Over the Top: Remembering Australian Rock Legend Doc Neeson

Doc Neeson the Angels
Catalyst PR/AP Photo
Doc Neeson
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"Okay, this is it, folks, over the top!" With that promise, Doc Neeson, the long-legged howler in Australian nuclear-boogie band the Angels, leads 1400 boozed-and-ready ravers at Melbourne's Hotel Manhattan into the high-speed ecstasy of "Take a Long Line," from the 1978 album, Face to Face. As guitarist-brothers Rick and John Brewster drill the hall's beer-sweat-and-cigarette fog with double-buzzsaw riffing, Neeson – a skyscraper-sized Mick Jagger in an improbably formal tuxedo and silver-satin waistcoat – "alternately stalks the stage wearing his mike stand like a crucifix and leaps into the humid air with manic glee," as I wrote soon after that August, 1983 gig.

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"In this country, they call our band a 'rage,'" Neeson explained before the show, during an interview for an Australian-rock-scene story I was writing for Musician magazine. "And a rage here is a great time."

In their prime, 1977-1991, Neeson and the Angels were an explosive and theatrical rage – a guaranteed great time anywhere, including America where they stubbornly fought to repeat the massive success they enjoyed. It never happened, mostly for dumb reasons like U.S.-label indifference and trademark issues over the Angels' name. Most of their records came out here as by Angel City. But I never stopped writing about and believing in their addicting blitz. I had 1991's Beyond Salvation blasting on my iPod early last week, as I routinely do.

Two days later, I learned of Neeson's death on June 4th in Australia, at 67 from brain cancer. The loss was acknowledged there with nationwide press, TV and online tributes. "A mighty talent . . . You showed us how," wrote an equally towering peer, Midnight Oil vocalist Peter Garrett. Over here, Axl Rose paid rowdy honor at Guns N' Roses' June 4th show in Las Vegas, covering the locomotive "Marseilles" from Face to Face.

Otherwise, Neeson left the same way he spent the Eighties and after – as one of the most dynamic rock singers and devilishly athletic frontmen most Americans have never heard of.

Angels in America

Born in 1947 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, into a military family, Bernard Patrick Neeson grew up in Europe, Singapore, Malaya and eventually Adelaide, Australia, where he studied drama and film in university and joined the Brewsters in a jug band that, with electricity, quickly evolved into the brass-knuckled blues-based assault of the Angels. Their 1976 debut single, the plaintive bruiser "Am I Ever Going to See Your Face Again," would become their defining anthem, combining relentless drive with Neeson's unusually introspective digging as a lyricist.

Originally the Angels' bassist, Neeson was the transformative vocal foil to the Brewsters' martial-fuzz hooks and the iron-horse roll of stage raves such as "I Ain't the One," "Shadow Boxer" and "Dogs are Talking." He could be gruff and intimate in the lower registers, like he was confiding menacing secrets. Neeson would also hold long, screaming notes, like arcing napalm, across the extended, jamming mayhem of "Marseilles" and "Can't Shake It." "Doc was a crazed alien," Neeson told Australian writer Anthony O'Grady, referring to his singing character, "trapped in a cockeyed world."

The States were that notion turned absurdly real. The Angels were one of the first Australian Renaissance bands to attempt the long haul here, ahead of the Oils and INXS, and the trials started right away. There was the forced change of name to Angel City (thanks to the pouting-glam band Angel). On a 1980 tour promoting the American version of Face to Face, the group had its gear stolen in Chicago; got thrown off a tour with the Kinks for being too good; and played for a grand total of 31 people in Lubbock, Texas. A 1985 album, Two Minute Warning, came out just as the U.S. label fired the A&R staff supporting the record. In 1989, the Angels spent $250,000 ona recording adventure in Memphis with ZZ Top-Led Zeppelin engineer Terry Manning, then issued the super-charged result, Beyond Salvation, as the Angels From Angel City in a bid to reclaim their real name without losing anyone who knew the old one.

"We went for it even though it meant we might have to go on the road for three months in Australia to pay it off," Neeson told me after the album's release. "We've always had to be a hard-touring band, because every time we've gone to America, we were broke!"

The Real Deal

Neeson became a good friend over the decade I heard, saw and wrote about the Angels, under every name. He was warm and unaffected in conversation, with a deep, magnetic voice that still held a trace of Irish brogue. The last time I got to see the Angels live, in August, 1990, was in Sydney on a dream bill with their longtime pals Cheap Trick.  Beyond Salvation, a bust in the States, had been released in a new, Australian version and gone to Number One, and Neeson was in triumphant form that night.

After the show, the bands convened at the Sebel Town House, the city's rocker hotel, to overrun the bar. Neeson was surprised and happy to see my wife and I – we happened to be passing through that week, via Indonesia – and we spoke and laughed, as usual, about the bizarre disconnect between the Angels' aura at home and their mess of blues on the other side of the globe. They'd finally given up there but without bitterness.

That would come later, with personnel changes, a devastating 1999 auto accident for Neeson that all but forced the breakup of the band, then a war of Angels as the Brewsters and Neeson formed rival versions of the group. There was a 2008 reunion, then another schism. "When it stops being fun, we'll give it all away," Neeson told me in Chicago, in 1981. But even amidst the latter turmoil, Neeson only quit when he couldn't do it anymore. In December 2012, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent surgery. Neeson tried touring again the next year but stopped for good when he fell ill again.

My professional faith in the Angels was also a fan's committment, and  I have many great memories from my close encounters at gigs, on the road and off the clock. But that Melbourne show in 1983 is the top of the lot – the band at its peak, on stage at home. Neeson was typically blunt, funny and defiant that day as we talked about the brick walls in America and, for a time, a cooling of ardor in Australia.

"There was disappointment," he admitted, "radio stations and press thinking, 'Oh, maybe the Angels have had their day.'" But with renewed touring and new hits, Neeson went on, "Suddenly they saw us bouncing back. You could almost feel the affection . . . They realized they were right about us from the beginning and that we still had it. The feeling was that the Angels didn't blow it, the Americans did. You guys simply didn't know a good thing when you saw it."

I did. And I will keep missing it.