Some thoughts on the Australian Music Vault


As much as a museum-like exhibit can the Australian Music Vault conveys the frisson of wildness around the rock’n’roll of a particular period, not the cliches of the wild behaviour of individuals, but the fiercely urgent sensation of something uniquely aligned with its time spontaneously emerging. My mind defaults to engineering, so I think of it as the agitation of the edges of the earth’s crust against each other discovered by Robert Ballard’s remotely operated deep sea exploring robots: something hot and new bubbling up to cover the cooler, older segments.

The most engaging part of the exhibit as a whole is how messy and alive the sound makes it all, the exhibits neatly box off an era, but the brief excerpts of music heard, all eras running together, the pulsating neon around the cube containing film excerpts, and the poster wall, everything posted on top of one another, is more true to life.

In hindsight everything looks neatly inevitable. During the punk rock era I was all-at-sea with the music and science fiction and architecture were what I comprehended most. I can look back now and see the drowned New York on the cover of the Saints Prehistoric Sounds album, the last album Ed Kuepper would make with the Saints, as a starting point to connect through to the ruined cities of the movie Blade Runner and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer. On Australia Day in 2009 Ed’s next band, the Laughing Clowns, performed with the Dirty Three at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney and co-incidentally a Reg Mombassa artwork was on the cover of the Sydney Morning Herald that day. He’d drawn Australian Jesus in a drowned Sydney Harbour that reminded me of the cover of Prehistoric Sounds. But to read too much into this is faulty pattern recognition on my part, my own need to make random tangents coherent.


The Australian Music Vault’s study materials notes the youthful rebellion against the established order as a motivating force for any era of rock’n’roll. But as rock’n’roll matures as an artform, and musicians continue to work and produce powerful music with unusual perspectives throughout their whole lives, deep into old age, that definition is limited. An insightful perspective and a refusal to accept limitations is more apt. ‘Rock star’ is the designation now given to any visionary creative figure who captures the urgency of a particular profession as it bursts into the wider world: rock star technology entrepreneurs (Steve Jobs) … rock star business people (Richard Branson) … rock star chefs (Rene Redzepi) … rock star architects (Frank Gehry) … rock star industrial designers (Philippe Starck) … rock star spiritual leaders (the Dalai Lama) … rock star politicians (Barack Obama), they don’t even have to be human … rock star robots (the Mars rover Curiosity).


Artistically diverse bohemias being born in parts of the city abandoned as business and manufacturing evolve and relocate and trends for living (inner city or outer suburbs) wax and wane is an aspect of cultures around the world. What makes Melbourne’s punk rock era venue the Crystal Ballroom so particularly alluring is undoubtedly the name, with its Victorian associations. Punk rockers and a glamorous old-world seaside resort is unlikely and anachronistic, a mashup along the lines of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. And that it was never a real venue. The Victorian touches, grand sweeping staircase, massive mirrors with curlicue dark wooden frames, panelled walls, weren’t altered or papered over with posters. The equipment put in place to put on rock’n’roll shows was minimal and temporary. I was long gone by the time the Ballroom’s era was over but the image I have is of a mirage, that vanished once the bands had moved on.

That lack of definition, transitory nature and unpredictability is peculiarly enough what’s also making the Sydney Opera House an iconic rock venue. The video based on Nick Cave’s “Ship Song” that featured many, mostly Australian, rock’n’roll musicians and all of the resident Australian arts companies established that rock’n’roll was a vital part of its arts ecosystem but it’s not tied to any one venue, and with the exception of the Vivid Live festival, is unpredictable. Shows are staged when the heavily booked venues are free, and Ben Marshall makes inventive use of the spaces. Max Richter’s Sleep became an elevated experience when staged overnight with the audience in cots in the Northern foyer of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, suspended over and still a part of the city, rather than closed off in an auditorium. He’s used the Northern Boardwalk for outdoor shows and brought the lightshow projections during Vivid inside the building as well as on the roof shells, and held casual film screenings with the audience on beanbag chairs in the caves underneath the staircases in the Northern foyer of the Concert Hall.

Arguments rage around the faults and flaws of the venues, a product of the building’s troubled genesis. While it remains true that the stage in the Joan Sutherland Theatre is smaller than those elsewhere, requiring touring companies to trim their sets, and a perfect and ideal acoustical character for the Concert Hall is always in debate, the resident arts companies and rock’n’roll musicians are inventively overcoming the limitations, in ways that don’t translate to other buildings. The Opera House’s creation story was translated into a grand opera staged outdoors with the principal singers on the monumental steps, the audience on the forecourt wearing headphones, and the orchestra and chorus performing inside the building. It’s too early to tell whether a performance by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra projected onto the roof shells is a stunt, or a powerful expansion of the audience for a particular performance. But what’s fascinating is that the architecture is being enlivened and updated by those who use the building rather than a construction project.


In the late 1980s Blueprint magazine, published from London, and Metropolis Magazine, published from New York, placed architecture within the wider design world, also covering fashion, industrial design, engineering, graphics, & urbanism. It reminded me of the broad artistic community during the punk rock era in Melbourne that was supported by magazines and community radio, mentioned in the Australian Music Vault. Architecture felt like the most exciting thing you could imagine.

I’ve written a book on the evolution of the Sydney Opera House along the timeline of an Arup engineered underground loading dock, chronicling how the resident arts companies, rock & roll musicians and chefs who operate restaurants and bars on the precinct, are using the Opera House inventively in advance of, or even in contradiction to, the renovation projects renewing the building.

On Instagram it’s getting attention from graphic designers in London, dancers in Barcelona, opera singers in New York, and independent musicians all over the world. I’m publishing a special edition myself, first, since it doesn’t fit within any one genre. As the publishing world’s shrunk, critics have been removed from newspapers and genres have calcified my book appeals widely and doesn’t neatly fit anywhere.



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