|MILESAGO: Australasian Music & Popular Culture 1964-1975
|Groups & Solo Artists
MAX MERRITT & THE METEORS
New Zealand/Australia/UK 1956-1976
Max Merritt (guitar, vocals)
"... one of the pioneers of New Zealand
rock'n'roll ... " - John Dix
" ...one of the great Kiwis to come out in the rock & roll sphere ..." - Dave Miller
"Respect" is the word that keeps recurring in accounts of the life and career of Max Merritt. The statements quoted above are just two among countless expressions of praise for Max, evidence of the high and enduring regard for the man who is without doubt one of the finest soul-rock performers ever to emerge from the Antipodes. Max is one of the pioneers of Australasian rock, and one of its most enduring and best-loved figures. His amazing career, which has spanned an extraordinary 45 years covers the entire history of Antipodean rock & roll, and he is the senior figure among the remarkable group of performers who began their careers in Christchurch, New Zealand in the early 60s -- a talent-packed scene that also produced Ray Columbus & The Invaders, Dinah Lee and Dave Miller & The Byrds.
The Max Merritt story begins at the very start of the rock'n'roll era in New Zealand. Max was born in Christchurch on 30th April 1941, and he started taking guitar lessons at the age of twelve. In the mid-1950s, like countless other teenagers, he was bitten by the rock'n'roll bug and fell under the spell of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. In 1956, just after leaving school at 15, Max formed The Meteors with friends Ross Clancy (sax), Peter Patene (piano), Ian Glass (bass) and Pete Sowden (drums). They started out as a part-time group, playing at dances, and at charity concerts at the local Odeon theatre; over the next six years the band played many such shows, raising thousands of dollars for local charities. During the day Max worked his apprenticeship in his father's bricklaying business.
Remarkably, in an era when rock'n'roll was supposedly anathema to the older generation, Max enjoyed the enthusiastic support of his parents, and with the help of Odeon manager Trevor King, they launched Max in the music business, setting him up in his own venue in the Railway Hall in Christchurch, which they dubbed "The Teenage Club". Dave Miller was one of the youngsters who regularly piled in to see Max and The Meteors, and he fondly recalled these days in our MILESAGO interview in 2000:
"He was somewhere in our own age group
... but he had a family that really pushed him to the fore, and that's
why he got there before us. Right to the point where the family
actually hired halls, and created The Teenage Club, so he a venue to
work from -- so that gave him a hell of a big head start over the rest
"There was a place in Carlisle St, which was just in behind the railway shunting yards (Railway Hall). It was a bit of a run-down old hall, but that was run by Max's mother and father. I suppose of all the venues it would have come closest to what maybe The Cavern was in Liverpool ... it had probably one of the best atmospheres. But the great thing about it was that it was a Sunday afternoon venue, and for most of us, who could only hear music out of the juke boxes in the two or three town hamburger joints, that's where we all went, of course."
Held every Sunday from 3-10 pm, The Teenage Club was an instant success. The first and only attraction of its kind in town (remember that this was a time when eveything was closed on Sundays) it drew hundreds of local kids every week. Original sax player Ross Clancy was replaced by Will Schneider during 1958. By 1959 the Teenage Club had added Wednesday nights, and The Meteors were the hottest attraction in The Garden City, pulling a regular crowd of 700 or more. Max occasionally borrowed players from other bands if a Meteors member was unavailable, and one of the groups they tapped was The Invaders, fronted by another ambitious and charismatic Christchurch lad, Ray Columbus. This was how Max met Ray's two guitarists, Dave Russell (for whom Max was a major inspiration) and young multi-instrumentalist Billy Karaitiana (a.k.a. Billy Kristian).
Max relieved the ultimate seal of approval in January 1959 when New Zealand's #1 rocker Johnny Devlin played in Christchurch. Then at the peak of his meteoric career, Devlin played his own riotous show before 3000 fans, after which he went across town especially to meet Max, who was playing at a "Rock'n'Roll Jamboree" charity concert. According to John Dix, the meeting also made a big impression on Devlin's manager Graham Dent, who enthusiastically sang their praises to Auckland promoter Harry M. Miller.
Although it was primarily a university town, Christchurch gained a unique advantage as the Sixties began. In 1959, the United States government launched a huge para-military project to establish an American Antarctic base, imaginatively code-named "Operation Deep Freeze". By luck, Christchurch had the only airfield in the region large enough to handle the huge transport planes that the Americans used to ferry staff and materials to and from the base. The US presence brought many benefits for the locals and helped make Christchurch a hotbed of rock'n'roll music. Young US servicemen who were stationed there discovered the Teenage Club and were soon raving about the gravel-voiced young Kiwi singer. Before long, their precious original rock'n'roll and R&B records were finding their way onto local jukeboxes -- and into the hands of fans, including Max. And there was another invaluable musical advantage conferred by the Yanks' presence -- through these new American connections, both The Meteors and The Invaders were able to equip themselves with the full armory of prized Fender guitars and basses, which were still very hard to get in Australia and the UK because of postwar trade restrictions.
In April 1959 The Meteors took another step ahead when Harry M. Miller added them as the Christchurch support band for the NZ tour by Johnny O'Keefe; according to John Dix, the Meteors stole the show. Mid-year the first of many major shakeups took place, with Will Schneider, Peter Patene and Pete Sowden all quitting. Max put together a new lineup -- Ian Glass, Billy Kristian on piano (and occasional sax), Rod Gibson on sax and Bernie Jones on drums.
Later in the year Max and the Meteors began their recording career in Wellington for the HMV label. Their first three Singles -- "Get A Haircut", "Kiss Curl" and "C'Mon Let's Go" -- were all significant local hits. In November Miller flew Max up to Auckland for a solo spot on his "Summertime Spectacular". Over the next two years they cemented their status as the most popular group in the South Island and scored more local hits, including the 1961 single "Mr Loneliness", but they remained almost unknown outside their local area.
During 1960 Glass, Gibson and Jones all left. Former drummer Pete Sowden returned, Maurice Cook joined on lead guitar, Kristian switched to bass (his favoured instrument) and the band held this two-guitar format (with varying members) until 1967. Moving into '61 The Meteors continued to pack 'em out, and they now had three regular spots per week. The third night was at the notorious Hibernian Hall, which in John Dix's rather coy description "attracted rough types". Dave Miller gave a more colourful picture of the Hibernian scene:
"... it used to be a Wednesday night gig. But you took your life in your hands to go to it, because it was really the bodgies', the rockers' rumble venue ... like those those archetypal American movie places. There were bike chains, all sorts of things. I remember being in there when there was a rumble and I tell you what, I couldn't get out the door quick enough!"
By this time Maurice Cook had been replaced by rhythm guitarist Geoff Cox. A South Island junior boxing champion, Geoff was doubly handy, helping to sort out the regular Hibernian brawls, but his tenure was fairly short and by 1962 he had been replaced by Peter Williams, who was to remain with the band until 1967.
By the end of the year both The Meteors and The Invaders had decided to move on to greener pastures, and in November 1962 the two bands played their farewell charity concert at Christchurch's Theatre Royal. It was attended by many local dignitaries, including the Mayor -- a token of the esteem in which Max was held for the large sums he and the band had raised for local charities over the preceding years. During December, Max and the band played their way up through the North Island to Auckland, where they had gigs booked at the Oriental Ballroom. They arrived just before Xmas to find that Ray and The Invaders had hit town ahead of them and had taken the place by storm -- an event that was to be repeated a couple of years later.
During 1963, between tours around the North Island, the Meteors held down a residency at Auckland's Top Twenty disco. It this period with Viking that they also helped to launch the career of singer, Diane Jacobs -- now famous as "Dynamic" Dinah Lee. At the time Dinah was the co-lead singer of another up-and-coming Christchurch band, The Playboys.
Dave Miller: "Diane Jacobs wasn't Dinah Lee back then, but after (The Playboys) had been going for a few months, Max Merritt & The Meteors had a residency at a disco in Auckland called The Top Twenty. They got a national tour, and had to vacate the place for about four weeks. So what they did, rather than bring in the local opposition -- because that got them in too close to home -- the thing was in those days, they grabbed someone from the South Island, who had nowhere to go once it was finished, and they could send them back. That way they kept the nest safe! So they chose The Playboys from Christchurch, because they were starting to make a bit of a reputation for themselves. But Dinah, being "Dynamic Dinah" of course, it didn't take long for Viking to offer her a recording contract!"
Meanwhile, there had been more lineup changes, with Billy Kristian heading off to play the Pacific resort circuit, and Pete Sowden heading back to Christchurch. To replace them Max recruited two Hastings musos, Mike Angland (bass) and Johnny Dick (drums). Johnny went on to play a major role on Australian rock over the next two decades, and he will be well known to many for his late '60s stint in Doug Parkinson In Focus, and as a long-serving member of John Paul Young's All-Stars band.
On 23 November 1963 Max and the Meteors made their first sortie across the Tasman but, on arrival in Sydney, they found that again their old rivals from The City of Churches had beaten them to the punch and Ray and the Invaders were already one of the hottest acts in town. The Meteors stayed for six months, and it was a pretty gruelling experience by all accounts. To rub salt into the wound, the Meteors' homecoming coincided with Ray and The Invaders smashing their way to top of the Aussie charts with "She's A Mod".
On the up side, once back in New Zealand they cut a new EP, Giddy Up Max!, for Viking Records. Although a fine recording, it was not a chart success, but it did make a big impression on the label, who immediately installed the Meteors as the house band, and they backed label mates like Tommy Adderly, Peter Posa and Dinah Lee -- indeed The Meteors backed Dinah on her breakout hit "Don't You Know Yockomo?". By the end of the year there had been another lineup change, with Angland moving on to be replaced by former Sundowners member Teddy Toi, and they had taken on Graham Dent as their manager.
In December '64 Dent took the band back to Sydney for a month-long engagement at the Rex Hotel, and while there they made their first Australian TV appearance on Johnny O'Keefe's Sing Sing Sing. The Rex gig was successful, so that they decided to stay on. Over the next six months Max and the group rapidly gained respect from fans and fellow musicians alike, with even overseas visitors like Liza Minnelli and Mick Jagger enthusiastically singing their praises.
In April '65 they released their first Australian single, "So Long Baby", which coincided with the NZ release of their second album, Max Merritt's Meteors. Recorded in late '64 with NZ producer Eldred Stebbings, the album demonstrated the heterogeneous approach to material the band was following at the time, with tracks as diverse as Frankie Laine's "I Believe", soul hits "Heat Wave" and "Rockin' Robin" and Nat Adderly's "Work Song".
John Dix and others have seen this as a something of a weakness in the earlier Meteors, but to be fair, it came straight from the tradition of the dance and concert scene in New Zealand during the Meteors' formative years. One simply had to be able to play just about every style going, from current pop hits to traditional dance numbers, in order to satisfy the audiences. Its important to remember that in the late '50s and early '60s in New Zealand and Australia, dances were literally that -- people danced, in pairs, and bands had to have a wide repetoire of songs and they had to be able to play a wide variety of genres, including a lot of instrumental dance music in strict tempo. Originals made their way into the sets, but the public demand for old favourites and the latest hits made it virtually compulsory for bands to have a wide range of covers in their repertoire.
In September there were yet more lineup changes -- both Teddy Toi and Johnny Dick were poached by Billy Thorpe to join his 'new' Aztecs, after his original group quit over a pay dispute. Bassist John Blake (later of Tully) and drummer Bill Fleming (both of whom had distinguished careers before and after their Meteors stint) filled in briefly until they were replaced by drummer Jimmy Hill (from The Invaders) and the erstwhile Billy Kristian, back from a less-than idyllic stint playing the Pacific resorts. The new lineup cut only one single, released in early '66, a version of the Disney song "Zip-A-Dee-Doo Da", which had more recently been covered by Bobb B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans. John Dix sees this as further evidence that manager Dent was grooming the band for a future career on the cabaret circuit. But as mentioned above, a number like that was not at all out of keeping with what a working band of the day might have to play from time to time.
Jimmy Hill's stint in The Meteors proved to be pretty short -- he left the band six months later, after a punch-up with Max. He was temporarily replaced by Bill Fleming, who filled in while the group supported the Rolling Stones/Searchers package tour in February 1966. Hill's permanent replacement was a remarkable figure -- the late, great David Charles "Bruno" Lawrence. Bruno started his music career in the early 60s as the drummer in an Auckland jazz combo with singer Ricky May. He headed across the Tasman with Ricky and former Johnny Devlin sideman Claude Papesch to join the house band at Sydney's Latin Quarter nightclub, which also included sax player Bob Birtles. A couple of months later Bruno fell ill with hepatitis, and his place was taken by Melbourne drummer Stewie Speer. But thanks to Ricky May, Bruno took over the The Meteors drum stool as soon as he recovered.
After leaving the Meteors in Auckland in 1967, Bruno played in a string of NZ and Australian bands including The Brew and Electric Heap (with Claude Papesch, Dave Russell and Tim Piper) but most of these were short-lived projects. In the 70s Bruno founded and fronted the legendary travelling multimedia troupe BLERTA, the "Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition". BLERTA's career -- documented by NZ rock historian John Dix -- included many notable gigs on both sides of the Tasman, including New Zealand's Great Ngaruawahia Music Festival in January 1973, the Nimbin Festival of Alternative Lifetyles in May '73 and their legendary Blerta Supper Shows at the Glebe Town Hall in Sydney later in the year. The troupe eventually dissolved in 1976 after making their own Pythonesque NZBC series. In the following years Bruno became an accomplished actor and through the late '70s and '80s he featured in movies like Smash Palace and The Quiet Earth, culminating in his acclaimed role as Brian Thompson, the devious TV producer in the classic current affairs satire Frontline. Just after series one of Frontline was completed, Bruno began working on the feature film Cosi, but this was to be his last gig -- he fell ill during production and was eventually diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He died on 10 June 1995.
John Dix nominates Bruno as a strong influence on the group at this time. Prior to his arrival the Meteors' repertoire was typically quite varied, covering rock'n'roll, ballads, pop and even novelty songs and show tunes. Bruno's jazz background and his passionate love of soul and R&B helped steered the Meteors onto a more "purist" course, clearly signalled by their July '66 single. Led by their pounding cover of Sam Cooke's "Shake", and backed with the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself", it became their biggest hit to date in NZ and also made it into the lower reaches of the Sydney charts. It also became a local classic and has since been anthologised many times. They toured NZ to a warm reception in August, and while there they cut a new single, a cover of Buster Brown's "Fannie Mae", at the HMV studios in Wellington, with the Meteors augmented by John Charles on keyboards and a brass section led by Mike Gibbs, becoming another of their best and most enduring recordings.
They were by now well established in Sydney and were making occasional visits to Melbourne and elsewhere, including the opening week of the new Winston Charles disco in Melbourne in January, and a gig at Box Hill Town Hall in March. They maintained their solid reputation, especially among fellow musicians, their Singles sold moderately well, but the Meteors had failed to set the charts on fire, and the consensus is that they were still much more a "muso's band" than a popular favourite with teen audiences. Although they were one of the most respected bands on the scene, some in the group were becoming frustrated by the lack of a major commercial breakthrough, and they were under continued pressure from manager Graham Dent, who wanted them to push them into the cabaret and club circuit -- a direction that many fellow performers like Dave Miller were also considering at the time. Although (from the rock perspective) that would ultimately prove an artistic dead-end, it was an extremely lucrative choice for those who did follow it (like fellow Kiwis Ricky May and John Rowles) and it was understandably hard to resist the lure.
Early in 1967 the Meteors reluctantly agreed to a job arranged by Dent, providing on-board cabaret entertainment on a Pacific cruise liner. But just before they sailed, both Peter Williams and Billy Kristian announced their intention to leave the band. The cruise was a turning point in the Meteors' career, for many reasons. Bruno obviously wanted reshape the band as a pure soul combo and he suggested -- crucially, as it turned out -- that rather than finding a new guitarist, they should get a sax player. He suggested his old Latin Quarter bandmate Bob Birtles, a commanding tenor player who was already well-respected on the Sydney jazz scene and who had also played with Johnny O'Keefe. Max agreed, and the makeshift quintet set out on the cruise. This brief interval was to be the only time that Birtles played with the Williams-Lawrence-Krstian lineup, and no known recordings exist of this version of the group.
Once on the high seas, Bruno's legendarily wild behaviour went into overdrive, and he eventually "jumped ship" in Auckland, leaving Max to fill in on drums on the final leg of the cruise back to Sydney. Graham Dent also realised that he was fighting a losing battle to polish the Meteors into a slick cabaret combo, so he met the group in Auckland to tell them he could no longer manage them, advising Max to give up his ideas of being a teen idol.
There was one other event that had a pivotal effect on the direction of the Meteors. While in Auckland, Max called in on his friend, sax player Jimmy Sloggett, and Jimmy introduced Max to the new Otis Redding album Dictionary of Soul. In particular it was Otis' famous soul version of "Try A Little Tenderness" that really struck Max, and it transformed his vision for the band. It was a song that Max would make his own, and other than Redding himself, Max is arguably one of its finest interpreters.
On returning to Sydney, Peter and Billy left the group; Peter Williams was invited to join leading Melbourne soulsters The Groove a few months later, along with another Kiwi, former Librettos and Playboys guitarist Rod Stone. Back at the Meteors, Max set about rebuilding the band (again!), although by now he had already firmly decided that Birtles was a keeper. The next recruit was flamboyant NZ-born bassist John "Yuk" Harrison. Yuk's CV included long-running NZ dance band The Keil Isles (of which Jimmy Sloggett had also been a member), a brief stint in The Invaders, NZ pop band The Brew, and Levi Smith's Clefs, the seminal band led by Barrie "The Bear" McAskill, which provided a fertile training and recruiting ground for several leading Aussie groups of the '60s and early '70s.
Max's new drummer was a veteran of the Melbourne and Sydney jazz scenes. Stewart "Stewie" Speer (1928-1986) started his career in jazz in Melbourne in the 1940's. His portly build, bushy grey hair and beard and the ever-present cloth cap made Stewie an instantly recognisable figure. He was part of the generation of distinguished Melbourne jazz drummers who came onto the scene in the late '40s and early 50s. Throughout the 1950s Stewie played trad jazz with Roger Bell, Bob Barnard, Frank Traynor and others, but he was passionately drawn to bebop, which had begun to filter across from the US in the late '40s. Although 'trad' still ruled the roost in Australian jazz well into the 1950s, both Stewie became an avid fan of the bop genre and he amassed a considerable collection of imported records. After gigs (according to jazz historian Andrew Bissett) Stewie and his friends woudl head back to the Speer house, "sneak in through the back window so as not to wake his mother and stay up until breakfast trying to work the records out."
In 1956 Stewie joined the Brian Brown Quintet, with sax player Brown, trumpeter Keith Hounslow, pianist Dave Martin and bassist Barry Buckley. Jazz historian Andrew Bissett describes Stewie as a drummer "...who swung. Speer had beautiful time, especially on cymbal, hard and straight ahead, with the message on his kit 'Art Blakey For Pope'" The Quintet championed the more progressive (but less popular) east coast style of modern jazz, and were regulars at Horst Liepolt's influential Jazz Centre 44 in St Kilda, which operated from 1955 to 1960. Stewie continued to work in trad bands to make ends meet, but he was a regular member of the Quintet until it split in 1960.
Stewie moved to Sydney after the split, and became a regular at local jazz haunts like Quo Vadis in Martin Place, Chequers, and Sammy Lee's famous Latin Quarter, where Jimmy Sloggett's band -- which included Bruno, Bernie McGann, Bob Bertles and Graham Morgan -- was introducing Sydney club goers to soul music. Stewie succeeded Bruno Lawrence as the drummer in the Latin Quarter resident band after Lawrence fell ill. In the mid-Sixties, Stewie was also an integral part of the fertile scene at the legendary El Rocco coffee lounge in Kings Cross. The converted plumber's shop at the top of William Street became the hub of modern jazz in Sydney in the 1960s and Stewie played with groups led by John Sangster, Judy Bailey, pianist Col Nolan, reed player Don Burrows, and others, and he might have remained a respected member of the local jazz scene had it not been for the events that brought him together with Max Merritt in 1967.
The new Meteors debuted at the Martin Place Disco in May, and
played only one more Sydney gig before relocating to Melbourne. The
group found Melbourne a hard nut to crack, and they were planning a
trip to the UK, so they had to accept any gig on offer, some of which
were well out of town. This led to the accident that very nearly ended
the Meteors' story only a month after the new lineup came together. On
their way to a show in Morwell on June 24, their Commer van slammed
head-on into a truck just outside the town of Bunyip, 90 miles south
east of Melbourne. Only Yuk, who had been sitting in the back with the
equipment, escaped unhurt. Bob, Max and Stewie were trapped in the
crumpled cab of the wrecked van, and it took firemen more than an hour
to free them.
Max sustained severe head injuries, Bob's leg was badly broken, and Stewie suffered multiple serious injuries -- his legs were crushed, both arms were broken and he lost the tips of several fingers, resulting a four-month hospital stay and a long and painful rehabilitation. It took the better part of a year for the group to recover from the accident. They were lucky to have escaped with their lives, but Max lost his right eye and his face was badly scarred, Bob was left with a permanent limp, and Stewie never regained full mobility. The accident dashed their plans to travel to England, and it was many months before they were able to work again. Benefits in Sydney and Melbourne (at the Dallas Brooks Hall) raised money to support them through their convalescence, but their only gig that year was a one-off comeback show at Berties disco in Melbourne on December 2.
Gradually, the band returned to live work through the early months of 1968. By mid-year The Meteors were back on the road full time and, aided by frequent appearances (and numerous plugs) on ATV-0's Uptight they were soon winning renewed acclaim as one of the hottest live bands on the scene. In July, they came in third behind runners-up The Master's Apprentices in the national final of the Hoadley's Battle of the Sounds. Ironically, the winner was The Groove, the new 'supergroup' that included Max's former guitarist, Pete Williams.
The new Meteors was certainly an unlikely-looking bunch of rock stars -- Max had close-cropped hair, Stewie was overweight, over 40 and greying, his bald pate covered by his ubiquitous cap, and the bearded, bespectacled Bertles looked more like a '50s beatnik than part of the "love generation". But they were, as always, a firm favourite with other groups, a 'musician's band' who were also renowned as one of the hardest-working groups in the country, an outfit that never compromised, onstage or off. They were also known -- maybe even notorious -- as one of the hardest-partying bands on the scene, and this is said to be the main reason that the abstemious Kristian quit in '67.
By 1969 Max was Australia's undisputed "King Of Soul". Based in Melbourne, he now had his own club called Max's Place, recalling of his formative days at The Teenage Club in Christchurch. The band also toured extensively and won further acclaim. Regular trips to Sydney made them firm favourites with visiting American GI's in town on "R&R" leave, echoing Max's popularity with the Americans stationed in Christchurch. After almost three years without a release, the band finally recorded their long overdue third album, simply titled Max Merritt & The Meteors at Armstrong's Studios in Melbourne with RCA house producer Ron Wills. Ron (who died in 2002) had a long stint as an A&R manager and house producer with EMI, and his credits there included Slim Dusty's "The Pub With No Beer" and a string of successful folk albums with Lionel Long.
The Meteors' 1969 LP was and is a landmark in Aussie music, and it's been lauded variously as " ... easily the most impressive created in Australia to that point ..." (Glenn A. Baker), " ... an impressive collection of brassy, bluesy soul ... " (Ian McFarlane) and " ... one of the best examples of blue-eyed soul and ... arguably Max Merritt's finest recording ..." (John Dix). This down-under classic languished for decades in the RCA vaults, but happily it was reissued in 2007 as part of a remastered 2CD set by Sony-BMG. Marking Max's long-delayed return to writing, the album included six originals by the group, a solid reworking of "Fannie Mae", as well as their first major Australian hit single -- their brilliant cover of Jerry Butler's "Western Union Man" -- and the quirky Bob Birtles instrumental "Turkish Bath". Ron Wills was delighted with the results and heaped praise on the group for their professionalism and enthusiasm. With its punchy Stax-style brass arrangements by Bertles, "Western Union Man" reached #13 on the national chart in December 1969, and the album, released early in 1970, fared even better, reaching #8 in June. With its punchy horn lines and catchy chorus, Max's superb "Been Away Too Long" would have been a gold-plated certainty for a follow-up single, but inexplicably RCA didn't release any further cuts from the LP as singles.
The Meteors scored another first when the ABC starred them in a four-part series, Max Merritt and the Meteors in Concert. The first two programs were the band only, the third was the group augmented by the additional brass players who had performed on the LP, and the fourth presented them backed by a full show band. It's not known whether the all tapes of the four specials have been preserved, although recent discoveries in the ABC archives offer hope that at least some portions of the show have survived. There is some confusion about when the specials were made. Ian McFarlane's Encyclopedia entry places the series in 1969, but John Dix's chapter on the Meteors indicates that it was made in 1970. One or two Meteors live performances were broadcast on GTK sometime in the early '70s and by luck a couple of these clips, including the song, "Friary Mews" (misspelled "Friary Meux" on the surtitles) have survived. It's uncertain whether the "Friary Mews" clip is an excerpt from the In Concert series, or a separate performance taped especially for GTK, but the presence of an audience -- which was not the norm for GTK -- suggests that it is part of the former. The presence of Dave Russell on bass (see below) supports Dix's assertion that the series was made in 1970.
The Meteors performed at Australia's first rock festival, the "Pilgrimage for Pop" at Ourimbah, near Sydney, in January 1970, but after an uncharacteristically sloppy performance Yuk Harrison was given his marching orders. His replacement came via a chance phone call to Max from New Zealand -- Dave Russell, the former Invaders guitarist, rang Max wondering if he knew of any openings for a guitarist and he was immediately asked to come over and join the band. He slotted in on bass, and late in the year the Meteors recorded a new album, Stray Cats. They gigged solidly throughout 1970, including appearances at Peppers in Box Hill. In October -- again augmented by three additional brass players -- they made a theatre-only farewell tour of Australia before heading off for their long-delayed visit to the UK.
Like so many Australian bands of the period, their stint in the UK was mostly hard slog for little reward. Their first UK single was "Good Feeling" written by Max, followed up by a fantastic cover of Delaney & Bonnie's "Hello L.A., Bye Bye Birmingham". Neither single made any impression. (The b-side of the latter single was a jingle that the band recorded for a Levi's jeans advertising campaign. The follow-up, Max's superb rocker "Let It Slide", should have been the hit they were looking for, but it too failed to ignite any interest and RCA terminated the contract.
For Aussie fans, the highlights of that period were undoubtedly their brief returns to Australia for a triumphant appearance at the Sunbury Festival in January 1972 (part of which is featured in the Sunbury documentary), followed by a national pub tour, and their return to Sunbury in 1973. The Meteors slogged away with regular live work on the London pub circuit, gradually building up a solid following, and as John Dix notes, they became one of the foundation stones of the British pub rock scene in the 70s, alongside bands like Brinsley Schwartz and Dr Feelgood -- a fact often overlooked in the typically Anglocentric accounts of that era by UK music historians. They also began to pick up support slots on national tours by leading groups like Slade, The Moody Blues, the (post-Morrison) Doors, Mountain and others. They appeared at some of the major festivals and played regular gigs at major London venues like the Speakeasy and the Marquee.
By 1974, Max's determination and the consistent quality of their performances had taken them to a point where it again looked as if the group were finally building up the momentum for a major breakthrough, but disaster struck again when manager Peter Raphael suddenly decamped, leaving them stranded with no money and pile of debts. The Meteors were forced to sell their transport and move to cheaper lodgings. Bertles took up an offer to play with UK jazz-rock band Nucleus, Stewie toured Europe with Alexis Korner, Dave Russell went back to New Zealand (soon moving to Australia again to produce the debut LP by Split Enz) and Max was forced to fall back on his old trade and get work as a bricklayer.
Doggedly picking up the pieces yet again, Max and Stewie put together a new, five-piece Meteors in late 1974, with British musicians John Gourd (guitar and piano), Howard "Fuzz" Deniz (alternating on bass and guitar) and Barry Duggan (sax). The repertoire had also changed, moving away from the familiar soul covers towards a straight-ahead rock sound. Duggan was later replaced by keyboards and sax player Lance Dixon, and his keyboards and Gourd's slide guitar became the defining sound of the band at this time.
In May 1975 Clive Davis, head of Arista Records, arrived in London to establish a UK division of the company. On the recommendation of Rolling Stone journo Andrew Bailey, Davis went to hear the Meteors at the Nashville Rooms and signed them on the spot, making them the first signing to the new division. Their next single was the superb "A Little Easier", released in July. On the basis of this song alone one can see why Davis signed them. It's a swampy, foot-stompin soul-blues chant, with a a masterful vocal by Max and tasty Leslie-treated slide guitar by Gourd, the song. Surely one of Max's very best recordings, it had 'hit' written all over it, but parocialism seems to have held sway once again and tragically it didn't create any interest at all in the UK.
Their first Arista album, also called A Little Easier, was released in September along with their second single, the poignant "Slippin' Away". Happily, this caught the ear of Aussie radio program directors and it and became their biggest Australian hit ever. Max's classic ballad reached #2 in Australia, and buoyed by the single's success, the album soared up the national chart and became an Australian best seller, reaching #4 in November 1975. It fared equally well in New Zealand, reaching #5 in November and staying on the NZ charts for six months, although curiously the album did not chart there. It also garnered considerable airplay in London and should have been a big hit there, but problems with Arista's distribution department hampered the availability of the single and interest ebbed away.
The Meteors returned to Australia in for a triumphant tour in May-June 1976, promoting the release of their second Arista LP Out Of The Blue. Just prior to the tour they released a great new version of the brilliant "Let It Slide", with "Whisper In My Ear" on the b-side. This time round it was a hit, although a third single, "Mr. Horizontal" was also lifted off the album but did not chart. Nevertheless, their return visit was a resounding success, and the the three-week theatre tour played to over 30,000 people. The first concerts of the tour at Melbourne's Dallas Brooks Hall were taped and later issued as their final Arista LP Back Home Live. They returned in February 1977, but by this time the emerging punk and new wave scene in London had wrought irreversible changes on the UK scene and the pub circuit was fading fast.
At the end of 1976 Max broke up The Meteors as a working band. He signed a new deal with Polydor, went to America in 1977 and recorded an album in Nashville, then relocated to Los Angeles, where he has been based ever since. In May 1979, Max toured Australia with a 12-piece band, promoting his new album Black Plastic Max and the single "Tryin' Too Hard". He returned in late 1980 for another visit, with a band comprising Stewie, Paul Grant (guitar), John Williams (keyboards) and Phil Lawson (bass). This would be Max and Stewie's last tour together.
Stewie settled back in Sydney after the tour with Max. He remained moderately active on the local scene, but the health problems stemming from the 1967 accident affected him increasingly during his last years. He died of a heart attack in Melbourne on September 16, 1986, aged only 58. Bob Bertles worked for a number of years in the UK before returning to Sydney, where he remains an active and highly respected player on the local jazz scene.
Max had made occasional returns to Australia over the years, and released several more singles -- "Prove It" (Nov. 1982) and Mean Green Fighting Machine (Nov. '82), a promotional single for the Canberra Raiders rugby league team, commissioned by advertising agency Mojo. He toured again in 1991 with The Brian Cadd & Max Merritt Band, linking up with Caddie and a band including John Dallimore (guitar), Craig Reeves (kbds) Des Scott (bass) and Dave Stewart (drums). He made another club and pub tour in 1996, and during this visit he performed on the ABC's Club Buggery.
Max's returned for a new Australian tour in April 2001 and it was a special event. Backed by a crack five-piece band which reunited him with his old comrade-in-arms Jimmy Sloggett on sax, Max made a short club tour of the east coast, teaming up for the first time with one of the other great voices of Australasian rock, Doug Parkinson. Only days before his 60th birthday, Max played a superb set of his own hits and a selection of soul and R&B favourites including "Fannie Mae", "Try A Little Tenderness", "Let It Slide" and "Slippin' Away". Max proved once again why has held the respect of so many for more than four decades, and demonstrated that the tremendous power and authority of that unique voice, and his consummate showmanship, are still intact. In late 2002 Max's soul power wowed Australia again when he performed around the country as part of the hugely successful "Long Way To The Top" concert tour, and in early 2004 he toured again as part of the all-star lineup for Stevie Wright's farewell tour, "Hard Road".
After more then 40 years in the business Max Merritt is indisputably a legend, of Australasian music, but in 2007 fans received some bad news. Sadly, Max has been stricken with Goodpastures Syndrome, a debilitating auto-immune disease that affects the kidneys and liver, forcing him to undergo regular dialysis treatments. Largely confined to his Los Angeles home, Max was struggling with both his health and finances, but his friends and colleagues in the music industry rallied to his aid and an all-star benefit concert, held at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda, Melbourne on 21 October 2007, raised $200,000 for Max's ongoing support and care.
It's fair to say that Max Merritt and The
Meteors' recorded output is only a snapshot of their full
musical achievements. Max's first decade is reasonably well-covered,
with ten singles, two EPs and two LPs and happily in 2001 EMI NZ released
"the CD that everyone has been waiting for", The Very Best Of
Max Merritt and the Meteors, featuring many of the early New
Zealand singles and tracks from his first album, re-mastered from the
best available sources.
Unfortuately there are not many studio recordings from the group's most successful period, in the late '60s and early 70s -- indeed they made no commercial recordings at all between the release of "Fannie Mae" in October 1966 and "Hey Western Union Man" in August 1969, and for a band consistently hailed one of the best live acts of their era, it's a real pity that that they didn't record a live album until 1976.
Until recently, there were few extant film or video recordings of the band from the '67-'74 period. One is their brief appearance in the film of Sunbury '72, although hopefully their full performance still exists somewhere. Clips of The Meteors from from the pop music series GTK have occasionally re-surfaced on the ABC, and a number of performances, interviews and film-clips from GTK survive in the ABC video archive. We're alsoe pleased to report that a recent search of the ABC's TARA Online video database indicates that at least two of the four episodes of Max Merrit & The Meteors In Concert (1970) have also survived.
In 2002 Max recorded a superb new DVD, featuring his acclaimed concert performances at the Crown Casino, Melbourne, with the Meteors expanded to 18 members for the night including a string quartet, a six-piece brass section and four back-up singers. With sound recorded by studio legend Ernie Rose, the DVD also includes an introduction by Billy Thorpe, details on the musicians, vintage Max clips, a day in the life of Max in L.A. and a previously unreleased film clip made in the UK. The limited-edition boxed-set of the DVD comes with an accompanying 2CD pack including a CD version of the concert and a bonus CD with four new studio tracks.
Max's vinyl albums and singles are long out of print, and while the Seventies albums are fairly easy to find, his Sixties recordings are becoming increasingly rare. Until recently the only major commercial CD releases were the excellent Raven CD anthology 23 Trax Of Max, and the more recent EMI compilation, but happily Sony-BMG has recently reissued both the 1969 self-titled album and 1970's Stray Cats in a remastered, budget-priced 2CD set in their 'Essential' series, which also features remastered compilations by Daddy Cool, Mondo Rock, Marcia Hines, Mi-Sex and Dragon.
"Get A Haircut" / "Dixieland Rock" (HMV) (NZ only)
"Kiss Curl" / "You Made Me Love You" (HMV) (NZ only)
"C'Mon Let's Go" / ? (HMV)
"Mr Loneliness" / "If You Want My Lovin'" (HMV)
"Weekend" / "Easy To Dream" (HMV)
"Cossack" / "The Slow One" (HMV)
"Valley Of The Sioux" / "Laughing Girl" (HMV)
"Soft Surfie" / "She's Everything I Want You To Be" (Zodiac Z-451149 / AZ-1004 (Aust))
"Giddy Up A Ding Dong" / "Sweet and Tender Romance" (Viking VS 152)
"Thinking of You" / "Many Things" (Viking VS 159)
"So Long Babe" / "You're Treating Me Bad" (RCA Victor 101601)
"Zip A Dee Doo Dah" / "I've Been Trying" (Parlophone A-8162/NZP 3189)
"I Want So Much To Know You" / "You Deserve What You Got" (Parlophone A-8179/NZP 3198)
"Shake" / "I Can't Help Myself" (Parlophone A-8204/NZP 3206)
"Fannie Mae" (Glascoe-Lewis-Levy)/ "Baby Come Home" (Parlophone A-8227/NZP 3213)
"Hey Western Union Man" (Gamble-Huff-Butler)" / ""Home Is Where The Heart Is " (RCA 60493)
"Good Feeling" / "I Can't Wait " (RCA 101908)
"Hello L.A., Goodbye Birmingham" / "Live Levis (advertising jingle) (Pat Aulton) (RCA 101927)
"A Little Easier" / "A Long Time Gone" (Arista)
"Slippin' Away"" / ""I Keep Forgetting" (Arista)
"Let It Slide" / "Comin' Back, Whisper In My Ear" (Arista)
"Take Part Of Me" / "Blame It On The Reggae" (Arista)
"Wish You'd Never Come Into My Life" / "Draggin' Chains" (Poydor)
"Dirty Work" / "Fat Man" (Polydor)
"It's Over" / "Keeping In Touch" (Polydor)
"Slippin' Away "(new version) "/ Rock'n'Roll Hobo" (Polydor)
"Tryin' Too Hard" / "Rock'n'Roll Mole" (Polydor)
"Prove it" / "Growing Pains"
"Mean Green Fighting Machine" / "My Best Friend"
Giddy Up Max! (Viking VE-149)
"Giddy Up A Ding Dong" / "Almost Grown // Little Bitty Pretty One" / "Sweet and Tender Romance"
Good Golly Max Merritt (Viking VE-151)
"Good Golly Mis"s Molly" / "Everybody // Be My Baby" / "I Want To Hold Your Hand"
Shake (Parlophone GEPO-70033)
"I Can't Help Myself" / "I Want So Much To Know You // Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" / "Shake"
C'Mon Let's Go (Viking)
(no track listing avaiable
Live On The Peter Posa Show (Viking VP 143)
NOTE: Max sings one track only, "Everybody", but the Meteors provide backing for all the other artists on this LP.
Live On The Peter Posa Show (Viking VP 150)
NOTE: Max sings one track only, "Shake It Up A Ding Dong", but the Meteors provide backing for all the other artists on this LP
Max Merritt's Meteors (RCA Victor RPL-3400)
"So Long Baby" (Merritt-Williams-Dick)
"Little Queenie" (Berry)
"You're Treatin' Me Bad" (Merritt)
"I Wish You Love"
"I'm Not A Bad Guy"
"Sticks And Things"
"You Don't Know Baby"
"The Work Song"
Max Merritt And The Meteors (RCA SL-101891)
"Western Union Man" (Gamble-Huff-Butler)
"Fannie Mae" (Glascoe-Lewis-Levy)
"To Be A Lover"
"You Touch Me"
"Been Away Too Long" (Merritt)
"Home Is Where The Heart Is" (Merritt)
"I'm Just Wasting Time"
"Turkish Bath" (Bertles)
"Lay A Little Love On Me"
Can't Come Back"
Max Merritt: lead vocals, guitar
John Yuk Harrison: bass, vocals
Stewie Speer: drums
Bob Birtles: saxophone, flute
Produced by Ron Wills
Recorded at Armstrong's Studios, Melbourne
Horn arrangements by Bob Birtles
Stray Cats (RCA Victor SL-101906)
A Little Easier (Arista ARTY-108)
Out of the Blue (Arista)
Back Home Live (Arista)
Keeping In Touch (Polydor 2383514)
Produced by Don Schroeder
Black Plastic Max (Polydor)
17 Trax Of Max (Raven) LP
23 Trax Of Max (Raven)
CD reissue of 1986 LP with six extra tracks
6 Aug. 2001
The Very Best Of Max Merritt & The Meteors (EMI NZ)
Compilation of New Zealand recordings 1958-64
The Essential Max Merritt & The Meteors (Sony-BMG) 2CD
2CD remastered reissue of the 1969 RCA self-titled album plus a live version of
and Stray Cats (1970), remastered, plus the first version of "Let It Slide"
References / Links
Max Merritt & The Meteors Official Website
Black Roots, White Flowers (Golden Press, Sydney, 1979)
Stranded In Paradise (Paradise Publications, 1987)
Encyclopedia of Australian Rock & Pop (Allen & Unwin, 1999)
Australian Encyclopaedia of Rock (Outback Press, 1978)
interview with author, April 2000
National Film & Sound Archive
The Sixties: Australian Rock & pop recordings 1964-69
New Zealand Music of the 60s and 70s
Dreams, Fantasies & Nightmares: Australia (Borderline Books, 1999)