"He would have been absolutely perfect."
We know pretty much everything there is to know about his little brother. There’s been books, movies and more chart-topping albums than any other act. But less is known about his big brother, who’s just as formidable a talent.
Jimmy Barnes admits that his brother, John Swan, was his hero. “He is a classic, a one-off,” Barnesy says. “Swanee had the strongest influence on my musical career.” He remembers his brother wearing a kilt to school in Adelaide – “so other kids would pick fights with him, so he could belt them”.
A record producer once told Swanee, “You shut up and sing, and I’ll make you sound good.” The singer walked out of the booth, punched the producer in the face and left.
These days, Swanee has mellowed – he’s one of the most-loved people in Australian music. But his story is a wild one. Some kids dream of running away to join the circus. When Swanee was 13, he ran away with a rock group, moving from Adelaide to Melbourne with a band called Happiness. And before launching his solo career, he had stints in Fraternity, Cold Chisel and Feather.
And like Barnesy, Swanee is a masterful storyteller. I once asked if he had any memories of his first appearance on Countdown. What followed was a stream-of-consciousness monologue that was an entertaining insight into the ’70s rock scene in Australia.
“I was so out of it with nerves. I think Bon [Scott] may have taken me from a place near the airport on the way into Melbourne. I think it was a very special party – just the boys and as many women that would fit in the bathroom. I won’t elaborate. It happened all the time with them – best goddamn band on the road, bar none. We supported them at the Sandringham Hotel. I think that was my first time seeing the dance of the flaming arseholes; sorry, I got sidetracked.
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“Every night on the road was like that. All the bands stayed at the same hotels, sometimes in the same rooms. We had our own but never used them – why would you unless you were absolutely knackered? Or unless one of the boys had their girl with them; why, I don’t know! I wouldn’t bring anyone I loved near that. Oh, except my brother Jim.
“Alas, here we go into another phase of insanity … I could write a great book on this stuff and still protect the innocent; there were none – innocent, that is. I remember Ted Mulry with a copper’s hat and gun while he was doing the business and getting shitfaced. Oh, I miss that man – he was an inspiration to all young delinquents. Did we mention Dragon’s show? Okay, I’ll keep it clean!”
Amidst the madness, Swanee came close to being a key member of two of Australia’s greatest bands.
Cold Chisel, then known as Orange, wanted Swanee to be their drummer/singer. He declined the invitation but introduced his friend Steve Prestwich to the band. In 1974, Swanee would join his younger brother in Chisel, singing and playing percussion. But he departed after a few months. “Jimmy was doing just fine,” Swanee recalls. “And they didn’t need me.”
While working on his debut solo album, Into The Night, with producer Mark Moffatt, Swanee’s mate Bon Scott tragically died in London. When the Young brothers decided that AC/DC would continue, a rumour ripped through the Australian music scene:
John Swan would be AC/DC’s new lead singer.
It made sense. Swanee is a tremendous rock singer. He was also great mates with the band and had actually replaced Bon in Fraternity when he embarked on his long way to the top with the Young brothers. And Swanee was on drums the day Malcolm and Angus “auditioned” Bon.
“He should have been the first pick for AC/DC [to replace Bon],” believes legendary producer Mark Opitz, who worked with the band, engineering their classic Powerage album. “His voice, to me at the time, was the best in the country. The notes he could hit were unbelievable. If you look at it, he would have been absolutely perfect.
“It’s hard to say, but they would have been as big, if not bigger.”
Mark Moffatt agrees. “It was a natural fit. He was very close to the clan, and not many people are. It [Swanee out front of AC/DC] would have been something.”
But, of course, it never happened. The Young brothers selected Englishman Brian Johnson. And Swanee says they made the right call.
When I finally got to ask Swanee about the AC/DC story, the singer shook his head and explained: “I was very close to the Young family, but they wouldn’t have wanted to take me; it would have been like taking Bon again, and I would have probably finished up in the same boat. That would have been heartbreaking for those guys. To lose somebody like that, you lose a brother.”
Swanee didn’t get the gig. But he lived to tell the tale. And he’s grateful to the Young brothers for saving him from himself.
The singer is open about his battle with alcohol. Greedy Smith wrote the Mental As Anything hit Too Many Times after a big night out with Swanee at Macy’s in Melbourne. Swanee has now been sober for more than 20 years. He called his 2014 album One Day At A Time.
“I was very sick,” he admits. “I’m grateful to still be here and making music.”
And if you’re wondering whether Swanee would have been a success singing with AC/DC, just check out Kilo Band, his new project with Mark Moffatt. It’s a blazing, bluesy ball of energy.
“Parchman Farm was the song that started the whole thing off,” Moffatt says. “I’m just a huge Jim McCarty and Cactus fan. They were a great band, and he was a great Detroit guitar player, one of the few American guitar players that has an English sound to me.
“I’m real big on that,” Moffatt smiles. “There’s nothing like an Englishman and a Les Paul.”
In the early ’70s, Moffatt lived in London and landed a job at the music shop Top Gear on Denmark Street, which was guitar-central during the golden era of British rock. The starstruck Aussie hung out with customers, including Jimmy Page, Paul McCartney and Gary Moore. “Getting to watch them play up close and converse casually with these guys and ask questions was like living in a dream.” Denmark Street was also London’s “Tin Pan Alley”, home to the UK’s music publishers, and Moffatt played on a number of sessions.
Moffatt – who grew up in Maryborough in Queensland – then returned home, producing iconic Aussie hits such as (I’m) Stranded, Bop Girl and Treaty before relocating to Nashville in 1996. “I stopped playing for a long time because I was the producer guy.” But he never lost his love for the Les Paul.
A few years back, Moffatt started doing some gigs in Nashville with Derek St. Holmes, who had been the singer in Ted Nugent’s band. “I enjoyed that immensely, and around that time, I thought I’d love to do something with John, so I reached out to him.”
Kilo Band is an apt name for a project that’s heavy and killer. “I was getting into electric resonator guitars, and I wanted to do a blues duo – one guy playing the kick drum, and the other guy playing a rattling slide guitar,” Moffatt explains.
The early Brisbane blues was an inspiration. “It’s undeniable,” Moffatt says. “It goes all the way back to Mick Hadley and The Purple Hearts.”
Then there’s On The Run, which is a nod to Led Zeppelin I. “I’ve always been fascinated by how Jimmy Page weaved an acoustic 12-string into heavy-sounding music; that texture and atmosphere, so there’s a bit of that in this song [which also features Derek St. Holmes on backing vocals].”
The EP also includes a song that Kim Carnes co-wrote, Love Is A Drug.
Kilo Band is a long-distance love affair. Swanee cut his parts in Coffs Harbour, while Moffatt put it all together at his home studio in Nashville. “I stayed in touch with him through thick and thin,” says Moffatt, who also produced Swanee’s 2007 album Have A Little Faith. “I just love his voice, and I love the man.”
On the title track of Have A Little Faith, Swanee sang: “All I ever wanted to be was a rock ’n’ roll star.”
“Now,” he says, “I just want to be accepted as a musician.”
The Kilo Band EP also showcases another great musician, Midnight Oil’s bass player Bones Hillman, who sadly died in 2020. He plays on the opening track, Did It Really Hurt, and the closing cut, Someday, alongside Counting Crows drummer Steve Bowman.
Moffatt realised that Swanee was one of the greats when he recorded him singing Matthew on his first solo album. “That song is incredibly soulful. Just a piano and string section and the high notes that he hits … it’s an amazing vocal performance.
“That’s one of the reasons I did this project – I want people to hear him.”
Swanee – who was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 2017 for his service to music and charitable organisations – has had many hit records over the years, including his stint with The Party Boys, that band’s most successful incarnation. But there’s a certain irony in the title of his 1985 solo single It Could Have Been You, which The Party Boys also recorded.
Yep, John Swan could have been a member of Cold Chisel and AC/DC. But his musical story is not one of wondering about what might have been. And as Kilo Band triumphantly declares, it’s a story that’s still being written.
“Now that I’m healthy, every day is a good day,” Swanee says. “It’s great to be alive.” And that spirit shines through in the Kilo Band EP.
The new EP by Kilo Band is out now. You can listen to it below.