Truble was brewing at the time of sound check. Small groups of hip punks, hanging around Belmore Park, began throwing the occasional rock and bottle at the riot police who had formed a shield barrier around the perimeter of the Stage Door Tavern.
Ah, the stage door! All the local pub bands played there: Cold Chisel, Angels, INXS, Mentals, Dragon and Mi-Sex, plus big foreign acts like Stranglers, Rockpile and Dr Feelgood. Tucked away under an ugly office block near Sydney Central Station, Stage Door was one of the main inner-city gigs on the touring circuit in the late ’70s. Managed by Pat Jay, it managed to survive for years thanks to its alt-rock reputation, aggressive promotion, and bricks of cash changing hands at the office. Smokey and hot as hell, the concert was tough on the performers: it was like playing a giant bong, sweaty and overheated. The last drinks were just before 3am.
When Pat Jay was notified to resign due to “licensing issues”, he decided not to go quietly. He booked the lineup for closing night on April 12, 1980: Midnight Oil, Matt Finish, Outline, Vixen. The city was covered in billboards reading: “MIDNIGHT OIL DESTROYS STAGE DOOR.” In the heyday of imported British punk, it was designed to provoke. And for certain pale-skinned kids (not of our people) sporting ripped T-shirts, ripped black tailpipes, dyed mohawks, and face jewelry, it proved irresistible.
During a previous show there, Pete [singer Peter Garrett] it had balanced on the sprinkler pipe that hung low over the stage and broken it. Water had swamped the flat and our gear, so the next day we unbolted our quad speakers and hung them to dry on the crooked Hills Hoist in the backyard of our Chatswood home base.
Showtime on April 12. We played Powderworks, Cold Cold Change, No Reaction and Surfing With a Spoon, all at the speed of let’s get out of here. Anything to escape the solid wall of heat and find some fresh air. The front door to the venue was ajar, and the back door had been chained because skinheads had been trying to get in without paying. We later learned that almost 1,200 tickets had been sold at a licensed wine bar for less than 200.
It occurred to us that if a fire broke out and the sprinklers were still out, we would most likely be incinerated along with most of the seriously drunk, half-naked, skewered crowd. In that case, our only hope of survival, which we had agreed upon before the show, was to lock ourselves in the large beer cooler near the rear exit.
During the hectic 50 minutes on stage, all I could imagine was this: smoldering ruins, charred bodies, and five musicians frozen as rocks, still clutching their instruments.
We survive. Fortunately they all did. For a dramatic encore, Pete smashed the stage with the base of his mic stand, punters pulverized every piece of china in the bathrooms, and police charged stragglers in the park. Pat Jay told everyone that he was moving to England and promised to reunite the Beatles.
Not long after, fire and noise regulations, the scourge of pokies, and the advent of dance music ended the golden age of sticky-rug jeans.