The Angels: "What happened was sad and stupid"

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As The Angels fly in for their first UK appearance in 35 years, Rick Brewster has spoken of a final emotional deathbed encounter with Doc Neeson in which the lead guitarist attempted – unsuccessfully – to bury the hatchet with the Australian group’s estranged former frontman.

“My brother John [the band’s rhythm guitarist] and I did everything we could to mend those fences, but he just wasn’t interested,” says Rick.

Neeson had co-founded the group with the Brewsters and drummer Charlie King in Adelaide in 1974. Signed to Albert Productions at the recommendation of Malcolm Young and Bon Scott from AC/DC, The Angels became superstars Down Under. Elsewhere in the world, however, they had to settle for cult fame, due to a reluctance to leave their families for massive stretches of time.

The manner of their split with Neeson was controversial. The singer contends that he was involved in “a serious car accident” in December 1999. Neeson later claimed to have been left with two options: retire from music, or be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his days.

The Brewster brothers, who insist that Doc drove the same “supposedly concertinaed” car to rehearsal the following day and finished a tour that the band was on at the time, strongly refute this version of events. The Brewsters reclaimed ownership of The Angels’ catalogue by forming the Original Angels in 2001. The arrival of Doc Neeson’s Angels two years later meant that two rival acts were touring Australia at the same time.

In 2008, following the signing of a peace treaty called The Angels Reunification Deed, The Angels renewed their relationship with Neeson, but peace didn’t last for long. Two years later Doc was gone again, though whether or not this was voluntarily remains moot.

When Neeson was diagnosed with the brain tumour that killed him on June 4, 2014, the Brewsters reached out in attempt to end the feud. The singer had been given 18 months to live before going into remission, though sadly the tumour returned. However, Doc would not reconcile, telling Classic Rock a month before his passing: “Unless the brothers are willing to honour the agreement, I don’t want to see their faces again.”

Then, in the wake of “a number of emails – some of which were quite pleasant” and a rebuffed attempt to visit Neeson in hospital, came a dramatic phone call made by Rick Brewster to the ailing singer.

“We’d been stonewalled,” he relates sadly. “In my last connection with Doc I rang the hospital shortly before he passed away and got put through to him. We spoke for about a minute but the nurse arrived to give him some drugs, so I told him that I’d call back. I’ve never said this in an interview, but I don’t care… when I called the hospital again to find a good time to try again, the nurse [unaware of the tense history between patient and caller] said, ‘I’ll go and find out’.

“I was yelling into the mouthpiece: ‘Don’t ask Doc!’ but it was too late, they’d gone to find him. Two minutes later he returned and told me, ‘Doc says he would prefer not to speak to you again’. So that was it. What happened between us was sad and stupid, but one day we’ll all be up there together in Heaven and I hope we can really make our peace.”

The Angels have been cited as influential by acts as diverse as Guns N’ Roses, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Great White. Since replacing Neeson with Dave Gleeson of The Screaming Jets in 2011 they have released two studio albums, Take It To The Streets (2012) and last year’s Talk The Talk.

“Within a week of Doc’s departure we were in the studio,” Rick Brewster laughs. “He didn’t want to write or record new material, and we felt creatively starved.”

The group’s latest line-up – with John Brewster’s son Sam replacing bass player Chris Bailey, who died of throat cancer in 2013 – plays London’s Garage on June 3, their first appearance here since supporting Cheap Trick way back in 1980.

Expect to hear a mix of vintage and current material including their biggest hit, Am I Ever Gonna See You Face Again, a stage favourite that dates back to 1976 with a strong connection to Status Quo’s own Lonely Night – B-side of Rossi and company’s own single Break The Rules, released two years earlier. So strong were the similarities that Quo now receive a percentage of the song’s royalties – a nice little earner considering its massive enduring popularity Down Under.

“It never went to court. Look, Al Lancaster is an old mate of mine,” explains John Brewster, a band-mate of the Frantic Four bass player in The Party Boys. “He would constantly dig me in the ribs and say: ‘You bastards, you stole our song’. Al used to live next door to me and one day I challenged him to prove his claim. So he brought over a copy of Lonely Night and I played him Am I Ever Gonna See You Face Again and…” he guitarist’s words trail off before he laughs… “When I heard Lonely Night, I nearly fell over.

“So I asked Doc [its co-author], ‘Is it possible that you might have ripped off a Status Quo song?’ and he replied, ‘Err… I might have heard it at a disco,” John guffaws. “So we did some negotiation. We made them an offer, it was a private arrangement but, yeah, they [Quo] did get a piece of our song.”

Whatever the origins of the composition, Am I Ever Gonna See You Face Again established itself among Australia’s most popular songs of all time. Whenever performed onstage the audience ritually responds: “No way, get fucked, fuck off” to the question posed in its title.

“Over the years it just become bigger and bigger, to the point where it’s now the audience’s song,” states John Brewster. “It really doesn’t belong to the band anymore.”

The Angels play London’s Garage on June 3.

Doc Neeson, 1947-2014: the last interview