The was a moment during the Year 12 English exam, the one taken by every final year high school student in the State, that hinted at what was to come in the life of a young Vinyl Connection.
English is traditionally first off the blocks in the ‘This Is It!’ series of examinations that decide an Aussie teenager’s next phase of life. Will it be work, something in the technical or trade area, or perhaps university?
Sitting in tense silence at one of a hundred regimentally arranged desks, it was hard to imagine that only a week earlier we had lounged morosely against the walls of this very Assembly Hall wondering what the heck to do while cheesy hits of the day boomed through a mediocre PA. It was so loud and distorted you couldn’t even talk to your mate, only nudge him and grin when a girl never before seen out of uniform tottered by in a hideous frilly party dress. We, of course, were the height of sartorial splendour in our flares, wide-collared paisley shirts and platform slip-ons.
The Year 12 dance. I only remember two things about it. A song so insistently chugging that it animated even repressed dorks, propelling us self-consciously onto the dance floor to twitch stiffly in the semi-darkness… and I remember Deborah Roberts.
You know the cliché of the librarian who unhooks her long hair and whips off her spectacles to instantly transform from frumpy to fabulous? Well, it wasn’t at all like that because Debbie was never frumpy, just sweet, smart, pretty and quiet. As we’d been in the same group since pubescent Year 7 there was that part-of-the-furniture familiarity of childhood yet I’d never really hung out with her because I simply did not know how to talk to – let alone hang out with – girls. So despite the long blonde hair and her fine-featured oval face, I’d never really seen Debbie. Until the Year 12 dance, when she walked past in a sinuous slim-fitting turquoise satin gown, glowing with a naturally radiant teenage beauty so bright that as the scales fell from my eyes, my jaw fell open in utter, speechless admiration. Transformed, yet the same, Deborah was simply stunning. So much so that I may well have managed, at some point in the evening, to tell her she looked quite nice.
After the dance I never saw or spoke to her again.
Back to the English exam.
As I leafed through the exam booklet, nodding as I recognised the sections we had been briefed to expect over weeks of intensive exam preparation, I finally reached the last essay on a non-fiction book about cultural change. Can’t remember the title now, but I do remember the moment.
‘Oh, I haven’t read this one.’
How had I managed to traverse the whole of the final year of secondary school, pick up the prize for English (and General Maths too, don’t you know) but fail to read an entire quarter of the prescribed books? I must’ve read twenty books that year, in and out of class, but not the one being examined. Given this masterful achievement in self-delusion and denial, the ‘C’ grade I eventually received for the subject probably wasn’t a bad result, though I suspect my English teacher remained perplexed and disappointed for some time.
Cut back to the dance. What was the song that drew us into the swaying gyrating mass with its tribal drums and stomping commands? Listen and boogie!
Can The Can, both single and album, were massive hits in Australia in ’73 through the summer of ’74. The album sounded glam, but the band looked street tough; all lank hair, side-burns and black singlets. But as for the US born female lead singer and bass player, well! With her leather outfits, low-slung guitar and cheeky sexiness, Suzi Quatro was just the sort of girl destined to adorn the bedroom wall of many a salivating teenager.
The music was catchy pop-rock, delivered with energy and verve. But it was the look that hit home. Something about the combination of angelic prettiness and the racy leather with the ugly band droogs was both enticing and scary. Suzi’s music was sexy but not especially raunchy; she was the girl next door made over into a bubbling bass-toting leather-clad dream-machine. They tried to mimic it with Olivia Newton-John’s transformation at the end of Grease five years later but that was a pale, chaste imitation of Suzi in her heyday.
Years later when Ms Quatro was no longer such a regular hit parade resident, she had a guest spot in the much-loved UK series Minder (‘Dead men do tell tales’, 1982). There’s a taste of her sexy cuteness in this 3 minute scene. And lucky Denis Waterman scored a snog!
Supported by ’48 Crash’, a second hit with equally daft lyrics penned by Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman (who also figured significantly in the career of Sweet, see the #1 single below), Can The Can was spun extensively on many a stereogram that summer of ‘74. Having just started my job at Max Rose Electronics, I am able to attest that even in sleepy old suburban Bentleigh we sold quite a few copies, many of them to young people of similar age and gender to your correspondent.
Can The Can is still fun. After the opening silk sash bash of ’48 Crash’ comes the unfortunately sequenced ‘Glycerine Queen’ whose T Rex/Gary Glitter stomp is so like the opening single that they could have sued themselves and won. The originals are serviceable or better – ‘Shine My Machine’ is jumping boogie-rock and the Chinn-Chapman penned ‘Primitive Love’ has both a driving log-drum beat and neat electric piano. There’s even some mellotron (and more cool electric piano) in the slower, atmospheric ‘Skin Tight Skin’, my favourite of the Quatro-Tuckey tunes. Meanwhile the covers – a mischievously androgynous ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ and the hip-shaking ‘All Shook Up’ – will leave you grinning.
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But you can’t take my rock ‘n’ roll
The lyrics are generally silly, incomprehensible or both. Sonically, due to the persistent tribal drum sound and pub-rock tropes, there is a sameness that creeps in and takes up residence. But hell, they’re a tight glam-boogie band and who wants to think all the time anyway?
Unless it’s pondering love, lust and adolescent yearning. Then you may mull over the eternal paradox of drooling over a pin-up pop star who’d eat a repressed high schooler for breakfast while never even noticing the unaffected gorgeousness of the girl at the next desk.