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What was the golden decade for clubbing in Australia? For most of us, the answer is personal: the best years followed our 18th birthday, when clubs and festivals were new and charged with possibility.
If we zoom out of our own lives, though, the conclusion isn’t quite as clear-cut. That’s why we’re taking a practical look at the question, decade by decade, from the 1980s through to today. We’ve narrowed our focus to Australia’s three biggest cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – and done the surface-skimming Cliffs Notes version.
Dive in below, and we’ll see you in the comments section to determine the victorious decade.
Sydney’s gay club scene took off in the early ’80s, as disco progressed into the halcyon days of house. While the likes of Patchs and the Exchange pushed great underground music, one of the more ostentatious clubs of the decade was Stranded, which occupied the entire lower level of the Strand Arcade. Stranded gleefully turned its nose up at disco, and the music played there was as wildly eclectic as the crowd.
Then, in the late ‘80s, came the large-scale parties at The Hordern Pavilion like RAT and Sweatbox, which channelled the spirit of acid house into some of the best all-nighters Sydney has ever seen.
Further Reading: Jim Poe’s oral history of the Sydney rave scene on Red Bull Music is a must-read. Also check out Sweatbox organiser Richard Weiss looking back in conversation with Sydney DJ Mark Murphy.
Watch This: This video captures the energy of the Sydney rave scene from 1988 into the early ’90s, and it’s glorious.
The ’80s saw Brisbane’s nightlife come into its own. The clubs that sprung up during this decade are too numerous to list, but Tracks, the Majestic Hotel, Transformers Nightclub, The Rhythm Zone and Whispers (which burned bright from 1979 to 1983) were among the frontrunners. The Beat, Brisbane’s longest-running dance club, also got going in 1983.
This was the synth-pop era too, and Brisbane had its own star in David Smith, whose group Boxcar arrived in 1988 with “Freemason (You Broke The Promise)”.
Watch this: You can probably tell from this TV ad that Images – which took over from Top of the State in the SGIO building – wasn’t the city’s coolest club. It was, however, unquestionably ’80s.
The true dawning of Melbourne’s club scene occurred in the ’80s. The likes of Razor and Inflation were a beacon for the city’s cool kids, who danced to post-punk, pop, disco and early house.
In 1987, the iconic Palace Theatre was remodelled as the Metro Nightclub (complete with a TV broadcast), followed by the acid house Summer of Love sweeping into Melbourne in ’88/’89. DJs weren’t stuck in just one tempo, clubs were packed, and the makings of a world-renowned scene were underway.
Watch this: Surreal as it now seems, in the ’80s it was normal for Molly Meldrum to host a (cringey) Channel 10 broadcast from the Metro’s opening party.
Sydney DJ Abel called the first Happy Valley in 1991 “our generation’s Woodstock”. The all-night open-air rave outside Sydney built on the energy of the Hordern massives, ushering in a new decade of DIY parties.
With warehouses being co-opted all over Sydney, the club scene also strengthened around Oxford Street and the Cross. As a new wave of raves turned towards harder sounds, the late ‘90s ushered in one of Sydney’s most influential tech-house club nights, Tweekin. This was also the decade of Vibes on a Summer’s Day, Sublime at Pitt Street, the first party for Sydney’s event powerhouse Fuzzy, and so much more.
Further Reading: Jim Poe’s exhaustive oral history of the Sydney rave scene.
Hear This: Sugar Ray’s set from Tweekin’s reunion in 2015. Feelgood ‘90s vibes abound.
After the breakout decade of the ’80s, Brisbane’s nightlife deepened in the era of rave. Important music venues of the decade included The Funkyard and indie hangout Ric’s, whose Sunday house and garage party Groove Kitchen was headed by Brisbane originators Stuart Dufty and DJ Angus.
Like Sydney and Melbourne, though, a lot of the ’90s action went on outside traditional venues. The defining event was Strawberry Fields in 1994, an open-air rave that put Queensland on the map.
Further Reading: Our oral history of the first Strawberry Fields, as told by the people who made it happen.
Watch This: For some incredible and very Australian ‘90s rave nostalgia, check out this behind the scenes video from Strawberry Fields II.
Too much happened in ’90s Melbourne to confine to a paragraph, but let’s just skim the surface. Australia’s first techno residency launched at the Commerce Club in 1991, the likes of MUD and Hardware staged legendary raves, and the gay scene developed iconic spots including Three Faces and Fantasia.
With thriving clubs and an underground rave culture, Melbourne earned its name Techno City, as the likes of Carl Cox, Derrick May and Luke Slater sung its praises. In 1998, the Apollo Festival – a joint effort by a consortium of Melbourne promoters – brought Daft Punk to Australia for the first time.
Watch This: THUMP’s half-hour documentary on Melbourne’s ‘90s rave scene.
Sydney’s outdoor festival culture truly arrived in 2000s, as Fuzzy led the charge with Field Day, Harbourlife, Parklife, Summer Breaks and more. Then came Good Vibrations Festival in ’04, and the list of summer competitors only balloons from there.
In the clubs, breakbeat and progressive house reigned supreme, before the Modular and Bang Gang electro sound swept in. It was the decade of fluoro, Daft Punk’s pyramid tour, a robust weekly clubbing culture, and the peak of legendary Sydney club The Globe.
Further Reading: Sydney breaks authority Kid Kenobi on what made the early 2000s so magical for dance music.
Hear This: The options for 2000s nostalgia are endless, but this ‘07 mixtape from the late, great Ajax is a corker.
Breakbeat and bass music found a happy home in Brisbane during the early 2000s. With local acts like Resin Dogs, Soma Rasa, Kid Kay Ferris and later Bitrok leading the way, a host of international acts made their first trips out to Brisbane.
One of the best and most fondly-remembered clubs in the Valley was the Empire Hotel’s MoonBar. This was also the decade that Family and The Met solidified their place as the Valley’s mega-clubs, where they remain today. Away from the clubs, outdoor festivals became entrenched as a summer tradition, with the nearby Gold Coast hosting both the Big Day Out (RIP) and Summafieldayze (also RIP).
Further Reading: Music writer Kris Swales on seven great moments in Brisbane’s dance history.
The decade that solidified Melbourne as Australia’s club capital. Honkytonks, Revolver and Mercat Basement were firing every weekend, with house, techno, breaks and more pushed by their resident DJs. The early 2000s also put Melbourne’s progressive talent on the world stage, as Phil K, Anthony Pappa, Luke Chable and co. outclassed the international competition.
Outside the clubs, local collective The Avalanches released their seminal album Since I Left You, dedicated dance festivals including Two Tribes and Summadayze blew up, and the likes of Cut Copy led a new indie-dance movement.
Further Reading: Red Bull Music Academy’s excellent oral history of Honkytonks.
Unfortunately the stickiest word so far this decade has been “lockouts”. The NSW government’s legislation has more or less gutted the club district Kings Cross, pushing parties further out. That fight is ongoing, but the city now boasts a resilient underground party scene, with house and techno fans particularly well catered for.
The other major theme of this decade has been the peak of mega-festivals (say, 2010-2014) followed by their precipitous decline. When Future Music Festival and Stereosonic loomed large on the summer calendar, club culture in Sydney took a hit, and the course correction is still playing out today.
Further Reading: Our look at how the fall of the Australian mega-festival changed Australia’s summers.
Just like Sydney and Melbourne, Brisbane went all-in on huge dance music festivals in the early part of the decade. Now, with the likes of Stereosonic, FMF and Big Day Out gone, the focus is back on more tailored summer festivals like Laneway and FOMO.
The nightlife scene has evolved as well, with pop-up events and house parties taking some shine away from weekly clubbing. While Brisbane still loves its bass and big-room sounds (The Met and Family are testament to that), a strong house and techno scene has developed as well thanks to crews like Auditree and Dragonfruit.
Watch This: Spend a quick minute inside Brisbane’s down-and-dirty The TBC Club, where a lot of international DJ tours stop.
Some iconic Melbourne venues have been lost, but the city’s scene keeps regenerating. Without the restrictions that plague Sydney, Victoria’s capital is spoiled for club destinations, with stalwarts like Revolver and Brown Alley joined by an injection of newcomers.
A network of promoters, venues and one-off parties also keeps Melbourne’s underground scene bubbling. The bursting of the mega-festival bubble has allowed boutique festivals in and around Melbourne to flourish, from firm favourites (Rainbow Serpent, Strawberry Fields) to new arrivals (Babylon, Pitch). In short, Melbourne keeps doing Melbourne.
Watch This: This after-movie for the Strawberry Fields festival, a few hours drive from Melbourne, shows off the good times Victorians are accustomed to.