Article by Ryan Willmott
In this latest feature of Looking Back we investigate how the classic release of "Let There Be Rock" by Henry Rollins with the Hard Ons came to be. The following piece was put together through an interview with Hard Ons bass-player Ray Ahn, some copy and paste from the history of the Hard Ons website, some of my own personal recollection and a bit of old fashioned research. Huge thanks to Ray for the insight...
So where do you begin with a piece like this? Rather than cover off old ground, I'm just going to presume that everyone is already familiar with the history of Henry Rollins. You know that guy that was in some band called Black Flag?
How about we begin with a story from Ray, combined with the same line from the classic AC/DC song...
In the beginning, back "in 1988, The Hard-ons toured Europe and USA for the first time. In New York we were a part of a music convention called 'CMJ Music Festival'. The three of us with Tim Pittman, our manager, went to check out Rollins Band, as all of us were big Black Flag fans. The gig was full of famous punk rock guys like the guys from Bad Brains etc. Rollins Band were totally awesome live, so our manager Tim Pittman went backstage and cornered Rollins, and convinced him to tour Australia. To this day, Tim still handles his tours in Australia" Ray informs me.
The following year in January 1989 the Rollins Band tour Australia for the very first time and naturally the Hard Ons play the local support slots in Sydney. This was to be the first of many times they would share a stage together in Australia. Rollins later returned in May 1990 on the "Hard Volume" tour, supporting the album's release, which even received a local pressing by Waterfront Records.
Coincidentally a live bootleg CD was released by Rollins' imprint 2.13.61 of a "Live At The Wireless" set recorded in the Sydney Triple J studios during the 1990 tour. The CD was titled "Insert Band Here" and featured very early and raw versions of tracks like "Tearing" and "You Didn't Need" that would later be released on the breakthrough album "End Of Silence". Copies of this CD are still around to purchase as it was released by Shock locally.
It was during this visit down under that the collaboration came into fruition. "In 1990 while Henry was in Australia, Tim Pittman thought it was a good idea to hook up with him musically", says Ray.
I ask Ray who decided to do "Let There Be Rock" and if there were any other AC/DC tracks thrown around? "It was Tim our manager's idea, as he knew both all three Hard-ons members and Henry were pretty big AC/DC fans. No other options were discussed. We just went along with it."
Funnily enough, Ray tells me that the recording almost didn't happen because fellow Hard Ons members Keish and Blackie forgot to turn up. "We organised to meet at Tim's house at 10.00am on Saturday. The other two Hard-ons did not turn up, as they forgot. I was the only one who turned up. Henry just started laughing. He said to me, ‘hey if you were in MY band I would have lost it...’ which I thought was fair enough. Tim, me and Henry sat around eating pizza and decided to book it for the following week, but it meant Henry was gonna go do spoken word, then come back to Sydney and do the recording and the video clip in the one hit, starting in the afternoon the next Saturday and going till sunrise."
I ask Ray if they spent much time practicing before they entered the studio, particularly for 'Carry me Down'.
"We did one practice together, Henry had worked out the lyrics and brought them on a piece of paper, after a couple of hours we were ready. It wasn't rocket science", he tells me. Thankfully the following week all of the Hard Ons remembered the studio booking. "The recording was at ABC studio in Darlinghurst in Sydney. It was a really, really brutal session. In the studio was Theo Van Rock, Henry's regular sound engineer, who helped out a lot. We were all happy with the take. The Hard-ons were so familiar with AC/DC, that by then it was like singing happy birthday or something."
"Carry Me Down" which was included on the Australian single, was a song that Blackie had been holding onto for a while. You can listen to the track below..
A film clip was also shot with Rollins improvising Bon Scott's outfit in the original footage. "We were talking about the original clip how Bon Scott was dressed like a priest." Blackie explained. "And Rollins goes, 'Hey I can do this!' and he got a piece of white cardboard and folded it over his black T shirt. A stroke of genius.”
“The film clip was shot in the same spot at ABC Studio in Darlinghurst where the recording was done" says Ray. "As soon as the recording was over, the film crew rushed in and we did it. It was about 3am in the morning when the filming began." Probably the last thing any band would feel like doing after a recording session.
In the middle of 1991 the collaboration with Rollins was released in Australia and New Zealand on Waterfront through Festival Records, on Vinyl Solution in Europe and C/Z in the US. In Australia it charted for nearly 4 months, with 8 weeks at number one on the alternative charts. It was the Hard-Ons' 13th consecutive number one debut in Australia. Their previous album "Yummy" had spawned two number 1 singles in that of "Where Did She Come From" and "Dull". Both songs and accompanying videos received a lot of airplay on JJJ and Rage, virtually the only two channels accessible to underground bands that exposed their music to the mainstream. "Yummy" really was a pivotal release in the history of the Hard Ons and gained them a new legion of fans.
Depending on what pressing you bought, or whether you had the CD version, the Rollins spoken word track "I Know You" and a cover of Cheech and Chong's "Earache My Eye" by the Rollins Band were also tacked on the end of the Let There Be Rock release These same two songs were previously released as a limited 7inch by Sub Pop for their singles club around the same time. Ray explains the relationship between the two bands, "we knew Henry and all the Rollins band quite well, we did lots of shows together and we got along really well. The main bonding ingredient was a real love of music. To this day Chris Haskett, the guitar player and I still write to each other quite regularly."
So did Ray know if AC/DC ever heard their cover version?
"Pat Pickett, Bon Scott's ex-flat mate and AC/DC roadie actually worked for the Hard-ons back in 1990-1991. He told me Angus and Malcolm and George FOR SURE would have heard the Hard-ons/Rollins version, such is their never-ending control and fostering of EVERYTHING AC/DC. They have people on their payroll turning every stone. He also predicted they would really dig our version. A few years later when I met Malcolm, it was confirmed."
Whaaat? You asked Malcolm Young?
"Yes, in 1994, well and truly after Hard Ons broke up, I bumped into Malcolm Young in Miranda, Sydney. Absolutely nobody in that huge supermarket knew who the fuck he was. I of course told him what a fan I was. I told him I saw them back in 1975 or 76 - a free concert in my neighbourhood. I told him of our recording with Rollins and he actually told me everyone in AC/DC loved our version, to my shock. He told me he met Henry a little earlier at Donnington, backstage, and his exact words were "Henry's scary isn't he?" He was such a humble guy in the world's biggest band. And it reinforced everything about rock stardom that I knew: The biggest stars are always so humble and friendly: AC/DC, Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc. etc. The lower level next big things are usually cocksmokers... I've met some painful second-tier Big Day Out jerkoffs. Thankfully, a lot of them have just disappeared…"
In January 1992, Rollins and the Hard-Ons bonded together live for two shows, both of which were in Sydney. Rollins came to Australia specifically to do the two shows and tacked on a few spoken word performances around the shows.
The Hard Ons believe the warm up show they did at the Kardomah Cafe in Kings Cross before their Big Day Out appearance, was the far superior event. Under a pseudonym, 'Hank and The Three Sinners', the show was held on Jan 24th 1992, the same night as the debut Australian show for Nirvana across town at the Phoenician Club.
*(On stage at the Kardromah Cafe)
"As soon as he stepped on stage and we started playing, everything lifted." Blackie recalled. "We just looked at each other after Rollins opened his mouth and just mouthed 'Wow!' and it was heads down. It was rock n' roll all night that night!"
The 1992 Big Day Out was the debut launch of the festival and was restricted to a trial run in Sydney at this point in time. It had a heavy emphasis on what was considered the local alternative Australian music scene, featuring a diverse cross section of bands like Sound Unlimited Posse, Box The Jesuit, The Falling Joys, The Beasts Of Bourbon and much more with the addition of two international bands, The Violent Femmes and Nirvana.
At this debut Big Day Out there were three stages. Stage 1 was the largest in the Hordern Pavilion headlined by the Violent Femmes at 10 pm. Stage 2 was an outdoor stage that was headlined by Rat Cat at 9:30pm and Stage 3 was the "Skate Stage" situated next to a vert ramp just outside of the Hordern and was headlined by the Cosmic Psychos at 8:30 pm. The photo above is from the Big Day Out programme.
The "Skate Stage" was also host to the Meanies, Massappeal, The Hellmenn, The Celibate Rifles, You Am I, Smudge and the Village Idiots. In reality this was the stage you would have expected the Hard Ons to be performing on, but instead they were on Stage 2, wedged in between current radio darlings Rat Cat riding high on the success of "Tingles" and indie faves, The Clouds. The Hard Ons were playing the Sunset slot of 8 pm, while Nirvana were on beforehand on the Hordern stage at 7 pm. To put things into perspective here, in terms of the band's popularity at the time, this was pretty close to top billing.
*(Photo of Blackie and Henry at the 1992 BDO by Tony Mott)
The Hard Ons played a regular set at the Big Day Out with Henry joining them for the latter half. Together they played 6 songs with Henry on stage, as expected two of those were the already released "Let There Be Rock" along with the B-side, "Carry Me Down", as for the rest...
"We actually did 6 songs together," says Ray. "A cover of 'NO FUN' by the Stooges and three more originals that ended up on the TOO FAR GONE CD recorded with our regular singer, Keish singing".
The footage below that appears in the filmclip for "She's A Dish" was filmed at the Big Day Out in 1992. This gives a pretty good indication of the interest in the Hard Ons at the time.
Henry later returned in September of 1992 with the rest of the Rollins Band in support of "The End Of Silence" which was released earlier in the year on February 25th. The album was a breakthrough release for the Rollins Band with the tracks "Low Self Opinion" and "Tearing" receiving a lot of airplay on Triple J's "Three Hours Of Power" program as well as the video clips being on high rotation on Rage.
Given that the last time Rollins toured in 1990, the band played the Paddington RSL and Promises in Sydney, the jump in venue size to that of the Hordern Pavilion was almost six fold. Keep in mind this was pre Internet days, and most commercial radio networks wouldn't play music such as the Rollins Band. The increase in popularity is really quite staggering for a largely underground punk band. Locally, Hot Metal was the only real widely distributed music magazine that supported the Rollins Band along with various "Hard Rock" columns in the local street press and the odd skate or surf magazine.
Personally I always felt that some of Rollins rise to popularity in this country could very well be attributed to the collaboration with the Hard Ons. While Rollins was already well known within the local punk and hardcore scene due to his Black Flag past, a lot of the more mainstream fans, probably first heard of Henry through hearing the AC/DC cover or seeing the video clip on Rage.
I put this notion to Ray, but he doesn't seem to agree. "I disagree. Henry would have gotten huge without our help. He is a compelling performer!" A fact that remains undisputed no doubt, but I do think it's a little bit humble from Ray to dismiss the help of the Hard Ons that easily.
You can check out two tracks from the Rollins Band on Andrew Denton's show, "Live and Sweaty" broadcast on the ABC on the 25th of September 1992, to see what Ray means.
To wrap things up, I ask Ray when he looks back on that release from the long Hard Ons catalog, what comes to mind exactly?
"I think, thank goodness we did something like that. It was good to get a singer like Henry apply himself to our backing music. Before that our strength was always melody. After Henry we thought we could become more rhythmically muscular with a less melodic approach to our songs. We took this idea to another band later, Nunchukka Superfly".