When Rat Ruled The World
In 1983, having recently moved to Sydney, a young Jac Vidgen threw a party in his Elizabeth Bay apartment. He’d done stuff like this before and like his previous efforts, the party was an unmitigated success.
Mar 2 2009, 12:00am
INTERVIEW BY HANNAH BROOKS
PHOTOS BY WILLIAM YANG
Reno Dal, Billy Yip and Jac Vidgen, the first team behind the RAT parties. They remain good friends to this day. Picture by John Webber.
In early 1983, having recently moved to Sydney, a young Jac Vidgen decided to throw a party in his Elizabeth Bay apartment. He’d done stuff like this before and like his previous efforts, the party was an unmitigated success. But this time, even though all the right people came, there were just way too many of them. They left a solid trail of glitter from the street to his apartment and his whiny downstairs neighbors complained about that and the ceiling caving in. Reno Dal, a friend who Jac had hired to hang mirror balls and take care of the lighting, sensibly suggested that Jac move the affair to a venue that he didn’t shit and eat and sleep in, and start charging people an entrance fee. Thus, the birth of RAT.
Five years and one friendship with an exotic Chinese maker-of-art-things named Billy Yip later, they still weren’t making a ton of money (that’s what happens when you spend your profits on amazing outfits and drugs you give away for free) but the parties continued into the early 90s, leaving the photo documentation of the wildest shit Australia has ever seen. Like that time when Grace Jones serenaded a crowd of 15,000 as the sun began its first yawn of 1983.
These days Jac lives in Asia and works as a senior Buteyko practitioner, or, in non-spiritual asthmatic terms, a type of breath teacher. But he still remembers the good ol’ days…
Vice: Tell me about the first RAT party.
Jac Vidgen: We found this old house in Redfern and decided to rent it from the hippies who lived there. The 220 people who came in got free punch but we never did that again cause it was gone in half an hour.
And what was in this punch you made?
Well the punch was made up of all kinds of things but for the next party we provided everybody with a jelly baby impregnated with a quarter of an acid trip. If you were a good looking boy you might have been lucky enough to get a second one if you came to me. I’d cross your ticket when you’d had your acid, which meant you couldn’t get any more. Basically, it ran out when everybody got their share. But it was very strong so it was enough to get everybody into a good state without it getting stupid. Of course everybody said, “When’s the next party?”
Can you tell me about the photo known as the “Infamous Line?”
It’s a photograph of people lining up at the Balmain Bijou in January of ’85 to buy their drugs. The Bijou was a wreck in those days. We just took it over for a night and made it into this incredible environment. What they’re lining up in front of is a big cutout foam sign that says “From Your Dealer With Heart,” which would have been a sign for a car dealer on Parramatta Road or somewhere.
I remember that night that the police came because we didn’t have a license. I was dressed outrageously and in quite the party mood and I told them that they should have a look inside for some reason. I led these two policemen in and they stood there with their eyes practically popping out and said, “Right, well don’t do it again,” and then they just left.
What were you wearing?
I was wearing a Chinese or Japanese opera mask on the top of my head and I had these huge blousing red pants with white polka dots on them, a singlet that had been hand painted by somebody, and these long boots.
Amazing. How important were costumes and dressing up to the parties?
Very important. People went to a lot of effort. Martin Harsono had these three Chinese Opera costumes and they came out for two or three parties ’cause they were such a great look. Famous drag queens like Tobin Saunders, who does that character Vanessa Vagner, would come along and always get free tickets because of their great outfits.
If you were all dressed up and heading to a RAT party, how did people react if they saw you?
Very rarely antagonistic. Often fascinated. We did a party at the Enmore Theatre called RATarama where we played movies and the idea was to come as your favorite movie character. We had arranged a limousine service for people arriving and the ABC TV was there filming it for one of their shows. The locals were on the street watching it like it was a parade.
So were there ever any busts?
In those days, never. But the thing to understand is that drugs were far from the focus. This is what distinguished RAT from all the other parties. We’d put huge amounts of effort into creating an extraordinary environment where everyone got to be expressive. Whether they were make up artists, fashion designers, costume makers or punters who wanted to be those things. Or musicians who generally performed in front of 200 people who then got to perform in front of 2,000 people at our parties. We gave people who weren’t famous a chance. I used to just let people perform—not for long but it gave them a chance to be part of the event. I was privileged to work with some extraordinary people over the years.
Like all good things, I imagine the parties changed over time.
Very much so. It was totally exploited and commercialized by lots of people who thought, “Gee, we could make a lot of money out of this.” And some of them did; they would just do one or two events, promote all sorts of stuff, and deliver very little.
That’s where I really lost interest. By the early 90s I just became less inspired by it. It had a real edge in the mid- to late-80s and we’d inadvertently created that edge. We didn’t plan or set out to create that; it just evolved and went in that direction and there wasn’t any stopping it.
The other thing is, in those days, the tribes, if you could call them that, all mixed together. Today they have their individual things, which started to happen towards the end of the late 80s. So then, in the 90s, these very specialized events began. There were techno raves and hip-hop parties, and that’s where that group of people went. You go to an event now and everyone is dressed the same; you don’t see many people really dressed up.
No, you don’t.
It’s completely changed. There was AIDS; that put a damper on things and so by the 90s people were going back to black. Whereas the 80s had been an incredibly colorful period: colorful for fashion and colorful in a sense of people’s expression. I think the 90s became darker and more conservative. Sexually conservative as well, which was a rebound from the AIDS thing. In the RAT photos, I could point out a lot of amazing people who are now dead.
It is sad. It was good training in a way though because that doesn’t usually happen to you until you get old.
I guess when you put it that way… no, it’s still sad.
Jac, Billy and RAT regulars Elise and Harold ‘the Kangaroo’ Thornton.
Akira Isogawa and friends.
Simon Reptile and Danny.
Grace Jones and Mace.
Martin Harsono and his infamous Chinese Opera costumes.
Mazz Image, Jacques Tchong and Gemma at RATmania.
Michael Hutchence and Donna Draper at ERATcipation.
Cindy Pastel and Sarapax
The Infamous Line. Behind that curtain there was apparently a guy selling drugs. The sign was courtesy of a local car dealership. Photo by Robert Rosen
Victor Li at RATfricarnivale.
Stylist, Kathy McKinnon.
Akira and David Bebb dressed in a costume inspired by PNG witchdoctors and made entirely of drinking straws.
Simon Reptile, Martin Harsono, Kathy McKinnon, Githa Pilbrow, Nigel Sparrow and Jac.