Remembering When Punk Legends Fugazi Played the Ballarat YMCA

This was a time before Facebook, when show promotion often involved handing out flyers at bus stops.
September 19, 2016, 2:38am

​Independent punk icons Fugazi played over 1000 shows during their lifespan, making a habit of playing to all-ages crowds in smaller towns and suburbs. In mid-1997 they did a show in Ballarat, a small Australian city that can languish in profile next to Melbourne, a thriving music capital that is just a 90-minute drive away. That alone isn't so unusual, but the show came about from a single letter from a fan, who simply asked the band to consider playing his town. He received a typed postcard response from Fugazi's Ian MacKaye himself.

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"We were very happy to be able to play smaller towns," says MacKaye now. "Maybe we related to Ballarat being in the shadow of Melbourne because we felt like D.C. resided in the shadow of NYC."

When their 1996 Australian tour was cut short after MacKaye got pneumonia, Fugazi returned the following year and included Ballarat on the itinerary. That letter-writing fan, art student Bren Luke, suddenly found himself organising his dream gig in a matter of weeks – turning to his community radio station and a council-run youth group to put on an all-ages show in the town's former YMCA building.

Nineteen years later, the locals behind the show recount the unlikely process of bringing a revered international band to a town that mostly had no idea who they were – and just what a coup it was for Ballarat at a time before Facebook when show promotion often involved handing out flyers at bus stops.

MAKING IT HAPPEN

Bren Luke: "I came [up with] the grandiose idea of trying to get Fugazi to play here. I knew they'd only do all-ages gigs, but I didn't have any planning in mind."

Dave Sneddon, co-organiser and 3BBB broadcaster: "I was working for the [Ballarat] council with a group called Funship. We were putting all-ages shows on. The first ever gig we did was The Meanies and Spiderbait."

Kirsten Oswin, co-organiser and Funship member: "The majority of Ballarat had no idea who they were. It was like, 'This is massive, but are people gonna come?'"

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Sneddon: "It was that cultural cringe, where you don't want to bring them here and 50 people turn up."

Luke: "We were hoping to have it in the big basketball court, which would have held like 800 people. It ended up in the room above where Karova [Lounge] is now, because we were worried about how many [pre-sale] tickets we'd sold. A lot of people just turned up on the night."

PRE-SHOW JITTERS

The smaller room became problematic when the stage got delivered but proved too big for the space.

Sneddon: "It fitted in, but there was no room on either side. We had to cut it down the middle and resize it."

Luke: "I had to do a lot of running between the YMCA and the radio station. I brought back some cups for tea, and one had cows all around it and a cow handle. Ian came up to me with the cup and was like, 'Is this some kind of fucking joke?' Put the fear of god in me! I thought, 'Oh my god, I've insulted this hero of mine.' He must have seen the shock on my face, and said, 'I'm only joking.'"

Oswin: "Nobody [usually] asked for a rider. Clearly we'd been used to booking little bands. Then this big band comes and wants all this stuff, like [fancy] water. Back then, sparkling water or mineral water was not a thing that people drank in Ballarat."

Luke: "We did an interview [for 3BBB] before they played. I remember Ian talking about the operation he'd had in Sydney for pneumonia – he was pretty graphic about it."

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Sneddon: "I remember Ian really liking Australia because everyone said his [last] name right. He said it must be the Scottish heritage. He was the sort of cool you'd expect him to be. As much as the questions were probably stupid from these dudes on the community radio, he engaged with them."

THE BIG EVENT

Supporting on the night were Melbourne punk band One Inch Punch​ and locals The Jonson Engine. On a recording of the show released by the band in 2014​, Fugazi name-check Ballarat landmarks like Europa Café, where they'd eaten a vegetarian dinner before the show. They played for over an hour, squeezing in 20 songs.

Luke: "There were a lot of people I'd never seen before, and the crowd was really all ages. People brought their infant children out, but there were also people in their 50s or 60s."

Heath McCurdy, The Jonson Engine keyboardist and Funship member: "Two of the guys in the band were crazy Fugazi fans. So they were really stoked to be on the bill. We were supporting an international, which was pretty unheard of in Ballarat."

Luke: "By the time they came out to play, the room was packed. It was quite cold outside, but it was boiling in the room. It took me three songs to settle in and realise they were actually playing here."

McCurdy: "I walked out of there a fan. Afterwards I went away and thought, 'Okay, I get this now.'"

LEGACY

The following year, Australian indie bands like Something for Kate and Jebediah played at the old YMCA. Funship eventually evolved into Sonika, Ballarat's FReeZA-sponsored committee for all-ages shows and other youth services​. Fugazi went on indefinite hiatus in 2003 but have since uploaded full recordings of hundreds of their shows​. In July of this year, Dischord Records put its entire catalogue on Bandcamp for streaming and purchase, including all of Fugazi's releases​.

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Oswin: "I got permission to [videotape] it. I lent the tape to Bren and he was gonna make a copy. When I asked for it back, he said, "I'm sorry, but Mum taped over some of it." (Laughs)

Sneddon: "When it comes up, you think, 'Fuck, Fugazi actually played here, and we were involved in it.'"

Oswin: "I don't know if I appreciated it as much as I would now. I was going to gigs every week, and you think, "I'll see them again in a couple years." But they never made it back, and some of their massive fans have never seen them. We just took that stuff for granted."

Luke: "I was on a buzz for about a month afterwards. It definitely gave us confidence to organise more things. It was 19 years ago but listening back to the recording, it's like it was yesterday. It's still hard to believe that it happened."

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Images: Kirsten Oswin​