Andrew Stafford: Brisbane Post-Pig City
In a speech delivered to the State Library of Queensland last month, author and journalist ANDREW STAFFORD contemplates the future of Brisbane’s live music scene in the six years since the publication of his acclaimed 2004 book ‘Pig City’.
This speech was given to the State Library of Queensland on May 19, as one of a series of public lectures called “Out of the Port: New Perspectives on Queensland History and Heritage”. In it I was asked to reflect on the changes in Brisbane since Pig City’s initial publication in October 2004.
The wisecrack in the introduction was in reference to federal opposition leader Tony Abbott, who had given an infamous interview with the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien two nights earlier, in which he had claimed that only his prepared statements could be relied upon as truthful.
The Wrong Road? Brisbane Post-Pig City
I just want to preface my comments by saying, for those who saw The 7.30 Report the other night that these remarks are carefully prepared and scripted and can be taken as the gospel truth...
Since Pig City’s initial publication in October 2004, many things have happened. The classic Saints line-up – Ed Kuepper, Chris Bailey and Ivor Hay, sans only bass player Kym Bradshaw – has reformed. (Kuepper and Bailey are, as we speak, playing a residency of shows at the Troubadour in Fortitude Valley.)
The Go-Betweens have had a new Brisbane bridge named after them, following the tragically early death of Grant McLennan in May 2006. A young female pop duo called The Veronicas swept all before them, cracking the US top 20 in February 2009. And Powderfinger, after a two-decade run, has broken up. Oh, and Darren Hayes has come out. Betcha didn’t see that one coming!
Then again, that last development aside, who could have predicted any of these things? Not me, that’s for sure. Pig City only ever aimed to document a particular period of Brisbane’s history; it was never intended as a rolling chronicle.
Nevertheless, subsequent events have conspired to date the book in unexpected ways, and therefore I’m honoured to have the opportunity to speak to you today, and reflect upon the rapid changes Brisbane has undergone in the six short years since Pig City’s appearance.
Pig City certainly touched a nerve in its home town, and it was supposed to. Brisbane was, after all, the main character in a book populated by them, and the “slatternly, ugly” city David Malouf once described in Johnno had grown up – as Pig City’s blurb over-confidently bragged.
I’m not so sure about that now. These days I’m more inclined to describe Brisbane as a city experiencing growing pains. But at the time of the book’s initial publication, the Queensland capital was in the middle of a passionate love affair with itself.
You can understand why. By the turn of the century, Brisbane was beginning to shake off its enduring image as a big country town, and Queensland its reputation as a state of slack-jawed yokels.
Brisbane’s self-image – and the image it projected to the rest of the world – was of a confident modern metropolis.
Of course, this process had begun as early as World Expo ’88, more than a decade earlier, but that was at the time of the Fitzgerald Inquiry, the anti-corruption purge that ultimately did far more to modernise the political, social and judicial affairs of the state.
Queensland had to step out of the darkness of the Moonlight State, as the now-legendary Four Corners episode dubbed it in 1987, before it could afford to bask in the sunshine. But by 2004, the rhetoric had changed. Suddenly, no one seemed to want to talk about the weather any more.
“It wasn’t just beautiful one day and perfect the next. Frankly, it was hot out there,” I wrote breathlessly in Pig City’s conclusion – implying that the state, or at least the capital, was finally developing a cultural inner life to match its bountiful natural beauty. (Or was it another early warning of climate change?)
Either way, I wasn’t the only one waxing lyrical on this theme. “Yes, Brisbane, you can go to the ball,” wrote demographer Bernard Salt in The Australian in 2005, going on to write that poor old plain-Jane Brisbane had had a makeover.
In an article headlined “Brisbane: it’s booming, it’s brilliant, it’s downright sexy,” Salt opined that the suburban, monocultural Brisbane parodied in the term Brisvegas had acquired an “edgy new market segment”.
“Young, hip Generation Xers who earlier in the decade felt compelled to migrate south, decided to stay put,” Salt wrote – attracted, apparently, by minimally fitted out restaurants and a burgeoning creative arts scene, dating back not to the Saints, but the arrival of Movie World on the Gold Coast in 1988.
Please forgive my cynicism. Despite some valiant attempts to publicly recognise this city’s musical pioneers in recent years, I have often had cause to wonder how well Brisbane understands and appreciates its musical heritage.
While Robert Forster would never be so churlish to complain about it, the naming of an unpopular and unnecessary toll bridge after the Go-Betweens seems to me to be just so not what the band that wrote so elegantly of the streets of our town was all about.
“I have often had cause to wonder how well Brisbane understands and appreciates its musical heritage.”
But then, maybe I’m being churlish myself, or at least sweating the small stuff. It is wonderful to see the Go-Betweens’ contribution acknowledged in such a public way, and we have certainly seen some great advances in Queensland. The opening of the justly lauded Gallery of Modern Art, which the bridge links to, has arguably given Brisbane its first genuine world-class cultural landmark.
There have also been political advances, reflective of a changing cultural landscape. Queensland has supplied an amazing trifecta: the country’s current prime minister, treasurer and Australia’s first female governor-general. If the seat of power remains in Canberra, then the wellspring right now comes from north of the Tweed.
Perhaps most notably, in September 2007, the state’s first female premier, Anna Bligh, was sworn in. Bligh took over the premiership from Peter Beattie, who I always felt bore a striking resemblance to a smiling Halloween pumpkin. Pumpkins, of course, have an illustrious history in Queensland politics.
Beattie was the most recent, but probably not the last representative of a type of politician unique to Queensland, a type lampooned in an essay by John Harms that asked the simple question: What Is Queensland? A clue, Harms wrote, could be found in that much-loved advertising creation, the Bundaberg Bear.
I think I’ve just about got more mileage out of this piece than John Harms did by now, but essentially, the Bundaberg Bear tells a story about the culture of life in Queensland, which remains basically trusting, unquestioning and anti-intellectual.
As such our state has been vulnerable to charismatic boofheads of all kinds, from Big Kev to Steve Irwin to Pauline Hanson and, of course, her populist political ancestor, Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
Anna Bligh, if you’ll pardon the pun, represents the Bear’s polar opposite. It’s hard to imagine any political leader from Queensland – or any other state – being bold enough to refer to their political opponents as “rednecks” and “knuckle-draggers” for their opposition to gay adoption, of all things. Hardly the sort of soothing language the Bear would employ!
This is, remember, the same state where condom-vending machines were once ripped off the walls of university campuses in the dead of night by the local vice squad, lest our best and brightest be encouraged to “have sex with gay abandon,” as Bob Katter Jr thundered at the time.
Current opinion polls suggest that Bligh is wildly unpopular, despite having won a thumping majority against a re-branded conservative opposition in 2009, becoming Australia’s first popularly elected female premier in the process.
These days, she is usually seen on camera wearing a personalised hard hat and a high visibility vest, spruiking the development of overdue infrastructure designed to cope with south-east Queensland’s booming population.
Indeed, Brisbane’s population has almost doubled in 20 years, outstripping every other Australian state capital since 1990. It now stands at around 1.9 million. That figure is projected to double again in the next 40 years.
By that time, any originally-intended irony in the term Brisvegas will be long gone. The city will be a vast conurbation linking the Gold and Sunshine Coasts.
At the recent Growth Management Summit in late March, Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan quoted just-released Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showing Queensland is growing at a rate of 115,000 people per year. That, as Anna Bligh pointed out, is roughly equivalent to the population of Darwin. And the vast majority of these new arrivals move to south-east Queensland.
That phenomenal rate of growth, according to the aforementioned article by Bernard Salt, is behind the city’s prosperity – along with those sexy Gen-Xers like me who decided to stay put. (For the minimalist-decor dining, of course.)
Following the economic meltdowns of the late ’80s and early ’90s, tens of thousands of Sydneysiders and Melburnians shifted north in search of a more laid-back lifestyle and the easy money to be made investing in the Queensland housing market.
Coupled with the resources and construction boom, the population influx drove sustained job growth, translating into an increased ability to take out mortgages, which in turn has pushed up property values to the point where I can pretty much categorically say I’ll never be able to afford to buy my own home here.
And everyone – new arrivals and those sexy young Gen-Xer stay-at-homes alike – seems to want to live in the inner city.
All of this, of course, has profound implications for the Brisbane I wrote about in Pig City. Back then, the future here looked so enticing. Now, it looks more like a case of being careful what you wish for, as the state grapples with how best to manage its own transformation from bridesmaid to Belle of the Ball.
Once tagged as Australia’s most liveable city – a label Brisbane actively tried to shed in the early Noughties as it sought to sell a more vibrant version of itself – our old big country town is increasingly congested, irritable, and probably getting hotter, too.
We have seen increasing degradation of the urban environment, expensive road projects that at times seem to be already obsolete upon completion, and a concomitant overall reduction in quality of life.
I’m not a town planner. I don’t have any grand solutions to these kinds of dilemmas. But I would like to make some points about how such rapid growth impacts upon the local music scene which I was so keen to celebrate in Pig City – not only for its own sake, but for its role in documenting and reflecting some of the changes that Queensland has undergone since the Bjelke-Petersen years.
In 2001, I contributed to a QUT report commissioned by the Brisbane City Council which investigated the contribution of Brisbane’s music scene to our creative economy, as well as to our cultural life.
Our brief was to make recommendations as to how that contribution might best be protected and enhanced.
By that time, the flood of money towards the inner city was a magnet for property developers. The destruction of Festival Hall for yet another block of high-rise luxury apartments, for many music fans, brought back traumatic memories of the demolition of Cloudland in the early 1980s.
Not that Festival Hall had any of Cloudland’s architectural significance, but the old boxing arena still held a cherished place in many a punter’s heart, having hosted everyone from the Beatles to Nirvana over the years. And Festival Hall was one of the last live music venues in the city centre.
The infrastructure of our local music scene – venues, public radio, street press and the publicly-funded industry body QMusic – had become concentrated in Fortitude Valley, the former red-light district once dominated, pre-Fitzgerald, by a convenient alliance of cops and criminals.
Long-standing live music institutions like Ric’s and The Zoo, in particular, were threatened by the unintended consequences of gentrification, with noise complaints coming from residents who had just moved into McWhirter’s and Sun Apartments. The licenses of these venues were severely imperilled as a result.
The central recommendation made in our report was the zoning of the area around the top end of the Brunswick Street Mall, at the junction of Ann Street, as an entertainment precinct. That way, the Valley would remain “loud and proud”.
This symbolic enshrining of Fortitude Valley as a place of musical production was made semi-permanent with the refurbishment of the old Brunswick Street Station, with quotes from Pig City, along with the names of some of our most illustrious musical artists, scattered around the walls. While that was understandably a source of some personal pride, again, we might have been more careful what we wished for.
Fortitude Valley on a Saturday night now looks more like the nightclub strip of Surfers Paradise than a live music hub. There are actually less live venues in the precinct than there were 10 years ago.
These days, when I head downtown to catch a gig – whether at the Troubadour, the Zoo, the Step Inn or the Tivoli – I don’t mess about. I park my car or get off at the bus stop and I go straight to the venue, where I stay until the gig ends. Then I get the hell out of there.
One thing that some of you may not know is that I have driven a maxi taxi on and off for many years. These days I just do Sunday nights, but for much of last year, during the economic crisis and with writing commissions having all but dried up, I was driving entire weekends.
I can tell you, on a purely anecdotal level, that I have certainly witnessed an increase in levels of violence in the Valley over the years. It was rare for me to pass by the junction of Ann and Brunswick Street on any given Saturday night last year without seeing an ambulance and police vehicles present. I’ve seen brawls, king-hits by punters and bouncers, people being loaded into ambulances after glassings.
“Fortitude Valley on a Saturday night now looks more like the nightclub strip of Surfers Paradise than a live music hub. There are actually less live venues in the precinct than there were 10 years ago.”
On one occasion, those hair-trigger tendencies touched me on a more personal level. I was driving between Fortitude Valley and the city on a Saturday afternoon, about 4.30pm, when a group of young men hailed me. I swerved over to collect them, cutting across a lane of traffic as I did so, and once I pulled over they laughed their heads off. This mild prank escalated into one of those stupid male pissing-matches, with one member of the group and me trading insults, so I must take some responsibility – I should have just got out of there.
Either way, what I didn’t expect was for this guy to suddenly take a run at the cab, and me, and as I put my foot back down on the accelerator, he slammed his fist through the driver’s side passenger window, which shattered in a hail of glass throughout the cabin.
Let me tell you, it takes a considerable amount of force to smash the window of a minivan. As I drove off and he walked away as though nothing had happened, his arm was coated in blood from his elbow to his fingertips.
He came out of it second best though. He copped a wilful damage charge and on top of that spent the next three days in hospital, nursing some quite nasty self-inflicted injuries. Me, I just lost a night’s takings. That was, remember, at 4.30pm in the afternoon!
I’m lucky. I haven’t been robbed, assaulted nor had a knife stuck in my ribs yet. But this upsurge in alcohol-fuelled violence has knock-on effects. It doesn’t just threaten my safety and yours on a night out. It also has the potential to threaten live music in the Valley.
A recent parliamentary inquiry has made 68 recommendations to state parliament, among them a proposal to shift the current 3am nightclub lockout time to midnight and shutdown time to 2am.
One can only hope that the government has been taking note of recent events in Melbourne, where an appallingly written piece of licensing law has thrown into question the very survival of Melbourne’s live music scene.
The law is as bad a piece of legislation as you can get. Taking a one-size-fits-all approach, it attaches high-risk conditions to live music venues, despite there being no evidence that the violence we are seeing is in any way associated with live music.
People go to gigs for one primary reason: to listen to music. Call me naive, but considerations of drinking and drugging one’s head off are usually secondary in my experience.
Slightly weedy, arty-farty music fans aren’t generally the types who want to get into a bit of biffo anyway. That seems to me to be more of a nightclub phenomenon. However, the law as it currently stands in Victoria requires venues to hire security for any musical act – even for an acoustic singer-songwriter solo set.
And the increase in licensing fees for those watering holes that stay open later – a critical time for live venues, as the musicians themselves wind down after a gig – has driven some operators to the wall.
You don’t want to piss off Melbourne musicians and punters. Melbourne rightly prides itself as one of the great live music cities in the world. The closure of iconic Collingwood venue The Tote in January has galvanised the local community.
In February, thousands of Melbourne music fans, along with some of the country’s best known musicians, protested the legislation in grand style: the RocKwiz orchestra recreated the classic clip for AC/DC’s ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’, leading a rally through the city from the top of a flatbed truck.
The Victorian government is still dealing with the fallout from this piece of untrammelled idiocy. Here is a classic case of an administration that has lost touch with its grassroots community so completely that it effectively has no idea of the role music plays in its own capital, supposedly the arts centre of the country.
In the words of Deborah Conway, “If you take away the cultural heart of a city, all that’s left are more opportunities for anti-social behaviour.” Not to mention the jobs lost, income forfeited and dreams shattered by the ruination of one of our most vibrant creative exports.
If you want to see what that kind of future looks like, go to Sydney – in the early ’80s a music Mecca to rival New York and London; now not much more than a bank of poker machines.
In early 2007, American music industry rag Billboard nominated Brisbane as one of the five music hotspots of the world. We can forgive the Yanks for being a bit slow on the uptake – it was more a recognition of Brisbane’s musical past than its present – but make no mistake; Brisbane’s music has garnered an international reputation.
I understand that Anna Bligh is quite a fan of Ed Kuepper, the Saints and local music generally. She’s a smart woman, our Anna, but she needs to channel a bit of our old friend the Bundaberg Bear here, and offer the local music scene some reassurance that she’s on our side.
I’d like to wrap up this talk with a few more general remarks about politics in Queensland post-Pig City, since the political life of the state was such an important theme of the book.
Apart from a brief glitch between 1996 and 1998, Labor has been in power for 21 years in Queensland. It is the perpetuation of a long and unfortunate state trend of long-serving and seemingly omnipotent governments dominating over divided and nearly irrelevant oppositions.
Faced with insoluble issues – the National Party’s declining rural base and the Liberal Party’s chronic inability to get its act together north of the Tweed – the state divisions of the two parties merged to form the LNP (Liberal National Party) in July 2008.
Queenslanders can only hope that this new party will at least provide a more credible and robust alternative government than has been the case for the last two decades. The signs thus far are not promising.
As I have warned previously, a lack of effective opposition in government leads inevitably to complacency, to administrative decay, to bad decision-making, and to corruption. Maybe not the dumb-arsed obvious corruption that we saw in the ’80s, the kind where Russ Hinze would double-dare us to find any of the illegal casinos and brothels lit up like Christmas trees in the Valley. But corruption nonetheless.
So much so that Tony Fitzgerald QC, on the 20th anniversary of the handing down of his celebrated report into political and police corruption, declared that Queensland had “joined the mainstream of political malpractice” and was slipping back to the dark old days.
Of course, things aren’t quite as uncivilised as they were. Most notably, the police don’t run the show any more – unless, of course, you’re unfortunate enough to be an Aboriginal person living on Palm Island.
Yet over the last two decades, we have seen the re-establishment of secrecy in government business, where requests made under Freedom of Information legislation are denied by a simple run of documents through the cabinet room, ensuring their restricted classification.
Both sides of politics talk in lofty terms of reforming political fundraising – as long as they are in opposition. Labor long ago squibbed any good intentions.
As Fitzgerald puts it: “Access can now be purchased, patronage is dispensed, mates and supporters are appointed and retired politicians exploit their connections to obtain ‘success fees’ for deals between business and government.
“Neither side of politics is interested in these issues except for short-term political advantage as each enjoys or plots impatiently for its turn at the privileges and opportunities which accompany power.”
To Anna Bligh’s credit, as recently as late last year she talked boldly about reforming this area, and submissions have been made to the premier’s department. I eagerly await the outcome, but if she fails to deliver, the best that can be said is she would hardly be Robinson Crusoe in this regard.
An entire generation has grown up since the fall of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government, a generation that as far as I can tell was taught nothing and possibly cares even less about the enduring lessons of his infamous regime.
Older readers of Pig City typically feel a sense of validation in their youthful opposition to Joh, as they should. But validation is not enough; the step beyond that is vigilance.
The most important lesson is how easily and quickly a liberal democracy can decay into a quasi-fascist state.
I’d like to thank you all for coming today, and to the State Library of Queensland for giving me the opportunity to speak about some of these very important issues.