Stephen Maclean
Peter Allen: the Boy from Oz
Random House  360pp.

Billy Thorpe
Sex and Thugs and Rock’n’Roll: a Year in Kings Cross 1963-64
Macmillan  390pp.

Australian Book Review, April 1997, pp. 32-33.

Late in his career, Peter Allen was touring Australian when a man about his age made himself known: “I followed you in that Armidale pub.” Allen had performed there as an eleven-year old before moving on to the bigger time of Sydney where, at fourteen, he acquired his stage name and a new identity. Allen asked him where he was performing now. “I’m not” came the reply.

No moment from Allen’s galaxy of the glitterati is more telling than this encounter. What was it that made one gawk from the bush into an international hit while another disappeared from public view?

It is unlikely that the other man had a worse singing voice, or was less trained as trained as a pianist than Allen who stretched his talents across scales and keyboards. Part of the answer was guts. The kid who coped with his alcoholic father learnt how to survive against the odds. This upbringing also let him deal with his mother-in-law, Judy Garland, by knowing when it was safe to answer back as well as how to pretend nothing was amiss when everyone else was being destroyed by her tantrums. No reverse could destroy the bush battler, not even the flop of his under-rehearsed Broadway musical Legs Diamond, until HIV-AIDS put up the “Performance Cancelled” signs in June 1992.

The guts came with hyperactivity. In his mid-forties, Allen opened his shows by bounding on stage and springing onto the lid of his grand piano with little regard for the consequences.

Just after Allen left Sydney for the US in 1962, the 17-year old Billie Thorpe arrived in town. With Sex and Thugs and Rock’n’Roll, he has come up with a hit to rival Poison Ivy, the song that took him and the Aztecs to the top of the pop charts in 1964. Read as a crime thriller, it challenges Peter Corris. It gets closer to evil on the streets than Christopher Koch in The Doubleman.

Thorpe’s storytelling relies on the timing he developed to hold audiences. The prose reads like yarns polished in thirty years of retelling. He tells it how it was in the language and attitudes of a time when gays were still shirt-lifters. If you want to be cheered up by being reminded how much Australia has changed for the better, then the offensive bits of this year with a teenager following his dick around will give you the lift you need to get through another Hanson interview.

Like the typical bloke, Thorpe can put his chauvinism into words which disarm through their inventiveness and lack of guile, as in this description of the bad guy in his plot, which was also his life: “He was ugly to say the least, but it was the ugly that makes men wary and women wet.” After a sentence like that, you give up either reading or resisting.

The crims, the good cop, the bend Demons, the aged whore with the heart of gold who still had the portrait that George Lambert had painted of her in the late 1890s, the two show girls with whom Thorpe shared his bed, the merchant seamen who brought in the latest of Carnaby street for the Aztecs to flaunt on stage, the envy of Johnny O’Keefe as he saw his style of Rocker being replaced, the vicious woman crim Jackie Marsh, and Ivan the brainless bouncer combine to make Sex etc the most televisable biography on offer.

Here is the Cross and Australia at the cusp of change, before US troops on R-and-R from Vietnam transformed crime and drugs, while Surf bands were cutting the edge, before the Beatles made it here, and when a teenager from Brisbane could waltz into Sydney and upend the scene.

Stephen Maclean presents Allen’s life story with enough glimpses of the social and cultural shifts to carry The Boy from Oz above the transit of a star. Expatriatism has moved away from high culture into popular and mass entertainments. Thorpe has worked the US circuits since 1976. Until the late 1960s, professional performers accepted that complete success required long periods outside Australia. Now, they come and go, but go for training or on contract.

Film-making sucks our directors permanently towards Hollywood because the money needed for a career is tens of millions for each project. Bands and singers also seem to need to be released by the overseas arm of their recording companies.

But these circumstances might be about to end. The non-stop flight to LAX makes a working life on both Pacific coasts a possibility. If Fox studios establish a production house here, Weir, Schepisi and Gibson might relocate to Sydney.

Opportunities to reflect on the patterns of globalisation in the commerce that is mass entertainments are only one reason why everyone with an interest in where twenty million boys and girls from OZ will fit into the market for distraction should read both these books. By 2007, will anyone’s signature tune be I still call Australia homepage?