How The Thunderbirds Introduced Rock'N'Roll To Melbourne

28 October 2015 | 3:03 pm | Michael Smith

"So we thought if we're going to do another record, we might as well get something out of it and we'll record them ourselves so we own them."

The Thunderbirds

The Thunderbirds

Nineteen-year-old drummer Harold Frith had a vision. It was 1957, rock'n'roll had arrived in Australia a couple of years before courtesy a tune recorded by Bill Haley & His Comets titled Rock Around The Clock, and though he was a jazz fan, Frith thought it was too exciting to ignore. He was going to put together a rock'n'roll band, and they were going to be called The Thunderbirds. The first line-up Frith had put together in September the year before had lasted four months. This time Frith was determined to find the right players.

"My original plan was to join the Preston Symphony Orchestra," bass player Peter Robinson explains how he became a Thunderbird. "I didn't know what rock'n'roll was. It was in [the opening credits of] Blackboard Jungle that I first heard it, and I thought, 'Aw, that's pretty exciting,' but that didn't sway me into becoming a musician, I just thought it was pretty good. I took 13 lessons off a guy who was in the Victorian Symphony Orchestra, and on my way back from lessons, on the train with my double bass, I bumped into Harold Frith, who said, 'I see you're a bass player. I'm looking for a bass player. I'm in a rock band,' and I said, 'What's that?' and he said, 'Come to rehearsal and we'll show you,'" Robinson chuckles. "So that's how the rot set in!"

Laurie Bell was the only member of the first line-up to rejoin Frith in what would become the classic Thunderbirds line-up. Frith literally headhunted 16-year-old Scottish immigrant, singer Bill Owens, from one of the few other bands tentatively playing rock'n'roll in Melbourne, The Autocrats, and recruited pianist Murray Robertson; singer, guitarist and baritone saxophonist Colin Cook; and another 16-year-old, tenor saxophonist and flautist Graeme Lyall.

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"As far as mainstream teenage rock'n'roll that was on the radio," Robinson points out, "we were the only band who actually did all that stuff — we used to do all the Top 40 songs, which other bands didn't really do. We were the first band to actually do all the main halls."

The Thunderbirds had scored a residency in an upstairs dance hall above a skating rink called Earl's Court that could hold up to 1000 kids. "When we started off we had about 100 kids or something, and then the next week we had about 400 and the next week we couldn't get in!"

"When we started off we had about 100 kids or something, and then the next week we had about 400 and the next week we couldn't get in!"

Unlike the emerging Sydney rock'n'roll scene of the late '50s, in Melbourne, bands often had three or four different singers who would take turns through the night, and so alongside Bill Owens, The Thunderbirds soon had Billy O'Rourke and Judy Cannon, while Colin Cook would also step out front. When they were invited to record for Festival Records subsidiary, Rex, up in Sydney, their guest vocalists came too, each featuring on a track of the band's debut EP, Rex 4 Star, their self-titled second EP only featuring O'Rourke and Owens. Both EPs and three Rex singles were released in 1960.

Cook left the band for a solo career, guitarist Laurie Bell moved on and was replaced by Charles Gauld, and Gordon Onley replaced Peter Robinson, who left soon after The Thunderbirds recorded their first single for Melbourne label W&G, the instrumental Wild Weekend. It reached #13 in the Melbourne charts in February 1961, but got to #6 when re-released late the following year, even scoring a US release and a #8 placing in the Cashbox Top 100. Their second single, another instrumental, New Orleans Beat, reached #10 in Melbourne. A third W&G single, Machine Gun, reached #16 in July, and three more singles were released in 1962, followed by an album, Quite A Party

recorded live at Preston Town Hall, which featured a new generation of singers, among them a youngster named 

Johnny Chester — Owens had by now called it a day. With the arrival of Beatlemania however, for all their popularity and the fact that youngsters like Normie Rowe and Marcia Jones were guesting with them, The Thunderbirds saw the writing on the wall and parted ways in 1965.

In 1983, Greg Lynch of Stagedoor Productions got Billy Owens out of retirement and brought the W&G line-up of The Thunderbirds back together for a show dubbed Rockin' At The Arcadia. It would be a dozen years before the band reunited once more.

"We'd written half a dozen new songs and thought we'd re-do all the hits again when we reformed again in 1996," Robinson explains, "in the same format, the reason being W&G had all the master tapes and they wouldn't let them go to us. So we thought if we're going to do another record, we might as well get something out of it and we'll record them ourselves so we own them. We then leased them to Canetoad Records."

Frith, Robinson, Bell and Robertson reunited once more in May 2007 for a 50th anniversary Thunderbirds tour with a new album, The Thunderbirds In The 21st Century, which they launched at Rainbow Hotel in Melbourne. Essentially a reissue of the 1997 Canetoad album a previously "lost" cut from 1958, Bell Boogie, and three new tracks were added.