THE BOYS LIGHT UP by AUSTRALIAN CRAWL. Story by Darren ‘Smokie’ Dawson

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THE BOYS LIGHT UP by AUSTRALIAN CRAWL. Story by Darren ‘Smokie’ Dawson

Laverton, late 1981

On a desolate paddock, opposite a dusty racing-car speedway, a pub was built. With its boxy, brown, late-60’s brick-veneer façade, it stood amidst a collection of abattoirs, tanneries, and chemical refineries which belched a putrid stench into the day and night. And they bestowed on this establishment a name as harsh and brutal as its surroundings, and called it the “Tarmac Hotel”.

Set on the outer western fringe of Melbourne, the Tarmac Hotel seemingly thrived on its reputation for lawlessness. The front-bar, especially, was a testosterone-fuelled no-go zone, a drinking den where an innocent brushing of arms could spiral into a trading of fists. Indeed, my own grandfather had been witness to a loaded pistol being produced during a rowdy post-work drinking session.

The sheer size of the lounge area meant that this beer-barn was a regular weekend stop on the music circuit for Australia’s best and most-popular bands. Despite the pub’s notoriety, attending a gig at the Tarmac was a rite of passage for any music-loving teenager from the western suburbs. Two of my Year 10 classmates had recently been to a Midnight Oil gig there. The next day at school, with eyes like saucers, the class had gathered around them as they had recounted the events of the evening. And on a Saturday night not long after my 16th birthday, it was my turn.

It was with the nervous blessing of our understanding parents, and the assistance of fake i.d.’s, that my friend Macca and I paid our $5 cover charge and entered the Tarmac to see our first live band. Ominously dark, the cavern-like room was soon full to bursting. The air hung thick with the smoke of hundreds of cigarettes. And wafting out from a tiny tuck-shop window, the sickly aroma of the complementary spaghetti bolognese dinner washed over us all. Already sweating from the humidity, and too timid to venture deep into the throng, Macca and I found a vantage point toward the rear of the room.

The seething mass erupted with a primal roar of appreciation when the six members of Australian Crawl ambled onto the stage, took up their instruments, and began belting out tune after familiar tune. The sound was clear and crisp. Partaking in full-throated sing-alongs to tracks such as Beautiful People and Downhearted, the crowd was fully engaged, although just beneath the joyous exterior there was the hint of an undeniable and menacing undercurrent.

It was as the band launched into their latest hit Things Don’t Seem that the trouble started. With plastic pots of beer in hand, Macca and I were beginning to loosen up, even singing along with lead singer James Reyne. But just as he completed the oh-so-appropriate chorus of “Things just-a/ Don’t seem-a/ To be going right…” he was suddenly struck dumb. A fight had erupted at the front of the crowd near the stage, and was now spreading like a tsunami through the room. Aware that he was far from the safety of the teeny-bopper audience of the Countdown studios, Reyne was unable to mask his concern, yelling into the microphone: “We are not coming back on until you have all stopped fighting!” And with that, the band hurriedly disappeared from the stage.

Men were yelling. Women were screaming. Chairs, tables, and drinks were hurled into and out of the rolling maul. Bouncers entered the fray and gruffly escorted numerous participants from the premises, whilst blows still rained down on anyone unfortunate to lose their footing in the ruckus. The overhead lights flickered into life, further illuminating the carnage. Despite being forewarned, Macca and I were shocked at the size and ferocity of the brawl that was playing out before us. We stood on the periphery, enthralled by the haphazard and indiscriminate nature of it all.

But just as the wild melee had started as if a switch had been flicked, so did it end as suddenly – most probably when the collective realisation hit the throng that the stage had fallen silent and empty. Then, with the air of merely having popped out the back for refreshments, the entire band was back on stage picking up the song at the exact point at which they had left it. There was no further trouble, and Reyne wisely did not again mention the brawl. Both band and crowd were now vigilant for any further outbreaks of violence.

After all we had witnessed, the irony was not lost on me that the final song of the night was The Boys Light Up. The familiar harmonica intro signaled that our first experience of the Tarmac Hotel was drawing to a close. Hundreds of cigarette lighters, and the odd lit match, were being held aloft; the flames were climbing perilously close to the thatched ceiling. James Reyne nervously implored the audience to take care, lest the pub accidentally catch fire. In that instant, as the drunken crowd raucously began singing along, was there a part of him that would not regret the place burning to the ground?

On the taxi ride back home to civilization, adrenaline rushing and ears ringing, itching to tell our classmates all about our adventure on Monday morning, Macca and I laughed at the absurdity of it all. But the hook of live music had ensnared us. With a mischievous glint in my eye I turned to him and asked, “Who’s playing at the Tarmac next week?”


My parents were children of the Beatles generation. I had little choice but to love music. Regular contributor to partner site The Footy Almanac. My Stereo Stories debut was Before Too Long by Paul Kelly.

By |2018-12-22T14:53:43+00:00January 3rd, 2019|Latest Stories, Ozrock|6 Comments


  1. JD January 3, 2019 at 6:58 am - Reply

    Great yarn Smokie! Do you know what became of the Tarmac?

  2. Shirley January 3, 2019 at 6:20 pm - Reply

    Used to love The Tarmac also Darren. We were so lucky with the weekly line ups on offer. I too remember being there for an Aussie Crawl night but not being able to see a thing because the crowd was thick and impenetrable and I am somewhat vertically challenged. I’ve still got photos of Uncanny Xmen and Goanna and more often than not I would pinch the song list that was taped to one of the speakers. The only negative from standing too close to the front was my head feeling so ‘thick’ afterwards. My fake name was Pam Carpenter….an ID I got from a work mate on the Friday that I gave back on the Monday. Good memories.

  3. Debbie Lee January 4, 2019 at 4:26 pm - Reply

    Great memories Smokie; a Warrnambool equivalent for underage gigs was The Lady Bay Hotel (now resort apartments).

  4. John Butler January 5, 2019 at 4:53 pm - Reply

    Rites of passage, Smokie.

    You’d expect trouble when those Peninsular Grammar types dared to venture out west.

    The Bayside equivalent to the Tarmac was probably Frankston’s 21st Century dance club (it had other names along the journey). That was one of those venues where you had to worry more about the bouncers than the punters.


  5. Luke Reynolds January 7, 2019 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    Sadly the great pub rock era had all but finished by the time I was old enough to attend gigs. Sounds absolutely treacherous but a totally memorable experience Smokie.
    James Reyne is right up there in terms of artists I’ve seen live the most, wonderful performer, such a unique voice.

  6. john January 7, 2019 at 6:37 pm - Reply

    What a great experience at such a young age Smokie; value entertainment on and off the stage.
    James Reyne once said that they copped it from the inner city crowd because they weren’t cool enough and from the outer suburban mobs because they thought they were ‘pretty boys’.
    Tragically with the passing of several members, there’s unlikely to be a reunion of this great band.
    As for the Tarmac, here is a gig list with some ripper bands:

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