The birth of Sydney clubbing as told by Stephen Allkins

Stephen Allkins (AKA [Love] Tattoo) is considered by those who know as dance-music royalty in Sydney. Delve a little into his long, long career and you start to understand why. He was dancing to disco before it was even called that as a teenager on the burgeoning gay scene in mid-’70s Darlinghurst. Soon his passion for the music – and his growing record collection – led him to get behind the decks and take on a number of residencies. For decades afterwards, Allkins ruled as an innovator on his hometown scene – helping to break successive waves of crucial new sounds to the clubbing masses both gay and straight, from garage to electro and postpunk to house.

At the turn of the millennium, Allkins applied his long experience to finally producing his own tracks as [Love] Tattoo. Beginning with 1999’s History of Disco on Pete Tong’s Essential imprint, Allkins’ output led to a series of hit records, wider recognition on the international stage, and a 2001 Dance Music Award for Outstanding Contribution to Dance in Australia. He’s now happily semi-retired, playing just a few times a year – including next week at Soul of Sydney’s “disco boogie block party” with Dutch funkmeister Marcel Vogel.

As an expat I had a lot to learn about Allkins’ 35 years of moving bodies on the dancefloors of Sydney, so I jumped at the chance to talk to him in person. The warm, gregarious and wryly funny Allkins sat down with me in his Darlinghurst flat one afternoon and, with hardly any prompting, proceeded to spin one fascinating tale after another about the early days. His enthusiasm for nightlife and music of all kinds is infectious – and his knowledge of classic records is encyclopaedic. But it’s not mere nostalgia – his reminiscences are filled with eerily sharp and clear glimpses of what the music meant to not only a city but a world exploding with cultural, political and sexual awareness.

What was the scene like in the ‘70s in Sydney?

There wasn’t really a scene in the ‘70s. There was really only one gay club. But it was one of the best clubs I’ve ever been to in my life. [It was called] Patchs. I was 15, and I’d left school in Year 10, because I just didn’t want to learn anymore, I wanted to be in the world. And my best friend [and] cousin – we were both gay but we didn’t tell each other – he started going to a public school in 1976. So our whole lives changed because he was introduced to gay people, drugs and sex at school. And these outrageous kids…

“I walked in at the age of 15 and it changed my whole life…and the music the DJ played was flawless.”

One night, one of the gay kids [said], “I’m taking you to a gay club.” And we fell into this club called Patchs, which I didn’t even know existed – it was before Oxford Street was Oxford Street. And I walked in at the age of 15 and it changed my whole life, because I discovered real gay, real music, sex, everything, all in one night. And the music the DJ played was flawless. And I went, “I’m home.” And you know, the DJ that played there – his name was Lee Reiger – would play five-hour sets Friday and Saturday from 10 until 3, and he was already in the record pools in America in 1976. Never played anything on the Top 40 – nothing. And he would play one set on a Friday night, and you wouldn’t hear the same records on a Saturday.

What kind of music? What were some of the tracks?

Well, I could give you a whole lot of titles… Song of India by World War II was huge. Turn on to Love by Jumbo was huge. I just hit at such a great time, just as Giorgio [Moroder] was hitting, just as the European sound was hitting. There was the Munich sound, there was the Montreal sound, there was the New York sound – and you knew them. When you’d hear Boney M, as opposed to Giorgio Moroder, or Silver Convention as opposed to The Hustle, or as opposed to Philly. I was discovering this naturally, not as a trend, because there was no trend. And so you just loved whatever – I loved music from the time I was born more than anything. And so to fall into this place – I went, “Oh my God,” From day one I fell into it, and [Reiger] was my first big influence.

And there were import stores in Australia in ‘76. They were small, but they were good, and so they had disco/funk as well as rock and stuff like that. There was all that Philly, funk… It was all meshing in together. The thing that brought disco together – I’ll never forget – was the kick. And the first official disco record I ever heard was Come Into My Heart by the USA/European Connection, which is a Boris Midney production. And what differentiated that from any other record I’d ever heard was the kick. Because this record – it was 14 minutes long, and it started going just boom boom boom, with nothing, just a kick, and I went, “What the fuck’s that?” And that was when disco hit, for me, with that [kick].

It was all funky and Philly and this and that, and it was all leading to [disco], right at the same time… Things like Turn on to Love by Jumbo, which was another 15-minute [record], very sexy, a bit more Euro, a bit Love to Love You Baby. The length of records started it. And then Giorgio hit you with From Here to Eternity and I Feel Love. You heard so much. Chic came out in 1976, which sounded like nothing else you’d ever heard. So I’m hearing all this, and just sucking it all in.

[Reiger] left and came back a couple of years later, and he’s still playing all the bombs – but then playing Neon Lights by Kraftwerk in the middle of the night, and Miss You by the Rolling Stones… Dolly Parton had a disco record. The good stuff, they were great records – still are great records.

So you didn’t need a scene in the ‘70s, you just needed one place to go to… Patchs was the one great club, and when Lee went, it died.

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