First published on 16 May 2012. Updated on 7 May 2013.
The doors of the glitzy Double Bay Ritz-Carlton have long been closed, but on a Sunday night last winter I watched on as 1,000-or-so club kids shook the walls of the hotel’s abandoned ballroom. There were canapés and glasses of champagne, but not a Viennese Waltz in sight. Instead, girls in maid outfits swayed to soaring disco and twisted techno, the room’s ornate lights were barely visible through pulsing strobes and smoke machine fog and bass notes sent shivers through scattered armchairs and endtables. It should have been weird. But the only thing strange about partying at the Ritz was that it didn’t feel strange at all.
Out-of-club parties are the norm these days – have been for a while – and abandoned hotels aren’t the only places you’ll find a heaving dance party in this city. From pounding cheap wine to Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ while knee-deep in water at an Eastern Suburbs nudist beach to experimenting with absinthe and psychedelic music at the Wormwood parties in a secret inner west warehouse space, partygoers are partying everywhere, it seems, but in actual clubs. Over the last 15 years, Sydney has developed a club culture with echoes of the dance-anywhere-I-can scenes of London and New York, where ‘club’ can mean anything from a rave below London Bridge to a different kind of subway car ‘jam’.
But why the change in Sydney? Canvas the DJs and promoters who’re putting these venue-hopping nights together and they’ll give you a number of reasons. Clubs, it turns out, aren’t easy places to deal with – their owners are often difficult and neighboring Potts Point and Darlinghurst yuppies are keen to file a noise complaint at the most subtle of bass drops. Areas with clubs – we’re looking at you Kings Cross – aren’t always the most pleasant places to party either. But most of all, partying at the army barracks at North Head or in the Bondi Beach Oporto’s is just plain cool.
“The people who have made a real impact [in Sydney] are part of the late-night club scene,” says Fergus Linehan, the former Sydney Festival director and current curator of Vivid LIVE. The public face of this sharply dressed theatre and music buff belies what we suspect is, or at least recently was, a serious clubber. Linehan sees electronic music as as valid a cultural form as opera and ballet. “It’s a no-brainer: if you are trying to engage with people that are culturally interested, you just can’t ignore contemporary music.”
Inspired by some of his own unusual clubbing adventures, and building on last year’s Vivid programme, this month Linehan is inviting some of his favourite DJs and promoters to put on a different kind of “House” party. The Future Classic boys, GoodGod Small Club, Modular, Niche Productions and FBi & Penny Drop are each curating a club night that responds to arguably Sydney’s most unexpected nightclub – and what Linehan describes as “a 1970s disco fantasia” – the Opera House Studio. It’s a way for Linehan to honour what he considers a huge contributor to Sydney cultural life. “Sydney isn’t an indie dive bar kind of town,” he says. “It’s very much a clubbing town. And so much of what is great about the music scene in Sydney is tied to club life.”
So what, aside from his '70s disco fantasia, does Linehan deem the best place to party in town? “Mad Racket,” he says without missing a beat. “And it doesn’t make any sense. It’s an RSL in Marrickville, and yet I’ve had some of my best nights in Sydney there.” Born on a Bondi Junction squash court in 1998, Mad Racket set the standard for successful and longstanding events at a time when off-the-grid partying meant committing to an all-night hardcore rave in Western Sydney or an inner city party that would be shut down by the cops just a few hours in. The Mad Racket crew have gone on to host 15 years’ worth of regular late-night knees-ups at Marrickville Bowling Club. Jimmi James, Zootie, Ken Cloud and Simon Caldwell, the four DJs behind the parties, wanted a party away from the regular haunts where they could relax, play the music that they wanted to hear and keep the energy going until the wee hours of the morning. They delivered in spades.
GoodGod, one of the clubs that Linehan invited to curate one of the five Vivid Studio parties, is another creative underground clubbing endeavour turned mainstay. It started life as a poky basement room at the back of a Spanish restaurant-cum-reggaeton club on Liverpool Street that booked unexpected acts. The joint was so successful that it eventually enveloped the sangria joint that housed it. Now, every night of the week, GoodGod has something different to get your heart racing, from good underground dubstep (we’ll take Blawan over Skrillex any day), to their regular dancehall nights.
Non-nightclub parties are novel and exciting and all, but surely the licensing, generators and set-up required to make them happen are a logistical nightmare. Why, then, do their creators bother?
For Reckless Republic, the crew behind the SPICE Afloat cruises, it was about originality. “We wanted to do something that no one else was doing, and that was a sunrise cruise on New Year’s Day,” says Murat Killic, a tech-bent Sydney DJ who has played in some of the world’s most respected clubs, including Berlin’s Horst Kreuzberg, and now heads up the Reckless Republic label. The team produce three boat cruises each year, booking impressive international headliners – tickets always sell out in advance. Why? It’s pretty hard to top gliding under the harbour bridge in the middle of the night with a group of like-minded partygoers to the tune of Laurent Garnier’s alternative dance anthem, ‘The Man with the Red Face’. YouTube it.
Kilic and co are also the men behind the all-night benders at their own recently opened venue, the Spice Cellar. After hosting SPICE After Hours in Kings Cross for years, at the Bunker and the Kings Cross Hotel amongst other venues, the boys moved off the strip and down to the HOME Terrace for a 12-month residency in Darling Harbour. Last year they returned to the Cross briefly before setting up shop in Martin Place. “Our venue isn’t in Kings Cross, and that helps establish the right culture,” says Killic. “Our crowd is quite diverse and we have reached out further since moving. We also got screwed a couple of times by venue owners. No one signs contracts in the club world, it’s very week-by-week.”
It’s not just SPICE that has flown the crowded and seedy coop. Our favourite parties are relocating from the strip in droves. In her discussions about the need for increased transport infrastructure in Kings Cross late last year, Lord Mayor Clover Moore gave a clue as to why: “Managing Sydney on Friday and Saturday night is like managing New Year Eve twice a weekend, every weekend.”
“There isn’t the infrastructure and transport to deal with the crowds and there’s a heightened sent of aggression fuelled by alcohol,” says Lost Events’ Tim Kean, a music publicist turned underground event producer. After throwing their friend a very elaborate birthday on Shark Island in 2009, the Lost boys have partied on moving trains, catwalks and in the North Head army barracks. Their recent Lost Fraternity party even saw a full marching band part the dance floor/football field for a surprise performance. (Super secretive Kean won’t say where.) “For us, the core of what we do is word of mouth. People are looking for authenticity and something off the grid. They find it, they protect it and they pass it on.”
As this story was being written, the Lost Boys were eyeballs-deep in plans for the opening of their new bar space, AND. AND is appropriately off the grid too. Set up somewhat bizarrely in Westfield Bondi Junction, it is purposefully named for poor search engine optimisation. They don’t want to be found – at least not by the Kings Cross hoards. “The Cross is, for a lot of people, not a great place to be on a Saturday night,” says Kean. “It’s dangerous, it’s lost its local vibe and I think that you can look at the explosion of small bars in Surry Hills and Bondi as a counter-point to it.”
HaHa Industries’ Dave Fernandes started throwing left-of-centre parties away from the club scene’s main drags for similar reasons to Kean. What started as much-better-than-your-average house parties in 2005 evolved into a monthly night in the Abercrombie courtyard, before becoming regular nights at Marrickville Bowling Club (yep, it’s popular) and inner west warehouse spaces. “Marrickville Bowling Club is open late, but it’s not governed by crazy bouncers,” says Fernandes. “And warehouses offer a completely different vibe to a nightclub. They feel more open, relaxed and comfortable and there is no pretence. In the city it’s usually venues that you don’t want to be in that are open late, and they often don’t let you move sound systems around and change the space.”
For Carly Roberts, director of Picnic Touring & Events, who throw the regular One Night Stand disco-leaning warehouse parties, it’s that underground secrecy factor that propelled her, and her parties, away from the well-trod club hubs. “These parties feel more like a secret club,” she explains. “And the beach, the old man pub and the local RSL all go hand in hand with drinks not murdering your wallet, not subscribing to someone else’s idea of cool, an intimate setting and less expectation. As a result, events held there are loads more fun.”
Cheap, easy, fun? It seems off-the-grid clubbing is a trend that’s here to stay. And that means anywhere’s a dance floor waiting to happen – the lobby at Deutshe Bank, the Monorail, an empty Boy Charlton swimming pool, the abandoned Petersham roller rink, and the Glebe Tram Shed are at the top of my party wish list. Now, can someone please make them happen?
Where to party:
This is the crew responsible for, amonst other things, the parties at the Ritz and Bondi Beach Oporto's.
All night secret beach parties.
Absinthe and psychedelia in an inner west warehouse.
An odd venue, good music and great people have made this one of the best parties in Sydney.
Heaving techno and the city's best harbour views.
Their previous parties have happened in a church, on a moving train and at an army barracks.
The HAHA crew throw the Versus blow-outs at Marrickville bowlo, and regular warehouse shindigs.
The Picnic One Night Stand parties offer a regular and delicious warehouse disco fix.
Cheap and cheerful dance parties on the Sweeney’s rooftop.
Each month these lads deliver fun techno at free pop-up parties where you least expect them.