Black Dress” – a one-take, spur of the moment thing – you wouldn’t guess that the good doctor was “retired” from music at that point. Of course, his solo career jumpstarting "Take It to the Vertical" album followed, and the rest, as they say, is history. Never say never again.
As usual, Shock offers ample value for money, adding a version of Iggy’s “Kill City” that Kannis recorded for a compilation, as well as six tracks from Klondike’s C&W-flavoured "Cowboy Angel" mini-LP, to the already generous helping of Hitmen music. Packaging and liners are as sumptuous as we’ve come to expect. - Ken Shimamoto
THE HITMEN (Re-issue) - The Hitmen (Savage Beat/Shock)
IT IS WHAT IT IS (Re-issue) - The Hitmen (Savage Beat/Shock)
Some time in the far distant future, historians will look back on a time when Western consumer society had an obsession with raking over old musical coals. Carbon-dated piles of discarded vinyl will show their forefathers (that'd be us) were slaves to and endless march of new formats.
Many sets of eyes grew misty on the day when the gods of digital re-vamps discovered these two artifacts underneath some faintly glowing embers. Verily, the original black platters were exhumed, re-mastered, blessed with loads of bonus tracks, pressed onto little silver aluminum discs and handed down from a mountain.
The day the Hitmen'sfirst LP hit the racks is still clear in my mind's eye. It was crunchingly loud guitar rock full of bravado and swathed in tough guy leather. The lyrical nonsequitirs onlyadded a dash of mystery. There was also a large chunk of humour involvedthat led right back to the Dictators, as it turned out. That the whole shebang was emerging from the shadow of Radio Birdman (two of them were on board, plus MC and back-up singer Johnny Kannis) only added to the allure.
Live, they came across like the cast of "Apocalypse Now" after they'd found the Cambodian extras had drunk the rider they'd been saving for the wrap party. The Hitmen also had the air of missionaries about them, tirelessly peddling their own tunes (and those of other people) to pubs and clubs the lengths and breadth of this Wide Brown Land. The term Punk Rock Jukebox might have been employed derisively by some but it became a compliment in many circles.
(The creak of a rocking chair is heard): The '80s were great. Ask anyone (someone?) who can remember them. Bands in pubs on every corner and radio that bothered to be different. The Hitmen effectively cast themselves adrift from the inner-city clique from whence they came and set about giving a damn fine musical education to the suburban masses. But you knew that. It's all in the liner notes.
Australian Rolling Stone had No Fucking Idea what to make of "The Hitmen" when it came out, comparing it to Iggy Pop Slop and saying even he didn't sound like this in '81. (No, he did not but that isn't a good thing. "Party", anyone?) How times have changed. The same self-important fashion rag is now raving about the re-ishes. And so they should. The songs have dated well and the production on the first album is fairly timeless.
Value? You betcha. "The Hitmen" album, the singles and a dozen live songs from an on-fire 2JJJ-FM live-to-air. Then a second disc with the '79 "Didn't Tell The Man" debut single and its flip, plus pre-production demo's. Here's a jewel-encrusted centre: "Wings of Steel" and "Cold December" were up there with the songs that made it to the LP proper. Then another 14 live songs from three gigs that'll sit you on your arse.
You get the full spread of sharp and sometimes criminally unreleased originals with a generous helping of covers. The Hitmen had a knack of making other people's songs their own and witness the studio version of "Shake Some Action" and live renditions of "TPBR Combo", "King of the Surf", "The Red and The Black" and "Kill City" for evidence of greatness.
Why "Hitmen" never sold was, and is still, beyond me. A quarter of a century later it's still a killer record, made only more desirable by the heady crop of bonuses.
"It It What It Is" was the Difficult Second Album. Working with an ill-suited production team that was foisted onto them, an already feisty band effectively decided the planets were against them...and the solar system could therefore go fuck itself. Poor production and tracking squandered some of their (then) best songs. Disappointment hung heavy in the air.
All's not lost. Klondike Masuak had the good grace to get into a studio with the offending album tapes in hand. His 1991 re-mix on Rattlesnake made considerable amends for the botched job the enforced producers did the first time out. The 2007 deluxe double CD re-issue, with its further re-mastering job and generous whack of extras, goes that extra mile.
The demo's - more pre-production and for another '82 session - again rule, with the former giving an air of grittiness to those great songs that totally evaded the Brown-and-Dunlop (BAD - geddit?) production team. Cock an ear to "Rocket On The Elevator Up", the original "Go Rin No Sho" and the unadorned version of the title tune if you don't believe me.
Compiler Dave Laing's track-by-track for both sets is acerbic and to the point. This was clearly a labour of love with the ear of a true fan-atic involved. The balance of the chunky booklets are taken up by a detailed biographical history of the band - and even this seems to make sense in the cold light of day.
A risque faux pax on the original "It Is What It Is" cover photo has bowed to the heinous hand of censorship, via a touch-up job for a patch on drummer Mark Kingsmill's pants, but that's life in the 00's.
I am biased (and had some peripheral involvement in these discs), but to my mind both packages are two of THE essential purchases any fan of the Good Stuff needs to make. – The Barman
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