Features

The Punters Club Remembered: Pt 1

Ahead of a pair of reunion shows this weekend, REN? SCHAEFER talks to a few of the identities behind Melbourne’s Punter’s Club, which sadly shut its doors in 2002. Part two tomorrow.


For music lovers who grew up in Melbourne in the late 1980s and ?90s, The Punters Club on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, will always hold a special significance. More than any other live music venue at the time, it was a place where people of different scenes mingled and socialised, whether seeing an eclectic array of local and international bands, playing pool, hanging out in the famously grungy front bar, or dancing the night away to great DJs.

Likened by [Wikipedia](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punters_Club) to New York’s CBGBs, it really was a lot more than that. The Punters Club was born in 1987, and soon started hosting bands. The venue flourished under the loving care of band booker Linda Gebar, who established a style of hosting independent, and most importantly original bands, around which a dedicated community started to grow.

This trend continued when Matt Everett took over as licensee in 1993. He was soon joined by band booker Richard Moffatt. A man of wide-ranging musical tastes and already significant experience, Moffatt started diversifying the acts he would put on bills. Thus began a veritable golden era for The Punters Club, which made it the premier mid-sized live venue north of the Yarra River, rivaled only by The Tote in Collingwood.

“One key to the pub’s success was its very loyal staff, who became more like a family, not just to each other, but also to their regular patrons.”

Seven nights a week it was possible to see a wide cross-section of musical styles. Acoustic pop, grunge, folk, indie rock, metal, power-pop, electronica, even supposedly indigestible experimental sounds – every conceivable type of music was on the menu. Always the ambitious entrepreneur, Moffat also ran his record label Way Over There out of his upstairs office and edited the Punters Club’s monthly magazine, the Form Guide.

One key to the pub’s success was its very loyal staff, who became more like a family, not just to each other, but also to their regular patrons, which included musicians, locals and anyone who appreciated a pub with a great welcoming atmosphere.

It came as a complete shock to many, when rising rents in the increasingly gentrified Fitzroy forced The Punters Club out of business in February 2002. The venue’s loss left a gaping hole in Melbourne’s music culture, which took a long time to fill again. Its staff was scattered to the winds, but many of them kept in touch over the years, and that was how the idea of a reunion was born.

Ahead of this weekend’s pair of shows – November 27 and 28 at The Corner Hotel – I decided to talk to three people whose lives were intimately interwoven with The Punters: music scene identity Mary Mihelakos, ex-Punters Club bar manager Mik Ruff and musician Kirsty Stegwazi.

Mary

Mary Mihelakos curated Saturday’s line-up, which features Spiderbait, Hoss, Little Ugly Girls, Guttersnipes, Kim Salmon, Tirany and Spencer P Jones. If anyone knows about live music in Melbourne it’s Mary, who was the editor of Beat Magazine for a long time and has probably seen more bands than anybody else in this town.


Mary, how did you become involved in co-curating the shows?
Originally, Janelle Johnston and Ben Thompson from the Corner Hotel were meant to coordinate the bands, but it ended up being Craig Kamber, myself and Angie Hart picking the line-ups. I don’t know why they decided to have these reunion shows now, because it’s not a 10-year anniversary since the Punters Club closed. It closed on February 17, 2002, so I don’t know why they didn’t want to wait another two years. The original plan was to have four nights: Craig was going to curate one night with The Fauves and Glory Box, and Angie was doing the Frente one, which The Blackeyed Susans were meant to play as well. Those two shows ended up being merged into one. I was lucky enough to get Spiderbait to headline the Saturday night, which I’m curating.

I think the idea behind getting us to curate particular nights was that the people directly involved with the Punters Club didn’t want to take responsibility for choosing the actual acts. When I was asked to be involved I came up with a long list of acts that I would have liked to play. I took an ATP [All Tomorrow’s Parties] approach to curating and thought about bands that had broken up, but that I would like to see get back together. I wanted Venom P Stinger to do it, and other bands that I used to love seeing at the Punters Club. I was trying to get Christbait back together. I really wanted to get a ?triple-bait? bill with Nunbait, Christbait and Spiderbait. [Laughter]

I wanted to have a really heavy line-up, and ask bands like Damaged. The Punters Club wasn’t necessarily known for having heavy bands, but I saw those bands there a lot. That’s how I thought of Little Ugly Girls. I’m friends with their singer Linda [Johnston], and I used to work at Beat Magazine in Richmond, which was just around the corner from Sing Sing Studios, so I was able to drop around when LUGS were recording there. I was blown away by how good the recording was, but then it never actually came out. I feel like justice was never done by that band. Even though I love what they do now in The Dacios, there was a certain raw energy about that band that I loved. There was a lot of promise in LUGS, but it was never documented. Another band on the bill that I’ve always loved are The Guttersnipes. Those guys formed around the time The Punters Club opened, and I used to like seeing them a lot.

With Spiderbait and The Guttersnipes on the line-up, The Throwaways would have been a logical inclusion too.
I really tried, but they weren’t available. I thought of combinations like that – bands that used to play together a lot, like the ?Tell Them It’s Healthy? bills. It occurred to me to do an Au Go Go line-up and I tried to get Snout to reform. I wanted Warped and The Meanies as well, but they weren’t sure whether they would be available.

How did you first get introduced to The Punters Club?
I had been working as a volunteer at 3RRR since I was 14, and the Punters Club was the band venue around that time, which was the late ?80s. There was a compilation album they put out, called Hair Of The Dog*, which had bands like These Future Kings, The Hollowmen, The Fish John West Reject and Crown Of Thorns on it. Those were the kind of bands that played at the pub around the time when Linda Gebar was band booker. Linda was a dear friend of mine, who sadly passed away in October 2008. She worked at 3PBS and we met at the Punters Club and became close friends right away, because we were both dags. Linda then started managing The Killjoys and Frente. I was 17 and she gave me my first music industry job, which was helping her two or three days a week in her office. I was still underage, but I didn’t go to The Punters Club to drink – I went to see bands. Because I was working at 3RRR my age wasn’t really questioned. I was lucky to get my name on lots of guest lists from an early age. As soon as I got my license, I was going to six gigs a night, because I could. [*Laughter]

To me, it seemed like there was a real community associated with The Punters Club, that included the people who worked there, the bands and the regular punters. Did it feel like that to you?
A lot of people from bands also worked at the venue. Stanley Paulzen from Tlot Tlot was working there and Sarah Carrol was working on the door before she started singing. She met Chris Wilson there and started playing with him. I knew she played guitar, but I never expect her to be this amazing country and bluegrass musician. The 1990s were a great time for music.

I used to book bands at The Evelyn from 1992-94, and Richard Moffat had taken over booking The Punters Club [both on Brunswick Street], so we used to coordinate the shows we put on. We would talk to each other about the shows we were booking and make line-ups complement each other, rather than competing with each other. Door charges were very low, so people would go to more than one venue on the same night. The Punters Club always had quite an eclectic band booking policy. There were the Dan & Al residencies, Chris Wilson, lots of different styles of music.


That’s quite apparent from looking at the back of the famous Punters Club ?Last Drinks? t-shirt, which listed just about every local and international band of note that played at the venue over the years, such as The Make Up and The Blues Explosion. There was not a single predominant style of music, but all of them were amazing in their own right.
It’s impossible for these reunion shows to do that diversity justice. It would take a lot of effort to show what the Punters Club was all about. It was a great venue that felt like home to us. I met a lot of musicians there that I became friends with, even if their music wasn’t really my bag. For example, I became good friends with the guys from Bodyjar, just through hanging out at the bar. I never really liked that ?Big Shorts? music bands like that played, but I liked them as people.

There was a great power-pop scene associated with the Punters Club as well, which included my friends who played in Holocene. It would have been great to get them back together too. Other venues were a lot more specialised. The grunge stuff was happening at the Great Britain, for example.

I heard that there will be Punters Club memorabilia on display. Can you shed some light on that?
When the Punters Club closed, a lot of the furnishings were recycled. The booths are actually at Yah Yah’s these days. [Venue owners] John, Andy and Sam collect most of their furniture from hard rubbish, because they’re tight-arses. Well, I mean, good on them for taking over The Tote and all that, but this is their style. They’ll put money into things, but they don’t really see the point in spending it on furniture. [Laughter] When the Punters Club got taken over by [pizza parlour] Bimbo Deluxe, the fittings that were turfed out into the street ended up going into one of their warehouses. The booths were used at the Spanish Club for a while, but that eventually closed down as well. The big round Punters Club sign will be at The Corner though, along with a few other items.

I recall that at the ?Last Drinks? gig at the Punters Club, everybody tried to grab as much stuff as they could at the end of the night.
Not only did I queue-jump to get into the Punters Club that night, which pissed a few people off, I also got kicked out at the end. They wanted to keep the staff in after closing, but I was quite heart-broken over the loss of the Punters, and didn’t want to leave. It was quite emotional and wanted to stay. I was with Wally [Kempton] and Craig [Jackson] from Gersey, and we were upset about being refused. The staff did a lock-in that went for about two days. It really hurt my feelings not to be included. [Laughter]

?I actually think The Punters Club was more loved than The Tote, but over the years, people came to realise that they didn’t want to lose another venue.?

I remember the sea of empty bottles out in the street at the end of the night. It was such a great night. It seemed every bit as significant in terms of Melbourne’s music culture as the recent furore over The Tote closing.
The Punters Club closing was so final, though. We knew it was going to happen and that another business was going to move into the building, so it couldn’t be saved. It might have indirectly inspired the [SLAM rally](/articles/3882468) and all the outrage about The Tote, because it proved that people actually give a shit about music venues closing. I actually think The Punters Club was more loved than The Tote, but over the years, people came to realise that they didn’t want to lose another venue.

The Punters Club closed because the owners wanted to triple the rent. They did the deal with Bimbo Deluxe, who were able to give them the money they were asking for. [Punters Club licensee] Matt Everett couldn’t do anything about that. I think there was about a month’s notice, so people had a bit of time to process what was going on.

I guess nothing is ever permanent. Fitzroy and Collingwood will always keep changing.
In hindsight it’s sad, and we miss that venue, but Brunswick Street really sucks these days anyway. I’m pleased that I don’t have to go and see gigs in that area anymore. Johnston Street and The Old Bar is about as close as I want to get. I don’t want to be with all the hipsters there. It’s like the gentrification of St Kilda. I remember when Brunswick Street only had three or four cafes: Bakers, Rhumbarella’s, Mario’s and The Fitz. That said, Melbourne has an extremely strong live music scene, so for every venue that closes, a new one opens somewhere. Now we have venues like The Retreat, The John Curtin, The Old Bar, Yah Yah’s. We’ve got a lot of rooms, even though it’s sad to hear that The Birmingham is [closing](/news/4107862). To be honest, I thought that was a shitty sweatbox anyway. I was dreading going there over summer, because it stinks.

The Northcote Social Club, which Matt Everett owns now, is a good pub. It doesn’t quite have the same community feel, because it has the restaurant, which attracts a different crowd. I go there on Sundays and its chockers with families, so it’s doing well for him. The Corner and The East Brunswick Club are part of the set of people who learned their craft at The Punters Club. One only has to look at how efficiently those three venues are run, with their ticketing, websites and mailing lists, to see they have it down pat. The Punters Club was a great training ground for them.

Another thing I always liked about The Punters Club was the monthly Form Guide* magazine they published, which Richard Moffat edited. It had great interviews with bands that were playing there, and a lot of reviews of local music releases, including demo tapes. It inspired me to start my own venue-based zine for The Victoria Hotel in Brunswick, where Kirsty Stegwazi was booking bands, and later do *Bar-O-Meter for The Old Bar.
That’s what I liked about the Punters Club – they did all these extra things, because it was run by people who cared about the culture. A little bit of extra love went a long way. That’s what attracted me to it. Even though the Form Guide* was filled with vitriol at times, a bit like *Mess+Noise*. [*Laughter]

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TOMORROW: Interviews with ex-Punters Club bar manager Mik Ruff and musician Kirsty Stegwazi.