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Rock Music

As an accessible art form for youth, rock music has been part of the cultural landscape of Melbourne since the earliest days of rock and roll. Precisely identifying the starting date for rock music in Melbourne is difficult, yet the city and the music fit comfortably together as a 'scene' that continues to flourish. Like any large metropolis, Melbourne has enjoyed a wealth of popular music; American forms of popular entertainment had easy entree, and over time music hall gave way to swing, jazz and the inclusiveness of rock. In the suburbs of Brunswick, Collingwood, Fitzroy and St Kilda, town halls became antipodean havens for rockabilly sensibility, spawning the bodgie and widgie scene of leather jackets, motorcycles, noisy Holdens and American dreams. Perhaps 1956 was the significant year, with the release of the Hollywood film Rock around the clock, which featured Bill Haley and the Comets.

Rock and roll was dominated by American style in the 1950s, when postwar affluence translated into fresh opportunities for young people to explore new emotional and social experiences through music. Unsurprisingly it took more than a decade for the voice of Melbourne to be heard in originally penned songs, although 'hillbilly-style' music (a somewhat indigenous version of country), Hawaiian music and some jazz received radio airplay in the years immediately after World War II, providing a platform on which popular music could flourish.

Early rock and roll mirrored other cultural transplants, the growth of pop radio alongside television variety shows producing a curious amalgam of pop music and family entertainment. Stan 'the Man' Rofe played the latest releases from the USA and the United Kingdom on 3UZ, which also launched the Top 40 in Australia. In the early 1960s record labels such as W&G began releasing the tentative original sounds of instrumental groups such as the Saxons, the Thunderbirds and the Phantoms. Rock-and-roll 'stars' such as Johnny Chester and Frankie Davidson became pioneers of early recordings. The Seekers became the quintessential Melbourne rock-pop phenomenon of the 1960s, with the success of their folk style helping to consolidate Melbourne's mainstream industry by the mid-1960s. Meanwhile rock and roll received official support from 1964 to 1972 with Hoadley's 'Battle of the Bands'.

Television shows such as Go!! promoted the new teen energy, which found continued support on Young talent time, hosted by Johnny Young, Hey, hey, it's Saturday, which interspersed comedy with rock from the 1980s to 1999, and Countdown, with Ian 'Molly' Meldrum. Each of these shows operated in a liberal entertainment environment, helping to commercialise rock music through the glamour of television. Television audiences were exposed to unprecedented images of youth culture and teen 'rebellion', resulting in battle lines being drawn in relation to decisions about 'appropriate' viewing within suburban families with teens.

The Melbourne scene flourished because of a rich institutional base. As the alternative passions of youth rebellion appeared in suburbia, musical innovation and media support were brought together. Local bands and singers such as Normie Rowe, Ronnie Burns, John Farnham, and the Strangers contributed to a uniquely youth-oriented creative pulse that could be felt across Melbourne, from nightclubs such as Thumping Tum to Saturday-night town hall concerts. The Beatles' 1964 tour of Australia prompted a massive show of support from Melbourne's youth at the Southern Cross Hotel, confirming that the monumental shift to youth culture had occurred, this time with an English focus. Ron Tudor's Fable Records showed what entrepreneurs could accomplish when they made a determined effort to establish a rock-pop catalogue. Magazines such as Go Set confirmed the rock-media nexus from 1970, while the Sunbury Pop Festival (1972-75) put counter-culture on the map.

Rock arrived in the 1970s. Music was a powerful tool of the anti-war and peace movements in Australia, and of those opposing conscription, mirroring US trends of resistance to unpopular political decisions such as involvement in the Vietnam War. Confirmation of the institutional strength of Melbourne's music industry came in the form of Mushroom Records. Built up from a back-room booking agency, Mushroom Records, along with the Frontier Touring Company, Mushroom Music and a string of associated activities, pushed its founder Michael Gudinski onto the centre stage of Melbourne's rock scene, where he continues to play a major role.

In the early 1970s alternative music and theatre flourished in inner-city venues (especially in Carlton and Fitzroy), a development that is often linked to the University of Melbourne and Monash and La Trobe universities, where student culture supported live performances of all sorts, from progressive folk singer Margaret Roadknight to Lobby Lloyd's vehicle for acoustic excess, the Coloured Balls. A significant influence from the early 1970s was the experimental orientation in the alternative club scene of bands such as Cam-Pact, Spectrum, Captain Matchbox Woopee Band, Company Caine and Madder Lake. The achievements of these bands stand alongside those of the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre (1979-83), where artists such as David Chesworth and Philip Brophy worked across a number of media with experimental gusto, preparing the ground for funk-dance outfits such as Essendon Airport and I'm Talking, which launched the career of singer Kate Ceberano.

The mix of experimentalism and pop sensibility was best realised by Skyhooks, whose main songwriter, Greg Macainsh, broke many of the rules of Australian rock and roll, pushing local identity and cultural issues that clearly reflected the reality of 1970s Melbourne. Their album Living in the 70s defined the experience of a liberalising inner-city scene that nevertheless retained strong links to the suburbs. Assisted by Ross Wilson, whose band Daddy Cool had seen its debut album Daddy who? Daddy Cool sell 60 000 copies in 1971, Melbourne's rock scene was sustained by a core group of personalities.

John Farnham continued to perform as a star of contemporary music, working the territory between radio-friendly pop and exciting live rock performances for local audiences. His 15th album, Chain reaction, released in 1990, contained the anthemic single 'Age of Reason/When the War is Over', confirming him as a major Melbourne music identity. Glenn Wheatley shared the spotlight as Farnham's manager, promoter and entrepreneur, and became an important advocate of Melbourne's eclectic rock scene. Other promoters, such as Paul Dainty, have based themselves in Melbourne, where until the early 1990s the Age and Herald, together with the weekly Juke magazine, regarded rock as serious journalistic fodder.

Alternative music never faded in Melbourne. A Melbourne form of punk flourished, especially in the 1980s, at St Kilda venues such as the Crystal Ballroom, the Palace and the Esplanade Hotel, encouraged by Keith Glass and his record label Missing Link, and by Bruce Milne's Au Go Go Records. Certainly the best-known proto-punk of this era was produced by the Birthday Party. Lead singer Nick Cave became the quintessential Melbourne performer, gaining international recognition by the mid-1990s. Among many others, the Moodists enjoyed a following during these years, spawning Dave Graney in his expressionistic rock persona. The path the Moodists made to the United Kingdom was followed by Tina Arena in 2000, when she moved to London to try to add British success to her Melbourne achievements. Elsewhere, pushing rock into the mainstream were local identities such as Hunters and Collectors, the Sports, Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, Crowded House and Australian Crawl, providing a bridge between two worlds of commerce and art.

The establishment of Ausmusic and the Victorian Rock Foundation in 1988, and of the Push in 1992, reflected State and federal government support for Melbourne's rock music culture. Much of the inner-city activity continued in St Kilda in the 1990s and also developed in Fitzroy, where community radio stations Triple R and nearby 3CR in Collingwood (a politically committed AM station) promoted local music. This included new collaborations between Koorie musicians and performers such as Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter and black rights activists such as Paul Kelly. Dozens of bands, singer-songwriters and musicians thrive in Melbourne's richly interwoven artistic and cultural environment.

As the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, and in keeping with global music industry trends, the Melbourne music scene saw a shift from major record company domination to micro-computer and Internet-based innovations. There have also been experimental attempts by independent Melbourne musicians and bands such as TISM (This Is Serious Mum) to combine musical and visual performance. Drawing on the continuing strengths of the pub scene, live music flourishes as independent performers continue to find enthusiastic audiences for all types of rock music and subgenres.

Marcus Breen

See also