There are a couple of things you might not know about Preston Town Hall – one of them being its history as the number one venue of rock and roll in Melbourne. Yes, that’s right – if you were heading out to see a band in the early 60s, the Preston Town Hall was your destination.
Rock and roll took off quickly in Melbourne; the rock scene here was one of the biggest outside of the US. Everywhere else rock and roll venues sprang up in the centre of big cities, but here suburbs like Preston and Ascot Vale hosted rock singers and bands inspired by Elvis, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Johnny O’Keefe and the like.
Like today, many musicians came from around the area of Melbourne’s north and Preston became the epicentre of what was then a musical revolution.
During its heyday in 1961 and 1962 every Saturday night hundreds of fans flocked to the Preston Town Hall to see bands like the legendary Thunderbirds, the Planets, and singers like Malcolm Arthur, Judy Cannon, Margie Mill, all massively popular at the time. Later stars like Normie Rowe and Johnny Farnham performed there.
West Preston boy Johnny Chester, lead singer of his band the Chessmen, was one of Saturday night’s biggest drawcards. Known as Chess959 Australia’s first full time rock star became so successful he toured Australia and New Zealand with the Beatles in 1964, at that time the world’s biggest popular band. This legend of Australian music history is on record as saying he started out as a musician ‘as a bit of a giggle’; at the time he was working as a brake mechanic in the family business with his dad.
The Thunderbirds were easily Australia’s biggest rock band of the time and are credited with introducing rock and roll to Melbourne. Their album Quite a Party was recorded live at the Preston Town Hall.
Famously Thunderbirds bass player Peter Robinson joined the band by accident after meeting founder and drummer Harold Frith on a train. Frith’s new band needed a bass player. Robinson had his bass guitar with him as he had been taking classical music lessons; he didn’t even know what a rock band when Frith invited him to a rehearsal. The Thunderbirds split in 1965, while Johnny Chester, after producing top ten hits like ‘Hokey Pokey’, ‘CanCan Ladies’ and ‘Shakin All Over’, turned to country music and a career in television.
These days it’s hard to imagine how much impact this wild and radical new music had on society. In the 60s the scene brought with it some undesirable behaviour, with gangs known as Rockers, Jazzers and Sharpies regularly coming to blows outside the Preston Town Hall.
On a quieter note, the other significant thing about the Preston town hall is its remarkable architecture. Preston Town Hall looks different from other Melbourne town halls, partly because it was built in two stages: the first town hall was started in 1893 and completed in 1895, with an extension being added to the building thirty-four years later in 1929.
Architects Birtwhistle and Scanlon won a competition to design the original building – their design combined two design styles: Queen Anne and French Second Empire. Other town halls in Melbourne were built in the classical revival style. By the 1920s the suburb had grown so quickly that a bigger municipal building was needed so work on the eastern extension was begun. The extension was finally completed in 1934, the design fitting in seamlessly with the original architects’ plans.
So next time you’re heading in to the town hall to pay your rates or register your dog, have a look at the architecture. And maybe listen out for some ghostly guitar chords or the backbeats of a snare drum, echoes of Melbourne’s early vibrant rock scene.