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Some of the so-called rock historians give a rather mythical report on Melbourne's rock 'n' roll scene in the 50's. If you were reliant on the likes of Glen A Baker, you would have formed the opinion that there wasn't a rock scene in Melbourne.

They thought it was a "Myth". 

 

Being there at the beginnning, I'm sure the likes of Ernie Sigley, Bert Newton, Stan Rolfe, Greg Lynch and others will verify our existence. Ernie Sigley had probably the only rock 'n' roll show on TV, and that was more a 50/50 variety show than a genuine "six o'clock" type rock show.

 
Billy Owens and The Autocrats

Getting our music going in those days was no mean effort. Some kids had to sneak out telling their parents they were going ball-room dancing, which was not entirely a lie. Most early rock 'n' rock was played in a 50/50 type venue where a small corner of the dance floor was allotted for those who wished to do the "new music". It didn't take long for the shrewd operators to realise its potential and soon venues such as the Arcadia and the Federal Hall, now known as Bunny's, were the largest attended dances in Melbourne.

Who played there, you ask?

Billy Owens and the Autocrats, way back in 1957.

I'm not going to change history with these pages. That's not my intent. Rather I would like you all to know the names of some of those rock 'n' roll pioneers who travelled with me through the 50's and did it the hard way. Certainly not for the money I assure you, but for our love and dedication to good ol' time rock 'n' roll. The following names make me go misty as I type. I love them one and all for being part of the glorious history of Melbourne's 50's scene.

Honour Board

The following names were there at the start or very close to it ......

The Fabulous Autocrats ... The Planets ... The All Stars ... The Thunderbirds ... Bev Dick ... Margi Mills ... Betty McQuade ... Malcolm Arthur ... Wayne Lincoln aka Phil Gollotta ... Noel Watson ... Colin Cook ... Bobby Cookson and The Premiers ... Judy Cannon ... Billy O'Rourke ... A special mention to my old friend, Tony Lee.

I am sure there are others I have left out who probably played at other venues. Perhaps I would make a good rock historian after all? I hope those who didn't get a mention will forgive me, but I have quoted the "who's who" on the Melbourne rock 'n' roll scene way back then.

The Arcadia, the Federal Hall, and later, Earl's Court were the places to go back in the 50's. They were by far the biggest venues. I was lucky in that I appeared at all of these, either as Billy Owens and the Autocrats, or (at Earl's Court) as Billy Owens and the Thunderbirds. Glen Iris RSL was also a well-supported dance.

 

Billy Owens and the Thunderbirds Why wasn't the Melbourne scene as well documented as the Sydney scene? The answer is simple. Melbourne in those days was very Victorian in attitude. Sydney had Band Stand and Six O'Clock Rock; we had "6 o'clock closing". Even the venues were alcohol free and the dances finished at 11.30pm. The dances in those days, on a good night, traditionally finished with a punch up out the front; on a bad night, there were a few of them inside. Several fights would break out inside, often spilling onto the stage. Scarey stuff, especially when I had Bob Hargreaves yelling in my ear "keep singing!". Not easy to do when needing to change underwear.

But those were the good ol' days and I wouldn't have missed it for quids.

My first band were limited in their talents. Our manager was a canny old Scot named Bob Hargreaves, a very clever man who, if he had pursued a career in the music industy, would have been a great success, but like the rest of us, he came along too early. The fame and riches came in the 60's. Mr Hargreave's only blemish in my eyes was having his sons, Bruce and Kenny in the band. Bruce played slap bass. He got the slap part right, but the strings just got in the way. Kenny played rhythm guitar, problem was, he only had three fingers on his chord hand. Perhaps that was a blessing in disguise. The one thing about the Hargreaves boys that stood out, was when a fight started, they'd down instruments and literally dive off the stage into the fray. I always believed that was the only time the Autocrats sounded half decent. Let me make it clear, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Autocrats. It was a super learning curve under the wily guidance of Bob Hargreaves, and they were paying me 4 pound a night.

When Harold Frith approached me to come see his Thunderbirds, who were playing to a handful of people in a tiny hall in Coburg (Progress Hall), I jumped at the chance. It was not because of lack of success. I was playing to packed crowds at the Arcadia and the Federal Hall. I think the time had come for me to find the next step musically. As I said, the Autocrats were purely a visual band, great to watch. If  Bruce and Kenny could have matched their antics on stage with a smidgen of talent, I'd probably still be with them at the age of 60. The moment I set eyes on the Thunderbirds playing to about six people at that tiny venue, I was hooked. I went from earning 16 pounds a week, to working for nothing. Kevin McClellan, who managed the Thunderbirds, asked me that night to join the band as lead singer. They already had a singer in Billy O'Rourke. I asked Kevin how Billy would feel about that. He said that he ran the band and if Billy didn't like it, he could jump ship. Fortunately, Billy stayed on.

The Thunderbirds and I had immediate success. We achieved a recording contract with Festival (Rex), Sydney; the first Melbourne group to achieve that, and landed a spot on the Lee Gordon big show with Fabian, another first. The early Thunderbirds I joined consisted of Harold Frith, Peter Robinson, Murray Robertson, Colin Cook, and Laurie Bell. Shortly after, Laurie left the band, and Charlie Gould and Graeme Lyall joined us to form the greatest rock 'n' roll band in Australia. Believe me, I have heard them all. There was no better band than the Thunderbirds in this country.

I've taken up enough of your valuable time. I must let you get back to your chat channel, or downloading freebies, or whatever you were doing. Thank you for taking time to listen to some old guy reminiscing. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

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