The Hitmen were brash, bombastic and inventive. They were also victims of their status as the first in a long line of Australian underground bands of the late ‘70s/early '80s to cross the battle-lines and take their rock and roll campaign to the suburbs. The Hitmen peddled a broad mix of metallic pop, flamethrower Detroit rock and re-vamped ‘60s standards, as well as their own wide range of originals. With their roots in the ground breaking Radio Birdman, the Hitmen sought overground success and clearly influenced dozens of bands that followed in their wake. That their status as one of the Australia’s hardest-working bands never translated to huge record sales probably came down to the fact that the major labels that courted and signed the band had no idea what to do with them. But the thousands of fans whose ears they opened to new sounds did - and voted with their feet by packing venues the length and breadth of Australia.
JOHNNY AND THE HITMEN
The Hitmen began life as Johnny and the Hitmen, a part-time, party band led by Radio Birdman Master of Ceremonies and Glutonics backing singer Johnny Kannis in 1977. The ranks were populated by a shifting cast of Birdman members and friends. Three tracks were recorded under the Johnny Kannis name with Birdman as the backing band, minus Deniz Tek who was Producing, and with the addition of Hellcats guitarist Charlie Georgees. “King of the Surf” and “Under the Boardwalk” surfaced on the RCA label, with the former and a cover of the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard” surfacing on Dog Meat Records years later.
THINGS GET SERIOUS
In 1978 when Birdman member Chris Masuak returned from Radio Birdman’s fatal European tour, he joined Kannis in a new, more stable Hitmen outfit. Gigs and demos followed with a long line of players passing through the ranks. Ex-Birdman bassist Warwick Gilbert signed on as a guitarist in late ’78.
A concerted move to play the ‘Burbs resulted in a few Radio Birdman fans looking elsewhere for their kicks. By March 1979, WEA had signed the band and in July the Hitmen issued their first single, the guitar-pop classic “Didn’t Tell the Man” b/w “I Am the Man”, with a live line-up of Kannis (voc), Masuak (gtr), Gilbert (bass), Mark Kingsmill (drums) and Tony Vidale (gtr). Ron Keeley (ex-Radio Birdman) played on the single after Ivor Hay quit. “I Want You” b/w “Telltale Heart” was the next single and in December 1980, the band went into the studio with hotshot producer Mark Optiz (Cold Chisel). It hit the racks in July 1981, hot on the heels of a single (“I Don’t Mind” b/w “Rock and Roll Soldiers”) by which time Vidale had quit, shooting through midway through recording. He was replaced by future Hoodoo Gurus guitarist Brad Shepherd (ex-Fun Things). Cue lots of serious touring. The album sold moderately well but the band was one of the best live drawcards in the land!
PAY UP OR SHUT UP
A national tour supporting a reformed Steppenwolf took up the balance of 1981. Warwick Gilbert parted ways with the band to concentrate on his animation career, being replaced by Brisbane’s Tony Robertson. The Hitmen split with WEA in early ’82 and was snapped up by RCA, who wasted no time putting them in the studio with former Birdman producer Charles Fisher. The result was an overtly commercial single, “Everybody Knows (I Don’t Like Love)” b/w “Dancin’ Time”. Work began on album number two with RCA making a fatal mistake, imposing Mental as Anything producers Bruce Brown and Russell Dunlop on the band. “It Is What It Is” was the result and it was released in November 1982. The songs were good and a single “Bwana Devil” b/w “I Didn’t Want to Love You” was released. (A Masuak 1990 re-mix on Rattlesnake leaves this album for dead). Brad Shepherd’s departure to become a Hoodoo Guru left the Hitmen as a four-piece (Mark Kingsmill joined the Hoodoo Gurus later), with Kannis taking up guitar. The band stood at the crossroads, debating the wisdom of a relocation to Canada from where they could assault the US market.
DO THE POP
The announcement of the first Iggy Pop tour of Australia in ’83 changed everything. Ex-Radio Birdman singer Rob Younger was asked to play the support spot. That translated to an offer to three-quarters of the Hitmen (plus Celibate Rifle Kent Steedman) to join Younger in the first live line-up of the New Christs. Irony: Iggy was due to tour Australia in 1977 with Birdman supporting, only to cancel when tickets failed to sell in the required numbers.
Kannis simultaneously put together a soul band, Johnny Kannis and the Night Train, while the rest of the Hitmen were on the road. A car accident on the way to a Night Train show put Kannis in hospital with critical injuries from which he took a year to recover. The New Christs continued after the Iggy tour. Kannis and Masuak decided to put the lid on the Hitmen in early 1984, undertaking a brief farewell tour when the singer was sufficiently well. The resulting live album “Tora Tora Tora DTK” was a good representation of the band. The Hitmen did reform again, briefly, in ’85 to promote its release. Members continued with other bands. Masuak became a long term member of the Screaming Tribesmen (Robertson and Kingsmill passed through) who worked with Kannis as Management. Kannis also played with the Johnny Kannis Explosion, a good-time rock and roll band with a set that drew heavily on the Hitmen.
The dissolution of the Tribesmen after a US tour prompted Masuak and Kannis to re-constitute the Hitmen with new players, this time under the name “Hitmen DTK” to avoid clashing with a USA band. Gye Bennetts (drums), Matt Le Noury (guitar) and Brad Ferguson (bass) completed the ranks. An EP “UELA” (Utopian Emotional Love Aura) was a return to the record racks but by the turn of the decade, the line-up was no more.
SURFING IN A DIFFERENT DIRECTION
A new Hitmen DTK line-up travelled to Houston, Texas USA to record what would be the “Moronic Inferno” album, with ex-Radio Birdman mixer Mort Bradley at the controls and the same band’s guitarist, Deniz Tek, guesting. (The recording sessions marked a return from premature retirement for Tek, then living in the USA and not playing much music). The album was a strong slice of pop-orientated rock and roll with some of the songs dating from the Hitmen’s earliest days. It was issued in November 1991 with a four track CD single “Surfing in Another Direction” accompanying it. The band – with Tek guesting – played out in Australia in late ’91 to promote it. The Hitmen then went on to support Dark Carnival (featuring ex-Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and Detroit's Queen, Niagara on Vocals) on their Australian tour in December. The band folded soon after, Kannis moving to Queensland to promote music and Masuak going on to the bluesy Juke Savages, a career in natural healing and, eventually, a re-formed Radio Birdman and his own Klondike’s North 40.
The Hitmen have left a lasting mark on Australian Rock 'n' Roll. Too rockin’ to be pop, and too hooky for the metal-heads, they similarly confounded record company marketing departments but delighted a generation of gig goers all over Australia. Since then, there have been threatened Hitmen re formations, all to no avail – UNTIL NOW!!!!!!
Call it what you like, but there’s no doubt that history, good fortune and destiny have conspired to deliver the cleanest, most pre-determined HITMEN line-up since 1981. Drawing together ONLY members with previous service to the HITMEN, (or bands with only one degree of separation), these five men have truly earned their Rock 'n' Roll commissions.
•Johnny Kannis & Tony Robertson all return as original rock n roll soldiers.
•Tony Jukic on lead guitar is re-called to active service from The Johnny Kannis Explosion.
•Muzz Shepherd, chief Tribesman and brother of original member Brad Shepherd (currently serving in another war), now proud to serve in his stead.
NOT a loose collection of reformed musicians!! Rather, a genetically spliced SupaHuman, featuring both original and family DNA. This is truly the Next Generation of THE HITMEN DTK with new Member, 2nd Guitarist Vince Cuscuna (Ex Buffalo Revisited) joining in January, 2017.
The Creature is Re-Born!! MARCH 27th 2017
We are now happy to advise that our “Solid as Rock” BEST OF Album is out now in iTunes Store and all worldwide digital outlets – proudly brought to you by Zeus Entertainment Group through Laneway Music. An Australian Tour will follow with Special Guests THE PRO TOOLS (Ex-Exploding White Mice)
Johnny "Zeus" Kannis - Vocals
Tony "The Kid" Robertson - Bass
Tony "Juke" Jukic - Lead Guitar
Murray "Muzz" Shepherd - Drums
Vince “Wiz” Cuscuna – 2nd Guitar