“One night in a pub called the “Shaking Hand”/ There was a 92-decibel rocking band/ And the music was good and the music was loud/ And the singer turned and he said to the crowd/ Let there be rock”!!! In their unique way AC/DC captured the essence of Australian pub rock with 1978’s Let There Be Rock, the blood, sweat, and beers of the rebellious rock and roll that invaded hotels throughout the country in the 1970’s and 80’s, became indelibly imprinted on our national consciousness, we reveled in the nasty, gritty, raw-edged, manic intensity of pub rock, and we were hooked for twenty years. (Below AC/DC lead singer Bon Scott in the late 1970’s.)
The emergence of the Australian version of the pub rock genre and the related pub circuit was the result of several interconnected factors. From the 1950s to the 1970s, mainly because of restrictive state liquor licensing laws, only a small proportion of live pop and rock music in Australia was performed on licensed premises, mostly in private clubs or discotheques, most concerts were held in non-licensed venues such as community, church or municipal halls. These concerts and dances were not targeted specifically at a teenage market, they were often supervised by adults, and alcohol was not served.
During the 1960s, however, Australian states began liberalising their licensing laws. Sunday Observance Acts were repealed, pub opening hours were extended, discriminatory regulations — such as the long-standing ban on women entering or drinking in public bars – were removed, and in the 1970s the age of legal majority was lowered from 21 to 18. Concurrently, the Baby Boomer generation were reaching their late teens and early twenties, and were now able to enter such licensed premises, but the 1970’s also saw a change in the global economic landscape with deep recession and record inflation affecting most of the western world.
Mortgage interest rates in Australia soared as high as 20% in the 70’s, times were tough, we craved escapist entertainment, and this was reflected in the aesthetic and lyrical content of pub rock; thunderous music, and a raw unpretentious volatility that thumbed its nose at the architects of social injustice and economic despair – the banks, politicians, fat cat bureaucrats, and greedy employers. It was instantly appealing, anti-intellectual, often good-humored, and blue collar in nature, AC/DC, The Aztecs (above), Rose Tattoo and others reflected the whole working-class ethos of young Australians toiling in shops, factories, on building sites, and the production lines of General Motors, Ford and Toyota.
The rise of the pub circuit also coincided with the launch of the ABC’s Countdown and the advent of color TV, Radio Double J and then Triple J, and 4-ZZZ FM community radio in 1975, all combined to provide fledgling bands with hitherto unimagined opportunities to cut their teeth, and get mass medium exposure that would further drive attendances at their live gigs, the publicans were delighted!
With the pub circuit came a different attitude, a different social scene, a new style of stronger, harder-edged music, and a different drug, alcohol, which was cheap, plentiful and above all legal. It was also a period of rapid development in amplification and PA systems, enabling even pub bands to play at unprecedented volumes. Its musical origins came from blues, garage rock and R&B, its roots were firmly planted in the foot-stomping boogie of Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Lobby Lloyd’s Coloured Balls, AC/DC, The Angels, Buffalo (below with Dave Tice lead singer, Black Sabbath with a touch of Free and Deep Purple), Blackfeather (above), and Cold Chisel. The Thursday papers’ entertainment sections were crammed with listings of hundreds of gigs for the upcoming weekend, all over the cities and suburbs, and all of them would pull crowds, again the beer barn licensees were ecstatic!
Musically pub rock was characterised by simple, rhythm-based songs, played fast and thunderously loudly, snare and kick drums driving bass guitar, simple repetitive riffs, no complex solos or counter-melodies, and lots of chanted vocals and catchy choruses. All the songs were linked, there were no spaces in between, no loss of intensity, also no encores, the bands held nothing back for a contrived or planned finale, bands quickly adapted their live shows to this format, and honed their performance skills accordingly. Below left to right – Midnight Oil, Cosmic Psychos, and Jimmy Barnes
A typical pub rock venue was intense and confronting, a potent mix of lust, spit, sweat, and tattooed muscles flexing, jam-packed with men playing mean, fat guitars and swilling jugs of beer on stage, as punters crammed in for a session of drinking, and fist-pumping pub rock, it was brash, unapologetic, and inherently Australian. Hotel owners would deliberately ignore fire and crowd control codes, cramming 2,000 punters into spaces licensed for 250, turn down the air-conditioning systems to create sub-tropical humidity designed to boost beer sales, mostly consumed by the jug not the glass/can, because it was virtually impossible to get to and from the bar frequently without being crushed or swept up in a roiling melee. Oxygen tanks were available backstage to help singers recover from the combined effects of smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion, and at the end of the night a pile of empty beer jugs would occupy the centre of the room.
The very venues in which the bands played had a major influence on the evolution of their music and their performance – overcrowded, sweaty, testosterone – charged, often violent, nicotine-stained, cramped, beer barns where the patrons were often drunk, violent, and quick to demonstrate their distaste for a particular band by raining bottles, glasses, and jugs onto the stage, and even confronting band members in the carpark after a session, to vent their spleen.
Pubs were no place for subtlety or pretence, the wall of sound that prevailed inside was visceral, confronting, and for the uninitiated very disorienting, bands developed pub rock styles with ear-splitting power chords, that translated well to larger arenas, but not necessarily recording studios, although it presented no obstacle to AC/DC’s rise to global hard rock domination.
Even though Australia had a relatively small population, proportionally the vast number of pub rock venues that mushroomed along the national coastline in an arc from Brisbane to Adelaide, meant that bands could tour extensively, often playing every night for long periods. Bands like AC/DC (above), Cold Chisel, INXS, Midnight Oil, Rose Tattoo, and others would hone the skills that would make them so effective when playing in large venues in the US and Europe in the future.
Notable pub rock venues included the Royal Antler Hotel in Narabeen (NSW), the Civic Hotel in Sydney’s city centre, the Bondi Lifesaver (above left), and the Star Hotel in Newcastle; in Victoria the Station Hotel in Prahran (above right), the Whitehorse Hotel, the Village Green, and Poynton’s Carlton Club Hotel, were all notable venues, while in South Australia the Larg’s Pier Hotel (above centre), and the Governor Hindsmarsh Hotel were pub rock bastions, in Brisbane the Queens Hotel and Exchange Hotel were early pub rock destinations, and in Perth the Melbourne Hotel, the Charles Hotel and the Raffles Hotel, were popular.
The era of pub rock can be arbitrarily-defined as the two decades of the 1970’s and 80’s, although away from the beer barns there was also a thriving club scene in the major cities where a variety of musical genres emerged – rave, house, post-punk, dance-pop, disco, acid rock – at clubs in Sydney – Stranded, Patches, Exchange – Melbourne – Inflation, Bombay Rock, Metro – Brisbane – Tracks, Transformers, Rhythm Zone – Adelaide – Planet, Village, Heaven – and Perth – Pinocchio’s and Rumours.
Pub rock originators like The Aztecs, Buffalo, Blackfeather, and Rose Tattoo would pass the torch onto the Divinyls (above left), Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel (until they split in 1984), the Angels, Hunters and Collectors (above right), Dragon (above centre), and the Choirboys in the early 80’s, while AC/DC and INXS simply went onto global domination, taking all their pub rock credibility with them into foreign markets.
But not everyone shared a rosey-hued memory of the glory days of Aussie pub rock, Shane Holman in his book The Mayor’s A Square: Live Music and Law and Order in Sydney (2000) warned against the romanticisation of the pub rock milieu, downplaying its musical legacy and noting the ephemeral nature of its oft-eulogised sites of performance. Musician and record label manager Roger Grierson also saw the pub rock era in a more unflattering light, “ the so-called golden era (of pub rock), was full of crap bands, and being jammed in with 1300 other people to see Dragon, or God forbid, the Radiators at the Bexley Hotel, buying over-priced drinks, being treated like shit, and having to hide from the bouncers.” John Pinder, proprietor of the TF Much Ballroom (Melb) simply described pub rock venues as “giant drinking farms where people can only come in their Holden Monaros, to listen to that very aggro, negative music, by sticking their heads into the bass bins of massive PA stacks, in an environment which was purposefully created to promote the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol.”
Never the less the Great Australian Pub Rock movement continued to rule into the new decade, throughout most of the 80’s with the Hoodoo Gurus, Painters and Dockers, Australian Crawl, Flowers (later Icehouse), Mental As Anything, Noiseworks, Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, Screaming Jets, Baby Animals, and Cosmic Psychos stepping up to perpetuate this most Australian of musical genres into the future.
The death knell of Aussie pub rock came in the early 1990s as strict enforcement of licensing laws and the more rigorous application of health and safety codes in hotels limited attendance numbers and forced licensees to upgrade sound-proofing, air-conditioning, fire evacuation and smoke extraction systems, which proved to be major financial disincentives for pub owners. Random breath-testing discouraged drink-driving and in-home entertainment encouraged patrons to party at home, the pubs moved on from pub rock to pokie schlock, as banks of beeping, whirring, chromed poker machines now stood where bands once played, and patrons boogied. If you craved the euphoria of surfing a heaving pub rock-style crowd, then a new cycle of national touring events had re-emerged, as the Big Day Out, Homebake, Falls Festival, and others now catered for large crowds for up to 3 days of continuous music, drinking, and partying.
In the 1990’s there were echoes of pub rock heard in the music of such bands as the Drones, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, You Am I, and Spiderbait, but many hotels had been gentrified as gastropubs, poker machine meccas, quiz night venues, and family-friendly buffet-style bistros, the raucous age of pub rock was no more, there were still some dogged licensees who clung to the past, but for most economic reality had wrought a change that would not be reversed.
Take the journey through this fascinating era of pub rock as we feature the hits of its best exponents over the next two weeks – Rose Tattoo, Angels, Divinyls, Cold Chisel, Flowers, Dragon, Hoodoo Gurus, Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, Black Sorrows, Choirboys, Sunny Boys, and Hunters and Collectors.