CHI CHI DELUXE, THE MARS BAR & BEYOND
Jon and Claire Adams played a role in Brisbane’s creative development between 1983 and 2004 and contributed to a number of commercial and creative projects including The Mars Bar, Chi Chi Deluxe, Short Circuit, Time Off, Expo 88, Adrenalin, Vibe Dance Bar, TOPS (Myer Centre), The House of Wack, and the Chi Chi Groove Crew along with numerous one-off art events and warehouse parties.
We landed in Brisbane in late 1983 direct from Sydney where we’d played a part in that city’s burgeoning and vibrant underground arts scene. By comparison, Brisbane’s creative community was small, fragmented, hard to find and truly underground. Whereas Sydney had several community radio stations and half a dozen weekly street papers, Brisbane relied on Radio 4ZZZ and a shabby four page rag called Time Off as the only conduits of local information. Nightclubs and live music venues were also few and far between and apart from a couple of gay bars – including the Cockatoo in Fortitude Valley – there wasn’t much to interest us.
Back then Queensland was a police state and Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s much feared team of officers known as Special Branch controlled the streets, while the equally feared and corrupt Licensing Branch controlled the venues, along with the illegal gambling houses, sex shops and brothels – all the while keeping a lid on anything they deemed undesirable. Basically this meant anything or anyone that didn’t fit the bill – namely artists, political activists, gays, the avant-garde, and the Indigenous population. For these social outcasts, Brisbane was a dangerous place to live but despite the harsh political environment Brisbane was also full of immense potential. Hardship bred true creativity and while many understandably elected to leave, circumstance and repression conspired to deliver hope and innovation flourished.
By early 1984 the Roma Street precinct – a triangle of real estate bordered by George, Roma, Turbot and Little Roma Streets had become something of a focal point for Brisbane’s creative community with a string of alternative traders, designers and artists setting up shop in the ramshackle buildings that had been vacated years earlier.
As more businesses opened their doors, the level of public interest grew and by late 1984, the Roma Street precinct had become home to Brisbane’s counter-culture with second hand furniture stores, galleries, design studios, fashion outlets, a nightclub, and bookstore attracting a steady stream of visitors. Chi Chi Deluxe, The Observatory, John Bunston Interiors, Atomic Workshop, and music venue Sensoria were among the tenants that gave the area an identifiable profile. Some were run cooperatively while others were sole traders and independently owned.
Claire and I rented the original Scottish Amicable Building Society premises on the corner of Roma and Little Roma St and opened Chi Chi Deluxe. Selling 50’s bric-a-brac, up-cycled furniture, artworks, wacky postcards, pop art sculptures, and magazines such as iD, Manipulator and Interview the store soon became a meeting spot for art print aficionados.
Across the road, Anna Zsoldos, the late Lehan Ramsay and Robyn Gray had set up The Observatory – a photography studio and gallery space in the old Shirley’s Fertiliser building and with the help of John Marshall, converted the three storey building into a bustling arts centre housing Anna Bourke’s Atomic Workshop, a movement / dance studio used by Tim Gruchy’s Zip Collective and an array of artists exploring screen printing, textile design, jewellery production and sculpture. The space was also available for events and meetings and I put on Brisbane’s first Sleaze Ball – managing somehow to wrangle an event permit and liquor licence from the police.
While the entire area had been earmarked for demolition, the tenants made the best of the time they had. Some buildings were converted and used for accommodation with lofts built to make them liveable. Some had bathrooms and kitchens – most didn’t. Stores and spaces were renovated using timber scavenged from deserted building sites with neighbours helping each other out – trading construction skills and materials in a shared economy. Many of the businesses had relatively short lives but those that lasted, survived on hope and each other’s support.
The Roma Street precinct was important for Brisbane because it gave the creative community a visible and physical presence which had previously been denied them. People came out of the woodwork with a new sense of confidence and a ‘fuck you’ mentality. Sure there had been other spaces where artists had gathered and exhibited in the 1970s and 80s but these had been standalone, individual art spaces. Having an entire city block occupied by artists was something else. It gave Brisbane’s alternate community a form of legitimacy and acted as a catalyst for others to follow. Would it be too bold to say it ignited a new level of art based activism?
Over the ensuing months other businesses and creative enterprises opened in the area. In 1984 I opened The Mars Bar, a progressive / underground dance club on the corner of George and Elizabeth Streets. Newly formed electronic / synth band Boxcar played on the opening night with Carol Rohde (ex-Ironing Music) on vocals and keyboards and David Smith on vocals, guitar and keys. The Mars Bar soon became home to the musically aware who filled the venue every Friday night. Apart from its cutting edge musical direction, (which covered everything from electronica and punk, to salsa, new wave, gothic-industrial and hip hop), the Mars Bar led the way with one of Australia’s first female DJs, Jane Taylor presiding over the wheels of steel. When she left to work in Hong Kong, 4ZZZ Dance Show host Peter Mogg replaced her on the ones and twos and kept the dance floor pumping for more than a year until the hotel was sold and the new owners shut us down in 1986.
Despite the government trying to contain and control its citizen’s, Brisbane’s creative community beavered away, building an underground art scene that went from strength to strength. Pockets of creativity and resistance sprung up wherever cheap rents could be found. Galleries and art spaces grew where flowers couldn’t and on weekends there’d be rent parties or warehouse happenings around the city. Everyone knew each other and there was a camaraderie amongst musicians, designers, gallerists, promoters, DJs and venue owners that made it particularly special.
The long abandoned Wool Stores at Teneriffe and empty buildings on Elizabeth, Charlotte, Mary and George Streets became popular spots for one-off art / dance events that would run until dawn. Unlicensed, unannounced and unregistered, these illegal parties were promoted using a network of friends, flyers, or a ‘secret’ telephone number hooked up to an answering machine. Punters would call the number at a pre-arranged time (usually just a few hours prior to the event) to find out where the party was being held. That way everything was kept on the low down and you’d avoid any trouble from gate crashers or unwelcome attention from the police.
Over the years, the city’s legendary underground haunts were bought up, knocked down and built over in the glut of gentrification that consumed the city. White Chairs, The Canberra, National and New York hotels were demolished in the dead of night as development took precedence over arts and culture – but there was an upside. Film maker Philip Warner and I teamed up to deliver projects at Expo 88, Brisbane Myer Centre, Milton’s Savoir Faire Park Road development, World Expo Park, the Kirra Beach Resort and Loganholme Shopping Centre. The upshot was months of paid work for local artists, sculptors, muralists, designers, videographers and set builders. Artist David Paulson created parade floats for Expo 88 and animatronic sculptures for Tops at the Myer Centre. Tim Gruchy provided visuals for The Dome Nightclub at Savoir Faire while Gavin Smith, Kim Warnaminde, Bradley Campbell and Kino Ruin contributed their skills and creativity to various themed environments.
In the late 1980’s Jane Grigg and I opened Short Circuit at the Hacienda Hotel – a once a week dance club that attracted a solid core of music lovers. Mal Enright, Sheridan Kennedy, Chrissy Feld, Barbara Heath, Janice Enright, Kenn Bushby, Tim Gruchy, Paul Andrew, Lehan Ramsay and Fleur MacDonald were among the regulars who would grind the dance floor to dust every Thursday night. And there were plenty of other events and parties that brought the art crew together including Hinterland Hype, Rhythm Zone, Vibes on A Summers Day, Trance Plant, Hedfunk, and the regular Wednesday night parties at Grand Orbit.
By 1989 Brisbane’s dance culture was in full swing. What had started as a dance floor phenomena had morphed into an entirely new creative movement that saw fashion, art, theatre and music fuse to become one of the biggest social and cultural shifts in years. Driven in part by ‘feel good’ drugs and an almost universal contempt for the oppression and unbridled greed of the 1980’s, the energy and camaraderie among the underground community was palpable, and besides there was a lot of fun stuff going down.
I remember doing the launch for an upmarket nightclub in Mt Gravatt called Sensations. I engaged fashion designer Chrissy Feld and performance artist Simon Reptile to do a fashion show on Opening Night. Instead they delivered a surprise 20 minute long high art performance piece which featured two twin sisters wrapped in Glad Wrap being offered as a sacrifice. The audience of aspiring suburban yuppies gasped in shock. They had absolutely no idea of what was going on. I kept thinking, ‘This is really messing with their heads’. And it was! Their reaction was one of jaw dropping bewilderment. At the time I thought it was hilarious but my client was outraged and told me it was the last time I was to do anything ‘arty’. Some of the guests were so irate they phoned the next day to complain about the show. Every so often you push the boundaries a little too far and get a bit of blowback. Oh well.
In 1990, after a hiatus of nearly 5 years, Claire and I re-opened Chi Chi Deluxe, renting a tiny 12 square metre store in Elizabeth Arcade. Focusing our attention on the emerging dance/club and street wear scene we sold an eclectic array of toys, funky accoutrements, postcards and street wear. We commissioned artists to create limited edition T-Shirts and sold mix tapes from local DJs and became the principal ticket outlet for most of the major and minor music events. The store soon became a favourite haunt for Brisbane’s clubbers and style conscious avant-garde.
We worked with Peter Tait and the late Edwin Morrow in 1992 to present the legendary Adrenalin Dance parties and in 1993 worked with Michael Watt and Peter Brown promoting their infamous raves and music festivals including NASA and Strawberry Fields. Around this time we put together the Chi Chi Groove Crew – a loose collective of dancers, choreographers, stylists, models and circus performers who delivered more than 35 eye-popping, theatrically-driven dance shows over seven years.
Throughout this time, the Valley remained the focal point for much of the creative action both during the day and at night. Most of the clubs were Valley based with galleries, art spaces and design studios popping up on Brunswick St, Ann St, Barry Parade, Wickham St and Gota St. Bored with the Valley focus, Claire and I took a punt and opened Vibe – a progressive dance bar in the basement of the Alliance Hotel in Spring Hill. UK ‘rare groove’ master Sir Norman Jay headlined on Opening Night but the 5 night a week club failed to attract a crowd. Despite its cutting edge music policy delivered by the likes of DJ’s Gracie, Mark T, Scott Hopkins and Katch (Resin Dogs) luring people from the Valley precinct proved impossible.
Meanwhile Chi Chi Deluxe continued to grow and after almost two years in the arcade we moved to the Wintergarden, bringing club wear and dance music to the mainstream. By 1995 we’d outgrown the store and in a giant leap of faith, we returned to Elizabeth Street, leasing a sprawling 350 square metre store opposite the Myer Centre. Our inventory expanded to include footwear, men’s and women’s clothing, designer homewares, sunglasses, toys, fashion accessories, and a CD bar carrying a handpicked selection of Acid Jazz, House, Big Beat, Electro, Trip Hop, Phuture, Jungle, D&B, Chill and Slow Mo. We specialised in obscure and hard-to-find titles, along with the largest collection of off-beat art postcards in Australia.
Brisbane embraced the new direction and the store became a rendezvous point for the city’s forward thinkers, artists, tastemakers and design aficionados. Some days it was almost surreal, with queues of shoppers lined up outside waiting to get in. What had started out as a low-rent t-shirt shop had become a major retail operation with 14 staff and a global reputation. We won a string of business awards and became something of tourist attraction – getting listed on the, ‘Top 10 Things to Do in Brisbane’.
Imitators sprung up around the world with unauthorised and unconnected Chi Chi Deluxe stores opening in New Zealand, Germany and The Netherlands. We were courted by venture capitalists who wanted to take the concept global and despite the promise of huge wads of money we knew Chi Chi Deluxe wasn’t something that could be franchised or replicated. It was an idea that was developed in Brisbane, for Brisbane and we never believed it would work anywhere else.
Needless to say there were plenty of memorable moments – like the night we brought traffic to a halt on Elizabeth Street with DJ Shadow and DJ Krush playing on the rooftop, or the day Bjork dropped by saying we should open in New York; the surprise visit by Marvin Bernstein, founder of Skechers Footwear who later wrote in a US trade magazine that he’d seen, “the future of concept retailing in Brisbane… of all places,” and comedian Billy Connolly returning to shop at, “the funkiest store in the universe.” We had international DJ’s play in-store and had performance artists use the front windows for spontaneous ‘visual happenings’.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. In 1997 we became entangled in two court cases. One with our landlord – who refused to undertake repairs on the building – and a second – a Trade Mark dispute with a cosmetic company that purloined our name and our logo and took out an injunction to stop us trading. The litigation went on for five long years and despite winning both cases the emotional toll was crushing.
Then in 1999 we became the focus of a national media smear campaign – headed by Brisbane’s Sunday Mail, Channel 9 and talk back radio shock-jocks from around the country who accused us of supporting terrorism and being responsible for the national drug scourge – all of it based on a range of club wear that incorporated gas masks, toy syringes and plasma bags in the design. The ensuing media storm left us reeling. I was named and shamed in the national press, had the Family Values Association calling for a national boycott of our business and the Premier of South Australia saying I would not be welcome in his state. There were death threats and bomb scares and the police monitored the store for several weeks in case of an attack.
At the height of the media blitz, broadcast vans were lined up along Elizabeth Street waiting like vultures while some of our staff were abused and threatened in public. Funnily enough, the clothing range that caused the furore came from the same company that produces the ultra-cute Astro Boy figurines. I took legal action against News Corporation and obtained injunctions from the Press Council but the damage had been done and my enthusiasm for challenging the status quo started to wane.
Finally, in January 2001, after a decade of working 7 days a week, we decided to call it quits. And while the closure was emotional for us, the response from the public was truly astonishing. In our final days our loyal customers filled the store – many of them in tears – some offering to raise funds to keep us open. But the pressure of running a multi-faceted business and raising our young daughter Mercedes had become too much and the decision to close was made. On February 5th we shut the doors on the little shop that grew beyond our wildest dreams.
I took a year out, slinging my design skills to anyone who wanted them but boredom soon set in and in 2002 I went to the U.S.A to explore the emerging low brow art movement. Led by West Coast artist and ‘Juxtapoz’ founder Robert Williams, the art I saw was brilliantly executed, stylistically different and the content seriously off the hook. Simply put, I’d never seen anything like it before. But something else happened. The emergence of lowbrow art coincided with the arrival of giclee printing – a revolutionary ink-jet process that made it possible to produce high quality, short run editions at a fraction of the cost of lithographic printing. I saw this new technology as an absolute game changer; one that would transform the art world and allow artists to sell multiples of their work at affordable prices. I saw it as a politically and socially charged concept that would give artists’ control of their work (and their market) while giving ordinary, less well-heeled people the opportunity to buy art they loved.
Inspired and excited I returned to Brisbane with the idea of opening a print shop and gallery dedicated to the production and sale of cutting edge underground art.
We leased a 400 square metre warehouse in Newstead and in October 2003 opened The House of Wack – an ambitious gallery project selling originals and ‘hard to come by’ limited edition low brow art prints. Our debut show ‘New Style Pop Surrealism’ featured 50 works by 20 ‘Juxtapoz’ artists including works by movement founder Robert Williams. The show was a hit and the exhibition dates were extended three times however, the market for such radical art was extremely small and the cost of shipping materials and art from America made it impossible to survive. After eight months of struggle it was time to change gears and rethink where we were headed and in May 2004 we reluctantly shut the doors on our last creative venture.
I remember heading home after the closing party, walking down the median strip of a deserted road in Teneriffe reflecting on the 20 years I’d spent in Brisbane. I wondered aloud whether I should be sad or satisfied. Hopeful or disappointed? And while I had mixed emotions, I was proud I was now living in a city with a bright and vibrant future instead of a town with a corrupt and violent past. Of course there were times when the temptation to leave was overwhelming; when the pace of change stalled and friends left for greener pastures. But despite it all, we decided to stay and we’re glad we did.
Brisbane – you’ve come a long way baby!
Jon Adams, February 2019
Note: This is a revised version; with archival images, Brisbane pop culture (1980s,1990s) and artist ephemera, of the social memory post first published in the ARI Remix archives in February 2016.