(Re) Presenting John Griffin (DJ Johnny G) – Brisbane Entrepreneur, DJ and social observer December 2020
Paul Andrew interviewing John Griffin with Angelina Martinez at Nataraja Indian Restaurant, Red Hill 5 December 2020
Paul Angelina and I were just talking recently about the old boot factory in Caxton Street Johnny … Angelina was saying this might have been where you started.
John: Yes, that was the first place where I started DJing. I was working behind the bar and a lot of the promoters and bands who were touring used to come in. Like Duran Duran or The Pretenders or the Models, Hoodoo Gurus, to name a few. All those bands who were local and international would come and party there.
Angelina: And that was The Underground wasn’t it?
John: That was the Underground, yes, this was at the cusp of ’79/’80. I started doing a Mod night on a Tuesday night.
Paul: Did you ask them to do that or did they ask you?
John: No they suggested it.
Paul: So that’s how your career as a DJ started?
John: Yes well one of the promoters that used to bring in the bands, his name was David Darling and he was connected heavily with Triple Z.
Angelina: And you were at Triple Z then?
John: No I wasn’t at Triple Z then. Dave used to bring the bands in to party at The Underground and then he got to know me. I think the first job he gave me was Iggy Pop and I always wondered why he chose me. I asked him not long ago ‘why did you choose me, of all the DJs in Brisbane and you gave me these incredible jobs?’ and he said ‘because I could see that you were going to go somewhere’. And I think I even knocked Iggy Pop back. Dave said, ‘you’ll be right’ and that was the start of forty years of that type of thing.
Angelina: Do you mean DJs playing before bands?
John: Well David started that and then it became a thing. It became a real iconic position to be in and I mean I’ve worked with nearly everybody, The Chemical Brothers. Fatboy Slim, Faith No More, Nitzer Ebb, Groove Armada … hundreds. It just snowballed, from that one night with Iggy Pop and then there was I think John Cale from the Velvet Underground and maybe Debbie Harry or Blondie.
Paul: Angelina and I sort of reconnected in 2013 maybe, something like that. So we’ve been talking about you a lot.
John: A lot of people do. (laughs)
Paul: And we all say good things Johnny.
John: Well it’s interesting that this has come to pass – because just lately the people power are exhuming my legacy and to just generalise again, just on the net. I mean there’s been different things brought up about the clubs in the old days and on a few different sites. And it’s just through people power that the legacy has been brought to bear. Which is interesting because I mean, I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t go on the net or anything but people are talking about it now.
Paul: Well we’ve been talking about your legacy for over thirty years, we been dancing to your legacy, although not for a long time – but we used to.
John: Yes. I mean the depth of how it went after that initial start that we just spoke of, and it was all local really. There were a few trips with national festivals, Livid and Big Day Out. But generally it remained a completely local thing and a phenomena and it built and built.
By 1993 I had six different nights. There was all the Flares – I had to break the Flares up, as it just got so big I had to break it into four different styles. I just couldn’t contain the music and I couldn’t contain the crowds. That was by about ’93. I was in the Myer Centre, a stadium in the basement of the Myer Centre that some nights had over 2000 people.
Paul: I’m just trying to think where that was?
John: Down near the bus stops in the basement of the Myer Centre. They had built this nightclub and no one could get it going.
Angelina: I remember someone saying to you just before you went there, that you’d never get it to work as it was a ‘big white elephant’.
Paul: Yes and that perspective Johnny … see the thing is and you’re a little bit older than us … that thing where at that time there was this collective idea that if you wanted to do something interesting you had to leave Brisbane.
Paul: But you didn’t.
John: I was aware of that, I just stayed and toughed it out. Other projects came up like sound tracks for the Fag Bar, Abigails, Uptown Soul and also warehouse parties.
Then the electronic thing was starting in a big way. The indie movement – indie rock and the Manchester movement, which is why I changed Morticia’s. By ’89 I was ready to leave Morticia’s and move to the British Summer of Love sound with the Stone Roses and all that early indie stuff. So, I changed. And I mean the public opinion was bad, the critique was bad but I went and I ditched Morticia’s.
Angelina: A lot of people used to come up and abuse him.
John: Because I changed the music and they thought I was abandoning ‘rock’. I was going indie electronica and northern.
Paul: Northern soul?
John: Yes … well that type of influence yes, The Stone Roses, Primal Scream, Blur, Jesus and Mary Chain …
Paul: So I remember one of the things that excited me about going to Flares and Morticia’s and other places where you played, was that one minute you’d be playing Jesus and Mary Chain and then The Cult and then Madonna. And then maybe something else pop.
John: Yes but somehow there was a link.
Paul: Between all of these styles.
John: Yes there was a link, there would be a message in the link. I was just feeling the vibrations of the people and your antennas are up and you’re pulling in vibrations from all over the room, no matter how small or big it is.
Musically you drive around the block but to drive around the block, there’s got to be a link. Like Madonna’s ‘Burning Up’ might go with a Sisters of Mercy song or something. There’d be some link, some words or a rhythm and that’s why the continuity was there. Because you’re not just playing one song after another, you’re actually linking and having continuity, not necessarily beat mixing either. It’s a segue, a flow. It might be between a rock song and a fun disco song, electronic you know or German electronic Nitzer Ebb ‘Let Your Body Learn’, it might go with Ministry or there’d be some sequence of events that you just don’t play a song, you make twenty decisions before you put the next song on.
Angelina: And then I suppose it’s the crowd too.
John: Yes. They will lead you to the next stage, the people, what they’re thinking and how they are reacting. Like someone sitting in the corner for far too long.
Angelina: And I remember some of the Mortica’s crowd wanting you to play American rock that started coming in. Like Guns ‘n Roses and that sort of stuff. And John you didn’t want to go down that path. Then all the (acid) house music started to come in so you started Funkensteins – bringing in that more funk element.
Paul: Yes which we used to go down to in Albert Street…
John: Albert Street Speakeasy. The theatre restaurant they were struggling and I think one of the first things I did was a benefit for Jane and Brian, yes.
Paul: Yes that’s right, you did a few around then.
John: Eyeline benefit yes.
Paul: I remember lots. Back in those days, we, being peachy keen and ardent followers of your amazing work would get there early. I was always struck by how the dance floor would be empty but you were playing great music. And then suddenly the song, it could have been any type of song but whatever the song was there were songs that would just move an entire crowd and so the whole dance floor was then populated.
Paul: People were dancing and that could have been any type of song.
John: But once you light that flame. You’ve got to run with it and that’s the big problem. I mean you would have seen me playing good music but not furnishing a dance floor until it was ready. I’d cook it to a point when it was ready but once I dropped that bomb then I’ve got to have bombs all night. Once you switch it on you can’t back off.
Paul: … and so the vibrations you talk about … you’re being a psychic in a sense.
Paul: You’re tapping in to an energy, vibrational energy and then you might make, you think ‘okay could go Sisters of Mercy, could go The Cult’. But then you go that direction. Meanwhile your playlist and your inner monologue, your inner playlist is … because you know your music collection and you’ve got it all there … and the art of vinyl where you could grab from a number of crates or whatever.
John: Yes, you have your options wide open but you’ve got to be fully on top of your game, I mean you’ve got to have your memory, like a laptop really. (laughs)
Paul: You’ve got all your browsers open. (laughs)
John: Yes, you’ve got everything open and you just select and random pick but then you weave it into, you weave it into a net you know. A big net so yes.
Paul: So, at the end of the night I always imagine you’d be exhausted at the end of the night. Were you exhausted?
John: … no …
Paul: … or were you really buzzing?
John: Yes, yes, it takes hours to switch off.
Angelina: When I first met John he used, he used to go to a fun run or marathons sometimes or triathlons. Finish up around 4am – back then everything was only licensed I think to 3 – and then drive up the coast do a triathlon or something like that…
John: … But because of the cusp of what I was doing – that’s why it mutated into the art world, because it was on the edge of rock, it was on the edge of electronica ,so it naturally would connect with the people from the art world. Because they were more edgier and more open to everything.
Like the rock crowd wanted me to stick with the rock but I had to let it go … by 1989 and that was ten years – I had to break away from the rock and do this other thing. And it was massive. We did 18 sell outs in Metropolis, of big British indie and electronic bands and American alternative bands, thanks to Peter Walsh (Livid festival) and
Paul: You mean Britpop?
John: Yes Britpop, pre-Britpop.
Angelina: Because he was doing bands as well all the way through … so everyone seems to forget that.
John: I was recycling the money from the clubs, the money was used to bankroll the bands. Someone had to bankroll the thing.
Paul: I didn’t know that you did that.
John: Well no one does. No one ever knew. I never said anything.
Paul: Good on you.
John: I just recycled the money and because you recycled into the right band, like The Cult or Ramones or local bands like the Screaming Tribesmen, the Headstones, Razar’s reunion, there were so many.
Angelina: So maybe tell Paul about The Cult because that show has been written about quite a bit … trashing all their instruments on stage.
Paul: Like The Who back in the sixties.
Angelina: Yes and there’s a legendary story about the actual performance and then John only recently told me the backstory about the national tour organisers who didn’t want to sell him the show. Didn’t they flat out refuse ‘no we’re not touring them up there’ and didn’t you have to front up …
John: … guarantee the money …
Angelina: … oh and then they still said no, because you weren’t going to sell tickets either.
John: We didn’t sell tickets.
John: So I just went cold turkey on the whole thing and said ‘I want it’. ‘We’re going to do this’– because I’d done all the promotion, I’d done all the homework on the band. So why wouldn’t I carry through and put my money where my mouth is for this band? I’d just done a few years work on them and made them so popular.
Why wouldn’t I put my head on the chopping block and I mean … The Stems, The Lime Spiders and all the up-and-coming bands Australian indie bands. We had massive nights, but because you’re recycling money into the bands you’re already promoting – it’s going to be a success. But only we knew that. And The Cult …
Angelina: … it’s still a massive risk. And having the cash money up front to get them too.
John: Yes it is a big risk.
Paul: If you don’t mind me asking what sort of money, back then, what sort of money are we talking about? Six figures, five figures?
Angelina: Five figures at least. How much was The Cult. Ian would remember, wouldn’t he?
John: For some reason I’ve got the figure of $18,000 in my mind but I can’t remember.
They said ‘you’re not going to sell, you’re not going to presell the tickets!’ I said ‘no, the people will come. Put the show on, the people will come’.
And you know what, there’s a cyclone on the night of The Cult. There’s a cyclone off the coast of Fraser Island, the area where the venue is going underwater … flooding, Deshon Street was flooding.
Angelina: East Leagues Club.
Paul: Oh because it’s in a flood zone … oh of course.
Angelina: And it was all knee high mud and cars got bogged in the carpark I remember.
Paul: So what did you do?
John: Went ahead and just left it in the lap of the Gods. And then … I mean it was huge. Just put two really good cashiers on the door, not one door, two doors and they arrived, in the cyclone with the area going under, flooding, and they arrived and it was massive.
They said ‘what are you going to do if people don’t arrive. You’ve conned us into giving you the show more or less, or you’ve forced us into giving you the show. You haven’t sold tickets and what are you going to do if people don’t arrive’. I said ‘I’ll just pay you, I’ll just pay you’ and it was the big history maker.
Then on stage they smashed their gear.
Angelina: Then they had to get gear, they had to find guitars …
John: … for the next show.
Paul: So many gigs? Was it a two-nighter thing or a three?
John: They had Mooloolaba to do on the Saturday so we had to replace all the gear to take up the north coast.
Paul: How did they feel about smashing stuff up?… even though they are doing The Who in 1966 all over again.
Angelina: I think because the crowd reception was unbelievable….
John: Ah yes… so they thought they’d go all out…
Angelina: And because they could obviously feel the energy of the room and they knew …
Paul: … that’s where it needed to go.
John: And backstage Ian Ashbury said ‘where’s these guys that put on the show, where are they?’ and someone said ‘Ian Ashbury wants to see you’. So I grabbed Ian (Whittred) and fronted up to Ian Ashbury and he said ‘you guys are really cool, you’re really cool’, (all laugh) that’s all he said. because he just had the night of his life, you know.
Paul: Yes, goosebumps.
John: Yes but by the time The Cult came along well I was well into the whole thing so I’d had about eight years of working out what works and what doesn’t, putting my money into the right places.
Angelina: And of course Johnny doesn’t drink or take drugs or anything and was this vegetarian marathon runner.
Paul: And you’ve got your head screwed on.
John: Oh yes.
Angelina: Yes and can concentrate for that long. People don’t seem to recognise that either. I’ve always found that phenomenal.
Paul: It’s really rare, it’s really rare.
Angelina: The memory for all the thousands of records …
Paul: … and the focus. And the determination and the clarity and the mindfulness that goes with what you were doing. It was not what people do.
John: Yeah… it was all raw and it was all upfront and if I couldn’t give a 110 percent I wouldn’t do the show. I knocked back a lot of jobs because I thought if I’ve got to do a half-baked job – so I mean even more in the recent years – if I’ve got to do a half-baked show I’ll stay at home, more than ever. Up till when the COVID started I was playing phenomenal sets and it was all the original Morticia’s sound.
Paul: Wow, on vinyl John or vinyl and CD?
John: All CDs. You get to a point where you can’t carry six crates of vinyl, physically.
Paul: I want to change the subject a little bit and go back to that comment you made Johnny about … so it’s interesting because again this is a local thing so this is what I’m getting from you.
So when you were talking about how there was this was connection to the art world and like a sort of a dominant narrative at the time musically, DJs getting wise – was that pop rock, US pop rock stuff and other pop rock stuff?
But the art world which I mean from our perspective, your perspective was building some momentum in the ‘80s in a big way. I think that’s something we were all very excited about because the feeling was there was this hunger and this yearning and need for other music styles and fusion of music styles. Is that what you mean? And that appealed more to you and perhaps because of other people that you were spending time with, that were dancing and coming along to gigs. Did that draw you to a much more experimental place in a sense, musically, DJ-wise?
John: Yes, definitely. But also because it was that DIY ethos. We did the artwork for the posters and flyers ourselves. I mean we did a Flares and the content of the Flares poster, we chose Salvador Dali and we put him in a big set of flares.
Angelina: Because there was a Dali exhibition on at the Queensland Art Gallery. I was hand-doing all that artwork then and that was a bit later like ’93 at The Site.
I think the Dali show must have been in ’93 and I was thinking as I was doing it ‘oh no we’re going to get in trouble. We can’t use this!’
John: We’ll run with it, I thought. We’ll run with it yes.
Paul: Ah because it’s too similar to their publicity and …
Angelina: … no because I’ve used a photo of Dali, and I put flares on him. Also we used to book the back covers of street mags. He’s got a gigantic moustache, he’s sitting in the chair and I extended his pants right out.
John: Fortunately, the art gallery fully turned and did a somersault and backed us to the hilt.
Angelina: They loved it. John knew the crew from the gallery – I didn’t know them. I was saying ‘oh no we can’t do this’ and then it turned out they loved it.
Paul: ’93 where, where are we, what was the venue?
John: The Site. Opposite the Roxy. In the valley.
Paul: That’s still there isn’t it, that building?
Angelina: No, they knocked it down.
Paul: And so how many people came to that gig Johnny?
John: About 1500 I think, yes at least.
Angelina: Yes, the Flares were massive there. Also the Fag Bar and 100% (Indie club) .
Paul: So, when you were talking about – if you like – the connection with the art world.
John: Yes … that was a natural progression, it wasn’t considered, it wasn’t conspired, it just was a natural roll on. Well Tim Gruchy made a very strong statement lately didn’t he?
John: It was a paragraph, and at the end he wrote ‘Johnny and Ian did so much to cross the scene over’.
Paul: Yes I did see that. Are you a member of that group Johnny?
John: No. I’m not online.
Paul: And what did you think of Tim Gruchy’s statement?
John: I was really chuffed. I was really chuffed, because it was just a one-liner. It was a considerable paragraph and then at the end, the bottom lined it with this statement and I thought, wow. That’s really good that it came from Tim. I value that very highly.
Paul: Well, back in the ‘80s the Australian electronica scene was emerging in a very difficult climate, like Boxcar and Severed Heads and more experimental stuff that was coming out in the late ‘70s early ‘80s in Australia. Yes, sometimes it got on Countdown – which was sort of a glitch wasn’t it?
What I’m trying to say is because the Australian music scene – the commercial scene – was so competitive, that there was this constant push and pressure and dismissiveness of electronic music and other experimental forms of music. I was having similar conversations in Sydney in the 1990’s about electronic music but also with Australian rap and hip hop which was also emerging in a big way.
I noticed that Tim started a page recently with Dennis Remmer from Trans Am and promoting the sort of work that they do through social media.
Tim’s really good because he always had the technology and analogue video recorded, digitally recorded and documented so much. Tim has got an extensive archive, which is great, but he’s also very generous with acknowledging the many people that helped him and others to do very well … and people who are generally, sort of in the background. Even though you’re a public figure, it’s not like you’re like seeking out that attention, because you don’t need to.
John: I never did.
Paul: No, you don’t need to.
John: But it’s come to light, it’s manifested in the last couple of months.
Paul: In what way Johnny?
John: On the net …
Angelina: … John doesn’t see or know any of online mentions unless someone tells him. I keep an eye on mentions of him or his clubs online. How people perceive what he did, which is just amazingly positive. But also because there are some misunderstandings and negative criticisms and once it’s online, even in social media, it becomes somewhat of a truth. So I just have to address that.
There is no one who has worked harder and longer than John – absolutely no one. He is very driven and decisive. I was there for a huge part of it. It was my life too. I know what happened and I must defend that.
There’s been a lot of great mentions of Morticia’s, people who went loved it. It was a safe place for a lot of people … you’re young and different and it’s Brisbane.
Paul: And you get dressed up and look really (muffled). It was the early ‘80s.
Angelina: It’s like the height of Bjelke Peterson – couldn’t even walk down the Mall or walk anywhere in Brisbane in black without being hassled.
Paul: I’ve got to tell a funny story based on what Angelina’s saying. I used to wear a lot of mascara, and lived in Kangaroo Point and I used to wear lots of black as a lot of us did. I went to this fantastic take away vegetarian restaurant near where I lived – Famish fine foods. I went there one afternoon to get something, if you went early and I was a local – and because I had no money, they would give me a bit of a discount. I rocked down some street in Kangaroo Point and this guy grabs my – this was in summer – grabs my black shirt, pulls me towards him and I was like ‘oh my god I am going to die!’, and he was a big guy. And I saw my life flash before my eyes, and thought there’s no way I was going to get out of this. And he said ‘you’re a Mod’. I almost fell over laughing because I just thought it was the oddest thing to say, this is like 1985 or 6 or 7 or something. (all laugh)
He called me a Mod (laughs) and I just wanted to say to him, ‘but do you know what a Mod is?’ (all laugh)
Angelina: Yes, John was a ‘60s Mod.
Paul: I know, that’s why I’m telling you this story.
John: I am a Mod. You’ll always be that.
Paul: I know you are a Mod.
Paul: So this guy was like thirty years out of date and he was probably only 19 or 20 anyway.
But because I thought he was just going to say ‘you’re a Faggot, you’re a Queer, you’re a Queen whatever, Pansy’, all that stuff that I had said to me before then, but he said ‘you’re a Mod’ and I just thought it was hilarious.
I always wanted to tell you that story because I knew that you were a Mod. So when you say you were a 60’s Mod what do you mean by that, what does that mean for you?
John: Well that formed my whole, that’s my substance, my base, my foundation is Mod. I was and always will be a Mod. Even if I’m playing gothic music it’s still with a Mod ethic. You know, which is actually a Punk ethic.
Paul: And what are some examples of that, the characteristics of being a Mod. Because in another way, it was saying ‘fuck you’. In relation to a number of things, your style, your sense of self, how you dressed, your music taste. How you carried yourself in the world.
John: Well you’re walking a tightrope, in between the ‘Mafia’ and the police and the government. You’ve got the ‘criminals’ and the ‘Mafia’ which ran the valley – and then you’ve got Licencing and the Police and the Government.
So you’re going down the middle and trying to run a business where people are safe, where women are safe particularly. That was always built-in, we didn’t just decide to do that, that’s why Morticia’s was formed. It was formed on the platform of the ‘80s feminist uprising and really dark, juxtaposed against Flares.
So Flares was actually formed on a political platform of the rise of feminism in the 80s, I remember it as clear as a bell, that’s why I did it. To stick it to all the macho punks and all these dudes getting violent with punks and skinheads and that.
Paul: And violence?
John: Yeah and I stuck it to them by producing a playlist that was eighty percent female and disco …
Paul: … and female artists …
John: … and really gay.
Paul: Yes, yes that’s right, which is what we loved about it.
Because it felt really inclusive and it was also, for us, it was a way of saying – thank god for you – because we can say that in our way. We didn’t have to march up the street to do it but can say …
John: … it was openly gay and very alternative, not just another handbag hangout.
Paul: Oh it was, from my perspective it was incredibly queer and not that I ever met anyone mind you, as much as I would have liked to. (laughs). And when you say 80s feminist platform Johnny, do you mean you know so remember that great song ‘Sisters are Doing It for Themselves’?
John: Yes, yes.
Paul: That was a real moment I think. Was that how you remember it? Annie Lennox, Aretha Franklin and my god who else, who was the other one?
Angelina: And I suppose calling it Morticia’s too.
John: That’s why I changed it from Hades. Hades, I thought… it’s too dark I’m going to make it cartoon, make it a cartoon. And female, iconic female.
I mean those things didn’t happen by chance, I was thinking about all that you know.
Paul: And did you get, from people who used to come a sense they were pissed off and would they tell you they were pissed off about your change.
Angelina: Oh god yes.
Paul: Did that go on for a long time John?
John: All the time.
Paul: So what did you say or did you say nothing? What did you do?
Angelina: They were threatening him.
Angelina: Physically and assaulting. They’re drunk Paul and then John’s not playing the music they want and they’re guys.
Paul: And they ganged up on you?
Angelina: … and he’s the centre of attention, they’re not the centre of attention, they’re showing off to their girlfriends.
Paul: So that alpha male shit.
John: I mean that was constant, constant.
Angelina: That just, it just went on forever. And there was never an understanding that from John’s perspective it was all about looking after his business and this unique thing that he had developed and he had put all this energy and time and money into. And then also bringing bands in. Then you had aspiring DJ’s – you’d see them mope around the back of the club getting clues, copying playlists, song sequences that worked or whatever and thinking that was all ok.
John: At the start of my career they were coming in with Spirax notepads and writing down the playlist.
Now at the end of my career they’re using Shazam on me.
Paul: What do you mean they’re using Shazam on you?
John: They Shazam me.
Paul: Because they don’t know that music?
Angelina: John would play music that you’d only hear in the gay clubs.
John: I used to go to The Terminus on a Tuesday night.
Paul: That’s where I started going in 1978. I was in grade ten in 1978 and I went there with friends from school, not very often, maybe two or three times a year on a Tuesday night. Which was a big thing to go out on Tuesday, if you said to your Mum and your Dad you were going out on a school night.
But we could get in because we were tall and my other friends were tall and we used to go to op shops and buy like suit jackets, very daggy but if you wore a suit jacket with jeans it was probably ok and they would let you in. Remember the Terminus how you had to buy a little ticket and they would ask ‘do you intend to dine?’ We and you’d go to the salad bar and get yourself a salad. I didn’t drink. But it was in the Terminus, whenever apple cider came in that was the first time I ever had alcohol and I hated it, it was just awful, so I never drank at The Terminus.
Did you DJ at the Terminus?
John: No, no. I was friends with all the DJs. I’d just go in and talk about music – the cross over point between those DJs and me was New Order.
Paul: And the other thing I was trying to remember was remember when you’d go to The Beat because there wasn’t a lot of choice, this was early 80s and it was all beat mix. You’d hear Madonna for thirty seconds and then it’d be Boy George and then Kajagoogoo and then Duran Duran. It was a really big thing and it used to drive me nuts because you’d think they’re finally playing a song I like, and you’d just be getting into it and then another song would come in. And they played beat mix until about nine o’clock. then from nine it might have been either Baby or Mark Walton. And that was when I got a feeling that music styles were changing in Brisbane.
So what I was trying to say, and this is something Angelina and I have talked about over the years particular in relation to the 90s but how in the 80s because of people like you music was becoming a lot more diverse.
A lot more rich and diverse, more nuance and then but people would cross, in terms of clubbing and venues and stuff, still lots of overlaps and people going to similar venues. But then in the 90s it sort of became almost really specialised and then everything became compartmentalised. So you’d go here for that – and there for that. More narrow.
Angelina: Well I also think because Brisbane got bigger.
Paul: Brisbane got bigger and music changed a lot very quickly.
Angelina: And so if you’re talking about the early 80s there was only a certain amount of people that were here and of that thinking and of that time. John may have a different perspective being here as he went clubs in the 60s.
But because I went to art college and we went out clubbing quite a bit, it’s just what you did. You’d see people from art college at John’s clubs, or out at White Chairs or seeing a band and then you’d go down to the gay clubs. There was much more of that crossover between different scenes. I don’t think that happens a lot anymore and I think because Brisbane was so small that’s where you could go without being hassled.
John: There was always this constant battle to keep the yobbos at bay and to ostracise them. And make a decision to play certain things like Terence Trent D’Arby at Morticia’s is directly confronting the bogan element. You had to stop that before it takes over.
Once you take the money you accept the money from these people, there’s more of them and you accept that money and the money starts to flow, you’ve sold your soul and you’ve rotted out the core of your foundation.
Angelina: Well that was why you also changed the playlist so that there wouldn’t be so many guys. You get out of balance with too many guys and women won’t come. Then when you change the music and then they start attacking.
John: And you can make a lot of money out of them. If more of them keep coming you become a yob club for majority that makes heaps of money.
Paul: And an essential complicit.
Paul: You become complicit with that culture.
John: Yes. It’s why I went to Abigail’s, it’s why I went to the Fag Bar, they didn’t have a playlist. A soundtrack.
Paul: Fag Bar, so Fag Bar started with….because Gavin and I became friends.
John: I mean we had our differences.
Paul: A pretty strong character.
John: I very rarely had his blessing but I knew what was best for his club and that’s why it was so frigging good – the delicate balance of alternative, pop, gay underground and kept that balance.
At some point, Gavin wanted me to play Crowded House and I refused to play Crowded House. I said ‘I’m not playing that.’ I’d rather play Depeche Mode!!
Paul: Brief question – while we’re talking about Fag Bar and before we go on to Abigail’s. From your perspective, see my memory is that Fag Bar started in late ’88 early ’89. Because that’s when I left (to live in Sydney) and it started before I left and then I remember coming back to Brisbane.
John: Probably ’89. Till about ’93. Gavin didn’t have the capacity to deal with it. Then that vibe went to Abigail’s with another soundtrack.
Paul: And what was Abigails, what was that?
John: … kinky cabaret …
Paul: Queer cabaret?
Angelina: Yes and the performers had stage names … I can’t remember …
Paul: … camp stage names.
Angelina: Yes that were really suggestive and so funny.
John: Eileen Surepuss
Angelina: Yes, Pauline Bell’s stage name was Eileen Surepuss and she was the ‘hostess with the mostest’ and every month there’d be a theme. Like ‘Jump in your Jumpsuit’, I remember that one, so everyone would wear an outrageous jumpsuit. I wish I could remember more of them.
Paul: And you DJ’d there Johnny?
John: The Fag Bar had moved on and then there was an easy listening revival and I thought I’ll apply the easy listening formula to this queer cabaret.
I was in touch enough with everybody to know what they were doing and … I offered an injection of formula to boost a project’s playlist and give it longevity.
Paul: When I came back to Brisbane in the ‘90s I don’t remember going clubbing. I only remember going to Joseph O’Connor’s Boulder Lodge in the valley. Did you ever play there?
Paul: Did you DJ there, do you remember what that was for?
John: A benefit … it was probably a Flares.
Paul: Oh you did a Flares at Boulder Lodge.
John: A Flares benefit yes, to help Joseph out.
Paul: Have you got any ephemera?
Angelina: I don’t think so. Not for that one.
Paul: Here’s one before I forget, the Photographers Gallery in George Street, well they were in Elizabeth Arcade and in George Street. John, now I’m trying to remember who was involved…
Ray Cook, Carl Warner, Ray Cook, John Hawker, I’m missing someone … but remember Angelina you were telling me a story, something about the power.
Angelina: Yes, John I was talking that (acid) house party in the George Symons warehouse.
John: … there were three warehouse parties with Tim Gruchy and myself, massive, really important, warehouse parties.
With the first one in that electricity substation up on Petrie Terrace near the Windmill allnighter. That was unbelievable. We started at sunset and finished at sunrise and every iconic person was there and the whole substation became a big illegal rave.
Paul: It was illegal?
John: Yes, yes. Absolutely. All three warehouse parties were illegal, yes.
Paul: Did the police arrive?
Angelina: You’d think they would have because it was right opposite the police barracks.
Paul: How did you publicise, was it done with flyers do you remember?
John: John Hawker did the flyers.
John: I mean that particular party was on a knife edge, the way it came together, it was in a derelict building down the laneway behind the Photographers Gallery and it was an empty building. Then I am setting up and there is no power. So I had to source power quickly. I had to climb up the outside of another building, in through an open window and plug the leads into somebody else’s power, play Spiderman and then put on the night.
Angelina: … it would have been the old George Symon’s building I think.
Paul: Oh the old suit factory?
Angelina: … and it had been shut for years and it was full of dust, I remember that … climbing up the stairs and it wasn’t a smoke machine, it was dust.
It was really dark and I just had a great time – and then John tells me the next day that there was no power and he had to climb up a building.`
Paul: How did you know there was power up there or you just went exploring?
John: … had to, you’ve got to put it on. Just making do with whatever.
Paul: Are you still in touch with Peter Brown? He used to do Marylin’s, up on Little Edward Street and Mannequins, where was Mannequins was that in … did Marylin’s become Mannequins?
I used to go to those clubs and I liked Peter Brown’s clubs and did he do another one on George Street later on? I’m trying to remember the … The Tube used to be down on George Street, Did you ever play The Tube club? I used to go there in 1981 and it had the big fish tanks.
I used to love it because you used to play things like the B52s and I remember Lene Lovich, all those weird, wacky 70s and 80s club music. ‘Turning Japanese’ by The Vapours and some mainstream stuff but there was all this sort of weird stuff that I’d never heard before. And all those fish tanks, used to love it and I always felt very scared because I was quite shy. I didn’t know anyone, I went on my own so it wouldn’t have lasted very long – so what did that become after The Tube club?
Angelina: John and Ian went in there and did Hades.
John: We went in about a week or two later. And the Tube people said ‘this room will never work again.’
Paul: Yes and I remember going to Hades once and there was a big queue out the front and I’m socially phobic at the best of times. I only remember going there once or twice, it might have been later in the night or maybe earlier when there wasn’t a queue because queues just freak me out. But I also felt a bit, not threatened, but it felt a bit agro and the music …
Angelina: … was really dark, it was The Smiths and Sisters (of Mercy).
Paul: Yes but that’s the stuff I loved, no I don’t remember it feeling heavy, I just remember feeling, or maybe it was just really busy. It was a small space and maybe it was so packed …
John: … it was packed … That’s why I morphed Hades into Morticia’s. Because of that feeling. Hades was dark.
Paul: Yes maybe I didn’t feel safe.
Angelina: Yes, it was very dark.
John: It’s in the book ‘Thirty years of Anger’.
Paul: Having said that John, did you like the crowd at Hades?
John: Not a hundred percent. That’s why I changed it. I made it more fun, instead of this dark, foreboding thing….
Angelina: Yes the times were dark too.
Paul: Well Joy Division set the tone for many years. And it was very melancholy.
Very melancholy and The Smiths was … and who was the guy from the 70s, my friend Milton says ‘music to slit your wrists by’ we’re talking early 70s. (Who was this Paul?) And the 80s seemed to be more of that type of music…and then there was the punk stuff too, like Suicidal Tendencies so it carried over into the 80s and the pop. I mean you had other music that was really upbeat too.
Can I ask you about the 60’s John? So when you were young, going out for the first time as a young person – the 60s counter culture music – what was Brisbane’s version of that like?
John: Real strong. Up near where White Chairs used to be there was a club called TC’s Sound Lounge.
Every Saturday afternoon they used to have an all afternoon Mod dance. All the Mods used to go down Saturday morning and buy all their new Carnaby Street clothes around at the shops. Then they’d go to TC’s Sound Lounge and dance all afternoon. Tony Worsley and the Blue Jays … Mike Furber and the Bowery Boys.
Paul: They were local bands?
John: Yes. Unbelievable, they had two or three hits, really good songs … also of course the Purple Hearts.
Paul: Did they do a video? Is it on YouTube?
John: Yes. Mike Furber and the Bowery Boys ‘You Stole My Love’ (released when he was 17 years old).
Paul: So strong, because there were good venues and a band scene where everyone came together. And there was fashion – London Carnaby Street style – all that scene.
John: Very much in the 60s.
Angelina: And John you mentioned there were retailers as well that catered to people who were Mods, just like they did in the 80s – like Salon Dada (Karen Litzow and Stephen Crowther)
Paul: What did you buy and what were you wearing?
John: Well, I had one outfit. It was worsted wool striped pants, vertical stripes – green worsted wool with a chalk pin stripe, vertical. And instead of a belt, a flap that came across and buttoned down like the Monkees. A chocolate brown shirt, shot with black with a huge tab collar, no tie, big cufflinks and chocolate brown Chelsea boots.
The cufflinks were big things, you had to accentuate that for some reason. And then straight legged, stove pipe wool, really hot wool.
Paul: I was going to say that’s hot for Brisbane.
John: Yes and we had to do it.
Paul: Where did you buy this stuff from?
John: You had to choose your fabrics from the tailor. You had to get it all made. And the boots, you get the boots made too.
Paul: So where was the boot maker and where was the tailor? Do you remember?
John: Peter Shearer and Westminster Boutique upstairs on the corner of Queens and Edward St.
The boots, I don’t know where they came from but they were hand made. And they were chocolate brown and they came up my ankle.
Paul: Peter Shearer. He went for a long time.
And zip ups?
John: Yes. They zip up and they had a chisel toe. Cuban heel.
Paul: Cuban heel and good to dance in.
Angelina: And you were what, seventeen, eighteen? So it was in the afternoon because it wasn’t licenced?
John: That’s right, so everybody could go. Because it was a team, the Mods were the team thing.
Paul: And what do you think, from your memory John what did the Mod scene replace? So what was, say in Brisbane, just before this … what was dying out in a sense? In terms of a sub-cultural phenomena.
John: Rockers. Bodgies and Widgies and rockabilly.
Paul: So the Bodgie and Widgie had been there for a while …
John: Ten years at least.
Paul: And then the mod thing, and the mod thing went for how long?
John: Five years. But quite intense, busy.
Angelina: The Purple Hearts became really well known.
John: Purple Hearts, yes. The reason they were called the Purple Hearts was because the Mods used to take these tablets called Purple Hearts.
Paul: What sort of tablets were they?
John: I think Benzedrine.
Paul: And so they were called purple hearts because they were just an over the counter drug at the time weren’t they?
Paul: And you couldn’t drink because it you had to be twenty-one. Sorry if it’s a silly question, but were there actual DJs playing vinyl at TC’s?
John: Yes, from radio stations.
Angelina: Oh that makes sense.
Paul: … from mainstream radio stations?
Angelina: Well there would have only been mainstream, it’s Brisbane, in the 60’s.
Paul: Do you have lots of good memories from those days?
John: Oh yes, yes.
I remember I walked into a place near the Mater hospital, I think I was sixteen and I walked into this place and I just saw three hundred Mods with tambourines and the band was playing, Mike Furber and the Bowery Boys and I saw these mods and they were all dancing and they had Carnaby Street clothes. I thought this is where its at.
Paul: Wow, where was that venue?
John: It was called the South Pacific Ballroom. Near the Mater.
Paul: And so that went on for a number of years obviously, you said five years. And then, so you were about, twenty two, twenty three maybe when that finished.
John: After the Mod scene finished I had to go looking for something else. Because the heavy metal came. So I went surfing.
Paul: And where would you go surfing John?
John: Down the coast. Duranbah. Pottsville. Byron Bay.
Paul: Byron, yes, did you go to Stradbroke at all?
Paul: And what sort of stuff were you listening to?
John: The Doors. Hendrix. Anything with a beat, Cream … Lovin’ Spoonful, Hot Town Summer in the City, T-Rex, Bowie, Velvet Underground, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel.
Paul: What were some of your favourites for you, personally. Just now thinking of it off the top of your head, what was some of the music that you used to listen to on high rotation, personally.
John: Roxy Music. In the 70s yes, the really early Roxy Music.
Paul: In the 60s what was the music you would listen to, before Bryan Ferry on high rotation.
John: Psychedelic stuff. Incense and Peppermints, Psychotic Reaction to really obscure garage bands. It’s all on ‘The Nuggets’ compilation albums.
Paul: Was there much Australian psychedelic being recorded?
John: Yes. Some … There was a club called the Red Orb, a psychedelic club. Down on Broadway in between the city and the valley. At the end of the Mod scene. It went for a couple of years, two or three years I believe.
Paul: And it was called the Red Orb because, forgive my ignorance, what was the Red Orb? Was it a bit cosmic?
John: It was all just linked to the psychedelia I think, more than Mod. It was those things but heavier, blues and Lobby Loyde …
Angelina: … so this is sort of the end of the 60s?
John: Yes, yes.
Angelina: Yes okay, so you’re talking mid-60s, like 65, 66, The Beatles and Mod and then it goes into the psychedelia.
John: Sort of, Velvet Underground first.
Paul: Velvet Underground, Warhol and then …
John: Always in the background is Andy Warhol.
It’s behind the mainstream – everything became commercial at the end of the 60s and 70s – you’ve got to remember that in the background was The Factory, Warhol and the Velvet Underground. They were running their own agenda behind the mainstream …
Paul: … yes, that changed the paradigm. And drugs and I know you’re not a drug taker but the drugs in the 60s at the Red Orb, what were young people taking …
John: … LSD, it moved on to LSD.
Paul: John, how wonderful thank you, great to see you.
John: I invited myself.
Paul: Oh well, thank you for inviting yourself, I’m glad you did.
 The Morris Boot factory building was demolished to make way for the Hale Street inner city bypass in 1990.
 Iggy Pop performed at Whispers nightclub in Fortitude Valley in 1983.