Get instant access to Melbourne’s celebrated music scene
I am standing at Australia’s rock ’n’ roll ground zero: Melbourne’s AC/DC Lane, under a new sculpture of the band’s dearly departed former lead singer, Bon Scott. The laneway is slathered in graffiti, including a mural in honor of AC/DC guitarist Malcolm Young, which sprang up overnight when his death was reported late last year. The rest of the laneway has gig posters peeling off like sunburned skin and junk sculptures nailed to the brick; and there is even a secret Banksy hidden around the corner, past some dumpsters.
The name of this laneway was changed from the far more staid Corporation Lane in October 2004, and across the bluestone cobbles from where I stand is the entrance to Cherry Bar, an establishment that bills itself as “pretty much the best rock ’n’ roll bar in the world”. It might be tongue-in-cheek, but owner James Young has plenty of street cred for putting live music on at the bar 365 days a year — he wouldn’t even stop the rock for Lady Gaga. Six years ago, when she wanted the dark and dingy, 200-capacity bar all to herself for an after-party, James said OK, but she had to be out by 9pm so local band Jackson Firebird could play their pre-booked set. The exchange made headlines worldwide and Gaga came back two years later as a patron and danced on the bar to show there were no hard feelings.
James tells me that the new Bon Scott sculpture was part of a government initiative to activate the laneways that Melbourne is so famous for. As part of the “Rocking the Laneways” push, he proposed a memorial to the legendary AC/DC frontman, and called in his regular collaborator, street artist Makatron from Everfresh Studio.
“I said, ‘Have this idea: picture Han Solo at the end of Empire Strikes Back trapped in carbonite, and he’s coming out of the wall,’” he says, pointing proudly at the artwork, a lean figure appearing to burst out of the brick wall. “And there it is: Ronald Belford Scott who emigrated from Scotland when he was six years of age and grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne in Sunshine.”
“When he found himself in AC/DC, they lived in St Kilda (a buzzy seaside suburb) and they wrote the first two albums on their kitchen table about Melbourne personalities like Rosie,” James continues, referring to the subject of the song “Whole Lotta Rosie”. “And famously, just a stone’s throw from here, they filmed one of the most famous rock ’n’ roll clips of all time for ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n’ Roll)’ on Swanston Street.”
There is no doubt that Melbourne’s laneways rock; they are packed with coffee shops, restaurants from celebrity chefs and hole-in-the-wall bars that hold just a handful of people. But there is also plenty of live music, from spontaneous rap battles breaking out in bars like Section 8, a shipping container bar in Tattersalls Lane to music and cocktails at the Toff in Town on Swanston Street.
Melbourne is arguably Australia’s music capital but — over a beer or two in one of the city’s 465 live music venues — you could also argue it is one of the best music cities anywhere. That number is more venues than New York, Paris or London, and the state of Victoria as a whole sees 12.5 million people attend 62,000 gigs every year. Music courses through the streets of Melbourne, a key factor in keeping the city center’s heart beating well into the wee hours. As an acknowledgment of this, the city hosted the global Music Cities Convention last month, joining the likes of Memphis and Berlin on the world stage.
For the audiophiles among Melbourne visitors, there is a recently added one-stop shop to take it all in: the Australian Music Vault. Housed in the Arts Centre on the Yarra River, just a drumstick’s throw from AC/DC Lane, this collection of music memorabilia, video clips and interactive displays charts the history of Australian music from early rock ’n’ roll to Melbourne’s DIY punk scene that produced international artists like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
I make the short walk over the Yarra River from Cherry Bar to check out outlandish outfits from pop sensation Kylie Minogue, see the social activism of bands like Midnight Oil and understand how bands like INXS (arguably one of Australia’s top musical exports) carved a path on the international scene and introduced the world to the idea of an Australian sound.
The exhibition is free and has great interactive elements like the opportunity to make your own mixtape; tap your AMV Mixtape card to collect songs that you hear on your journey through the Vault, and the songs will be emailed to you as a Spotify playlist when you leave. And this is just the tip of the memorabilia iceberg; the Vault is part of the Performing Arts Collection that has another 680,000 items in a secret stash not far from where you are standing. Items include Bon Scott’s leather jacket still smelling of cigarettes and sweat (they don’t launder the clothes), Nick Cave’s diaries where he worked out his song lyrics and even Kylie Minogue’s famous gold hotpants from her “Spinning Around” video.
Bruce Milne is an Australian music historian who runs new monthly bus tours in conjunction with the Vault. Bruce has started record labels, managed bands, run record shops and been the licensee for one of the city’s most famous live music venues, the Tote. In 2010, when the government threatened the Tote with closure, thousands of people took to the streets to save it, starting the SLAM (Save Live Australia’s Music) movement that remains strong today.
The Melbourne Music Bus Tour includes sites like St Kilda’s famous venues the Esplanade Hotel (aka the Espy) and the Crystal Ballroom, as well as Bakehouse Studios in Richmond, where some of the biggest names in the world have recorded. On each bus tour, Bruce is also joined by a few unannounced stars of the Melbourne music scene who add their own stories to the mix.
Bruce believes a keen sense of community and a shared passion for music here will ensure that Melbourne stays among the most vibrant music cities in the world, and he loves that the scene keeps changing and evolving. His is not a musical history tour but a live look at a city in thrall to three-chord riffs and beautiful harmonies.
“I have never seen as diverse a range of great music as there is right now; there is great hip-hop, great indie rock, there is great electronica,” Bruce says. “When you look at artists like Marlon Williams, Courtney Barnett, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard and Camp Cope; they are all breaking now overseas. This is not like Midnight Oil and Men at Work with huge money behind them either; this is independent artists making it on their own. I have always stayed in the music industry because I knew Melbourne was going to be the next big music city, and that is happening right now.”
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Where to soak it up in the city
- Cherry Bar. On May 6, James Young and crew will close off AC/DC Lane for Cherry Rock, a full-day festival of hard rock headlined by Australian punk legends the Cosmic Psychos. AC/DC Lane; cherrybar.com.au
- The Tote. This grungy pub in Collingwood became the lightning rod for the current resurgence of live music in Australia when thousands protested to save it from closure. The Tote has a host of local and international performers playing to packed crowds most nights — and the roster of acts that got their start here is legion. 67–71 Johnston St, Collingwood; thetotehotel.com
- The Corner Hotel. Regularly appearing on concert rag Pollstar’s list of the world’s top live music clubs based on tickets sales, the Corner Hotel features a range of music from rock to hip-hop as well as international tours. May highlights: a 25th anniversary show by veteran rock band the Whitlams (May 9 to 12) and young indie rockers Middle Kids (May 23 and 26). 57 Swan St, Richmond; cornerhotel.com
- 170 Russell. This basement venue in the center of Melbourne has tiered flooring and plenty of angles to grab a look at the band, plus multiple bars to keep the drinks flowing. May highlights: local dance-pop act Confidence Man (May 20) and heavy rockers DZ Deathrays (May 23). 170 Russell St; 170russell.com
- Arts Centre Melbourne. Home to the Australian Music Vault and the Melbourne Music Bus Tour, the Arts Centre also hosts large-scale concerts. 100 St Kilda Rd; artscentremelbourne.com.au
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What does Melbourne sound like? Load your streaming service with this list of greatest hits and find out:
- “Melbourne” by The Whitlams. Love song to the Victorian capital by a Sydney band
- “Four Seasons in One Day” by Crowded House. All about the Melbourne weather where you need a jacket, sunnies, a rain coat and shorts — all in 24 hours
- “Depreston” by Courtney Barnett. Mournful ballad about trying to survive as an artist as the city gets more expensive.
- “All Torn Down” by The Living End. Angry anthem protesting the city’s inevitable march towards gentrification.
- “Old Fitzroy” by Dan Sultan. Indigenous rocker’s smooth story of growing up in what is now one of Melbourne’s hippest hoods — there’s a great video to match.
- “The Opener” by Camp Cope. Melbourne trio’s powerful track about how women are treated in the local music scene. See also: their track “Footscray Station”
- “Concrete Jungle” by Diafrix. Melbourne hip-hop duo from the western suburbs celebrating the city’s diversity.
This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of Smile magazine.