Monday, March 31, 2014

Then and now: Tram Town!

And now for something completely different: the memories — and amazing photos — of an ex-tram-driver. As someone who’s regularly heard bad-mouthing her local tram in no uncertain terms (96, I hate you!), this has been quite a revelation.

Peter Bruce started with the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board in 1966, and worked for them until 1977. A railway enthusiast since he was a toddler, his interest in trams started with the job. He also happened to be handy with a camera, which resulted in photos like this:

St Kilda Road, c. 1968. Photo: Peter Bruce
This photo is both familiar and strange. In the foreground, we see the number 8 tram to Toorak, still going strong today. (Peter tells me the number 4 behind it has since become the 67 service.) The iconic Flinders Street Station dome is hard to miss, and the spire of St Paul’s Cathedral dominates the horizon.

In the distance, the former Carlton and United Breweries site is just visible, with its rooftop logo and a ghostly ‘Victoria Bitter’ sign beneath it. ‘The Wales’ (Bank of NSW) is now Westpac (in a different building), while the Olympic Tyres sign twinkling coquettishly in the centre of the image also appears in the Angus O’Callaghan photo I featured in my first blog post. The Arts Centre had yet to be built (construction started in 1973), and the me Bank skyscraper is nowhere to be seen.

Peter explains another big difference between then and now: “City Road, which now passes underneath St Kilda Road, crossed on the level then. You can see distant traffic there in this shot.” And speaking of traffic, check out all the cool cars: a Mini, the front right corner of a Holden, a few Beetles, just to name a few.

Flash forward to 2014, and this is what you get:

Try as I might, I couldn't get both the Flinders St station dome and the Cathedral spire to show.

Peak hour squeeze

Hands up who finds the peak-hour tram-crush hard to endure? Rest assured, you’re not the first. Says Peter, trams “could be very crowded especially in the am and pm peaks and the connies [conductors] had to work hard to collect all the fares and keep the car (tram, but trammies always referred to them as cars) as close to time as possible. That required close co-operation between driver and conductor.” Beats Myki’s uncooperative attitude, I reckon.

Clarendon St & Albert Rd, c. 1968. Photo: Peter Bruce
The photo above shows the number 12 — “the equivalent of today’s 112 which runs from the corner of Fitzroy and Park Streets, St Kilda to St. Vincent’s Plaza.” This is what it looks like now:
To take this photo, I had to brave a tsunami of 4WDs and luxury sedans flooding out of Albert Park (what is it about so-called ‘sporty’ people and their SUVs?). While the gate, tree and house to the left remain, the pub and dry-cleaner to the right are no longer there.

Breakdown shakedown

Asked about whether trams broke down very often back in the 60s and 70s, Peter says, “The old trams didn’t break down very often and we’d always try to limp along so as not to delay the rest of the service.” (so what happened, Metlink?)

But he’s pretty diplomatic about how today’s trams stack up in comparison. “Trammies then were expected to use initiative to prevent avoidable delays; today they are not allowed to. Risk management is necessary but it has become an industry and thus has to continually justify its existence by finding more risks.”

Park Street at Kingsway, South Melbourne, c. 1968. Photo: Peter Bruce
There’s the number 4 again, at an intersection that’s completely unrecognisable today, Park Street and Kingsway. The 67 no longer takes that route, but then, I doubt you can get Voca dictation machines anymore either, if the photo below is any indication...

Believe it or not, this is the Park Street-Kingsway intersection today

Fairweather friends

One of my pet tram peeves is how they immediately go haywire when the weather changes. Peter recalls them being a bit hardier back in the day: “The weather, rain that is, had to be pretty heavy and sustained to badly affect the service, basically there had to be about 200mm flooding over the tracks.”
Number 11 at Park and Heather Streets, South Melbourne, c. 1968. Photo: Peter Bruce
“Number 11 was not a passenger-carrying tram. It was what was called a Scrubber Car and it existed to clean the head of the rail. The service at this intersection is the same today, route 1, South Melbourne Beach-East Coburg.”

As the photo above so hideously demonstrates, Park Street is no longer a swoonfest of EHs, Cortinas, original Mini wagons, EJs and other automotive gems. The milk bar advertising Craven Filter ciggies on the corner now appears to be vacant, if not downright derelict (that’s it with the graffitied wall), and a roundabout has since been built to moderate the traffic flow (interestingly, Peter recalls that “motor traffic in those days was much lighter but much less disciplined!”)

One thing that’s much the same is the towering council flat high-rise up the top of Park Street.

The television effect

Perhaps the most fascinating difference between then and now is the impact of television on peoples’ lifestyles (and their tram-going habits). Whereas the majority of PT passengers these days sit there glued to their mobile device, back then, people had to wait til they got home for their entertainment fix — the goggle box.

As Peter explains: “After about 8.00 or 8.30pm, the trams didn’t carry many people and that has to do with popular culture, TV. Most of the suburban picture theatres had closed down shortly after the advent of TV in 1956-57 and most people were glued to the box after they got home from work.”

Well, with shows like Go!! to be had, who could blame them?

A note about Peter’s photography:
“In 1968 I bought a Pentax Spotmatic which was a camera and lens system which enabled enthusiastic amateurs to buy a great camera at a reasonably affordable price. Most of the Japanese optical companies made very good cameras in this price range. I nearly always took black and white photos as I had my own darkroom.”

By the way, any trainspotters out there might like Peter's blog, I Was a Teenage Railfan, while tram-nuts will dig his online photo gallery here.

Related post: 
Then and now

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Bruno Benini

As the sweetheart-darlings among you would undoubtedly know, it’s the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival this week. To be honest, I don’t consider that great cause for excitement, given the banality of most Aussie fashion these days, but it’s a mighty convenient excuse for today’s post.

After all, if today’s fashion looked anything like this, I’d be fighting my way to the front row by any means possible...

Behold, the genius eye of fashion photographer Bruno Benini (1925-2001)!
Too cool for words. Model Jan Stewart wearing Simona mini-dress for Sportsgirl, 1966. 
Photo: Powerhouse Museum Bruno Benini archive collection
These boots were made for posin'. Unknown model in a Sharene Creations number, 1963.
Photo: Powerhouse Museum Bruno Benini archive collection
Born in a medieval Italian town, Bruno Benini migrated to Melbourne with his family in 1935. After studying science at Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT) and working briefly at the Holden plant in Fisherman’s Bend, he returned to Italy by way of London in the late 1940s. It was during this trip he decided he wanted to be a fashion photographer.
Ahoy! Vida Elekna, Lynn Richmond, Terry Taylor and Gay Vardis at Station Pier, 1962.
Photo: Powerhouse Museum Bruno Benini archive collection

His first studio, established in the mid-50s, was in Cotham Road, Kew. While he was honing his skills, he worked as a male model, learning the finer points of lighting and fashion photography in the process.
Gillian Dickson in grey flannel Sportsgirl suit with four cut outs of model Eric Hoek, 1965
Photo: Powerhouse Museum Bruno Benini archive collection

After Kew, he moved his studio to several locations around the city before settling in McKillop Street. This is where he was based during the 1960s, sharing the space with his wife Hazel, a fashion display artist/stylist and his regular collaborator.

Talk about a dynamic duo: Bruno and Hazel singlehandedly cranked up the fabulosity factor of Melbourne’s fashion scene for many years!

Jan Stewart glamming it up in Stephen Glass evening gown, at the Lido nightclub (Russell St), 1968
Photo: Powerhouse Museum Bruno Benini archive collection
Benini’s photos were primarily black and white, and appeared in publications across the country. He photographed all the top models of the time, from the divine Jan Stewart (girl crush alert!) and Maggie Taberer to Janice Wakeley and Maggi Eckhardt, capturing them in beautiful portraits that simultaneously stand the test of time and encapsulate their time.
Marg Hanna in heart-stoppingly groovy Norma Tullo ensemble, 1969
Photo: Powerhouse Museum Bruno Benini archive collection
Benini’s photos are so much more than mere fashion snaps. They’re works of art, drop-dead gorgeous and super-creative, with a fun-loving streak a mile wide running through them. I love that they often feature recognisable Melbourne locations in them, yet there’s absolutely nothing provincial about them — they are universally swoonworthy.
Where oh where can I find a frock like this? Anne Hamilton in Simona dress for Sportsgirl, Black Rock, 1966. 
Photo: Powerhouse Museum Bruno Benini archive collection
Check out the Powerhouse Museum’s inspiring Bruno Benini photography archive for more photos of his work, spanning the 50s to the 80s.

Related post:
Groovy Prue

Friday, March 14, 2014

Melbourne song of the month: 'The Real Thing'/Russell Morris (March 1969)

It’s been honoured on a postage stamp, and covered by artists as diverse as Kylie Minogue (!), Midnight Oil and Ollie Olsen. It was in the soundtrack of the movie The Dish, and has featured in countless TV commercials: most recently, for the Subaru Forester (ugh). It’s “The Real Thing” by Russell Morris, and it was unleashed onto unsuspecting Australian listeners 45 years ago this month.
The stamp! Wish I had one of these...
The history behind this iconic track is fascinating. Written by Johnny Young, it was originally earmarked for pop singer Ronnie Burns, but legend has it that Molly Meldrum decided it was perfect for his then-protégé Morris, and cajoled Young into recording a rough demo of it for him.
Russell Morris. Photo: National Film and Sound Archive
In an interview on ABC Radio’s Into the Music program in December last year, Russell Morris explained how he first came to hear the song.

Planning to leave his band Somebody’s Image and launch a solo career, he went to see Johnny Young for advice on how to strike out on his own. Young was more patronising than helpful, but shortly afterwards the two men crossed paths again on a TV show where Russell was miming to one of his band’s hits. Seeing how wild the live studio audience went for the spunky teenage singer, Young was waiting for him when he returned to his dressing room, insisting that Morris listen to some of his songs.

Of the three songs he heard, Russell quite liked one, but asked if Young had anything else, as he didn't want to be lumped in with other pop stars of the day such as Johnny Farnham, Ronnie Burns and Normie Rowe. All Young could offer was a song he’d written ‘as a joke’…

“Ian had come in at that stage, Ian Meldrum, and Michael Barnett, who was managing me as well. And we heard it and all of us looked at each other and went, That’s the song and he [Young] went, What? You’re crazy! A solo artist couldn’t do this song. And we said, That’s the one we want. The way he played it is vastly different to what Ian Meldrum envisaged and achieved.”
Molly and Russell in more recent times. Photo:
In the same interview, Morris reveals that Young’s rendition was actually a bit too close for comfort to Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” so Molly’s reimagining of the track probably prevented some nasty legal wrangling.
“Ian changed it and said, Right, we’re going to do it like ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ meets ‘I Am the Walrus.’ John was banned from the studio for that reason.”

In the studio

Produced in Armstrong’s studio in South Melbourne over several months, the song involved a cast of thousands. Members of The Groop formed the main backing band; John Farrar (lead guitarist of The Strangers) did the arrangement; and a session singer called Maureen Elkner sang backing vox. Then there was that haunting acoustic guitar part, apparently one of the last pieces of the puzzle to be added…

Says Molly (in the same interview):

“I wanted acoustic because I was a Cat Stevens fan. The opening with the acoustic guitar is a guy who used to be in The Zoot … Roger Hicks, who was a great guitarist. So it’s his intro and the rest, with Hitler and the bombs, is my part.”
And let's face it, without Hitler and the bombs, "The Real Thing" wouldn't be "The Real Thing"! After a deceptively beautiful start showcasing Hicks’s sweet guitar and Morris’s even sweeter voice, the song gains ever-more layers and trippy effects to reach a manic, mind-bending finale featuring Molly imitating Winston Churchill, Brian Cadd of The Groop reading instructions from the side of a tape box, the Hitler Youth choir, Hitler himself, atomic bombs exploding, and enough phasing to bring on spontaneous hallucinations. According to Molly:
“Because of the Small Faces with ‘Itchycoo Park’, I loved phasing, and so … we [worked] out a way we could do the phasing … connecting two studios and putting lines across. I wanted it to be world-class [with] some … of the different effects that had influenced me. So you’ve got the Donovan thing, and the Cat Stevens, you’ve got part of the psychedelia of the Beatles with the Magical Mystery Tour…”

But before any record label executives could hear the final product, Molly started freaking out about how they’d respond (after all, it was 6 minutes 20 seconds long, almost unthinkable for a single), grabbed the tapes from the studio and fled into the night. Russell Morris and recording engineer John Sayers eventually tracked him down in Albert Park.

Turns out Molly’s fears weren’t groundless: when the EMI/Columbia honchos heard the song, they were somewhat less than impressed. Without the label’s support promoting it, Morris and Meldrum saw no alternative than to hand-deliver their psychedelic epic to radio stations themselves. Their efforts paid off.

Top of the pops! The Go-Set Top 40, 31 May 1969
Not only was “The Real Thing” a number one hit in Australia, but it made the top of the charts in Chicago and New York. In 2001, it was voted fourteenth in APRA’s Top 30 Australian songs.

All together now: There’s a meaning there but the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing….

Related post:
What would you give Molly for his birthday?

Friday, March 7, 2014

The golden Holden

One of my colleagues has a saying: “to whine like an EH diff.” As in “She whined like an EH diff when I told her she couldn’t play Justin Bieber in my house” or “He whines like an EH diff every time I ask him to do the dishes”. To be honest, I know bugger-all about differentials in general, much less whether EH diffs are especially noisy, but the expression is kinda cute — and leads me neatly into this post’s subject.

You got it in one: the EH Holden.

I may be a proud Morris owner, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the charms of a sexy old Holden. And with the impending closure of its Australian manufacturing operations, we need to take every opportunity we can to celebrate the Holden legacy. Ever since the first 48-125 (or FX) rolled off the production line at Fisherman’s Bend in 1948, it’s been part of the Australian motoring landscape.
Image: Aussie Automobilia

First released in August 1963, the EH went on to become Australia’s fastest-selling car ever, with more than 250,000 sold in just 18 months of production. Part of its appeal was its powerful ‘red engine’, a step up from the grey engine used in its predecessors. The red engine was super-reliable and high performing, which probably explains why there are still plenty of EHs on the roads today, 50-plus years later.

The EH was spacious, powerful enough to tow a caravan (a pursuit that was becoming more popular in the 1960s), and amazing value for money, providing more bang for its buck than any other comparable model on the market. ₤1051 a pop! Who's going to argue with that?

But let’s face it, a huge part of the EH’s appeal was — and remains — its sleek, stylin’ looks.

Image: NAA
From the Standard, Special, Premier and S4 Special (a very limited edition racing variation) sedans, to the Standard, Special and Premier station wagons, plus the panel van and ute versions, the EH is a bonafide eye-popper with its neat lines, long rear and squared rear guards.
An EH ute. Image: signag
GM Holden's Dandenong manufacturing plant, 1963. Image: Wolfgang Sievers

These days, driving through the streets of Melbourne, it's all-too easy to imagine there's some kind of sick SUV breeding program being carried out in secret, with the hideous offspring being covertly released onto our roads when we're not looking. 

Hard to believe that, 50 years ago, a scene such as the one below wasn't entirely inconceivable...
Related post: 
Then and now: Tram Town!