Originally published Rhythms magazine January/February 2019 Issue #291
By Ian McFarlane © 2019
What is a Zoot? What is Zoot? Who are Zoot?
For those in the know, it’s all laid out now with the recent release of the 24-track compilation Zoot Archaeology (EMI/Universal) which celebrates the band’s 50th anniversary, combining the hits, B-sides, album tracks, a number of rarities and even a new Zoot single, a version of The Dream Academy’s 1985 classic ‘Life in a Northern Town’.
For those who might need a brief history lesson: Zoot was an Australian pop rock band, formed in Adelaide during 1967, disbanded in Melbourne 1971, fronted by singer Darryl Cotton, featuring bassist Beeb Birtles and, in a number of different line-ups, drummers Teddy Higgins and Rick Brewer and guitarists John D’Arcy, Steve Stone, Roger Hicks and Rick Springfield. Among other things: Birtles went on to international success with Little River Band; Springfield was a hugely popular solo artist and actor; Cotton was part of Cotton Keays and Morris; Brewer went on to join The Ferrets. As the EMI promotions machine would have it, “Zoot were the ultimate supergroup in reverse”.
People might also recall the “Think Pink-Think Zoot” promotional campaign, which saw the band decked out in all pink clothing and thrust to the forefront of the emergent bubblegum pop movement, vying with the likes of The Valentines, The Flying Circus and New Dream for a place on the charts and in the hearts of teenage girls. With the move into a heavier rock direction, the band’s biggest hit came in 1971 with a thunderous re-arrangement of The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’.
So what’s in a band name? Beeb Birtles, who also recently had his memoir Every Day of My Life published, is on the phone from his home in Nashville TN with the explanation. “Well, it was actually Doc Neeson who came up with the name. That was such a funny meeting... we were originally called Times Unlimited, straight out of high school, and when Darryl joined we changed the name to Down the Line, which was a Hollies song. Doc was a young dance promoter in Adelaide at the time and he was one of these two guys who approached us. They told us that they thought we had a lot of potential but they didn’t really like our name. That’s when Doc said, ‘why don’t you call yourselves something like Zoot, you know, something short and punchy that doesn’t actually mean anything’.
“We had to think about that for a week or so before we changed the name to Zoot because we thought, ‘well what kind of a name is that anyway?’. We didn’t see Doc again and it was only a few years later we found out he’d suggested the name because of his love for the English R&B group Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band. Yeah, it was such a bizarre word and you don’t readily forget it, so it worked for us.”
Since the band’s break up in 1971, EMI has continued to lease their music, in particular ‘Eleanor Rigby’, for numerous Various Artists compilations when in fact contracts had long since lapsed. The remaining members of Zoot (Cotton passed away in 2012) have now negotiated a new deal with EMI.
“Yes, we’ve re-signed with EMI because of the continued interest in the band’s music,” Birtles confirms. “To our surprise they were interested in releasing a definitive collection, which they’ve called Zoot Archaeology. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ seems to have become our anthem in Australia but we’ve been digging through our music and added some rare tracks just to make this compilation a little bit more interesting for Zoot fans.
“I’m very pleased, just to think that this is music we recorded 50 years ago. It’s astonishing really but we’re on a different platform now because to me it seems like Zoot is finally going global. EMI has also made our first album Just Zoot and the compilation LP Zoot Out available digitally, on iTunes. So that’s cool. Also there’s another component to Zoot’s popularity and that’s through Rick Springfield’s fans here in the United States. In 2010, Darryl, the two Ricks and I reunited for a concert which was part of a Rick Springfield fans and friends cruise through the Bahamas. We recorded the concert and it was released as Zoot Live - The Reunion. So it’s just amazing to me that the band is still being talked about all these years later.”
In terms of the music, there were several distinct phases to the band’s career. The early mod rock years saw the band covering the likes of The Move, Small Faces and The Hollies; there’s the band’s first recording included, a cover of The Move’s ‘I Can Hear the Grass Grow’ which has been rescued from a scratchy acetate. Next came the bubblegum pop years, with the hits ‘You’d Better Get Goin’’, ‘One Times, Two Times, Three Times, Four’ (written and produced by The Twilights’ Terry Britten) and ‘Monty and Me’ (by Hans Poulsen and Seeker Bruce Woodley) which was produced by Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum. Birtles and Cotton got a rare co-write with the B-side to ‘Monty and Me’, ‘Little Roland Lost’.
Birtles nearly chokes on his drink when I declare my one big gripe about Zoot Archaeology: the absence of the band’s version of UK psych pop band Tomorrow’s ‘Three Jolly Little Dwarfs’, originally the B-side to debut single ‘You’d Better Get Goin’’. It may not be a great song but for the sake of completeness, it’s a missed opportunity.
“Ah, no, it’s such a cheesy song,” he laughs nervously. “Oh it’s awful! We only recorded that because David Mackay the producer found the song for us to record, as he’d found ‘You’d Better Get Goin’’ which was a Jackie Lomax song... but really ‘Three Jolly Little Dwarfs’, you know, it was a little bit too bubblegum even for Zoot.”
Mention should be made here of guitarist Roger Hicks whose time in the band was brief, having only played on ‘One Times, Two Times, Three Times, Four’ and ‘Monty and Me’. Nevertheless, he was a very proficient guitarist and went on to record the distinctive acoustic guitar intro to Russell Morris’ classic psychedelic epic ‘The Real Thing’ which was produced by Molly Meldrum.
When Springfield joined in 1969, the band wanted to expand their horizons and leave behind the bubblegum trappings. For starters, Springfield was a brilliant guitarist with the uncanny ability to play a mean lick while tossing his white Gibson SG into the air, à la Pete Townshend. It quickly transpired that he was also a talented songwriter. His songs ‘Flying’, ‘Hey Pinky’ and ‘Strange Things’ had a tougher edge to the psych pop mode of the day and pointed the way forward. The band began transforming a number of contemporary songs into a heavy rock framework for live appearances. They included Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’, Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ and The Beatles’ ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ and – most pertinently – ‘Eleanor Rigby’.
“Once Rick was in the band we really encouraged him to start writing his own songs,” says Birtles. “I don’t think he’d written much before he joined so he really came into his own. We dropped the whole ‘Think Pink’ thing and we started taking our music a lot more seriously by giving heavier arrangements to songs we were playing, which is precisely how ‘Eleanor Rigby’ came about. Rick came up with that particular riff but like all bands, everybody contributed their little bit to the song.
“We put that arrangement together and started playing it, well before we even recorded the song. It was the song we played at the (1970) Hoadley’s Battle of the Sounds competition when we won the Victorian heat. We went up to Sydney for the final where we lost to The Flying Circus of course... that was a bit controversial. Anyway, they recorded the show and 2SM in Sydney started playing this live version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’. It became so popular that our producer at the time, Howard Gable, said ‘you guys need to put this song down’ and that’s how it became a single on EMI.”
The single reached #4 on the national chart (March 1971), staying in the Top 40 for 21 weeks but ironically sales fell just short of attaining Gold status. That occurred when EMI re-issued ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in 1979. The B-side, ‘Turn Your Head’, was another of Springfield’s hard rock songs with punishing power chords backed by brilliant harmonies.
Also by that stage Cotton had come into his own as one of the country’s great singers. He’d always had the photogenic looks but now he pushed himself further into the limelight by wearing flamboyantly fringed buckskin jackets in the manner of The Who’s Roger Daltrey. What with Springfield wearing dashing white jumpsuits and wielding his guitar like Pete Townshend, were Zoot attempting to become the Australian version of The Who?
“Ah look, we all loved the music of The Who of course,” Birtles states. “And Darryl was a huge fan of Roger Daltrey. In fact he told me that he actually got to meet Roger in London and they had a really nice chat. But like any other band you try to make your own way and get your own sound happening. It was a conscious effort to leave our past behind. The change in the music accompanied that and I think we achieved our goals.”
The single that really marked the band’s development was, ironically, their final release, ‘The Freak’, written by Springfield. The churning, yet clean, metallic riffs of ‘The Freak’ nudge it into heavy psych territory, or perhaps proto-metal, which is enhanced further by the lengthy, dreamy mid-section with gentle guitar arpeggios and lush harmonies. There’s even a storyline to the lyrics: “When is a man not a man/When he’s a freak in a sideshow/But we’ve all got to cry”. Such an impressive song but at over five minutes it had an even less commercial feel than the likes of ‘Eagle Rock’ or ‘I’ll Be Gone’ and, not surprisingly, failed to chart. Even more bonkers, however, is the B-side ‘Evil Child’ with the stabbing horns and a more-cow-bell snappy boogie beat.
“I don’t think we ever thought of ‘The Freak’ as being non-commercial,” is Birtles’ assessment now. “It was such a gutsy song to play on stage, that was very much our thing at the time. I especially liked it when it goes into the softer section, there were some great harmonies on that. We wanted to play more exciting music and I think ‘The Freak’ definitely presented that side of the band.”
I ask Birtles if he thinks the band’s music has any relevance for younger listeners?
“Well, I do know for a fact that... we didn’t really think about this at the time but we influenced a lot of Australian bands with ‘Eleanor Rigby’. Even to the extent that Tame Impala have talked about us, the Hoodoo Gurus, The Church have said how Zoot influenced them, what they were getting into at the time. Whether people think we were an influential band or not, I don’t know. We were just doing what we were doing at the time.”
Finally, the stately rendition of ‘Life in a Northern Town’ brings things full circle. It’s a fitting way for Zoot to honour the late Darryl Cotton. How did the new recording come about?
“Well, both Rick and Darryl had recorded separate versions of the song. I didn’t even know Darryl had recorded it. I knew that Rick had recorded a version on his covers CD, The Day After Yesterday. Anyway, we were fortunate enough to track down the producer of Darryl’s version and we were able to lift the vocal from there and, through the marvel of modern technology, match it to Rick’s. So we have a new Zoot single, 50 years later. I’ve always loved that song because the chorus is so catchy.”
By way of signing off, Birtles reveals he’s due to return to Adelaide in February 2019 to play the Fringe Festival. Zoot fans, watch out for that one.