HAPPY MAN – A TRIBUTE TO THE SUNNYBOYS – Various Artists (Off the Hip)
And high time it is that someone paid homage to Australia’s best pop-rock band of the 1980s. That this disc is finally out after a long gestation is nearly as much of a delight as the way in which the Sunnyboys’ mighty legacy is being more widely celebrated, hopefully for the consumption of a whole new generation as much as for the ones who were there. This tribute set sits well with the stellar retrospective and rarities collection, “This Is Real”, on Feelpresents, one of the best releases (bar none) of 2005.

The ‘80s seems so long ago ("Snatch the pebble from my hand, Grasshopper, and I’ll tell you all about a decade long ago ") and few of the players on “Happy Man” are youngsters. It’s a fair bet that these tunes were the soundtrack to most of their 20-something-year-old musical lives. Not many household names either but I have a funny feeling that, unlike on the recent Hoodoo Gurus trib, most would prefer it that way.

Melbourne’s Even are about the best known, although The Naked Eye, Danny McDonald, Jack and the Beanstalk and (maybe) The Jennys might spring to recall. The rest are pretty low to the ground unless you’re in the know, but that makes “Happy Man” a handy sampler. All but one or two are still going concerns.

The most important thing in a tribute disc is not just a healthy respect for the songs – which doesn’t mean an ability to channel the original band like an Australian Beatles Show. These things work when everyone brings a different brand of six-pack to the barbie, and lets their own band’s identity seep through without trying too hard. Mission accomplished on “Happy Man”.

To be fair, you’d have to say the 18 bands have a home ground advantage. The Sunnyboys had a stunning array of tunes in their arsenal, primarily through the staggeringly talented Jeremy Oxley. None of those songs was harmed in the making of this disc. They emerge, honour intact, sometimes with interesting re-arrangements.

Sydney’s High Horse is first out of the gates with a countrified version of “I Can’t Talk To You”. Long-term listeners will recall it was the first song on the first Sunnyboys album. Did it ever sound different to this! Members hail from the Dreamdayers (Con Shacallis) and Spurs for Jesus (Matt Allison) so you know it’s good.

Even’s take on “Show Me Some Discipline” doesn’t have the sheer upper body strength of the Sunnyboys’ (single) version, but it has a nice spring in its step. There’s more of a sway in the way fellow Melbournites The Shimmys tackle “Catwalk" in a slinkier way than the original; these gals know how to seduce a song and their forthcoming album is highly anticipated.

Props to The Jennys for “My Only Friend”. I found this Brisbane band’s album a little underwhelming but this song is pitched just right. The now defunct Velvet Action (a couple of Killer Klowns) tackle “Trouble in My Brain” with distinction. Perth's Jack and the Beanstalk ramp the freneticism down for “Tunnel of Love” with Joe Algeri’s acoustic guitar given prominence.

The Naked Eye were natural inclusions as the Sunnys are a major influence, and “Tell Me What You Say” is delivered with their usual aplomb. The same goes for powerpopper Danny McDonald whose stripped "Love To Rule" retains the heartfelt earnestness of the original.

If you ever wondered where Ryan Ellsmore of The Scruffs/The Wake Ups went, ponder no more. He’s alive and well and making pop music on the NSW Far North Coast with a band called The Stiffies. Their take on “It’s Not Me” is pretty spiffing stuff.

The Prehistorics (not unexpectedly, with a name like that) reduce “What You Need” to a fuzztone skeleton of its former self. No objection from this quarter, or to credible takes on "Happy Man" by The Indian Givers, "Love in a Box" by Heathen Sway and Adelaide's Green Circles with a modish "Tunnel of Love".

One of the real stand-outs is the no-nonsense “Liar” from another Sydney band, King Felix. Their three-piece version (they’re now a quartet) unreels the song like a seething brown snake coiled under a sheet of corrugated iron. Despite their cheery band name and demeanour (before weariness and health factors set in), there was a heart of darkness at the centre of many Sunnyboys songs. King Felix captures that. Someone record them soon.
– The Barman