Renovate, wreck or ruin? Australia’s Festival Halls (including Melbourne Festival Hall, intended for high-rise apartments) have a chequered history.
They are also part of an emerging movement in Australian poster art collectables. Even tickets are now collectors’ items as museums and private owners snap them up.
Festival Hall Bootlegs
The Festival Halls qualify for among ‘world’s most bootlegged’ as venues, but what’s the story behind the famous chain?
Plastered – Murray Walding with Nick Vukovic
It’s becoming a familiar story in Australia, that the books, vinyl, eBay auction items and other memorabilia which celebrates a fast-fading musical history – is increasing in value. Meanwhile iconic venues and their continuing contribution to Australia’s bands, are downgraded in price. In comes the wrecking ball.
Of all the collectable books about music venues, Plastered by Murray Walding and Nick Vukovic (The Miegunyah Press, 2005) is one of the most valuable.
The silkscreen printing industry that spawned early posters for venues was given a particularly good run by the Festival Hall chain around Australia. In fact, The Johnny O’Keefe Spectacular (part of the Hi-Fi Club) of the 1950s had one of its earliest outings at Festival Hall, Melbourne, promoted on a silkscreen poster.
Jazz acts like Kenny Ball (these kinds of posters are now in private collections or galleries) were also promoted at ‘the Festivals’ (below, from Plastered).
Boxing and Festival Hall Melbourne
In its time, the boxing at Festival Hall, Melbourne was as big as some of the bands who came later. Boxing-format posters were copied for the emerging Fifties music industry in Australia. Little or no artwork, derived from fight advertising, they were cheap and basic at the time but are now rare pieces of Australian cultural history.
The Festival Halls
“Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney all boasted a “Festival Hall”, venues all owed by Stadiums Limited. These cavernous stadiums were often all that were on offer when promoters brought touring acts to Australia, and all of them had wonderful colourful histories.”
“Melbourne’s version was originally built in 1912 as a boxing and wrestling venue. After a fire in 1955, it was rebuilt in time to serve as the venue for the boxing, weightlifting and wrestling events at the 1956 Olympics. Like its contemporaries, it was built of sturdy brick, iron and tin.”
Sydney’s Festival Hall was demolished in 1973. Brisbane’s Festival Hall remained as a venue until 2003 – and Melbourne’s fell to the axe, officially, on Tuesday 23rd January, 2018. Game over? Australian music collectors will take an interest, whatever happens.
Dylan, the Beatles and Frank Sinatra all played at Festival Hall, Melbourne – and Patti Smith recently picked up her plectrum there, literally picking up where Lou Reed left off, last century – but Australia is about to lose her piece of global music heritage to (you guessed it) yet more expensive high-rise apartments.
One of my first stories as a music journalist was about XTC playing at Festival Hall. It’s been at the heart of so many more stories since then. In fact, the Patti Smith gig there was nominated by some Australian critics as one of the best gigs of the year.
There is no other venue in Australia where young bands can pick up that timeline of tradition. Who wouldn’t want to play on the same stage as Dylan, the Beatles and Sinatra?
It’s not enough for people defending the demolition to say some Australians are just being nostalgic and they get to keep their memories.
Festival Hall, Melbourne is a world-class historic venue which is on a par with the Budokan in Tokyo, the Apollo Theatre in New York and The Hollywood Bowl.
In fact, many of the same acts which made them famous, made Festival Hall famous too.
The Beatles Connection
Nippon Budokan (日本武道館 Nippon Budōkan), often shortened to Budokan, was originally built for the 1964 Summer Olympics. This Tokyo legend has parallels with Festival Hall, Melbourne, which was also a boxing and wrestling venue for many years.
The Beatles were the first rock group to play at the Budokan in a series of concerts held between June 30 and July 2, 1966. Several live albums were recorded at Budokan, including releases by Bob Dylan, Cheap Trick, and Ozzy Osbourne.
Festival Hall, Melbourne has seen exactly those huge names grace its stage. Tokyo has hung onto the Budokan and made it work.
The same might be said for the legendary Apollo Theatre in New York, which began life in 1914. In 1983, both the interior and exterior of the building were designated as New York City Landmarks, and the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It is estimated that 1.3 million people visit the Apollo every year.
It was resurrected after closing in 1976 then in 1983, it was bought by Inner City Broadcasting, obtained federal and city landmark status , then in 1991, purchased by the State of New York, which created the non-profit Apollo Theater Foundation to run it.
In 2009-10, in celebration of the theater’s 75th anniversary, the theater put together an archive of historical material, including documents and photographs and, with Columbia University, began an oral history project.
This (below, from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age) will be what Melbourne ends up with, instead, if demolition goes ahead.
Older Than the Hollywood Bowl
Festival Hall is older than the Hollywood Bowl, but California has chosen to preserve and cherish the latter.
So, what is Melbourne about to lose? Some of the story you may know – some you may not. No matter if you saw Sinatra here, Lionel Rose or The Clash, though – this is what Australia is about to trash.
From The Who to Lou
The Who sang My Generation here, on 25th January 1968. Lou Reed, above, toured Festival Hall in 1975.
Frank Sinatra and Festival Hall
Festival Hall is where Frank Sinatra made the notorious speech to the crowd attacking the Australian media – and particularly female journalists – that would see him in turn get bound up in politics with Bob Hawke, later the Australian Prime Minister. Sinatra is pictured here storming his way past the media, into Festival Hall. (Image: Fairfax/SMH)
The Who and PM Sir John Gorton
Festival Hall, Melbourne is also where The Who played with the Small Faces on 25th January 1968, attracting the wrath of another Australian Prime Minister, Sir John Gorton.
The Festival Hall story is also the story of the Wren family, though . Frank Sinatra sang My Kind of Town when he played their hall onJuly 9th 1974, but is Melbourne the Wrens’ kind of town, and if so, why has it taken just two years for this part of the city to go from celebrated local history, to yet more high-rise?
The Wren Family and Festival Hall
Frank Sinatra did it His Way in the Seventies (above, a famous limited-edition bootleg of the Festival Hall concert). So how are the Wrens doing it their way? The story’s changed a lot since 2015.
“Managing director John Wren, the grandfather of the man who bought the stadium in 1915, told the Herald Sun in 2015 that there was no plan to change things.”
“I’m honoured and privileged to carry on what my grandfather started,” Wren said at the time. “As long as there is live music, we’ll be here.”
And now? It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. The City of Melbourne has this in their hands again, just as they had The Palace Theatre. Also marked for demolition.
Bob Dylan at Festival Hall, April 19th 1966
Festival Hall saw Bob Dylan grace the stage on April 19th 1966 (the bootleg of the concert survives). He was following The Beatles, who had stunned Australia there, two years previously.
The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 was awarded to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Poets and boxers have both graced Festival Hall.
The Beatles at Festival Hall
Australian teenagers of the Sixties had their coming of age at the Beatles concerts at Festival Hall, Melbourne in June 1964. Fans jumped onto the police to land on stage. John Lennon shook 19-year-old Brent McAuslan’s hand before Paul McCartney told police to ‘let him go’. He was nineteen.
Pink Floyd – Quad Sound in Melbourne
Melbourne Festival Hall was home to Pink Floyd’s quad sound on August 13th 1971. Unusually, they had support bands drawn from the local music scene – Pirana and Lindsay Bourke.
Australian support acts, not to mention headliners, have had a long, proud tradition at the venue – one of the few mid-sized spaces in Melbourne where fans can get close to the front of the stage.
Nick Cave and Chrissy Amphlett
Melbourne locals are rightly wondering what has happened, within the space of two years, to change this part of their city from a heritage precinct(honouring Nick Cave, Chrissy Amphlett, Michael Hutchence, Angus Young, Kylie Minogue, Daniel Johns) into a new demolition site.
In recognition of Festival Hall’s long standing contribution to live music in Melbourne, Dudley Street was even renamed Wren Lane in honour of the Wren family, after 100 long years of faithfully maintaining Festival Hall.
Australian artists who performed at the ‘House of Stoush’ (harking back to its wrestling ring past) or as it is has also been known to generations, ‘Festy Hall’ were celebrated at the time. And now?
It’s cultural heritage. But even in Melbourne, where some buildings qualify as ‘Heritage Overlay’ it does not protect places like Festival Hall.
Once it’s gone, as Melbourne’s heritage activists say, it’s gone forever. Welcome To My Nightmare, as Alice Cooper might have said (below, on tour in Australia in 1977).
Brisbane versus Melbourne
The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald reported that proposed apartments, retail and office space would hit 16 levels if passed by the City of Melbourne.
Speaking to The Age, Helen Marcou, co-founder of SLAM – Save Live Australian Music, said it would be “a tragedy for Victoria” to lose the venue.
“When Brisbane are rebuilding their Festival Hall because they see how important it is to culture, it would be an absolute travesty to lose ours in Melbourne,” she said.
Support Acts Lose Out
From Patti Smith‘s 40th anniversary Horses tour with Australian Courtney Barnett. all the way back to Pink Floyd’s choice of (unusually for them) two local Australian bands as support, Festival Hall has been a unique place for local music to find its place on a world stage. Not just a Melbourne one. They will also lose out.
The Internet Reacts
Goldie @goldie_fm wrote on Twitter, on 23rd January 2018, the day of the official announcement – “As I look out my hotel room all i see are apartments being built. That west end (docklands) area is a lifeless concrete hole. Keep culture/history alive.”
“This city will be nothing but poorly built apartments in 10 years. #festivalhall”
Festival Hall was known as the original House of Rock and Roll, from Beatles, Bill Haley and Johnny Cash to the Lee Gordon “Big Shows”, through to Frank Sinatra, Liberace and Shirley Bassey. It’s also seen Red Hot Chili Peppers, Powderfinger, The Foo Fighters, The Script, Lily Allen, Ed Sheeran, and Lorde.
It’s part of Australian boxing history. As the Budokan in Tokyo hosted judo, so the Festival in Melbourne saw famous biff.
Lionel Rose was here. So was John McEnroe at a first for Melbourne – an indoor Tennis Exhibition featuring John McEnroe.
The Ballad of Ringo Starr
Beatles fans around the world know Festival Hall for other reasons. The Beatles Bible – “At 8am on the morning of 15 June 1964, Jimmie Nicol left the Southern Cross Hotel on Bourke Street, Melbourne. Accompanied by Brian Epstein, he was driven to the airport where he was given a final agreed fee of £500, as well as a gold watch with the engraving: “To Jimmy, with appreciation and gratitude – Brian Epstein and The Beatles.”
“Nicol didn’t say goodbye to The Beatles; they were sleeping off the previous night’s party, and he felt he shouldn’t disturb them. The group was celebrating their reunion with Ringo Starr, who had missed the early part of their world tour after being struck down by acute tonsillitis and pharyngitis.”
The Melbourne 17th June concert at Festival Hall was recorded by GTV 9 and broadcast as a TV special The Beatles Sing for Shell.
This is it. Ringo Starr might now be Sir Ringo Starr, but none of the descendants of these Melbourne fans will ever see music here again. This is that venue. Are you or your family in the audience?
“I do believe this is my interval, as we say… We’ve been having a marvellous time being chased around the country for three days. You know, I think it’s worth mentioning because it’s so idiotic, it’s so ridiculous what’s been happening. We came all the way to Australia because I chose to come here. ”
“Frank Sinatra was in the wrong country at the wrong time. He arrived in Australia for concerts in July 1974, just three years after Germaine Greer had published The Female Eunuch and only 18 months after Melbourne singer Helen Reddy had a worldwide hit with I Am Woman, virtually the theme song for the then rapidly expanding women’s liberation movement. It was hardly the right moment for Sinatra to get up on stage at Melbourne’s Festival Hall and describe Australia’s female journalists as “buck-and-a-half hookers”.
Only after the involvement of Bob Hawke, then leader of the ACTU, did Sinatra agree to sign a statement to the effect that he regretted any inconvenience caused. You can read more here.
The Age and Men’s Style have both immortalised the Sinatra Festival Hall stoush. In fact, it was even made into a film.
The Night We Called It a Day is “Based on the true events surrounding Frank Sinatra’s tour of Australia. When Sinatra called a local reporter a “two-bit hooker”, every union in the country black-banned the star until he issues an apology.
Starring Dennis Hopper, Portia de Rossi and Melanie Griffiths it’s part of Festival Hall legend. For now.
“Prime Minister John Gorton sent Pete Townshend a telegram telling The Who not to come back to Australia; Townshend reportedly sent back a fruity reply and left Australia swearing never to return — a promise he has kept faithfully to this day! Once in New Zealand, things calmed down briefly, although they again ruffled establishment feathers in Auckland when Keith Moon indulged his famous penchant for wrecking hotel rooms.”
X is for XTC, because this is where the band delivered a blistering concert before stage fright stopped lead singer Andy Partridge touring. You can see it on YouTube.
And Z is for Frank Zappa who played here in 1973.
If you want to help save Festival Hall please follow AMMP on Twitter @ammptv or sign the petition above. Thank you.