Cult Heroes No. 16: Cheetah
Two hot Aussie sisters – one blonde, the other brunette – fronting a rock band? Yeah, sounds like the stuff of top-shelf fantasy. But it happened at the end of the 1970s. Cheetah were that band. Should have been a lot bigger than they were. So we tracked down one of the sisters, Chrissie Hammond, to explain what might have been, yet never was. Check out all the Cult Heroes here.
Words: Malcolm Dome
Aussie pub rock. Perhaps the most testosterone driven music in the world? You’d better believe it. But at the end of the 1970s, there were two London-born gals who dared to take on a genre so masculine it makes the WWE superstars look like a convention for effete drop-outs. And singing sisters Lindsay and Chrissie Hammond actually convinced the sceptics that their band, Cheetah, could tough it out with the best of them.
“We were probably the only girls doing this sort of thing,” laughs Chrissie (she was the brunette). “The Melbourne Knee, as we call it (because of the way the knee just has to subconsciously pump up and down when you hear this groovesome music!) was dominated by men. And there were a lot of people who thought we were right tarts. We performed on stage like the guys, and that was rare back then. So, we got this reputation for being rough and ready. In reality, we had a very straight upbringing.
“But it’s amazing how the memory of what we were like plays tricks. I still have fans coming up to me and saying: ‘I remember you in all that leopardskin, and with fluffed up hair.’ That wasn’t us at all. We were jeans and T-shirt girls.”
The Hammond sisters were born in London, but moved to Melbourne when only two or three years old. They came from a very musical family, as well.
“Our dad really was a great blues player on the piano, and mum had a fantastic voice. But because of World War Two, they never got the chance to become professional.”
So, when the sisters went this route, presumably they got total parental support.
“You must be kidding! They were horrified, and thought it was all gonna be sex, drugs and rock’n'roll. We got our first break when both of us were in our teens. One day we passed by a café advertising for folk bands. With all the cockiness of youth I said to Lindsay: ‘That’s us!’ We walked in there, told them that we were what they’d been waiting for, and were asked back that night to ‘audition’. We did five hours all told on stage! Unpaid as well. That was an experience. But a certain Graham Russell (from soft rockers Air Supply) was in the audience.”
Chrissie ended up in a fledgling version of Air Supply with guitarist Russell. And they also worked together in a production of Jesus Christ: Superstar. Lindsay joined her sister in a touring version of the show, and from there they formed Cheetah.
“Rock was very much in our DNA, and we eventually hooked up with the celebrated songwriting and production team of Harry Vanda and George Young, through Albert Productions. I remember when we first met them, it was in a tiny room. But after about 20 minutes, we just got down to work! We learnt so much from Harry and George. How to underproduce and keep everything simple and straightahead – they were the masters.
“I used to come in with the demo of a song I’d just written that I was happy with, and George wouldn’t even listen to the tape. He’d just say: ‘Chrissie, are you happy with it?’ I said: ‘Yeah.’ Then he’d give me a look and say: ‘Are you sure?’ At which point, I’d just grab the tape and walk out, ready for a re-write! He hadn’t even heard the song. But that was his effect.”
Cheetah’s debut album, Rock And Roll Women, was released in 1981. It was packed with blazing performances and crackling songs. These girls weren’t merely decorative. They had real balls. The following year they came over to England and played at the Reading Festival, a real highlight for Chrissie.
“We got to play on the same as all those great bands we’d admired for so long. And I’ll never forget our set. How could we, with all those thousands of people out there? We’d always taken pride in how professional we were. The music had to precise and everything was worked out. But I guess nerves got the better of us that day, and we played twice as fast!”
There was also a laddish Reading chant building up throughout the Cheetah performance, one that Chrissie misinterpreted.
“I thought there was a posse of guys out there chanting: ‘Get off!’ I remember saying to Lindsay: ‘They don’t like us!’ I expected the old shepherd’s crook to come out at any minute and yank us off by the neck. But then someone explained what they were actually chanting was: ‘Get your tits out for the lads!’ Once I realised that, I was fine. Those same guys followed us all over Europe that year – they were great.”
But Cheetah never got the chance to follow up the hard work on Rock And Roll Women with a second album.
“We had one written, but then there were delays because I think Rose Tattoo were going into the studio, and by the time things were ready, our record contract was up, and it all fell apart.”
Chrissie came back to England, and eventually landed the chance to work with Rick Wakeman, something that came about by accident.
“After Cheetah split up, I returned to England, and thought I could just carry on from where Cheetah had left off. Mistake! I really had to begin all over again. One night I was playing at a club in Marlow (Essex) with Martin Dzal, who was one of the guitarists in Cheetah. Anyway, a singer called Ashley Holt came to see us, and at the time he worked with Rick. Ashley was obviously impressed with what he saw and, knowing that Rick was looking for a female vocalist to redo some parts for an album, he recommended me.”
So Chrissie was flown to the Isle Of Man (where Wakeman lived at the time), did the required work very fast and ended up spending the next 10 years in Wakeman’s band.
“It was just so much fun. I was the victim of a lot of wind-ups from Rick – he has a really individual sense of humour. But being part of this… I learnt so much. Rick didn’t want anything to do with the blues or getting a groove. He had what I’d call a German, neo-classical approach. The challenge for me was to find something soulful to hang on to as a singer.
“I think one of the reasons I was with Rick for so long – we did 11 albums together – was that I am in no way a diva.”
More recently, Chrissie has also had major roles in the London productions of mega musicals Cats and Chicago.
“You learn very quickly when doing theatre that they have a different approach to sound than rock’n'roll bands. Being on the road, I was so used to talking to the sound guy and asking him to bring my levels up, or to give me more treble. I tried to do that with those stage productions, but it didn’t go down at all. You just don’t do that sort of thing. But, like everything else, you learn from these experiences.”
The Hammond sisters were reunited as Cheetah in 2006, when they toured Australia under the banner of the Countdown Spectacular.
“Countdown was the Aussie equivalent of Top Of The Pops, and the tour brought together a load of successful acts from the 70s and 80s. Everybody did one song, usually their biggest hit. For us that should have been Walking In The Rain (released in 1978). But we wanted to do another one of our hits, Spend The Night (1980). Somehow we felt more comfortable with that one!”
So, are there any plans for any further Cheetah activity?
“You know, Lindsay is the only other person I could sing with. It’s probably a blood relation thing, but ever since we were little girls, the two of us knew instinctively how to work together. We’d complement each other without ever thinking. So, it would be great to have the opportunity to do some more recording and live stuff as Cheetah. I’m certainly not ruling it out.
“We’d also love to get Rock And Roll Women reissued. We have tried in the past, but Albert Productions don’t wanna know. However, if there is a label interested, then we’d certainly be up for it. It’s a cocky little album, with lots of good songs and memories. Sure, I can listen now and hear things which could be improved. But, you know, that applies to anything you do. I am still proud of the record.”
In the meantime, Chrissie has two other projects on the go: a solo album and also a musical.
“I’ve been working towards getting this done for a while. But I have to fit into down time. But I do have a title: This Time Next Year. Because that’s what I always tell people when they ask about a release!
“The musical’s called My Generation. I’ve written a story around the songs in the 1970s that I grew up with, and were so influential on me. From bands like The Rolling Stones and The Faces. I still recall hearing White Room from Cream for the first time on my transistor in 1968. It totally blew me away – and changed my life. There are so many people for whom these songs had the same impact.
“I was gonna call it Downtown, but then had legal problems with that. But it’s all written now and ready to go. There are a couple of companies showing interest, so I hope to get it on stage sooner rather than later.
“But while my life is busy and full, I am still a rock’n'roll girl at heart. That album title – Rock And Roll Women – that was really us. And still is!”
Right, time to send all male (and female?) pulses racing with the she-devils:
Here are two useful websites:
Tags: Air Supply, Ashley Holt, Cheetah, Chrissie Hammond, Cream, Cult Heroes, George Young, Graham Russell, Harry Vanda, Lyndsay Hammond, Martin Dzal, Reading Festival, Rick Wakeman, Rolling Stones, Rose Tattoo, The Faces, Tony Hatch