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?”