Breeding delinquents: Surf City 1963-1966

2020
CC BY 2.5 AU
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Surf City, 111-127 Darlinghurst Road: 1963-1966

[media]’I understand the place is badly lit and the band plays extraordinarily loud’ declared City of Sydney Alderman LE McDermott to the Sydney Morning Herald on 24 August 1965.[1] McDermott was describing the popular surf and beat music nightclub in Kings Cross, Surf City: ‘Australia’s finest teenage cabaret’ according to its own posters.[2] The night before, a girl’s jaw had been fractured in a brawl.

The fight ensued after another girl, presumably enthralled in a ‘stomp’ dance, ‘trod on [the victim’s] foot with a stiletto heel’. Tensions escalated and the act was repeated. ‘Her escort, a strong, 6ft 4in young man’ attempted to intervene but ‘had his arms pinned behind him’. Following this, the ‘other girls had then lifted the girl’s dress over her head and beaten her’.[3] The victim was taken to hospital where it was discovered her jaw had been fractured, and Alderman McDermott called for increased licensing measures and police presence within Kings Cross’ nightclubs.

This story was not particularly unusual in the Australian press at the time, which was gripped with anxiety about teenagers and their increasing interest in stomp dances and beat music.[4] Bands were louder, boys’ hair was longer, boot heels were higher, and many adults struggled to understand. Surf City was accused of ‘breeding delinquents’ soon after opening in 1963.[5] Nonetheless, despite its short lifetime, the venue is crucial to the musical history of Australia. For three years it served as the spiritual home of Australian beat music, giving rise to mainstream pop stars and underground cult heroes whose influence remains today.

Surf, Beat and the Stomp

[media]Surf music had emerged in the United States in the early 1960s, blending rock and roll with surf culture. It was traditionally instrumental, emphasising rapid guitars and drums that were an attempt to mimic the sounds of the surf.[6] As with surfing itself, the genre achieved significant popularity in Australia, especially in Sydney’s coastal suburbs like Manly, Coogee, Maroubra and Cronulla. In 1963 Sydney band The Atlantics achieved national and international success with their single Bombora.[7]

As British beat bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones gained popularity in Australia, many surf bands sought to follow their success. Beat was essentially the British adaption of American rock and roll. As in instrumental surf rock, guitar and drums featured prominently but more closely mirrored pop styles. Importantly, beat music featured lead singers and the various instrumentalists typically provided backing vocals in order to form harmonies.[8] With the beat-explosion, many instrumental surf groups hired vocalists to adapt to shifting musical tastes. For instance, local surf group The Nocturnes hired Ray Brown as a vocalist in early 1964 and quickly rose to prominence as Ray Brown and the Whispers.

For both surf and beat music, the dance of choice was the ‘stomp’. It appealed to the youth of Australia as it was simple, literally stomping to the rhythm and punctuated by jumps, kicks, or twists as one became more confident. As one teenage girl frankly told the ABC: ‘the [stomp] music is better than the twist music’.[9]

It appalled the older population. A dance instructor in the same interview claimed the dance was ‘apelike’. Despite this, stomping proliferated alongside surf and beat music. Social dances and contests were organised in capital cities and regional towns, importantly providing new outlets for bands to perform. Many councils in Sydney attempted to ban these gatherings, with some, such as Waverley Council in Sydney's east, being successful.[10] The councils claimed that stomps enticed drinking, promiscuity, violence, and general teen rebellion. Others were concerned for the buildings were dances were held, afraid that the assault on the floors could compromise the structural integrity of older buildings and cause them to collapse.[11]

Surf City Opens

The home of the stomp, surf, and beat alike in Sydney was Surf City, situated on the corner of Darlinghurst Road and Victoria Street. The venue opened in 1963, managed by John Harrigan who would later have a hand in other infamous Sydney venues such as Whisky a Go Go and Hawaiian Eye, both especially popular with American servicemen on leave from Vietnam.[12]

[media]Prior to its incarnation as Surf City, the building had been known since 1916 as the Kings Cross Theatre. Its interior was converted (that is, its seating simply torn out) in order to craft a dance floor and thus, the nightclub was born. While officially licensed in December 1963, the venue had been operating for several months prior, appearing in a number of articles by the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun Herald  investigating the growing issue of ‘delinquency’ in Kings Cross.[13]

Attendance in the initial months paled in comparison to the crowds Surf City would draw in its later years.[14] Throughout 1963 the venue hosted the final wave of Australian surf bands, including The Atlantics, The Vibratones and The Nocturnes, but Harrigan would soon usher in Australia’s emerging beat talent. Seemingly overnight, Surf City exploded with popularity. By December 1963, it was estimated that 15,000 - 20,000 people would attend the 5,000 capacity venue between Friday night and Sunday evening.[15] With so many people, all stomping to their favourite band, it is no surprise people trod on one another’s feet.

‘neutral territory’

Surf City formed the centre of the developing east coast venue circuit, attracting the best from interstate as well as emerging international acts. Performances were held every night of the week with additional matinees on the weekend. Its central location in Kings Cross meant it was guaranteed to draw in local crowds from nearby inner-city suburbs like Redfern, Waterloo, and Paddington, but also many from Sydney’s outer suburbs in all directions as well as the increasing tourists who flocked to the Kings Cross nightlife.

Despite the violence described in the mainstream press, it was episodic. Singer Billy Thorpe remembered the venue as ‘neutral territory’.[16] Geographical tensions between suburbs and subcultural tensions, such as those between ‘rockers’, ‘surfies’, and early ‘sharpies’, were put aside in the venue: ‘here they didn’t clash. Here they shared the dancefloor, shared the music’.[17] Surf City brought the youth of Sydney together more often than it amplified violence.

Loud and proud

[media]While Alderman McDermott’s description of the venue as loud and poorly lit was intended to be damning, it was a rather accurate assessment and formed part of the venue’s appeal. Lighting was intentionally dark in order to spotlight the bands, making use of the building’s former glory as a theatre while technological advances allowed for greater amplification, propelling the intended energy of beat music.[18] The bands proudly played more loudly than most people had heard before, especially the predominantly working-class teenagers who formed the bulk of the attendees.

Performing for these impressionable youths every night were typically four or five sharply dressed boys with medium-long length mop-tops wielding Fender Stratocasters. They wore slim suits accentuated with Cuban-heeled leather boots. The crowd’s costumes varied, depending on the camp one belonged to. ‘Surfies’ favoured trousers, shirts, and leather shoes, or dresses with high heels. ‘Rockers’ wore jeans or denim skirts with tees and often danced barefoot. In its final year, early forms of ‘sharpies’ appeared, dressed in wide-legged pants and tight sweaters.[19]

Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs

Without a doubt, most attendees’ favourite band was Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, the musical heart of Surf City. Many of the Aztecs had previously been in the surf band the Vibratones but were now searching for a singer to make the leap to beat. At age 17, Billy Thorpe, formerly a professional child singer, relocated to Sydney and auditioned to join the recently renamed Aztecs. They were a perfect fit for one another, and for Harrigan’s initially struggling venue. Harrigan became their manager, employing them as Surf City’s house band where they played as many as seven or eight sets per week.[20] They were an immediate success, placing themselves, Harrigan, and Surf City at the centre of contemporary Australian pop.

The popularity of Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs at this time cannot be understated.  In June 1964, the Beatles arrived for their first Australian tour. As in Great Britain and the United States, Beatlemania had been brewing over the preceding year, enthralling teens all over the country. Upon their arrival in Sydney from Melbourne, 3000 fans, controlled by 300 police officers, greeted the Fab Four at the airport.[21]

The Beatles seemed unstoppable and were set to play six shows at Sydney’s largest venue: the 12,000 capacity Sydney Stadium. Their single ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ had just been released in Australia, expected to chart at number one across the country. However, despite their arrival that week, it was Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs’ debut single ‘Poison Ivy’ which claimed prize position across the Sydney charts.[22] It is alleged that after achieving this feat, John Lennon himself invited ‘that Billy Thorpe character’ to the Beatles’ hotel room at the Sheraton in Kings Cross, with Thorpe proceeding to ‘impress his hosts with his precocity and charm’.[23] Indeed, off the back of ‘Poison Ivy’, Thorpe and the Aztecs would briefly stand as Australia’s answer to the Beatles.

Crucial to the Aztecs success was Thorpe’s commanding live persona, a direct influence on the wild pub-rock vocalists of the 1970s, especially Doc Neeson and Jimmy Barnes.[24]

Beat Explosion

With the success of Surf City, Harrigan opened a sister-venue on Elizabeth Street called the Beach House. Surf City regulars, Ray Brown and the Whispers, were signed to share regular duties with the Aztecs. On weeknights, they would take a venue each, though on weekends they were expected to perform at both, having to rush between the two around midnight.[25]

The Whispers were somewhat tidier in both sound and image compared with the Aztecs, but were still tremendously popular, achieving four consecutive national top-ten singles in 1965.[26] Beat music had well and truly arrived in Australia, with local and international bands dominating the charts. While the Easybeats would emerge in late 1964, and new beat-oriented venues would open, Surf City would forever stand as beat’s Australian home.

Punk’s Missing Links

Another close affiliate of Harrigan and common presence at Surf City were the Missing Links. The Links followed in the beat tradition of the Aztecs and the Whispers, who they frequently filled in for when the other bands were on interstate and regional tours.[27]

Importantly, the Links took the genre to its extreme, essentially embodying the worst fears of the mainstream press. They were the loudest and rawest of them all, and guitarist Peter Anson’s hair rumoured to be the longest of any boy in Sydney.[28] While they are more often remembered for their particularly wild shows at Beatle Village on Oxford Street, where they destroyed their equipment and hung from the rafters, Surf City was the venue where they ‘cut their teeth’ and formed the loyal audience that earned them a recording deal.[29] The stomping was definitely at its most violent when the Missing Links were on stage.

Due to personnel and label difficulties, the Missing Links never achieved the success of some of their Surf City peers. They were elevated to cult status however as their wild arrogance was mythologised and their original recordings became increasingly difficult for fans to track down. Fortunately, Ed Kuepper, a member of Brisbane band the Saints obtained a copy of their album ‘Driving You Insane’, and the Links’ snarling sound and bratty attitudes directly influenced Australia’s emerging punk scene in the mid-1970s. The Saints could not have made this clearer, covering the Links 1965 single ‘Wild About You’ on their seminal 1977 debut album, (I’m) Stranded.[30]

Closure

In March 1966 Surf City permanently closed. The venue was victim to redevelopment, and in the following years the old Kings Cross Theatre was demolished and eventually replaced by the Crest Hotel.[31]

Surf City’s last night was Sunday, 6 March 1966, and featured ‘most of the artists who grew to fame up there’ including Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs and Ray Brown and the Whispers among others.[32] One can imagine the atmosphere that night, as thousands of teens gave Surf City its final stomp, likely almost completing the demolition themselves.

Influence

Physically, Surf City only existed for a few short years. While the location is marked by three plaques fitted in the pavement close to 127 Darlinghurst Road, such plaques cannot communicate the sheer impact Surf City had on Australian music. The final stop in a series of plaques celebrating the history of Kings Cross and Darlinghurst Road that were installed by the City of Sydney in 2004-05, they read: ‘Surf City & Billy Thorpe. Everyone did the stomp to big stars and hopeless one-hit wonders'.

Surf City reinvigorated Australia’s popular music scene, bringing homegrown beat music to the charts and providing a steady income for emerging talents like the Aztecs and the Whispers. After its closure, the frenetic energy of the Surf City fans and bands alike survived in the punk and pub-rock scenes that emerged in the following decade, and continues to influence Australian music today.

Notes

[1]‘Girl’s Jaw Broken at Dance Hall‘, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 August 1965, 10

[2] Poster retrieved from Billy Thorpe interview with Glenn A. Baker, published on Youtube on 5 December , 2018 as part of  ‘Glenn A. Baker’s Sacred Sydney Rock Sites’ series. Retrieved from: href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCL4Ne-p-t4, viewed 31 May 2019

[3] ‘Girl’s Jaw Broken at Dance Hall‘, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 August 1965, 10

[4] ‘Moves To Avoid Brawl At Next Stomp Dance‘, The Canberra Times, November 13, 1963, 1; ‘Trust the Telegraph? Like H… ‘, Tribune, January 15, 1964, 2; Kerry Yates, ‘Have You Tried the Stomp? ‘, The Australian Women’s Weekly, September 11, 1963, 3

[5] ‘This is the Cross’, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 September 1963, 47

[6] Craig McGregor,‘Growing up (uncool): pop music and youth culture in the ‘50s and ‘60s ‘, in From Pop to Punk to Postmodernism: Popular music and Australian culture from the 1960s to the 1990s, ed. Philip Hayward (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1992), 95-97

[7] Ian McFarlane, The Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop, (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1999), 26

[8] Jon Stratton, Australian Rock: Essays on Popular Music (Perth: Network Books, 2007), 25-27

[9] ‘The Stomp' dance banned to protect buildings ‘(1963) | RetroFocus, ABC News (Australia), originally aired 1 December 1963, published online 4 November 2018, retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZF-NVQZ034, viewed 31 May 2019

[10] ‘The Stomp' dance banned to protect buildings ‘(1963) | RetroFocus, ABC News (Australia), originally aired 1 December 1963, published online 4 November 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZF-NVQZ034">viewed 31 May 2019; ‘Stomp Banned to Save Old Town Hall’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 November 1963, 5

[11] ‘The Stomp' dance banned to protect buildings ‘(1963) | RetroFocus, ABC News (Australia), originally aired 1 December 1963, published online 4 November 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZF-NVQZ034 viewed 31 May 2019

[12]‘John Harrigan’, Milesago, website, http://www.milesago.com/People/john-harrigan.htm, viewed 31 May 2019

[13] ‘This is the Cross’, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 September 1963, 47

[14] Billy Thorpe interview with Glenn A. Baker, published on Youtube on 5 December 2018 as part of ‘Glenn A. Baker’s Sacred Sydney Rock Sites ‘ series, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCL4Ne-p-t4 viewed 31 May 2019

[15] Billy Thorpe interview with Glenn A. Baker, published on Youtube on 5 December 2018 as part of  ‘Glenn A. Baker’s Sacred Sydney Rock Sites ‘ series, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCL4Ne-p-t4 viewed 31 May 2019

[16] Billy Thorpe interview with Glenn A. Baker, published on Youtube on 5 December 2018 as part of  ‘Glenn A. Baker’s Sacred Sydney Rock Sites ‘ series. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCL4Ne-p-t4, viewed 31 May 2019

[17] Billy Thorpe interview with Glenn A. Baker, published on Youtube on 5 December 2018 as part of ‘Glenn A. Baker’s Sacred Sydney Rock Sites ‘ series, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCL4Ne-p-t4, viewed 31 May 2019

[18] Shane Homan, ‘Losing the local: Sydney and the Oz Rock tradition ‘, Popular Music 19, no. 1 (2000): 36

[19] Billy Thorpe interview with Glenn A Baker published on Youtube on 5 December 2018 as part of ‘Glenn A. Baker’s Sacred Sydney Rock Sites ‘ series, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCL4Ne-p-t4, viewed 31 May 2019; Craig McGregor,‘Growing up (uncool): pop music and youth culture in the ‘50s and ‘60s ‘, in From Pop to Punk to Postmodernism: Popular music and Australian culture from the 1960s to the 1990s, ed. Philip Hayward (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1992), 95-97; Peter Beilharz and Sian Supski,‘So Sharp You Could Bleed: Sharpies and Artistic Representation, A Moment in Seventies History of Melbourne ‘, in Socioaesthetics: Ambience-Imaginary, eds. Anders Michelsen and Frederik Tgystrup (Leiden: Brill, 2015),183-185.>

[20] Shane Homan, ‘The mayor’s a square: a regulatory history of Sydney rock venues, 1957-1997‘ (PhD dissertation, Macquarie University, 1999), 150-151

[21] Kim Hanna,‘The Beatles in Sydney ‘, The Dictionary of Sydney website https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/the_beatles_in_sydney, viewed 31 May 2019; ‘Beatle Day!‘, The Sun, June 18, 1964, 1; 'Beatles play Sydney: 1964'  Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 2014, website https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/music/beatles-play-sydney-1964-20140616-3a7zg.html, viewed 31 May 2019

[22] ‘Billy Thorpe/The Aztecs: Sydney-Melbourne-USA, 1963-2007 ‘, Milesago website http://www.milesago.com/Artists/thorpe.htm, viewed 31 May 2019; ‘Top Ten‘, The Biz, June 17, 1964

[23] ‘Billy Thorpe/The Aztecs: Sydney-Melbourne-USA, 1963-2007 ‘, Milesago website, http://www.milesago.com/artists/thorpe.htm, viewed 20 February 2020

[24] Jon Stratton, Australian Rock: essays on popular music, (Perth; Network Books, 2007) 57

[25] Shane Homan, ‘The mayor’s a square: a regulatory history of Sydney rock venues, 1957-1997‘ (PhD dissertation, Macquarie University, 1999), 150-151

[26] Ian McFarlane, The Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop, (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1999), 83

[27] Ian McFarlane, The Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop, (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1999), 420

[28] ‘The Missing Links: Sydney, 1964-66‘, Milesago website, http://www.milesago.com/artists/missinglinks.htm viewed 31 May 2019

[29] Ian McFarlane, The Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop, (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1999), 420

[30] Ian McFarlane, The Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop, (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1999), 420 & 546-547; Phoebe Hurst, ‘Brisbane Record Fair: Let the Fun Begin’, 4 December 2013, Scene Magazine website, https://www.scenemagazine.com.au/music/rock/brisbane-record-fair-let-the-fun-begin, viewed 7 February 2020

[31] ‘’Clover Green’ chosen for graziers’ club‘, The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 January 1965, 17

[32] ‘Young World’, The Sydney Morning Herald 6 March 1966, 99