Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Great Calder Park Rock 'n' Roll Swindle

February 1, 1993:  A massive crowd of rock fans descend on Calder Park Raceway to see one of the world's biggest bands, Guns 'n' Roses. Touring their hugely successful Use Your Illusion double-double album, the Californian rockers would play a two hour set that was wildly received by the assembled throng.

But a day of big bandannas and big riffs would end in chaos, with thousands of hungry, thirsty, sun stricken punters straggling home along the freeway on foot in the middle of the night. The Gunner's Calder Park gig would become one of Australia's most notorious music fiascoes, and the ensuing public investigation would force long term changes to the regulation of the live music industry in Victoria.

Thirty kilometres north west of Melbourne, flyspeck Calder Park began hosting motor sport on a dirt track in the early 1960's. As the sport increased in popularity a basic asphalt circuit was laid, the first meeting held there in January 1962.

One of the early competitors was Bob Jane, a professional race driver who later would make his name with a chain of successful tyre repair shops. In the 1970's, Jane bought the property the racetrack was built on and, after a trip to watch NASCAR racing in the US, greatly expanded and improved the facilities.

By the early 1980's, Calder Park Raceway (sometimes referred to as the Melbourne International Raceway) was one of Australia's largest motorsport venues.

Bob Jane at Calder Park during track construction work.

By 1993, Guns 'n' Roses had reached the very pinnacle of the music business. As a follow up to their classic hard rock album from 1989, Appetite for Destruction, they had released not one, but two double albums in 1991, Use Your Illusion I and II, and then watched them both go multi-platinum.

Taking these albums on the road was a gargantuan task. Their world tour would last more than two years and encompass 194 shows in 31 countries, making it one of the biggest and longest tours in live music history. The band's popularity was such that they frequently played outsized venues, including a number of racetracks, among gigs at more traditional locations.

Height of fame: Gunners on the cover of Rolling Stone, 1993.

The Gunners stop in Australia would only be brief; two shows in a week before heading off to New Zealand. On January 30 they played the Eastern Creek racetrack outside of Sydney, a gig that was hugely successful with both fans and critics alike (a 2011 poll by a local radio station voted this the best rock show ever staged in Australia). 80 000 people attended and enjoyed the day without major incident.

Ticket stub from the Gunners Eastern Creek show.

The stage seemed to be set for an epic event in Melbourne a few days later.

But even before the day of the show, trouble was brewing. Dedicated fans began arriving at the racetrack the night before, the evening of January 31, camping out to nab the best vantage points for the next day. They bought tents, sleeping bags and, crucially, their own food and drink.

Also arriving the night before were the merch vendors. And seeing that they already had a captive audience, the most industrious of these began working the lines, selling t-shirts and other souvenirs. And not selling them cheap either; the official tour t-shirt was touted for as much as $75. The hard sell along the queue continued into the next day.

G 'n' R merch played a crucial role in the fiasco.

February 1 was a sweltering summer’s day, the temperature reaching into the high thirties. As 75 000 ticket holders drove or caught special bus services out to the track, they had little idea what was in store for them.

What the majority of fans hadn't realised, as they made their way to the gig, was that the organisers had stipulated a list of items that could not be brought into the show. These included standard items like alcohol, but also; food, drink, eskies, umbrellas, cameras and sunscreen. Burly security teams manned the entrance and ordered patrons to hand over their provisions. Even bottles of water were confiscated. People were directed to replenish their supplies from outlets inside the racetrack.

75 000 hot, thirsty, frustrated fans crammed the raceway.

But having queued for as long as five hours to get into the place, these hapless suckers then faced queues averaging an hour and a half to get a sandwich or a beer. And sky high prices - as much as $5 for a small bottle of water, as an example – when they did get served.

The early arrivers, who had brought their own food and then spent their dollars on t-shirts and CD’s while waiting to get in, suddenly found themselves trapped; a long way from Melbourne with nothing to eat or drink and now no money to buy anything else. Thirsty people who tried to scrounge water from the bathroom facilities had their drink bottles taken from them by zealous security guards. Arguments and scuffles broke out.

The bathroom facilities themselves quickly descended into unhygenic chaos. The queues were so long that makeshift toilets were erected, these consisting of nothing more than a cloth screen erected around a patch of open ground, where desperate people could take their chances. The ladies version of this was later described as a 'urine saturated swamp' in an official complaint written by one survivor, undoubtedly still scarred to this day.

But perhaps most seriously, the organisers had taken no precautions regarding the hot weather. Calder Park Raceway is on an arid, treeless plain and no shading had been set up to provide any respite from the sun. Having had their sunscreen confiscated, punters were directed to a single sunscreen booth and another long queue to get a squirt out of a communal drum.

The combination of the hot weather, lack of shade and restricted access to water had dire consequences. Nearly two thousand people were treated for sunstroke and a number ended up in hospital.

Rare photo of stoic G 'n' R fans, February 1, 1993.

For everyone that survived the sun, in the mid afternoon Melbourne's fickle weather did one of its famous U-turns. A sudden wind blew up, followed by thunder, lightning and a torrential downpour. Within minutes, the crowd was drenched, thousands of thirsty people opening their mouths to catch the only free water they were going to get that day.

And then... G 'n' R came on.

G 'n' R frontman Axl Rose, Use Your Illusion tour.

For two hours all the problems of the day were forgotten in a riot of pumped up guitar rock. Mixing classics off their earlier albums with newer songs and popular covers, the band delivered what their fans had come for; a noisy, jumbo sized, excessive spectacle.

But once the band finished and the buzz started to subside the assembled crowds were faced, once again, with the ineptitude of the gig's organisation.

The thousands who had driven to the raceway found the rain had transformed the dirt carpark into a boggy mudheap, compounded by the absence of any lighting or staff to help people find their cars or the one road out. Massive queues of vehicles soon devolved further into an impossibly tangled traffic jam.

People relying on other means of transport were no better off. There are no public transport services to Calder Park, so a charter bus service had been arranged to ferry people to and from the venue and the city during the day. Helpfully, the last batch of these left shortly after the end of the concert, leaving thousands of people stranded. Some of them tried to hitch a lift with any of the cars that had managed to escape the carpark, but thousands more simply took to the Calder Highway on foot.

In the aftermath of the days events, the Victorian Ombudsman would receive enough complaints to warrant a formal, public investigation. Several of its recommendations laid the groundwork for new rules that still govern live music in the state today, including the requirement for concert organisers to provide free drinking water and adequate shelter.

But these things are very much a matter of perspective. Searching online, you can find many concert goers who focus mainly on the memories they have of the music, an less on the day's problems.

And reflecting on the gig in an interview in 2012, then G 'n' R drummer Duff McKagan recalled 'a fucking sea of people'... and nothing else.

While the official Gunners website has this entry in the bands very detailed history:

The Guns 'n' Roses concert was the last one ever held at Calder Park.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Melbourne's Hidden Suburban Cinemas

Movies are a big thing in our city.

We have our multiplexes and big cinema chains, same as everywhere, but also; one of the few art deco cinema's (The Astor) in Australia left in their original form, Australia's oldest and largest film festival (The Melbourne International Film Festival) and the incomparable Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), which provides a public forum for many movies that would otherwise get lost in the commercial shuffle.

The cinematic tradition in Melbourne runs deep; the first public movie screenings in Australia were held here, when the technology was still so new it was considered an optical illusion and demonstrated as part of a stage magician's act. And after this dramatic debut the movies took hold rapidly. Within a year there were three dedicated cinemas in the city and within two years, countless others.

A lasting impact of Melbourne's love affair with the movies can be found right across the urban landscape. A large number of our old cinema's remain in place, decorating their suburbs with their still grand facades, although the vast majority were put to other use some time ago.

The following is a brief tour of a few of these.


177 Bridge Road, Richmond



Built in 1921 and refurbished in art deco style in 1935, The National showed general release movies until the late 1950's. It was then bought by the Cosmopolitan Motion Picture Group, who ran a successful chain of cinemas that showed Greek movies to Melbourne's vast Greek ex-pat population. The cinema continued in this fashion until 1985, when the interior was destroyed by a fire. In the 1990's the property was sold and converted into fashion shops, in which guise it continues to this day. 


313 Bridge Road, Richmond



Opened in 1919  adjacent to the Richmond Town Hall (the clock tower of which can be glimpsed in the first photo, above), this cinema had an enormous, 2500 seat capacity. It was originally known as The All British Cinema, before being taken over by Hoyts. The cinema closed in 1960 and the site was redeveloped into a retail premise.


403 High Street, Northcote



Opening in 1934 at the height of the depression, the 1100 seat Plaza showed first run British and American films but struggled financially almost from the outset. In 1941 it was converted into a live venue, featuring caberet and vaudeville acts, before movies were reinstated after the Second World War. Different ownership continued in this vain over the next few decades, alternating between movies and live entertainment (in 1960 it spent one year showing only Italian language films). In 1986 it was sold again and converted into a reception centre, The Elysee Centre, although the building has subsequently fallen into disuse. It currently stands vacant.


216 High Street, Northcote



Built in 1912, The Northcote Theatre is almost certainly the oldest cinema building in Melbourne. Like many silent era cinemas, it was initially used for live shows as well as movie projection. When the original owner of the building, Robert McLeish, joined Hoyts as Victorian Executive Chairman, the Northcote was added to their stable. In 1952 the cinema was used as the setting for the local musical comedy Night Club. The cinema closed in 1960 and the building is now used as a reception centre.


324 Sydney Road, Coburg



Built in 1922 with a capacity of 1300, The Grand featured an elaborately decorated facade and lobby. Once one of the northern suburbs principle cinemas, in the decades after World War 2 it gradually became neglected and run down. When it closed in 1964, and was converted into a restaurant, its decorative features were covered over with sheet metal, giving the building a much more functional look. It is used as a social club today.


9 Leake Street, Essendon



Built in 1924 and originally named The New Essendon Picture Theatre, this cinema was re-named when taken over by the Hoyts chain in the 1930's. The cinema closed in 1967 and has operated as an independent function centre and ballroom since.


853 High Street, Thornbury



Opening in 1923, Thornbury's Regent had one of the grandest entrance halls ever attached to a Melbourne cinema; featuring a domed lobby, marble staircase and glass chandeliers. All of these features still adorn the site today. Since the cinema closed in 1965, the renamed Thornbury Theatre has served as an upmarket space for hire and is often used for live music.


236 Reynard Street, Coburg West



Tucked away on a side street in suburban Coburg, the tiny Progress (capacity 300-450) lived in the shadow of larger cinemas on the main streets nearby, and yet outlasted all of them. Opening in 1923, it showcased minor releases, B-pictures and re-runs but proved remarkably resilient, continuing to operate until 1998. It also featured in the cult local comedy Death in Brunswick (from which the first picture above is taken) and even as the Mt Thomas cinema in an episode of Blue Healers. It is currently used as a dance studio.


277 Barkly Street, Footscray



Built in 1914 and adorned with an elaborate, baroque facade, the remarkable Barkly Theatre has enjoyed a dramatic double reversal of fortune in recent years. The cinema closed in 1961 and the building was used for a variety of purposes thereafter. Standing vacant from 1989, the theatre soon fell into disrepair, disuse compounded by both fire and storm damage. In the 1990's the vandalised, hulking wreck gained a new reputation, as one of Melbourne's most notorious drug dens. In 2000, former Footscray footballer Chris Grant (and his business partner) bought the building with a view to refurbishing it as apartments. The project took nearly a decade to realise, and the property changed hands several more times while it was ongoing, but the work was eventually completed in 2008. The exterior of the theatre has been fully restored, while the interior has been sub-divided into 60 up market apartments (see photo, above).

Further examples where a 'Then...' photo is not currently available...


235 Faraday Street, Carlton

Built in 1909 and originally used as a meeting hall for a trade association, this building was converted to a cinema and re-named the Carlton Picture Palace in 1924. It operated as an independent cinema, showing arthouse and foreign titles. In 1979 it was renovated and re-badged the Carlton Moviehouse, from this time it also included regular live music as part of its program. The cinema closed in 1999 and the building was turned into corporate offices.


367 Nicholson Street, Carlton

Opening in 1912 as the Jubilee Picture Palace, this cinema was enlarged (to 1900 seats) and renamed The Adelphi in 1922. Operating independently, it was the largest cinema in the inner northern suburbs until its closure in 1967. Since this date it has operated as the San Remo Ballroom.


145 - 149 Ormond Road, Eltham

Opening in 1919, The Broadway was the first cinema in Eltham, in the city's north east. It was built for the Westgarth chain and then taken over by Consolidated Theatres, a large chain that operated cinemas across the city. The cinema closed in 1961 and was converted into a combined ballroom and function centre. In 1995 the building was further redeveloped into apartments.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Origin of Names: Collingwood

It could be Melbourne's most famous suburb. And it has definitely provided our sports mad city's most famous club (boo! hiss!).

It's history is suitably dramatic. Across more than 150 years, the inner north suburb of Collingwood has evolved in a remarkable way, from poverty line slum to trendy hipster playground.

Fitting then, that it is named after a famous figure from history. A man who, at one time, was considered one of the greatest and bravest of British heroes, but whose name has subsequently faded.

Adjacent to the CBD, Collingwood is one of the oldest occupied parts of Melbourne. A handful of residences and a tavern were in place from about 1838, although the municipality was not formally proclaimed until 1855. In this first official incarnation, the suburb also incorporated areas that would later be split off into Fitzroy, Abbotsford and Clifton Hill.

Map showing the original boundaries of Collingwood.

Robert Hoddle surveyed the area in 1842 and advised the local government that it would be suitable for subdivision and sale. The name Collingwood was attached at this time, although most of the land in the area was still vacant.

A watercolour titled 'Near Collingwood' painted by Robert Hoddle in 1847.

The name was selected as a tribute to Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, a former Admiral in the British navy.

Baron Collingwood had a long, and distinguished, military career but had come to prominence during the Napoleonic wars, where he was second in command behind Britain's most famous sailor, Admiral Horatio Nelson. During the decisive Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the British divided their ships and attacked the French fleet from two directions simultaneously. Nelson lead one of these attacks, Collingwood the other.

Baron Cuthbert Collingwood.

Collingwood's ship, Royal Sovereign, had been re-hulled immediately prior to the engagement and so was faster through the water than Nelson's vessel, Victory. Collingwood found himself out in front of both his own ships and Nelson's and so was the first to engage the French line. Witnessing this, Nelson is said to have remarked excitedly:

'See how that noble fellow Collingwood carries his ship into battle!'

Nelson was killed during the fighting, but not before the back of French resistance had been broken. After his death, Collingwood assumed command of the British fleet and oversaw the final stages of the battle and the subsequent mopping up. For his bravery in leading the initial charge, and cool head after assuming command, Collingwood was promoted, elevated to the peerage, publicly thanked by both Houses of Parliament and awarded a generous pension. 

After Trafalgar, Collingwood continued in the Navy and successfully completed several missions, mainly relating to blockading France and the French colonies in the Caribbean. He died at sea, of natural causes, in March 1810 and was interred at St Paul's in London, alongside Nelson.

A monument to Collingwood, in his birthplace of Tynemouth.

Collingwood's renown was such that a number of locations across the British empire were named in his honour. As well as the suburb in Melbourne, other Collingwood's around the world named for him include:

  • A town in Northumberland, England.
  • A town in Nova Scotia, Canada (actually named 'Collingwood Corner').
  • A town in Ontario, Canada.
  • A town on the South Island of New Zealand.
  • A suburb in Calgary, Canada.
  • A suburb in Vancouver, Canada.
  • An electorate in New Zealand.

And even this is not a comprehensive list.