Did it die? Did it even exist? There are some wildly differing opinions on the subject
Back in the mid-’70s to mid-’80s, the St Kilda sound was so specific to the art school bands circling the Ballroom, that it was as though the suburb was cut adrift from the rest of Melbourne, let alone from Melbourne’s rivalry with Sydney. While in 2014, remaining venues such as the Espy (the business of which is currently for sale), Dog’s Bar, St Kilda Memo, the Prince Bandroom, the Bowlo, Vineyard, the Palais, the GH Hotel and Pure Pop put on thousands of gigs a year between them, what’s lacking is a palpable scene. Fitzroy Street was once a thoroughfare of people shuffling between venues, and many bands made St Kilda their base. These days more consumers watch shows on YouTube than go to see gigs, and spend more time campaigning online for venues under threat than going to see bands in them. But when and how did it all go wrong?
Theory 1: Developers have priced out the musicians and punters
Dolores San Miguel: A lot of bands left to go overseas, but it all came to a gloomy end when the owners who took over the Ballroom from Graeme Richmond and Todd Shelton let it go to seed. The health department closed it down. Then when it was bought again in the early ’90s, the owner built apartments above it so there could no longer be music put on.
Stuart Grant: A bunch of people moved to Fitzroy in the late-’70s for economic reasons, because Brunswick Street was all boarded up and it was really cheap to rehearse and live there.
Theory 2: Bookers aren’t nurturing the music scene
Mark Seymour: What attracted Hunters and Collectors to the area was the arrival of more of an English influence. The groups that were interested in that started out in Tiger Lounge in Richmond, then moved down to the Crystal Ballroom – pretty much sponsored by this promoter named Laurie Richards. To be honest, I don’t know how big a deal it was, in the scheme of things. But it definitely drew me to the area.
Rob Wellington: At the Ballroom you had two promoters who supported the musos. Graeme would run into the bandroom after you’d played and talk to you like a coach. Toddy would be throwing slabs in the back of a cop car so they’d look the other way. The only prerequisite for getting a gig was that you were interesting. You’re on a bill with Nick Cave or Lisa Gerrard, so of course the bar was always getting raised. You’d dress up in black in tons of makeup. We laughed at the people who wore safety pins and tartan because that was all prefab.
Ollie Olsen: It comes down to promoters not being willing to give younger, interesting bands a chance. Back in the punk days that was the case until they couldn’t ignore it anymore and they had to start taking on these bands that they didn’t really like.
Rob Wellington: Now there’s a tendency to slap bands together, whereas they used to build a scene. You’d have a young band like Hoodoo Gurus in a tiny room at the back, playing with someone who was starting to build a rep. Eighteen months later they’re playing to 2000 people in the big room – so there was a real sense of apprenticeship. The Espy treats music like McDonald’s hamburgers. They just churn it out.
Theory 3: People don’t go to gigs these days
Dave Stevens: Because Pure Pop is a record store, the shows are all ages, so we get a lot of teenagers coming in, as it’s one of the few opportunities they get to see live music. But as soon as they turn 18, they head back over to Brunswick. When we put on bigger names it’s a full house, which is great, but I get frustrated when we have really good new acts and they’re playing to nobody.
Mark Seymour: But the idea of rooms that can pull 1000 people and can expect to run a business five nights a week is a thing of the past; it’s not particular to St Kilda. I mean, the idea that St Kilda’s gone through real estate sea change and all these cashed-up yuppies don’t care about music... that’s not the reason for the decline of the music scene. What happened with the Ballroom was that once it got a name, people started coming from all over Melbourne and it became this big suburban event. That’s how big rooms have to survive – you can’t rely on a small, discrete audience in the local area. The vitality of live music erupts in all sorts of places. There are rooms everywhere. The idea that St Kilda was this sort of grassroots Mecca is an over-simplistic picture to paint, to be frank.