The legacy of The Playroom, the last rock’n’roll spot on the Gold Coast to be shut down in the 90’s.
It’s 2018. You’re crossing Tallebudgera Creek at night, enjoying a quiet atmosphere. Waves lap onto the rocks below, whilst quiet fishermen are scattered along the bridge. Keep walking and you might see some teenagers getting pissed at the parking area or a queue of cars being pulled over for breath testing.
Rewind to 1991. You’re crossing Tallebudgera Creek at night, waves crashing against the rocks. Further up the road, hundreds of people clutching beer cans surround a simple venue from which you can hear the high gain riffs of a classic punk song. It’s written on the wall that The Ramones are playing tonight.
For many, driving past the creek today still stirs memories about that place. It was called The Playroom, and its demolition could be a fitting illustration for the “rock is dead” cliché: the famous “rock’n’roll headquarter” on the GC was sadly reduced to a car park in 1999. Indeed, there’s so much nostalgia around The Playroom that saying people get “too emotional” talking about it is not an exaggeration.
Those were good times. Like the Playroom, other rock venues helped to cement the GC rock scene back then, like The Patch and Jet Club (Coolangatta), Fisherman’s Wharf (Main Beach) and Bombay Rock (Surfers Paradise). Even so, standing alone in quiet Palm Beach, Playroom was somehow unique. It was that place “in the middle”, and unlike other similar venues, was mainly frequented by locals. It was also the last one to be shut down, which many considered to be the defining end to that era.
“There was a lot of tourism coming through those areas, but in Palm Beach there were just locals. The biggest drama we had was basically conflicts between surfing guys who had their arguments on the water and then would bring them to the night time… You had a good laugh about that,” says Archie Cox, who managed the venue from 1989 until own the place, in 1996.
“People would go for the surf down there, then jump in the shower, change their clothes and go for a few drinks and burgers with mates, then maybe see Midnight Oil or whoever was playing that night”, says Paul Major, whose involvement with the venue ranged from DJ and bouncer to painting band names on the wall.
Courtesy of Ben Gibson
“Back then stage diving was huge, it got that bad that sometimes you couldn’t see the bands. The Playroom would be packed too, all walks of life: punks, skinheads, surfers, skaters, metal heads… They would all go to the same shows. I don’t think there will ever be a merging of talent, styles, drinking laws and the variety of bands like that again. It was kind of a perfect storm”, says Haydn Jenkins, former player in punk band Self-Inflicted, which opened for big acts like Fugazi, in 1991.
Making a venue
Being a home for locals and supporting music and culture was in Playroom’s DNA. It started as a cabaret venue in Currumbin, opened in the 50’s by then husband and wife Beryl and Claude Carnell. Patrons would have drinks and dinner watching performances of bands, dancers and entertainers. Back in the day, rock’n’roll singer, Johnny O’Keefe was the Playroom’s star entertainer.
In 1962, the Carnells moved Playroom to Tallebudgera Creek. It was built in a tropical style, with a blue fibreglass dance floor covered in sand, river stones all around it and Palm tree shaped poles.
Ten years later, the couple divorced and Beryl was then completely in charge of the place – she was the first female nightclub licensee on the GC. Under her management, Playroom was reshaped and its reputation kept growing within the music scene, to the point it would become the breaking ground for Australian bands such as INXS, Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil, Australian Crawl, Men at Work and Bee Gees (who started their career in Brisbane), as well as a hotspot for overseas artists Down Under.
Archie Cox, who worked closely with Beryl as a manager, got the lease in 1996. He and his brother Brad ran The Playroom together and spent all their profits to upgrade the building.
“I classified the playroom building as a classy old lady, she’d been around since the 60’s and she needed some glow back. But I didn’t touch the inside too much. Beryl designed the venue and I really take my hat off to her, you had nearly the ultimate acoustics”, he remembers.
Making a scene
Pretty much any band in the rock music industry in Australia had to play at The Playroom and whenever an international tour reached the country, Playroom was always on their route. Big acts would get the venue packed not only with locals – people would come from distant suburbs and towns to see icons like Iggy Pop, Fugazi, Dead Kennedys, Buzzcocks, Suicidal Tendencies or Pennywise. And that, of course, was a huge thing for local bands, who would always support them.
“We played with a lot of punk rock and ska bands. Reel Big Fish, Unwritten Law, NOFX, Frenzal Rhomb… You could play big shows in front of hundreds of people. Playroom did that for many bands. If it wasn’t that, we wouldn’t have got the chance”, says Major, that was also a member of the local band Fetish.
“There was this band called Sunk Loto, they were underage at the time and played there with Deftones. Then Deftones actually took the kids with them to US”.
The GC’s establishment as a mandatory stop for big acts and the number of great venues across the coast enabled the emergence of a strong local scene. We could even say that it was more than “local”, as pretty much all that was made in Australia back then had some sort of connection with the Coast. In the 90’s Playroom fully supported The Runaway Boys, three guys from Melbourne who covered Stray Cats and The Clash, and turned out to become the renowned The Living End. This is Serious Mum and Cosmic Psychos (also from Melbourne), Sunnyboys, Radiators and You Am I (Sydney), The Screaming Jets (Newscastle), The Angels (Adelaide), Regurgitator and Bantha Fodder (Brisbane) and Grinspoon (Lismore) are just a few names that frequented the Playroom with locals such as Blister, John is Not Mad, The Julian Date and many others.
“That was a pretty exciting time for live music on the GC. Most of them [local bands] were all mates. You shared gear, organized group shows… You would all go see each other’s bands and wear their band shirts. The older more established bands would take the younger bands under their wings and help them out, show them the ropes”, remembers Jenkins. “The Playroom has seen some wild shit. If you fell on that carpet you would probably need a tetanus shot. It was also so sticky with all the grog and who knows what was spilt on it… It was pretty disgusting, but some of the best parties ever happened in there”.
“Every night was a good night at The Playroom”, says Cox.
But sometimes Palmy’s laid back vibes couldn’t beat drunk rockers. Probably the most infamous gig there was the Motörhead one, in 1991. The Playroom was packed, with sold out tickets and a crowd of 1500 people.
“We got them all in, it was a tense night. I don’t think Lemmy [Kilmister, the frontman] was ready for the Australian culture of beer drinking indoors”, remembers Cox.
That night, after a few songs, Lemmy got hit by a beer can on stage and got on the microphone saying the band would stop the show if cans kept flying. Of course, they kept flying.
“Fuck off, I’m not doing it”, he said, walking side stage.
Cox tried to convince the band to go back, but they refused and headed to the side exit, got in the tour bus and just left. That, on top of the fact that the band’s production had forbidden the public to enter the venue with metals (chains, belts, rings etc), pissed everyone off.
“We had to tell the crowd the band would not be coming back on, so they should come back around to get a refund. As they were walking, about three quarters through, someone shouted ‘they’re just going to lock us out without refunding our money!’. Flying chairs, people getting hurt… Everyone was ushered outside and it turned into a massive riot, it was full on. But that’s probably the worst thing that ever happened there”, remembers Major.
“The police came down with back up… it was not pretty. That show was the first of Motörhead’s tour and made headlines everywhere”, says Cox.
The ex-manager became quite used to finding himself in some odd situations with rock icons – from catching Joey Ramone about to fall from stage to climbing down the fire stairs carrying drunk Michael Hutchence [INXS] on his shoulders or going to the gym in Palmy with Henry Rollins [Black Flag, Rollins Band].
“I was setting everything up then someone came over and said ‘Henry wants to go to the gym, is there a gym around here?’, I said ‘Yeah, over there’ and somehow I ended up going to the gym with him… So Henry Rollins turning up at your local gym, people looking at him, his Search and Destroy tattoo… That was a fun scenario”, Cox laughs.
In general, Playroom’s informal atmosphere was seen as positive. According to Cox, it was often a favourite warm-up venue for some big acts. According t0 Cox, The Rolling Stones wanted to hire the venue for a week, close it down and just practice.
“In 1992 or 1993 INXS had just came back from a stadium tour, they had sold out Wembley, and they wanted to come back to The Playroom. Hutchence has said in the past that it’s great playing at these massive venues, but you can’t see people”, remembers Cox.
It’s said that Guns’n’Roses were secretly planning a gig under a different name, in an attempt to perform in a more intimate setting. Major suggests it was actually about to happen, when Playroom was abruptly shut down:
“Can you imagine that? People would go there as usual and suddenly Guns’n’Roses would be playing”.
Making a wake
In March 1999, Archie and Brad were served an eviction notice. As part of a multimillion dollar redevelopment plan that included the Tallebudgera Recreation Centre area, Playroom would be the next, and finally the last, live rock venue on the Coast to be shut down. When it came to public the place would be demolished, a wake was immediately formed. Supporters emerged from all over the place, regulars, locals, and those who hadn’t visited in a long time.
The Cox brothers took the case to court, but lost badly. Not just the building, but also their $250.000 investment in the club. The day they left Brisbane Supreme Court and got back to the Playroom, locals and the media crew were standing outside the venue.
“People wanted to start demolishing the place. I stood up on top of the car, thanked everybody for the support and addressed the crowd: ‘Don’t let the bastards win, don’t do anything stupid. Support The Playroom. We want you to respect the place and don’t let the cops piss you off’. I didn’t want to see our culture and the name of Playroom go down the toilet”, remembers Cox.
The brothers made sure their last weekend would be like any other, and there was a reason: when Fisherman’s Wharf was shut down, people responded aggressively and the police had to control the protests.
“I made sure that all the staff were on an up. I spoke to the bands: ‘make this the last show of your life, go out there and rip the stage to pieces’. And they did. It was a really moving moment and moving times. Over that weekend we had bands from all over Australia, Triple J was putting out notes to us”.
“So during all weekend, they had undercover police, police at the service station down the road waiting. And we held out, we finished the whole weekend smooth as silk”, says Cox.
The last lineups included The Porkers (Newcastle), Eskimo Joe (Perth), Shihad (New Zealand) and Not From There (Brisbane) sharing the stage with locals like Deliverance and Koil and Bosk.
And that was it. The next Monday, while bulldozers were tearing down The Playroom, people would still try to get in the building and take with them the remaining furniture and even bricks and timbers.
Remaking a scene?
One truth about any music scene, anywhere, anytime, is that there will always be people saying it used to be better in the past. But that’s understandable, especially now: with so many changes in the industry and on how people connect with music, there seems to have been some sort of shift in music today that makes it harder to locate and express the kind of free spirit that defined the old school gigs.
“I think the lack of venues has killed the scene”, suggests Major. “Also the festival scene got strong. People would spend $150 dollars on big bands and festivals with really good lineups, but… If you could give me the chance to see The Ramones in a big stadium or in an intimate club, give me the intimate club”.
Festivals are huge at the moment, but in time, they might also become too expensive for organisers, as artists, production companies and the government can be too demanding. Some might say big commercial festivals are “ruining” the scene, but Cox wouldn’t go that far:
“It’s not detrimental but it doesn’t do a positive thing. Local bands are on local stages. That was the unique thing about The Playroom, it was a live scene. Since then, the live scene fractured. Back then you had DJs, dance, hardcore, pop, rock – we did all of that”, he states.
So would it be possible to redeem the old school music scene on the Coast?
Major believes that The Playroom could have kept going for its reputation, the loyal locals and the upcoming bands, but rebuilding a similar concept would take the likes of an Archie Cox, “Someone who has been in the scene or who has done something similar”.
Whilst we can’t say there’s a shortage of venues in general (Miami Marketta, Nightquarter, Mo’s Desert Clubhouse, Soundlounge… the list goes on), it’s not that easy for the underground scene to get there. Aside from venues like Miami Shark Bar, punk bands, for example, usually have to perform in more informal places, like backyards and industrial sheds, like Shed 5, in Burleigh Waters – and even that one is gone.
New trends, lack of venues, cultural policies and unreasonable noise and alcohol restrictions seem to be posing challenges to the Gold Coast alternative music scene since Playroom and other rock venues were shut down. Some things, however, will never change:
“there’ll still be kids starting bands in their bedrooms and garages, writing great songs and embracing being an outsider”, says Jenkins.
At the end of the day, support from community and a continuous effort to fill the gaps that laws or mass culture haven’t reached yet are still the essence of any alternative scene. In regards to live music in general, be it alternative or mainstream, maybe the GC just needs a bit more action. Perhaps places capable of hosting both local and big acts and still be honest? Maybe a chance to get lost in the pit without worrying about so many restrictions?
As Archie Cox puts it,
“The scene is an organism. If you feed it the right way then it grows extremely”.
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