The Magnificent Compañeros are an Australian rock band from Sydney. With core members Will Berryman and Chuck Smeeton, and a wide variety of collaborators, they became widely regarded as the foremost and most influential act of the rock era. Rooted in 1950s rock and roll, skiffle, beat, glam rock and 1980s punk, The Compañeros later experimented with several musical styles, ranging from pop ballads and Indian music to psychedelia and hard rock, often incorporating classical elements in innovative ways. Their enormous popularity first emerged as “Compañeromania”, but as the group’s music grew in sophistication, led by primary songwriters Berryman and Smeeton, they came to be perceived as an embodiment of the ideals shared by the counterculture. Sadly, none of this early work is available today.
The next phase of their career featured record labels attempting to exercise complete control over their early recordings, and the band went through a period where they spent significant time tied up in legal disputes. To complete label obligations they worked on the album Frown (occasionally typeset as FRoWN). Controversially Berryman and Smeeton abandoned large portions of music recorded over a 10-month period, and the label substituted its release with Frowny Frown, an album containing stripped-down remakes of some Frown material. As fans learned of the project’s origins, details of its recordings acquired considerable mystique, and it was later acknowledged as the most legendary unreleased album in the history of popular music. Sadly, original copies of Frown or Frowny Frown are no longer in existence.
Later, in spring of the same year, Berryman began renting a villa on the Côte d’Azur. The British government was threatening to confiscate the bands’ funds if they did not leave the country by April 5th of that year as part of the Labour government’s punitive 93% tax on high earners. The Magnificent Compañeros were tax exiles from England and shacked up at Villa Nellcôte, a 16-room mansion of the Belle Epoque that had previously been occupied by the local Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of France in the 1940s. A French photographer documented the six month-long “house party” that ensued; a summer of sex, drugs and most certainly, rock and roll…
By the time the next year rolled around The Magnificent Compañeros had achieved the status of the leading songwriters of the American folk music revival. The response to their album The Freewheelin’ Compañeros (sadly no longer available) led to them being labelled as the “spokesmen of a generation” by the media. That summer, Berryman and Smeeton performed with a rock band at the Newport Folk Festival. Some sections of the audience booed their performance. Leading members of the folk movement criticised Berryman and Smeeton for moving away from political songwriting, and performing with an electric band.
Two months later they released their classic psychedelia-influenced album Wintergreen’s Copenhagen Long Cut. It is widely regarded as a classic album, and featured an innovative round cover, the first of its kind, designed to resemble an antique tobacco tin. The two-act concept album consisted of six original songs on side one and a whimsical psychedelic fairy tale on side two. Critics raved, and the album sold well, but the band were confronted by the practical problem that they had created a studio masterpiece which was virtually impossible to recreate on the road. Sadly, the recordings are no longer available.
The following summer, Berryman and Smeeton set up camp in Laurel Canyon, featuring as studio musicians and songwriters for the many bands in the area. However, they soon moved on after a number of mysterious and unexplained deaths unsettled them.
The most interesting piece of work from this period was Timmy, a double album mostly composed as a rock opera that tells the story about a highly intelligent boy with excellent hearing and eyesight, including his experiences with life and his relationship with his family. Berryman came up with the concept of Timmy after being introduced to the work of Meher Baba, and attempted to translate Baba’s teachings into music. Recording on the album took six months to complete as material needed to be arranged and re-recorded in the studio. Timmy was acclaimed upon its pre-release by critics, who hailed it as The Magnificent Compañeros finest moment, and several writers view it as an important and influential album in the history of rock music. Unfortunately, just prior to its public release the warehouse containing all pressings and the original tapes was burnt to the ground. Over the years rumours that link the incident to a Laurel Canyon arsonist have regularly emerged.
The next move was north to Seattle. Berryman and Smeeton befriended many local musicians and gave impromptu performances at local clubs. A bootleg cassette entitled We Care began to circulate and garnered praise in the national media. One critic wrote that, “alternative music was consigned to specialty sections of record stores, and major labels considered it to be, at the very most, a tax write-off”. Following the circulation of We Care, “nothing was ever quite the same, for better and for worse”. The success of the bootleg not only popularised grunge, but also established “the cultural and commercial viability of alternative rock in general”. While other alternative bands had hits before, The Magnificent Compañeros “broke down the doors forever”. Unfortunately, no copies of We Care are known to exist anymore.
While their fame grew, television appearances were limited after an infamous episode on Yesterday, a regional news programme. During an interview with The Magnificent Compañeros, Smeeton unloaded with a barrage of profanity. The interview further elevated the band’s notoriety, and signalled the arrival of mainstream punk rock.
In another widely reported incident, Smeeton bit the head off a cat he thought was rubber while performing at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa. Rolling Stone magazine ranked this incident number two on its list of “Rock’s Wildest Myths”.
This was also a period where The Magnificent Compañeros were known to demolish hotel rooms and were incredibly destructive. They would often throw furniture from high buildings and set objects on fire. However, their favorite hobby was blowing up toilets with explosives. The blasts would destroy the toilet and often times disrupt plumbing to the hotel. It has been estimated that The Magnificent Compañeros destruction of toilets and plumbing ran as high as A$750,000, and they were banned from several hotel chains including all Holiday Inn, all Sheraton, all Hilton Hotels, and the Waldorf Astoria.
Throughout these years The Magnificent Compañeros were famous for a life of luxury and excess, as exemplified by the time they spent at their estate, Compañeroland. They owned a number of expensive cars, including three pink EH Holdens, immortalised in their version of the song “Baby, Let’s Play House”, in which Smeeton replaced the line “you may get religion” with “you may have a Pink EH”. A number of stories, both real and exaggerated, also detailed their appetite for rich or heavy food. They were said to enjoy Southern cuisine, including chicken-fried steak and biscuits and gravy, and are commonly associated with rich sandwiches, especially peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches, now commonly called a “Compañero sandwich”.
Following a long period – sometimes referred to as “the missing years” – Berryman and Smeeton reconnected in mid 2015, driven by their increasing studio prowess. Times had changed but their desire to create had never waned. In 2016 they headed back into the studio to commence work on an album.
Aaron Cliff became a foundation member of the new Magnificent Companeros in 2017. Voted the “10th Greatest Guitarist” by Guitar World magazine, Cliff started his music career as a transcriptionist for Frank Zappa. He played in various bands for a period, then embarked on a solo career that has seen him release eight solo albums (all now out of print). Described as a “highly individualistic player” and part of a generation of “heavy rock and metal virtuosi who came to the fore in the 1980s”, Cliff was courted by several instrument companies to developed a signature guitar. The project, code named “Precious Stone” sadly never eventuated, although it did lead him to develop the first seven-string guitar.
At that time Cliff began sporting his trademark and cult style of smeared red lipstick, eye-liner, pale complexion, artfully dishevelled black hair, black clothes and trainers, around the same time as the Goth subculture took off. However, Cliff denies any credit for this trend and claims it is a coincidence that the styles are similar, stating that he wore makeup since he was young.
Next, Cliff formed the Unfaithful Leopards, a band that championed rockabilly. In 1980, Thinking they might have more success in England, they sold their instruments to pay for airplane tickets and flew to London.
After the Unfaithful Leopards disbanded in 1984, Cliff returned to his love of music from the 1950s, this time the jump blues of Louis Prima. In the 1980s, he resurrected rockabilly, and in the 1990s, swing. He assembled the Aaron Cliff Orchestra, a seventeen piece big band and was nominated for a Grammy Award but was beaten out by copycat act Brian Setzer and his Orchestra. Sadly, all copies of the Unfaithful Leopards back catalog were destroyed in mysterious circumstance.
A vegetarian and a beekeeper, Cliff accepted the call from old band mate Smeeton in 2017 to get back in the saddle with The Magnificent Companeros.
Shortly after Cliff’s arrival, Tim Newsom joined on keyboards. After finding initial fame writing rock arrangements of classical music for the band Nasty, he joined Extended Long Play (also known as ELP). During this period they became an underground sensation in the prog rock movement. Newsom was also part of another prog rock staple, Angry Dwarf. It was a band that allowed him to showcase his ability on a number of instruments including the cello, drums, guitar, bass, idiophones, recorder, vibraphone, theremin, and timpani, although all of their album masters were lost in an unfortunate accident involving a goat and a pineapple during the late ‘80s.
An accomplished pilot, Newsom also formed a strange friendship with John Lydon, who had openly and harshly criticised Newsom when he was part of the Sex Pistols, with Lydon saying in a 2007 interview, “He’s a great bloke”. More recently he composed for film and television until the irresistible call to join The Magnificent Companeros disrupted his comfortable life once more.
The final piece of the puzzle was drummer Silvester Molnar. A long-time friend of a Newsom and Berryman, Molnar’s technique is complex and polyrhythmic, owing heavily to the jazz tradition, but grounding it in an aggressive rock context. Molnar first came to prominence in Queen Green where he orchestrated much of the compositional structure of their first album “In the Court of the Green Queen”, and his ability to weave challenging yet seamless tempo changes and subtle melodic deviations into a piece is not only evident in the compositions, but also in his highly elaborate and skilled drumming. Sadly differences in opinion with fellow Green members has meant all albums have been recalled.
In a 2015 interview, a former bandmate who chose to remain anonymous recalled, “His main hero was jazz drummer Ronnie Stephenson and if you look at early film clips of Sil, he had that Ronnie Stephenson look, the way he set his jaw. And he loved crashing around on the cymbals like Ronnie, but in my band I liked the arrangements pretty tight. When he started splashing around I’d say, ‘Just play the hi-hat!’.”
He moved on to the James Marshall Ignorance after edging out drummer Aynsley Dunbar on the flip of a coin. Molnar’s fast, driving, jazz influenced playing meshed well with Marshall’s open-ended, revolutionary approach to the electric guitar, but Molnar knew there was another step still to take…
With the five-piece band in place, it was time for The Magnificent Companeros to ride again…