RETROROCK – OL’ 55

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On the Prowl (J Manzie) and Looking For An Echo (R Reicheg) and (I Want A) Rockin’ Christmas(J Manzie/G A Baker) – Ol’ 55 1976

Ol’ 55 was a Sydney band that specialised in a kitsch retro style reminiscent of the doo wop and rock bands of the 1950’s and 60’s, inspired by such American nostalgia acts as the Sha Na Nas and Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids. They combined great harmonies, clever theatrics – gold lame jackets, V8 belt buckles and Brylcreemed quiffs – and a keen sense of pop dynamics in a genuine if at times parodic “Happy Days” homage, of the early rockers, whose songs they covered, along with clever originals, usually composed by bassist/keyboardist Jim Manzie.

Retro rock was rife in the early 70’s, music festival acts were doing loud, extended versions of hits by Eddie Cochrane, Gene Vincent, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny O’Keefe had made a triumphant return to Sunbury in 1972. John Lennon released his solo album of golden oldies, Rock and Roll in 1975, and 50’s nostalgia peaked with the movies American Graffiti, Grease, and the television series Happy Days, all perpetuators of the myth that this bygone era of innocence and naivety, was the font of all that was honest and valid in rock music.  

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Ol’ 55 started life as a part-time covers band called Fanis who subsequently became Ol’ 55: left to right Patrick “Meatballs” Drummond (lead guitar/vocals), Richard “Rockpile” Jones (guitar/vocals), Frankie J Holden (lead vocals), Jim Manzie (keyboards/bass), Wilbur Wilde (saxophone), and Geoff “Drainpipe” Plummer (drums). Plummer worked as a public servant in the NSW Department of Media with budding rock journalist Glenn A. Baker who subsequently became the band’s manager, he suggested a name change to Ol’ 55 after a Tom Waits song about a guy who is driving home after a night of passion. Frankie J Holden, named after a famous Holden car of the 1950’s  (real name Peter Brian, a former chartered accountant) came on board as lead singer/resident bodgie, along with Wilbur Wilde (real name Nick Aitken) who became their saxophonist in late 1975, so completing the lineup. The 1953 F.J. Holden seemed to be the car of choice for retro rockers as it was immortalized in Daddy Cool’s Love In An F.J, Bob Hudson’s Newcastle Song and Spectrum’s psychosexual fantasy A Fate Worse Than Death.

They played their early Sydney gigs at the Grange Disco (Pitt St.) and French’s Tavern (Oxford St.) and issued their debut single Diana backed with Goodnight Sweetheart, respectively covers of a Paul Anka hit and a Spaniels song which barely dented the top 100. But in 1976, with Jim Manzie switching to bass guitar in place of Paul McCann, they would again go into Sydney’s Trafalgar Studios with producer Charles “The Song Doctor” Fisher (Savage Garden, Air Supply, Hoodoo Gurus, Gyan) to record the Jim Manzie song On The Prowl.

Make It Greasy

On the Prowl was a slice of teenage life ripped from the plot of the movie American Graffiti and transposed to an Australian musical landscape, cruising with the boys on a Saturday night in the hope of finding “true romance”, while at the same time avoiding the long arm of the law. Despite the wisdom of the early lyrics “This song is a social commentary/ On the human habits of congregating in the safety of numbers…” the boys crash a party which turns out to be the policemen’s ball, get into a fight, and have their Custer (Customline car) impounded, lead singer Frankie J Holden also voiced the cop who ominously opined at the end of the song “I saw you kid, you were in there with the rest of ‘em”,  it was infectious, and its mischievous and its larrikin persona took it all the way to #14 nationally. The band were now appearing regularly on Countdown and at concerts with such fellow Mushroom Record artists as the Skyhooks and the Ted Mulry Gang, they were also the support act for ELO’s tour of Australia in 1976.

Their second chart success was Looking For An Echo, originally recorded by Kenny Vance and the Planotones in 1975, the song was a tribute to such legendary doo wop groups of the early rock era as the Platters and the Fleetwoods, Richard “Rockpile” Jones delivered exemplary lead vocals, and the backing harmonies were perfect, it charted #9 nationally for Ol’ 55 in August 1976. It was composed by Richard Reicheg who also wrote the sugary, patriotic For The Sake of the Children, performed by the Henry Gibson character – the pious, toupee-wearing Haven Hamilton, loosely based on country singer Red Foley – in the Robert Altman C&W satire Nashville.

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The band would round off 1976 with their biggest hit (I Want A) Rockin’ Christmas, written by Glenn A Baker and Jim Manzie, it was recorded in the Trafalgar Studios in Sydney with producer Charles Fisher and is one of the best yuletide rock hits. The song has a great arrangement, layered instrumentation and multi-part harmonies, that were evocative of and inspired by the work of Phil Spector’s classic 1963 album A Christmas Gift From Phil Spector. While the song is about a couple who are separated at Christmas, it is very upbeat musically, with yuletide bells and whistles in the mix, and harmony inserts which included excerpts from Silent Night, Oh Hallelujah, and Deck The Halls, it soared to #7 locally and stayed in the top ten for several weeks after Christmas, the B-side was a cover of the Beach Boys seasonal hit  Little Saint Nick.

Their debut album Take It Greasy was a solid #3 hit nationally, sold over 120,000 copies and occupied the charts for 39 weeks, other covers of such golden oldies as Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs Stay, Dion’s Ruby, and Lou Christie’s Two Faces Have I charted respectably, but the tank in the cruiser was empty by 1979. The band also provided the launching pad for actor Frankie J Holden, Hey Hey It’s Saturday gagman Wilbur Wilde, producer/songwriter Jim Manzie who moved onto film soundtrack work, and their manager Glenn A Baker, who transformed himself into the self-styled Rock Brain of the Universe.

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