Club Hordern: A retrospective
Triggered somewhat by our ’80s Are Back’ exhibition, Mark Murphy discusses his memories of the Club Hordern Parties in the 80s, with Richard Weiss, one of the ‘Sweatbox’ party organisers.
I had heard about the Hordern parties from a neighbour when I was living in The Cross in 1989. He was into rock music and I overheard him talking about the Hordern as if it was another planet – thousands of people dancing, this new drug called ecstasy, crazy music pumping out from massive wall-to-wall speakers. He had never seen anything like it.
In my mind, I was already there.
The party I decided on was called Sweatbox ‘Meltdown’. I got my ticket, and not really knowing anyone in Sydney, ventured to the venue on my own. I will never forget the entrance. It was like going through a silver vortex. They had al-foiled the entrance as a tunnel and when you came out to the dance-floor there were three cherry-pickers with lights in the tops sitting in the middle of the dance floor. Thousands of people were wildly dancing to a pounding beat. I walked out of there feeling like I had discovered a new world.
House music was starting to froth and Sydney was becoming one of the house music capitals of the world. Acid was the sound of the UK Summer and it was also swamping Sydney. The Hordern became known as ‘Club Hordern’ by the underground.
Richard Weiss was one of the people behind the ‘Sweatbox’ parties. I have gotten to know him over the past few years (we travel in the same circles) and I have fondly recalled to him how he changed my life.
With the ‘The 80s Are Back’ exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum displaying some posters and creating a space for the house music culture which was as much about the 80s in Sydney as leg warmers and fluoro, I thought I’d sit down and have a chat to Weiss to see if he remembers anything of the era and what it meant to him.
Tell us about your early days in Sydney in the 80s as a clubber? What were the clubs you frequented/the music/the drugs? What was your first promoting event and tell us how that came about? Who were the DJs and where?
I returned from a couple of years away living in London and Barcelona with a head full of ideas. ‘Stranded’, the archetypal Sydney nightclub, was on its way out and Sydney needed something fresh. My first club was ‘Adrenalin’ at the Hip Hop club in Oxford Street. It was moderately successful, but ultimately didn’t last. It did however lead me to my first successful club, ‘Meltdown’, which opened on the first night of the newly renovated ‘SITE’ in Victoria Street, Potts Point. Designed by the brilliant Ian Hartley, it was just what Sydney needed. Suddenly, I was in the right place at the right time. House music was nascent, ecstasy was novel, and I was on the ball. ‘Meltdown’, with its hard edge aesthetic, elitist door policy, and mixed crowd (sexuality was not the issue) took off. The music was a combination of house and acid beats, hip hop, go-go, early electro and funk. The original Meltdown DJs were Pee Wee Ferris and Stephen Allkins. From memory, Allkins went overseas and a young Ben Drayton took his place.
When did house music start filtering through here. Can you remember hearing it for the first time and your thoughts on it?
I was a dedicated reader of the NME (New Musical Express) and had read about this new style of dance music coming out of Chicago, in particular, called ‘house music’. But, as Elvis Costello once said, “reading about music is like dancing about architecture”. Yet one night, at the Midnight Shift in 1986 I guess, I heard ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ by Farley Jackmaster Funk and thought, “That’s house music – and I love it!!” I tracked down a ‘sampler’ album of Chicago House and David Milton (owner of the Hip Hop Club and later SITE) returned from a trip to the UK bearing gifts, including ‘Acid Beats’ – a sampler album of acid house, and a ‘Summer Of Love’ graffiti style T-shirt with a big fluoro smiley face on it (this shirt – a little worse for wear – is now in the Powerhouse Museum collection).
RAT parties started getting a name in the underground. Were they the first to do the big parties?
I believe so. Up until then, only Mardi Gras & Sleaze Ball had attempted parties on such a vast scale. I think RAT was the first private enterprise party group to tackle the Hordern and ultimately the Royal Hall of Industries. They had outgrown their previous venues, including the old Balmain Bijou, Bondi Pavilion and Paddington Town Hall.
The Hordern is a massive space. When did you decide on putting Sweatbox there? How did that come about?
I was standing in the Hordern at a RAT party, looking up at the vast ceiling and rigging and thought, “how does anyone even begin to know how to put something of this scale together?” My confidence was sky-high as the result of the success of Meltdown…and I was young and reckless, I guess. All I know now is that within 12 months of that moment, I had decided to take a float in the Mardi Gras parade, promoting ‘Meltdown Sweatbox’ – trusting that the Meltdown brand would springboard into this new, much larger environment. One week after the Mardi Gras Parade and Party in 1989, Meltdown Sweatbox was held at the Hordern. A crowd of 4000 (close to a sell-out) attended.
Tell us about the costs of the first one and the what you wanted from it?
I certainly didn’t have the sort of funds necessary to put on a party at the Hordern. I was backed by the owners of SITE – they took the risk, but also 50% of the profits. This remained the case for the first 3 or 4 parties, until we could afford to back the parties ourselves (by this time I had gone into partnership with Victor Li). Ultimately, Sweatbox was an opportunity to express ourselves creatively, on a vast scale. The satisfaction of seeing something grow from the seed of an idea to a huge event, enjoyed by thousands, is incomparable…for me anyhow. Sure we wanted to make money – we needed to in order to put on the next party – but we never sacrificed that creative satisfaction in order to make a few extra bucks.
How many people went to your parties? Did you always sell out?
I guess tens of thousands of people attended at least one Sweatbox party – many experienced most of them and some were at them all. Sometimes we had sell-outs and made a lot of money. Once or twice we lost money. In the end, after a couple of parties which just broke even, after so much work, we decided to call it quits.
How many Sweatboxes were there? Tell us a little about some of the best ones?
I’m not exactly sure….about ten I guess, maybe more.
‘Meltdown Sweatbox’ had an industrial theme, with three earth movers operating throughout the party, hovering over the dance floor. One had a lighting rig attached (including a massive strobe) that moved across the floor. We built a ‘mineshaft’ tunnel out of scaffolding and industrial strength aluminium foil, from the front foyer which brought you out on the dancefloor. We had swing-foggers that are sometimes used on film sets to create fog, and cement mixers spewing out dry ice. There were no coloured lights at all….only white light cutting through the blackness.
We contrasted that with our second party ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ which which was pure opulence…a rococo palace with multi-leveled chequerboard dance floor which formed a pit in the middle of the room. Above this hung a giant chandelier, with a fabric canopy creating a false ceiling. We hired in classical pillars and statues and painted everything gold. The lighting was jewel-like. It was a challenge to make this big black box of a room feel soft and elegant.
‘Royal Command’ was a performance-based surrealist event with hourly ‘happenings’ that included a bagpipe band that marched through the crowd playing along to an acid house track; a vast Chinese dragon snaking its way through the dance floor and a live ‘mix’ of Voodoo Ray where Pee Wee mixed from the record to a live percussion ensemble with vocalist and then back into the record.
These were just a few of our parties which became known for strong design elements and themes. A big shout out to Paul Hinderer, our designer for the first 3 or 4 parties, who was instrumental in taking our design ideas and realizing them so beautifully.
Tell us about the music. Did you want anything special or did you know the DJs and trust them?
We booked our favourite djs who understood what we were trying to achieve. We always held DJ meetings and briefed them thoroughly on the theme and discussed time slots, but with the exception of the occasional track (sometimes for a ‘moment’ during the night, or the last song of the night) they had full creative freedom. Back then, the music would ‘wind down’ during the last hour or so – for me, the last part of the night was invariably the best. On occasion, I would DJ the final hour of the night myself.
Why do you think the Hordern finished. Combination of media/popularity/cops?
In the exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum, the actual letter (which I had in my possession…go figure), calling a halt to all-night parties, is on display.
Basically the Moore Park Residents Group, or whatever they were called, lobbied so relentlessly, that they won the battle. Once the Hordern was no longer available for all-night parties (apart from Mardi Gras, Sleaze and Pride New Year), we were forced to find other venues but none had such a great location, history, and such decadent grandeur. I also remember 2 or 3 times, paying a lawyer to be present all night (expensive!) to protect the rights of the punters once sniffer dogs arrived on the scene. I wonder if anyone does this anymore?
Did you do stuff in the 90s?
Yes the last parties we did, mostly at Alexandria Basketball Stadium, were in the early 90s. We put on some great parties and some sold out but they lacked the scale of the original Hordern parties. Victor and I were also invited to co-produce Sleaze Ball in ’91, I think the theme was ‘Fetish’ and it was amazing! I was then asked to co-produce ‘Hand in Hand’ for ACON on the June long weekend, which I did with David Wilkins, for 5 years. By the mid 90s I was getting a lot of work as a DJ – my first big gig was playing the Dome at Sleaze Ball in ’94.
It was really a special time in Sydney. Are you glad it’s all over? What are your memories
I just feel really privileged to have lived through that era and to have played a small part in a special time. Now it’s just a blur of 3-day weekends, dancing to great music, hard work, and serious fun.
Funny Sweatbox stories?
Too many… the collapse of a raised bridge full of people during ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ (not so funny at the time – amazingly no one was hurt); watching a now famous Hollywood director swallow a pill, chuck it up, swallow it again, chuck it up…over and over; having a massive projector (well it was the 80s) stolen from the the ceiling of the Hordern during a party and whilst projecting onto a vast screen on the stage (also funnier in retrospect than at the time).
How do you feel about being included in an exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum?
Like a contented dinosaur.
This article was first published on the Spank Records blog. Thanks to Mark Murphy for sharing.