Fighting the Bushfire: Reinventing the East Brunswick Club
Fighting the Bushfire:
Reinventing the East Brunswick Club
A creative journalism thesis
Submitted July 2007
La Trobe University
Part one: The end of an era, the beginning of another
I had worked at the Ding Dong Lounge in the city for about a year, when the venue went from being a hipster hangout with a non-stop buzz to becoming gravely quiet. The changes happened immediately after manager and booker Luke Roberts was fired in late 2005. A handful of employees quit their jobs in acts of loyalty at the same time, and the normally popular music venue also lost most of its patronage because of the sacking. This corner of the Melbourne live-scene, which I had gotten to know so well from the service side of the bar, was breaking up and falling apart. I was astonished to see how fast it all happened. It was like the place died over night.
When Roberts lost his job at Ding Dong, it was less than a week after he got arrested because of a minor disagreement with Queensland police after an eccentric display on the dance floor in a Brisbane nightclub. The occasion was a motivational role he had taken on for an east coast tour with The Spazzys who were prepping up for an upcoming tour of Japan. Differences in opinion about what was to be recognized as approved conduct in bars and general nightlife were discussed, thoroughly disputed, and Roberts eventually lost the argument to the police Force. In the end, he waited the situation out in solitary confinement in the early morning hours. After his release, Roberts and The Spazzys celebrated his regained freedom by hiring a yacht and sailed the Whitsundays.
Inpress columnist Ben Butler awarded the event with a little note in his last page rant, under the banner ‘King Dong Captured.’ Luke later told me the scenario wasn’t worth much fuss: “The fact was it wasn’t that big a night but it was the first time I’ve ever been arrested. We get way more wasted in Melbourne.” I believe he’s right, but it’s unnecessary to linger about the Queensland scenario’s impact on the decision to let him go. He was demoted as King of the Dong regardless, the place went into hibernation in advent of new generation to fill their environment, and it’s now in the past. What’s more noteworthy than his receiving reprimands is his influence on the scene – before and after being sacked.
On Mess and Noise’s online discussion forum, passionate threads eventually grew to about 300 comments strong. Under the banners ‘Luke Roberts sacked’ and ‘Luke Roberts Appreciation Thread,’ people were sharing their anger over having a favourite bar manager and booker fired from a favourite venue. The general impression from a lot of these people was that they’d be damned before ever setting foot in the place again.
A rock ’n’ roll cowboy
Lonely Planet, in their Melbourne City Guide, once acknowledged Roberts’ skills as a band booker, announcing his talent for bringing a wide variety of indie music out to the kids at the Ding Dong Lounge. This venture was a huge success during the time of Roberts’ reign, judging by the number of jam-packed nights. The guide bragged about cult gigs like The Melvins, one of Roberts’ personal favourites. The Age also gave him credit for being at the helm of movements in the music scene and recognized him and part-owner Bill Walsh for being “so cool they booked the 5-6-7-8s before they appeared in Tarantino’s Kill Bill.”[i] Before booking and managing Ding Dong, Roberts also booked the legendary Tote Hotel in Collingwood for a longer period, before he lost his job during a reorganisation. He managed the White Stripes’ first trip Down Under, he organised multiple tours with one-man-guitar-and-helmet freak-show Bob Log III and managed the punks Mach Pelican. These were significant moments.
In the official press release announcing his departure from Ding Dong, Roberts’ former employers labelled him a “rock ‘n’ roll cowboy.” And, if you look past his impressive resume as a player in the grassroots of the local music industry, you’ll find that he is a kind of person whose ability to do great things goes hand in glove with an exceptional skill of getting fired. You could say it’s a sign of a slightly restless and dynamically disorganised personality, an artistic eccentricity.
For example, when managing rock gods Queens of the Stone Age’s first ever-Australian tour, he overslept and missed a flight to Perth. There were a variety of reasons for this, apparently. When I confronted him with the situation in retrospect he had a hard time explaining the circumstances without sharing some blame with his choice of taking the cheapest airfare: “Fucking Jet Star! You’re better off paying a little extra with Virgin or Qantas,” he said, clearly regretful. By the time Roberts made it to the WA Big Day Out 2001, the Queens were already on stage and he was demoted as tour manager. However, rumour has it, he still got paid for the entire tour.
I met Luke again in February 2007, as usual, over a few beers too many at the Cherry Bar, with a consecutive visit to Pony in the early morning – where the flowers definitively do not grow. (Everyone who’s done that walk of shame properly a couple of times – often after starting the night at, well, Ding Dong – will recognize it as something like Melbourne’s version of the Bermuda triangle. This is beside the immediate point, yet highly important for those who have been there. You might find a lot of things are reminiscent of the Melbourne Zoo, except it’s outside of their opening hours, and they’ll serve alcohol to just about anyone regardless of their good natured display of animal instincts. And, by a random sleight of hand, you might even find yourself part of the early morning’s special attraction).
Luke told me about a prospective job he had going as manager of a new live venue. It was a little way out of the city he said, in East Brunswick. He talked and talked and talked about this new venue and the potential he reckoned it had in the current music scene – an old locals’ pub with about 400-450 people capacity. It was going to be just what the area needed, he was sure about it. He could see it all happening at the right time. Another bonus was the booker, Richard Moffat, who currently also booked the Corner and the Northcote Social Club. “On top of that,” he said, “It’s a brand new venue, in a new part of town for a lot of bands and punters, and that makes it even more exciting.”
After having thought about my conversation with Luke for some time, I came across a Scandinavian documentary about the Melbourne music scene. The documentary called Melbourne Rock City aired on national television in Norway, Sweden and Denmark in May 2006. It included bands like Cut Copy, Architecture in Helsinki and The Avalanches and visited three Melbourne venues – The Corner Hotel in Richmond, Northcote Social Club and the Ding Dong Lounge.
“Like a bushfire”
There were two things in particular that caught my attention. First, the Norwegian presenter, Mona B. Riise, stated in her introduction that Melbourne is “the city with the highest ratio of live music venues per capita in the world.”[ii] Later in the documentary, Gus Franklin from Architecture in Helsinki followed with a metaphor stating that live venues in Melbourne “thrive and die and thrive and die like in a bushfire.”[iii] The connection between these two statements, the advent of a new venue in East Brunswick and the current decline in patronage at Ding Dong seemed to be making a lot of sense in terms of dormant movements in the scene.
I started looking into venues that had fallen victims to restructuring, death by licensing laws or other major alterations in the last few years. I soon found it seemed as if Franklin’s bushfire-metaphor had more than a little leverage. Ding Dong itself had undergone major changes a few years before my time in Melbourne, when it was called The International. Another favourite live venue amongst a big part of the crowd there, the old Punters Club on Brunswick Street, had shut and reopened as Bimbo Deluxe – becoming a more electronica-friendly pizza and beer joint. The Cornish Arms on Gertrude was no longer what it used to be in terms of live entertainment, and it seemed like the Rob Roy Hotel had also lost some of its old flair in the Fitzroy scene.
I met Luke again in the next few days and he told me he had got the job. He said to come and have a look at the new club he was going to manage. We had some more beers that night and the focus of our conversation stayed on the potential of this new venue. Luke enjoys nothing more than to share his opinion with you, and he’ll willingly admit that if you let him, “he’ll crap on for hours.” But at the same time, his resume shows that he has a lot to crap on about. It was good to see him somewhat invigorated at this point too. Getting fired from Ding Dong was a matter not taken lightly by a lot of people, and himself the least. For Roberts it was not only a job, a significant part of his social life revolved around the club. And no one knew that particular scene better than he did.
When I finally got home at silly o’clock in the morning, I felt the connections were too obvious not to engage in, and I decided to try and do an inside-story from Melbourne’s newest live venue, without even having been there yet. The Scandinavian documentary, my recent findings, Luke Roberts’ local knowledge combined with a newfound enthusiasm, and my own (sort of academic) curiosity for the night-life, got me writing a quick proposal I ran by Roberts the next day. “Why not see what happens to this venue?” I thought. If it was going to be set on fire, I wanted to see how it would burn.
[i] Melinda Houston, 18 October 2005.
[ii] NRK TV/DR TV/SVT, Melbourne Rock City (Lydverket, NRK (Norwegian National Broadcaster), 2006), TV documentary.