Australian rock icon Doc Neeson has died at age 67, just 17 months after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.
Neeson, the former livewire lead singer of pub rock greats The Angels, passed away peacefully today at 7.15am according to a statement released by his friend and publicist Catherine Swinton at 11.30am on Wednesday.
Angels frontman Doc Neeson has died. Photo: Deb Martin
“It is with deep sadness and regret that the family of Angels’ singer/songwriter Bernard ‘Doc’ Neeson – loving father, family member and friend to so many – announce he has passed away in his sleep at 7.15am today.”
“He has battled with a brain tumour for the last 17 months and sadly lost his fight this morning. He will be deeply missed by his family and partner Annie Souter who would all like to thank everyone for their support through this dark time.”
The statement also added: “We love you Dad,” and included the names “Dzintra, Daniel, Aidan and Kieran”.
“You couldn’t have made any of your sons more proud of you if you tried. May your beautiful soul rest in peace sweet angel, fly high.”
Annie Souter movingly ended the statement with: “Good Night, Sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. With love forever, Annie – borrowed from William Shakespeare – Hamlet.”
Neeson, born in Belfast in 1947, brought a flair for the dramatic to the Angels, the band which came to define a style of Australian music which was fuelled by energy more than anger, and performance which was never shy.
When other pub rock bands were blokey and beer-stained, the Angels had a frontman who dressed like a cross between a 19th century funeral director and a riverboat gambler. They played faster than most, almost punk at times, and attracted a crowd of men who slammed into each other gleefully.
But the Angles also had fans who noticed Neeson’s lyrics quoted books, artists and psychology texts rather than exhortations to drink more alcohol. All sung by a tall and imposing man who was equal parts theatrically scary and excitingly real.
His songwriting contribution to Am I Ever Going To See Your Face Again, Coming Down and Take A Long Line, among many, have become part of Australian music history.
Brothers Rick and John Brewster, who co-founded the Moonshine Jug and String Band, which later became the Angels, paid tribute to Neeson on the band’s Facebook page.
Rick Brewster said Neeson “stood out as one of a kind, a totally unique performer”.
“His feverish stage presence was unsurpassed yet beneath the public persona was a gentle soul. He leaves behind a wealth of shared memories – good times, hard times and the thrill of creating timeless music together. RIP Doc,” he said.
John Brewster recalled the band’s early years on the road and described Neeson as a “dynamic, demonic, artistic and imposing performer”.
“I’ve found myself thinking back to the wonderful days of the Moonshine Jug and String Band when we first met Doc, the residencies at the Modbury Hotel, Adelaide Rowing Club, the Finsbury, all the great gigs that that zany, crazy band performed at, the parties at Doc’s rented house in Glenunga, SA. We had so much fun back then,” he said.
“Somehow that band turned into The Angels, i.e. Doc, Rick, Charlie King and me and we went out on the road, literally, in my old 1964 EH Holden station wagon. The endless highway playing every night of the week, mostly in dives, learning how to do it by live performance and writing better and better songs.
“Eventually the band, including Buzz Bidstrup and Chris Bailey, hit it big in 1978 and Doc became one of the great frontmen of all time, a dynamic, demonic, artistic and imposing performer who would give it his all night after night, totally spent at the end of each show.
“There was a deep, sensitive and gentle side to Doc. In this sad time of his passing I’ll remember him for that and the good times we had together, now and forever more.”
The Angels’ production house, Alberts, paid tribute, saying: “His vibrant, charismatic personality and deep, resonant brogue will be sadly missed by all at Alberts.”
“Alberts has not only lost one of its greatest and most loved creative innovators, but also a true friend. Even within the last few months, Doc was in the building sharing his infectious passion with all at Alberts,” said managing director David Albert.
“Long after Doc is laid to rest, his distinctive sound and contribution to the local and international music industry will resonate for generations to come.”
The company’s relationship with the legendary frontman and songwriter began in 1975 when the Adelaide band The Keystone Angels were brought to its attention by members of AC/DC. The ’50s-styled rock band was brought into Albert Studios by George Young and Harry Vanda, and it only took a week for a deal to be offered. A slight name change later and the iconic Australian act The Angels, fronted by Neeson was born.
As part of the Alberts performing and songwriting fold, Doc fronted The Angels on The Angels (1977), Face To Face (1978) and No Exit (1979) albums. More recently Neeson reinterpreted Flash and The Pan’s classic Walking In The Rain (2014) for Albert Productions.
In a piece he wrote for Fairfax this year, Neeson said he collapsed before Christmas Eve 2012 and after scans showed a tumour had surgery on New Year’s Eve 2012.
He was presented with an Order of Australia medal last year.
Tributes were pouring into Twitter for Neeson. Peter Garrett tweeted “Farewell Doc, big man with a huge heart and a mighty talent, you showed us how” [sic]. David Cambell said: “RIP Doc Neeson. What a giant of Aussie Rock. The soundtrack to many memories,” while Richard Wilkins simply said “#Legend”.
Chris ‘CM’ Murphy, their agent during the Angels’ early years and current INXS manager, said he was sorry to see Doc go.
“I was invited to see a band called the Keystone Angels at an Adelaide pub on a Thursday night where they had a residency,” Murphy recalled. “Although they had not developed as The Angels, with their extraordinary sound, at that point there was no doubt in my mind this tall, handsome, dark-haired man singing was one the most charismatic men I had seen on stage.
“With his movie star looks, stunning stage movements we were all looking at what should have become an International star… Mr Doc Neeson will always be a star to me and I will remember him not just as a star but as the pure gentlemen he was with a beautiful soul. God will enjoy his company without doubt.”
The current Angels’ lineup, without Neeson, has just commenced a national tour and played in Victoria twice last week. The band is due to next perform at Old Bar, NSW, on Friday. Former Screaming Jets’ frontman Dave Gleeson is The Angels’ current lead singer.
Doc Neeson’s best hits
Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again
The first song John and Rick Brewster and Doc Neeson wrote after changing their name from the Moonshine Jug and String Band and their first single as The Angels. It was a song featuring references to Renoir, death, loss and eventually, at their live shows, a crowd chant (“No way, get f—ed, f— off”) in response; which was profane, inappropriate but summed up the heady atmosphere of Angels’ shows.
Doc Neeson wrote “it’s really an existential query as to what happens when or if you pass over. But the way the song has now found its way into Australian culture is something that really delights me and a really cool example of Australian humour.”
Take a Long Line
A menacing introduction of drums and terse guitars before Neeson sets the tone for a whole slew of Angels’ shows with a muttered “this is it folks, over the top”. As he wrote later “it was my way of saying to the audience ‘here we go, fasten your seatbelts because it’s going to be a great rock ‘n’ roll show’.”
I Ain’t the One
Some of it sounds pure punk, with guitar riffs not that far from the Sex Pistols and Neeson sneering over the top, declaring he wouldn’t be the one to judge, but you knew he would be. Played even faster live it demanded body slams.
Aggressive, in your face and hinting at danger with a minor horror show section which came in shadows as Neeson sang, “Don’t go walking out late at night, bolt your door, lock your windows tight, be much safer staying out of sight”.
A story of dreams – of being an actress, of having more – which works out differently: “With dilettante steps she’s quick to accept the weather and time’s turning screw”. It was condensed from confessions of a young woman hitchhiker Neeson once gave a ride to. “Late at night when the lights are all out, she slips off her stockings and shoes/She makes you her lover and lets you discover the smile she keeps, she keeps for you”.
with Bernard Zuel