Double Take #3: Star Hotel Riot/East

ANDREW RAMADGE looks at two interconnected Australian works: The Star Hotel riot (1979) and Cold Chisel’s ‘East’ (1980).

?Between school and a shifting future it was most of all we had.?

Newcastle is an industrial city on the coast of New South Wales, about two hours north of Sydney. It lies horizontally on the Hunter River where it meets the ocean. There are two main streets in the centre of town – Hunter and King – that run parallel to the water all the way from Wickham to the point. In the West End there used to be a sprawling hotel – more like a collection of buildings than a single one – that stretched an entire block from one street to the other. It was called The Star.

During the 1970s, The Star Hotel became famous for its mix of clientele. There were three different bars, each with its own entrance and subculture, with lattice walls between them. Sailors and criminals drank in the front bar. In the middle were drag queens and queers. And the back bar was a rock’n?roll venue. Over time, the lattice rotted away and was removed, leaving the surfies, rockers, queers, pimps and other misfits to mingle a little more than they had before. It was a haven of counterculture in an otherwise conservative town.

I suppose I just grew up and it was always there. I didn’t think a great deal about it, except it was somewhere to go that had lots of live music and it was in town so it was easy to get to. The front bar was pretty rough. Had lots of sailors and people that, as a young girl, you didn’t really want to meet. The middle bar was lots of gay people. We used to feel quite comfortable there, but we didn’t hang out. And there was the back bar, where the bands used to play. We always felt reasonably safe. Except one night I remember we were catching a taxi in, and the driver told us some guy had been stabbed in the front bar?

By the time of the riot, they’d already cleared out the gays. The year before, new management had taken out full page ads in the Newcastle Herald to tell homosexual drinkers they were no longer welcome at the bar as part of a campaign dubbed ?the pub with no queers?. Then, in 1979, it was time for the rest of the riff-raff to go as well. Licensing authorities decided the hotel needed renovations to continue trading. Its owner, beer brewer Tooth & Co, decided to shut it down. The publican and punters were given one week’s notice.

During that week, more than 10,000 people signed a petition to keep the hotel open. About half that number showed up for the last round. The band who were to see The Star off were local rock and roll favourites Heroes. Towards the end of their set, shortly before 10pm – when the pub was due to shut – police approached the stage and demanded that the musicians stop playing. They were in the middle of their final song. The crowd went wild, for all the wrong reasons. Some began chanting ?kill the cops?.

Heroes stopped playing for a while, but then returned to the stage for an encore. They said later that they actually wanted to avert a riot. But their choice of song probably speaks for itself. It was a regular inclusion in their set, and had nothing to do with the hotel itself, but just happened to be called ?The Star And The Slaughter?. Its chorus is this: ?I want action/ I want fighting in the streets/ We’re going to take this town by storm/ We’re going to burn this village down??

Outside, on King St, it had already started. About 40 cops and 5000 angry punters. One dollar cans of beer were thrown like rocks. People locked up in a paddy wagon were broken free by their friends. One police car struck down a civilian. Two others were rolled over and set alight. More than 20 people were taken to hospital with injuries. Most of them were officers. After two hours of anarchy, the crowd was dispersed by the hoses of the fire brigade.

? I was in Sydney when it happened. It was my first year teaching. But put it this way, I wasn’t surprised. Everybody I knew was going and everybody sort of had the idea that they wanted to give it a really big farewell. There was a sense that it was going to be a really big party, but with an undercurrent of always knowing that something could kick off. I remember waking up the next morning and my flatmates were outside. I could hear them in the hallway, talking about a riot, and I just knew exactly what it was. I met your father that weekend, or pretty much around that week, back in Newcastle, at a nightclub down the road.
Interview with Megan Lugg, my mother, August 2010.

Though they never played at The Star, Cold Chisel decided to immortalise the riot on their third album, East, released the following year. They placed the events of the night in a wider context of unemployment and disenfranchisement, and warned that the violence was ?just a taste of things to come?. ?Those in charge are getting crazier/Job queues grow through the land/An uncontrolled Youth in Asia/Gonna make those fools understand.? When playing it live, singer Jimmy Barnes dedicated the song to ?anybody who’s not really happy with what they got?.

?Star Hotel? wasn’t the only song on East inspired by a rebellion, or clashes with the law. ?Four Walls? referenced the Bathurst Gaol riots of the 1970s, while ?Tomorrow? told the story of an escaped prisoner on the run. But it also represented another of the record’s motifs – the figure of the outsider. That theme was captured best by its first track, ?Standing On The Outside?. Written, like the others, by Don Walker, it spoke of the isolation of being down and out and different, and the rage that can ensue.

It’s not so hard to imagine Walker as someone who would have frequented The Star, had he been a local. Around the time of the riot, he was living in King’s Cross in a room that cost $17.50 per week, mixing with whores and junkies and oddballs. His recollections of the period, as told in the drifting memoir Shots, describe perfectly the experience of feeling alien. One passage, in particular, is about the realisation that he will never be accepted as an equal – and is, in fact, just an oddity on display.

I’ve been adopted by a little crew of intense sons and daughters of trustees and old city families, sort of aesthetes I guess, lovely people, they take photos of me like I’m something other. It’s funny, the way I see it I’m just the same only Mum and Dad didn’t have city money but I know they don’t see it like that. They either see me and mine as a whole lot less or now I’ve punched through some kind of membrane they see me and mine and somehow more, and believe me we’re neither.

But if the band had the problem of being misfits struggling to fit in, it was about to get a whole lot worse. East* would be Cold Chisel’s biggest album to date, and thrust them squarely into the mainstream. At the 1981 *TV Week*/*Countdown* music awards, they took out seven different prizes – and refused to personally accept any of them. At the end of the show they played the final track on *East*, ?My Turn To Cry?, changing the lyrics into a vicious attack on *TV Week and smashing up their instruments as Barnes screamed over and over: ?Eat this.?

[DOUBLE TAKE #1](/articles/3934318): Razar/Pig City

[DOUBLE TAKE #2](/articles/3965708): Van Diemen’s Land/Gala Mill