While it may seem like the fevered dream of some comedy sketch writer, there is truth to this nugget of 1970s Australian musical history: Soft rock love song titans Air Supply used to open shows for unrepentant and lascivious hard rockers AC/DC. And at multiple clubs.
“I remember it well! There was this club in Sydney called the Bondi Lifesaver, you could pack about 2,500 people in there, and AC/DC would always bring them in!” says Graham Russell, the taller, blonder, singing/guitar-playing half of Air Supply (the other half being lead vocalist Russell Hitchcock).
“We’d open for them in white suits and singing love songs. At first, we got murdered! People throwing beer bottles and yelling for us to get off the stage. The dressing room was tiny like a broom closet and we’d have two bands trying to use it to change and it smelled of beer,” he continues. “It was a rough and tumble time. But that was our learning ground. You either packed up and went home or you carried on, and that’s what we did.”
Russell says the band would often perform at two or three different venues in the same night just to make ends meet. In the ‘80s, Air Supply would have a long string of massive romantic-leaning hits in the U.S. like “All Out of Love,” “Every Woman in the World,” “The One That You Love,” “Even the Nights Are Better,” “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” “Just as I Am,” and “Here I Am” among them. Air Supply will be playing the Stafford Centre on January 17.
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Going back further, Russell and Hitchcock can pinpoint the day their shared musical journey began – May 12, 1975. That’s when they met at rehearsals when both were cast in a Sydney, Australia production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Though Russell – like other “Australian” performers the Bee Gees, Olivia Newton-John, and even AC/DC, were in fact British expats. All came over with their families as part of a massive, UK-government-promoted emigration push to the island continent in the ‘60s.
“It was a common thing for [British] families to emigrate to Australia for a better life and a new beginning. I come from the center of England and there weren’t a lot of opportunities to escape from working in a coal mine or being a plumber or electrician,” Russell recalls. “And if you wanted to get ahead, the enticement of going to another country was appealing to a lot of families. And especially for musicians. My father went before I did and I didn’t want to go because I was in the middle of my studies, so I went five years later.”
By the time that “overnight success” Air Supply broke through in the United States in 1980 with the title track to their Lost in Love album, it was actually their fifth full studio record. Russell – who has written several of the band’s biggest hits – completed the tune in about 15 minutes.
“People can’t believe that! But if you listen to the song, there’s no bridge, and it’s just verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and four chords. It’s very simple,” Russell offers, though he clarifies that he’ll think about a song for a few days before actually sitting down to write it on piano or guitar.
“Once I feel that inspiration, it’s over very quickly. ‘All Out of Love’ took just a little longer – like a half an hour. But this is what I do for a living. Look at the Beatles. When they were on the set of A Hard Day’s Night, they didn’t have enough songs for the film, so they’d go off into a little room and come out with two or three new ones in like an hour.”
Over the years, countless people have come up to Russell and Hitchcock in all sorts of places be it at a concert or in the supermarket, to tell them that an Air Supply song was a favorite courting song, or played at their wedding, or a first dance. But rather than run way, Russell says they both like hearing what their music has meant to people.
“I do enjoy it. When you create something and people enjoy it they will offer their thanks and come up to you. I think it’s a testament to the longevity of the songs,” he says. “They’re still played everywhere and they’re in movies. There’s never a time when I don’t have time to speak to people or take a picture. The songs still mean something to people 40 years later, and that means something to me. Russell and I both will ask questions about where people heard the songs and their stories.”
Of course, Air Supply not just a duo act. While the 68-year-old Russell and 69-year-old Hitchcock are the founders and only constants in the lineup, others have to pass one crucial test.
“We’ve had a lot of people come through the ranks in the band. But it’s a very simple thing we ask of new musicians. It’s OK to be musically compatible, but it’s also how their personalities blend in, and that’s just as important,” Russell says.
“The current lineup is much younger than Russell and I, and these guys we have now are perfect for us. No animosity, no arguing, and everybody really wants to be there. This is their profession. We call it ‘The Machine.’ Band members may come and go, but The Machine keeps moving – albeit very slowly!”
Air Supply has a busy 2019 already mapped out. They’ll be releasing a new symphonic record, as well as playing shows with local symphonies in Australia, Mexico, and Israel.
It’s something that more bands and performers ranging from German heavy metalers Accept to ‘60s icons the Moody Blues to the piano poppers of Ben Folds Five are doing.
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Russell also wants to point out that while their hit love songs form the core of the set list, an Air Supply show also has a fair amount of rock and roll. Something he keeps in mind as the band heads to the Lone Star State.
“Texas is known for its gritty rock and roll like ZZ Top – we actually ran into them at the airport last year!” he laughs. “Then we come along and people give us a chance. And once they come to our show, they see it’s more rock and roll than maybe they might think.”
And if you think he’s tired of playing any of the hits, think again. “I love playing every song, I don’t get tired of it. The highlight for me is bringing something to people. And we like to engage with the audience. We feel there’s only one night in our career. And that’s the night we’re on stage.”