Live music in West End: Past, Present and Future.

There was a time in Brisbane when you could walk down Boundary Street in West End and your ears would be met with an eclectic mix of garage grunge, punk, metal and the occasional power riff. Anarchist punks, clad in high cut Doc Martens, ripped jeans and technicolour mo’ hawks; death metal rockers who slept by day and partied all night and long haired Kurt Cobain wannabe self-annihilates in tatty flannelette shirts all cohabitated. What happened to those days?

West End was once a breeding ground for homegrown Brisbane talent, mainly due to the fact that it didn’t offer much else. Now it’s become the centre point of Brisbane’s cultural diversity with multi-cuisine restaurants, cocktail jazz bars and mainstream dance clubs. The earthy, stained and smelly bars that I remember going to as a 17 year old (yes, they were also quite lax when it came to i.d. checks!) are a thing of the past. If you look hard enough, you can still find dregs from the life that was once lived in West End, but slowly, the few remaining hardcore music venues are closing down and moving out, paving way for trendy cafes and boutique liquor stores.

I know these are all positive steps in building a cleaner world city, and I’ll be the first to admit that West End is still a favourite jaunt of mine, but I’m still struck, on occasion, to take my shirt off and jump around senselessly to some anarchist punk music. I want to butt heads with people and not worry about being hit with a glass bottle. I want to lock eyes with a complete stranger and know exactly what they are thinking. I want to walk outside of a venue at 11 in the morning and feel my ears ringing and bowels churning, because the amp was too high, just for the hell of it.

As of the last census (2011), 49.3% of those who called West End home, were single and without children. Fiona McMullan has been living on Thomas Street in West End for 15 years and is acutely aware of the changing demographic within the community. “I have noticed a shift in the people around me, particularly once the sun goes down. It’s not necessarily a bad thing…West End is just adapting,” she said. As is the nature of the beast, when an area becomes urbanised, particularly by young professionals and students with disposable incomes, larger and more commercial venues are sure to follow.

Hospitality managers and operators could smell money in the air, and a community that once thrived on its united purpose is slowly being picked apart in lieu of smaller, more boutique venues, which are interspersed by the occasional high capacity dance club. Maximillian Tynan, manager of West End’s The End said, “it just made sense for us to open a venue in West End, it’s shame it’s so hard for local bands to get a gig, especially when I grew up coming to see them in West End.” Nowadays, you are more likely to find national or international performers in West End’s many live music venues as opposed to budding local Brisbane talent.

One Saturday, on a cold winter’s night, I was buried with assignments for university and frustrated with my lack of progress. I’d seen just about all there was to see on YouTube and run out of people to stalk on Facebook. I was staying at my girlfriend’s house, on Vulture Street, and as any responsible student would do when faced with an insurmountable workload, I gave up and headed out to get drunk. Unusually for me, I decided to fly solo. I tried the Hi-Fi. A private function for a young girl’s 21st. Not my scene. I crossed the street to Archive. It started to rain and the wind was picking up. It wasn’t heavy, but enough to make you uncomfortable and cold. Wolfmother played inside and the venue was packed, the bar was 4 deep and the patrons were all hanging in their cliques, forming impenetrable clusters of bodies. “Fuck it”, I mumbled under my breath. I can’t stand weekend warriors. These people didn’t care where they were; it was more about the West End prestige than anything else. I hit my breaking point as I stood in the smoking section, a half rolled cigarette hanging from my cracked, windblown lips. A young guy, with jeans rolled just below his knees and a pair of glasses, that had no lenses, stood before me, talking obnoxiously on his phone to a friend, “Oh yeah, I’m just in THE West End.” There was an air of smugness in his voice. Who calls it THE West End??

I flicked my half smoked butt into the bin and stormed off. As I walked down Vulture Street, planning my retreat back into the comfort of my girlfriend’s bed, I heard a familiar noise coming from a house. My curiosity kicked in and I followed my ears to the source of the noise. As I drew closer to the house, people were milling in the street. They were laughing and jumping around. I recognised the noises I was hearing. It was the harsh and intense bashing of a drum kit, accompanied by the tight, screaming whine of a guitar. I asked the crowd outside what was happening, to which the response was, “Album launch man! Get your ass in there.”

It was like walking into another world, shirtless punks adorned in studded leather jackets, tattooed women flashing their skin at the band on stage, and most importantly a bar set up over the top of an old wash basin with cold beer and no line. There was a young lady sitting in the corner, with a notepad and an old Polaroid camera hanging from her neck. I know a journalist when I see one, and made a beeline for her. I introduced my self. Her name was Kel, short for Kelly I’m sure, she had short-cropped naturally blonde hair, a stud in her nose and wore a pair of knee high Docs better than anyone I’ve ever seen. She was writing a review for Rave Magazine’s online editorial.

It turns out that locally produced music isn’t dead, it’s just moved underground. Every weekend, those in the know, congregate at someone’s house, set up some amps and a mic, order a few kegs and perform original music. The drinks are cheap; enough to cover costs for the party, and the vibe is chilled. After the show everyone hangs out and kicks on until the sun comes up. There is a strict no-bullshit rule, I’m told. Kel locks eyes with me, I can tell she’s serious, “no fighting and don’t trash the house. Other than that, it’s fair game.”

The following weekend, I meet Kel at an address. She gives it to me an hour before the show. This time round I’m better prepared for the night ahead, physically and mentally. The show was raw. Raw emotion. Raw location. Raw performance. It was like the feeling I get when I see a cocoon hanging from a tree. Ugly and primal, yet always in the back of my mind I’m aware that inside there is something complex and inspiring happening.

After the show I spoke to the lead singer, Declan. He’s only 19 and still lives at home with his parents. He was just a kid; never been out of Brisbane and his face was full of piercings. Funnily though he spoke with the depth of a much older, wiser man. I asked why they didn’t advertise the shows; after all, there was money to be made.

“Man, do I look like I care about money? This shit, what we do, is about these people here tonight. I know everyone here…I don’t want this turning into mainstream bullshit.”

Right then it hit me. Maybe I had been one of those faux glasses wearing, jean rolling posers. That guy who turned up to gigs when it suited me, jumped around for a bit then went back to my townhouse apartment, had a shower and told all my mates about how hardcore my night had been. Declan was legit. All of a sudden I became really self-conscious about my stupid leather jacket and romper stomper boots.

I left the gig a little perturbed; went to my girlfriend’s and ditched the jacket. My mates were all drinking at The Boundary, so I went to meet them. I’d never felt so relieved to hear a cover of Sweet Child O’ Mine upon entering a bar.

Over a pint of micro-brew beer, I reflected on my night and my chat with Declan. Whether right or wrong, I concluded that maybe the punks and rockers weren’t chased out by capitalist bar owners, waving metaphorical brooms in the air, as if chasing away a rodent. Maybe these die-hard music lovers foresaw the changes that would consume the Boundary Street façade of West End, and consciously opted to retreat to the backstreets. Either way, you can be sure that locally produced live music has a strong future, backed by a passionate and resilient fan base.

William Pitt-Thacker.

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