MILESAGO - Recommended Listening

The Best of Ross Wilson

Shock Records SMECD-022 (2-CD set)
released 2001
AU$29.95 rrp


They don't call Ross Wilson "The Boss" for nothing and if this superb, career-spanning double CD compilation doesn't convince you that Ross Wilson truly deserves the nickname, then nothing will. Split over two jam-packed discs, this collection is all prime cuts -- no fat here, even among the lesser known tracks. In fact, it's a true a rarity among compilations -- a double-CD set that could easily have been expanded to a triple and still not have contained any dross.

At only $30 for two CDs Now Listen! is superb value, with all tracks beautifully remastered, and it will please regular fans and completeists alike without compromising the needs of either. It spans the whole range of Ross's incredible 35-year career, including all the big Daddy Cool and Mondo Rock hits. Disc One will doubtless be the more frequently played in most households, and for this CD alone it rates as a "must have" for any serious collection. Listening through it will also serve as a salutary reminder of what a huge and enduring talent this man is. Added to that is the mouth-watering bonus disc which brings together for the first time many rarities and lesser known tracks, including his very first recordings with The Pink Finks and the virtually all of the brilliant (but scarce-as-hens-teeth) tracks from his late '60s bands The Party Machine and Sons Of The Vegetal Mother.

Why Ross Wilson is not a major international star remains an impenetrable mystery to me, but much of the blame for this must be slated home to the pathetic lack of support that the Australian music industry has afforded to Australian artists, of the 60s and 70s, who at worst were thrown onto the scrapheap after scoring a hit or two, or at best written off as "nostalgia" acts. Purely on the basis of the the hits he has scored since 1971, Ross must rate as one of the greatest figures in Australian rock. It should also not be forgotten that he played a pivotal role in the discovery and emergence of Skyhooks, and produced their three best albums. As a frontman he has a unique command and stage presence. As a singer in any popular style, be it soul, ballad, progressive or hard rock, he has few peers anywhere in the world, and whether singing his own material or that of another writer, he never fails to make the song completely and uniquely his own. As a songwriter he is still grievously underrated. The ageless appeal of songs like Eagle Rock and Come Back Again are surely proof enough, but any of the other great RW tracks represented here -- The Fugitive Kind, Primal Park, Cool World, A Touch Of Paradise -- would have pride of place in the CV of any writer.


DISC ONE is the gold-plated crowd pleaser and includes all of the hits. The three major sources are Daddy Cool, Mondo Rock and Ross's more recent solo recordings. First off are six delicious slices of chart-busting, good time rock'n'roll from Daddy Cool, Ross' first big success and the band that, despite its amazingly short life, still bestrides the history of Australian rock like a colossus. Alongside timeless favourites Eagle Rock, Come Back Again (Ross's favourite) and Hi Honey Ho are three lesser known but equally brilliant tracks -- their rollicking cover of Billy Ward & The Dominoes' saucily suggestive Baby Let me Bang Your Box (yes, Virginia, it is about playing the piano), the growling, prowling, scowling Teenage Blues, and what be one of Ross's greatest vocal performances, their truly gorgeous cover of I'll Never Smile Again. The only possible criticism of the selection is that there are too few Daddy Cool songs on here.

Between the final dissolution of DC in 1975 and the emergence of Mondo Rock in 1978, Ross lay low, a decision enforced by the need to wait out his Wizard contract after a bitter falling out with label boss Robie Porter (so too labelmate Marcia Hines). The only track he recorded during this period was both an ending and a new beginning. His great reggae-tinged solo debut Living In The Land of Oz is backed by Ross Hannaford (their last recording together) and members of Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons -- another RW discovery. It was cut for the soundtrack of Chris Lofven's cult 1976 road comedy OZ, and it's one of the few overtly political tracks he has written, with up-front references to Aboriginal land rights that have, sadly, lost none of their relevance.

After Oz we jump forward two years to Mondo Rock, his next major band, and his true comeback. Despite the revolving-door membership (he had to drop most of the first lineup after they got hooked on smack) and the fact that he hit a writing dwahl in the early 80s, Mondo Rock became one of the most successful Australian groups of the '80s, scoring hit after hit. Although Ross found it hard going creatively ("I lost the plot a bit in the 80s") he has always chosen his collaborators well, and guitarist Eric McCusker stepped more than ably into the breach, supplying many of Mondo Rock's biggest hits including Chemistry, Come Said The Boy, the anthemic No Time (Foreigner would have killed for song this good) and the sublime State of the Heart -- a classic soul ballad and a track that, like I'll Never Smile Again, demonstrates what a truly magnificent singer he is, especially in his upper register.

The last four tracks are solo efforts. The country-fied Bed Of Nails, from his underrated solo album Dark Side Of The Man (1989) is a reflective lament for past mistakes, and Ross has certainly suffered as much as any Aussie artist from the problems that beset those trying to make a living from music in this country. During the '90s he formed a strong new band, RAW, and began writing in earnest again. While RAW sadly did not record (despite acclaimed live shows) much of his output from this era ended up on his superb new solo album Go Bongo Go Wild!. Two songs from that period appearing here for the first time are Slave To My Emotions and the poignant The Same As Me. Disc One concludes with one of Ross's very best songs in a new arrangement. The beautiful A Touch Of Paradise was co-written with Company Caine's Gulliver Smith and is well-known to millions thanks to the cover version by John Farnham.


DISC TWO takes us back to the very start of Ross's career and the sides he cut with his first band The Pink Finks, formed way back in 1965 with friend, long time musical partner and rock icon Ross Hannaford. Rough, raw but bursting with energy, these two cuts are pure garage-rock heaven and their raucous, ramshackle cover of Louie Louie is an undisputed classic.

The next four tracks are by The Party Machine (1967-69), Ross's second band, again with Hannaford and including future Spectrum supremo Mike Rudd on bass. By this time The Boss was eagerly absorbing influences from the emerging progressive genre -- Jefferson Airplane, The Mothers and Pink Floyd -- and the PM tracks are a huge leap forward in style and ability. Considering they are his first major efforts as a writer, they are very impressive and mature works indeed, and their inclusion is doubly welcome, since none of these tracks has ever been released on CD before. A highlight is the infamous (I Don't Believe All Your Kids Shoud Be) Virgins, the track that brought them unwelcome attention from the Victorian Vice Squad and resulted in the band being branded as seditious when they published it in the Party Machine Songbook.

By the time he formed Sons Of The Vegetal Mother in 1969, Ross had (as the name suggests) developed a passionate interest in the music of Frank Zappa, and while the two SOVTM tracks included here -- Make it Begin and Love Is The Law -- are clearly influenced by The Mothers, they are great tracks in their own right, well recorded, and performed by an all-star lineup that included both Rosses, Mike Rudd, future DC drummer Gary Young, Company Caine / DC saxophonist Jeremy Noone, Procession keyboardist Trevor Griffin and the horn section from Melbourne jazz-rock group Lipp Arthur. Make It Begin has been previouly released (on Raven's definitive prog collection Golden Miles) but it's great to have both of these tracks together again at last. They are two of three songs SOVTM recorded at Armstrong's for their only extant recording, the impossibly rare EP The Garden Party, which was made to be given out to guests at a 1970 multimedia 'happening' in Melbourne. Only 250 copies of this record were ever pressed, making it one of the rarest of all Aussie collectibles.

Following this comes the one and only track from his shortlived 'supergroup' Mighty Kong, an overlooked chapter in the RW story. The project began with great promise, and besides the two Rosses, the formative stages of the band involved the likes of Tim Gaze and Nigel Macara (Tamam Shud, Ariel), Russell Smith and Gulliver Smith (Company Caine), and Renee Geyer's long-serving bassist Harry Brus. By the time Mighty Kong's self-titled album came out in late 1973 the lineup had settled down to the Rosses, Russell Smith, Spectrum drummer Ray Arnott and distinguished journeyman bassist Tim Partridge. Sadly, the band fell apart soon after and the record disappeared into limbo, which is a great shame, because it's a fine LP long overdue for a CD release, and includes some great tracks written or co-written by Ross, Russell and Gulliver. There are several possible contenders from this album that could have been included, including the sublime With A Smile Like That (How Could We Refuse) but regrettably only one MK track makes it onto Now Listen!, the cautionary Hard Drugs, reflecting Ross's current concern about heroin, which was by then cutting a swathe through the Australian music scene and youth culture in general.

The three closing tracks on the album are Mondo Rock rarities: a live version of The Mood recorded in 1978, followed by a remix of the 1979 single Love Shock. The final track is one of my favourite Mondo Rock/Ross Wilson songs, the superb Primal Park, co-written by Ross and David "Dr Pepper" Pepperell.

All in all, as the cover says, this is an essential collection by a true giant of Australian music. The only (very minor) drawbacks are that the liner notes (by top Aussie rock historian Ian McFarlane) are far too brief, but this isn't a major problem since there is much information about Ross's career available elsewhere, including Ian's definitive Encyclopedia and over various pages here on MILESAGO. Also lowering the score are the usual tiny typography, teensy photos -- in B&W only -- and lacklustre packaging with a drab brown-and-pale-blue colour scheme. But the music's the thing, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better collection by any artist at the price.


Ross Wilson official website

Chaos Music

Shock Records

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