Twist and Stomp, Thelonious Monk, and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: Recollections of Rock, Pop, and Jazz in Sydney 1959-1967

Article excerpt

This article puts forward an interpretation of popular music and its impact in Sydney, in the late 1950s through to the mid-to-late 1960s. This period covers what rock critic, Nik Cohn, has called the decline of `classic rock',(1) to the ascendancy of mainly British bands -- most spectacularly the Beatles. I chose this title to convey a sense of certain features in the diverse popular cultural history of that time: one which encompassed Australian versions of surf music; the impact of particular, mainly overseas, musicians and singers; and the always ambiguous and tenuous relationship between jazz and rock music that came apart almost completely in the mid-1960s. What follows draws mainly on my experiences during my teens and early twenties. While a good deal of this article relies on personal memory, I have also used evidence from the entertainment sections of contemporary Sydney newspapers; and more recent accounts of popular music in Australia, to assemble a history about these years.

There are two reasons for adopting this combination of reminiscence, reportage and analysis. The first is to argue that these various and variable sources and texts complement and contradict each other, thus offering a contested and arguably more interesting story. For example, I point out that the performers and musicians, I, my friends and acquaintances responded to were sometimes quite different to what a columnist like' Downbeat', or disc jockeys like Bob Rogers or John Laws regarded as popular, musically interesting and noteworthy. Similarly, rock music critics like Nik Cohn, who disparaged the undoubtedly blander style of pop music dubbed `Highschool'(2) that came after 1950s `Classic' or `Southern' rock -- epitomised in Elvis Presley's earliest recordings and in other entertainers like Little Richard -- did not register why `Highschool' appealed to so many. On the other hand, when the Beatles toured Australia in 1964, there was common agreement that this group was an unprecedented pop music phenomenom.(3) My own recollections, while still sharp and important as evidence, are not always accurate, have occasionally let me down, or have failed altogether. For instance it surprised me to discover that 1961 was `the year of Col Joye'.(4) While he was undoubtedly successful, he was not on my list of popular singers that year. There is room for debate here obviously but the truth is that I failed to acknowledge, for whatever reason, Col Joye's contribution to Australian popular culture.

Secondly, there is the related point about the closely connected contexts -- historical, cultural, social -- that generate ways of seeing at hand in any stage of lived experience. In this case, it is about an attempt to record the necessary discrepancies between my past and my present; and the `process of interpretation that usually takes place within particular social surroundings' and which includes the `particular "tone"' in which such events are recalled.(5) Here there is added justification for invoking the power of memory (and other contemporary sources as well) because they subvert any tendencies to render the past unhistorical. For example, during most of the period I am discussing, a more or less strident anticommunism pervaded the political culture (`Reds' was the usual term of abuse)(6) while in Sydney itself, moral panics of varying intensity surfaced, for instance over gate-crashers at North Shore parties;(7) fights between `rockers' and `surfies';(8) young people listening to transistor radios on trains;(9) and the Beatles `massive' hairdos.(10)

The series of episodes and stories that comprise this essay derive from elements in my biography that situated me in certain relationships to the lifeworlds I inhabited. I was neither a `rocker', a `surfie' nor a `sharpie'; although I have vivid recollections of encounters with each of these social types, and I enjoyed doing the Stomp at `Surf City' in Kings Cross. I came close to being a `Mod' (complete with duffle-coat and motor scooter), a `jazzer', a `swinging conservative,'(11) and a Beatle look-alike, complete with jacket and Cuban-heeled boots. …