The Big Issue : Edition 529
THEBIGISSUE27JAN–9FEB2017 33 AT THE DAWN of the 1980s, a young Sydney rock group rose to prominence with a sound that lit up Australia’s popular music landscape. The Sunnyboys’ endearing brand of power pop earned them a deal with Mushroom Records, catapulting them to national fame. Their self-titled 1981 debut album featured the immortal single ‘Alone with You’, that became a touchstone of home-grown excellence in the Countdown era. But there was a darkness to the baby- faced quartet’s music – a darkness that would eventually engulf them. Although adept at crafting day-glo melodies and shiny soundscapes, the Sunnyboys were really denizens of the night. “When we played shows, if we had two or three nights off and we were able to get into the studio, that’s when we’d go in,” says Sunnyboys bassist Peter Oxley. “We’d go in the evening and spend all night in there. It was grabbing studio time in between playing live shows.” The band’s relentless touring schedule saw them driving cross- country under cover of darkness, playing more shows a week than medical professionals would recommend. The sleepless nights and industry pressures became too much for frontman Jeremy Oxley – Peter’s younger brother – whose increasingly erratic behaviour saw him diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early twenties. “If you don’t get enough sleep, you become quite vulnerable to things that go on in your head,” Peter says. “We probably didn’t sleep for four years.” The band broke up in 1984, having released three albums. Then, in 2012, The Sunnyboys emerged from the wilderness to appear at the Hoodoo Gurus’ Dig It Up! festival. Since then, the seasoned four-piece have played several other shows, and Jeremy has been the subject of Kaye Harrison’s acclaimed 2013 documentary film The Sunnyboy. In February, the band is scheduled to play three national dates, where they’ll perform their debut album from start to finish for the first time ever. “We’re not thinking that in February we’ll finish up,” Peter says. “We get offered shows quite often, so we just work out the best time to play. Because we’ve all got families and none of us live in the same city...it takes a bit of organisation to get everyone together.” From the vantage point of hindsight, the older Oxley remembers the band’s halcyon days fondly. Now a father of two, the stay-at-home dad is enjoying reconnecting with his old bandmates: Jeremy, guitarist Richard Burgman and drummer Bill Bilson. “It’s fantastic playing right now,” he says. “Jeremy’s in a nice place. I mean, back then, it was fairly chaotic.” Chaotic is an understatement. After his diagnosis, Jeremy turned to alcohol in lieu of antipsychotics, not wanting to dull his creativity. Since 1984, he’s been shadowed doggedly by his schizophrenia. It wasn’t until recently, when Jeremy met nurse Mary Griffiths (now Mary Oxley- Griffiths) that he began to consistently take the appropriate medication to treat his condition. He and Mary co-wrote a memoir called Here Comes the Sun, released in 2015. Understandably, his older brother felt trepidation when the Hoodoo Gurus invited the then-defunct Sunnyboys to appear at Dig It Up! “I was concerned for Jeremy more than anything else,” Peter says. “I didn’t want him to get distressed by playing in front of people.” But he needn’t have worried. The band shook off the cobwebs with a swiftness belying their age; everything’s come more easily for the Sunnyboys this time around. “There’s not as much pressure on you,” Peter says. “We’re not 20 years old, and we’re not getting pressured by the record company or anybody to try to sell records or to impress this person. “It wouldn’t have mattered what sort of situation [Jeremy] was in, this illness would still have affected him in some way. I think, essentially, it was part of him and who he was and is. “But the pressure of coming up with a new hit single or the pressure of playing shows six nights a week – you get worn out, you get very tired.” Three of the Sunnyboys came out of it relatively unscathed. Jeremy, however, never quite managed to scale the deep pit of mental anguish he fell into in the 1980s. “Being so young, you’re naive, you’re having a pretty good time, but also the stresses are probably something that aren’t immediately in front of your face,” says Peter. “I think there’s a build-up over time.” Whereas the rigours of being in a popular rock band exacted a devastating toll on Peter’s brother, today the experience is a salve for Jeremy’s restless mind. “He’s got a modern history, he’s got ‘now’ memories,” Peter says. “He’s got memories from three years ago, or playing this show or playing that show. Before it was very difficult for him to have good memories.” For the brothers Oxley, the darkness still lingers. But it no longer defines them. “What’s good for Jeremy is there’s a future,” Peter says. “It’s this thing to look forward to.” There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s finally in the Oxleys’ grasp. For the Sunnyboys, a new day has dawned. by Rob Inglis (@rg_inglis) » Sunnyboys tour Australia, 3-10 Feb. “WE PROBABLY DIDN’T SLEEP FOR FOUR YEARS.” PETER OXLEY PHOTOGRAPHBYKAYEHARRISON ABOVE THE ORIGINAL SUNNYBOYS LEFT FROM SUNNYBOYS TO MEN: (L-R) RICHARD, BILL, JEREMY AND PETER.