The news that Stevie Wright – solo artist, singer for the Easybeats and, thanks to that band’s immortal single Friday On My Mind, Australia’s first international pop star – has died at the age of 68 will not surprise anyone familiar with his story.
That does not make his loss any less devastating.
Billed as Little Stevie in his early years, Wright was Australia’s prototype rock’n’roll frontman. Some of his moves, not to mention his leering grin, were copied by AC/DC’s Bon Scott. They also found an echo in Chrissie Amphlett, whose band the Divinyls covered the Easybeats’s I’ll Make You Happy.
Wright, along with his bandmates, was part of the first wave of migrants to jump-start Australian rock and pop. Born in Leeds in 1947, he emigrated with his family to Australia when he was nine, settling in Villawood. There he met Dutch-born Harry Vanda and Scot George Young (older brother of AC/DC’s Malcolm and Angus), both of whom were living at the local migrant hostel.
Wright wrote lyrics for many of the Easybeats’s early hits, including She’s So Fine, Wedding Ring and fan favourite Sorry – a No 1 hit in Australia in 1966 and as tough a record as anything released to that point by the early Kinks, Rolling Stones or the Small Faces.
After that, his influence in the group waned, as Young began working with fellow guitarist Vanda. Friday On My Mind was the first fruit of their phenomenally successful partnership, for the Easybeats and as house writers and producers for Albert Productions in the 1970s.
Ultimately, this worked to Wright’s advantage after he was reunited with Vanda and Young as a solo artist. His full range as a singer – an inspired belter, capable of surprising tenderness – is best captured on his 11-minute single Evie (Parts 1, 2 & 3), which, despite its prodigious length also went to No 1, in 1974.
But as the title of his first solo album Hard Road indicated, Wright lost his way after his early fame. Although the album contained some of his finest performances, its cover was a giveaway, with a haunted-looking Wright photographed on a beach as though shipwrecked.
Addicted to heroin, Wright admitted himself to the notorious Chelmsford private hospital, where he was administered deep sleep therapy, a combination of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and drug-induced coma which left him with severe after-effects. (The hospital’s practices, which were linked to more than 25 deaths, later became the subject of a royal commission.)
Wright performed only sporadically after that, headlining the Legends of Rock show at Byron Bay in what turned out to be his final performance in 2009. With the Easybeats, he was inducted into the Aria Hall of Fame in 2005; in 2001, Friday On My Mind was voted the best Australian song of all time by the Australasian Performing Rights Association.
It’s the song for which Wright will be best remembered. From its opening stanzas charting the working week through to its hedonistic chorus celebrating the coming of the weekend, it is the definitive Australian working-class anthem. Wright’s vocal is by turns impatient, cheeky – “even my old man looks good!” – and exuberant.
It is sad Wright’s struggles with addiction to some extent obscured the fact of his enormous influence on generations of Australian rock’n’rollers, from AC/DC to the Saints to You Am I. Each of their vocalists, in turn, owe a drink to the diminutive frontman with the who-me grin, the little shimmy and the loveable larrikin vocals.
This article was written by Andrew Stafford, for theguardian.com on Sunday 27th December 2015 23.55 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010