by Ian Bell.

Ahhh… the 1970’s.

Long before a phone was smart, the net was something you caught a fish in, kids shoes didn’t have wheels in their heels, there were TV shows that weren’t all fake ‘reality’, and there was no generic karaoke pop filling the upper reaches of a virtual chart based on plays rather than sales, there was the 70’s. A golden era for Australian creativity. There was great original art, literature, theatre, movies, journalism, television and so much more. Australian Music stepped up in a quantum leaps and bounds, and suddenly we had bands like the mighty Skyhooks, Sherbet, Ted Mulry Gang, AC/DC, selling hundreds of thousands of records, playing huge tours to sell out crowds. Radio played Aussie bands not to fill a quota but because it was every bit as good, if not better, than anything coming from anywhere else. Colour TV had arrived and Countdown had become the most crucial hour of teenage telly in the land and was launching careers every week and letting bands find an audience nationwide and beyond.

In 1975 a band of 50’s-esque rock’n’roll greasers from Sydney called OL’55 arrived via a debut single called Diana, a cover of the Paul Anka song from 1957. Daddy Cool had already dipped their toes into a seventies take on 50’s doo-wop rock’n’roll, and in the USA Sha-Na-Na had been modernizing those classics too. Happy Days was a huge hit on TV and the 50’s were ‘in’ again. Diana just snuck into the top 100, but their live shows quickly became the talk of Sydney town, then every other town. Early in 1976 the original Jimmy Manzie penned single On The Prowl was a monster hit, with it’s tale of a bunch of lairs out for a good time on a Saturday night. Shortly after that the Take It Greasy album came out and went triple platinum, spawning another monster hit in Looking For an Echo, and featuring excellent takes on songs by artists like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys. It quickly became the third biggest selling Australian album at that time (only out sold by Skyhooks and Sherbet). In the live arena they were peerless, great musicians, six part harmonies, fantastic songs and funny as hell. This was in no small part due to the antics of front man Frankie J Holden and sax man Wilbur Wilde. Their banter and stage play was absolutely hilarious and played a large part of why people wanted to see them.

Frankie J and Wilbur both left OL’55 in early 1978. Wilbur joined Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons and wound up as in-house sax man in the Hey Hey It’s Saturday band, with his comic partner Red Symons (ex-Skyhooks). Mr Holden released a couple of singles but soon the small screen was calling. Small parts on TV dramas like Prisoner (Cell Block H) and kids favourite Round The Twist and soaps (like A Country Practice), lead to bigger roles and the silver screen working with actors like Judy Davis, Ben Mendelsohn and Meryl Streep, He is a talented and respected actor, who has appeared in Underbelly, The Strip, Blue Heelers and five years in the Channel 7 drama A Place To Call Home. He has hosted Tonight shows and travel programmes and runs a holiday park called Tathra on the Sapphire Coast of the South Coast of New South Wales with his actress wife of over twenty years Michelle Pettigrove whom he met while appearing on A Country Practice.

Through it all he regularly returns to his rockin’ roots. In the early 2000’s he was part of the OL’ Skydaddies, made up of members of OL’55, Skyhooks and Daddy Cool, and five years ago to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the release of Take It Greasy the (almost) complete original line up of OL’55 (Holden, Wilde, Jimmy Manzie, Rock Pile Jones, Patrick ‘Meatballs’ Drummond) did a run of shows up the East Coast. I say almost as drummer Geoff Plummer sadly passed away in February of 2006. His position was filled by equally legendary Skyhooks drummer Freddy Strauks. I saw a show at The Palais in Melbourne and while some reunion shows of ‘heritage’ bands end up disappointing OL’55 were absolutely magnificent. All the elements were still there, the harmonies, musicianship, the costumes and the humour. It was an absolute belter. Most of the time Frankie has his own band with Wilbur (and Freddy) and they play songs from OL’55, Jo Jo Zep and 60’s hits and OZ rock anthems like Eagle Rock. It’s a fun time show and Holden and Wilde remain the Martin and Lewis of rock’n’roll. Frankie J Holden is on the line and looking forward to rocking out at the Bridgeway on Saturday night (April 17th).

It feels like a long time since you last played in Adelaide?

Well it has been a while since we were last in Adelaide and quite a while since we were anywhere!and sometimes we might do shows in Adelaide but they are corporate gigs and private functions. Certainly this will be the first time we have played since Covid restrictions hit. Our last show together was March 9th in Tasmania 2020. So were are pumped to be there and I just hope we remember everything! I’ve never played the Bridgeway Hotel before, but I have a lot of fond memories of Adelaide playing at The Arkaba, and The Largs Pier, it was always a great city to come and play and we are really looking forward to it.

I mention seeing the OL’55 reunion show in Melbourne.

We better be clear that this show is not OL’55, this is Frankie J Holden and Wilbur Wilde playing the classic songs. We are not allowed to call it OL’55 if I’m being honest with you. A deal has been done, it’s not a big deal really. The original guys from OL’55 have a gentleman’s agreement that nothing will be called OL’55 unless we are all there. So the band that will be with us are Melbourne based muso’s that we have been working with for the last 15 or 20 years, so they are very very good pro musos. It of course includes on drums Freddy Strauks from Skyhooks. OL’55 toured with Skyhooks in 1976 and we have been friends ever since, in fact we were joking the other day that Wilbur and I have been to all four of Fred’s weddings. So we have been working together for many many years and it’s an honour to be playing with a musician of that calibre who has made such a monumental contribution to Australian music. Not just in Skyhooks, but he played with The Sports, Jo Jo Zep, The Bushwackers. Of course Wilbur joined the Falcons soon after we both left OL’55 and so at the Bridgeway gig on the 17th we will do a couple of Falcons songs and a couple of Skyhooks songs too. It’s a cavalcade of great Aussie songs as well as all the OL’55 stuff and some 60’s stuff like The Wanderer, Get a Job, Sea Cruise and songs like that. It’s a really entertaining show, because Wilbur and I have, over the years, developed other skills apart from music, like acting and theatre, radio and TV presenting so we do bring a lot of that – there is a lot of laughs in the show.

I think it’s easy for people to forget that the humour was such a part of the appeal of OL’55. That show five years ago musically was immaculate, the playing and the harmonies, but one of the things that made me the most happy was seeing the way you and Wilbur still bounce off each other and your shtick was hilarious.

Please don’t refer to it as shtick Ian, we have a meticulously produced, scientifically researched craftsmen like artistry! Well thank you for those very kind words. It was very much a part of the appeal of the band. We became literal overnight sensations because nobody had seen a band that combined all those elements before. We had the beautiful Beach Boy style harmonies, a good solid rockin’ band and then these two larrakins out the front just having a ball and making people laugh as well. I remember out fifth gig was supporting Electric Light Orchestra at the Horden Pavilion in Sydney, and we blew them off the stage. All the reviews over the next few days were ‘Yeah ELO were okay, BUT WHO WAS THIS BAND? THIS OL’55?’. And at the same time Countdown got going and we were tailor made for Countdown, so it was the right place and right time. But it wasn’t just Countdown there were so many shows to go on Sounds Unlimited and GTK and Flashez and then on top of those there was heaps of variety shows like Don Lane, Paul Hogan, Mike Walsh and we could go on all those shows and make people laugh and get into the music too. So having a laugh is an important part of the show.

I think your larrikin, gregarious humour was really down to Earth, very similar to Shirl from Skyhooks in many respects. It was really import to the way people felt about the bands. You felt like mates in a way. Not like big ‘up yourself’ rock stars. So it was the attitude of ‘yeah we’re on the telly and we’re in a band but we are just like you, it’s all a bit of a laugh really’.

You are right and I really appreciate the comparison to Shirl, because he really did have almost the  exact same larrikin attitude. But it was nothing we planned or thought about, it was just what happened. We used to do ridiculous things on stage…build a human pyramid…and now I think why did we do that? I am still amazed that forty years later people will still come up to me and remember some gig,or something that we did at a show 45 years ago. It happens constantly, so we must have captured peoples imaginations, because Wilbur and I were only in OL’55 for two and half, three years!

After OL’55 there was a couple of solo singles but you pretty soon moved towards the Thespian route and although you have kept doing gigs with Wilbur mostly people would know you as an actor these days.

Well what happened was when I left the band I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Because I had done some skits on the telly when we did Hogan or whatever and acting agent contacted me and said ‘Do you want to be in movies?’ so what was I gonna say? So I drifted into acting, got a number of small roles in iconic Australian movies like The Odd Angry Shot springs to mind. I worked with Mel Gibson and Steve Bisley when they were just starting out. Ben Mendelsohn when he was just a young man and I was a little bit older, but not much. Then I did an apprenticeship through all the Crawford Productions, cop shows. But it got serious in 1989, 1990 when I made a movie in Adelaide, called Return Home and I had the lead role as a service station owner and Ben Mendelsohn was my apprentice mechanic, and I got nominated for Best Actor in the AFI awards and that was what made industry people and me think ‘Maybe he can do this’!

Was that the moment you allowed yourself to think ‘Actually – maybe I am an actor’?

Well like a lot of things in life you start doing something and then you realise there is a lot more to it than you thought there was. You have to keep learning. I’m still acting today and I am still learning. I think the same is true for music. I started doing music for fun, and for fun only but it’s only in the later years I have realised how great it is to be able to make music at any level, even for yourself. But if you are lucky enough to play in front of other people that is a double blessing. Wilbur Wilde has been one of Australia’s best know sax players since 1975 and he still practices two or three hours a day! So you never stop learning.

Legends Of OL’55 – Frankie J Holden & Wilbur Wilde perform at The Bridgeway Hotel from 7 pm on Sat 17 Apr.

Bookings at Oztix. Click HERE to purchase your tickets.

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