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by Chris Tobin

The days when local bands packed out pubs all over Timaru and the now-empty Old Mill nightclub was jumping will be recalled on Saturday.

Perth St outside the museum will be closed to traffic from 7pm to 11pm and three local bands The Groove, Black Sheep and Devil’s Handbrake are all set to rock the night away as part of Retro Rock at the South Canterbury Museum.

“People will be able to dance in the street and dress in their favourite rock costumes from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. There will be a retro fashion parade, spot prizes and a quiz,” South Canterbury Museum director Philip Howe said.

Retro…Philip Howe with a keyboard from the early 1980s which will be part of the exhibition. PHOTO: CHRIS TOBIN

The museum has done the organising with the help of John Simpson, who played in Timaru band Toy Soldiers years ago.

This would be the third time the museum has hosted the event. On the first occasion it drew a crowd of around 1000 people.

“We were blown away by the size of the crowd.”

With such big interest shown the event was held again last year when numbers dropped to 600 due to cool weather. To improve chances that the weather could be kinder this year, the event has been rescheduled from late March to mid-February.

Inspiration to start it all began with a former Timaru resident Lyall Smillie, now in Queenstown, who played in local bands in the 1960s and 1970s and created a Facebook page, Timaru Music Guitar History.

Rocking…Perth St will be closed to traffic throughout the show. PHOTO: SC Museum

Mr Howe said there had been an explosion of interest in electric guitar bands of the 1960s as bands like The Beatles captured the imagination and young people wanted to emulate them.

An upsurge came also in 1967 when changes to the licensing laws meant pubs could open until 11pm after earlier closing their doors at 6pm. Once bands started playing in pubs they became the focal point for many young people’s social lives. The whole scene took off, not just in Timaru, but all over South Canterbury.

“In the ’70s the band scene was huge; there was a circuit of hotels, the Terminus, Hydro, Doncaster and others.”

After the pubs shut at 11pm Mr Howe said people could continue on to the Old Mill nightclub which became an important venue and some well known bands played there in the 1980s.

“Guys have told me they earned more playing in bands at the weekend than they did in their day jobs. If it wasn’t at a pub they’d play at a wedding or a corporate event.”

By the 1990s this vibrant pub scene and live bands faded away after further tweaking of the licensing laws. Sporting clubs and other organisations could have liquor licences and supermarkets could sell alcohol. A lot of pubs closed and the small remnant left battled on as cafe-bars emerged, where loud, live bands didn’t cut it.

“By the start of the 21st century the scene had changed.”

To get a feeling of what it was like, a rock and roll exhibition will run to coincide with the show on Saturday evening.

“The exhibition doesn’t tell the whole story, it’s just snapshots and bits and pieces but it could grow.

“People will get a taste of what was happening with bands and the hits of the day,” Mr Howe said.

Retro Rock is free and an alcohol-free event. Refreshments would be available and donations accepted.