Double Take #3: Star Hotel Riot/East
ANDREW RAMADGE looks at two interconnected Australian works: The Star Hotel riot (1979) and Cold Chisel’s 'East' (1980).
“Between school and a shifting future it was most of all we had.”
Newcastle is an industrial city on the coast of New South Wales, about two hours north of Sydney. It lies horizontally on the Hunter River where it meets the ocean. There are two main streets in the centre of town – Hunter and King – that run parallel to the water all the way from Wickham to the point. In the West End there used to be a sprawling hotel – more like a collection of buildings than a single one – that stretched an entire block from one street to the other. It was called The Star.
During the 1970s, The Star Hotel became famous for its mix of clientele. There were three different bars, each with its own entrance and subculture, with lattice walls between them. Sailors and criminals drank in the front bar. In the middle were drag queens and queers. And the back bar was a rock’n’roll venue. Over time, the lattice rotted away and was removed, leaving the surfies, rockers, queers, pimps and other misfits to mingle a little more than they had before. It was a haven of counterculture in an otherwise conservative town.
By the time of the riot, they’d already cleared out the gays. The year before, new management had taken out full page ads in the Newcastle Herald to tell homosexual drinkers they were no longer welcome at the bar as part of a campaign dubbed “the pub with no queers”. Then, in 1979, it was time for the rest of the riff-raff to go as well. Licensing authorities decided the hotel needed renovations to continue trading. Its owner, beer brewer Tooth & Co, decided to shut it down. The publican and punters were given one week’s notice.
During that week, more than 10,000 people signed a petition to keep the hotel open. About half that number showed up for the last round. The band who were to see The Star off were local rock and roll favourites Heroes. Towards the end of their set, shortly before 10pm – when the pub was due to shut – police approached the stage and demanded that the musicians stop playing. They were in the middle of their final song. The crowd went wild, for all the wrong reasons. Some began chanting “kill the cops”.
Heroes stopped playing for a while, but then returned to the stage for an encore. They said later that they actually wanted to avert a riot. But their choice of song probably speaks for itself. It was a regular inclusion in their set, and had nothing to do with the hotel itself, but just happened to be called ‘The Star And The Slaughter’. Its chorus is this: “I want action/ I want fighting in the streets/ We’re going to take this town by storm/ We’re going to burn this village down…”
Outside, on King St, it had already started. About 40 cops and 5000 angry punters. One dollar cans of beer were thrown like rocks. People locked up in a paddy wagon were broken free by their friends. One police car struck down a civilian. Two others were rolled over and set alight. More than 20 people were taken to hospital with injuries. Most of them were officers. After two hours of anarchy, the crowd was dispersed by the hoses of the fire brigade.
Though they never played at The Star, Cold Chisel decided to immortalise the riot on their third album, East, released the following year. They placed the events of the night in a wider context of unemployment and disenfranchisement, and warned that the violence was “just a taste of things to come”. “Those in charge are getting crazier/Job queues grow through the land/An uncontrolled Youth in Asia/Gonna make those fools understand.” When playing it live, singer Jimmy Barnes dedicated the song to “anybody who’s not really happy with what they got”.
‘Star Hotel’ wasn’t the only song on East inspired by a rebellion, or clashes with the law. ‘Four Walls’ referenced the Bathurst Gaol riots of the 1970s, while ‘Tomorrow’ told the story of an escaped prisoner on the run. But it also represented another of the record’s motifs – the figure of the outsider. That theme was captured best by its first track, ‘Standing On The Outside’. Written, like the others, by Don Walker, it spoke of the isolation of being down and out and different, and the rage that can ensue.
It’s not so hard to imagine Walker as someone who would have frequented The Star, had he been a local. Around the time of the riot, he was living in King’s Cross in a room that cost $17.50 per week, mixing with whores and junkies and oddballs. His recollections of the period, as told in the drifting memoir Shots, describe perfectly the experience of feeling alien. One passage, in particular, is about the realisation that he will never be accepted as an equal – and is, in fact, just an oddity on display.
But if the band had the problem of being misfits struggling to fit in, it was about to get a whole lot worse. East would be Cold Chisel’s biggest album to date, and thrust them squarely into the mainstream. At the 1981 TV Week/*Countdown* music awards, they took out seven different prizes – and refused to personally accept any of them. At the end of the show they played the final track on East, ‘My Turn To Cry’, changing the lyrics into a vicious attack on TV Week and smashing up their instruments as Barnes screamed over and over: “Eat this.”
DOUBLE TAKE #1: Razar/Pig City
DOUBLE TAKE #2: Van Diemen's Land/Gala Mill