Stage comedy Van Park finds yesterday's heroes rocking as if there's no tomorrow, writes Michael Dwyer.
GREG and Steve Appel played out their first rock'n'roll fantasies in caravan parks. Back in the Super 8 1970s, the brothers' ad hoc variety shows brought colour to family holidays in tin-and-canvas resorts along Australia's east coast.
But Greg Appel wasn't thinking about his past when he drove by one such run-down retreat 25 years later. By then he'd retired his rock career with the Lighthouse Keepers and the Widdershins. He was on the road producing the ABC pop history series Long Way to the Top.
"We'd been interviewing a whole bunch of old guys who you kind of think of as famous," he says.
"When you meet them you realise they're anything but rich. It's a tough industry if you're older than about 30.
"A lot of them were such great Australian characters, too. It wasn't hard to [imagine] them in a caravan park."
Ten years later, Van Park premiered at the 2010 Sydney Fringe Festival with live music by younger brother Steve and his band King Curly, and starring John Paul Young and the Church's Steve Kilbey as faded rockers in forced retirement.
It was King Curly's "lovely songs" that sweetened the deal for Young. He sings one of them, Familyman, on their latest album, Night Parrots. But he admits the tragicomic setting of the show was painfully close to home.
"I know personally of some people who are in that position," says the former Countdown prince and TV Week King of Pop. "I mean, it is sad. But it does have a humour element too, there's no doubt about that."
He's laughing now. But "back when interest rates were sky-high in the mid-80s" just five years after his global smash with Love is in the Air "I was forced to sell my house in Bondi and rethink my whole way of being," he says. "The house I moved into was not much more than a caravan at the time. It had no sewerage, no drainage. It was really back to basics. Now I've got a caravan in my backyard."
Somewhat presciently, Yesterday's Hero was JPY's first No. 1 single in 1975. Written by jaded Easybeats Harry Vanda and George Young, it remains a rare instance of pop songwriters addressing the obsolescence that awaits every pop sensation.
"George and Harry basically wrote that about their own predicament after the Easybeats failed," the singer says. "They had to have a big rethink themselves at that time."
As well as the song, Young brought vital momentum to Van Park from the first read-through, says writer/director Appel, although his character, Akbar, "is very different to himself: sort of a nasty yobbo with some redeeming features".
Psychedelic journeyman Kilbey came on board later, but has made the "ridiculous ranting hippie character" of Nebauchadnezzar his own. "When we started writing we were sort of obsessed with genitalia so he's got some . . . enhancing, shall we say," Appel says. "Steve has made the character work. It comes to life with him."
Back in modern rock reality, Kilbey's most successful vehicle, the Church, is on another indefinite hiatus. JPY is hopeful about a 40th anniversary campaign that hits Melbourne's Regent Theatre on May 4, though even he is downbeat about the broader state of the industry.
"When I heard these [King Curly] songs I thought it's such lovely stuff, so unique and beautiful," he says. "It pains me that I can't even think of an outlet for that kind of music on the radio."
But Greg Appel says that any social or industrial commentary is purely incidental to the main thrust of Van Park. "It's basically a bit silly," he says. "It's meant to be a fun night out that sends you off feeling good.
"When my mother saw it in Sydney I said, 'This is a bit like those shows me and Steve used to put on when we used to go camping, isn't it?' Mum said, 'Yes, it is exactly that.' "
Van Park is at Chapel off Chapel from tomorrow until April 1.
chapeloffchapel.com.au, 8290 7000.