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Location: New South Wales, Australia

Born in Yorkshire, raised in Australia. I love Poetry, Guitar (especially Spanish classical & Delta Blues), Tudor, Jacobean and Stuart England, Archaeology & good Ale. I edit The Flea & The Chimaera (with Peter Bloxsom), and Shit Creek Review

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Billy Thorpe at Surf City

There was me, and Mia and Eric Nolan, maybe English Peter, Adelaide Jeff, Chris Owen, Kate. It was any Saturday night in 1964. We had left the pub early, gone back to the rooms some of us rented in an elegant old terrace house in Victoria Street, Kings Cross, and refueled with some cheap and quick spag bol that Peter would whip up. The night was yet young - where to now? Why, Surf City of course - an old movie theatre transformed into a venue for rock bands and dancing. Just a walk down Victoria Street towards the bright lights at the corner of Darlinghurst Road, where a traffic policeman in long white gloves and pith helmet would be on duty signaling in grand formal style the streams of cars this way and that. Now round the corner to where the crowds of teenagers were - Surf City.

1964 - the Beatles and Stones had just become popular. "Popular" is too mild a word - they were a religion. With them they brought long hair as a fashion style for males. Us lads from the Royal George had a mighty advantage: we already had long hair - for us it had long previously been a statement of difference and rebellion, one for which we often paid by being verbally or physically assaulted. But it was part of our badge of difference, and we flaunted the very real social hostility with stubbornness, pride and humour. Not that our hair was that amazingly long - mine, the shortest of our bunch, just curled down the back of my collar and was starting to invade the shoulders. It was longer than any Beatles or Rolling Stones’ hair at that time though. And much longer than the newly-converted youths who had suddenly realised that abandoning the universal short-back and sides was the new and potent way to attract girls.

So when our group strolled into Surf City we rightly felt ourselves to be well ahead of the prevailing fashion there. I would be wearing my black polo-necked sweater and long dark velvet smoking jacket, jeans, cuban-heeled boots. Eric was wearing a black velvet suit with flowing scarlet tie and maybe a top-hat. Mia, tall and stately, had boots, a skirts that reached to her ankles (a rare length in those days), honey-blonde hair in a French roll, and was smoking – to the amazement of passing straights - a small, elegant pipe. Jeff had a black waistcoat, striped shirt, threadbare, holey jeans (again at least a decade ahead of the fashion), elastic-sided boots, and was unbelievably scruffy and dirty, partly as visual statement, partly as result of his life-style. Peter, tall and muscular, was dressed in conservative suit and tie offset by his long hair. Chris had battered jeans and jeans-jacket, beard, and a mass of curly auburn hair that seemed to make girls flock to him in droves. Fran was fashion-model-gorgeous (though too petite to be a model), smart, cheery, with bobbed hair and the latest Carnaby street fashions. I was secretly and shyly very keen on Fran.

Into Surf City then, with the lights and music blaring and the sea of dancers - Mods, Rockers, Sharpies, Surfies - frenetically dancing away there - and we'd be dancing too, though sometimes a little differently. It was a Young Push fashion to sometimes break into a kind of folk-dance, link arms and whirl, hands waving in the air, as if we were on the village green in back in 1743 dancing to a fiddler after quaffing ale and cider. A kind of modified Morris Dance. Anything to be different and to have fun. Most of the straights would be doing a sort of Chubby-Checker Twist. But we couldn't help ourselves - we'd have to be different.

And nearly always at Surf City we were dancing to the music pumped out by a band wearing neat suits, the beginnings of long hair, but with incredible energy and style: Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs. The lead singer, hands clasped behind his back, would be leaping around from one foot to the other out the front, belting out amazingly good songs. We thought that fact a bit of a rarity for Australian bands back then, which often seemed but pale imitations of British Beat bands. But this is how good Billy Thorpe was: we all reckoned that his version of "Poison Ivy" was a fair bit better than that of the Rolling Stones, who we adored. In fact Billy Thorpe's version of Poison Ivy actually went to Number One on the Hit Parade ahead of the Beatles while the Beatles were touring Australia. This seemed impossible, but it happened. That was the kind of amazing achievement we admired.

You couldn't listen to or dance to Bill Thorpe without getting a real buzz - his music was upbeat, brash, fun, yet entirely what would now be called "cool". It was just damned good, and made us feel that local groups could indeed match those from overseas - a feeling that Australia's years of cultural cringe to Britain and the US had made very difficult. In later years Billy Thorpe reinvented himself and his music several times, and importantly, after moving to Melbourne, pioneered Australian Pub Rock music and cricuits. I have always been impressed by his energy and cheerful, positive attitude. He was a good bloke.

Bright-eyed and buzzing, we would stumble out of Surf City after an hour or two into the Kings Cross night and glaring lights, the traffic and the crowds, and we'd do the Darlinghurst Road promenade, gawked at by tourists and suburban straights who had come up to the Cross to see the bizarre bohemian sights and to hunt for easy sex from the Strip-clubs and prostitutes, we would chat and laugh with diverse Cross regulars we bumped into, maybe Swiss Walter, or Jesus Larry; usually then down to the Piccolo coffee bar for a couple of hours drinking long blacks and listening to its fine selection on the juke box, sitting fish-bowled in the crowded window-seats, checking out and being checked out by the swirling Roslyn Street crowds.

Then back to the Victoria Street terrace house. I had the attic room there, several flights of stairs up, a satisfyingly bohemian garret with plenty of floor space for the various people who would crash there for the night - sometimes ten or twelve people would be sleeping on that floor. Or other activities. Me in the double bed, hopefully with a girl - sometimes with the lovely Mia; never, alas! with the delectable Fran.

Last night Billy Thorpe died of a massive heart attack, aged 60.

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