Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Rocktober, circa 1975
And so, in the honour of rock and roll, it has been proclaimed that the tenth month shall be forever known as Rocktober. – 3XY promotional jingle.
I am standing in a long line of teenagers outside the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton. The year is uncertain, 1975 perhaps, but the month is absolutely, positively and definitely October. Rocktober. I know this due to the formal renaming of the month by Melbourne radio station 3XY. And this is the Rocktober Expo. It was, we were sure, the place to be.
All through September radio listeners were teased with plans for a month-long celebration of the power of pop music. Jingles (Roll Over Rocktober to the tune of Roll Over Beethoven), promos, competitions and give-aways filled the airwaves.
Details of this festival reached me via my most prized possession – a tiny, black and silver, cigarette-box-sized, 7 transistor, complete with wrist strap, clear plastic case and my name, stuck on the long side, in Dymo label text. Powered by a rectangular, Eveready 9 volt battery, my trannie carried aural visions of another world; glamorous, loud, vibrant and earth-shakingly exciting. It was literally low-fi but experientially rainbow-beautiful and bedazzling. It was a little box of transportative and transformative magic.
The Rocktober Expo was a place of holy pilgrimage, a chance to expand the transistor sounds that had entranced me, beyond the spectrum of a two inch speaker. So my mate Peter and I found ourselves eager and open-eared, ready to pray once inside this makeshift musical cathedral.
And yet, now, I don’t remember very much about the day at all. I recall we got free entry after some industry guy gave us his pass outs. I guess there were probably stalls and stands, the beginnings of what we now call merchandising, some fast food and show bags, but I can’t be sure. But there was something about this day that has stayed with me nearly four decades later. It was the first time I experienced a live rock show.
Stars of the show that day were a Melbourne-based quintet called Freeway. They had recorded an album called Riding High and the single, the title track, had received a smattering of airplay. I’d heard it on 3XY and I liked it. It was classic, mid-seventies, Aussie boogie – a couple of lead vocalists and a contagious riff helped this single stand out. Through my tiny, tinny transistor this band was good. Through a stage full of amps and PA, they were life-changing.
Towards the end of their short set they performed Riding High. For me, this was the rock and roll equivalent of when, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s world turns from black and white into colour. I was immersed in sound, soaking in the song, coated in music and mad for more. I knew this song, yet I was hearing it, really hearing it for the first time. Something had pulled the wet blanket off my head and the cotton wool from my ears. I was ‘on the freeway, riding high’.
I guess they must have played a number of other tracks from their album. I seem to recall they also interspersed their songs with little 15 second grabs of live musical adverts for Fanta. I’ve been fond of Fanta ever since.
For the first time that afternoon I had experiences that I have continued to seek to recapture to this day – the gut-thump of an amplified kick drum, the spine shaking rumble of an electric bass guitar, the delicious sprang of guitar-through-amp and vocals that sounded like the singer was inches away from, (if not inside), my ears. The sound was full of unimaginable light and colour and volume. VOLUME! It was all about volume, and this sound was at a level I had never heard, let alone conceived of, before.
There is a scene in the 2011 film Hugo which shows the response an audience has after seeing a motion picture of an on-coming steam train for the first time. Believing it to be a real train, they scream and get out of its path – the play of light was that convincing. Watching Freeway singing Riding High on the stage that day was similarly life changing for me. (Not that I ran screaming from the Royal Exhibition Building.)
That Roctober, and for many months and years after, I wanted to be in a band like Freeway. I’ve since heard tales of kids who saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964, or caught the Sex Pistols first Manchester show in 1976, and felt an imperative to form a band and learn an instrument (sometimes in that order). Those moments were socially epochal and changed individual’s lives forever. This was my Antipodean version of this experience.
Sometime after that gig I upgraded my tennis racquet guitar for a battered old five string acoustic guitar from a jumble sale. I picked out a few tunes, added the missing sixth string, learned my first chord progression (the classic blues-based I, IV, V, I), and developed an ear for picking out radio sounds on my instrument.
I formed a band that was even less successful than Freeway and today I still, on occasions, play stripped-down acoustic pop songs at a café at the end of the train line. I dreamed of being a rock star and those dreams, if they weren’t started beside the stage at the Exhibition Building one day in October 1975, certainly received a huge adrenalized booster injection of ambition. Now, sometimes, I still have that dream.
© Stephen Andrew.
Postscript: The Australian Encyclopedia of Rock and Pop notes that Freeway’s one and only album, Riding High, was produced by Jim Keays and included the Greg Macainsh song Sad Rock’n’Roll. Neither of the album’s singles made the charts.