Bombay Rock - The Story of a Melbourne Rock ‘n’ Roll Landmark
By Ian McFarlane © 2018
Originally published in Rhythms magazine Issue #289 Sept/Oct 2018. Thanks to Joseph Gaultieri, Sean Kelly and Rob Wellington.
There’s a relatively new music venue in Melbourne town called Bombay Rock, situated at 303 Sydney Road, Brunswick (Melbourne’s inner north). It’s great to see that young bands and upcoming artists have a new place to play, somewhere they can cut their musical teeth in front of appreciative young audiences.
Yet when is a new venue actually a new venue? On the Bombay Rock Facebook page the About info states:
“From the ashes of one of Australia’s most iconic live music venues that played host to bands such as INXS, Australian Crawl, The Angels, Cold Chisel, The Sunnyboys, Skyhooks, The Knack & Bo Diddley comes the new Bombay Rock. Free live music every Fri & Sat”
It’s gratifying to see that the new venue managers have acknowledged their forebears. So just what was it about the said “iconic” live music venue that stands out? Situated in the same location as the new club, what went on back there in the day? Time to investigate the history of one of the most popular Melbourne rock ’n’ roll hot spots of the late ’70s / early ’80s, the original Bombay Rock.
In previous editions of Sounds of the City, I’ve delved into the history of a couple of other notable music venues, the T.F. Much Ballroom (circa early 1970s) and the very much current Cherry Bar (“... the best rock n’ roll bar in the world”). Bombay Rock stands as an important part of Melbourne’s music history.
In the late 1970s the Australian touring circuit was in full swing and every band worth its salt was out on the road across the country. Every major Melbourne and interstate touring band stopped by for a slot at Bombay Rock, as did many international bands. One wonders what might have gone on backstage at a venue such as Bombay Rock?
Experiencing rock music in such an environment was a rite of passage for many. From the inner-city clubs, pubs and ballrooms to the vast expanses of numerous suburban beer barns, the Melbourne music scene certainly had plenty to offer. People wanted to be entertained, and bands provided that entertainment. In many ways alcohol was the nexus between environment, entertainment, community and commerce.
Bombay Rock was a viable alternative to the smaller, inner city venues such as the Tiger Lounge (Royal Oak Hotel, Richmond), Hearts (Polaris Inn, North Carlton), Martinis (Imperial Hotel, Carlton) and the ‘Snake Pit’ (Station Hotel, Prahran), or the sprawling suburban beer barns such as South Side Six (Moorabbin), Village Green (Mulgrave), Matthew Flinders (Chadstone), Croxton Park (Thornbury), Doncaster Inn (Doncaster), Pier Hotel (Frankston) etc. It was purposely designed and promoted as a dedicated rock ’n’ roll club.
The double storey venue had a main room upstairs with a large dance floor, where the big name bands played, and a smaller room downstairs where you could catch the lesser known, younger bands. There was always a great atmosphere about the place; audiences just came along to enjoy the bands, to dance, to drink beer and hopefully to connect with other people bearing the same disposition.
The story of the original Bombay Rock starts and ends with enterprising manager / promoter Joseph Gaultieri. He started out on the mid-’70s Melbourne music scene by managing Fat Daddy and then working for Premier Artists booking agency. For a time he ran a club on the Victorian surf coast at Lorne, which he called the Lorne Follies, booking the likes of Renee Geyer, Captain Matchbox, Split Enz, Ariel, Hush and the Ted Mulry Gang.
In late 1977 he started a rock venue in the Melbourne CBD, at 287 Bourke Street (opposite Myers). The club itself was called the Bombay Bicycle Club which had been run by Brian Goldsmith. The name Bombay Bicycle Club had allusions to the British Raj in India, so Gaultieri wisely called his music venue Bombay Rock. Goldsmith went on to run the popular disco the Underground.
Gaultieri immediately branded his rock venue as a notable place to be seen with the taglines “Melbourne’s premier rock gig!!” and “Showcasing the cream of Australasian and special international attractions (combined with our normal disco set up) – While the rest of Melbourne sleeps”.
Premier Artists supplied the bands, so the likes of The Ferrets, Texas, Doug Parkinson, Sanctuary, X-Ray-Z, Stylus, The Sports, Ayers Rock, Stars, Finch and Jeff St. John provided the entertainment. Gaultieri also promoted Blondie’s first Australian tour at the time, so New York’s finest played Bombay Rock in addition to their concert at the Palais Theatre. By the end of 1977, Bombay Rock as a CBD venue had run its course.
Interviewed recently, Gaultieri recalled those heady days.
“After we finished at the Bourke Street club, I found a new location in Brunswick. It was a Greek nightclub called the Copacabana. I knew the owner but they weren’t doing any good so they let me take it over. I wanted to make it the best venue I could.”
He refurbished the club, on the corner of Sydney Road and Phoenix Street, and relaunched it as a rock gig on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th of March 1978. Bands featured that weekend were Mother Goose, Mondo Rock, Last Chance Café, Stars, The Sports and One Nite Stand. Once again he stamped a major presence with the advert taglines “The total 2 storey entertainment complex”, “Be Early” and “Australia’s Rock ’n’ Roll Headquarters”. It was all about the marketing and right off the bat the venue was hugely successful.
“The main room upstairs held over a 1,000 people,” the manager explains. “I recreated it like a big studio. I put the big stage in so everyone could see the bands, put baffles on the windows, a big curtain up along the left-hand wall, so the room had a great sound. I took care with picking the bills so all the bands would complement each other. People might be keen to see the main act but they’d all come early to see the support acts too. All the bands wanted to play the hot room and Bombay Rock became the hot room. So people came in happy and it was a really good vibe.”
He chuckles when he says, “I guess the only problem was that the roadies had to lug all the gear up the back stairs. Every band wanted to use their own PA system because their sound guys knew how to run it, but going up and down those back stairs was a killer for the roadies!”
Within the first year, every major Australian rock act of the day had appeared there – Rose Tattoo, The Sports, Stars, Mondo Rock, Skyhooks, Kevin Borich Express, The Angels, Cold Chisel, Dave Warner from the Suburbs, Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, Ayers Rock, Midnight Oil, Mike Rudd’s Instant Replay, Jim Keays Band, Russell Morris Band, Little River Band etc.
Gaultieri also cottoned on quickly to the spirit of Melbourne’s emergent punk / new wave scene by staging the Suicide Records New Wave Extravaganza nights in March and April 1978, featuring Boys Next Door, Teenage Radio Stars, X-Ray-Z, JAB and Negatives.
“I remember playing there with Teenage Radio Stars and then Models,” says musician Sean Kelly. “It was always a great gig, a sizeable room with a proper concert stage. Quite often at other venues you’d play on a temporary stage on the floor, close to the audience; this place was different. It did have an odd layout I seem to recall. It was a long room with the dressing room at the opposite end of the hall, so you had to walk out through the crowd. There seemed to be three or four dressing rooms, it felt like maybe there was a mini-function room we’d all gather in after the show. Joe always treated the bands really well.
“The audience vibe was really good, I liked it. I’d go there all the time, even when I wasn’t working, to see other bands and just hang out. There was a raised section up the back, let’s not call it the VIP lounge, more like just a guest area. There was a long bar running along one wall and the whole place had a vaguely rococo decor. It was a big room, not a pub as such and you got the feeling it was deliberately designed as a live venue. It seemed like they could have hosed it out afterwards if it got too messy.”
As a young gig goer, this writer spent many nights enjoying the bands and ambience of Bombay Rock. Casting my mind back, I recall seeing so many classic bands play. Some memorable events stand out for me. One gig I remember seeing Skyhooks’ guitarist Bob Spencer running along the length of the main bar, as he played a lead break without dropping a note. I recall seeing Negatives, Teenage Radio Stars and Boys Next Door. Another night a friend of mine, after a few too many beers, fell asleep with his head next to the bass bin of the PA in front of the stage and, against all the odds, remained there while the Kevin Borich Express played a whole set! My friend attributes the hearing loss in his left ear these days to that fateful night. Ah, that’s rock ’n’ roll isn’t it?
Gaultieri continued to push his marketing nous for the venue with the tagline “Australia’s finest international 3AM rock ’n’ roll club”. By 1979 the likes of the Crystal Ballroom in St. Kilda had started but Bombay Rock remained popular. As the years progressed, the likes of Dragon, Australian Crawl, The Aliens, Lobby Loyde, Contraband, TMG, Men at Work, The Radiators, Mental as Anything, Divinyls and JPY and the All Stars played Bombay Rock. It also remained a haven for young and hungry bands such as INXS, Sweet Jayne, The Dugites, Street Angel, Models, Paul Kelly and the Dots, James Freud and the Radio Stars, La Femme, The Reels, The Scientists, Sunnyboys etc.
The venue also played host to international bands such as The Cure, The Vapors, Major Matchbox, Magazine, The Knack, Graham Parker, George Thorogood and the Destroyers and many others.
When pressed to nominate any favourite bands that played at Bombay Rock, Gaultieri says it’s a hard question to answer. “I loved them all, I really did. If all the bands delivered then I delivered to them. They just wanted to play there. I mean, Midnight Oil were great, Cold Chisel, Little River Band. Graham Parker was fantastic, The Knack, a whole lot of bands from different genres. Paul Kelly and the Dots came out of playing the downstairs room.”
By mid-1983 the venue seemed to have run its course, fewer big name bands were appearing although infamous Californian hardcore heroes Dead Kennedys played there that August.
In an odd twist to the tale, another promoter launched a Bombay Rock in Surfers Paradise, QLD, which had no connection to Gaultieri’s Bombay Rock in Melbourne. “People liked to copy successful things,” is his pithy comment now.
Gaultieri wrapped up his Bombay Rock around late 1983. “I wanted to give the place a facelift,” he says. “It had got run down, your feet used to stick to the carpet and I wanted to make the room more user friendly. The Greek owners were still running the bar, while we ran the door, but they didn’t want to do any renovations. I walked away and then a couple of months later they realised they’d blown it. They asked me to come back but I said ‘I’m not interested, you’ve missed your chance’. I gave them gold and they wouldn’t listen to me.”
He then moved to Earl’s Court, on the Upper Esplanade, St. Kilda, next to St Moritz ice skating rink. Likewise it was a large dance hall which was being run as a Greek nightclub. It was there that he launched his next rock gig, The Venue, but that is another story...
Bombay Rock is firmly entrenched in Australian rock ’n’ roll culture in other ways too. Australian Crawl eulogised the venue in the song ‘Beautiful People’; “Beautiful people / You know they’re going out tonight / To get their Bombay rocks off”. Stars recorded the live album 1157 at Bombay Rock and Mondo Rock recorded the live portion of the 1978 debut album Primal Park there. Recently, Rose Tattoo issued the CD Live in Brunswick 1982, recorded at Bombay Rock (although oddly citing the venue as being called the Bombay Bicycle Club).