Friday, February 27, 2015

There goes the neighbourhood! Billy Thorpe moves to East Melbourne

Wandering the wide, leafy streets of East Melbourne the other day, I was reminded what a civilised part of town it is. As if all its towering Victorian townhouses, Deco dazzlers and historic mansions weren’t enough, it’s got the picnic paradise of Fitzroy Gardens within cooee, and seems magically buffered from the incessant traffic noise that plagues most of the inner city. An oasis of gentility, a haven of refinement… And yet…

One of Australia’s rowdiest rock’n’rollers once lived — and partied hard — in these very streets! 
Banchory Cottage, Gipps St, East Melbourne: someone was inside, watching me from the front left window when I took this, so I didn't hang around trying to take a magnificent photo!
Yep, this unassuming little cottage in Gipps Street was once home to Billy Thorpe — at the height of his pub-rockin’, ‘sink-more-piss’ phase, no less. It was in this ‘house of lunacy’ that ‘a million brain cells died and the Sunbury Aztecs were born,’ recalls Thorpie in his second autobiography, Most People I Know (think that I’m crazy). Judging by his detailed descriptions of the nocturnal festivities that went down there, I’d say that was more like a trillion.

Joining Thorpie in this den of debauchery were his girlfriend Jackie and two of his bandmates, Paul Wheeler and Jimmy Thompson. They hit town from Sydney in December 1968, and within no time, a constant flow of freaks and friends was beating a path to their front door. 

After a few months of this madness, the desperately sleep-deprived singer resorted to a drastic measure. He nailed a big sign to the front door, emblazoned with the following hand-painted message:
To those about to knock. About every 8 minutes DAY and NIGHT some arsehole knocks on this door and I’m going fucking insane! My bedroom is the front window to your right and I haven’t slept in 6 fucking months. Regardless of what you’ve been told this is not the Melbourne Salvation Army, the Hilton or the Thumping Tum East, IT’S OUR HOUSE. We don’t save souls, take confessions, serve breakfast, arrange marriages, sell cars, arbitrate disputes, find lost dogs, supply inspiration, give spiritual guidance, sell drugs, bust virgins, counsel lost teenagers, or need your stimulating conversation. Therefore:-
  • If you’re not bleeding from every orifice and about to die.
  • If your gear hasn’t blown up and you need to borrow an amp.
  • If you didn’t leave your clothes here last night and you’re naked in the street.
  • If you’re not a philanthropist with a million dollars to give away.
  • If you’re not a record company that wants to give us a deal.
  • If you’re a debt collector.
  • If you haven’t called so we know you’re coming.
  • Or if you’re a copper without a legal search warrant then;
                        Peace and love
The sign wasn’t up for long. An outraged old lady called the cops, who made Thorpie take it down. 

Don’t you just love it that little gems of rock’n’roll history like this still exist in the most unexpected places? 
Another view


Personally I much prefer the early, Sydney-era Aztecs (not to mention Thorpie’s rollicking account of those years, Sex and Thugs and Rock’n’Roll), but Most People I Know is well worth a read for its vivid, bawdy depiction of Melbourne in the late 1960s. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Holy go-go boots, Batgirl!

Stumbling upon this mind-blowingly groovy quartet of Bat-babes during my cyber-wanderings recently, I thought all my blogmases had come at once. Not only did the photo date back to 60s Melbourne, but it had a Batman theme - could the planets align any more perfectly?

But there's always a catch, isn't there?

Much like Jan Stewart, the mystery model I posted about last year (a helpful reader informed me that she ended up marrying Ian Turpie!), I encountered a big fat dead end when I tried to investigate these gorgeous Bat-chicks further. But here's the little that I do know...

This photo appeared in the 27 September 1967 issue of Go Set magazine, and was taken at the Coburg Town Hall, at a Saturday-night dance called 'Swinger'. Can't you just imagine the search results that Google threw at me when I tried to look into that?!

The Coburg Town Hall was a popular live music venue during the 60s, hosting everyone from The Strangers to Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs and The Masters Apprentices. And sometimes the occasion would be Swinger...

I don't know how long Swinger lasted, but if the advert above is any indication, it was Melbourne's own 'big established fun centre'. Indeed.

And the Batgirls? I have a suspicion they were go-go dancers and seem to remember once seeing a photo of Denise Drysdale shakin' it with some Batgirls (that's not her on the left of the image above, is it? There's a certain likeness but I'm not convinced), but can't find anything to either support or refute this notion.

I do know that the character of Batgirl was introduced in season three of the original Batman TV series, which went to air in - you guessed it - 1967. 

If there's anyone out there who knows anything else about this photo (including the name of the photographer and who the chicks are), the Swinger dance, or even just what it was like going to gigs at the Coburg Town Hall, please get in touch and put me out of my misery!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Petrol fumes: an old revhead remembers Riverside Dragway

Boy racers are so tedious. Arrogant little louts in their foul plastic-looking cars, with outsized spoilers and peanut-sized – ahem – brains, driving way too fast, drag-racing down public thoroughfares and endangering other motorists and pedestrians as they go. I bet none of them have ever heard of the old Riverside Dragway in Fishermans Bend.

My colleague Norm, who’s always boasting about what fun it was to grow up in 1960s Melbourne, used to go and watch the Riverside drags as a teenager. As its name suggests, Riverside Dragway was by the Yarra, on the airstrip of the Commowealth Aircraft Factories behind the GMH engine plant. No sign of it remains today – it’s just some industrial estates (and a go-karting complex) in the shadow of the Westgate Bridge. But between the late-50s and late 1966, it was the epicentre of Aussie drag-racing. 
Cool and cooler: Riverside draggin'. Still taken from this video 
Now on the other side of 65, Norm’s memories of the races can be kinda …impressionistic. But piece them together and you get some idea of what it must’ve been like down there by the river, amid the smoke and noise, watching a bunch of petrolheads burning down the quarter-mile with minimal safety regulations and the occasional visiting pop star...

"Whacky hillbilly sorts"

When asked what the drivers were like, whether they were a bunch of bodgies or what, Norm says, “You had to be a bit of a hoon. But even now dragster guys are different from the circuit racers. They’re a different breed —whacky hillbilly sorts, revving ‘er up— compared to, say, Nascar, where they speed around in one direction until their head falls off.” Umm, right – thanks for clarifying that.

One driver Norm recalls is Ash Marshall, a Sydney car dealer specialising in luxury Yank tanks (doesn’t sound very hillbilly to me!), who brought down “Australia’s first top-fuel dragster, you know the big American-style car”. 

Ash Marshall (front) and Jack 'Fizzball' Collins (far lane), at the Riverside Drags, 1965.
Photo: courtesy
However, young Norm wasn’t impressed. “He couldn’t even get one run out of it! It was so high-powered, he couldn’t get it started. I’d been really looking forward to seeing him blast down the track in his supercharger, but it just made a few banging noises. Someone in a car like that [see below] ended up winning, I reckon in 11.1 seconds."

“There was no money in drag-racing. Not like circuit racing where you had the likes of Norm Beechey, Bob Jane and Jim McKeown. Drags never attract the same crowds; I don’t think we’ve had any heroes in Australian drag-racing like Don Garlits in America, say … Drag-racing is always the poor cousin." 

Who needs safety precautions when there's no speed? 

Victoria hasn’t always been the nanny state it is today, and Norm tells me the safety standards at Riverside were what you might call relaxed. 

“At Riverside, I don’t remember any barriers around the crowd. If someone wandered onto the track, it didn’t really matter. As to who they’d let race, there weren’t the scrutineers they have today.” He adds, “There wasn’t all the safety, but there wasn’t all the speed either … we’re just talking fun.”
Driver Darryl Harvey on the grid, Riverside Drags, 1960s. Photo: Clive Windley
An FC Holden, waiting to start, Riverside, 1964. Photo: Clive Windley.
You can check out a whole series of amazing drag-racing photos by Mr Windley here.
A very Australian kind of fun, at that. “It wasn’t like the American dragstrips, where they pretend they’ve got a Ford but it’s really made out of fibreglass and has 5000 horse power. There was none of that silliness; it was just blokes in their cars, maybe with an extra-big carby or something like that. I remember one Morris Minor that was fast off the mark: I it had a Holden engine in it. The guy practically sat out the windscreen, he was perched so high up."

“In drag racing these days they’re hitting 500k/h in the quarter mile, but things were very slow then.”
Not sure if this Ford Zephyr is a participant or an observer, but it's pretty damn sweet! Photo: Clive Windley

Nervous breakdown on a flat-bed truck

Everyone knows drag-racing’s better with a rockin’ soundtrack, and Norm was lucky enough to catch Melbourne’s own Merv Benton performing at the Riverside between races.

“You’ve got to remember, he was a bit of a pop star at the time. He performed on the back of an open-tray truck; he did “Nervous Breakdown”. That was pretty cool, I hadn’t seen a dude like him before. Bit of a change from Bing Crosby!”

Sadly, Norm can’t recall seeing any other entertainers down at the drags. “You’re stretching my brains a bit! I don’t even remember how often they had a meeting.” I think it’s safe to assume that only Merv made an impression. 

Any final words, Norman? “I was down at the docks the other day, and was thinking how ironic it is that on one side we’ve got General Motors, which has stopped making cars, and right nearby, we’ve got 1100 cars a day arriving from overseas.” Ain’t that the truth. 

News flash: in a remarkable piece of serendipity, Norm has just told me he used to live across the road to Tom Cowburn from The Spinning Wheels (see my previous post) back in the day. Apparently, when the band got successful, Tom went out and bought himself a Jag, which he took to the same mechanic that Norm used for his Morris. The mechanic would complain to Norm about the Jag, saying, "Why didn't he just get a car like yours?", and whinging how hard parts were to get for it. Small world or what?!