An Oral History of the Rise and Fall of Sydney's Once-Magical Club Scene

"No one had cameras, everyone was cool as shit, no one cared. Everyone was having the time of their life.”

When the youth are angry, there’s no better place to go than the club, the pub or the rave. But over the last two decades, the city that was once known as the “dance capital of the world” – Sydney – has taken multiple uppercuts to the face. OK, it may have achieved that moniker 30+ years ago, but the scene’s demise is no thanks to restrictions, and definitely no thanks to 2014’s lockout laws.

Trashed teens unaccustomed to the frivolity of club life – having lost the best part of two years – have erupted out of the pandemic, kicking shit over in the street and getting wasted at brightly lit clubs that are reminiscent of school discos. The world is a bit angry, a bit wound-up, and everyone is making up for lost time.

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And with no place to really go – no beating heart – what are the young to do?

But Sydney wasn’t always like this. 

VICE spoke to three ravers who were there in the depths of the 90’s documenting, DJing and promoting the rise (and fall) of Sydney’s nightlife.

THE BEGINNING OF TIME: Dialling Into The 90’s

From ‘93: Punching the Light" by Simon Burstall published by Damiani books (2019)

It all started in the late-80s: The parties, the raves, the boom of hedonistic, dirty club culture. Revellers clad in baggy pants, oversized tees, with an outlook influenced by the British Acid House scene, took to abandoned warehouses in Alexandria or Waterloo. Little did they know they were set to define the underground electro scene for years to come.

By dialling 0-0-5-5 on 24 hour hotlines secret locations were secured, a few dollars were spent on a ticket and, after a night of backbreaking dancing, the late-morning light was often the licence to return home…or not. 

“When I started going out in the late 80s, I was going out seven nights a week. Literally,” Chad Ford, a skateboarder and promoter that helped throw the first few raves in Sydney, told VICE. Chad rifles off a number of venues: Monday was for Mad Club, Tuesday Metropolis, Wednesdays you went to Ziggurat…the list goes on. 

According to Ford parties at the Hordern Pavillion long-dominated nightlife. Every weekend, thousands of people would journey to what felt like the centre of the Earth, and beating against the walls was an amalgamation of hip hop, electro, balearic and house. In 91’, these parties came to a close after nearby residents complained of the noise.

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Undeterred, partygoers looked for a new way to transform the scene.

From ‘93: Punching the Light" by Simon Burstall published by Damiani books (2019)

“I met this English guy, Allan, at Ziggurat, the first ever house club in Kings Cross. I was 17 when I was hanging out there in 89',” said Ford, his eyes lighting up. 

“He was like, ‘Hey, I want to do a rave, Chad’. I was like, ‘What's a rave?’ He was like, ‘It's like these Hordern parties that you guys have, but it’s a bit different. The music's a little deeper’. 

“And that’s how we started the party Light.”

By the start of the 90s, British expats flooded the Sydney streets - bringing with them a new way of doing things. Acid house and raves had long been circulating on UK shores before they entered the Australian arena - and with the sudden migration of partygoers from the northern hemisphere to the southern, a new era of partying and culture exploded. It came with a fresh swarm of recreational drugs, music and mind-tripping raves.

“It was a rave-olution,” Abel el’ Toro (back then known just as Abel) one of the most prominent DJs and promoters of the time, credited for the first outdoor electronic music festival Happy Valley, told VICE. In 92’ his name was listed as playing at over 40 raves and parties throughout the year. At present, he’s still kicking with a new EP Report To The Dancefloor out at the end of the year.

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“There was a recession in Australia in the early 90s which meant Sydney’s industrial area – only 10 minutes from the city – was abandoned with empty warehouses. It was a matter of driving around and picking an empty warehouse and then going to the real estate agent and giving them some cash in exchange for the key for the weekend. They knew what was going on.”

A lot of the organising was DIY and the promoter was often the DJ. Cheap flyers were distributed among a lucky few – futuristic, technological designs with blown out letters and cartoon-style illustrations filling the borders. Abel recalls one rave packaging flyers with jelly beans. There were 2000 in total - filled personally by family and friends.

Flyers for parties in the 90's (From SydneyRaveHistory.com)

“Punters couldn’t believe their eyes when they were out partying. Receiving a flyer with jelly beans inside was a real treat,” he said.

“The atmosphere at raves back then was like you were part of something new. There was a buzz in the air. Being inside a warehouse or outdoors in an open field with speakers and lasers and heavy bass driven music. It was all very underground and tribal at the same time.”

Though these parties attracted hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, they were quite exclusive in comparison to parties today. But that can be attributed to the analogue-style of the time, sometimes seen as neanderthalic and without the connection of the internet- but actually quite forward thinking. Crowds were colourful and multicultural, and what began as parties for inner city kids quickly spread to the outer suburbs. 

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Abel fondly remembers the first Happy Valley in Windsor in 1991 as a standout memory. 

“Sugar Ray, in the middle of the night when the party was peaking, gets up on stage grabs the mic and says ‘Take an E, take two fuckn E's!’ 2000 ravers cheered,” he said.

From ‘93: Punching the Light" by Simon Burstall published by Damiani books (2019)

“It was electric,” photographer Simon Burstall tells VICE, pausing at moments to giggle jovially.

“Just knowing that there’s a wasteland of industrial warehouses out there. At 6 a.m., when the sun’s come up, you’d wander in and just hear this doof doof doof”. 

In 93’ Burstall and friends would pile into his parents spare room to sleep until 3:30 a.m. to then dial the 0-0-5-5 hotline. He’d grab a film camera and rock up just as the sun was rising to avoid paying the sometimes $35 entry fee. Eventually, the unruly photos he took would turn into his photo book, 93: Punching The Light.

“We were 17 years-old and broke,” he said, pulling out a photo of Abel at one of his parties, while describing the raves as “visual feasts”. 

“There was too much going on. No one had cameras, everyone was cool as shit, no one cared. Everyone was having the time of their life.”

Burstall remembers driving to one of Ford’s parties, Ecology 3, north of Sydney, where he subsequently rolled his mum's Carolla off a cliff. He laughs at the memory. 

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“I remember thinking, ‘We’re about to die’. We sat there and my three best mates were all tripping on acid, and I’m like ‘Okay guys we just got to climb out of here’ so we did. That was fine,” he says.

“I got an email from an organiser [Chad] when I was making this book. That night he’d heard about the guys that crashed the car. They were all really worried about us and they were like ‘oh, are they okay?’ And we were just like, ‘We just want to go down and party’. 

From ‘93: Punching the Light" by Simon Burstall published by Damiani books (2019)

THE BEGINNING OF THE END: Fuck the police

“The English really ran the show for a good chunk of time. Then the promoters came in and it started to get a bit dodgy,” Burstall recalls.

“After Happy Valley 2, the exposure of raves grew. So once that happened, super young people were coming – like 14-year-olds – and it just got weird and promoters were getting dodgy. It just shifted again.”

In December of 92’, Happy Valley 2 – a party that Abel was DJing and promoting – came to an early demise when the music carried over the cliffs and down to residential dwellings below. The cops turned up.

“There were several thousand people and when the police shut down the site, they knew the bulk of people there were inebriated and shouldn't drive. But they forced everybody off site and forced everybody to leave. There was nowhere near where you could rest because it was by a freeway. So everybody had to drive and there were accidents. I think seven people died,” says Ford.

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After a number of fatal crashes, raves hit the news: drivers receiving the brunt of the blame.

“A lot of the older people in the scene – because the music was starting to change a bit too – were trying to find a more adult space. So they moved out of the raves into clubs.”

From ‘93: Punching the Light" by Simon Burstall published by Damiani books (2019)

Quickly, Sydney’s Oxford Street and Kings Cross became new hubs, with clubs like Zoom and Kinselas at the forefront. The Kings Head Tavern became a Saturday night pitstop, run by Ford and a mate whose dad owned it. Each week the crowd would grow, the venue filled wall to wall with heaving, sweating kids looking for an outlet. 

But everything changed when the government began introducing harsher laws surrounding the Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) that instituted layers of red tape for businesses. Ford says he started noticing this in the mid-90’s.

“We just had unlimited freedom up until that point,” says Ford, “but RSA changed everything in clubs.”

“These clubs were making a lot of money and people were raging in the bars, and all of a sudden they couldn’t, because they had to start limiting how much alcohol they were serving. So drink prices went up.”

Even the raves became kiddie-centric, filled up with the under-18s locked from “legitimate” venues. Then came the festivals like Big Day Out, and also the doofs, which Ford describes as “feral”.

But when cops started showing up with sniffer dogs, it was the beginning of the end.

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“Unfortunately, the authorities are in part to blame. When something is small and underground the authorities will turn a blind eye,” said DJ Abel.

“But when things become big and commercial and out of control they need to step in and control the fun. Local residents started making noise complaints and that doesn’t help live music.”

From ‘93: Punching the Light" by Simon Burstall published by Damiani books (2019)

After the 2000 Sydney Olympics, an epidemic of sniffer dogs, leftover from the event, turned their attention to Kings Cross and Oxford Street, putting a “real dampener on things.”

“They would walk up and down Oxford Street giving false readings. The dog would sit down beside someone and they'd start strip-searching people in the middle of the street,” said Ford.

“They were doing it to kids, old people, everyone was just being harassed. Then they started going into bars and that began affecting people's opinions on certain areas.”

Legacy parties like Mad Racket, held at the Marrickville Bowls Club and with a respectable reputation – no fights or noise complaints – suddenly became the target of police operations.

“It was a lot of showing off,” said Ford.

“The police would be like, ‘we’ve done 2000 drug busts this week’ but it was just some kids with personal – half a pill or a little bit of weed.”

From ‘93: Punching the Light" by Simon Burstall published by Damiani books (2019)

In 2014, the government introduced the now-infamous “lockout laws”, following the alcohol-fuelled deaths of two young men who were punched in Kings Cross. 

Venues were ordered to close their doors at 1:30am with added restrictions on drink services and no shots after midnight. Many referred to it as “the final nail in the coffin”.

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A movement of angered partygoers and music makers charged the streets of Kings Cross in 2016 under the alias ‘Keep Sydney Open’. It included numerous tastemakers of the era like Flume and Nina Las Vegas. 

Despite their efforts, ravers and partiers began moving out of the city as businesses, defunct by the new laws, began closing down, one-by-one. A mass land grab resulted in high-rise apartments and inner-city development.

Kings Cross now sits as a ghost town.

The End? Or Back To The Start?

As we move into the 2020’s, post-pandemic, things are looking pretty bleak, and though lockout laws were lifted in January of 2020 in an effort to rejuvenate Sydney's nightlife, the trickle down effect from the loss of those 6 years has been telling for the music community.

“A lot of spaces that could be used are now close to property development. There are so many apartments now so close to the city. It's hard with amplified music,” said Ford.

From ‘93: Punching the Light" by Simon Burstall published by Damiani books (2019)

“I don't know where those underground venues are anymore and I don’t know if there’s any opportunity for them.”

“We used to be able to walk back and forth between Oxford Street and Kings Cross in five minutes and stop in at Club 77 on the way, but that’s all changed.”

“There’s some crew doing some good stuff that are flying the flag, and the queer scene, I think, is what kept Sydney alive through the lockout years.” 

“But also, back in the 90s, you could live in Sydney for hardly anything,” 

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Ford uses the pastizzi shop on Crown Street as an example of how things have changed: the joint would sell pastries for 10 or 20 cents apiece. People of the rave community would bump into one another, having a post-rave feed for cheap.

“You can't do that in Sydney anymore. Rent is so expensive.”

Though the state of Sydney nightlife looks to have its grave dug, Ford, DJ Abel and Burstall all have a lingering hope that it’ll return.

“These days, most of the nightlife (not all) is very clean and proper and venues usually shut at midnight,” said Abel. 

“It used to be underground and now it's overground. Back then, the numbers were small and everyone knew each other. It was family. There were 5 DJs, now there's 5000 DJs, but you can’t stop progress, where it will go next is anyone's guess.”

“The new, cool party kids will always find a way to party.”

And it’s true. 

From ‘93: Punching the Light" by Simon Burstall published by Damiani books (2019)

Sydney is filled with a young crowd devoted to getting nightlife back on its feet. The Lansdowne, one of Australia’s notorious music venues - rumoured to be closing down earlier this year - has since been saved. Young DJs and promoters are throwing parties – heaving and sweating but to vastly smaller crowds – at sporadic locations around Sydney. Raves still rage in the quiet parks and abandoned sports clubs of the inner west. 

But it is true that Sydney is no longer a city designed for parties. At least not like it once was. Venues sit on opposite sides of the city, $30 ubers taking the place of 5 minute treks to and from clubs. Despite that, the parties continue with the tenacity of a fallen soldier fighting for their last breath.

It’s a spirit that Ford believes will never leave.

“Now it’s about how they’re gonna make it happen? What used to be a dodgy building, no tenants, and a homeless guy living out the back has all of sudden got a whole bunch of offices or apartments on top of it. 

“Those places are gone now. So where has that beating heart – however good or bad – moved to?”


Follow Julie Fenwick on Twitter and Instagram.

Read more from VICE Australia.

Tagged:

Australia, Sydney, rave, Sugar Ray, abel, lockout, King’s Cross

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