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Ian Rilen would have achieved lasting notoriety if his only claim to fame was as the founding songwriter for Rose Tattoo who left because the band’s choice of music wasn’t hard enough.
Then he had to go and form X and unleash a strain of high-energy music so visceral and basic that it almost defies description.
For three decades, clutching only a bunch of street-level songs and a weathered bass or six-string guitar for protection, the mercurial Rilen has been an indestructible figure on the Australian music scene.
Ian Rilen’s musical history stretches back to 1972 when he bought a bass guitar in a pub from soon-to-be-deported La De Das member Reno Teouh and drifted into Band of Light.
That band’s leader Phil Key had also left the La De Das and wanted to give a heavy blues bent to his own songs. After just three shows, he found a vacancy on bass carrying Ian Rilen’s name.
Band of Light went on to chart success with a single, “The Destiny Song”, and an album “Total Union”. They toured extensively but the restless Rilen was long gone by the time album number two rolled around.
A manager’s 1976 offer to be involved in a street-level band with a gang mentality playing raw music presented itself. Bass player Rilen and slide guitarist Peter Wells were the founding members who took Rose Tattoo into the pubs.
The early Tatts were a fearsome combo, with dyed and cropped hair, Clockwork Orange-styled boilersuits and equal doses of intense music and attitude to match.
Although penning many early tunes (including the chart-bound “Bad Boy for Love” – still a perennial compilation album favourite), Rilen disliked the direction in which the Tatts were headed. He bailed out in ’77.
At a loose end, he dropped in on a rehearsal at a church hall in Sydney’s inner-west to find two young guitarists whose blood-and-skin-flecked fretboards showed was graphic testimony to how hard they were playing.
One of them, Ian Krahe, found his way into the first line-up of X (the other, Geoff Holmes, has been an intermittent and member) along with Rilen on bass, ex-cop Steve Cafeiro on drums and Steve Lucas on vocals.
X delivered a middle finger to anyone and anything remotely regarded as part of the so-called music industry. Since then the band has existed in various forms apart from – and in spite of – the mainstream.
X were always – and still are – about playing live. Within months of formation, they were attracting a sizeable and fanatical following.
Punks and skinheads alike regarded X as “their” band, while the members simply got on with the job and played blistering rock and roll.
X’s existence has been marked by the drug-related death of a member (Ian Krahe), myriad break-ups and reformations and dozens of personnel changes. If those factors weren’t enough, they happened against a background of intense personal politics that would have killed most other bands stone dead.
A seminal debut album, “X Aspirations” – recorded in a matter of hours with Lucas now on guitar and still feeling his way – remains a touchstone for raw rock and roll around the globe and has been re-issued several times.
The departure of Cafiero (later to die of complications from routine surgery), a move to Melbourne and more recordings – two studio long-players, a brace of EPs, and two live albums (one of them a double) – have built a colourful and considerable legacy.
Much attention invariably focussed on the band’s hard-living ways, sometimes unfairly. On that score (and to borrow a Lou Reed phrase), a weekend with Ian Rilen still probably equals your year. His ability to turn up and put on a great show remains uncontested.
Other bands were sandwiched inbetween breaks from X. In the first, Ian seized the microphone and switched to guitar, to be joined by then-wife Stephanie on keyboards, for the eclectic SARDINE v.
Everybody’s tip to go places, SARDINE v eventually withered and died but did show people Ian Rilen could operate outside the confines of X.
Similarly, major label machinations and the decline of the pub circuit kept Rilen’s early ‘90s band, Hell to Pay, from breaking through to a wider audience with their brand of swaggering, blues-edged pub rock.
Although never reaching a wide audience, the unrecorded Skindiver was an even more radical departure from X, because it forced Ian out from behind a guitar for much of the time and directly into the spotlight as frontman/singer.
A debut solo album, the stripped-back and emotionally bare “Love is Murder”, marked a similar move to front and centre and lauded glowing critical attention for its streetwise lyrics, rough-hewn vocals and sympathetic backing.
Which brings us to the present with The Love Addicts, whose line-up includes a former longtime X member Cathy Green on bass.
Although Ian still plays out solo with various backing bands, The Love Addicts are the main game with their debut studio album, “Passion, Boots and Bruises”, a continuation of his trademark raw rock ‘n’ blues.
A Sydney radio announcer once likened the Ian Rilen live experience to “being served cocktails in the gutter”.
Pull up a piece of kerbside, forget the mainstream and charge your glass. Paraphrasing again (Neil Young this time), the ride might be a whole lot rougher but it’s infinitely more interesting.