Inside Sydney's thriving electronic music scene of the 90s
The following is an excerpt from Music Wars (The Sound Of The Underground) by Rell Hannah, a new book chronicling Central Station Records and the development of the electronic dance music scene in Australia and New Zealand.
While still at high school in 1987, Nik Vatoff (aka Nik Fish) was sneaking over the fence to Hordern Pavilion parties, catching the DJ bug. At home, he would listen to a radio show on 2SER called Madhouse, with Jo Ormston and Guy Perriman playing house music for two hours from 11 o’clock on a Monday night.
When they held competitions, Nik called in so often that he became known as ‘Nik from Manly’. On one occasion when he was about seventeen years old, he won tickets to a RAT party and, unbeknown to this parents, went along with his best mate, Pat Davern (who later became Grinspoon’s lead guitarist).
Standing near the bar, Nik recognised voices nearby.
'Mate, I know those voices,’ he told Pat.
Then it clicked.
‘Are you Jo and Guy?’ he asked the twenty-something radio hosts he’d been ringing all year. ‘I’m Nik from Manly.’
‘Oh my god!’ said Jo Ormston, grabbing his cheeks. ‘Look at you. You’re so young. You shouldn’t be here.’
There was Base in the city, a huge underground warehouse space near Circular Quay called Jamieson Street. There was Ziggurat in Kings Cross, which was a small, dark and dingy venue...Nik Fish — Music Wars: The Sound of the Underground
Nik told her his story – about how crazy he was for radio that he’d been mocking up radio shows since he was twelve years old, using the tape-to-tape recorder and microphone his grandfather had given him.
‘We do programs to help people get into radio,’ the 2SER announcer told him.
Over the next few months, she took Nik under her wing and trained him up on the community radio station. She also introduced him to Central Station’s Pitt Street store, so that he could borrow records for his new Wednesday night show. Not long afterwards, Paul Jackson gave Nik a job there.
After the Hordern Pavilion era, many news clubs opened to cater for the dance explosion.
"The people that were going to parties at the Hordern were forced to decide which club scene they’d go to," he says. "There was Base in the city, a huge underground warehouse space near Circular Quay that used to be called Jamieson Street. Pee Wee Ferris became a resident there. Then there was Ziggurat in Kings Cross, which was a small, dark and dingy venue. There was a lot of choice."
Nik’s big break came from promoter Sean Finlay who was running a night at Kinselas at Taylor Square.
‘I want to push new blood,’ he told Nik. ‘I’m trying to find fresh talent. This is the 90s now. You seem to be into your hip hop. I might be able to offer you a gig if you’re willing to work.’
So Nik ended up playing a five-hour set of hip hop on Saturday nights in the middle bar of Kinselas, while Groove Terminator played house upstairs.
But shortly after turning 19, Nik discovered rave music while visiting his former 2SER mentor in London. When he came back, he got the opportunity to take over a Monday afternoon hip hop slot on 2SER and changed the genre overnight.
"I renamed my show Musiquarium, which is the title of a Stevie Wonder album. I liked it because it alluded to fish," he says. "The show lost all the hip hoppers, but ravey people were ringing up and saying, 'I can’t believe we’re hearing this. This is what they play at parties'. The show was ahead of its time. It was very unusual to play dance music on radio in the early 90s."
Through the show, Nik met promoters and was booked to play at the warehouse parties that sprang up as an alternative to the clubbing scene. Former Central employee Wes McDonald describes the prevailing mood:
"The very nature was, 'Let’s get back to where it’s less organised. We want to get away from the club culture and have our own society'."
In 1990, DJ George Vagas moved from Adelaide to Sydney, bringing the three crates of records he’d bought in London. He knew no one in town but soon attracted attention by setting up his turntables and amplifier at the Bondi skate ramp.
"I got my first nightclub gigs at Spagos, Kinselas, Fishbox, Bentley Bar, Ziggurat, Bondi Hotel, Mars and so on by talking to the owners and promoters of clubs. The rave promoters could recognise the acid house and techno, so that’s when I got my first plays at early raves in 1991, thanks to the promoter of Eden, and Malcolm and Michelle of Deep Joy promotions."
Back then, he says, English promoters and DJs had sewn up all the illegal warehouse parties. So he decided to hold ‘Ravers Playground’ recovery parties at the Graffiti Hall of Fame, a wholesale meatworks owned by Tony Spanos. On Botany Road in Alexandria, it was surrounded by 15-metre-high walls full of graffiti.
"It was Australia’s first outdoor rave recovery," says George. "When the Pommie promoters would finish their warehouse parties at five in the morning, I’d open up, featuring no-name DJs back then. In the coming years, they became some of the biggest promoters and DJs in the next generation of the Sydney rave scene.
"I’m proud to say I gave residencies every Sunday to DJs like Nik Fish, Biz E, Abel, Jumping Jack, Nick TT, Wizard, DB and Techno Terrorists. The Graffiti Hall of Fame later became the rave venue you would go to when your party was closed down or cancelled."
Mark Dynamix was one of those English expats who had the rave scene sewn up according to George. At just 14, he’d persuaded his favourite radio station, 2RDJ FM, to give him work experience.
He’d started out answering the telephone and ended up on air shortly after turning 15 in 1990. He came to the attention of rave promoters through his show, Tuesday Night Rave, and rose to fame playing at raves in Sydney and interstate, following his taste from one sub-genre to another.
"I was involved in one scene in particular in the early-90s, but my music intake was and still is wide and varied, and as the club scene took off in the late-90s, I went where my music tastes wanted to go. So for me, it was acid house and hip house in 1988 and that lasted until about 1992.
"From 92 to 94, there was a lot of Italian house and rave music, and then from 94 to 96, you started having all the early trance records from Germany, so it got a bit faster in tempo. And all of these sub-genres would wave in and out of raves and the clubs."
Katie M Little (aka Plus One) chose her DJ name "to take the piss a bit – it was such a boys’ scene and I didn’t want to be the plus-one on the door list". After leaving school, she discovered rave music in London and built her life in the 90s around it.
Then-boyfriend, now-husband Tim Poulton (aka Mach V) started promoting parties (Jurassic, Itchy and Scratchy, Star Wars) as well as doing a Friday club night (Speed Racer) in Kings Cross. Katie often did the lighting, and teamed up with Tim to start a business designing rave flyers.
"It was brand new and we would go shopping for records at Central Station,’ she remembers. ‘We’d go into one of the little booths under the stairs. Most of that early stuff was Italian that we used to play on full speed. And other stuff being imported from Rotterdam, lots of Dutch happy hard music. And then English breakbeat started coming in. It was really fun. Crazy days."
Back then, the couple lived in a warehouse in the Haymarket area and used a huge vacant allotment behind the Agincourt Hotel for many of their parties. Coming from a theatrical family (her mother is former TV personality Jeanne Little), Katie is a natural storyteller.
"The worst thing was worrying that the cops would shut us down," she says. "Thousands of people jammed full. No safety things. DJs and people dancing off their chops while on scaffolding towers that would be swaying from side to side.
"Cables running along the ground through puddles of water. Looking back, I don’t know why there weren’t people dying all over the place."
A few punters had climbed up onto the speakers and the scaffolding, and it was all bouncing up and down, like we were on a train. It gives me chills even thinking about it.Katie M Little — Music Wars: The Sound of the Underground
There was a strong connection with Central Station. Often George Vagas (from Flipside) would DJ at the events, and Jo and Morgan would come along. The scene was very tribal, with everyone getting right into the look and the moves.
"Mum, who did everything over the top, made my bell-bottom trousers way bigger than everyone else’s," she says.
"I’m a small person anyway, but I used to wear tiny, tight, minute T-shirts and then bell-bottom trousers that went right down to the ground in the mudwhen you were dancing. And I’d be wearing my Vans sneakers – because I was a skateboarder as well.
"Breakbeat especially had a real style. You could dance to it, going from side to side on the offbeat and syncopation.The house DJs were like, 'Oh, we’re too cool for all of that'.
"But it was really cool. And I remember George’s girlfriend, Bridget, and her sister, Caitie. They’d be right down the front dancing, going bananas, like an aerobics workout. And you would dance straight for hours and hours."
But Katie’s favourite memory is of doing the lighting for a Sven Väth gig.
"I really love lighting. I thought it was just as powerful as the music in setting the mood and building stuff up. When the track went totally nuts, you could throw in a strobe light," she says.
"Sven Väth was DJing on the scaffolding beside me in front of a packed crowd who were all so into the music. A few punters had climbed up onto the speakers and the scaffolding, and it was all bouncing up and down, like we were on a train. It gives me chills even thinking about it. It was so much fun."
Mikel Goodman is another rave entrepreneur and flyer designer of the era. From 1988 and throughout the 90s, he progressed through Italian style, hard dance, UK hardcore and freeform at nightclubs and stadiums around Australia, including in Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane,Adelaide, Perth and Cairns.
But he didn’t limit himself to DJing. From 1991 to 1995, he promoted rave parties around Sydney. With names like Space Cadet, Outer Space, Inner Space, and Noddy Has a Party, these events were "all underground stuff, ring on the night to find the location". Illicit though they were, Mikel’s parties were not slapdash. Space Cadet One, for instance, was held in a film studio in Alexandria.
"The DJ booth was on a scissor lift, which lifted the DJ up twenty feet while smoke machines went off. Very space-like," he recalls. "In 1992, it was voted best party in JRA magazine, ahead of huge events like Prodigy and Tribal."
From warehouses in the early days, Mikel moved to bigger, more formal venues (such as Olympic Park, the Tennis Centre and Macquarie University) as the rave scene exploded. Then he turned to designing flyers for other promoters, including Powerhouse events like Utopia and Godspeed.
"I was doing so many parties that my previous designer just couldn’t keep up," he says. "Then other promoters saw my designs and it just worked out from there."
The feeling in the late-80s was 'Everybody’s in this together'. But, by 94, it had become 'What are you going to do to entertain us?'Jon Wicks — Music Wars: The Sound of the Underground
In the early-90s, Jon Wicks moved from Canberra to Sydney, after being hired to advise on sound systems for early Sydney rave parties in Alexandria and Waterloo.
"They were very experimental and the mood was fantastic," he says. By the mid 90s, he too was organising events of his own, but felt that the scene had lost something.
"The feeling back in the late-80s was 'Everybody’s in this together'. But by 94, it had become 'What are you going to do to entertain us?' It was a big change in attitude."
As the dance scene became more popular, the process of fragmentation accelerated. New genres appeared, with many swelling from niche to major popularity – as Jesse Desenberg discovered.
At age 19, he became Kid Kenobi for his first gig, choosing the name for its hip hop vibe. Because his kind of music was still very much on the fringe in the early-90s, he teamed up with friends to promote parties so that they could all get the chance to play. The parties were called Green & Jazzy and the main venue was the Burdekin hotel on Oxford Street.
"At that time, house and rave were the predominant sounds and we were doing drum'n'bass and early breakbeat, hip hop and old school rave," he says. "I was always interested in the black end of dance music. Dad was in reggae bands, and I used to listen to hip hop when I was younger. Then I got into raves."
Around 1996, police cracked down on the illegal parties and the scene died away. Rave DJs started putting on nights in clubs. Nik Fish, for example, began doing a regular Friday night at Sublime in Pitt Street, Sydney.
"The rave scene went a bit happy hardcore, with 180 bpms and kids wearing candy bracelets and jumping up and down like Energiser bunnies, chewing their faces off and sucking dummies. Ravers who were in their mid-20s by then were wondering, 'What’s all this going on?' I rolled with the times and played a bit of that for a while, but I decided I didn’t love it and I got more into German hard trance – sort of the tempo of happy hardcore but a bit darker, moodier."
Mark Dynamix began a regular night at Sublime in 1997.
"That’s when I started playing more house music rather than the faster stuff," he says. "I’m talking progressive house, progressive trance and also some funky house as well. Because I played a lot of different styles and genres, I’d get booked for a wide variety of gigs.
"It doesn’t happen so much with DJs these days. They tend to be pigeonholed by the agents or promoters, or even by themselves or their audiences … but I feel things are changing and DJs are being allowed to express themselves over a range of genres without sacrificing one genre for the other."
By 1998, happy hardcore had reached its peak.
"It got to the point of crossing over – songs getting on to the Top 40 – and it was very visible at street level, especially on Oxford Street," says Wes McDonald. "It was like 1988 came back again ten years later with the smiley face and all that stuff. Central Station licensed a few big tracks like Charly Lownoise & Mental Theo’s 'Wonderful Days' that became Top 40 hits as well."
All this action excited a new generation of dance music lovers. In Sydney’s inner west, an underground dance scene was thriving – with the Equinox dance parties in Five Dock, which catered for the under-18s, figuring among the more notable events.
"It was a very rich, vibrant scene awash with European dance music," says Jim ‘JimmyZ’ Hirst of Wild FM music directing fame. "The style of music was melodic, energetic, fun, uplifting and euphoric. The early-90s were a bit of a dark time, especially for this demographic of youth who had new-migrant parents and were barely represented in the broader culture, so it was an exciting opportunity to connect with them and to showcase what a rich music scene they had."
Music Wars (The Sound Of The Underground) is out Friday 23 June.