Where the Buffalo Roamed

by Doug Sheppard


Now it’s all so easy. If you want a copy of Buffalo’s classic Volcanic Rock album from 1973, a remastered, well-annotated copy is readily available on the Aztec Music label.

But it wasn’t always this way. Back in the 1980s, before legit reissues were commonplace, rare records had a mystique about them. Not only were they expensive and difficult to obtain, but their scarcity meant that to hear them, you had to either own them or find someone to tape them for you. Such was the case with the five albums by Buffalo. At the end of the Reagan years, there was a buzz among collectors about this rough-necked band of 1970s Aussie heavy-rock heathens—but hardly anyone had actually heard them, given that most of their records were never released outside of Australia. So in addition to the mystique, there was a buildup in anticipation of actually hearing them for many hard rock fans—myself included.

I’d been down that road before, only to have my hopes shattered by bands that were either ordinary (Mariani) or just plain weak (Frost, Granmax). But when an unheard record did live up to its reputation, it was like a sea captain finding buried treasure—and when a collector friend taped me Volcanic Rock in November 1988, I was in a Jacques Cousteau zone for the next year.

A Little History

Of the five albums Buffalo made between 1972 and 1977, Volcanic Rock was the second and undoubtedly the best. The band charted its course on its debut, Dead Forever, which was okay, but it was on Volcanic Rock that Buffalo really found its niche.

Every bit the eruption of molten lava that its title implies, Volcanic Rock is the gold standard of Aussie hard rock. “Sunrise (Come My Way)” kicks off the album with a swirling fuzz riff of hot outback desert wind, laying down the gauntlet for an album that’s not only heavy, but emits the type of foreboding air of the dark, forsaken corners of Australia. Every moment the band is pummeling the listener with its sound, it’s also threatening to attack like the wide-open mouth of crocodile suddenly appearing from a river or stream, or a snake snapping at your leg from behind. There was a lot more going on than just hard rock.

“Freedom” comes second, churning along like an Aussie blooz as the strains and grunts of vocalist Dave Tice (later of UK pub rockers the Count Bishops) reflect the struggles described in the lyrics. With freedom apparently found, it’s on to “Till My Death,” which maintains the overall vibe in spite of Tice’s pledge of love for a lady friend. “The Prophet” returns the band to darker territory with a tongue-in-cheek religious lyric about Moses giving the song a simultaneously serious yet subtly humorous feel.

Any thoughts of taking the band lightly, however, disappear with the final two songs. “Pound of Flesh,” a slow, bass-driven brooder that moves with the deliberate pace of a great white shark on the hunt, features some complementary guitar from John Baxter, who throws in licks to add to the atmosphere rather than for show. And by the time “Flesh” segues into the powerful, undeniably catchy opening riff from “Shylock,” the band explodes—taking the prey of the metaphorical shark by the razor-toothed jaws, clamping down, and thrashing it into bloody submission with a driving, up-tempo rhythm from bassist Peter Wells and drummer Jimmy Economou. Not to be outdone, the raspy-throated Tice turns in his best (and loudest) performance on the album, presenting the song’s chorus “Oh Shylock ... pay me now!” with the authority an Australian bounty hunter about to pump a fleeing fugitive full of lead. No wonder, as Baxter notes in the liners, “Shylock” went on to become Buffalo’s “top live song.”

Unfortunately, the band splintered after its third album, 1974’s Only Want You for Your Body, leaving a shell of the classic lineup to release two more long-players, Mother’s Choice (1975) and Average Rock ‘n’ Roller (1977). Both have their moments, but nothing on the level of Buffalo at its peak. And yet, that isn’t the biggest tragedy in the Buffalo saga. The real injustice is that only 1972’s Dead Forever was released anywhere outside of Australia while the band was active, and in a very limited European version at that. Thirty years on, it seems almost inconceivable that perhaps the greatest Aussie hard rock band ever—yes, better than AC/DC or even Rose Tattoo (which counted ex-Buffalo bassist Peter Wells as a member)—wallowed in obscurity. Buffalo’s catalog had been the subject of a number of shitty bootlegs, including a recent dubbed-from-vinyl travesty of Volcanic Rock out of Italy, but the boots mean nothing now that Aztec Music has initiated the first comprehensive reissue of the Buffalo catalog. Finally the band may see recognition outside of collecting circles—and their homeland.

At this point, the rarity mystique is gone, but the greatness of the band remains. Thanks to Aztec’s Lou Ridsdale, I had the privilege of conducting an interview with guitarist John Baxter, the results of which follow. (Baxter played on the first three albums before breaking ranks—which is detailed in the liners of the Only Want You for Your Body reissue, just out. That album, incidentally, is also recommended for its faster, tighter playing—it sounds like the band has taken Paul Hogan hostage on a speedboat.)

PopMatters: When did you first learn of the cult following that Buffalo has worldwide? Did it surprise you?

John Baxter: Well it did rather, but it’s extremely gratifying, vindicating our musical work over a very long period of time. It’s really quite amazing. I wish only that we would have made it over to Europe and the States in those days, but the record company here, Vertigo, was too tight to help get us where we should have been—and we didn’t have the funds available because the music scene in Australia then was pretty hard to survive in. It definitely stunted our growth and helped cause my departure from the band, as it was too hard to carry on in Australia because of our small population and the refusal of radio here to back us up.

PM: Volcanic Rock is now regarded as the high point of Buffalo’s career? Do you agree?

JB: I agree that seems to be the situation—Volcanic Rock as the public high point, that is. It seems fans like the raw, uncompromising sound that was more or less a live-in-the-studio effort—although the vocals were added later. But I actually like Only Want You for Your Body better, which is, I think, second favorite with the fans. It was our third and last album with me, and it shows a progression of sound that’s more produced, but the same heavy style. Probably my favorite track, “I’m a Skirt Lifter, Not a Shirt Raiser,” is on this album—and it rocks. Turn up your hi-fi amp, put it on and get ready for the walls to come down; a more powerful start to a song would be hard to find.

PM: You used a Gibson SG guitar with Buffalo. Where did the inspiration come from? Tony Iommi, perhaps? What were your influences?

JB: I bought my SG axe back in 1968, when Black Sabbath didn’t exist. I had a semi-acoustic, thin-body hollow axe but got too much unwanted feedback from it. So I needed something that I could control feedback with, because I was a bit of a volume freak then, and of course I loved to use controlled feedback, and with the SG this was heaven. I simply fell in love with it when I saw it in the shop, as did a lot of other guitarists in that era, and I still do love them. I can’t remember ever seeing one before 1968.

I have wondered if Angus Young from AC/DC got the idea from me for a SG. They were living in Sydney at the time, as were we, and just about to get started. You might be interested to know I love their music, but most of the time hate their lyrics. As a rock guitarist I have a lot of respect for Angus, and Malcolm Young too.

I can’t deny that Black Sabbath were a favorite band of mine at the time the band was active, but so were a lot of others, such as Cream, Blind Faith, Traffic, Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, Nazareth, Beatles, Stones, some blues bands, and going further back to all the British boom bands of the mid-‘60s such as the Yardbirds; the Easybeats, one of my all-time favorite bands; the Dave Clark Five; the Searchers; the Animals; Manfred Mann; the Loved Ones; and even Gene Pitney.

PM: How long did it take you to develop the fuzzed-out tone you have on the album? Were you going for a “heavy” sound?

JB: Yes, I love the heavy sound. I wouldn’t describe it as fuzzed out, though; it’s more a valve-amp distortion, which is famous with guitar players. It was straight guitar-amp sound most of the time unless I was using a wah-wah pedal, which I used as a tone effect at times in addition to the usual wah effect. I didn’t use fuzz at that time.

It did take some years to get the sound I had then. My amp was a custom-made-valve, 200-watt RMS Strauss Hurricane made in Melbourne—and it was the amp. I never played through an amp I liked as much as this one, ever! It did need several trips to the repair shop after my hammering of it, though. The volume knob rarely went below 11 out of 10! Coupled with the SG I found the sound I loved.

PM: Buffalo, at least on the first three albums, strikes me as right in line with Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and bands of that ilk. Were you guys consciously doing hard rock or was it a natural progression from where you came from?

JB: I’ll take that as a compliment. Sure, that was the good rock of the day, and we wanted to be part of it, but it was also a progression from previous things we had done.

PM: Another thing that strikes me about Volcanic Rock is that it’s a step forward from Dead Forever. I don’t say that to disparage the first album, but Volcanic Rock seems tighter and more focused—like the band had found an identity and put the foot on the gas, full speed ahead.

JB: Absolutely. You’ve put it very well. Dead Forever has interesting and good songs, but we were finding our musical direction somewhat at that time. For example, I even played a little slide on one track with a screwdriver blade for the slide.

Putting our foot on the gas is what we did all right. We decided to kick it along and do what felt good to us and hope that we’d gain enough fans to support the direction we were headed. In Australia this was not as successful an idea as going sickly pop, which was more likely to get you on air. But too bad—we had some integrity even if it was going to kill us. We wanted to hold true to what we believed, and I think that’s what many fans that we have picked up over so many years have realized. This, if nothing else, has been a great justification for the hard times put in here in Australia struggling with a narrow-minded radio media. Without airplay in Australia you always had an uphill battle.

PM: Where did the inspiration for “Pound of Flesh,” the brooding instrumental intro for “Shylock,” come from? Was that a practice jam that evolved into a song? Why did you decide to segue it into “Shylock”? Did you pair the two songs live as well?

JB: We didn’t do “Pound of Flesh” live very often. It came from a bass riff from some trippy jam we had. A lot of the guitar work was improvised at the time but with some forethought, loose ideas, for certain sections. The audience we played to quite often was a dance audience, so “Shylock”—always one of most popular live songs—suited them much better on its own.

We played “Shylock” pretty much exactly the same as it appears on the album, except for some of the guitar solo bits. I was never one for doing the solos exactly the same each time—which you can hear from the newly released version on the Volcanic Rock reissue. I’m pretty excited about this live version because it’s something completely new from Buffalo. It shows the band in full cry and represents what I think many fans have wanted to hear for a long time: Buffalo live.

PM: Was Buffalo inspired by any contemporary Aussie hard rock bands, such as Blackfeather, Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Coloured Balls, or Master’s Apprentices? What about 1960s bands like the Missing Links, Black Diamonds, or Purple Hearts?

JB: Not as much as the overseas bands I have already mentioned, but everything you hear that you like will probably influence your music somehow. The Easybeats, as I said before, were one of my all-time favorites—and if you compare the writing style you will probably see a similarity of structure and nature. The style of music is of course a little different, but not all that much if you don’t take their harmony vocals into account. On the Volcanic Rock and Only Want You albums it was just Dave Tice alone—but with Dave what more did you need? A great rock singer, that boy.

PM: By the time of Only Want You for Your Body, you were still very heavy but playing a little faster and in more of a “boogie” style. Was that part of a natural evolution or was it planned? And by the way, is that a fat lady or a man in drag on the cover?

JB: I never met the lady who gave so much of herself for rock-legend status in what has turned out to be a Buffalo icon and memorabilia piece. And I’ve never thought of any of the songs as boogie but I can see where you’re coming from. I suppose “What’s Going On” has a touch of that. Yes, it was just a natural progression. However, I did want to have a more produced album for that one—not realizing it would be my last bash with the band!

PM: Yeah, I take it you identify more with the heavy rock period of Buffalo on the first three albums than the more accessible fourth and fifth albums?

JB: Was there another period after the first three albums? Oh yeah, those other guitarists trying to sound like me. Sorry, Chris [Turner]—I know you didn’t. There’s no doubt the period the fans like best was the first three albums. Good onya lads and lassies. I’m happy with that.

But nevertheless I do like some of the songs done after I left, such as “Rollin’,” “Hotel Ladies,” “Lucky,” and some others. Out of all the Buffalo singles for radio you’d think they could have played “Rollin’” [from Average Rock ‘n’ Roller], which was probably the most commercial song the band ever did. It is a really neat sing-along type of tune with a great chorus. Not at all heavy though. It should have been a hit of some high dimension but the Australian radio gods said “no,” as usual, and that was that yet again.

I think the lads had had enough by then, the last straw sort of thing, and Pete Wells was about to switch from bass to slide guitar and was heading towards forming Rose Tattoo with Angry Anderson. The Tatts actually got me to record what was probably their first ever recording.

PM: Have any subsequent bands from Australia or elsewhere ever told you that Buffalo influenced them?

JB: There’s been some that I heard of—perhaps AC/DC might have been one—but not many cover versions have ever surfaced, unfortunately. If AC/DC were influenced by us, they should do a cover version as a mark of appreciation—and especially so I could get rich on the songwriter royalties. Rose Tattoo struck gold when Guns N’ Roses, who apparently are fans of the Tatts, took one of their songs and put it on an album that sold something like seven million worldwide! Come on, Angus, give us a break. We’d all love to hear you do a Buffalo song. What about “Kings Cross Ladies”?

PM: Does all of this newfound attention with these Aztec Music reissues ever make you want to do a Buffalo reunion? If yes, would it be one-off or a permanent situation?

JB: Yeah, of course that would be great, but getting the guys together and relearning the songs would be a huge task. I actually know a lot of the songs and have refreshed my memory on some others. It wouldn’t be a permanent reforming. A series of concerts would be the direction we could take on. If an overseas promoter made us a decent offer, I’m sure the band could look at it, and it would give us some incentive to get on with what I reckon would be an unbelievable concert. Bring it on!

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