April 15 - 21, 2012: Issue 54

Above: Paul Wheeler, January, 2012. Photo by Michael Mannington.

Lobs (Lobby Loyde), Jimmy Thompson, Paul and Billy at the Tum

Above: Billy Thorpe and Paul 'Sheepdog' Wheeler 

Below: at Sunbury, 1972

Above: Paul yesterday and Below: today. 

Copyright Paul Wheeler, 2012. All Rights Reserved. Images Copyright Paul Wheeler and Michael Mannington. 

Top Image in text is Paul aged 6, Redbridge Primary Schhol picture.

 Paul Wheeler

During January this year we brought you a profile on the Bopulaters as part of our Summer mix. Some of you may have noticed that their bass player, a former Manly lad and current Pittwater gent, is part of Australia’s rock and roll coming of age. Paul Wheeler was bass player with Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs when they were on their rise (and rampage according to some) during the late 60’s and early 70’s. Paul moved to Melbourne with Billy and Jimmy Thompson (drums) in 1968, was contributing when the band was dubbed ‘the loudest’ in Australia, and until Billy left for the States and the group was dissolved in 1975. This period of the band’s history saw them playing Sunbury, constantly touring and releasing what is considered an Australian classic, “Most People I Know (Think That I'm Crazy)". Softly spoken, with sparkling eyes, an infectious smile and a dedication to and love of music that still makes him practice daily, we are very privileged to bring you this week a few insights courtesy of the gent himself.

You started playing at 16 years of age and professionally at 19 years of age. What was it like being a teenager on the music circuit during the mid sixties in Australia ?

Well it was difficult for my parents and as an earner it was a little sporadic at first but the band that was the booster for me was "The Gino Affair" which featured Gino Cunico from Long Reef, Jimmy Kelly from Dee Why and Tony Bolton from Fairlight all of whom went on to bigger and better things. Gino went to the States with the Execs and became a successful songwriter with Ray Burton, Tony toured North America with Greg Quills country radio, Jimmy featured with S.C.R.A and is now guitar guru in chief at Northern Rivers Uni. We played from Cronulla to the Canopus room and out to Lithgow and we learnt what works and what doesn't, no original songs in this line up but you gotta start somewhere. The most important aspect to being a teenager is that basically you don’t know your a*se from your elbow and negotiating that field of ignorance is a dangerous thing. But we drove here and there and set up our gear and rehearsed our songs. There was, even in Sydney, plenty of work if you could get yourself plugged in, and that was the most important thing and the best teacher you could find. These days the kids have so very many resources and so many people willing to teach but they don’t have the gigs and the bottom line as far as I'm concerned is that if you've got the bottle to do it the resources and the teachers are very nice but without the gigs and the audiences you are going nowhere. I guess you have to like driving around late at night and eating in taxi driver hamburger bars and getting up late the next day, a sort of teenage heaven I suppose. 

We went through a front man change to a Geordie called Derek Fitton, nice guy ...good singer and then I heard that through an audition I'd done for a band I loved, Python Lee Jackson ... (I didn't get the gig Duncan McGuire from the Questions and later Doug Parkinson in Focus did) that the Guitarist from Python Mick Lieber was looking for me, to get me to join himself and Billy at the Whiskey Au Go Go in William street. There was a certain amount of controversy going on within The Affair, as it was now known, which resulted in me being told by the management to stop being friendly to somebody who had been very good to us as a band at exactly the same time as a great singer was about to join the band, ‘Kerrie Bidell’, and unfortunately just before she joined I decided to jump ship, got in touch with Mick, was accepted into Billie’s band and despite a few little hiccups along the way ended up in Melbourne with Billy and a drummer named Jimmy Thompson to start the process that ended up for me in a band known as ‘The Aztecs’ and the mad ride around the country at the top of that very very greasy pole .  

What was Manly like back then?

Manly was magic for me. I arrived in Australia when I was 14 and to be living 2 or 3 minutes away from the beach was Fantastic. Queenscliff lagoon was clean still, Manly was a lot less crowded. The Corso had real shops in it and you could drive all the way down it. I joined Queenscliff surf club and was accepted by the older clubbies and got into the gang of guys my age. We used to swim all day, play touch footy on the beach. Fibreglass boards had just arrived and there was a big divide between Surfies and Clubbies and I never did get to ride a board. I was fairly hopeless in the surf but I gave it my best shot and rowed in the boats and did the R and R and stuff like that. It was very nice because I was pretty much exposed to undiluted Aussie culture and it was a good culture in the main to be in. 99.999% of the older guys were pretty much Mother Natures Gentlemen and a lot of kindness and support was extended towards me. I didn't realise until much later that the leader of our gang was a (half/quarter I don’t know cast) boy who was named after his older brother who was called Nama (short for Namatjira, a little joke there). He could swim better than us, tackle better, do everything better really as far as the physical was concerned. His older brother played front row for the Sea Eagles firsts. I was fourteen so I certainly wasn't noticing finely nuanced racism but as far as I was concerned there was a lot of respect for the Walkendons and I certainly shared in that. I guess I'm trying to say that Manly back then was free society where a person was respected for what he was. I guess it wasn't perfect in that respect but I loved it straight away and I was certainly privileged to be there at that time.   

Did you have tutors to help you hone you craft ?

No, not back then, I went once to a guy in Lindfield who was known as a good bass player in town but he'd just split with his wife and was a trifle distraught in a very lonely house and I guess it wasn't a process I wanted to repeat. What you did was you bought a record you put the needle on the start of the song you want to learn you run it through the first couple of bars, you lift the needle up put it back at the start and do it all again till you get it . That was my tutor. I'd probably been playing for ten years before the first bass guitar centric piece of literature came out, thank you Carol Kaye, she was the bass player on most of the beach boys and west coast pop in the sixties. Before that the closest book you could get was Ray Brown’s double bass Jazz method I think it was called. Very good if you wanted to play double bass in a modern jazz band, pretty useless if you wanted to play Rock bass guitar. You learnt from your peers as well but that could be a fraught process too, as you had to wonder if they knew what they were talking about too.

What is one stand out moment you remember from the Sunbury Festival ?

There isn't one, we'd been building and building in Melbourne, we were getting around to the festivals, going interstate more and more, going over better and better and getting more relaxed and competent(ish) in the studio. It was just an upward trend that was realised around the time of Sunbury plus of course there was an... ah abstraction from reality that was certainly part of the festival process as the Aztecs knew it. The most stand out memory for me for that period was the 3XY Meyer music bowl show later on that year. All sorts of numbers have been bandied about re attendance. Lets just say I've never seen so many people there. There used to be trees around the edge of the area and there were so many people in the branches that the trees were moving in rhythm with the music. We were a very loud band but when that audience sang back at us it was the loudest thing I've ever heard, I think it was in 747 take off territory and it was totally intimidating. Gil Mathews, the Aztecs drummer at that time and now an owner of a record company "Aztec Music", nothing to do with me, has done a lot of re-releases of 70's Ozrock bands, he remasters them beautifully and he released the Aztec's at the Music bowl and also some stuff from the Festival hall before we went to London. It's worth a listen.

One or two treasured memories from being part of the Aztecs ?

Spilling two drinks over Billy in the first week I joined him at the Whiskey(Whiskey Au Go Go), he was sharp dresser, I can still see the look on his face after the second one. Going to Brisbane from Melbourne after Lobby joined. He wouldn't fly so we caught a sleeper up. Lobby was going through a no shoes Phase as well and he had to wear shoes to get on the train so he went to a bootmaker, bought two rectangles of soft leather and sewed them around his feet . They looked like strange black flippers, it was totally hilarious for us, don’t know about anyone else though .The Ourimbah festiaval at er Ourimbah was the first rock festival in Oz . It was fantastic, beautiful country, very hippy.  

How does it feel to have contributed to Australian Musical culture when it was finding its own voice?

At the time of course we were too busy going around the place doing our thing, and if you'd told me at the time that we were contributing to a culture and that Australia Post would commemorate us in a stamp issue, I would have thought you were off your trolley. A transit van at 3 o'clock in the morning on the Hume going up to Sydney . "Hey man we’re contributing to Australian Culture"  "Hahaha LOL, stop bogarting that thing ". I suppose we did in a funny sort of way. A few rules got rewritten for the better ultimately I think, the blue meanies are always trying to come back of course. We all tried hard at the craft. There were some geniuses out there. I suppose it feels good to have done it the way it was done. There's always a few cringeworthy things in the picture but overall I don’t think we have to hide in shame.

Above: Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs' Sunbury triumph commemorated in Australia Post's 1998 Australian Rock stamp series

You have recently travelled to Japan. What was the main difference you noticed between the city precincts and the rural areas ? 

Japan, at least where we have been, is a country of valleys that people live in and steep steep hillsides. So you are hard pushed to find too much open space as in rural, what open space there is that’s flat enough is farmed and there are so many people that along the valleys there is almost continual development. There are just about the same amount of people in Tokyo as in Oz I think . That is a pretty impressive statistic. The Japanese are such brilliant garden designers that you can be in downtown Kyoto and go into a temple garden and it feels like the most peaceful environment you can imagine and a million miles away from town. The whole place is an intermingling of the ancient and the ultra modern, totally practical and whimsically magical.  The country is writ small in the city and places you would think of as country towns are highly sophisticated with a rich history all of their own. Just about every domestic garden is a little farm in itself, people grow their own rice, and in the deep gutters along the sides of small roads in small communities you are liable to find little fish farms. We did find solitude although you are never far from a town or a road but to find it we had to do some serious hill climbing and walk along part of the Kumano Kodo (Ancient Road). We could see from the elevations in the maps that it was going to be tough and we trained for it but we just don’t get steep enough around here. They have a very good system in Japan called ‘Takyubin’ where you can send your luggage ahead, right across the country if you have to, from one Ryokan or hotel to the next . It never missed a beat, just like everything else in Japan, so you could travel light . 

Why were you called ‘sheepdog’?

I was first called sheepdog by Wranga, famous Queenscliff and Manly surfclub boat sweep. The full title is English Sheepdog because my hair was slightly, very, long and I had just arrived from the old dart. It was at first interchanged with british lion but that plainly didn't fit as well as Sheepy. 

Above, March 7th, 2005, Melbourne Blues Festival:  Left to Right: Paul Wheeler, Gil Mathews (Ratboy), a guy called Phil Chen, a U.S. bass player who was a mate of Billy's and who was playing with a U.S. band at the Tsunami concert. I think he played with Rod Stewart and some other big names, Billy (Billy Thorpe), Barnsey (Jimmy Barnes), Warren Morgan our keyboard player also known as Pigboy or Pig