March 26, 2019
People & Places

The search for Adelaide’s Mod Squad

An old photograph in a popular city front bar sparked a search that harks back to the Adelaide of the Swinging Sixties.

Mick Smith and Osvaldo “Ossie” Douglas arrived in Adelaide on the Fairstar on October 10, 1965. Mick had his own surfboard by Christmas. For a Cockney teenager whose only previous brush with big water was the River Thames, that’s grabbing a new life Down Under and going for it. Mick is third from left in the photo.

We don’t know where Ossie is now, though not for lack of trying. He is said to have gone back to Glasgow. But Ossie joined Mick in the surf, straight from the River Clyde to Moana, and that’s him, son of an Italian mother and Scottish father, third from right.

Schoolgirls wept and waved for The Beatles to appear on the balcony of the South Australian Hotel when the bus taking Norman Thursfield to Para Hills passed by on North Terrace. It was June 13, 1964.

John, Paul and George had flown into Australia BOAC. Putney boy Norman had disembarked from the Orcades at Outer Harbour that Saturday morning after leaving his teenage years behind him off Colombo. Wearing what was known both sides of Gepps Cross then as the “Pommy parka”, Norman is far left.

Steve Phelps came out on the Fairsea from Camberwell, South London. At 17, Steve had his own grey and white Mini Cooper when every other migrant British male over the age of 16 had a Vespa or a Lambretta. That’s because a mate of the pop singer Glenn Shorrock, of Elizabeth and the Twilights, wanted an MGB like Glenn’s. As an apprentice motor mechanic, Steve scored the traded-in Mini Cooper. He’s second from right.

“Three-fingered Jack” was a young Dutchman, second from left. He lost his digits and gained a name learning his trade as a carpenter. Jack is believed to have returned to Europe.

Mick Gallagher, far right, from a large Birmingham Irish family in Para Hills, was an apprentice butcher who was stepping out with Bart Cummings’ niece around this time. At a party in the early 1990s in Melbourne, he was felled by what is now called a “coward punch”, and died. The memory of Mick in this picture is “brilliant”, says his kid brother Terry.

Ron Stevens’ photograph now hangs above the bar in The Exeter.

Another transplanted Glaswegian, John McDonald, front and centre, had some troubled times. His son Callum, front and centre in the re-enactment photo, hardly knew him. John died too young, in his early 30s.

By coincidence, at odds too long to contemplate, Callum is now the chef at the Exeter Hotel in Adelaide’s East End, where this photograph was taken almost half a century ago. It now hangs on the back wall of the Exeter’s famous front bar.

How the photo got there is a story in itself. But soon after it turned up, the Exeter’s duty manager Jordan Mutton told Callum that the name of the bloke in the middle was “John”. From distant memory, there was a resemblance. Callum showed the photo to  his mother, Moira.

“Mum laughed and said, ‘Yes that’s your father’,” the son recalls. “Then she said, ‘And he’s wearing your grandmother’s coat’.”

Of course John McDonald was wearing his mother Anne’s coat. These were the 1960s after all, the Swinging Sixties when Great Britain ruled the intersecting worlds of popular music and fashion to the point of global domination, and London, with its Carnaby Streets and its Abbey Roads, was the centre of the universe.

If what you had on wasn’t from the naval and military store, it might be your grandfather’s from World War I. Or even your big sister’s from Alice’s In Gear further up the old Rundle Street. If you had it, wear it, just as long as it didn’t belong behind a bank counter, or in a government office, or it was your court suit.

The lads photographed outside the Exeter’s front door at the apogee of an era when almost anything seemed possible were Britain’s recently-arrived style ambassadors to the far-flung corners of the Empire.

Just off the boats in the last great wave of post-war migration, they had been closer to the action than their new Australian counterparts could even begin to imagine. They massed in greater Elizabeth where the Holden factory was going full bore, with outposts down south, around Christies Beach.

Most of them were mods, from “modern”, and mods’ styles changed fast, distinctively.

Mick Smith was shocked to see the local males he was starting to befriend still wearing winkle-pickers, or pointed-toed shoes. “We were already into chisel-toes,” Mick says. “And Levi jeans. At Woodville Bowl one night I was asked where I got them. I said, what other jeans are there?”

The Beatles and the Rolling Stones? They might have been the biggest pop group in history and the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, and Australia’s favourites. But the Brit boys in the Exeter photo already had moved on to The Who and the Small Faces, experimenting with their haircuts as much as with their music.

The recreated version by Peter Hoare features Norman Thursfield, Jordan Mutton replacing “Three-fingered Jack”, Mick Smith, Callum McDonald for his late father John, (missing: Ossie Douglas), Steve Phelps, and Adrian Forbes filling in for the late Mick Gallagher.

Ron Stephens, a Geordie with a good enough job with a mining company to buy a single-lens reflex camera (or SLR), took the photo. The boys were regulars across Rundle Street at the Beat Basement – now an Endota Spa shop, but then the place to go for Adelaide teenagers serious about the music of their times. Blues, Rags ‘n’ Hollers was the resident band, while the Masters Apprentices began their upward trajectory there. The young Bee Gees came to the Beat Basement.

This day – best educated guess after consulting the Australian Hotels Association SA branch is a Saturday somewhere around mid-1966 – was a chance for Ron to try out his new technology. The Exeter doorway must have been an impromptu location though, because most of his subjects weren’t old enough by law to drink a beer inside.

Ron returned eventually to England, and is believed to have stayed there. On an earlier trip home, he brought back for Mick a full-length maroon single-breasted Spanish leather coat, purchased for less than 100 quid at a menswear shop owned by Chas Chandler, bass player for the Animals.

From The House of the Rising Sun to Christies Beach. Fair dinkum, how could a homegrown Aussie mod compete with that? The main chance they had to try was either Sunday nights at the Beat Basement, or Saturday mornings, when the young Englishmen would ride their scooters in from Elizabeth to congregate at entrepreneur Alex Innocenti’s The Cellar in Twin Street.

Scooter news was paramount, followed by scratch soccer games in the Parklands, with their trendy coats as goalposts. Then came the planning for girl chasing and partying on Saturday nights, some in places as long forgotten as the sandhills at Mawson Lakes.

Mick Smith had a girlfriend at Para Hills – a long way from Christies Beach on a Vespa. Norman lived in Para Hills, so he did the delivery in town, and vice versa. Mick makes the point, and it’s a good one, that “in those days we didn’t have mobiles and emails and text messages. To communicate we had to physically see each other, meet, make our fun and enjoy each other’s company. Kids today don’t necessarily need to do that.”

The boys at the Beat Basement on Rundle Street, with Ron Stephens in the photograph this time (third from right).

That enjoyment is evident in the Exeter Hotel photo, captured in an age of new adventure, optimism and opportunity for those involved. Exeter duty manager and engineering student Adrian Forbes, far right in the re-enactment photo, recognised its intrinsic worth.

It had been found, A4 size, in the Market Bazaar shop a few doors away and given to Adrian’s former girlfriend Georgia Lawrence. Adrian brought it into the pub and another duty manager, Jordan Mutton (second from left) thought, “Great shot, great composition, needs some help.”

Jordan scanned, enlarged and framed the photo. Adelaide Fringe chairman David Minear and his wife Vicki were in the Exeter front bar the day it was agreed that more needed to be known.

“It’s such a strong, captivating photo,” David says. “Black and white gives it a wonderful sense of time. From first glance it had a power that made you wonder why it was taken, who are those guys and where are they? Perhaps an overseas band, dressed a bit like the early Who.

“There was definitely a story in why that photo was taken.”

No overseas band, no superstars, only normal South Australians leading normal lives, which in a way made the search even more compelling. With the Exeter licensee the only name to go by, the quest took a year-and-a-half and at times looked doomed.

Eventually though the search party, the same network of old friends and schoolmates and teammates and neighbours and ex-wives and lovers that made up the British migrant experience in SA of half a century ago, prevailed. Shared experiences do not go away; names are always attached somewhere, and most humans like to help.

The mods in Twin Street.

Sadly, John McDonald and Mick Gallagher cannot tell their stories. Maybe Three-fingered Jack, Ossie or Ron the photographer are closer than we think. Ossie seems the best bet.

But Norm has recently retired after a working life as an upholsterer and motor trimmer, with a stint in Tasmania. Mick Smith had almost three decades with the E&WS and still teaches karate. Steve, the hardest to find because he lived in Victoria for 15 years and left a cold trail, is a diesel mechanic who now works at SMS Diesel Spares at Wingfield.

He hadn’t seen the other two for 49 years, since the photo was taken, while Norm and Mick were separated by about 48 years.

Norm, Mick and Steve arranged via phone and email to have lunch at the Exeter, with their wives Heather, Pam and Maree, along with other mutual acquaintances in the search party. As Steve walked up Rundle Street towards the pub he said, “There’s Norm! There’s Mick!”

Mick said, “Fantastic. What a buzz. Old friends.”

Norm thought likewise: “It’s like we saw each other yesterday – never been away.” Because of all the people who helped find them, their circle has grown again, connected again. It won’t be 49 years next time, and there will be another party.

A life bonus, as David Minear calls it, all because of one great photograph.

The search party: Many thanks to Jennifer Jones, Brian Morris and Chris Prescott. Also Vivien Astill, Wendy Burman, Chemplus (Elizabeth and Victor Harbor), Bill Close, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Terry Gallagher, Kevin Gregg, Trevor McNamara, Romano Manno, Dave Nicholls and Elizabeth Vale Soccer Club, Maree Phelps, Chris Rains, Pam Smith, Heather Thursfield and Steve Woodward.

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of SALIFE.

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