The flames of the past still burn bright in St Kilda’s underground music scene

Surabaya Johnny’s is a scene frozen in time where former residents come and watch Fred perform. Picture: Selby Stewart

By SELBY STEWART

It’s a mild Friday night in St Kilda.

There are only a handful of people at Surabaya Johnny’s – an intimate bar hidden away off Acland St. Everyone has come to watch legendary cartoonist and musician Fred Negro perform in his beloved seaside suburb.

Fred knows the streets should be buzzing, but he concedes over the years this town has changed.

“It was a really poor place when I moved in here … it was kind of bohemian and weird and wonderful and well its changed because most of those people can’t afford to live here anymore,” he says.

St Kilda’s iconic promenade was once considered the birthplace of Australian music. However, creeping gentrification and the closure of several live music venues have challenged the suburb’s music monopoly.

Former deputy mayor of Port Phillip Serge Thomann has watched rising rents force artists out of the area.

“All the rents in St Kilda have increased dramatically and a lot of the cheap rental has been demolished and replaced by apartments,” he says.

“In the past I think people who were living here were actually living here rather than just using their apartments or their house as a bedroom.

“St Kilda always had the cultural edge having artists, painters, writers, poets and musicians. Music is part of the culture so it is important that St Kilda keeps that cultural edge.”

Past census results for Port Phillip showed the average weekly rent for the area was around $404 in 2011. However, current data from CoreLogic Property and Analytics shows weekly rent has increased to $650 in 2018.

The results also show the median price of a house was $765,000 in 2013. Now it sits at $1,287,500 for the area.

Yet many former residents who were pushed out still make the trek across town for the music.

At Surabaya Johnny’s Fred begins to play. The room is warm and dimly lit. There is a red glow and the light flickers, then fades and returns.  Accompanying him is a guitarist and Fred’s partner Viviane. Their voices are rugged and aged and harmonised.

Dave Moll and Fred Negro prepare for a gig. Picture: Selby Stewart

Across the room wearing a red satin shirt and tie is Colin, Fred’s friend of 15 years. Colin lives in Prahran but he never goes out there. He only comes to St Kilda. He comes for the culture and the music and for Fred Negro.

“The live music scene is what St Kilda is known for, it is the history here,” Colin whispers. He doesn’t like talking while Fred sings. In the red light wine flows, the young couple sway and Colin sings along.

Colin has met another local tonight for his birthday. John Evans is turning 74 today. John is wearing worn-out and laced-up leather shoes under brown corduroy pants. He has a pale yellow dinner jacket, a scarf and a fedora.

John leans in close when he talks. He speaks with a stilted cadence, each sentence ends with your name and it draws you in. He says as a boy he was a plumber from a successful pedigree of businessmen, until he suffered a brain injury in a car accident at 21.

“It changed me” he says, leaning back with his hands on his knees. His back is straight like a child in class with their hand raised. His left index finger bounces up and down on his thigh.

The enigmatic patrons of this bar have lived through the dizzying heights of St Kilda’s punk-rock era. They laugh and drink and reminisce. John is one of many people at Surabaya Johnny’s who are rich with stories of their past.

There are tales of the “crawls”, where hundreds of revelers would dance along Fitzroy St from the Palace to the Crystal Ballroom or The Prince of Wales through the ’70s and ’80s.

It was a time where alcohol flowed on the streets, brawlers shared beers after a scuffle and the music was often free and always abundant.

Venues included The Ritz, The George, The Prince of Wales, The Linden Tree, four band rooms at The Espy, The Razor, The Palace, The Palais, The Dogs Bar, The Greyhound, Bloody Mary’s, The Dalton bar and The Inkerman among others.

Some of these remain open, most are shut. The famous Crystal Ballroom closed for business in 1989 and the Palace in 2007, before a fire destroyed what remained.

St Kilda is also home, or has been at one time or another, to some of Australia’s most prolific artists: Rock band Hunters & Collectors and its front-man Mark Seymour, Paul Kelly, Tex Perkins, members of The Birthday Party in the late 70’s, Rowland Howard and Men At Work started at an unnamed group in St Kilda.

A poster outside the Prince of Wales Hotel in 1983. Source: Facebook

Others talk of the intense police harassment that plagued many of the bands throughout the ’80s. Including St Kilda’s infamous Vice Squad – a police division focusing on public-order crime – who Fred believes had a file “a foot deep” on his band I spit on your gravy.

“It was pretty hard with cops and Vice Squad agents turning up to gigs and threatening to make the pub lose its license if we continued. Everyone in the band got arrested at various gigs and got locked up for the night and had court cases,” Fred says.

“We got banned from every place for a year so we had to change our name every time we played so they didn’t know it was us.

“They just turned up at gigs and we would stand on stage and say: ‘Spot the undercover Vice Squad agent, if you’re standing next to one put your hand up’,” he laughs.

“We were just a bunch of ning-nongs drinking in the pub and writing songs about drinking in the pub and eating pizza and we were no threat to the world.”

Out the back of Surabaya Johnny’s is Matt Ryan who produces the Munster Times – a music magazine for St Kilda, Fitzroy, Collingwood and Dingley. For Matt, Fred is one of the last fading flames of St Kilda’s old music scene.

“St Kilda has changed but he’s part of the old St Kilda. [Fred] is one of those people who could be more famous and well known but I think he’ll always tell you he just wants to be well known in St Kilda and wants to be able to walk to a gig and walk back home,” Matt says.

“I don’t think there is anyone who has done more for St Kilda in terms of music and underground culture and artwork then Fred, he’s the mayor of St Kilda.”

Some residents refuse to accept the suburbs transformation and are fighting to keep live-music breathing. President of the St Kilda Live Music Community Suzi Dohl thinks trends “ebb and flow” and is optimistic of a cultural revival.

“We are in a really difficult time. It evolves and transforms and a lot of naysayers think it’s dead but I don’t believe that we are totally gentrified.

“I still see the same faces I’ve seen since 1991,” Suzi says.

“The Espy is coming back, the New Market is coming back and there is a strong artistic presence in this community. This is our low point and it is only going to get better.  It’s the calm before the storm.”

Some residents believe Fred is one of the last fading flames of St Kilda’s gritty music scene, he disagrees.  Picture: Selby Stewart

A short walk from Surabaya Johnny’s is Fred’s ground-floor apartment. The room is a wild mix of colour and smells of stale tobacco. The table is scattered with books and comics and pornographic cartoons.

Fred looks at one of his drawings placed against the wall. It shows a penis ejaculating into a mouth and the caption reads: “Another day at the office really.” You can tell it reminds him of a gritty by-gone era.

“it’s gentrified – it’s really gentrified… There was lots of outrageous sort of comedy going on in the streets and outrageous characters and fruit loops and now it’s all sort of bland,” he says.

He pauses for a moment.

“Well there are still pockets… There’s still a lot of good bands, lots of good music and good musicians over this side. It was just a bit wilder back then I guess.

With the iconic Esplanade Hotel due to re-openlater this year and Melbourne’s recent stamp as the live music capital of the world, St Kilda’s music scene is still bubbling just below the surface.

And while Fred Negro remains, there is a feeling the music will too.