A completed PhD investigating the geography of live music in Sydney and Melbourne between the 1980s and 2000s.
Hello and welcome and 20th century Sydney, where you can rent a room for $70 a week in Newtown…if you can stand the poodles.
This blog post presents some maps of the Sydney live music scene in August of 1986, 1991 and 1996. Viewed in succession they form a sort of Sydney “triptych” previewing changes in the landscape of Sydney live music over an eventful decade. Eventful, but not all happy days – it is my contention that somewhere in the 1990s the Sydney live music “jumped the shark“.
But, as Johnson and Homan reminded us, it’s not a straightforward temporal decline, and there no single bogeyman (or fluffy dog). An historical geography framework can help get a handle on the “forest through the trees” that is live music, and that’s where I am hoping to contribute.
The data in this blog post is part of a larger research project on the geography of live music in Sydney and Melbourne since 1980. This is also my PhD, due for completion in 2015. I hope that presenting preliminary data such as this will help generate some awareness and feedback (hopefully not from a microphone…again).
My research focuses on the contrast between live music in Sydney and Melbourne since 1980, using maps as a central research tool to answer why the live music opportunities in these two cities appear to differ and to have changed over time. Thinking about this question spatially also ties the research into bigger-picture questions of why our opportunities, as musicians or otherwise, continue to be so spatially codable.
If, like me, you enjoy live music and would like it to stay in your town, then the results of the PhD will be interesting from a policy perspective. In the meantime, of course, there are some great existing contributions to understanding live music, including those listed under “Recommended Reading” for this post. But even if live music isn’t for you, you might like to think of the analogy of musicians being “canaries in the mine” in terms of the labour market at large, and watch the maps with a different eye. In particular, the work of Doreen Massey on the geography and gender of employment loss informs the framework of this project.
Methodologically, a large part of the research involves building an historical spatial database of gig listings in Sydney and Melbourne in Census years from 1980. By mapping gig listings at venues rather than the venues alone it’s possible to see more in the story than the really obvious moments like venue closures. Getting gig listings from primary sources into this historical spatial database is a laborious process but it is not square-peg-in-a-round-hole futile: placing gigs into an historical spatial database is un-traumatic specifically because gigs want to be found. “Come to this place, at this time”, is written in one form or another in the gig listings, ad infinitum. In practice it’s not hard to find maps in music because live music is, to use the excellent John Allen quote on power: always already spatial.
I also think that would make a great album title.
Oh, and currently my pick for the Sydney live music “jump the shark” moment is when a tribute band named “No Alternative” toured in 1996. I’m not saying they were terrible –far from it, they seem to have done very well and I would have loved this gig at the time – but the band name now strikes as unintentionally gloomy statement:
Even before starting this particular research exercise, if I thought of “Sydney between 1986 and 1996” some particular musical examples sprang to my mind, contributing to the vague mental map I had built of Sydney over years of not actually going there. That and a 1990 film called Wendy Cracked A Walnut, which I must have watched with great intensity as a 10 year old because very recently when I saw the Sydney Monorail I thought instantly of a scene in this not-very-famous film.
In addition to a new Monorail, there were many musicians active in Sydney in 1986-1996: at the absolute least, 930 headline acts, based on this sample alone. I’ve included the following four biographies (three bands and one radio station) because they overlap nicely with changes in Sydney live music during that decade.
In 1986, Sydney rock band the Cockroaches had signed with Regular Records and were soon to enjoy success with mainstream radio play of “She’s The One” and frequent gigs on the pub circuit. In 1988, they were named “the hardest working rock n roll band in Australia” by The Daily Telegraph, on account of having played over 300 gigs in one year.
The Cockroaches slowed their schedule from 1989 for the hugely sad reason that Paul Field’s infant daughter died from SIDS while they were on tour. Anthony Field began studying early childhood education at Macquarie University, and in 1991 he and fellow Cockroach Jeff Fatt founded The Wiggles, along with classmates from the same course, Murray Cooke and Greg Page. The Wiggles integrated some existing songs and personnel from the Cockroaches (including Paul as managing director), and honed a (mostly!) new look and target market of under-fives instead of over-eighteens. They still played locally, but this time it was at schools and playgroups instead of pubs, in split-profit deals with community groups or as part of ensembles of ABC Kids characters.
Through the early 1990s the Wiggles released an album, and toured on it, each year – in 1996 it was Wake Up Jeff! Their TV show was at this stage still self-made and an ongoing deal with ABC Kids eluded them, so they travelled to the USA in 1998. Here they played small shows in malls and churches before reaching Beatles-like status in the US kids market, helped in particular by being included on a 2000 Barney video and by choosing to proceed with a tour in New York shortly after September 2001 (the city later announced a “Wiggles Day”). In 2002 they secured an ABC Kids Television deal. They were named Australia’s highest paid entertainers by Business Review Weekly four years in a row until 2008, grossing $45 million in 2007-8.
So, as reasonably successful musicians on the Sydney pub circuit in the 1980s the Cockroaches were named the hardest working…but only after they left this scene did they become the highest earning. On the one hand it says something not very nice about opportunities for live music in Sydney in the 80s and 90s, on the other, it speaks positively of the performance skills and resilience they acquired in being there…“I tell you folks, it’s harder than it looks!”
Concurrent to the Cockroaches’ Sydney pub circuiting, in the mid 80s singer-songwriter Paul Kelly had relocated from Melbourne to Sydney, in doing so breaking a writer’s block lasting several years. Although he was already well known as a songwriter in Melbourne from the post punk era, in the few years prior to moving north he had written only one song – and that was about writer’s block. The move apparently worked wonders – Kelly formed a new band (The Coloured Girls, later renamed The Messengers) and recorded and released three of his better known albums in three consecutive years: Post in 1985 (including the songs “Adelaide” and “From St Kilda To Kings Cross”, for which this blog is named), Gossip in 1986 (including “Before Too Long”, with accompanying film clip showing Kelly driving a taxi through Sydney), and Under the Sun in 1987 (with the big hits, “To Her Door” and “Dumb Things”). The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster, commenting on this productive Sydney sojourn in the 2012 documentary Stories of Me, even suggests that Paul Kelly could not have written these immensely popular songs in Melbourne, only in Sydney, where a pop sensibility was more acceptable.
Obviously something was working for Paul Kelly in Sydney – he even wrote his iconic song about Melbourne (“Leaps And Bounds”) in this period. But, like the venues themselves, Paul Kelly’s Sydney career in the late 1980s was many things – productive, memorable, popular – but “permanent” was not one of them. By 1991, he had disbanded The Messengers and moved back to Melbourne, where he still resides. It’s worth noting, however, that he grew up in Adelaide, and is one of several notable Melbourne-musicians-from-Adelaide (e.g. Dave Graney, Clare Moore, Ash Wednesday, Bodhan X). He was one of the speakers at the 2010 Melbourne S.L.A.M rally, where his speech included the now widely-quoted endorsement of small venues:
“You don’t learn how to write a song at school, you don’t do a TAFE course on how to play in front of an audience, small venues were my university.”
The Whitlams formed in Newtown in 1992 and their association with this inner western Sydney suburb has been so conspicuous as to be written about in academic journals (Carroll and Connell, 2000; Giuffre, 2009) and the subject of parody (“The Newtown Song”, a 2007 spoof song aired on ABC television).
Their early career was closely associated with acoustic performances at the Sandringham Hotel in Newtown (“the Sando”), and, as Liz Giuffre notes, while they rarely literally mentioned Newtown in their lyrics, they did often describe people and places that would be more recognizable to residents of inner city Sydney, and their album sleeves consistently pointed out that “the Whitlams live in Newtown, Australia”. Their 1997 album, Eternal Nightcap, went double platinum, and like Paul Kelly a decade before, included an ode to the distance between Sydney and Melbourne (“No Aphrodisiac”), as well as an ode to a city other than Sydney (“Melbourne”). In 1997 “No Aphrodisiac” won the Triple J Hottest 100 song poll, a notable fete in this peak era of Triple J listenership. Liz Giuffre also notes that by the late 1990s the Whitlams spent more time singing about Sydney than actually playing there.
Sydney still featured as a central character in their 1999 album, Gotta Love This City, but by this time – to my ears anyway – it was sounding more like a lament than a glowing endorsement, and overall like not a great place to hang out:
There was the stage, two red lights and a dodgy P.A.
You trod the planks way back then
And it’s strange that you’re here again, here again
And I wish I, wish I knew the right words
To make you feel better, walk out of this pace
And defeat them in your secret battle
Show them you can be your own man again.
– “Blow Up The Pokies”
It dawns on him the horror
We got the Olympic Games
You gotta love this city
For its body not its brain
And he screams, “My city is a whore
Opened herself to the world
Jumped up and down in pastel shirts
And lathered up thinking about designs for t-shirts
-“You Gotta Love This City”
Lead singer Tim Freedman also unintentionally provided a very useful quote for my PhD (thanks Tim!), replete with commentary on the geography of Sydney and Melbourne live music, speaking to Richard Kingsmille in 1997 on Triple J:
“I love Melbourne. We go down about four or five times a year. I just fell in love with it, the people have a bigger sense of community, in pubs and being part of a crowd, compared to Sydney. There is so much public radio and a fringey artistic community, strange events seem to be easier to get a crowd….The inner city didn’t seem to implode so much. Ten years ago in Sydney, Surry Hills used to be full of students and people on the dole, so all the pubs in the city were crowded with people who loved music. But since all the rents went up and Sydney got gentrified that sort of crowd has been scattered to the wind a bit, whereas Melbourne has retained its inner-city ring of suburbs.”
– Australian Music Show, Triple J, September 3rd 1997. Quoted in Carroll and Connor (2000)
The ABC youth radio network Triple J (originally 2JJ) started off from the same impetus as Melbourne community radio stations 3RRR, PBS and 3CR. The Whitlam government changes to federal broadcasting policy stemming from the 1974 McLeay Report allowed radio onto the FM dial in Australia and made new spaces for community radio stations (of which there were none in the preceding decades). This meant that many Australian community radio stations trace their history to the mid 1970s (e.g. 4ZZZ in Brisbane, RTR in Perth, 3RR, PBS and 3CR in Melbourne). Although 2JJ wasn’t technically restricted to Sydney and was always earmarked as a national youth radio network, during the 1970s and 1980s its offices were in Sydney and its broadcast area stayed within that city, so that its function for the local music scene was comparable to its Melbourne and Brisbane counterparts.
From 1990 Triple J (as it was then known) was gradually nationalized and its broadcast areas were expanded into other state capitals and regional Australia, becoming a massive cultural and commercial entity by the mid 1990s. On the one hand, this was a gain for regional youth audiences (I remember vividly its arrival in regional Victoria) and for Australian bands gaining Countdown-style national exposure which wouldn’t be possible through touring alone. On the other hand, for Sydney this represented the loss of a local community radio station and the mutually beneficial relationship that these tend to foster with local listeners, small venues and lesser known bands. Judging by some letters to the editor in On The Street and Drum Media in this period, this point was not lost on Sydneysiders. The letter below to “Mr Chapman…the festering sore that you are” refers to managing director Barry Chapman, who oversaw the replacement of a large number of Sydney Triple J presenters (among them, Tony Biggs, who became a presenter on RRR in Melbourne in 1991).
With the above examples in mind, please have a browse of these three sets of maps, built from sample data in the street press publications of August 1986, 1991, and 1996
Based on this sample data there is not a noticeable aggregate decline in the number of venues and gigs advertised in the Sydney street press from 1986 to 1996. Hence my “jump the shark” analogy – Happy Days continued for many years after the shark episode. It just never got any easier for them to keep doing what they were doing.
The scene shown here in Sydney is not in constant decline, but it not stable and it is not spatially even.
The city and the inner west (Newtown/Surry Hills) are not the only locations of live music, but they are conspicuously the largest, and this predominance increases over time. Even at a purely practical level, the inner west was so crowded with gigs as to need an inset map across all three years.
Meanwhile, some further-out suburbs (particularly Parramatta) maintained a presence on all maps, while the southwest and the northeast (at opposite ends of the income scale) were both so minimal as to have prompted an internal dialogue on whether I could just put the legends on the top of them.
Very few venues are a constant, even for five year intervals. Only the following five (five!) venues can be found in the gig listings of each of the sample periods from 1986, 1991, and 1996, and only two of these are in the inner west:
Collector Tavern, Parramatta
Pine Inn, Concord
Marlborough Hotel, Newtown
Harold Park Hotel, Forest Lodge (note: predominantly a comedy venue in 1996)
And only two bands in the sample (yes, two) lasted the decade and stayed in the Sydney, appearing in the gig listings for all three sample years:
Sobering. But it is consistent with the findings on the duration on live music venues in the Disappearing Acts report (Johnson and Homan 2002, p17) as well as Tim Freedman’s respective quotes on Sydney’s inner west, with “a band on every corner” and being “scattered to the wind”.
Having been immersed in the data samples of On The Street and Drum Media 1986, 1991, and 1996 and then making inroads on the Sydney Morning Herald, I have now come to see the street press descriptions of the live music scene in this period as sitting comfortably alongside the mainstream newspaper headlines about deindustrialization in Australia: job loss, decentralization, work site closures, casualization, anxiety about community, gender roles, globalization, localization. It all sounds oddly familiar. This is both for better and for worse. On the positive side (in my opinion), it looks like by 1996 that more venues and a broader range of people are “having a go” with live music in the diminished presence of booking agencies and the macho Oz Rock framework, itself an offshoot of the work/leisure paradigms of the manufacturing era. But the negatives in the music scene, like deindustrialization generally, are precariousness (otherwise known as “flexibility”), less opportunity for on-the-job training, and a defensive “hardening” of borders (I have borrowed this term from Tarek Virani’s case study of the “free improvisation” scene in Dalston, East London).
My other impressions are that by 1996, as compared to 1986:
This has been a frequent question asked of me, though it’s not a core research question. Within the scope of my project I’m not keen on deciding at the outset which types of music should be included or not included in the term “live music”, partly because the process of deciding what to put in or leave out takes more time anyway and the result would say more about me than anything in the database, and partly because genre is just plain tricky. Unless a gig listing says something like, for example, “Metal Mosh Party” (1996), or “Ed Wilson Jazz Orchestra” (1991), genre is a guessing game, a moving target, and multifarious. Just think of digital playlists…I for one find it easier to go by band names!
I think the best strategy is to mostly defer but not preclude the genre question by building the possibility of genre information from elsewhere – ideally from the performers themselves – being joined to the historical spatial database through the band names. I store the band names (and/or musician names) under the fields “headline act” and “support acts” for each gig listing, in order to detect duplicates (e.g. multiple ads for the same gig), and to be able to contribute usefully to the TUGG database. Although the band names don’t often appear in the maps, keeping track of them allows for making interesting “gigography” maps (see the Models example), and it means that they could in future (and, of course, with more work) link to sources such as the Who’s Who Of Australian Rock, or individual band websites.
While all that linking remains a future proposition, during this particular research exercise it occurred to me that I could harvest some of the really broad genre categories just by taking note of which section of the publication the gig listings were placed. E.g. the Jazz, Rock, or Country sections of On The Street. This presented a simple and (importantly) self-proclaimed identification of genre. I’ve included a Jazz section map below, which was straightforward to create from the database, in comparison to, say, mapping “nu metal” or “alternative country” gigs.
The other relatively easy genre category to integrate was that of “tribute shows”. They pop up often in the 1991 and 1996 listings, sometimes for surprisingly recent acts like Midnight Oil or The Cure. The whole point of tribute shows is that they are emulating someone else, so they are easy to identify because they advertise this specifically. “Cover bands”, however, tend to be more coy, and the whole category is as slippery as that of genre. What ratio of covers/originals qualifies as “cover band”? I’m pretty sure this would be a whole research topic in itself. But, like genre, the band names that I keep track of in the database can help to defer but not preclude the question by allowing the possibility of names being linked to other self-identifying sources (e.g. www.coverbands.com.au). I suspect that “cover band” was a tautology rather than an oxymoron in the past and that anxiety about them (see below: “sick of cover bands…it is pathetic”) is a great way to track anxiety about prevailing working conditions more than the definition of cover bands per se. Stay tuned.
The map below shows 1996 gig listings with Jazz section listings overlain as blue stars. They are unequivocally inner city. Furthermore, they are more prevalent in the inner east:
Contrastingly, the next map shows 1996 gig listings with “tribute show” listings overlain as blue squares. They show a very different spatial distribution to that for the Jazz section, stretching into the suburbs in all directions. But, in common with the Jazz section, they are scarce in the inner west:
As well as being inner-city, the other noticeable feature of the Jazz section was the proportion of male names…
This Jazz page contains 122 individual performer names, of which 14 are female (and the Strawberry Hills Hotel advertisement at lower right outdoes this with 25 to 1). It’s possible that some other bands contained females, but the fact that they chose not to mention this here becomes a feature in itself. Here’s a helpful chart:
To be fair, the advantage of jazz listings for gender observations is that, having the focus on soloists, they go to the trouble of listing individual performer names. For other genres the demographics of the performers are more often concealed in a band name. So the gender balance for jazz looks pretty awful but it is also just very measurable.
For other genres such information will take more tracking down (similar again to the slippery genre concept itself) but I will continue to keep band names in order to facilitate this, and I will also continue to make a note of female performers when they are immediately obvious in the gig listings. Based on such sharp gender outcomes in the chart above, and the fact that 1996 is the Drum Media is the first in my scan collection to have a female band on the front cover (!), the spatial politics of gender are worth keeping track of as a potential factors in “what happened” to live music, and the types of concerns expressed about this.
Well yes, but not yet. I would like to add a 2001 (post Olympics) Sydney map and to integrate some concurrent gig listing sources to lessen the effect of the growing dominance of street press in this period. Then it would be great to make the whole set of maps (1986, 1991, 1996, 2001) for Melbourne. And upload the, to the TUGG database on Melbourne music. But all this space takes time, time, time. Stay tuned in a few months.
Remember that this is part of a larger research project on the geography of live music in Sydney and Melbourne since 1980. You might like to consider leaving a comment here, or participating in interviews in 2014.
Thanks for reading, and please see the “Other Fun Samples” below if you’d like to extend your trip to 20th century Sydney. I’ve put up the most frequent venues and bands in each respective street press sample, and some advertisements and letters that have distilled in novelty value, like notepads next to landline phones.
Ausmusic (1993) Stayin’ alive NSW. September–December 1993
Carroll, J. and Connell, J. (2000) “You gotta love this city”. The Whitlams and inner Sydney, Australian Geographer, 31, 141-54
Gibson, C. & S. Homan (2004). Urban Redevelopment, Live Music and Public Space: Cultural Performance and the re-making of Marrickville. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 10(1), 67-84.
Giuffre, L. (2009). ‘There’s No Aphrodisiac Like Newtown’: The Evolving Connection to Place in the Music of the Whitlams. Transforming Cultures eJournal, 4(1).
Homan, S. (2003). The mayor’s a square: live music and law and order in Sydney. Newtown, NSW: Local Consumption Publications.
Homan, S. (2003). Geographies of noise-youth, live music and urban leisure. Youth Studies Australia, 22(2), 12-18.
Homan, S. (2000). Losing the local: Sydney and the Oz Rock tradition. Popular Music, 19(1), 31-49.
Johnson, B. and Homan, S. (2002). Vanishing Acts: An inquiry into the state of live popular music opportunities in New South Wales.
Massey, D. (1994). Space, place, and gender. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis MN.
Most frequent venues:
Max’s Petersham Inn
Harold Park Hotel
Cock ‘n’ Bull Tavern
Cat and Fiddle
Unity Hall Hotel
Reflections Wine Bar
Most frequent headline acts:
Simone Dee and the Desires
Baby Loves to Cha Cha
The Herbs (NZ)
Mal Eastick Band
Some other gigs with recognizable names (to me!):
The Cramps (USA) at Selina’s
Ed Keupper at the Sydney Trade Union Club
Tactics at the Harold Park Hotel
Geisha at the Kardomah Café
Wet Taxis at the Sydney Trade Union Club
John Paul Young at Tracks (Epping)
X at the Tivoli
Cruel Sea at the Harold Park Hotel
Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls at the Dee Why Hotel
The Cockroaches at the Dee Why Hotel
Tall Tales and True at the Vulcan Hotel
Severed Heads at the Paddington Town Hall
Most frequent venues:
Pig ‘N’ Whistle
Springfields (Kings Cross)
Watermelon Café and Bar
Haunted Castle (Lewisham Hotel)
Real Ale Café
Pier Street Pumphouse
General Bourke Hotel
Racecourse Hotel (Randwick)
Waves Night Club (Wollongong)
Evil Star (AKA the Evening Star)
Most frequent headline acts:
Oils Ain’t Oils (Midnight Oil tribute show)
Suzi Quatro (USA)
Love Cats (Cure tribute show)
The Australian Doors Show (Doors tribute show)
Two Men and a piano
Ruth Roger Wright
Hunters and Collectors
Boom Crash Opera
Some other gigs with recognizable names (to me!):
Crowded House at Selina’s
Died Pretty at the Venue (Dee Why)
Screaming Jets at the Fairfield RSL
Push Push (NZ) at the Annandale Hotel
Celibate Rifles at the Annandale Hotel
Southern Sons at Club Parradise
Ian Moss at St George Leagues Club
Weddings Parties Anything at the Annandale Hotel
Renee Geyer at St George Leagues Club
Noiseworks at the Jetty Hotel
Choirboys at the Fairfield RSL
Most frequent venues:
Strawberry Hills Hotel
General Bourke Hotel
Café de Lane
Most frequent headline performers:
Joe Sample (USA)
No Alternative (a cover band specializing in alternative music)
Vika and Linda Bull
Past To Present
One Hit Wonders
Some other gigs with recognizable names (to me!):
Kev Carmody at the Harbourside Brasserie
Divinyls, Hunters and Collectors, Renegade Funktrain, Died Pretty, James Reyne, Human Nature and Fireballs at the 1996 Winter Sleepout, Circular Quay
The Radiators at the Auburn RSL
Mental As Anything at the University of NSW
Died Pretty at Narrabeen Sands
The Whitlams at the Lyric Theatre
The Fauves, The Mavis’s and Pollen at the Annandale Hotel
Shihad (NZ), The Superjesus and Front End Loader at the Blaxland Tavern
Asteroid B612 at the Iron Duke Hotel