Sunnyboys - back after 30 years

JEREMY Oxley could not wipe the smile off his face. On stage at Dig It Up!, the mini festival curated by Hoodoo Gurus at Sydney's Enmore Theatre in April last year, Oxley looked in his element back on stage alongside brother Peter Oxley on bass, Richard Burgman on guitar and Bil Bilson on drums - better known to anyone who grew up in Australia in the early '80s as the Sunnyboys.

All 2000 faces in the crowd that afternoon knew the significance of the occasion.

The wait was over.

After 21 years, the Sunnyboys were back.

Billed as Kids In Dust (a name used by the band in the '80s to play warm-up shows), they performed songs from the band's eponymous debut album, plus the follow-up Individuals and 1984's Get Some Fun with the same verve, intensity and joy as they had in their heyday before they suddenly split.

The songs, most of which were written when frontman Oxley was still a teenager, were all there: Tunnel of Love, Let You Go, Happy Man, My Only Friend, What You Need, Show Me Some Discipline and closing track, the classic Alone With You.

"Oh yeah, I was having a great time," says Burgman, who spoke to Weekender from his home in the state of Ontario, Canada, on the eve of the band's performance at Victoria's Meredith festival last month.

"It was just such fun - such fun - and there was no pressure of being a pop star.

"There's none of that pressure of being 25 and wondering where your next hit is gonna come from or whether it's going to sell or whether you're going to have enough songs for the next album or how you're going to make the next video and all that stuff you have to deal with when you're in the pop machine.

"We're just not that any more. We're a bunch of men between the ages of 50 and 60 who are doing something they did 30 years ago and are having a thoroughly wonderful time."

The original incarnation of the Sunnyboys split in 1984.

Despite a short-lived career that only spanned four years, they remain one of the most influential Australian bands of their era who provided a soundtrack to a generation.

Sunnyboys has reformed on three occasions since their split.

Firstly in 1987 when Jeremy Oxley revived the band's name with a new line-up and new album (Wildcat) before splitting in 1990, then secondly in 1991 with the original line-up reunited to promote the released of a compilation, Plays The Best, and finally in 1998 for the Mushroom 25 concert anniversary series at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with brother Tim Oxley on guitar (filling in for Burgman).

Talk of a reunion surfaced again in 2004 to coincide with the release of a This Is Real, an extensive compilation of the the band's music including live recordings and rarities put together by long-time fan Tim Pittman (director of tour company Feel Presents).

The package also included a 36-page booklet containing a 10,000-word history of the band detailing their rise and fall and Jeremy Oxley's battle with schizophrenia.

Until then there had been confusion surrounding the details of why the band had split and turned its back on a promising future after just four years.

"Tim [Pittman] asked me and Pete what we thought about doing a show or two around it to support it," Burgman says.

"It seemed like a reasonable thing to suggest. Jeremy at the time was not in a good place, so we didn't do it."

Burgman says opening up about Oxley's condition was cathartic and something they needed to do to put to rest any misconceptions that he was just another rock star that fell victim to self-destruction.

People did not realise or understand the depth of his problems which only got worse as pressure increased to write new music and tour.

Exhaustion only added to Oxley's deteriorating mental state.

He began self-medicating with alcohol to drown out the voices in his head - a problem he described - perhaps unbeknownst to those listening - on songs like Trouble In My Brain.

Many saw him as an arrogant, egotistical drunk.

The truth was he was burnt out and at 22, Oxley's time fronting the Sunnyboys had come to an end.

After the band split, Oxley spent years lost as he struggled with the condition which was not properly diagnosed until he was admitted to hospital in 1990.

"We all felt it was really a good idea to do because it was time," Burgman says of revealing Oxley's battles.

"It had been long enough that we were away from the band and what we were doing and people had matured sufficiently.

"Not everybody we are close to agreed with doing it that way, but it was done and Jeremy's OK with it and it basically outlines what did happen.

"Schizophrenia happens a lot to young men between the ages of 20 and 25. It just happens. And no one knows why. So why did it happen to Jeremy and not to me or not to Pete? You know? There's no answer."

The story of the Sunnyboys began in the coastal town of Kingscliff on the north coast of NSW where brothers Jeremy and Peter Oxley met Bilson at school and formed their first band together in high school.

A prolific songwriter in his teens, Jeremy followed his brother Peter when he moved to Sydney, where the trio from Kingscliff formed the Sunnyboys with Wagga Wagga-raised guitarist Burgman.

After playing their first gig in 1980, the Sunnyboys quickly built a following on Sydney's live circuit with their style of melodic pop-rock, sharing the bill with other rising bands of the time - Midnight Oil and Le Hoodoo Gurus (who later dropped the "Le").

The Sunnyboys became the first Sydney band to sign with the Mushroom label, releasing the self-titled debut in 1981 which became a hit and ramped up the band's tour schedule.

They quickly wrote, recorded and released a second album, Individuals, which failed to match the success of the first.

Around this time Jeremy began to show signs of erratic behaviour.

The band flew to London to record a third album, Get Some Fun, hoping to recapture their success, but it simply pushed Jeremy deeper into despair.

Sunnyboys broke-up in mid-1984 after embarking on a final tour to make enough money to pay off any debts they owed before calling it quits.

So how far did they think they could take it before Jeremy's problems became evident?

"Hmmm . . . it's a difficult question to answer," Burgman pauses and sighs.

"Well, we were really excited when we first started. We thought the world was our oyster. We had no idea, of course.

"It was a little bit like having a ticket in the lottery: 'If I win, what am I gonna spend it on?'. But as time went by, after years two, three and four, we realised there's more to it than just one album.

"And there's more to it than just relentless touring. And there's more to it than just meeting your contractual obligations with the record company. And there's more to it than making another video.

"And we were losing Jeremy. He was drifting. He was gone. He was leaving and there wasn't anything we could do.

"Me and Pete and Bill, despite the fact we're all quite good musicians, without Jeremy we didn't have the songs, the singer or the voice. And so it was difficult to deal with [pauses] . . . but we did try to do things with integrity because when we finished up at the end of 1984, we didn't owe anyone any money.

"We paid all our bills, paid all our crew, paid all the hire companies and the hotel companies - that sort of thing. Paid the management. So we were all free and clear.

"And we did that because we all knew it was over. We wanted to walk away with our heads up and our hands clean."

Burgman moved on to other musical projects, playing in The Saints and Weddings, Parties, Anything, for a period, and relocated to Canada where he has lived for the past 22 years with his Canadian-born wife and children, working in IT and still playing music.

Distance also put a halt on talk of a reunion until a trip back home in July 2011 for his mother's 90th birthday during which he caught up with Peter Oxley and learned of Jeremy's new life in Brisbane where he shares a home with his wife, Mary.

With his son in tow, Burgman took a trip to visit his old friend after 20 years apart and found a new man in Oxley.

"He's in a very good place. He's now married and lives with his wife and her kids in Brisbane and she's a nurse and she's a very stable, kind, loving, warm, intelligent woman.

"We got to hang out with them for a couple of hours. We played guitars and we sat around and we talked and Jeremy brought out a bottle of champagne [laughs]. We hadn't seen each other in 20 years and you could tell he was okay.

"He'll never be mended. He suffers from schizophrenia and that's not something you really recover from, but it is something you can manage. In many ways, she has been a real life changer for him. She has made things calm and provided a really warm, stable, loving environment for him to live in. It's remarkable really. And it's good.

"It's good to see someone you love and care about so much go through such hell - and he went through hell and several layers of hell let me tell you - and to find him back in the land of the living and coping, it's good.

"That has enabled him to walk on stage with a guitar strapped around his neck. Then, what makes him get from the beginning of the gig to the end of the gig is Pete on his left, Bill behind him and me on his right.

"He's got this semi-circle of faith and goodness surrounding him. That's what makes him feel comfortable and that's what makes him able to do what he does and we are therefore able to do what we do."

Originally, Pittman (who promoted the Dig It Up! concert) approached Peter Oxley with the offer to perform at the Sydney leg of the show following a request from Hoodoo Gurus who had included the Sunnyboys on a wishlist of acts for the event.

He suggested having Peter play acoustically alongside Jeremy for a half-hour set at one of the event's smaller venues.

"So Pete rang up Jeremy and said 'What do you think?'," Burgman explains.

"And Jeremy said 'Well, that doesn't sound like much fun. But I'll do electric!' [laughs]. There was no hesitation. He was like 'Great idea. Let's go. But I won't do it without the band'."

Burgman flew in from Canada a few days before the show, giving them three days to rehearse for the first time in more than 20 years. No one knew what to expect.

"When you're walking into that situation there are many unknowns," Burgman says.

"There are many questions to be answered, like will you all walk out alive or will you all walk out happy with each other or will somebody get upset? Will it work? Will it be good? Will it be friendly? Will it be boring? Will it just be sort of like 'Ugh - is that all?' Or will it be like 'Yeah!'? You just don't know.

"There was a fair amount of nervousness there and nervous energy but once we started playing it was like 'Oh OK. That worked. What's the next song?'

"Then, the next day we got together for rehearsal, it was even better. Then the third day it was just starting to sort of take flight, it was starting to get wings. It was amazing.

"We played together for four years. We know those songs cold. All of us. The four of us."

Following a triumphant return to the stage last month at Meredith followed by a sold-out show at The Corner Hotel in Melbourne, the Sunnyboys are gearing up for another run of shows supporting Elvis Costello at A Day On the Green throughout January and February.

To coincide with the tour, there will be a long-overdue overhaul of Sunnyboys recorded output with a re-release campaign due to begin early this year.

How does Burgman feel about revisiting the songs all these years later?

"I know them all and I can play them all. Those songs hold a special place in me, not just in my heart but all of me and to play them again, to play with them with the guys I played them with all those years ago is a real joy.

"So many people from that era are dead and gone.

"Hundreds of bands, thousands of people that we knew at the time, we're one of the few that can stand up and say 'We did what we did and we're really proud of what we did' and we're still able to get up and say to people 'We're really proud to be able to present this to you now'.

"We represent an era and a place and a time in Australian music that was really vibrant.

"We opened for the Oils and the Oils opened for us. They used to play the Civic Hotel and have 15 people in the room. We played the Civic Hotel and we'd get 30! We outdrew them."

Burgman erupts into giggles.

"Funny, aye?"

Sunnyboys perform at A Day On the Green at Bimbadgen Winery on February 2 with Elvis Costello, Jo Jo Zep & the Falcons, Tex Perkins & the Dark Horses and Stephen Cummings. Bookings through Ticketmaster.

LET YOU GO

I’ve been through a lot of scenes with you,

I’ve seen through a lot of your schemes too. 

It still don’t seem right for you to go

and to love somebody else

When I was down, frightened of the world,

You were always there, to make me feel alright 

But who has planned my escape,

Through the back door of house (it was not me)

Well I’ve made up my mind,

I’ve made up my mind now,

I’ve made up my mind to let you go

When I fit all the broken pieces together

I realise we didn’t suit each other

But it still don’t seem right for you to go and to love somebody else

When I look, and see you are not there,

My heart drops, further and further down my sleeve 

But who has planned my escape,

Through the back door of house (it was not me)

ALONE WITH YOU

Watching you touch, 

We’re past this much. 

I’m alone with you tonight 

I’m alone with you tonight 

I’m alone with you tonight 

I can’t always remember what I say, 

I can’t always take it having to pay 

Watching you walk, 

You know you’re really attractive. 

I’m alone with you tonight 

I’m alone with you tonight 

I’m alone with you tonight 

I know it’s hard when you have tried, 

When the conversations terror, you have tied. 

Making out you still don’t know, 

All I have is alcohol so let me go, 

I’m alone with you tonight 

I’m alone with you tonight 

I’m alone with you tonight 

I’m alone with you 

I’m alone with you 

I’m alone with you 

I’m alone with you 

I’m alone with you tonight 

I’m alone with you tonight 

I’m alone with you tonight 

I’m alone with you tonight

HAPPY MAN

Sitting here in my room

The whole damn thing is coming down on me

Gotta straighten out, find an answer to my prayer, oh yeah

Well everything looks so grand

From the position I stand, yeah

Stop that sound can’t you leave me alone try to understand me now

Chorus

I’ve gotta hang up 

I can’t communicate 

I’ve gotta hang up but 

I’m a happy man

Memories of you tearing me apart

I think I’m swimming in a sea of doubt now, yeah

I get so uptight I keep on telephoning up now, all right

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