Tagged: the Ramones

Memories not enough to save Melbourne’s Festival Hall

Like millions of others, I have fond memories of live entertainment at Festival Hall. Sure, the room was lacking in atmosphere, bonhomie, charm and sound quality – almost anything, actually, that makes a great music venue – but that doesn’t stop me treasuring the experiences of seeing the Ramones in their late-career dotage and Nirvana at their absolute apex, despite Kurt Cobain being obviously ill.

So it was a sad day in Brisbane when, in 2003, the building was demolished to make way for the construction of an apartment block. We’d been through it all before too many times, most notoriously when the beloved Cloudland Ballroom was knocked down in the dead of night in 1982 by the Deen Brothers, the premier/hillbilly dictator Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s demolition firm of choice. Their slogan was “All we leave behind are the memories”.

For Melbourne, the potential loss of its Festival Hall for another proposed block of flats has nothing to do with acoustic or architectural aesthetics – unlike, for example, the historic Palace Theatre. Like Brisbane’s version, Festival Hall was designed for sporting spectacles, mainly boxing. It was the simultaneous arrival of television and rock & roll that resulted in the room throwing open its doors to live music, most famously the Beatles in 1964, as also happened in Brisbane.

It’s about memories, the loss of a rare mid-sized venue that can hold between 4500 and 5500 punters, and the blow to the self-image of Australia’s self-proclaimed live music capital. The local industry first flexed its muscle in January 2010 after the (mercifully temporary) closure of the punk venue The Tote in Collingwood – an event that prompted a rally of more than 10,000 people to march through the city against punitive liquor-licensing regulations.

It made Melbourne quite literally evaluate what it was in danger of losing. A Deloitte study, commissioned by Arts Victoria the following year, found that live music was worth $500m to the state’s economy, with attendances of more than 5 million a year employing more than 17,000 people. According to the state’s peak advocacy body Music Victoria, the city has more live music venues per capita than anywhere in the world.

So the music sector’s muscle is built on solid economic foundations. That’s to say nothing of its priceless cultural contribution. Try, for a moment, to imagine the cities of Liverpool, Manchester, London, New York, Sydney (particularly during the 1980s) and smaller centres such as Brisbane and Dunedin in New Zealand without reference to the artists who helped to define their history and legacies.

The subsequent passing of the agent of change principle by the Victorian government in 2014 imposed obligations on developers to protect existing live music venues from noise complaints by residents. This means that the onus is on developers to provide noise attenuation measures should their plans fall within 50 metres of an existing venue, unless it is the venue which plans to expand, in which case the onus is reversed.

But that hasn’t insulated Melbourne’s music scene from the cold, hard commercial realities of real estate. Since the 2010 groundswell, Melbourne has lost not only the Palace Theatre but the Ding Dong Lounge in the city (which held its last drinks only 10 days ago), the Caravan in Bentleigh and a number of St Kilda venues, including the Palace, the Greyhound Hotel and the Esplanade, although the latter is scheduled to reopen in October.

In a statement, Music Victoria’s CEO Patrick Donovan urged the developer and local and state governments to retain and protect the “iconic” Festival Hall. “The developer’s proposal comes at a time when all eyes are on Melbourne and Victoria as a world leader in live music,” he said. “Melbourne has been recognised as a global music city, hosting the international Music Cities Convention in April.”

But Festival Hall’s owners have made a commercial calculation that there is more money to be made from selling the site than in continuing to compete with similar more modern venues, including Margaret Court Arena (which is slightly bigger, with a capacity of 7500 people). And as much as the City of Melbourne and the state government have done to work with the music sector, there’s no agent of change principle or heritage listing at stake here.

And that’s why the pleas of Music Victoria will probably fall on deaf ears. At the end of the day, the city is not in the business of protecting memories. At the entrance to what is now Festival Towers in Brisbane, there’s a rather sad collection of photographs from gigs gone by that few other than the building’s residents will ever see. The application for the Melbourne development speaks blandly of “harness[ing] the emotional aspects of this venue”.

Which will mean absolutely nothing to anyone who ever passed through its doors to see the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Kanye West and homegrown acts including AC/DC and Courtney Barnett.

Back in Brisbane, Hutchinson Builders’ Scott Hutchinson – a music tragic who also built the Triffid in partnership with former Powderfinger bassist John Collins and the band’s manager, Paul Piticco – is now starting work on a 3500-capacity venue to “replace” Festival Hall in inner-city Fortitude Valley.

Perhaps Music Victoria might consider sounding out the state government or a similarly philanthropically minded developer, should any exist, about a long-term investment in a purpose-built mid-sized music venue – one with better acoustics and atmosphere than Festival Hall could ever offer.

First published in The Guardian, 24 January 2018

Descent into the Maelstrom

The drama of the dysfunctional band has long been a staple of the rock documentary form. In a case of life imitating art imitating life, films from Some Kind Of Monster (which sat in on Metallica’s group therapy sessions) to End Of The Century (which chronicled the tragically bitter life and death of the Ramones) play like a reprise of the intra-band bickering so perfectly satirised in This Is Spinal Tap.

As the credits roll on Spinal Tap, Marty DiBergi, played by the director, Rob Reiner, asks bass player Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) whether playing rock & roll keeps you a child. I was reminded of this watching Descent Into The Maelstrom, the story of Radio Birdman, as this brilliant, influential and notoriously volatile band squabble over their history and their legacy.

For the uninitiated, a brief snapshot: formed in 1974, Sydney’s Radio Birdman were, alongside Brisbane’s Saints, Australia’s first and most lasting contribution to the punk movement. Like the Saints, they had a brief and extremely turbulent existence, breaking up in in the UK in 1978 while making just their second album. Their massive influence saw them reform for the first time in 1996, only to almost immediately break up again.

But, like Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, guitarist Deniz Tek and singer Rob Younger keep getting back together, because there will always be a baying audience somewhere for them to play to. Both are intense, serious men and aside from stalwart keyboard player Pip Hoyle, few have been able to stick with them. But that volatility was key to the original six-piece band’s combustible chemistry.

If you are already a Radio Birdman tragic – and tragics will be the first in line to see Descent Into The Maelstrom, directed by Jonathan Sequeira – you’re unlikely to find out anything new here. There’s no pre-1978 live footage you won’t have seen already, and the story is familiar. It’s held together over one hour and 50 minutes by interviews with the band and close associates; thankfully, no bigger stars are lined up to obediently sing their praises.

Don’t let this lack of new information put you off, though. What makes Descent Into The Maelstrom work is the brutal honesty of the band members as the wheels fall off their so-called “van of hate”, as the Kombi driving them around that ill-fated 1978 UK tour was dubbed. It wasn’t the usual combination of drugs and booze that did them in: it was poverty, depression and poisonous internal dynamics.

Visually, the lack of new footage is compensated for by hundreds of stills and delightful storyboard artwork by bass player Warwick Gilbert (of whom a gonzo reviewer once wrote “a Warwick is something you light if you want to start a war”). Given that Gilbert was the first to leave the band – twice! – his heavy involvement indicates that Birdman’s music remains bigger than the egos that made it.

Which brings us to the music itself. Deniz Tek was a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he brought his first-hand experience of the Stooges and MC5 to Australia in 1972 (there’s a photo of him as a teenager in aviator shades, right in front of the Five’s Rob Tyner). Radio Birdman were combative, confrontational, hated by the musical establishment, and changed the lives of thousands who saw them perform.

In their slipstream came hundreds of bands, dozens of whom became embedded in the Australian rock landscape: Midnight Oil, the Sunnyboys, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Lime Spiders, the Hard-Ons, Died Pretty, the Celibate Rifles, and on and on. Hoyle gets the last word, and it’s a killer: “I don’t think there’s an Australian sound to Radio Birdman. I think there’s a Radio Birdman sound to Australia.”

He’s right. And few of those bands, even on their best nights, could summon the heart-attack inducing excitement of Radio Birdman in full flight. (For proof, track down the double live album of the band at Paddington Town Hall in December 1977, their last performance in Australia before departing for England: it is, in this writer’s opinion, the best live recording released by an Australian band.)

As such, what started as a cult phenomenon has continued to attract generations of converts to the cause. Descent Into The Maelstrom won’t exactly be an eye-opener to the Birdman faithful but, along with the band’s reissued box set of recordings, it’s a documentary that will ensure their legacy remains: hewn in the living rock, as Nigel Tufnel once observed.

First published in The Guardian, 10 June 2017