INTERVIEW: Murray Gracie and John Mills

You’ve seen the concert, you’ve checked out the book, now hear how it all came about.

Jive, Twist and Stomp is clearly a labour of love. How long has the idea been brewing?
JM: Four years or so. I have a unique collection of seventy-four interesting black-and-white photos of the popular rock groups I was in, in the 60s. Just the thought of the photos ending up in either one of my daughters’ cupboards gathering dust or even dumped in the ‘Rubbish Bin Of No Interest’ was the beginning of this project. So with this in mind I decided with Murray and others to share them. Fortunately I know quite a number of musicians from that era and they too started to become interested in sharing their historical stories and photos before it becomes too late. Initially we had a slow response, but with time the interest mounted and so did the enthusiasm.

What was the response from the community when you started compiling this volume? Was it what you expected?
MG: When we first toyed with the idea of recording some of the memories of the glory days of rock and roll in Western Australia it was received with a great deal of enthusiasm from anyone we broached the subject with. But it never occurred to us that this project was as huge as it turned out to be, or as rewarding, and that the end product would look so good.

Was there a particular song or artist that grabbed your attention and got you involved in the rock and roll scene?
JM: Bill Haley and the Comet’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’ featured in the classic film Blackboard Jungle, followed by the musical films Rock Around The Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock with the best guitar solos from Fran Beecher. By the time the instrumental groups The Shadows and Ventures started to become famous, I was very determined to play electric guitar. I started late actually, in the early 1960s at twenty-one years of age.

The Perth music scene in the 50s and 60s was vibrant and growing – what were the factors supporting it?
JM: It was the beginning of the rock and roll era, with this music being played on some radio stations. It was inspiring enough for teenagers to do their own thing (as they always do). It didn’t seem to be difficult to get them to come to dances in halls everywhere our rock and roll music was pumping out and they could let their hair down and dance to the driving beat. Many mums and dads weren’t too happy. Tough! I also remember that some radio stations were still playing the Doris Day, Frank Sinatra type material, which was so boring to most of the teenage set (the bodgies and widgies etcetera).

How would you describe the sound of local Perth bands in the 60s?
MG: Raw is the best way; everything was experimental. You did the best you could with what talent you had and hoped it was appreciated. I suppose you played 80 per cent for your own enjoyment and 20 per cent for your audience.

Tell us about a highlight of your early rock and roll days.
MG: There are so many memories of those years that it’s hard to think of one in particular! In the book are several of the more interesting ones. However some of the things I didn’t write about were that we were able to earn more money playing than in our day jobs which allowed us to purchase the latest fashions, buy flash cufflinks, get our hair styled at a hairdresser instead of a barber, buy new guitars (on hire purchase, of course) and put petrol in the car to get to the gigs. And, of course, the girls.

JM: I was a muso in Johnny and the Strangers, and one highlight was when we won a Perth Talent quest against over seventy other local groups. The prize was a guest spot on three shows as support act for the Johnny O’Keefe Show at the Capitol Theatre, Perth in mid-1964. We played to packed houses.

What also comes to mind is the speed by which Johnny and the Strangers became so popular. I was the rhythm guitarist and organised the gigs and we were all bowled over with the reception we got at many shows. Felt surreal.

Did you often get a chance to ‘jive, twist and stomp’ yourself, or were you too busy providing the tunes?
JM: Interestingly I was a jive teacher (at eighteen years old) for a short time at the Wrightsons’ Dance Studio at the corner of Pier and Murray Street upstairs, three years before I took up guitar. Once I got confidence on the guitar I was kept pretty busy playing in various rock groups for the people who would jive, twist or stomp or whatever was in vogue at the time. I can only see it from a working musician’s point-of-view. Talking about views, some of them were very nice! Gets the heart goin’. This all happened in a variety of venues. Probably my two favourite venues were the hall on Broadway Nedlands at night-time, followed by the Anzac Basement dance on St Georges Terrace on a Saturday afternoon with Johnny and the Strangers.

MG: I think I enjoyed playing at Canterbury Court ballroom the best, a great stage, a big dance floor, a good sound and most of all an appreciative crowd.

In most cases there was an unwritten rule that musicians don’t dance or fraternise with the punters when working – but hell yeah, I have been guilty of twisting the night away!

Western Australia still has a healthy music scene, with lots of local bands getting national (and international) attention. How would you describe the connection between Perth bands of the 50s and 60s and Perth bands now?
MG: We taught them well didn’t we!

JM: Also, the modern musician has so much more available at their fingertips to learn from: high schools, all the musical instruments, the internet, hundreds of books, sheet music, music schools, DVDs with instructions on all instruments.

We had to learn from 45 records, mostly by ear, as there were no ‘rock and roll’ music teachers. In the 50s and 60s at high school level you could only be taught to read music, play violin or piano, all classical and that’s the way it was – boring.

What do you hope this book will achieve?
MG: With so many of the musicians of the era no longer with us – and as the years pass and the rest of us leave – it would be nice to think that in the future fans, family and friends can see that WA really wasn’t a sleepy little backwater and that we made a considerable contribution to the music that enriches their lives.

JM: It’s a historical and quite fascinating insight into the Western Australian pioneers of rock and roll bands in the 50s & 60s, what they achieved and what they were thinking and the stories they can openly tell (not all stories can be printed!). Think of the enjoyment the musos’ families will have scanning the hundreds of photos, seeing the fashions and what their dad or grandad and some ladies used to look like in various outfits. This fascinating, interesting quality book will be passed on to the next generation. Something to have forever.

The book is available here . Check out photos from the launch on facebook or on the Fremantle Press blog.

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