The Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn isn’t necessarily where you’d expect to find a punk legend. The affluent suburb is more soy lattes than Sid Vicious. And yet I’m here to meet Dolores San Miguel, the woman who founded the infamous Crystal Ballroom at Saint Kilda’s Seaview Hotel. From 1978 to 1987 the Ballroom was the physical and spiritual centre of Melbourne’s punk, post-punk and new-wave scene. Everyone from Nick Cave to Paul Kelly to Rowland S. Howard, spent their formative years honing their sound in the Ballroom. Not to mention the whole gamut of Australian creatives who were regular patrons, including the likes of filmmaker Richard Lowenstein and visual artists Howard Arkley and Jenny Watson.
Still, that was 35 years ago – the glory days of punk have faded and the inevitable onset of middle age has dulled the sharpness of the spirit that ruled the era. As I knock on the door of a charming house on a leafy street, I start to doubt myself. Punk belongs to the youth, so what am I hoping to find here? My fears are assuaged as soon as Dolores opens the door. Her sensible blonde hair and clothing are becoming of her age, but there’s more than a hint of the young woman who helped to define the subcultural landscape. She ushers me into her house with the maternal assurance of a woman who raised her first child in the heyday of her role as a punk promoter, and before long she’s pouring me a cup of Earl Grey tea and filling me in on the legacy of the Ballroom.
“I started promoting in 1978, and it was all an accident,” Dolores explains. She’s now of an age where I know it’s impolite to ask for a specific numeral, but she lights up with electric enthusiasm at the mention of the infamous venue. “The Sex Pistols had exploded in ‘76, but there were really not a lot of local venues for those kind of bands to play. My husband at the time was in a band called Secret Police, and they were booked to play a gig at the Angler’s Hall in High Street, Armadale.” But when Dolores and the band arrived at the venue, they found it double-booked. By chance they asked the Seaview Hotel licensee, Graeme Richards, if they had a space available to shift the gig, and a legend was born. Upon reflection, the word that Dolores uses to describe the coincidence is “serendipity… That’s how it all began – by accident.”
From those humble beginnings, the Ballroom went on to host gigs from many emerging bands who would go on to become Australian musical luminaries – including The Birthday Party, INXS and Hunters and Collectors – as well as overseas acts like The Cure and PiL. More than just a music venue though, the Ballroom represented a bastion of cultural ideology for its patrons. “There were just so many artistic kids running around – they all got drawn to the scene because they felt that they all fitted in with each other,” Dolores reflects. Thanks in part to the legacy of the Whitlam Government, arts grants were widely accessible to students at the time. (After all, this was the same government that spent two million US dollars acquiring a Jackson Pollock painting.) As well as this, the burgeoning English and American punk scenes were spurring on dissatisfaction with the conservative cultural climate. “Everyone used to save up to buy imported records and magazines from overseas. We’d be getting them six months later, but there was still influence,” recalls Dolores. Although she’s also quick to point out that the Australian movement wasn’t a provincial mimesis of the big names overseas. “It was a unique little scene down here – [the bands] were uniquely Australian.”
Of course, punk and hedonism go hand in hand – and as with the global movement, drugs soon became a fixture of Melbourne’s scene. “I think the saddest thing about the whole era was the amount of kids who got into heroin and speed addiction,” says Dolores. “Back then no one thought of sterilising needles. I’d go to parties after the Ballroom and there’d be someone in the bathroom with everyone and their little pack of heroin. The same person would be shooting up a whole line of people with the same needle.” Lack of awareness around safe drug practices has unfortunately taken its toll among those who frequented the Ballroom, and deaths among the scene have come far too frequently. “It’s kind of made that whole generation die a lot younger than they should have,” Dolores laments.
After the death of original Boys Next Door member Rowland S. Howard in 2009, and the subsequent release of a cinematic documentary detailing his life and music, there’s been an inevitable resurgence of curiosity in this period of Australian history. “There’s a very mythical interest. I think there’s a real fascination with it – we’re getting a new audience of people who really seem to worship those musicians now,” says Dolores. Although, the potential cultural legacy wasn’t exactly at the forefront of the minds of those who spent their evenings in the Ballroom. “At the time I wasn’t really thinking about it. It was a really exciting musical time, and I haven’t seen anything like it since,” Dolores tells me. Scant documentation exists of the period, and that fact, in and of itself, captures the imagination of a younger generation that is used to obsessively Instagramming, tweeting and checking-in throughout their day-to-day lives.
The Crystal Ballroom and its patrons represent an idyllic scene for a generation too young to have ever participated in it. There’s something inherently appealing about a subculture bound together by like-minded energy, united in a rundown Ballroom in Melbourne’s South East without the influence of the obsessive documentation and flow of information that’s so characteristic of the current era. “I never expected it to go down in musical history,” Dolores tells me “a lot of famous people came out of the Ballroom – film directors, fashion designers, photographers and artists.” As we finish our second cup of tea, Dolores pauses a minute before adding “Plus, the music was good.”
This story originally appeared in ACCLAIM issue 31 – The Loud Issue – available here.
‘The Ballroom – The Melbourne Punk and Post-Punk Scene’ by Dolores San Miguel is available now through Melbourne Books.