In a way, I’d always been waiting for them. Tutored by mid-70s AM radio, the “Red” and “Blue” albums, the Monkees, KISS, and New Wave power pop, I was primed for a band that could synthesize it all. In the fall of 1984, wasting time between classes in a thrift shop off the campus of University of Maryland, I’m perusing old-man shirts and cardigans when a song comes over WHFS, the great progressive radio station broadcasting from nearby Bethesda. There are maybe three of us in the place. The verses are catchy, the chord changes graphic, the singing urgent. I look up, start to pay attention. As the surprising, transcendent chorus leaps over our heads it’s as if a year’s worth of seasons move through us, our faces in light and shadow and light again. I want to keep my eyes open—to witness what, I don’t exactly know—but I can’t. The pop lift is too much. The song’s over in three minutes. Afterward I’m beaming, at no one in particular.
It turns out that Hoodoo Gurus had been around for several years before I first heard “I Want You Back,” their fourth single. Songwriter and guitarist Dave Faulkner formed the band in 1981 after he’d moved east across his native Australia, from Perth to Sydney, leaving behind his first band, punk outfit the Victims. Fellow Victim James Baker (drums) and the Scientists’ Roddy Radalj (guitar) joined Faulkner and Kimble Rendall, a third guitarist from Sydney, to form the Le Hoodoo Gurus, who released a one-off single, the wide-screen Polynesian romantic tragedy “Leilani” in 1982. Look mom, no bass!
The band swiftly dropped the article “Le,” and Rendall departed soon after, replaced by Clyde Bramley on bass. Band politics hastened Radalj’s exit from the group (“I Want You Back” concerns Radjal’s messy departure, disguised by Faulkner as a boy-girl breakup) and ex-Fun Things guitarist Brad Shepherd took his place. This lineup recorded three singles, “Tojo,” “My Girl,” and “I Want You Back,” and a full-length album, Stoneage Romeos, released in March 0f 1984, the year the hungry, keyed up Hoodoo Gurus first toured the United States and renewed my belief in the possibilities of rock and roll.
Stoneage Romeos is funny, quirky, and in its pop sprawl, nervy confidence, and stew of colorful influences, somewhat extraordinary—the cultural touchstones are mostly American, many of the B-movie, TV sitcom, trashy sort. The Gurus were pop formalists, in love with tradition, but they were as interested in what might happen in a song when sources come crashing together as what happens when those sources are seamlessly integrated. As a bourgeoning reader, making vague but urgent connections across centuries and continents, I was happy to see a rock and roll band confidently, and humorously, connect the dots. Hoodoo Gurus’ love of Day-Glo pop history—trashy monster movies and novelty songs, a mash-up of TV Guide, Top 40, and Vox and Paisley—is so passionate that the histories collide: there’s just so much to dig.
The noisy list of dedications on Stoneage Romeos includes Larrabee, the ham-fisted secret agent from Get Smart, comic actor Larry Storch, Dallas Donnelly, an Australian professional rugby league footballer, Arnold Ziffel, the pig on Green Acres (“and his tailor”), as well as Arthur Kane, bass player for the New York Dolls. Faulkner recently told Fred Mills at Blurt, “In the case of the Hoodoo Gurus, in the early days, in songs there were a lot of jokey themes and titles. The ‘dumbness’ of rock—trying to bring that back. Not just dumbness, but the innocence and naiveté and the fun. You know, songs like ‘Splish Splash’ or whatever. Things that were kind of corny but still, in a way, kind of above the trappings of supposedly intelligent music—stuff that had an internal intelligence, which was a bit more rarified to me. I mean, ‘a wop bop a lu bop, a wop bam boom!’ and early rock ‘n’ roll just has this exuberance, and it didn’t have to necessarily make sense.” He adds: “That music is still just as exiting and direct today, whereas a lot in between has become sort of stale. That stuff still has an energy you just can’t deny.”
The Gurus’ mélange of crazy crushes is heard best in “(Let’s All) Turn On,” the B-side of “Tojo” released in the summer of 1983, and the lead track on the Australian version of Stoneage Romeos. Among the first Gurus songs that Americans heard, the tune is at once a “What We Like!” litany, a call to arms, a sonic manifesto, and a bubbling brew of sources across the decades. Name-checked: the Flamin’ Groovies, Count Five, the Rolling Stones, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Sky Saxon, the Ramones, early Elvis, Danny and the Juniors, Gene Vincent, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, the Isley Brothers, the Beatles, T. Rex, Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, the Velvet Underground, Suzi Qautro, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Jackie DeShannon, the Kinks, Little Richard, the Archies, Music Machine, the Drifters, and the Royal Teens and the Nair TV commercial—and a cheeky nod to Le Hoodoo Gurus themselves. All in three minutes, needle time packed with hooks, jokes, and layered harmonies. I never heard a “Thank You” note so fun that you could dance to it: