The Flying Circus was a pioneering Australian country rock band who had a number of pop hits in Australia from 1968 to 1971 and then re-located to Canada from 1971 to 1974 where they also achieved a degree of success.
The Flying Circus were formed in August 1968 in Sydney, Australia starting out as a country/folk-rock band. They performed "harmony-rich covers of Byrds, Dylan and Dillards country songs". Like The Byrds, a prominent part of their early sound came from the featured use of a 12 string Rickenbacker guitar. They were brought together by lead guitarist Doug Rowe who had been a member of New Zealand band, The Castaways, before coming to Australia. The original lineup was Doug Rowe lead guitar, vocals, James Wynne lead vocals, rhythm guitar, Bob Hughes bass, vocals and Colin Walker drums. Bob Hughes left in early 1969 and went on to become a well known screen actor with credits including the hit TV sitcom Hey Dad..! and ABBA: The Movie. He was replaced by bassist Warren Ward, an experienced musician.
La La Land:
They signed to EMI records in late 1968 and made one of their first major appearances at an outdoor concert in Sydney's Domain on Australia Day 1969. After recording, with the original line-up, a cover of the song, "Shame Shame" (which was not put out at that time), they had their first chart success soon after with their debut single, a cover of the Buzz Cason - Mac Gayden song, "Hayride", in early 1969. As the song was firmly in the bubblegum pop genre (e.g. the Chipmunks sounding intro), this resulted in the band being branded with a bubblegum image, although their stage performances and later recordings were in the country rock vein.
Nothwithstanding its trite nature, "Hayride" was initially banned from release in New Zealand because of the lyric "...making love in the hay..." The song gained vital Australian national exposure thanks to a pioneering promotional film-clip which was shown on nationally-screened TV pop shows like Uptight!. Their second single, another Cason-Gayden song, "La La", was an even bigger hit, and arguably a more sophisticated performance, but this only served to reinforce their image as a bubblegum band.
The group recorded their self-titled debut album around this time, produced by Mike Perjanik. The LP was an odd mixture of styles. Alongside the band's original country-rock numbers they included their pop hits and a medley of songs from the popular musical Hair.
Greg Grace left in June 1969 (to form Hot Cottage); Warren Ward left in September, to form Stonehenge and later performed on the hit "Boppin' The Blues" by Blackfeather). Ward was replaced as bass player by Terry Wilkins (ex-Starving Wild Dogs, Quill).
"Run Run Run", released in December 1969 was their last "bubblegum pop" release. It sounded much like the first two Cason-Gayden hits although this one was actually written by Doug Rowe.
Prepared in Peace - Changes:
With their next release, the EP Frontier, the band returned to their country-rock roots; it featured four pure country songs, including Terry Wilkins' "When Will I See You As You" and covers of Bob Dylan's, "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight", and Merle Haggard's, "The Day The Rains Came Down".
In April 1970 they added a fifth member, noted lead guitarist & pedal steel player, Red McKelvie, (ex-Starving Wild Dogs, Quill). McKelvie's arrival steered the group towards straight-ahead country music and the change was evident on their second LP, Prepared In Peace, released in July 1970, consisted entirely of original songs in folk and country styles. Despite uneven production and (at times) underrehearsed performances, the result was one of the best Australian albums of 1970: many of the songs are outstanding and, over forty years later, it is hard to fathom the fact that tracks like "One Way Out," with its magic refrain 'All aboard,' and "It's So Hard," a masterpiece of the 'crying in my beer' genre, have not become Australian standards. Despite being critically well received, the album was not a major commercial success. This was chiefly attributable to the fact that no single was released off it, which greatly restricted its exposure over the airwaves. However, the same month the band scored a dramatic victory over teen favourites Zoot in the Grand Final of the prestigious Hoadley's National Battle of the Sounds band competition.
In October, Flying Circus released the single, "Israel" written by Red, backed with "Giselle." Red McKelvie, however departed the band the same month. He went on to form the country-rock groups Powderhorn and Third Union Band and played with Richard Clapton's band - he is responsible for the distinctive slide guitar work on Clapton's breakthrough hit "Girls On The Avenue".
Red McKelvie's departure marked a shift to a rockier but still country-tinged style. This was emphasised by the adding of a keyboard player, Sam See (formerly with Sherbet and subsequently with Stockley See and Mason) and reflected in the next album, a much more straight-ahead rock LP, although there was still some country, such as "The Longest Day", which chronicled the events surrounding the band's Hoadley's competition win. This album, with the joking title Bonza, Beaut & Boom Boom Boom, again consisted of all original material by the group. Two singles, "Turn Away" and "It Couldn't Happen Here", were released from the LP, but they only charted modestly. The band had a penchant for writing and recording songs about steam trains, with titles such as "Kempsey Mail", "3667", and "The Last Train", mainly due to the presence of James Wynne, a lifelong train enthusiast who later became an artist noted for his paintings of steam trains.
Canada - Maple Lady:
As result of the image problem that followed them from their early days and, that in Australia at that time, they were too country for rock audiences and too rocky for country audiences, they became frustrated by the lack of serious recognition in Australia. This led them to use their Hoadleys prize to head for North America, basing themselves in San Francisco. Lead singer Jim Wynne left the band, ultimately for good. They ended up in Toronto as they were unable to attain US working visas. The trip to Canada met with some success and they gained a deal from Toronto music agency Music Factory for a $10,000, two-month tour. The single "Turn Away" was also released in the USA but to no success.
July 1971 saw them back in Australia where they released their next single, the Crosby, Stills & Nash influenced track, "The Ballad of Sacred Falls" which was released in September. They headed off back to Canada in late 1971 where they worked regularly for most of 1972. During the brief time in Australia in 1971, Sam See left to join progressive group Fraternity (which included Bon Scott as lead singer) and Greg Grace rejoined to replace him. Flying Circus found Canadian audiences much more receptive to their style than in Australia and from then on they effectively became part of the Canadian rock music scene. After scoring a reputed million-dollar contract with Capitol Records, they cut their highly regarded Gypsy Road LP, which consolidated all their past hard work. The single "Old Enough (To Break My Heart)" reached #19 on the Canadian charts and the follow-up, "Maple Lady" made the lower end of the US Top 100.
They returned to Australia for the second Sunbury Pop Festival in January 1973, but their local popularity had waned by then, and the band received a less than enthusiastic reception. They returned to Canada, where Sam See rejoined the group (having left Fraternity while in England). Greg Grace again left the band (for the final time), later becoming the roadie for Canadian band Wireless, which included three ex-members of Australian band, Autumn.
The Last Laugh:
The Flying Circus went on to put out one more rock album, the ironically titled, Last Laugh in 1974. The lineup on this LP was Doug Rowe, Terry Wilkins, Sam See and Colin Walker. However by the end of 1974 the group had run its course. Sam See and Terry Wilkins toured and recorded with Canadian band Lighthouse. Doug Rowe remained in Toronto, where he set up his own studio and lived for some years before eventually returning to Australia. By 1982 he had returned to Australia where he joined the country-rock band, Grand Junction, which went on to win a Golden Guitar at Australia's annual Tamworth Country Music Festival for "Married Women", although the track was recorded using Peter Johnson on vocals, who left the band prior to it winning the Golden Guitar.