The Hunter's growing rockabilly scene

Peita Breese {5th from left] with some of her students at the Great Northern Hotel. Picture by Ryan Osland
Peita Breese {5th from left] with some of her students at the Great Northern Hotel. Picture by Ryan Osland

Trends based on decades come and go. Looks from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s have all made a comeback, seemingly in the past year alone. But they are fleeting and based on trend.

The passion felt by some people in the Hunter Region for the 1950s, however, goes deeper. It is more than just a look, it’s a lifestyle and even a form of income. And there is a definite ‘‘scene’’ for devotees.

The 1950s, backing up from the austerity of the post-war years, were a breath of fresh air. It was a decade of new beginnings, rock’n’roll was born and young people were not only seen, but heard.

The term rockabilly initially described a style of music that fused rock’n’roll with country, or hillbilly, music. ‘‘Rockabilly’’ today is used in a broader sense to describe a subculture with a similar interest in the fashion, music, cars and dance of the 1950s. For many people, it becomes a lifestyle and they have a keen interest in all things retro, be they kitchen appliances, home decor or cars.

What’s old may be new again, but it inevitably comes with a modern twist. Sailor Jerry-style tattoos, and lots of them, for example, are a signature of the modern Greaser or Bettie. Dress-wise, women tend to fuse the rock’n’roll, pin-up and burlesque looks, and animal print is a must. Men favour the slicked-back hair and rolled-up jeans.

Weekender spoke to some of the decade’s biggest fans to find out what was so darn special about the rockabilly era.

In their own words, ’50s fanatics describe what the ‘‘scene’’ means to them. For some it’s all about the look, for others it’s about rebellion, the dancing and the music.

Brianna Brent, fashion designer and owner of Miss Lulu Clothing, Merewether:

I just love the timeless glamour of the pin-up look, and it’s a lot of fun. I love the lifestyle too – the dressing up, the cars, the tattoos, the music.

My understanding of pin-up is that, in the 1940s and 1950s, the guys working away or at war used to pin up pictures of their girl, or a celebrity of the time, on their wall. Celebrities back then often wore clingy dresses, bra-cut and waist-hugging, but they also wore the flared skirts. They really showed off the feminine shape, the hourglass silhouette. It’s very flattering. Rockabilly is a more general term used now to define the era.

My love for the rockabilly culture began when I travelled through America and Canada for a year. The scene is huge over there, although still quite underground.

I’m 27 and went to school at St Francis Xavier and then spent three years at TAFE in Newcastle learning the skills I needed to launch my own label in 2007. I work from home and have taken over a fair bit of the household with cutting tables and machinery!

I appear at rockabilly festivals and expos, for example, the Sydney Tattoo Expo, which attracts all the pin-up loving people, the rockabilly type.

You start to move in circles where you see the same people all the time, and it’s very social.

I also have an online store when I’m not at festivals or markets. There’s a huge demand at the moment for rockabilly and pin-up style clothing.

Tattoos are a modern statement, a variation of the theme. Sailors and soldiers had the artwork which is in at the moment.

People today have tribal tattoos. Rockabilly artwork is more Sailor Jerry, you know?

Anyone who’s really into the look wears it all the time. You see girls in high-waisted shorts or pedal pushers, or skirts with leopard print and spots, or the nautical stripes.

If it’s their style, people don’t wear anything but that look.

All the big designers are taking notice of the rockabilly trend. It was a bit more underground when I started my label, now it’s in vogue.

I can do my hair myself, the pinned-curl look, but some girls get it done properly at the hairdressers. They go all out.

Brian Bean, Kurri Kurri, dance teacher, Red Hot Dance Studio Broadmeadow:

The difference between rockabilly and rock’n’roll is that rockabilly is more rebel. It has that James Dean feel to it, while rock’n’roll has your more clean-cut, all-American boy feel.

That is reflected in the clothes, the cars, the dance. Rockabilly music is more of an aggressive style of music.

My wife, Christine, and I were children of the ’50s but we weren’t into rock’n’roll as such, we started our music interest at the end of rock’n’roll, the ’60s-style music. Being musically inclined, I love good music, but not the doof-doof. That’s beyond me.

We started teaching dancing probably at the start of the 1990s. We’ve been teaching for about 18 years in Newcastle and more than 20 years down on the Central Coast.

I come from a family of dancers – my dad is a dancer in England, and one of my half-sisters owns a dance school in England.

Rockabilly dancing today is 10per cent dancing, 90per cent socialising.

We went to a 50th birthday at Largs last month and the 150 to 200 people there all knew each other from the dancing. About 95per cent of them we probably taught at some stage and brought into the scene. It [dancing] gives you somewhere to go with people of a like mind, similar interests. You just turn up at a club and enjoy the music, socialise and meet some lovely people.

We’re in our 60s now, but we have a circle of literally thousands of friends. We do a lot of travelling, and we’ll turn up at Dubbo and somebody will tap us on the shoulder who knows us – we may have taught them years ago.

It’s a social outlet and male and female singles can feel comfortable coming along, it’s not a meat market.

We don’t have separate classes for different ability levels at our studio. We don’t work like that. I had a feeling a long time ago that the average man can only remember 12 moves. It’s a lot better for that man to have knowledge of a dozen moves from four or five different styles of dance, so that wherever they go, they are able to dance to something. They are able to find a beat and go, OK, we can do rock’n’roll to that, we can do rockabilly to that, we can do swing to that.

We try to attract younger people to the studio. It’s a lot easier with rockabilly because it’s the rebel-type look, which is more attractive to them.

My eldest son plays in rockabilly bands and it’s all about tattoos and piercings for rockabilly these days. He is a tattooist. He does a lot of original ’50s-style sailor girl and anchor tattoos. Back in the day, only merchant seamen had tattoos.

I do some DJ’ing as well, like my other son, Gavin.

I think the appeal of rockabilly for young people is the rebel aspect. What’s old comes around again. It’s a statement. You’ve got the surf culture, your princess culture in clubs like Fannys, and to be quite honest they all look the bloody same. To me the rockabilly culture is all about individuality, about standing out from the throng. That’s how I’ve always brought my kids up, to be individuals, and not to follow the crowd.

My daughter, Rachel, taught for us for a long time and is full of tattoos.

And Lauren, she lives in Sydney now but was much-loved in Newcastle as a dance teacher.

Christine and I will keep teaching as long as we’re able to do it, and we still enjoy it.

There’s lots of other schools around but we are probably one of the oldest in Newcastle, if not the oldest. People often regard us as the grandparents of dance in Newcastle.

The ’50s to me was an awakening. The war had been over five or six years and I was born into rationing. England exploded in the late ’50s and early ’60s. We used to go and see Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles – they were local bands to us, you could see them wherever.

I came over to Australia at the end of the ’60s, and it was booming. The roads were paved with gold, there was work everywhere. Australia experienced the ’50s boom a lot later than the rest of the world. It was an era of opportunity, an exploration of yourself.

Peita Breese, Pinup Kittens Management, Newcastle:

I was born and bred in the little country town of Gloucester, but have lived in Newcastle most of my life. I moved to London for a couple of years, then returned to Newcastle, and started a string of small businesses.

There was a very specific moment when my love of pin-up began. It was Sunday, September 24, 2000, and I was at the massive Skin Two fetish expo in London, waiting for a train, when the most incredibly beautiful woman in seamed stockings and classy 1950s attire stood, ankles crossed, with her back to me.

Every part, from her head to her toe, was immaculate. It was still extremely rare back then to see anyone dressing that way in London, and even more so here in Australia.

About five years ago all signs pointed to pin-up and rockabilly developing as a scene and lifestyle, so I began to incorporate it into my previous business before going on to put all my business focus on purely vintage-inspired models and entertainment.

Rockabilly and pin-up are two different things, but together they are part of a retro genre that has made a big comeback. Pin-up refers to the look inspired by models predominantly of the ’50s era.

Rockabilly is a genre of music often coupled with, and rarely separated from, a particular fashion, lifestyle, and taste in cars. The music is energetic and contagious.

Where pin-up is a very feminine genre, rockabilly sees a lot more males adopting the look and culture, and the females of the scene are usually identifying themselves as pin-ups.

I think people who aren’t part of the scene really appreciate the look for all the effort it takes to create and upkeep. We always get positive comments and admiring stares from passers-by when we are dolled up, no matter where we are.

There is a growing rockabilly scene in Newcastle, with pubs like The Wicko [Wickham Park Hotel] and several others getting rockabilly bands in regularly and bringing together the lovers of the scene, including a large number of guys who love and/or drive custom or vintage cars, and love rockabilly music. Then there’s the ladies, often partners of the men I just described. It seems to be a match made in heaven: the guys with their leather jackets, up-turned jeans, slicked quiff and cool cars, a gorgeous doll on their arm with perfect vintage-styled hair, immaculate make-up and cherry lips, oh-so-pretty ’50s dress, and topped off by stockings and gorgeous heels.

The large hot rod and rockabilly festivals always attract the people of the scene, who often travel to other states for at least one big festival a year.

People find the nostalgia of this bygone era fascinating, where although money was tight and times were tough, people still took so much pride in their appearance.

As far as it being a scene these days, the baby boomers are in it to remind them of a more simple and content time, but it seems a lot of the younger generation have tried the other alternative scenes and found they like the aesthetic of the pretty hair, make-up and rockabilly clothing.

Catherine Hart, Catfight Collections, Islington:

There’s definitely a rockabilly scene in Newcastle and it’s growing.

From the fashion side of it, I got into it a couple of years ago because I missed the lovely-looking, feminine, flowing look. I was sick of the sight of short shorts and tight-midriff tops.

With the dresses, in particular, the style is flattering to women of all shapes and sizes.

I’m 30 and I’ve always admired the look. It’s from an era when my mum was young (she was born in the ’50s). Looking back at old photos, I always thought it looked lovely. My mum kept all the sewing patterns and her old clothes.

When it comes to dressing and style, I’ve been through it all – the hippy thing, the punk thing – when you’re younger you try to find your niche.

I am the first to admit I am not always dressed in the rockabilly style. I’m usually getting around in jeans for comfort’s sake. If you want to go the whole hog with the hair and make-up, it takes time. But when I’m going out I love wearing that stuff.

There are a lot of rockabilly-inspired festivals these days. Around here the main one is the Kurri Kuri Nostalgia Festival (March 24 and 25). People in the scene tend to meet up at these festivals. It’s a good excuse to get dressed up. I always dreamed about opening a shop. When I got into the rockabilly scene I found it really hard to get dresses. There was nowhere to buy the clothes in Newcastle and the shop in Sydney I went to had a limited range. It came down to me wanting to get clothes for me.

Catfight Collections opened in September 2010. My timing was good because we opened just before the scene kind of blew up.

People randomly passing by come in for a gawk, even if they’re not into the scene, and a lot of older people who were into the scene the first time around come in, surprised, because they didn’t think you could buy dresses like that these days.

I have mixed feelings towards wanting to have grown up in the ’50s. In certain ways times have changed for the better. I’m a techno-freak and I love my iPod and my iMac, but I also like some of the ideals from back then. And as strange as it might sound coming from me as a businesswoman, I kind of like the idea of being a stay-at-home mother, looking pretty! I’d like to make daytrips back to the ’50s, put it that way.

Dancing is huge in the scene. A lot of younger people are now into it, and when Pat Capocci plays out the back of The Wicko, people just get up and start dancing. Wickham Motorcyle Club had a rockabilly event there recently. They had bands and diner food, it was so much fun.

Pam Way, volunteer, Visitor Information Centre, Kurri Kurri:

The decade, the ’50s, everybody seems to be fascinated by it. I was a teenager back then and it was a good time.

I’ve been here since the Kurri Kurri Nostalgia Festival’s inception. This is its ninth year. It’s a great weekend, lots of fun, and every year there’s something new.

The young ones get dressed up in retro clothing. You’ve got to see it to believe it. They will even come along with a baby in those old basket prams. So many dressed up last year that this year we are running a fashion competition.

It does surprise me that the young people have grabbed hold of the era and run with it. But then again, life was easy in the ’50s. You left school, you could get a job ... it wasn’t where you could get a job, it was which one you wanted to take.

It was innocent, very much an age of innocence.

I’m 68 in a couple of weeks and my husband and I go dancing every week, at the Tin Hut in Maitland.

I don’t do rockabilly because I get dizzy, it’s plain old rock’n’roll dancing for me, or swing. Rockabilly as a style of dance involves a lot of twirling around. It’s faster than rock’n’roll.

Gavin Bean, Kurri Kurri, DJ and dance instructor (Red Hot Dance Studio):

Rockabilly is a bit of a family affair for me. My parents teach rockabilly and swing and rock’n’ roll, all that kind of thing.

Pretty much all of our family are involved in the scene.

It’s not just about the dancing any more. There’s cars and tattoos. And the crowd is probably getting younger, not older.

Roller derby also overlaps. They enjoy the same kind of music, the retro feel. That also merges into this culture that has come about.

It becomes a bit of a lifestyle for the people involved. Their whole social life revolves around it, and it becomes their individual sense of style.

A lot of the girls, they do the whole Bettie Page fringe and dye their hair.

It’s definitely a case of old things becoming new. It’s kind of like it’s cool to be old school. A lot of the tattoo places are doing the old ’50s-style tattoos.

Rockabilly was kind of like the punk of the day. And it remains current today. The music still has that raw punk element, and I don’t think that ever goes out of style for young people.

Rockabilly is the rawest style of dancing. It’s not so much about competitions now, it’s more about fun. You go and see a cool band and you’ve learnt your rockabilly and you can jump up and dance along.

Very rarely is it just a DJ playing music at our dance studio, normally it’s both, and the DJ plays during the break, all the ’50s stuff.

There’s a fairly big live scene where bands play original songs in the ’50s style, or a combination of originals and ’50s covers. Some bands even play an ’80s-style of music fused with rockabilly, normally three-piece bands with a double bass.

The Retro Rockets, Pat Capocci, a Maitland boy who lives in Sydney now, The Flattrakkers and The Rattlesnakes, they’re all popular.

In Newcastle and the Central Coast, 10 to 20 bands would play this kind of music most weekends.