At the age of eight it would've been easy to predict Mario Millo's musical future: a steady income playing the clubs of Australia doing Hank Marvin (The Shadows) impressions in dance bands covering the latest hits. Not particularly inspiring, but nice solid work. At eight and nine, Millo could already do a pretty fair Hank Marvin, and in a nice spangly vest he was learning the joys of live performance at 'The Village' a night club in Canley Vale, deep in Sydney's western suburbs.
Then, in a story repeated throughout the world, Mario heard 'She Loves You' by The Beatles, and suddenly The Shadows were old hat. He had the guitar, he had the talent, and now he had the vision. Right across the country kids were forming bands, and the Millo family garage would eventually lay claim to producing one of Australia''s greatest bands. From that garage lay a path to one of the world's leading exponents of symphonic rock, and one of the few Australian bands to have had a major influence on the international music scene. The link from that Seven Hills garage to international acclaim was Mario Millo, one of the most significant artists in the history of Australian music.
At the grand age of twelve, Mario joined his first rock'n'roll band, The Wanted. In his own words, 'it was a trio (piano, drums and guitar). We rehearsed a number of times and then decided to add a fourth player. This is where I first met Peter Stanley. He and I clicked the moment we began to sing and play and it wasn't long before we left The Wanted and formed The Menu. He was also a big brother figure to me as I was 12 and he was 19'.
The Menu was where Mario was able to play out his Beatles fantasies, a real rock'n'roll band. For two years they played live wherever they could, thrilling enthusiastic young audiences at a time in Australian music when the live scene was incredibly vibrant and exciting. Any kid that could play a recognisable tune was guaranteed a few minutes of fame on stage, the screaming adulation of female friends, and the respect and jealous admiration of the males. For someone with the talent of Mario Millo, it was the foothold of a career.
The original Menu lasted for about two years of intense, exciting experience until Peter Stanley's day job was to transfer him to Narrabri in north western New South Wales, a long way from any rock'n'roll centre. The Menu was now Mario's band, and continued after Stanley's departure with a lineup more reflective of his age. The 1969 Pepsi Pop Poll provided the next step, as The Menu rocked Sydney Stadium successfully, winning the contest which gave them a record deal with Festival Records and a contract with Cordon Bleu Booking Agency. This was the big time for a high school band whose veteran leader was still only fifteen.
The realities of rock stardom soon came crashing in. Cordon Bleu recommended a change of name to The Clik, and real Beatles style riches and fame seemed imminent when they were selected to front a Fanta soft drink campaign. Of course another name change was required, and The Clik became Fantasy. Red carpets were rolled out, dazzling promises made, and school kids prepared to order cars to arrive at the same time as driving licences. The ad agency pulled out, the red carpet rolled back in, and Fantasy became The Clik again, as the band learned the dictionary definition of exploitation. They laboured along as a three piece for several months, before surrendering to the inevitable disillusionment.
For most teenagers, this was where rock dreams gave way to parental advice. It was time to settle down and get a proper job. Work your way up, marry a good girl, get your deposit on a house and start a family. Rock'n'roll was just a fad anyway. You don't want to be wasting your life with that junk. Fortunately, the Millo family was from more passionate stock. Music was a way of expressing yourself, and there was continued support for Mario to develop his self expression. 'My parents did all they could to help me pursue music.' Parental support was fundamental in giving Mario the space and opportunity to grow, and he recognised it. He recollects, 'they were passionately encouraging and in my early learning days, went without themselves to purchase guitars, amps, drum kits and microphones. They gave up the their garage so I had a place to rehearse with my bands. My dad is no longer alive but I know he was very proud, sometimes embarrassingly so.'
With family support Mario spent three months in 1971 living with family in Trieste in northern Italy. It was a return to his roots, and despite hooking up with a German band, Novel Trend, an escape from the pressures and disappointments of teenage rock stardom. It was a necessary respite that gave him a chance to take stock. Back in Australia, The Clik were revived, and developed a reputation as one of Sydney's up and coming rock bands.
Late in 1973, Mario made the decision to finish The Clik, after an offer to join another veteran band of the local scene, Sebastian Hardie. They'd been around in various forms since the late sixties, playing the same suburban dance circuit as The Clik. Up until now, their main claims to fame had been as a backing band for Johnny O'Keefe, and providing Jon English to the hugely successful 'Jesus Christ, Superstar' musical. Like The Clik, they had pretty much met a musical dead end by the time they recruited Mario in an attempt to provide something different.
Sebastian Hardie linked Mario with one of Sydney's best rhythm sections, drummer Alex Plavsic, and his bass playing brother Peter. Within a year, Toivo Pilt had joined with his vast array of keyboards, and the classic Sebastian Hardie lineup was in place. It all sounds terribly simple when written on paper, but the development of this critical combination of talent and personalities was the result of years of dreams, disappointments and endless gigging in Sydney suburban halls.
The definitive Sebastian Hardie lineup gave Mario the opportunity to write the music that was playing in his head, and the band to bring those sounds to fruition. Music had moved on considerably from the simplicity of 'She Loves You' a decade before. Technology meant keyboards could reproduce any sound you could imagine, and guitars could now be heard through massive sound systems. Overseas, bands were taking music into new areas. Yes had toured Australia in March, 1973, and shown local audiences the potential of the new progressive school of music. Only the much loved Tully had really come close to bringing progressive music to Australia, and they had disbanded a couple of years before.
Influences came thick and fast. To Mario, 'at the time we were into bands like Yes, Focus, Mike Oldfield and the Mahavishnu Orchestra'. The challenge was then to come up with something that reflected those influences, while still retaining originality, and a sense of Australia. Mario Millo was up to the challenge, and proved it in 1975, with Sebastian Hardie's debut album, the magnificent 'Four Moments'. It is almost impossible to conceive of a better debut offering. The album was light years beyond anything any of the band had attempted in their previous lineups, and remains a watershed in Australian musical history.
To many Australians, their introduction to 'Four Moments' was getting to the concerts by Dutch band Focus early enough to catch the support. It was the winter of 1975, and Focus had a reputation for quasi-classical progressive rock. At Sydney's Hordern Pavillion, the pattern for the tour was established. Focus were OK, but the support group, Sebastian Hardie, stole the show. They could do Mike Oldfield with their 20 minute version of 'Tubular Bells', but more importantly, they produced the soundscape that was 'Four Moments'. At interval, the audience was in awe of what they'd just heard. Everyone had heard of Sebastian Hardie, but not this Sebastian Hardie. 'Four Moments' was simply unbelievable. Toivo Pilt taking the melody along behind that bank of keyboards, the Plavsic brothers providing a thunderous rhythm, and soaring above it all, Mario Millo, fire and sparks flying from his fingers and fretboard. It was a fantastic moment in Australian music. An audience turning up to see a foreign act, and being absolutely blown away by their local support, and the reason they were so blown away? The band they saw that night produced music of stunning originality, pure passion and glorious power. The quality of the musicianship was outstanding, and so was the music. Focus' set that followed was fine, but it was 'Four Moments' that people went dashing off to their record stores for the next day.
'Four Moments' would eventually go gold in Australia, which in the mid seventies was a huge achievement. It was a classic, from its spectacular gatefold cover through to its clear, sympathetic production. It was Mario's baby, having contributed to every track on the album, and vindicated all those years perfecting his art. The album was supported by live shows that had audiences enraptured. The year of live experience paid off, as Sebastian Hardie produced great shows every time. Live, they moved from the delicacy of 'Journey Through Our Dreams' as Mario strains for 'this moment from my heart' straight into some of the heaviest riffs ever heard on an Australian stage. Then there was the uninhibited power of 'Openings' which regularly left audiences limp and sagging through the velocity of its aural attack. They were a very special band, and won an absolutely devoted audience. It was impossible to see Sebastian Hardie live and not be moved.
At a time when the Sherbet vs Skyhooks rivalry grabbed most of the pop headlines, Sebastian Hardie cemented their position as Australia's premier rock band. It seemed impossible to top 'Four Moments', but 1976 produced 'Windchase', the final Sebastian Hardie album. The title track took up all of side one, and was again a Mario Millo composition. It showed one of Mario's most underrated strengths as a writer, his ability to write for the whole band. He never attempted to create pieces designed to allow him to show off his prodigious talent. Rather he wrote ensemble pieces that gave everyone in the band a chance to shine. The result was another glorious example of what has come to be known as 'symphonic rock'.
A national tour with Santana in early 1976 gave the band the opportunity to introduce 'Windchase' to Australia. In 1999, keyboard player Tom Coster fondly remembered that 1976 lineup and tour as just about the best ever Santana group. Once again, Sebastian Hardie took the opportunity to show that they could compete with the very best in the rock world. Their live performances of 'Windchase' made sure people got to the shows early, and at interval all the talk was again of how Santana could possibly top that. The answer was that it was probably a draw. What Australian audiences knew though, was that they had been fortunate enough to see two of the greatest guitarists in the world on the same night.
Sebastian Hardie's recorded legacy is only the two albums, but they capture perfectly the spirit of Australian music. They were magnificent achievements as music, playing and production that surpassed most of what was on offer anywhere else in the world. As copies reached Europe and the United States, a devoted international following emerged. Their chances of discovering the power and sheer exhilaration of Sebastian Hardie in concert was ruined however, as the band split in all too familiar acrimony. At a time when Sebastian Hardie was on the threshold of major international success, the Plavsic brothers took the name, and Mario and Toivo became Windchase.
Mario still had musical visions to bring to life, and the 1977 Windchase album 'Symphinity' created more magical moments. Sadly ignored at the time, it took the Sebastian Hardie sound a step further. It showed Toivo maturing as a writer, and between the two of them, Mario and Toivo created an album that deserves to be as highly regarded as its predecessors. Toivo's 'Horsemen to Symphinity' was a tour de force, while Mario's 'Glad To Be Alive' was almost impossibly optimistic. Mario's two instrumentals were moody and haunting, with 'Gypsy' an evocative interplay between Mario's faithful Gibson and Toivo's trademark Hammond. 'Non Siamo Perfeti' was a beautiful acoustic piece which provided a logical musical link between the sonic power of Sebastian Hardie and the delicacy of the later film soundtracks.
Sadly Windchase didn't see out 1977, as punk and new wave sounds exploded across the country. For Mario, it could easily have been the end of a magnificent and satisfying career. The laurels were there to rest upon, and he'd already exceeded peoples' expectations. His next partnership was the launching pad to an even more fulfilling career as a musician however. In one of those circular links that any study of rock bands will inevitably uncover, Mario now linked up with Sebastian Hardie's old lead singer, Jon English. He played guitar in English's backing band, Baxter Funt, and collaborated on the soundtrack to English's major screen debut, the 1978 mini series 'Against The Wind'. The series' love song, 'Six Ribbons' was a hit for English, and ensured that the soundtrack album received wider attention than normal. With the TV series a hit in Britain and Scandinavia, the soundtrack followed, and half a million copies were sold world wide.
'Against the Wind' had shown just how well Mario understood the dynamics of film and music, as well as the Australian landscape. Throughout his writing for Sebastian Hardie and Windchase he had explored a uniquely Australian vision of symphonic rock. It simply sounded as if it couldn't have been written or recorded anywhere else. The magic ingredient was the sense of space Mario has always been able to convey in his writing. As much as his music was made for live performance in a pub or hall, it was also made to be listened to driving along an Australian highway. Mario Millo's music has never been fully experienced until it has been heard played loud while driving along the Australian coast at sunset. It has nothing to do with corny lyrics about bushland. It's about light and space and vision. Mario's music is quintessentially Australian because it mixes perfectly with the space. He is probably unique amongst Australian musicians in his ability to capture the moods and emotions of the Australian landscape, and it is that quality that has enabled him to enjoy such success with his soundtracks.
The link between Sebastian Hardie and the soundtracks was completed with his two solo albums, 'Epic III' in 1979, and 1983's 'Human Games'. 'Epic III' electrified some of 'Against The Wind's' melodies, and remains a beautiful example of musicianship. These two albums show a confident musician revelling in the joys and freedom of creating his own music.
Continuing success with a series of television and film soundtracks marked the decade following 'Human Games'. They captured emotions and places in a way no other Australian musician has been able to do so consistently. Simply having 'Music by Mario Millo' on a film was sufficient to draw extra people through the door because audiences were guaranteed that they would come out knowing they had felt something. Some such as his work on the television show 'GP' became successful recordings in their own right. Others survive as a delicate tune buried deep within the memory long after any knowledge of the associated film has disappeared.
In 1994, Sebastian Hardie were convinced to reform for a one off gig in Los Angeles for the annual Progfest celebration of progressive music. As the resultant album showed, they remained a very special band. Eighteen years after they had previously played together, they produced a set that had the experienced American audience screaming for more. 'Four Moments' was as beautiful as ever, and 'Openings' retained its ability to totally drain an audience. This was Australia's finest band of the seventies finally receiving some of the international acclaim due to them.
In the late nineties, Mario has ventured onto the stage with the 'Men From Mars'. As a live version of 'Horsemen To Symphinity' recorded with the Men From Mars at Sydney's Harbourside Brasserie in 1998 shows, Mario Millo still retains the power to move audiences. One can only hope that there will still be more opportunities for audiences to connect with that magic, because it is very, very special.
Mario Millo is one of the most significant Australian musicians of the twentieth century, and that is not written lightly. With Sebastian Hardie and Windchase, he created sonic epics of international significance. He placed Australia into the minds of progressive music fans around the world, and in the 1970's, that was a huge achievement. Those albums have more than stood the test of time, they have emerged as genuine classics that retain a power and passion to move the listener. They reflected a uniquely Australian sound, despite the international influences. That ability to translate the Australian land and character into music led to a series of soundtracks that define Australian music and experiences. The common thread through all of this wonderful music has been Mario Millo, the kid from Sydney's western suburbs who wanted to be Hank Marvin. He did all that and so much more in touching so many lives with his music. His Mum and Dad have every reason to be proud of their Mario. He took the chances their love and support offered, and became a truly great Australian musician.