The Last Rocker of Ashburton
It’s 1964 and Jim Leftley is 16 years old. He and his folk band, Dim Sim and Jim, are waiting to audition for Teen Time on the Ballarat TV station BTV6. Jim and the other band members, Rod and Phil, have already played a few gigs around Melbourne: Rod on guitar, Phil on the banjo, and Jim on ukulele and vocals.
Dim Sim and Jim weren’t particularly good. Self-taught on their instruments, the boys just wanted to play music – any music – and the international success of The Seekers had caused folk music bands to spring up all over Melbourne. So Dim Sim and Jim played covers of Seekers’ popular hits, and others by Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul and Mary. They had absolutely no idea what they were doing.
The audition did not go well for the trio. But the producer took a liking to Jim.
He asked him what kind of music he really wanted to sing.
‘Rock’, replied Jim. So the producer invited him back to audition.
‘What song will you sing?’
Thinking fast, Jim replied, 'Money'.
The best things in life are free, but you can keep them for the birds and bees, now give me money...
Perplexed by his musical ambitions, Jim’s mother bought him a new suit for the big solo audition. Neither she nor his father were at all musically inclined. However, both sets of grandfathers played a mean harmonica in their day so Jim’s ear for music must have skipped a generation and compounded in her only child.
Jim took the train to Ballarat for the show. He was so naive, he didn’t even know what key the song was in. The studio band helped him out. Called The Playboys, they were there to back the other musical guest, Normie Rowe. Nothing much came of the appearance. But Jim made his first connections in the local Melbourne music scene.
A few months later, Jim and his family moved to Baker Parade, Ashburton.
The 1960s Music Scene in Melbourne
Jim’s solo appearance on Teen Time proved the end of Dim, Sim and Jim. He didn’t mind, folk was on its way out anyway.
Musical preferences in early 1960s Melbourne shifted almost constantly. Every few months a new hit band emerged from the UK and US. For the non-folk-inclined, there were the instrumental rock stylings of Cliff Richard and The Shadows. Next came the Surf music scene with the Beach Boys. Then, in June 1964, came the biggest musical event ever to hit Australia: the Beatles tour.
Ken Brozniak had booked the Beatles when the band was still up-and-coming. By the time they arrived, Beatlemania was in full swing.
For three weeks, the Beatles turned Australia and New Zealand upside-down. They performed 32 concerts in eight cities. Crowds lined city streets to see them. Young women risked their lives to meet them, screaming so loudly that no-one could hear the band when it played. For the first time, music united the generations.
The Beatles changed how bands sang. Before them, there was one lead singer and musicians; now everyone in the band sang. Dressed in their unusual suits with their matching brushed-forward haircuts, their social and cultural impact was immediate.
All of a sudden, kids across Australia were forming bands and playing Beatles covers in their backyards. Not to be outdone, two cover bands emerged from Ashburton: The Nomads and the Spinning Wheels.
The 1960s in Ashburton
By the 1960s, a clear socio-economic division between the original residents of the north side of High Street and the public housing residents of Alamein was firmly in place. Before the housing estate was built in the 1940s, Ashburton’s residents were almost exclusively Protestant or Presbyterian. The new housing estate expanded the religious demographic to include Catholics. Catholics lived in sufficient numbers in the public housing in Alamein that they established a church and school: St Michaels. The divide reflected Victoria’s long history of division between the dominant Protestant majority and the Catholics.
Despite living in the same small geographic area, the young people of Ashburton did not really grow up together. The estate residents attended Alamein State School, the north-siders went to Ashburton Primary, and the south-siders went to Solway. The young residents of the public housing estate also had rough reputations for disorderly conduct and casual violence, either earned or presumed. So the south and north-siders generally avoided the Alamein area entirely.
The three groups rarely had occasion to meet unless they went to the Ashburton Methodist Church Youth Club.
The Youth Club, operated by Reverend Ken Strickland out of the Church hall at 6 Auburn Grove, offered support to many local community sporting clubs, including the Ashburton Meths football team.
When Jim Leftley decided to start his own band, it was Rev Strickland who offered the Youth Club’s facilities for practice and performance.
The Nomads are born
By 1964, Jim had walked out of school and never looked back. He had attended Wesley College in St Kilda Road and hated it intensely. The only saving grace was the acquaintance of Peter Castle, a talented bass guitar player who also lived in Ashburton.
Jim had readily got himself a job with MLC Insurance in the city while trying to get a band together in the evening with another Ashburton resident, Roger Stone.
One day, Peter called to ask Jim if he wanted to start a band. ‘You can join my band if you like,’ replied Jim.
The three friends, along with drummer Jeff Oaten from Camberwell, and guitarist Julian Gaffney, formed The Nomads. They scratched together some money and went to Brashs in Melbourne City to buy instruments. Jim’s grandfather built him an amplifier and the handy men at J & T Appliance on High Street helped repair it. Then they set about listening to and learning Beatles, Rolling Stones, Small Faces, and Kinks songs.
There was no sheet music then. None of them could read it anyway. Everything was pulled together by ear and listening to the songs over and over.
A first year university student, Peter got The Nomads’ first gig at the University of Melbourne. Through his friendship circle at Wesley, he was connected to the Toorak party circuit. Before long, the band played at parties around Toorak and Armadale.
Back then, there was no pub band scene because all the pubs closed at 6 o’clock. Instead, the Nomads played at the weekly dances held in dance halls around Ashburton, Glen Iris and Camberwell. The pay was a pittance - $15 between the four of them - but the organisers were always willing to give a new band a go. Then if they were any good, they were invited back and paid slightly more than a pittance - $30 between them.
The Nomads also regularly played at Ashburton Methodist Church. Whenever Rev Sutherland needed a fundraiser, posters would go up on High Street, the kids would all come out from all sides of town, pay their $2 to hear the band, smoke, have a dance, and socialise.
No-one played original music, it was always covers. The familiarity of the music and its near-universal appeal crossed socio-economic lines and helped the barriers between the different sides of Ashburton to erode.
For Jim, it was a heady time. The band appeared on Bert Newton’s variety show, New Faces. This gave them short-lived fame.
“We became quite well known on High Street. Girls used to follow me around the supermarket, giggling.”
He began dating a girl called Carol who lived in Lancaster Street. This appalled Jim’s mother. Lancaster Street was pretty rough even by the housing estate standards. But Jim liked Carol enough to brave the thugs of Lancaster Street, drop her home and return to the safety of Baker Parade.
After a year, the drummer Jeff Oaten’s mother put her foot down. Jeff was in Year 12 and needed to concentrate on his studies. He was replaced by a talented local drummer called Jeff Bridgford.
Joining The Nomads on the local cover band circuit was local boy Mike Perrin. He formed The Spinning Wheels (pictured) with his friend Donnie Hearst. All bands back then needed a name that started with ‘The’ – just like The Beatles. The two bands competed for gigs and formed a good-natured rivalry. The Spinning Wheels even enjoyed some chart success with their song “I got my mojo on”.
(I contacted Mike about having a chat about The Spinning Wheels but never heard back)
The Nomads and Spinning Wheels enjoyed four years of regular gigs playing rock covers around town. Jim didn’t think of himself as much of a songwriter. Nevertheless, when he was asked to write the words to the junior football club’s team song, he pulled something together. The song remains the Ashy Redbacks Club Song today.
The beginning of the end
By the end of the 1960s, conservative Melbourne was changing.
Six o’clock closing in the pubs gave way to 10.30 pm closing, then 11.30 pm. As the pub scene expanded, people began going to where the action (and alcohol) was. The local dance halls closed and attendance at the Youth Club at the Methodist Church began to decline.
For the Melbourne music scene, the real end of the line came with the conscription ballot for compulsory national service in the Vietnam War. Normie Rowe was conscripted, only to discover later that he was the victim of a publicity stunt and the only one with his birth date there. Three of the Spinning Wheels were called up. In the Nomads, Jeff Bridgford missed by a day, Jim by exactly a year.
Peter Castle left the band to join a more regular gig with Idol’s 5. Julian Gaffney met a girl and left the scene entirely. Jeff Bridgford stuck with it, eventually landing a gig as the drummer for the Bee Gees before they made it big internationally. Roger Stone became a landscape gardener. As the band and the city grew up, it was crunch time for Jim.
He decided he wanted to stay in the industry but it was time to learn how to read music and play properly. He took lessons from a popular guitarist called Brian Martin who sold his teaching services on the single criteria that he had ‘played in America’. He was a terrible teacher but well-connected in the music scene.
Through Martin, Jim landed a regular gig playing in the band at His Majesty’s Theatre. In those days, the theatre hosted a regular rotation of musicals that facilitated the holy grail for any musician: regular paying work.
Then Jim met a girl too. It was time to get married and move on from Ashburton.
For the next several decades, Jim carved out a successful music career. Now in his seventies, he’s still rockin’ and helps mentor kids’ bands at various schools around town.
Unfortunately, he lost a large portion of his memorabilia from that time when thieves broke into his house years ago.
A few years ago, he received a call about a teaching gig at Ashburton Primary School. Genuinely thrilled to return to his old stomping ground, Jim returned to where his musical career began for him.
A big thanks to Jim Leftley for his time in helping me write this post.
Do you remember The Nomads or the Spinning Wheels? Maybe you still have some pictures of Ashburton in the 1960s? Let me know in the comments!