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The Origins
of Aussie Rock


Click on the orange button to hear excepts from some of the recordings discussed.

The foundations of rock'n'roll in Australia were laid during the Second World War when American servicemen brought the "jumpin' jive" of artists like Louis Jordan to Australia. The other basic component of rock'n'roll, country "hillbilly" music, was already well established here. When the two came together in the mid-1950s, the new music quickly found an Australian audience and performers. The trigger was Bill Haley's performance of Rock around the Clock on the soundtrack of the 1954 movie, Blackboard Jungle.

Among the first performers were Allan Dale and the House Rockers and Johnny O'Keefe and the Dee Jays. Both bands performed in the style of Bill Haley and Comets. Alan Dale was really a big band singer performing rock music in a sophisticated, tuneful style. Johnny O'Keefe, on the other hand was raw and brash - more like Little Richard.

These were soon followed by many other performers including:

All of these early groups started out performing in rough, brawling pubs which gave parents some real basis for concern. Their response was to establish "Teenage Cabarets" in Police-Citizens Boys Clubs and church venues. These, however, were often more like amateur nights than professional entertainment.

The situation was wide open for a promoter who could put on professional shows at large venues and Lee Gordon did just that. Gordon was a rather shady American music promoter who used his contacts to bring major stars like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Ray, Frankie Laine, Cliff Richard, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and Little Richard to perform in Australia - initially at the Sydney Stadium. Gordon also started strip clubs, Australia's first hamburger diners and even imported plastic paint. He made and lost several fortunes in the process.

Lee Gordon's lead was followed by Col Joye and his brother, Kevin Jacobson, who began organising tours of county towns by local rock bands and, later, brought major acts to Australia.

The one major act that couldn't be lured to Australia was Elvis Presley. As an alternative, Lee Gordon brought Johnny Devlin, New Zealand's Elvis-like leading rock star here. Johnny became a major rock star in Australia as well.

The first Australian rock recording is thought to have been the instrumental Wild Weekend by the Thunderbirds. It was not a hit. The first Australian rock record to be a hit was Johnny O'Keefe Wild One in 1958. Col Joye's Bye Bye Love, later the same year, was the first to reach number one.

Most early Australian rock recordings were covers of American records. The record companies often didn't release imported recordings for many months although the records could be flown to Australia within a day or so of their American release. This is exactly what happened. The records were then copied by Australian bands. (Wild One was the exception. It was written by members of Johnny O'Keefe's band and was covered by Buddy Holly's Crickets as Real Wild Child.)

In the early 'sixties, American rock began to lose its vitality and the stream of good material began to dry up. In Australia, as in England, this encouraged local artists to develop their own material. At the same time, the first 24-hour pop music radio stations were introduced in Sydney and Melbourne, greatly increasing radio's appetite for music.

The first flowering of this in Australia was in surf music. Although following an American style, most Australian surf music was original Australian material. Some new bands, like the Atlantics, emerged but most of the hits came from established bands like the Delltones and the Joy Boys. The surf music craze also produced Australia's first indigenous dance craze, the Stomp.

The surf music fad was short-lived to be followed by the so-called "British invasion". In fact, while English recordings replaced many American ones in the pop charts, Australian records went from strength to strength. The first new bands to emerge were Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs and Ray Brown and the Whispers. Both performed mostly American songs but with original interpretations, rather than slavish covers of the originals.

Among the bands to have great success performing their own material were the Easybeats the Bee Gees and the Twilights. The Easybeats had a string of Australian hits in 1965 and '66. They then moved to England where they recorded Friday on My Mind, which became a worldwide hit. The band, which thrived on simple hard rock, seem to lose its way as soft, psychedelic music came into fashion. The band eventually returned to Australia where its two songwriter members, Harry Vanda and George Young, organized a new band for which they became songwriter/producers. The new band, AC/DC, featuring George's brothers, Angus and Malcolm Young, had worldwide success throughout the 'seventies and early 'eighties.

The Bee Gees had a number of minor hits in Australia but no major hit until Spicks and Specks in 1967 - just at the time when they had decided to move to England. They had major worldwide hits in the late 'sixties. Despite many setbacks, the Bee Gees have continued to have successes up to 2003 when Maurice Gibb, aged 53, died after suffering a heart attack during surgery.

The Twilights were a Beatles-sound band led by Glenn Shorrock which had Australian hits in the mid- to late 'sixties. When the group broke up in 1969, Shorrock formed a new group, Axiom, which also produced Australian hits. When Axiom broke up, in 1975 Shorrock formed the Little River Band which became the top-selling band in North America in the late 'seventies.

The other Australian group to enjoy great success in the late 'sixties was the Seekers. The group recorded in England after being employed as entertainers on a cruise from Australia. Their first single, I'll Never Find another You, reached number one in England and number four in America. For a time, they rivalled the Beatles in popularity in England.