BUFFALO - 1972 & Dead forever...
Here are my original liner notes for the 2006 CD reissue on Aztec of Buffalo's seminal 1972 album Dead forever...
Thanks to Dave Tice, Pete Wells (R.I.P.), John Baxter.
By Ian McFarlane © 2006
Do you remember the first time you saw the cover of this album? It’s such a striking image that it has the tendency to leave an indelible impression: a mournful, blood soaked face peers out through the eye socket of a skull (classic heavy metal imagery). My first sighting of the album was back in early 1974. I remember it well; I was 14 years old and had started getting seriously into music. The face and the attention-grabbing semi-psychedelic colouration effects around the skull matched the album title perfectly: Dead forever… BUFFALO.
Opening the gatefold sleeve revealed the photo of a heavy bunch of dudes playing their instruments in a cemetery, with amps towering behind them and gravestones rising ominously in front. Something was going on here! The record label logo on the cover was the famous Vertigo ‘swirl’. Holy shit! – Black Sabbath was on Vertigo; Uriah Heep was on Vertigo; Status Quo was on Vertigo – there really was something going on here. I flipped the jacket over: “Play this album LOUD!”. It was the kind of command you couldn’t ignore. What’s more, acting on that command was a rite of passage, sure to rile the parents or the neighbours; preferably both. This Buffalo was worthy of further investigation and it soon became apparent that they already had two more albums, each boasting even more tasteless front covers: Volcanic Rock and Only Want You for Your Body.
Musically, Dead forever… was all lurching riffs, rasping vocals, throbbing bass lines and a weird echoed sound to the drums; a generally heavy psych quality but with a few softer touches as well. There was a trace of that late ‘60s/early ‘70s hippie/dope vibe going on with the stoned guitar textures, but at a pinch the music wasn’t that far removed from the sounds of the British heavies my friends and I were into at the time: Sabbath, Purple, Zeppelin, Heep, Quo, Budgie, Free etc. Somewhat more rudimentary in many ways, but listening to the dark world of the title track ‘Dead Forever’ it really did feel like we’d found our own Black Sabbath. Within a year we even saw Buffalo playing live when they appeared at our local high school dance. They were a hard working and touring band no doubt, but we couldn’t believe our luck! Besides, when was Black Sabbath ever likely to play at your school dance?
Loud ‘N’ Heavy
Okay, that’s a typical tale of adolescent musical discovery. It’s only one aspect of my musical education and the things I was into during those pre-punk days of the mid-70s. Yet there remains something real and tangible about such a discovery. Certainly there had been other Australian bands charting a similar loud and heavy musical course at the time – Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs, Blackfeather, Coloured Balls, the La De Das, Band of Light, Bakery, Chain, Kahvas Jute, Carson among them – yet in retrospect none seems to have captured the arrogant disposition of the period in such a bold and thunderous fashion. One got the impression these guys were the real deal. Their record covers were outrageous, they played hard and heavy, they looked mean and surly: in short, lewd and lascivious Aussie yob rockers of the highest order!
Yet there was always a real streak of larrikin humour at play, almost an element of buffoonery to the band’s profile. Lead singer Dave Tice always had a glint in the eye and a wicked grin plastered across his face. Bass player Pete Wells appeared entirely po-faced, yet surely something wilier lurked beneath that air of nonchalant cool. It was as if they were in on some preposterous joke and were bursting to let the audience in on it all, but they never let on: you had to make the connection yourself. Just the fact they got away with their record covers at the time says a lot about their approach and demeanour. On the surface the covers appeared confrontational, but their true essence was borne of genuine wit and a playful sense of the absurd.
There was a time, however, during the late 1970s through the early 1980s when the name Buffalo was a forgotten one, relegated to the back blocks as punk and new wave swept all before them. It was that general downturn of interest in anything pre-1976, especially something deemed to be heavy metal or, heaven forbid, progressive rock! You could find copies of Buffalo albums in second-hand shops for next to nix. Gradually, the legend began to grow, assuming mythical proportions as their records became increasingly rare and started to fetch high prices on the collector market. The revival of interest extended overseas, in particular to British and European collectors who became hooked on the band’s sound and no-compromise delivery, to say nothing of their connection to the collectable Vertigo label.
I began writing about Buffalo in the early-1980s, after which I contributed liner notes to Raven’s LP collection Skirt Lifters (Highlights & Oversights 1972-1976) and the first major retrospective article on the band to collectors magazine From the Vault in 1989. I followed that with sections devoted to their records as part of my retro-zine Freedom Train Issue #3: The Australian Progressive, Hard Rock and Blues Record Guide (1996). Since then there have been many dissertations on the band’s history, in addition to the numerous and dubious reissues of their albums on inferior quality bootleg CDs. And that interest continues to this day with the band more popular throughout the world than ever conceived possible during their existence as a recording and touring unit. The debut album Dead forever… is the third in the current series of officially reissued Buffalo CDs on Aztec Music, so it’s time once again to unearth the legend and dust it off ready for examination.
The beginnings of Buffalo can be traced back to teenage R&B band The Strange Brew which expatriate Englishman Tice and his mate Wells joined in 1967. They then put in time with the dubiously titled Capitol Showband before forming Head in 1968. Head emerged from the same blues scene that had produced the likes of The Purple Hearts, Thursday’s Children, Bay City Union, Black Cat Circle and Mick Hadley’s Coloured Balls. Neil Jensen (guitar) and Steve Jones (drums; also ex-Strange Brew) completed the line-up. Head moved to Sydney during mid-1970, and by 1971 had come to the attention of Dermot Hoy, A&R manager at Phonogram Records. John Baxter (ex-Mandala) then replaced Jensen on guitar and the band recorded a single featuring the first Tice/Baxter composition ‘Hobo’ b/w the Baxter-penned ‘Sad Song, Then’ (Philips 6037 004). Issued in May, the single sold poorly and remains the rarest Buffalo-related artifact. There was another line-up change when Peter Leighton (ex-Aftermath) replaced Jones on drums, and then with Paul Balbi (ex-Bootleg) replacing Leighton and the arrival of co-vocalist Alan Milano (ex-Mandala) in August 1971, Buffalo was born.
Dave Tice recalled when I interviewed him, “John Baxter was a very important part of the band, his playing defined what we sounded like. When Pete and I first came down to Sydney and Head was looking for gigs and trying to make a name for ourselves, at that point we were still very much a blues band. We were playing what is still the basic repertoire of every blues band to this day. We had changes in the band with Pete, John and I forming the core of what became Buffalo. With John it was a matter of doing what he wanted to do. His style was blues-based but he never considered himself to be a blues player. In fact, the idea of the 12-bar progression was anathema to him; he’d never stick to that format. When we recorded things like ‘No Particular Place to Go’ and ‘Just a Little Rock and Roll’, it wasn’t easy; we had to force him to concentrate on that style.
“But democracy was the name of the game in Buffalo. There were times when we would jam on those kinds of blues things because they’re easy to jam on but John’s natural tendency was to cross through the blues format. It was almost like stream of consciousness, and that’s the way John played. It was very obvious to Pete and I that what was going on between basically a blues rhythm section and this guitar player was rather interesting. We didn’t think what it was all about but it was interesting. Pete was obviously the one who had to find a way to make his bass playing work within that. He was already at a stage in his career and ability that he could jump on the changes that John might throw at him fast enough to make it work. Pete was able to make sense out of that and that’s what came out.”
Pete Wells had a similar recollection: “John’s guitar playing was very significant back then. He didn’t follow any trends; there weren’t many people capable of playing like that. It was a very unique style of playing. There were lots of guitar players he liked at the time, but he never sounded like anyone else to me. He stuck to his style and it’s stood the test of time. It wasn’t gimmicky; he just played his SG. The sound wasn’t processed, it wasn’t manipulated; it was just a basic rock guitar sound. A lot of what he came up with was based around improvisation. A lot of it was very simple rock, a couple of chords and a riff and we used to jam on that and come up with songs. It wasn’t complicated chord wise and as a bass player my job was to play with the dynamics and stick to the general feel of things.”
Tice goes on to explain: “The name Buffalo had nothing to do with the style of music we were playing. We chose a new name because when we started going around to the Sydney agencies as Head, we were treated with enormous indifference. Dal Myles at DM Enterprises was interested in the band, but he hated the name. He suggested we change the name because of certain drug connotations. He said we should have a name beginning with B, ‘cause the biggest bands in the world at the time were the Beatles and the Beach Boys. We also wanted something with an Australian flavour. So we got a map of Australia that also showed distribution of flora and fauna. This is a true story: someone got a pin, closed his eyes, shuffled the map around and stuck the pin in. It landed in the Northern Territory and the nearest name beginning with B was Buffalo. In retrospect, the music does fit the name, but that wasn’t by design.”
The Sydney ‘head’ scene of the day was dominated by the likes of Blackfeather, Jeff St John’s Copperwine, Tamam Shud, Tully and Kahvas Jute, all bands of phenomenal musical proficiency. In order to make up for a perceived lack of musical expertise, the members of Buffalo simply adopted a brash, no-nonsense macho attitude and got loud and heavy. They vied with Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs as the loudest and heaviest bunch on the scene. The first example of the band’s boisterous attitude came with the single ‘Suzie Sunshine’/‘No Particular Place to Go’ (Philips 6037 0110), released in May 1972, and Dead forever... (Vertigo 6357 007), issued in June.
The Vertigo connection is one of the most intriguing aspects of the whole Buffalo story. On the UK music scene circa 1968/69, the major record companies of the day responded to the growing emergence of underground music by setting up in-house subsidiary labels as an outlet for many new progressive signings: EMI established Harvest, Decca launched Deram Nova, RCA started Neon, Pye set up Dawn and Philips/Phonogram formed the well-respected Vertigo imprint. The Vertigo label established an immediate identity with (highly collectable) album releases by Colosseum, Juicy Lucy, Manfred Mann Chapter III, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, Cressida, Fairfield Parlour, Gracious, Affinity, May Blitz, Clear Blue Sky, Warhorse, Legend, Patto, Gentle Giant and later on, many other heavy names like Status Quo, Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Thin Lizzy, Def Leppard and Metallica.
By 1972, the Sydney office of Phonogram was on the case, promoting the label with local releases of many Vertigo titles and a desire to establish an Australian identity. Dermot Hoy obviously liked the band’s attitude, so Buffalo was the natural choice as the first local signing to the Vertigo stable; henceforth the link to the iconic Vertigo ‘swirl’ has ensured their collectable status to this day. Vertigo issued Dead forever… in Germany, Holland and (possibly) France, sans the gatefold sleeve. Company executives at the Dutch head office of Philips Records reportedly sent a letter to the band saying that Dead forever… was “better in quality, production and music than Black Sabbath’s Volume 4”!
‘Suzie Sunshine’ was catchy and commercial, but while nobody really held out much hope for a hit single, the album fared well and eventually sold over 15,000 copies. Original copies of the album were issued on the famous ‘swirl’ label, with later pressings appearing on the space-ship design. There was nothing subtle about Buffalo’s primal, heavyweight sound, but it was delivered with a great deal of verve and conviction. While the album referenced the likes of Black Sabbath, Free and the blues/boogie overtones of US psychedelic band Quicksilver Messenger Service, Tice and Wells were also fans of vintage American R&B. Hence the single B-side cover of Chuck Berry’s 1950s rocker ‘No Particular Place to Go’ was further evidence of the band’s diverse musical approach.
“At the time John was listening to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Free, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Grand Funk Railroad,” Tice reasons. “Generally it was music that followed on from what Pete and I had been listening to. I don’t really know what he did before we worked together, but it wasn’t really important. We were all very idealistic in those days and we thought that you’d get three or four people together and something would happen. Interestingly enough, in many ways that’s what did happen! I really miss that now, quite frankly. I’ve done a lot of touring and recording since then but I’ve never had that same connection. In those days, we didn’t sit down and say we’ve got to write a song in this style or that style. I guess organic is as good a word as any to describe what we did.”
“With Buffalo we’d go into rehearsals for two or three hours and we’d start with no idea of what anyone wanted to do until somebody started making some noise. Quite a number of tracks on those early albums were done in the studio like that. We’d just get in there and John would say ‘I’ve got this little idea’ and bang, away we’d go. The first album was a little bit more thought out, organised, but not much more. When we recorded Dead forever… it included material that we’d developed while we were playing live. With the subsequent albums, in most cases we were writing as we were recording. That’s not to say that Dead forever… was totally formalised. It featured riffs and songs we’d been playing in front of audiences before recording.”
John Baxter remembers starting with his first band when he was about 16 years old. “At that time I was right into all the British bands of the 1960s. I loved The Animals; they’re still one of my favourite bands of all time. I liked The Yardbirds, The Beatles, the Stones, The Who, Them, Manfred Mann, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Some of it was poppy, Top 40 stuff, but to me at the time it was just great rock. Also The Easybeats were a great influence. Then later on when I was in Buffalo I listened to Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath; all the English heavy bands. Also, American guys like Joe Walsh, Grand Funk Railroad. Grand Funk! I remember some very stoned nights watching this 16mm film of Grand Funk that a friend of the band’s had (laughs).”
As a program of music in itself, Dead forever… remains one of the first truly sinister albums from an Aussie band of the day. Highlights of this collection of heavy psychedelic blues included covers of Free’s ‘I’m a Mover’ and the Blues Images’ ‘Pay My Dues’, plus the band-penned tracks ‘Leader’, ‘Suzie Sunshine’, ‘Bean Stew’ and the melancholy, atmospheric ballad ‘Forest Rain’ replete with eerie sound effects (thunder, rain, wind, seagulls etc). Baxter stamps his identity throughout the album as an emergent guitar player of tremendous scope. He dominates with memorable riffs, stinging lead breaks and other interesting guitar parts: the free form feedback intro to ‘Pay My Dues’; the solo in ‘Suzie Sunshine’; the lengthy guitar freak-out in ‘I’m a Mover’; the brooding, eerie acoustic guitar refrain that opens ‘Leader’; the wah wah guitar bridge in ‘Forest Rain’; the slide guitar break in ‘The Ballad of Irving Fink’ (“That was done using a screwdriver!” is Baxter’s recollection).
The album’s centrepiece and Baxter’s piece de resistance is surely the awe-inspiring title track itself, ‘Dead Forever’. Very much in the Tony Iommi style of dense, heavy riffing with multi-tracked solos jostling for attention amid the boogie overtones, the whole thing creates a fat, solid framework of tremendously dark power.
“You know, I never went out of my way to copy anyone,” Baxter explains. “I’m not a copyist, never have been. I’ve never agreed with that mentality. You might use something as a reference point. I’ve been influenced by different players; you can’t help being influenced by people. I loved Tony Iommi’s playing, but by not trying to play like Tony Iommi you don’t actually sound like him. Some people used to say ‘oh you sound like Black Sabbath’, but I don’t think we did. I think we had touches of Black Sabbath in there, sure, but we also had touches of Led Zeppelin in there, we had touches of Deep Purple in there, y’know? And the rest of it was us.”
“How our sound came together was I wrote the music and Dave always wrote the lyrics,” Baxter continues. “He left me to do my job and I left him to his job and it worked out well. I’m quite pleased with his lyrics; he didn’t sink to the morass of some of the heavy metal lyric writers. He kept his lyrics for my liking fairly good. I probably only knew what he was singing in the choruses back then but what he was singing in the verses, I probably wouldn’t have had a clue (laughs). But looking back at them, I think they’re very interesting. I’ve listened to them and I’ve read then since and I’m glad he wrote what he wrote most of the time. Some of Dave’s lyric topics are surprising. He touched on Biblical topics in things like ‘The Prophet’ (from Volcanic Rock) and at the time I wasn’t aware of it.”
“The song ‘Dead Forever’, I quite like it,” is Wells’ pithy summation. “It’s actually a pretty good song. There’s this young band around Sydney at the moment called Dead Forever. They probably called themselves after the album. But I don’t know what that song means to me now; it was such a long, long time ago now.”
To play up the supernatural horror show connection of the title track even further, the tongue-in-cheek photo on the inner gatefold – taken at Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery – and the otherworldly cover design round out the concept perfectly. In a kind of bizarre manufacturing mishap, a number of covers in the initial pressing came with the inner gatefold panel glued in upside down, adding a strangely ‘twisted’ effect to the package!
“With the cover design for the album it was completely down to what it’s called: Dead forever…,” Tice confirms. “The title actually came from a séance we had in Surfer’s Paradise. We were playing a two week residency at the Chevron Hotel up there; the promoter had put us up in this house and the story was that the owner had died in his bed. So we got stoned one night after a gig and being young and foolish, we decided to have a séance. We supposedly established contact and the glass started moving. Now, I don’t know to this day if it was somebody in the group moving it. I have an inkling that it was Pete Wells, ‘cause he would do things like that but he would never tell you. But we were quite impressed by the whole thing and John asked the question ‘What does it feel like where you are?’ and this ‘spirit’ spelled out D-E-A-D F-O-R-E-V-E-R.”
Dave continues: “So I wrote the lyrics from that and it also became the album title. When you’ve got a title like Dead forever… you have to use it and the artwork came afterwards. So the cover spoke for itself. It was put together by Nick van der Lay who saw a way to make some sense of it all visually and photographically. What you see on the cover of Dead forever… was just a way of portraying what the album was about; it stood out immediately in a record rack with the skull and the face with all the blood. That’s not me by the way; it was Nick’s assistant who looked somewhat like me. Nick also took the photo of us in Rookwood Cemetery and used that on the inner gatefold. He was very clever; he had a big input into the first three album covers. Unfortunately he died in a motorbike accident, which is why the album covers changed after the third one.”
“My recollection of how the title Dead forever… came about differs slightly from Dave’s,” Baxter says. “The title did come from the séance we had in Queensland. This house we were staying in was pretty creepy in some ways, lights would go on and doors would slam shut. So we decided one day, and I think it was my stupid idea because I don’t believe in séances now, in fact I think they’re dangerous, satanic actually. So it was like this ouija board with the letters and we put our fingers on this glass and asked all these questions: ‘Are you a good spirit?’ Naturally it’s always gonna answer ‘yes’ for that one. So the glass was moving around, it was really flying around the table and everyone swears that they weren’t pushing it; I’m not sure you can push a glass around like that without knocking it over. Anyway I asked the question ‘Is there a God?’ and it spelled out D-E-A-D F-O-R-E-V-E-R. We all looked at each other and thought ‘that’s a weird answer’. So I thought I’ll try this again – ‘Is there a God?’ – and it spelled out D-E-A-D F-O-R-E-V-E-R again and the glass flew off the table! This ‘spirit’ got really nasty when I asked it about God.”
Buffalo’s next single was the rollicking ‘Just a Little Rock and Roll (A Shot of Rhythm and Blues)’ b/w ‘Barbershop Rock’ (Philips 6037 020), a stop-gap measure before they returned to the studio for the next album. It was another example of their interest in a good old rockin’ 12-bar, with the Terry Thompson-penned A-side matched with Baxter’s own take on the form. The records launched the album/tour, album/tour merry-go-round that occupied Buffalo for the next five years. Something had to give, and by the end of 1972 co-vocalist Milano had left; he later formed Southern Cross. Balbi also left to be replaced by Jimmy Economou (another ex-Mandala alumnus); Balbi later travelled to England where he joined the ranks of pub-rockers the Count Bishops.
To be continued…
Dead forever... originally released as Vertigo 6357 007 in June 1972
1. LEADER (D. Tice/J. Baxter/P. Wells)
2. SUZIE SUNSHINE (Brett/Baxter)
3. PAY MY DUES (Blues Image)
4. I’M A MOVER (Rodgers/Fraser)
5. BALLAD OF IRVING FINK (Alan Milano/John Baxter)
6. BEAN STEW (Dave Tice/John Baxter)
7. FOREST RAIN (Dave Tice/John Baxter)
8. DEAD FOREVER (Dave Tice/John Baxter)
Play this album LOUD!
DAVE TICE: Vocals
ALAN MILANO: Vocals
PAUL BALBI: Drums
PETER WELLS: Bass
JOHN BAXTER: Guitar