Any band that has ever packed out a heaving room full of sweating, beer-soaked bodies moshing in the stink will always hold some small part of those beating hearts forever after. That much was clear to me as I stood on the grass verge that slopes down from the arched cloisters of the University of Adelaide in August, looking out to the floodlit stage where the latest incarnation of local rock legends The Angels were blaring out their brilliance. As I stood there, I saw a woman haul over a chair, stand up on it, lighter sparking in the darkness, totally lost in the moment. A vision of her teenaged self captured in amber.
It was opening night of the Adelaide Film Festival, and the crowd had assembled to catch the band after opening night documentary The Angels: Kickin’ Down the Door, celebrating their mark on the Australian rock scene. Directed by Madeleine Parry, who helmed Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Douglas and Corey White’s ABC documentary miniseries Roadmap to Paradise, it’s both a barnstorming tribute and an emotionally rich insight into the trial by fire of fame.
Tracing how charismatic Irishman Bernard ‘Doc’ Neeson fell in with guitar playing brothers John and Rick Brewster, it follows their rising star from Adelaide around Australia and on to America during the ‘70s. They almost had it all, then never quite made it.
When I sit down with Adelaide-based Parry, she makes an intriguing point. ‘There are, I suppose, two Australians,’ she says. ‘Those who are not sure who The Angels are, and those who are sure that this is one the biggest bands Australia’s ever had.’
I guess that puts me in the first camp, feeling the tug of muscle memory of bar floor bangers like ‘Am I Ever Goin’ to See Your Face Again’ and ‘No Secrets’ in my bones, without ever having placed a name to them (okay, I may have thought they were by INXS). But for that awestruck woman up on her chair, they were clearly her musical heroes, undimmed by the decades. And she was far from alone, lost in the moment in the thronging crowd swaying under the stars that night.
The Angels: Kickin’ Down the Door reveals a band with all the right ingredients: a frontman, in Doc, who spits lyrics like ‘She walks like a pharaoh, dresses in Day-Glo’ with the requisite punk-spirited panache. Warm-up gigs for David Bowie, Meatloaf and AC/DC. The big American break that seems to pave the way to enduring fame. There is also the textbook inter-band rivalry, with the brothers pitted against Doc, then each other, and line-up changes that clipped The Angels wings. Those feuds were compounded by dark fugues: struggles with mental health and the grip of addiction.
‘It’s not easy being in a rock and roll band,’ one of the Brewsters opines, and you have to wonder why folks still focus on the sometimes surface-level glory of rock odysseys over insurmountable evidence that an unfettered life on the road can – and so often does – leave roadkill in its wake. What price fame, then? For every Jimmy Barnes, there’s a Michael Hutchence. It’s written into rock ‘n’ roll mythology, after all, that some flames are fleeting, with ferocious fires like the Sex Pistols burning out within three years yet still managing to scorch their mark into eternity.
Maybe The Angels didn’t burn quite as bright as a band like Nirvana, but Parry wonders if that’s also a factor of what some might call the cultural cringe. ‘My whole life, I’ve probably absorbed more American history than Australian,’ she says. ‘The people I speak to mark time by American events as much as they do Australian. So I do think that we need to be conscious and proactive in telling our own stories if we are to understand our context and our identity, and then use that understanding to make choices about who we want to be.’
The more Australian stories up on our screens, the better. Docos like The Angels: Kickin’ Down the Door open portals into parts of our pop culture that might have passed us by, but still have a lot to teach us. Just because a moment was short-lived does not mean it wasn’t consequential, with the provocation of the title allowing us to ponder if The Angels were the opening act that allowed INXS to fly. Realising that these songs had snuck into my soul without knowing who gifted them to me inspired me to learn more about a band I barely knew.
And for every me, there’s another up there on that chair who never lost sight of the flame.
The Angels: Kickin’ Down the Door is in Australian cinemas from 1 December.