I was pretty excited to be able to take this tour of St Kilda’s music hotspots and history. I was deeply immersed in Sydney’s thriving underground music scene in the early 1980s, and this tour offered to show me some of the famous sites of its Melbourne counterpart. Unlike Sydney, which has lost most of the venues of yesteryear, Melbourne is fortunate enough to still retain many of theirs.
We gathered at 2pm on a Sunday outside the George Hotel, former home of the legendary Crystal Ballroom (aka Seaview Ballroom). The Ballroom has been part of my consciousness for many years, but I unfortunately never got to partake of its glories. Most of what I knew about the Ballroom came from Dolores San Miguel’s book of the same name, an excellent account of the music scene of the day.
A ragtag bunch of people gathered under the iconic, but now faded and disintegrating awning, and met our guides for the day – Fred Negro from I Spit on Your Gravy and Paul Cumming, formerly of The Shuffling Hungarians. Fred and Paul were a perfect balance of guides. Fred was the punk bad boy regaling us with hilarious picaresque tales of wild drug and booze filled escapades, while Paul, having done meticulous research, gave us fascinating insights into the broader musical history of St Kilda right back to the 19th century, complete with an iPad full of archival photos which he passed around.
Also along were organiser Adam Johnstone who kept things rolling along, and we were very fortunate to have Sean Kelly of Models fame along for the ride, as well as several friends of the organisers who contributed their own stories along the way. Sean kept a fairly low profile, preferring to chat to people while we walked rather than address the whole group.
First stop of course, was to see the legendary ballroom itself, so we went inside and trekked up the dimly lit stairs, imagining them lined with swarms of punks, in contrast to the rather straight looking attendees of the function currently taking place in the downstairs bar. We were unfortunately not able to enter the ballroom itself, as the ceiling recently collapsed, so we peered through the glass door while we heard some stories of gigs there in the day. I don’t recall any specifics of what we were told at this moment as I was too busy trying to contain my excitement at being there and my frustration of not being able to go inside!
After the Ballroom we took a wander through some of St Kilda’s backstreets, seeing places such as Australia’s first coffeehouse, the oldest house in St Kilda, and the soon-to-be Rowland S Howard Lane, (or Rowland Lane as it has to be, as apparently emergency services get confused if there’s more than one word in a street name).
From there it was back onto Fitzroy St to another great venue, the Prince of Wales, where we stopped in for a beer and to look at some of Fred Negro’s murals that grace the walls.
This Fitzroy St strip was the core of the Melbourne punk scene, and Thursday night was the night, when the street would be filled with punks moving up and down from one venue to the other. At the Prince we got some more of Fred’s stories including being sprung in an embarrassing sexual encounter on a balcony by members of a well-known band, and the infamous “small dick competition” that resulted in the Ballroom losing its licence. (The competition is one of the many tales depicted in one of Fred’s cartoons on the SKMWT t-shirt, which you can purchase at the end of the tour.)
We continued our wander down Fitzroy St to the Esplanade, pissing off some diners at a trendy sidewalk cafe on the way by being too loud and, well… too ST KILDA! We also passed a boarded up building, which has apparently been this way almost continuously since 1992, when the venue there at the time (can’t recall the name) refused entry to Mandawuy Yunupingu while he was Australian of the Year. They pointed the bone at them and the venue has been closed ever since – nothing’s lasted more than a month in the building, even after a cleansing ceremony.
Next stop, the Espy, an amazing, rambling, rabbit warren of a venue with multiple rooms for bands to play, and more of Fred Negro’s artwork gracing the bar. Here we had another beer stop and some more stories. I’m not giving you the stories in detail here, partly because there was so much going on it’s hard to recall, and partly because you really need to go along to hear it for yourselves. Some of the things you might hear about include Kurt Cobain with Fred’s flanelette shirt, Tracy Pew and the dog poo, or Ian Rilen’s toilet.
As the tour headed down the Esplanade, the commentary took a more historical turn, with Paul giving us some fascinating, well researched information on St Kilda’s musical history from 19th century dance halls, through the jazz era, and right up to the present day. One incongruous stop was at the swish modern Novotel hotel, which stands on the ground that used to house some more old venues (again, I forget the details, but you’ll find out when you do the tour!) I wondered if this scruffy bunch would be welcome as we went into the upmarket Novotel lounge, but they were very happy to have us and we were very well looked after with bar snacks while we learned about the extensive musical history of the site.
The tour ended up in the courtyard bar of Pure Pop Records. If you’re not familiar with this St Kilda icon, you really must visit. Run by the son of AC/DC rocker Bon Scott, Pure Pop combines an excellent record store with an intimate music venue. Currently in a battle over noise regulations with a single neighbour (who moves to St Kilda and expects it to be quiet????), Dave is doing it tough at the moment. He still runs live music every weekend, but for now the gigs happen inside the store, until he can raise the rest of the funds to have the courtyard area rebuilt and soundproofed. The courtyard bar still operates and it’s a great, relaxing place to hang out with Melbourne’s musicians and music lovers, and you never know who you may run into there. I’ve bumped into Paul Kelly on one of my visits, Tim Rogers is apparently also a regular, and on this occasion, of course, I got to have a beer with one of my personal music idols, Sean Kelly from the Models (and he’s a very nice guy by the way).
St Kilda has always been home to Melbourne’s misfits, eccentrics and creative types, and its musical history is long and varied. Gentrification is encroaching on the suburb, pushing its former inhabitants out into surrounding suburbs, but the essence of the place is still there. If you love live music and want to know more about St Kilda’s thriving music culture, you’ll love this tour. You’ll get the most out of the tour if you already have some knowledge of Melbourne’s underground music scene, but it’s certainly not essential. The stories are so entertaining, the history so well researched, that I’d defy anyone to not enjoy themselves on this tour. Most fun I’ve had in a long time – thank you to all of the team for an outstanding afternoon’s entertainment, and for new friends made along the way.
So, go book your tour now! (No, I have no affiliation with them, just an extremely satisfied customer :-))