Leichhardt is in Sydney’s inner west. Leichhardt’s council area is a collection of peninsular enclaves, remnants of the great Italian immigration wave of the 50s and 60s, the new North Shore of Sydney in the form of Annandale, two brilliant transitional suburbs in Rozelle and Lilyfield, and it borders Sydney’s new north-south divide: Parramatta Road.
Across Parramatta Road in our beloved Marrickville, we sniggered when Leichhardt’s state seat of Balmain split three ways in the last election – almost equal shares for the Labor Party, Greens and the conservative Liberal Party. (Marrickville’s Conservative vote was about 16%, easily the lowest in the whole state, and remarkable given the landslide the Liberals were enjoying – they don’t call us the People’s Republic of Marrickville for nothing).
The gentrification in Leichhardt has been manifesting itself in many ways, sadly one of which is the war against music. Don’t get me wrong, Marrickville has faced similar issues, and will continue to do so. Save the Sando, and all that – at least it’s going to remain a music venue. Tim Freedman of the Whitlams had a horror run with his live venue on Sth King Street. The last few weeks has seen a history war of sorts, about the day the music died in Leichhardt, and the new Mayor’s plan to bring it back to life. The iconic live venue the Annandale Hotel has recently changed hands, allegedly primarily because Council would not approve a later trading licence, due to a few residents’ complaints. I think that’s the gist, it’s been a long story with court cases. Public opinion seems on the side of the former owners, the Rule brothers.
The Labor Mayor Darcy Byrne recently floated a proposal to entrench that area around the Annandale Hotel, along Sydney’s love-to-hate strip Parramatta Road, as a dedicated live music precinct. That would provide certainty to residents, business owners, and make resolution of disputes easier. There was talk of turning the area into New Orleans, minus the floods I guess. I think they were talking about the all night cluster of venues and related businesses.
I’ve got history with Parramatta Road. Anyone who has worked in transport or city planning has been roped in at some stage to the ongoing soul-searching into Parramatta Road. The Parramatta Road Taskforce from 2003-5 had a red hot go at reinvigorating the road. There were some great some ideas, some fruit loop stuff, and most of the smoke seemed to be about making a proposed super-motorway palatable. Here we are 10 years later, the motorway proposal is government policy, so the discussion turns back to Parramatta Road.
But this idea is a bit different. It’s not your bog-standard developer wank about how the motorway will calm the streets and create new urbanist heaven for the residents. Oh, and the 100,000 or so extra people that might be plonked along the route.
Back in the day, I think we had a pretty mature understanding that big, wealthy cities like Sydney will have some busy, nasty streets like Parramatta Road. But with the congestion and the blight comes economic opportunity, for businesses such as bulky goods suppliers, for specialty shops capitalising on the drive-by exposure and the cheaper rent. And for deviant activities, things that smell, and are loud, like your average inner city band and followers. These sorts of places were termed “enterprise corridors”.
Such is Parramatta Road, which for more than 200 years has connected Sydney’s CBD to the burgeoning west, facilitating economic activity. It’s always had a healthy live music scene: in the late 80s, when I peaked, you could trawl along from East to West and find, within 50 yards or so of the Road:
- the Graphic Arts Club
- the sublime and unfortunate Phoenician Club, where Nirvana and My Bloody Valentine played
- the Lansdowne Hotel, on the corner of City Road
- the Manning Bar in Sydney University
- the Annandale Hotel
- the Empire Hotel in Leichhardt, with its blues and rockabilly emphasis
- the Bald Faced Stag
- in Petersham, Max’, scene of some of the great gigs (Falling Joys, Cruel Sea, Bughouse, June 1990). And it’s even grungier spinoff, the Pismo Bar.
There were music festivals in the 1970s at Victoria Park.
There’s a swag of hotels further west, generally on the corners of the roads that lead down to the nearby suburbs, such as Burwood and Croydon. There are lots of small acts that perform here. We tended to never go that far, for some reason there was an outpost of the inner west scene up along Victoria Road (Banjo’s at Gladesville, Tracks at Epping).
If you look far enough afield, Parramatta Road leads to the super venues such as Acer at Olympic Park.
So, the Mayor’s plan is partly an acknowledgement of a pre-existing truth. Parramatta Road has always been a music precinct. And it’s nice to see someone planning to build on existing strengths, rather than try and engineer the impossible. His idea is to strengthen further the area’s identity – probably revolving around branding, as with the existing Newtown/Enmore road Entertainment Precinct, maybe some changes to Council regulations and policies, and potentially some facilitation of new music-related business growth (guitar shops, recording studios etc).
I would go further. Why not look to the east for inspiration, where the City of Sydney recently painted a rainbow pedestrian crossing for the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Parramatta Road has six lanes, a guitar has 6 strings: why not paint the tablature to famous Sydney songs along the route… You Am I’s Berlin Chair, perhaps. A bar chord out the front of every bar.
If we can guarantee safety for the hearing and seeing impaired, I would program the walk signal buttons at major intersections to pump out dance hits, such as Single Gun Theory, or Itch-E and Scratch-E.
Eventually, some truly innovative composer will capture the cacophony above, her Symphony #5 for strings and wings being performed live on the corner of Johnston St, rising and falling with the grind of the Singapore 767 and mellowing with the gentle wheesh of the Emirates A380.
The last thing I would do is rename the road. It’s one of my bugbears, these ancient namings, Parramatta Road comes from the time when it was the one road to Parramatta, which itself was “somewhere else”. There are now about 12 major roads that connect Parramatta around the clockface to its catchment. It could just as easily be called City Rd – but we already have one of those. Maybe a competition, there’s an AC/DC Lane in Melbourne and the Go Betweens Bridge in Brisbane, there must be a suitably musical name for this major artery? Part Desolation Row, part Yellowbrick Road. The Low Road from the Beasts of Bourbon is my best suggestion, I would love to hear yours.
Lighting should feature, it should be gaudy and garish and gauche. A neon strip. You should be able to see it from space. And Annandale. Every now and then there should be a strobe light, accompanied by the guitar solo in the Church’s Tantalised.
Eventually, when we decide we don’t want to be the only rich city of 6 million people in the world without a Metro, you might even able to glide along the precinct from station to station, each named after some suitable musical icon, venue, or maybe even just notes in a progression – Em, A, D etc etc.
Anyway, it’s gonna be great, you are right to be cynical about the genesis and the timing, but it seems to me the best, the only future for Parramatta Road. And it doesn’t mean getting into bed with a $16BN publicly subsidised private sector motorway abhorrence, the beautifully mis-named WestConnex.
Let me know what you think of the plan, how you would help build the precinct, and what you would call the artist formerly known as Parramatta Road… first right of reply goes to Mad Gorilla, from 1983…