Pitt Street, Sydney – Phantoms and The Civic
Pitt Street, Sydney, is home to the ghosts of Sydney’s once-thriving music scene – and a genuine Phantom.
It’s hard to believe now, looking around a city which has become a home for property developers, rather than musicians and music fans, but at one time Pitt Street had the biggest and best independent record, music label and T-Shirt shop in Australia. Phantom Records may have been small but it was, as it advertised, ‘the big beat’ in the concrete jungle that was Sydney. It was a hub.
Phantom Records ruled Pitt Street and The Civic Hotel on the other side of the road, rocked.
Phantom was also where a highly collectable compilation album was born. Paths of Pain to Jewels of Glory was a Pitt Street product. It helped launch the budding careers of two Australian bands still touring today. The Hoodoo Gurus and Sunnyboys.
Home to The Hoodoo Gurus
Pitt Street in the Eighties was at the heart of a city that stayed up late and drank until dawn when Dave Faulkner founded the Hoodoo Gurus in 1981.
“Every week you’d hear about a new band playing its first gig,” he said recently in an enquiry into Sydney’s live music crisis. “You’d find new venues. It was all very exciting.”
As reported by the media, Faulkner said the city’s music industry had been harassed almost out of existence in Sydney by pokies, restrictive liquor laws and planning rules.
The Lansdowne Fifteen Pushes Back
The Lansdowne Fifteen, part of a Sydney push back against the live music crisis, joined Faulkner with Brooke McClymont from The McClymonts and Tim Levinson from Urthboy, looking at lockout laws, noise complaints, red tape, lack of late night buses and taxis and trains. What can’t be changed is this, below – Pitt Street, Sydney, today is for big business, high rise apartments and property developers. The Pitt Street Mall has the highest rents in Australia and its rents in general are expensive – among the top 10 in the world.
This is how Pitt Street, once a music mecca, is seen by companies like Commercial Real Estate, on their sales website.
In Sydney today the average price of an apartment is three-quarters of a million dollars. The average house price is well over a million.
The natural habitat of the musician and the music fan has thus been lost in the space of just 30 years, in central Sydney but even in its beach suburbs.
Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel and $4 Door Entry
In the late Seventies and Eighties (below) you could see Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel at The Royal Antler in Narrabeen and Mental as Anything at The Civic Hotel on Pitt Street – for around $4. The Deb Doyle poster collection (held at the MAAS) survives to show us what the city was once like.
It dates from a time when the southern end of Pitt Street, dominated by cheap accommodation at the West End hotel and the People’s Palace, low-cost cafes, bookshops and record shops helped Sydney rock.
The Reels and Pitt Street Farmers
The Reels immortalised Pitt Street in an album called Pitt Street Farmers. Today, The Reels are highly collectable, on vinyl and in poster art. Their Eighties heyday is part of a strange disconnect in Australia where venues are demolished or renovated and repurposed – with no heritage protection – while the cultural past actually goes up in value.
Pitt Street Farmers
Poster, below, at The Josef Lebovic Gallery.
Mental as Anything on Pitt Street in 1979
One of the reasons Mental as Anything (still gigging today, along with those other Pitt Street legends) could begin their career at venues like The Unicorn in Sydney, and later at The Civic Hotel on Pitt Street, was the support of Countdown.
They were invited on Countdown during a phase when independent bands were encouraged and their song about local pub life, The Nips Are Getting Bigger became a hit. Later on, Elvis Costello would produce I Didn’t Mean To Be Mean for them. Live It Up became a top-ten hit in Britain and across Europe. The Pitt Street bands did well. Cold Chisel still have hits today. But what happened to Pitt Street? Where is the next Sydney hub coming from?
The Sydney Scene in the Eighties
The Hoodoo Gurus’ My Girl was filmed (below) at Harold Park Racecourse, Sydney. The Harold Park Hotel was nearby. The live music scene, with all its record shops, guitar stores and endless rows of shared terrace houses, stretched from Sydney University’s Manning Bar (where Jimmy Barnes once jammed with Mental as Anything under the name The Handsome Vikings) to Chequers on Goulburn Street, where The Sunnyboys shared the bill with Flaming Hands and Lipstick Killers.
It ran all the way to the Northern Beaches, where Midnight Oil ruled the turf. Another Pitt Street band still touring today.
Sydney in the Eighties was a world where Peter Garrett described ‘loading black boxes into the back of vans, pasting your own posters, putting on your own shows, making a bond and building it with your audiences, learning by trial and error all of those aspects of what it takes to be a rock band not on the dole – contracts, promos, songwriting, sound and lights, cheap hotels, the Hume Highway, agencies’ commissions, crappy recording contracts and indifferent radio.” (Dig, David Nichols, VCP).
Yet, the city produced bands who helped co-create not just a whole homegrown music industry, but a culture. These clips (below) which Sydney bands chose to make on location around the city, are history. Genuinely.
Vanessa Berry is an acclaimed author and blogger. Her zines and hand-drawn maps have been exhibited in the Museum of Contemporary Art, the National Gallery of Australia and the Museum of Sydney. She remembers Phantom Records on Pitt Street under the Monorail.
“Phantom, while not being a punk record store, seemed more punk to me, things were a bit looser there than they were at Red Eye or Waterfront. The store was on Pitt Street, under the tracks of the monorail and up a short flight of stairs. Their slogan was “the big beat in the heart of the vinyl jungle”. I liked the sound of it, but it didn’t fit with how I envisaged Phantom, which was a jungle of boys with scruffy hair and scratchy guitars. I remember buying a copy of Crow’s first record “Sunburnt Throats and Happy Thunderclouds” there, from a pile of them being sold off cheaply. Phantom released this record and records by other great bands like Even as we Speak and The Hummingbirds, and multiple copies of these Phantom releases could often been found on the shelves. (A note here: Red Eye and Waterfront were also record labels as well as stores.)”
The Pitt Street Record Zone, Berry’s name for the secondhand vinyl shops south of Liverpool Street was part of Phantom’s big beat in Sydney. Lawson’s and Ashwood’s provided musicians and fans with an archive of affordable Sixties and Seventies records to buy and the rest is Australian history.
Martin’s on the corner of Goulburn St and Pitt St, across from what was once the Mandarin Club, was another important pulse point near Phantom’s heart. The instruments the bands needed came from Allans Music, also on Pitt Street.
So What Happened to Sydney’s Soul?
The discussion about Sydney’s missing soul – beyond its beating heart – has been going on for years, as musicians and music fans have lost their place in the world, and most of their old places. George Street, parallel to Pitt Street, was also once home to great venues. No more. This is a discussion about ‘lost’ George Street.
The Civic Hotel, Mental As Anything and Midnight Oil
Bob Yates ran the music venue at the Civic Hotel in 1978-1979. The handbills that appear in a scrapbook donated to MAAS (the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney) were produced by Yates.
Flowers (later Icehouse) and The Sports were also Civic Hotel regulars. These rare photographs of The Civic Hotel in its life music prime are from the Why Stop Time blog (below).
Why Stop Time? The Civic as a Punk Palace
The blog Why Stop Time describes Pitt Street at the end of the Seventies and start of the Eighties.
“I used to go to a lot of punk pubs around 1978 to 1980. The first main one I went to was the Grand hotel near Central railway station, now demolished. After a while the scene moved to the old Chequers nightclub on Goulburn St and the Civic hotel which was just up the road. I think these photos were taken around the time the punks were starting to drink there.”
“This was decades before pubs were gentrified, they were pretty much glorified public toilets in those days – everything tiled. This photo also gives a sense of the boredom of the scene; if a band wasn’t playing there wasn’t much to do but sit and drink beer, play pool and pinball. No one had much money back then. The block just down the hill from the Civic was interesting in those days. There was a variety of cheap accommodation such as the C.B. hotel (still there but now backpacker accommodation), the Peoples’ Palace (demolished for apartments) and the West End hotel (not sure, perhaps also backpackers.) There was also a big shop that was run by the Russian government and sold goods from the Soviet Union. In the other direction Pitt St had a range of second hand book and record shops such as Ashwood’s and Lawson’s.”
Image below: The Civic Hotel.
Sydney City, Surry Hills, Newtown, Darlinghurst, Chippendale
A key point about Sydney after dark in the Eighties for many music fans now, was that back then – friends could walk friends home. Affordable share house accommodation in the city centre, Surry Hills, Newtown, Kings Cross, Darlinghurst and Chippendale – even in Paddington – gave rise to a generation of music lovers who supported a thriving national music industry. They paid for the gigs, bought the beer, purchased the vinyl, booked the studios, shopped for the T-Shirts and handed money over for the music magazines. Maxys is a memory for great bloggers now, but it was once within walking distance of Pitt Street. A typical week in Sydney in the Eighties could take you from The Chevron in Kings Cross (demolished) to see The Divinyls, to a Teardrop Explodes gig at Maxys in the city. You could go out, most nights.
The Day The Music Died
The 2010 Sydney Morning Herald article, The Day The Music Died, helped to begin a movement by music fans and musicians to try and fix what went wrong for Sydney. Until the city can be fixed, collectors and archivists continue preserving what was lost.
The artwork from the vibrant poster scene of Seventies and Eighties Australian music is held at museums including The Australian Music Vault and even revamped venues like The Espy (The Esplanade Hotel in St. Kilda, Melbourne) and the original prints can be found at outlets like the Josef Lebovic Gallery
The Art Deco heritage of pubs like The Civic is being recognised in all its ‘P&O Ship Style’ glory while the luckiest venues continue to trade – but the loss of venues is a constant threat. Australia is pricing its music history high and the Seventies and Eighties survivors like Cold Chisel are in more demand than ever, but meanwhile Sydney music lovers are wondering where the big beat in the heart of the urban jungle today, can be found.
Art, Music, History and Culture
The story of Pitt Street is the story of a wipeout. To quote The Hoodoo Gurus – ‘Like Wow, Wipeout’. From purple ink stamps on wrists, to photocopied handbills, the music business was always low-tech at The Civic Hotel on Pitt Street, but it was an important spot on the Sydney music map for what is now recognised as a golden age for musicians, illustrators, film makers and fashion designers.
The Future of Pitt Street
The future of Pitt Street and the city – from Kings Cross back to The Civic Hotel – now depends on people like John Graham.
Shocked at the way the Australian touring circuit has broken down – he’s a man on a mission.
Pitt Street Ghosts and Phantom
Phantom Records was opened by Dare Jennings in Sydney in 1978 selling the latest punk and new wave 7” singles, and rare second hand vinyl. Sydney bands shopped there and drew inspiration and influences there.
The Sunnyboys and Hoodoo Gurus summed up Sydney in 1983. Leilani and Love To Rule were instant classics born from a small shop in a big music street. Bands honed their craft every week, on a series of stages, in a chain of pubs, before music fans who co-created a scene. What’s My Scene? Well, it used to be just that. A busy homegrown business in a city that rocked.
Pitt Street, Sydney holds the ghosts of music past and what used to be a genuine Phantom. Now for the spirit of music future?