This article was originally published in Sounds of the City (Spring 2016/Issue No.2)

A Rock'n'Roll Freak Show - The Story of the T.F. Much Ballroom/Much More Ballroom 1970-1972

By Ian McFarlane

With thanks to Mike Rudd, Rob Mackenzie, Mic Conway and Brecon Walsh

Above: Cathedral Hall, 2016. Pic by Ian McFarlane

Above: Inside Cathedral Hall, 2016. Pic by Ian McFarlane

Above: Inside Cathedral Hall, 1971. Pic by David Porter

Melbourne is a rock’n’roll town. The environment of the rock gig is where musicians and audiences connect over a common goal: entertainment. If one were to attempt to add up or investigate the sheer number of gigs available in Melbourne over the years – discotheques, clubs, cafes, pubs, bars, concert halls, outdoor arenas – the result would be staggering indeed.

One of the iconic gigs of the early 1970s was the infamous T.F. Much Ballroom. The concert event was staged at Cathedral Hall, 20 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, a major bastion of inner-city Melbourne’s burgeoning progressive rock scene. It was started by John Pinder, Peter Andrew and Roxie from the Let It Be booking agency, with the involvement of artist Warren Knight, Bani McSpedden and lighting guru Hugh McSpedden.

To put you in the picture, some of the other popular Melbourne venues circa 1970/71 included the inner-city discos Berties, Sebastians and Mother (aka Thumpin’) Tum, the Q Club (Kew Civic Centre), the Regent Theatre (South Yarra) and all the various Town Hall dances (Melbourne, Box Hill, Camberwell, Beaumaris, St. Kilda, Coburg etc). In addition the pub scene had just opened up with suburban beer barns such as the Southside 6 (Moorabbin), Village Green (Mulgrave), Whitehorse (Nunawading) etc putting on bands almost every night.

Cathedral Hall was a beautiful old ballroom built in 1903. It had a generous floor space, large proscenium style stage, heavy draw curtains, substantial domed windows, ornate ceiling and chandeliers and a dress circle on three sides facing the stage. It would have been used for church functions, also maybe ballroom dancing, classical concerts, theatre events etc. before a new, younger clientele claimed it as their own. The event title of T.F. Much was initialisation for ‘Too Fucking’ Much... a vernacular phrase rooted in the late ’60s/early ’70s hippie movement. The hall itself was owned by the Catholic Church, so when the administrators caught on to the outrageous title the promoters had to come up with an alternative, the Much More Ballroom.

Due to the available floor space as many as 1,500 patrons would attend. You could either sit comfortably cross-legged on the floor and let the music waft over you like great clouds of marijuana smoke or dance wildly up the front with little inhibition. The very first T.F. Much Ballroom event took place on Saturday 8 August 1970. The bill featured Spectrum, Jeff Crozier’s Indian Medicine Magik Show, Lipp Arthur, Adderley Smith Blues Band, Sons of the Vegetal Mother, Gerry Humphreys and the Joy Band, Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, Margret RoadKnight, Flash Light Show and the Tribe Theatre. In addition there was a space set aside for a flea market where stall holders sold macrobiotic food and hippie clothing.

Above: Advert for the first T.F. Much Ballroom concert (8 August 1970)

The second concert, in early September, featured Spectrum, Sons of the Vegetal Mother, Lotus, Lipp Arthur and Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, followed in late October with Spectrum, Chain, King Harvest, Sons of the Vegetal Mother, Lipp Arthur and Ross Wilson’s new band Daddy Cool playing a benefit for Melbourne drug rehabilitation clinic Buoyancy Foundation.

In between was the 1970 Cultural Fair and Freak Show (Show Day, Thursday 24 September) with the all day festivities featuring Spectrum, Lipp Arthur, Carson, Bulldog and Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band. The gig flyer also boasted “Magicians! Strong Man! Clowns! Freaks! Brass Band! Sideshows! Stalls! Novelty Acts! Art, Photography Displays! Stunts! Happenings! Everything! Bring the Kids!”.

In other words it was a total environmental happening, bringing together music, art, light shows, circus and vaudeville acts and the like into an immersive setting. Audience members were encouraged to feel a part of the entertainment rather than shunted aside or being treated as apart from the action.

Perhaps inspired by the psychedelic San Francisco Ballrooms of the late 1960s – the Matrix, the Avalon, the Fillmore etc – or even such English events as the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream, the T. F. Much Ballroom, along with the Vietnam War moratorium concerts (which Spectrum also played) and the various rock festivals of the day, was a clear statement of the emergent counterculture.

The T.F. Much Ballroom had run its course by December 1970. John Pinder at Let It Be was organising the Launching Place festival, to be held on New Year’s Eve. Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Spectrum, Daddy Cool, Healing Force, Wendy Saddington, King Harvest and Jeff Crozier had been booked to appear but the event was a disaster. Only a couple of thousand people showed up and it rained most of the time. Spectrum’s Mike Rudd remembers spending the night sitting in a car as the rain pelted down. (The same disaster had struck the original Launching Place festival, The Miracle, held over the Easter weekend March 1970.)

As something of a consolation for the New Year’s Eve disaster, Pinder staged a unique concert, on 6 February 1971, under the Big Top at Burnley Oval for the T.F. Much Rock Circus. Spectrum, Daddy Cool, King Harvest, Jeff Crozier and Lipp Arthur played, with Ashton’s Circus clowns and high flying acts appearing between the rock bands. It was possibly the first of its type in the world. T.F. Much Rock Circus #2 followed on 29 May (McCallum Park) with Spectrum, Daddy Cool, Superman and SSARB.

Towards the end of 1971 Pinder and Bani McSpedden revived the Cathedral Hall concerts as the Much More Ballroom. The first concert under the banner of Much More Ballroom (Misère, Thursday 18 November) featured Spectrum launching their double album, Milesago, supported by Indelible Murtceps and Tribe Theatre with Edison Lights.

Pinder then booked the hall for the next year and the Much More Ballroom proper got underway (4 December 1971 – “Only $1.00 to get in!”) with Chain, Gerry and the Joy Band, Carson, Lipp and the Double Decker Brothers, Indelible Murtceps, Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band and MacKenzie Theory. The last Much More Ballroom (9 December 1972) featured Spectrum, Murtceps, Captain Matchbox, Miss Universe and Gary Young and Hot Dog

Above: Advert for the first Much More Ballroom concert, 4 December 1971

Every Much More Ballroom concert was presented via a theme. For example:
•    5 February 1972 - Company Caine presenting A Stone Of Class Distinction with Lipp and the Double Decker Brothers, MacKenzie Theory
•    11 March - Bizarre Bazaar with Friends, MacKenzie Theory, Captain Matchbox, Sundown, John Graham
•    1 April - April Fool’s Night with Indelible Murtceps, Lipp and the Double Decker Brothers, The First National Jug Orchestra (featuring Mic Conway and the After Dinner Moose aka Peter Lillie), MacKenzie Theory, Captain Matchbox
•    29 April - Rock & Roll Revue with Friends, Gerry and the Joy Band, Country Radio, It Flew Away
•    27 May - 1/2 Birthday Party with Carson, Company Caine, MacKenzie Theory, Captain Matchbox
•    10 June - Folk with Captain Matchbox, Margret RoadKnight, Graham Lowndes, John Graham, Paul Brand, Carrl & Janie Myriad
•    24 June - 23" Box Show with Daddy Cool, MacKenzie Theory, Lipp and the Double Decker Brothers, Country Radio
•    8 July - “Blue Movies Made Me Cry” with Spectrum, Indelible Murtceps
•    22 July - Sydney Live on Stage with Tamam Shud, Friends, Sun, Lizard, Graham Lowndes
•    13 August - The Last Drive-In Movie Show featuring Daddy Cool playing their final concert (recorded for the album Daddy Cool Live! The Last Drive-In Movie Show), MacKenzie Theory, Rock Granite and the Profiles, Graham Lowndes
•    16 September - The Amazing Horse Opera with Indelible Murtceps, Captain Matchbox, Miss Universe, Langford Lever
•    14 October - Mad Hatter’s Tea Party with Company Caine, MacKenzie Theory, Battersea Heroes, John Graham and Blackspur
•    11 November - Bathroom Show with Carson, Madder Lake, Indelible (listed as Insoluble) Murtceps, Pirana
•    25 November - Ballot Box with Country Radio, La De Das, MacKenzie Theory, Battersea Heroes

Writer Jenny Brown reviewed the 24 June gig for Planet magazine, reporting that:

“Even David N. Pepperell had a bonza time at the Much More 23" Box Show last Saturday night. Oh how we danced to Daddy Cool until our legs almost collapsed at the knees. The Planet gang was all there; together we got excited, bored, paranoid, exhilarated, exhausted. We drank the orange juice, made fools of ourselves, ignored the macro food, said hello to all our pals and savoured the music.

“Even David N. Pepperell cottoned on to MacKenzie Theory (which is far out – he only likes about eight bands in the world). They were ultraviolet as usual – the kind of sound you’d hear when listening to the internal organs of the moon – changing rhythms, expanding fluids, living machinery.”

The Much More Ballroom as a concert event was over by December 1972. Further concerts were held at Cathedral Hall into 1973 under different guises – MacKenzie Theory headlined in July, launching the album Out of the Blue, supported by The Dingoes, Burton McGuire Kennedy and Alta Mira – but it was the end of an era.

Among other locations (Carlton for example) the Melbourne counterculture epicentre eventually moved over to Ormond Hall, Prahran, where promoter Mike ‘Fastbuck’ Roberts staged his Reefer Cabaret concerts from late 1974 and throughout 1975. The Reefer Cabaret hosted the next generation of Melbourne bands, Renée Geyer and Sanctuary, Ariel, Madder Lake, The Dingoes, Skyhooks, Ayers Rock, Pantha, The Pelaco Bros and Toads, as well as old troopers Daddy Cool and Captain Matchbox. But that’s another story...

Above: Advert for the last Much More Ballroom concert, 9 December 1972

The band names that loom largest in the story of the T.F. Much/Much More Ballroom are Spectrum, MacKenzie Theory and the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band.

Mic Conway of Captain Matchbox recalls their involvement:

“We played jug band music and had started out on the folk scene. So then because the music was jazz related we started getting gigs in the jazz scene, which was quite strong in Melbourne at that time as well. Then somehow we came to the attention of John Pinder and Peter Andrew, they’d formed the Let It Be booking agency and had started the T. F. Much Ballroom. So they asked us to play on the floor between the ‘real bands’, hah, you know I say that in inverted comas, meaning the rock bands.

“We were acoustic, so they said ‘oh come and play on the floor’ which was when the curtain was drawn across the stage and they were setting up amps and drums for the next rock band to play. So the audiences used to go berserk over us and then after that Pinder put us up on the main stage, as a ‘legitimate rock act’. We never looked back after that but we weren’t rock at all. We were sort of folk jazz, I suppose... Look it’s hard to tell what we were, it was really like some perverse joke but audiences went with us. We just couldn’t believe that we were playing on the rock scene. We were art students just having a great time.”

Mike Rudd of Spectrum has some strong memories.

“I have a fairly romantic memory of the first T.F. Much Ballroom concert. The Let It Be agency, which booked us, was a melding of a rock and roll agency and artistic agents, or people who represented the artist community. That’s where Warren Knight’s involvement came into it. So they wanted to create this gig that was a mix of music and community things as well as artistic things. For the first concert they set up a plastic, inflatable vulva through the door so you had to be re-birthed on the way in, which I thought was great. Then John Pinder had invited Mr Ball Bearing and some of his cohorts, on their choppers, to ride into the hall and then do moshpit diving before it was even a concept.

“But of course, the rest of the people, the flower children that were in the hall, were terrified by this whole thing and the artistic implications were lost. It did get a bit out of hand and Mr Ball Bearing had to intervene and curtail some his more enthusiastic guys who were jumping off the stage onto broken glass. That was getting a wee bit too grotesque for the flower children cowering in the centre of the room. So the artistic motif was the original spirit of the T.F. Much gigs, but that gave way to the more music-centric gigs of the Much More Ballroom concerts.

“It was a very well run venue. The acoustics in the hall weren’t that great, as I recall, but at the volume we were playing in those days it wasn’t too much of a problem. Spectrum actually put on our own gigs there as well. The Misère concert was ours and I guess we would have been supported by Indelible Murtceps. So that was very thematic, we had big playing cards hanging from the walls to keep up with the Misère theme. We had the comedian Max Gillies reading out a bizarre poem that I’d written, dressed as I required him to be in an evening suit but minus the trousers. So he had spotty underwear with suspenders on and so forth, and he read this poem.

“Hugh McSpedden’s light show, the Giant Edison Screw, was a show in itself. Just setting up took an inordinate amount of time. The Edison Screw was very Edison like, it had projectors and wheels, all sorts of things. There would be light projections on the stage and all around the stage as well, static projections, moving oil projections, liquid lights. You could actually stick your finger on the cells and create patterns. He had it all. It was a big part of the show.

“I’m not sure they were trying to replicate the San Francisco ballrooms but I think it probably had the same result with the light show and the loud music, definitely a very hippie feel about it. And Roxie was American anyway, and John Pinder may have been exploring that side of it, I’m not really sure. But the smell of patchouli oil, I cannot forget that. Patchouli oil drowned out everything. It was all pervasive!”

Above: Rob Mackenzie and Cleis Pearce of MacKenzie Theory, 1972. Pic courtesy of Brecon Walsh

MacKenzie Theory played their debut gig at the Much More Ballroom in December 1971. They went on to be the biggest drawing band, even though they were never the headliners. Bani McSpedden was quoted at the time as saying that “the only time the concerts sold out was when MacKenzie Theory were on the bill”.

Rob Mackenzie of MacKenzie Theory recalls that it was the best run venue in the day.

“We loved playing there, we’d get psyched up backstage before we played. We’d get together and look at the crowd and we’d feel the vibe about what they wanted to hear, not meaning ‘oh they want to hear the latest Archies song, let’s play that’, I don’t mean that, but something on a deeper musical level.

“One of the most important things was that the stage had a curtain and they used it. When a band finished playing they’d close the curtain and it had a little area at the front of the stage which was plenty of room for someone to come out and tell jokes, or a solo artist would come out and sing, or the Leaping McSpeddens could do their crazy, wacky stuff. So between every band the audience never had to watch the roadies change over the stage, it all happened behind the curtains. The curtains closed just in front of the amps so that when they opened you walked out in front and you had the whole stage to yourself, you weren’t way back and it was just beautifully done. It was beautifully stage managed, they really knew how to run a great venue.

“Hugh McSpedden was the best lighting guy in Melbourne, he did the lights for all the Much More shows. He even did the light show for our record, he brought his gear down to T.C.S. and set up when we recorded our one-day album, Out of the Blue.

“I don’t know that they were necessarily trying to copy places like the Fillmore. If they were copying it they probably succeeded very well, and I reckon they probably did a better job. Besides, the Much More Ballroom was a bigger venue, it held twice as many people as the Fillmore which was only 600 or 800 capacity. The Much More Ballroom was a fabulously run venue, the vibe in the place was so good, there were so many cool things happening all the time. The Ballroom was very influential and after it closed other people tried to copy it.”

Photographer Brecon Walsh remembers the camaraderie and sheer bliss of the concert environment.

“I remember one time talking with Rob Mackenzie, Jen Jewel Brown and Renée Geyer. We were standing in the hall and Peter Lillie was over to the left hanging there looking like a hippie aristocrat/early Roxy Music Eno. Renée was there with her first band, Sun, and she would have been 19, if that then. I recall that The Mothers Live at The Fillmore East was playing over the PA with Zappa’s ‘Latex Solar Beef’ or ‘The Mud Shark’ blasting out.”

It seems that the only film footage of the Ballroom was captured by director Peter Weir in his 1972, 10-minute short 3 Directions in Australian Pop-Music. It was filmed at the Much More Ballroom as part of the Commonwealth Film Unit’s Australian Colour Diary series (#43).

Captain Matchbox perform a breakneck rendition of ‘Who Walks in When I Walk Out’, much to the audience’s delight. Interestingly, Mic Conway is playing his bespoke Captain Matchbox washboard which was an integral part of his stage persona. Indelible Murtceps perform ‘Play a Song that I Know’ which was one of their more danceable numbers.

Wendy Saddington performs a gorgeous rendition of cult US folk singer Sixto Rodriguez’s ‘I Think of You’. Her visual appearance is striking, with introspective, theatrical clown make-up, cropped hair and black/white costume. She’s accompanied by performance artist Morris Spinetti (aka Teardrop) and a 3-piece backing band, comprising ex-Copperwine guys Ross East (guitar) and Peter Figures (drums) with Tim Partridge on bass.

3 Directions in Australian Pop-Music was issued on DVD as part of the Peter Weir Short Film Collection in 2005.