Mount Isa's rich rock and roll history

An advertisement for The Kave at the  Mount Isa Hotel from 1988.

An advertisement for The Kave at the Mount Isa Hotel from 1988.

If the ’60s was the decade of musical transformation, then the '70s heralded the pub and club disco era.

The '60s and '70s featured plenty of rock and roll and other music in the venues of Mount Isa.

The '60s and '70s featured plenty of rock and roll and other music in the venues of Mount Isa.

Local bands still had spasmodic gigs at dance halls for celebratory functions but with the new disco craze they concentrated on regular sessions at the liquor licensed venues.

However before the discos, bands would often be invited to join the travelling ‘tent’ shows such as Carols Variety Show and the International Variety Stars to perform on stage.

Band: Mike Tracey, Boris Stepanov, Oete Sanders and Ken Swan - The Midnighters circa 1964. Photo: Supplied.

Band: Mike Tracey, Boris Stepanov, Oete Sanders and Ken Swan - The Midnighters circa 1964. Photo: Supplied.

Boris Stepanov of The Midnighters, recalls one such occasion when the band was invited to perform at Carols Variety Show to back Geoff Mack as he sang his smash hit ‘I’ve Been Everywhere Man’.

Even with a name taken from the makers of the band’s drum kit, Premier, The Premiers, with Boris as lead guitarist, kept one step ahead of the other bands as they had saxophonist, Percy Oeling and on occasion Frank Achison on trumpet.

The 70s really opened up the ‘pub’ and club lounge music scene, thanks to Ken Kendricks, Manager of the Barkly Hotel.

Ken had contacts with entertainment booking agents in Sydney and so started the trend of regularly flying-up a singer or band to ‘sing’ at the Barkly.

They would perform nightly and at the two Sunday Sessions, and so attract the local trendsetters with their increased disposable cash.

As the resident band at the Barkly’s Corroboree Lounge, The Premiers (Boris Stepanov, Ken Buckley, Bill Harvey, Percy Oeling, Phil Stacey and Johnny Lui on vocals and bass guitar) regularly backed southern singing sensations including Brian Davies, Jay Justin, Little Pattie and Johnny O’Keefe.

Revellers choice of bands could be heard at the Corroboree Lounge (Barkly Hotel), Boydie’s Lounge and in the Snake Pit (Boydie’s Pub), Kave Bar and Cane Lounge (at the then ‘new’ Isa Hotel), Silver Lounge (Argent Hotel) and in the Function Room at the Overlander Hotel.

The Concordia, Irish, Buffalo and R.S.L. Clubs continued to provide middle of the road music for the older generation, but they too fully embraced the new disco era with bands such as The Titanics, Plastic Fantasy Band, Seguay and Mi5.

The Legend was well established at the Irish Club by the time they introduced the youngest member of their band, fifteen-year-old, Marty Lehtonen.

With a large migrant population, it was only natural, that young immigrant lads in Mount Isa would follow the Easy Beats tradition and make their mark on the local music scene.

Marty, a gifted guitarist, was following in the footsteps of Boris Stepanov, Pepe Embrycks and Johnny Jaavuo.

He reminisces, “At one stage when I was playing in Scorpio at the Barkly, we were asked to move upstairs to the Restaurant and play dinner music – no problem.

“But it was really hard having to play while watching the diners eat at the same time.

“Prawn Cocktails, Chicken-in-a-Basket, Fillet Mignon, Peach Melbas – our stomachs rumbled!

“And definitely not in tune with what we were aiming to do; provide the third element of music to dinner and romance”.

He also recalls the original Radio 4LM’s Battle of the Bands at Lake Moondarra, with Australian singer Digger Revel having been helicoptered in to perform on centre stage, before the battle began.

Mount Isa had never lost its connection with rock’n’roll, thanks to Johnny Lui and The Midnighters, so the appearance of Digger was a sound explosion with all the lads in the bands.

Soon after, in 1973, Mount Isa mourned the death of its own rock legend – Johnny Lui.

His death symbolically brought to an end the carefree days of the local baby boomers foray into the early rock’n’roll era.

For around this time, the bands were strumming up a key or two as rivalry for regular gigs at the licensed entertainment venues increased.

Throughout the seventies, they continued to ‘cover’ big names such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Booker T, and the ‘glam’ rocker David Bowie, to increasing numbers of followers.

And by this time, band members were on the move to form new ones while Boris joined Plastic Fantasy to replace Mike Bennet (on lead guitar) joining Ian Kent (bass guitar and vocals) and Sid Jackson (drums).

Jiving took a back seat along with the stomp when the Bee Gees introduced disco through their movie, Saturday Night Live.

And from stove pipe trousers, white shirts and thin width ties, males started to emulate, to a degree, the disco fashion of satin shirts and the ubiquitous ‘flares’ – all the better to strut on the dance floor.

For females, bouffant hair styles got higher, skirts shorter and make-up heavier with dark kohl ‘bedroom’ eyes for added effect.

Donnie Mackinnon eventually returned to Mount Isa and before long he was back at the Irish Club with his new band, Seguay.

Still on the drums, his star line-up included Mike Casey (bass and keyboards), Graham Sargent, Boris Stepanov, and Alan Burge (guitars) and vocalists, Mary Bouwens, Terry South and Diane Anderson.

Without doubt the heady combination of Seguay and The Irish Club brought another level of professionalism to the disco scene in Mount Isa.  

Sadly, it was cut short when in the early 80s, the city was once again mourning the death of another well-loved and highly respected musician - Don Mackinnon.

Seguay continued to play at the Irish Club albeit with John Den Hertog on drums and Stewie Chandler and Derek Graham (guitars), Alan Burge (bass guitar) and Mary Bouwens as the vocalist.

Over the decades, Marty Lehtonen, continued to perfect his guitar riffs and changed bands as he gained more experience.

Band names have always been a quandary but sometimes a name can be as simple as the maker of a drum kit (Premier) or in Marty’s case, he thought of the name Cargo Blues, when watching an advertisement for TAA Cargo Freight, at the Tropicaire Drive-In.

With signature band names or without, few musicians can lay claim to entertaining Mount Isa as regularly, over the past six decades, as did Boris Stepanov and as Marty Lehtonen continues to do, in Frenzy.

With their endless hours of practice, and then more, playing to appreciative Baby Boomers and the Young Ones, all the local bands can rightfully Dance The Night Away knowing they helped To Build This City on Rock’n’Roll.

Researched and written by Kim-Maree Burton

Photographs supplied by Boris Stepanov and the North West Star.

Information sourced from the archives of the Mount Isa Mail and the North West Star.

 (This article was first published in the NWS on 16 January 2016)

The History column is a weekly column in the North West Star on the History of Mount Isa and surrounds.