Culture //

Where is Australia’s best night life?

Arguments for Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane.

A Sydney warehouse party, 2019. Photo courtesy: Chris McClymont.

The Obvious Choice: Melbourne

Liam Armstrong-Carrigan argues Melbourne is the place for sesh lovers.[1]

Writing an impassioned argument for the supremacy of  Melbourne nightlife during this extremely unclear time of SOCIAL DISTANCING has taken me on a very dark journey.[2] Although, I suppose being confronted with the reality that the best nights of my life are on hold whilst we try to avoid pandemic-induced collapse can also be seen as further proof of my case.

So whilst the clubs are closing, raves are being rescheduled and the house parties are being placed in the freezer, I’ll take a moment to spell it out for you all: if you like to sesh this is the place to do it in Australia.

I’m well positioned to compare notes as a member of what my crew in Melbourne ironically and problematically call the Sydney diaspora. I started going out exactly a year before the lockouts hit. I developed my drinking problem in the heterosexual horror shows of Bar Century and SOHO in the Cross, burst out of the closet with TBD hookups on the sticky floors of Arq and thankfully eventually graduated to the much more #truetome turns of the Inner West scene.

Whilst I don’t think it was a misspent youth, the rising statism and inability to get a drink on a weekend anywhere bar the Star Casino past midnight (the dogs once didn’t let me in after Grassroots class of 2017 got an Uber XL from the Royal on a Tuesday) took me regularly to the Sunken Place. Every good night seemed to involve a very STRESSFUL pattern of the ticketed event taking you to 3:30am latest, before you had to endure an hour in the deadzone. If you’re a Sydney clubhead of my generation you know what I’m talking about — the Witching Hour of 4am to 5am during which our options consisted of a brief kick ons or chaining cigs in a park over a hidden goon sack before we could finally burst into Club 77 for the morning shift from 5am onwards.

By the time I’d finished one half of a double degree I’d had enough of dark fascist bouncers refusing me entry when I was barely lit and regularly passing out on the B1 Bus back to Narrabeen. I bought a one-way ticket to Melbourne even though my initial accommodation was a bone-chilling 12 person hostel room. At first, the main thing I noticed was that irrespective of my smaller social circle, my Facebook events were quickly more diverse and varied than it ever was in Sydney — even more so when I started connecting with Melburnians. People here have less of the attitude that when you go out you stick like superglue to your mates. I can attest to this — I made my best friends at a 24-hour rave at the incomparable Hugs&Kisses when we witnessed a GHB head fall three stories onto the pavement at 6am. No one said being a club rat was all roses![3]

If I had to pick one reason why this is the city that’s such a playground for adult children it wouldn’t be the relaxed attitude —  I regularly key ketamine in front of bouncers — or how the longer trading hours mean the team doesn’t have to head out till 2am and still have a club to turn in if the riot police shut down the illegal park party. It’s the fact the music scene is so superb it easily holds its own worldwide, from Paris to Berlin, in every disco I’ve been in. When I asked a veteran party queen why, she provided a pretty compelling reason: in Europe, DJs can fly from city to city in often under an hour. Every weekend one can pretty much expect someone decent to be playing. In isolated Australia, we aren’t so lucky, so Melbourne developed arguably the best DIY scene in the world. The creativity, hard work and passion that has gone into creating such a vibrant self sustaining scene is something we should fight for harder then ever in the time of corona-induced disruption and devastation.

I’m not worried because I believe in our community — if the underground scene can survive the recent spate of traumatic venue closures we can keep the lights on through a world war.[4] Because really, it doesn’t matter what city you’re in. You can have the best night in the world in a small town bar with the right friends. Melbourne does make having a good time easier, but the reason it passes the vibe check is because of the people that I’ve shared these perfect nights with, little slices of time that felt so perfect I felt nostalgic about them as I lived them.[5]

Don’t worry fellow Australians, we love to share. So when we can all boogie freely again, I’ll see you on the dancefloor doing the Melbourne step.[6]

[1] Don’t worry —- I hope this is my last appearance in this paper also. At least whilst I’m still enrolled as an undergraduate. Please don’t drag me in Who? Weekly for living so unclearly!

[2] Yes, the capitals are a reference to Trump telling me to do so in capitals on twitter…disconcerting times peoples!!! Please let this set off the revolution, I’m over the dark world order!

[3] Don’t worry, although the infamous ‘Hugs plummeter’ bleed profusely out onto the pavement and spent a long stint in the ICU he was spotted six months later at a Richmond kick ons! If only we could say the same about Hugs, the 24-hour members-only best club in human history…please become my fourth follow on Medium if you’re interested in more XOXO analysis! 

[4] I wouldn’t wish the collective grieving set off by the loss of  Hug&Kisses, Lounge and Crazy Arms to greedy land barons in short succession on my worst enemies!

[5] If you’re interested in the concept of pre-nostalgia, go to the third article down in the authorial archive of the current SRC president. If you’re DSPing this, hi Doon!

[6] An actual thing: basically everyone on the floor steps side to side whilst intensely looking at the DJ asking for more. You’ll have to come see it to believe it — real ones know what I mean xx.

Image by Alan Weedon for LNYW.

The Underground: Sydney

Robbie Mason claims Sydney is more than lockout laws and empty clubs. 

Julia – a DJ (Guilia), artist and party curator (Tactic) along with D-Grade – sits on a white chair. Behind her graffiti and rusty sports equipment populate the space. We are within the skeleton of an abandoned stadium in Sydney’s south-west – an occasional rave location – recording a film interview, guerrilla style. The interview is part of a documentary on Sydney’s DIY rave scene. When I ask her if Sydney is stereotyped too often as being dead, she answers quickly and emphatically: “In short, yes.” 

“Every time I went back and visited Sydney while I was living in Melbourne I would have an incredible experience. A lot of what I was experiencing at these [underground] parties were reasons why I moved back to Sydney… Sydney is definitely thriving. There are multiple events every weekend that I have the choice to go to. I often want to go to two or three things in a single night. To be perfectly honest, we are spoilt for choice. A lot of people don’t realise that.” 

In New South Wales, lockout laws, red tape legislation, sky-rocketing policing fees for festivals, invasive strip searching, excessive enforcement of noise complaints and an atmosphere of uncertainty have smothered the entertainment industry like a fire blanket, extinguishing numerous music festivals including Defqon and Psyfari. The flight of creatives from Sydney to Melbourne is well documented. Stories like Julia’s rarely reach the media spotlight. But those artists who have stayed in Sydney or returned are definitely proud of Sydney’s nightlife.

When I interview Thorsten (aka Thick Owens) – one of the founders of Okra, Haus of the Rising Sün, Soft Centre and record and fashion label Ultravirus – I ask him the same question. His response: “I think Sydney has one of the best underground dance scenes in the world, and I lived in Amsterdam for 6 months.” Promoters in Sydney’s underground scene regularly echo these sentiments – both on and off record. Often they are simply repeating the words of international DJs who have performed in Sydney’s illegal “venues.” 

While Kings Cross has become a yuppie-filled wasteland, bogged in a mire of gymnasiums and bougie cafes, drenched by the torrent of Sydney clubs which have closed since the introduction of the Liquor Amendment Act (2014), Sydney’s nightlife has not so much died as relocated. From rooftop bars in the CBD to heaving pubs in Newtown, queer venues in Erskineville and raves under motorways and within the ramshackle remains of old World War Two bunkers, Sydney has it good. 

Sydney certainly does not possess a better bar or club culture than Melbourne. However, with lockout laws (only recently repealed) and severely underfunded creative industries, young Sydneysiders have self-mobilised to rescue the city’s nightlife. The punk, rave and experimental art scenes especially have embraced alternative events spaces. Warehouse raves, squat parties and free park gigs have sustained Sydney’s culture. The frequency and scales of these illegal events far, far exceeds those in any other Australian city. 

According to Thorsten, these alternative clubbing cultures are “a stepping stone” for early career artists, musicians and party curators as well as “a pedestal in some way” because they are also “the ultimate destination” for any performer. “I couldn’t imagine a better gig than playing at a packed warehouse. Sure, you can go to the next level and play at a big bush festival in Australia or even go the European festival circuit. But it doesn’t have the same level of consistency or encouragement for radical experimentation.” 

Throwing illegal, outdoor raves and warehouse parties with little pre-existing infrastructure has forced organisers to build and curate spaces literally from the ground up. Promoters have increasingly moved towards multi-disciplinary events involving performance art, video, décor and more – a skill and mindset Thorsten now uses for more legal adventures, such as the experimental music and art festival Soft Centre, which has fast developed a cult following. 

Julia explains that when people visit Sydney and she takes them along to underground raves, they are “blown away” and “taken aback”. However, due to the illegality embedded in many events and the lack of health and safety, Sydney’s rave scene is not easily visible to an untrained eye. “If you don’t know someone who engages in them you’re never going to know about them.”

Just as the design and curation of underground parties are creative and boundary-pushing, so too the music. If Sydney has a distinctive sound, it’s its diversity. 

Julia tells me: “Sydney is generally a lot freer musically… I do compare my experiences in Sydney to my experiences when I was living in Melbourne. Generally in Sydney there is a trend where you can play whatever genre you want weaved into a set. It’s making things really exciting. I think that artists in Sydney feel like they can push boundaries a little bit more than they can in more regimented spaces or cities that are really well-known for one genre.” 

“A lot of the underground DJs are pushing harder and faster sounds. It’s exciting especially for someone like me. My introduction to this scene was very much house music and 4/4 techno. It is rare that I actually hear that anymore.” 

Thorsten, meanwhile, describes the resurgence of hard dance and the burgeoning IDM and glitch scene, while still niche, as “a retaliation and protest against the huge saturation of vanilla-boom-clap club music that dominates Australia.” 

So yes, if you want the best clubs and tech-house, go to Melbourne. But Sydney’s nightlife scene is Australia’s worst kept secret. Whole communities only step inside a licenced venue for a dance once every six months, but go out once, if not twice, every weekend to dance and connect. 

In Sydney we go harder, faster, grittier and weirder in our music, and you don’t need to worry about noise restrictions or security guards constantly hovering over your shoulder. Alternative clubbing cultures are entering the mainstream. Just be prepared to get your shoes a little dirty. 

Snapshot of a warehouse rave in Sydney, 2018. Image by Chris McClymont.

The Underdog: Canberra

Nina Dillon Britton thinks Canberra has the best club in Australia. 

There’s a lot not to love about Canberra nightlife: the city’s population is largely divided between public servants (many of whom have to report illegal drug taking to their employers) and newly arrived 18-year-old ANU college kids, whose idea of a good night out is fingering someone in the bathrooms of Mooseheads.

But somehow, a small, dedicated and incredibly welcoming nightlife scene has flourished in a city largely known for its roundabouts. “In most capital cities with huge nightlifes, you can stumble from party to club to rave in a constant search for something better,” a friend, relocated from Sydney to Canberra tells me. “But in Canberra, there’s one really good event on every weekend night, and that’s just where everyone is.”

At the moment, that party’s to be found at 1-year-old SideWay (now closed due to COVID-19 but which just launched a new Club Virtual online). “I would say that [it’s] the most intentional club space I have ever been in in my whole life,” artist and DJ Julia Harris says. Owners Fin and Tim are DJ’s themselves, and the bar has quickly become central to the Canberra underground DJ scene.

But the smallness of the scene means the bar hosts everything from underground DJ collectives and experimental live electronic music, to drum and bass or disco nights. Music subcultures that might be siloed off from one another in bigger cities begin to merge. “The audience for each and every event is supportive and open to a diverse pallet of sound, which creates a very inclusive environment within the city,” Jesse Odom, organiser of perhaps Canberra’s hottest party, Box Cutter, tells me. “There’s intense cross-pollination between scenes here,” Canberra based DJ, Blanket, says.

That smallness, in a scene filled with awful people, could quickly become claustrophobic and incestuous. Sydney bars attracting a clique of just-graduated Eastern Suburbs or North Shore private school kids are the third circle of hell. But instead, it’s incredibly welcoming. One night out with strangers (I ended up there with a friend’s ex that I’d met once, three years ago), involved being introduced to every new arrival at the club, strangers buying rounds and passing around bumps — a world away from Sydney nights out, where you stick to a ring of friends, anonymous, in a club crowd.

Perhaps more importantly, that creates a supportive space for artists in what can be a cut-throat industry. “It’s so encouraging!” Canberra-based artist, DJ Genie, tells me. “When I’m DJing it feels like I’m playing for my best friends. We all music share, music critique and you usually know at least 50 – 70% of people on the dance floor.” Vessel Collective (organised by Blanket, Niamh McCool, dot mason and Steph David), for example, provides a supportive space for women, people of colour and queer students to learn how to DJ and hone their skills. Though barriers to artists outside the scene remain, there’s an openness that’s unique. “In terms of how Canberra is different, the music scene is really small which I love. It’s very much ‘the more the merrier’. People want more DJs playing, more parties to go to, more people making music.”

Unlike other major cities, it’s artists themselves, rather than aloof club-owners and booking agents, who shape the nightlife. It’s a largely DIY scene. “No one I know has a booking agent, most people are part of a collective of some kind,” Blanket says. 

When I tell people back in Sydney that the best club in Australia might just be in Canberra, I’m met with disbelief and accusations of being facetious. But take the 4 hour bus down, and you might just be surprised. A vibrant arts scene is flourishing there like blue-green algae in Lake Burley Griffin.

Image from Orbit Facebook page. 

The Unexpected: Brisbane 

Lachlan Redman loves Brisbane’s diversity.

Not sleepy, definitely not hollow. Brisbane’s nightlife is best described as vibrant, diverse and evolving. On the surface, it’s easy to assume it’s second rate compared to the neighbouring nightlife mecca of the Gold Coast. This might have been true a decade ago, but Brisbane has been going through a period of unseen growth for quite some time now. There has been a plethora of new, innovative and original bars open up around the CBD, often in places that require neighbouring businesses to pick up their game too.

Split across a very compact CBD, Brisbane has a few main nightlife districts in places like  Fortitude Valley, Eagle Street Pier, South Brisbane and the inner city. While these districts all have their own unique feel, you won’t ever feel like you don’t fit the mould; people aren’t arrogant about where they go, it’s open and friendly. Because Brisbane is so compact compared to  major cities like Sydney and Melbourne, you don’t ever feel like it’s a mission to get between these spots. The temperate climate in Brisbane is another major bonus for its nightlife scene – it allows for confidence when you’re going out. At its coldest, Brisbane is still completely t-shirt friendly and at its hottest, I think you appreciate ice-cold refreshments even more.

If you’re chasing the dance music scene then Fortitude Valley, “The Valley” as it is known as by the locals, is the way to go. With some trap caves and dance clubs like Prohibition open past the normal 3am lockout time, regardless of where you started, chances are you’ll end up here.  Brisbane does relaxed bars really well too; South Brisbane neighbourhoods are a hotspot for microbreweries and locally-owned bars, all with their own gimmicks. Inner-city Brisbane is your best bet for a night out if rooftop bars, back alley dive bars, and whiskey bars all tickle your fancy. Eagle Street runs along the river offering up dressy cocktail bars and more multicultural venues that are all treated to the city view.

You might be wondering what’s not so hot about Brisbane, it can’t be perfect? Well, it’s not, and in a funny twist most of the biggest pros end up being the biggest cons. The fact is most venues have a single type of target audience or vibe, so you have to keep moving in order to keep the night fresh. Going out in Brisbane really relies on  keeping an open mind and following what’s in sight. The new infrastructure that’s promoting this surge of growth has come in the form of redeveloped alleys, arcades, and former hotspots, and while I’m not complaining that this is finally happening , it’s still very much in progress. It’s not uncommon to find your favourite hangout change hands and be replaced by something completely different without any announcements.

If you can look past the “Under Construction” sign that Brisbane currently has hanging around its neck, you’ll find more than just a fine night out, you’ll have a collection of experiences. Or in the case of a really good night, possibly none at all.