All Quiet on the Surfie-Rocker Front

All Quiet on the Surfie-Rocker Front
Cinesound Movietone Productions
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A short newsreel item from 1963, outlining police efforts to curb gang violence between outer suburban ‘rockers’ and surfers at Manly beach.

The use of the word ‘invaders’ gives a clear sense of where the editorial sentiment lies in this newsreel, but it’s a shallow description. To some extent, the surf craze invaded territory owned by the rockers, rather than the other way round. As far as they were concerned, the rockers were older, tougher, cooler and opposed to everything that surf music stood for. The rockers were firmly working class, and the weekends were a chance to escape the rules of home, by going to the beaches and generating some excitement.

There was a tough element in the groups, fuelled partly by the spirit of rock‘n’roll rebellion. Surfers in the coastal suburbs were not necessarily any less tough, and they were interested in some of the same things: girls, fun, getting drunk and fighting. The clashes were more or less inevitable in that sense, and they came to a head in Manly in 1963. One year later in the UK, there were similar clashes between ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’ in the Brighton riots – another seaside town, with no surfers to speak of. In a sense the fighting at Manly was more about turf than surf.

Bob McTavish, legendary Australian surfer and shaper, writes about these events in his book Stoked! (2009, Hyams Publishing, ISBN: 978-0-9775798-6-0):

We had no idea what it was all about actually. But now I can see it was a territorial thing, as mentioned earlier. The surf culture was invading their long-held ground. The radio was now playing Little Pattie at the Maroubra Stomp, and the Delltones had switched sides, dropping the quiffs and now 'Hangin’ Five’. Even a hallowed Kings Cross club had capitulated, becoming 'Surf City’, although it was still firmly in the grip of the same bunch of culture puppeteers. The Rockers were feeling the pinch. And their milk bars, pubs, and late night coffee lounges were being taken over by this new Surfie scourge, especially on the coastal strip. This called for Rocker action! And the 'Wars’ were it. Of course the papers saw sales-producing fodder, and poured on the fertiliser.

The newsreel covers this story with extraordinary economy. There are only nine shots in this sequence, and it lasts just 55 seconds, but it manages to give a strong flavour of the times, and a clear bias. We see the blond, clean-cut look of the surfers, contrasted with the dark-haired, swarthy rockers, who walk past the camera with glaring eyes. Clearly, the newsreel cameras were hoping for more action than they got. There is no violence. In a very real sense what the newsreel was trying to do was to keep up with television, which was able to provide more immediate images and news by 1963.