Unravelling the history of Australia's greatest songwriting duo
If there’s anything we can learn from music history, it’s that two is always better than one, and this is 100 per cent applicable to the art of songwriting.
A strong songwriting duo has proven time and time over to be the most effective way to churn out a classic: think of Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, David & Bacharach, Rodgers & Edwards, Becker & Fagen and of course, our very own Vanda & Young.
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To put it frankly, without Vanda & Young, it’s arguable as to whether Australian music would even be what it is today. First bursting into mainstream consciousness as the mop-top guitarists for The Easybeats in the mid ’60s, Harry Vanda and George Young would later go on to forge one of the most formidable musical partnerships in history.
Their penchant for songwriting was simply unparalleled, and the duo’s drive to stay on top saw them hone their craft behind the boards in a manner the Australian industry had never seen before.
From romper stomper rock ‘n roll and raw hard rock through to disco, new-wave and even proto-house, Vanda & Young possessed a Midas touch workflow that surpassed all of their contemporaries, and the fact that they were gun musicians didn’t hinder the cause either.
So, it’s with this mindset that we approach today’s feature as we analyse Harry and George’s contributions to the Australian musical canon and beyond, paying close attention to their musicianship and celebrating one of the greatest Australian songwriting partnerships of all time in the process.
‘She’s So Fine’ – The Easybeats (1965)
After reaching a respectable #35 on the charts with their debut single ‘For My Woman’, Vanda and Young well and truly showed their promise as songwriters with the rampant boogie of ‘She’s So Fine’, which shot up to #3 on the local charts upon release in March 1965.
Driven by a cool stop-start guitar riff, a densely groovy bassline and Stevie Wright’s formidable vocal presence, ‘She’s So Fine’ proved to be a major breakthrough fo The Easybeats, establishing them as a force to be reckoned with in the domestic market.
‘Friday On My Mind’ – The Easybeats (1966)
A gleaming example of Vanda and Young’s genius songwriting abilities, ‘Friday On My Mind’ is surely one of the most important Australian songs of all time, and it’s debatable as to whether Australian rock would even be where it is today had it not been released.
Kicking off with that iconic alternating octave riff, ‘Friday On My Mind’ is a classic ode to the working class that’s made all the more poignant by Vanda and Young’s intelligent minor/major key switch-up in the chorus, invoking an ecstatic feeling that sent the single skyrocketing to #1 at home and into the top 20 in the US and the UK.
‘Good Times’ – The Easybeats (1968) + Jimmy Barnes & INXS (1986)
You know you’ve written a red hot tune when Sir Paul McCartney himself phones into the BBC to request an immediate replay. Lyrically, ‘Good Times’ is certainly no ‘A Case Of You’, but it’s not trying to be – it’s solely about rocking out, knocking around and getting rowdy till the wee hours.
Musically, however, ‘Good Times’ absolutely pops: the jangly twelve-string riff and plinky piano works in tandem with Tony Cahill’s loose drumming to create the image of a ramshackle dancefloor, and the way Stevie shreds his vocals for the chorus is endlessly inspiring.
‘Good Times’ also caught a second wind in 1986 when INXS and Jimmy Barnes recorded a cover version for cult-classic teen film The Lost Boys, and it’s also been covered by Meatloaf, Hindu Love Gods, and of course, the 2004 cast of Australian Idol.
‘Life Keeps Getting Better’ – Flake (1971)
Following the dissolution of The Easybeats in 1969, Vanda and Young jetted back across to the UK to flaunt their newfound prowess as producers and songwriters, embarking on what Young once called a ‘four-year binge’ of work in order to find a steady foothold London’s fast-paced music scene.
Around this era, Harry and George focused on churning out as many jingles as possible to keep the lights on, and penned songs for numerous other acts – one of which was this sunny little lost gem from Flake, ‘Life Keeps Getting Better.’
It’s easy to hear the influence of Vanda and Young’s jingle writing in this track, but airy melodies aside, there’s no doubting that this one’s a seriously underrated addition to the duo’s untouchable catalogue of hits.
‘Can’t Stand The Heat’ – Marcus Hook Roll Band (1973)
While living in and working in the UK, Vanda and Young formed a number of studio projects and released music under a range of different aliases. One such project was Marcus Hook Roll Band, which the duo formed with George Young’s brothers Alex, Angus and Malcom – the latter two later going on to form AC/DC soon after, and going on to be legends in their own right.
While the Marcus Hook Roll Band didn’t last long enough to dominate popular discourse, they did release one killer record in the form of Tales Of Old Grand Daddy, which fused the Young brothers’ now-iconic dual guitar style with a weirdly funky backbeat and a blistering saxophone solo from Alex Young.
‘Evie’ – Stevie Wright (1974)
Upon returning to Australia from the UK in 1973, Harry Vanda and George Young reunited with their Easybeats bandmate Stevie Wright, who’d slumped into a depression after the band broke up and was battling an troubling addiction to opiates.
After signing a contract with Albert Productions towards the end of that year, Wright, Vanda and Young bunkered down in the studio to forge what many consider the trio’s crowning triumph: the three-part, eleven minute rock epic ‘Evie’.
With Vanda and Young spearheading the production and songwriting of the track, ‘Evie’ became an immediate domestic hit, being the first (and only) eleven minute track to reach #1 in the world and lingering in the charts for 26 weeks. Is it one of the greatest Australian rock tracks ever? Without a doubt. Is it the best? Almost certainly.
‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n Roll)’ – AC/DC (1975)
Straight off the back of their success with Stevie Wright, Vanda and Young turned their attention towards fostering the recording of AC/DC at Sydney’s Albert Studios, with the band’s debut High Voltage arriving in February 1975 and asserting them as one of the most exciting bands of the era.
However, Harry and George were said to be disappointed with the reception towards High Voltage, and nudged the band to hone in on their sound and establish a strict songwriting formula to make for a much more cohesive sound, and surprise surprise: it paid off.
AC/DC’s follow-up TNT was deemed an astronomical success, with the band delivering nine high-octane bangers and a steezy new image that immediately captivated Aussie listeners.
If there’s any singular decision that enshrines George Young’s production genius in this era, it has to be him urging Bon Scott to lay down a bagpipe solo on ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’, despite Scott supposedly not even knowing how to play the instrument. Now that’s risky business!
‘Love Is In The Air’ – John Paul Young (1977)
Initially establishing a rapport with the talented vocalist after working on ‘Standing In The Rain’ and ‘I Hate The Music’, Vanda and Young would once again reunite with John Paul Young – who, while also being born in Scotland, is unfortunately not related to George, Malcolm or Angus – to pen one of the most greatest Aussie disco singles of all time: ‘Love Is In The Air’.
Everything about this song sounds like a romance in full bloom; the tender piano chords and subtle strings of the verse arise like butterflies before culminating in one great euphoric chorus crescendo, with John Paul Young belting out the refrain with all the gusto in the world to put the icing on the cake.
This one’s a sublime slice of songwriting which, of course, was made all the more gorgeous through its use in Strictly Ballroom.
‘Walking In The Rain’ – Flash and the Pan (1978) + Grace Jones (1981)
Around the same time as John Paul Young’s accession up the charts with ‘Love Is In The Air’, Harry and George once again began to write and record material for release under their own project, minting the studio-only group Flash and the Pan to function as a vessel for their own compositions.
Perhaps one of the group’s best-known early tracks, ‘Walking In The Rain’ showcases their smarts in the studio, with the pair using a lumbering bassline and densely reverberated synths and percussion to create a supernatural atmosphere, made all the more spooky with the haunting spoken word vocal on top.
As good as Flash and the Pan’s original may be, however, it’s Grace Jones’ cover of ‘Walking In The Rain’ which tends to receive most attention from critics, with the Jamaican icon transforming the song into a hypnotic new-wave jam for her seminal LP 1981 Nightclubbing.
‘Waiting For A Train’ – Flash and the Pan (1983)
One of the most intriguing aspects of Vanda and Young’s songwriting career is tracing their progression from mod-rock upstarts into bona-fide studio superstars, and there’s no song that exemplifies the further quite like Flash and the Pan’s ‘Waiting For A Train’.
Boasting some extremely catchy synth stabs and a simple four-to-the-floor groove – plus a glorious key-change for the chorus – ‘Waiting For A Train’ is a seriously killer dance track that couldn’t be any further removed from the work of groups like The Easybeats and AC/DC.
Although Flash and the Pan continued to release music well into the ‘80s and achieved commercial success in the European market, Vanda and Young began to shift their attention towards other musical projects by the early ‘90s, and their songwriting partnership gradually splintered in favour of their own endeavours.
Nevertheless, the two remained fast friends, and without their inumerable contributions behind the boards, there’s no denying that Australian music just simply wouldn’t be what it is today.
Find out more about Vanda & Young’s work through our look at the most important Australian recording studios of the 20th century.