The Commercial Hotel during the 1980s. Image courtesy of heritage.darebinlibraries.vic.gov.au
Featured track: The T-Bones- High Street Sunset https://www.facebook.com/T-Bones-136114816457241/
Narrator: You’re outside the Northcote Social Club, a mainstay of the contemporary Melbourne music scene which regularly hosts album launches and national and international touring acts. Prior to its opening in 2004 it was known as the Commercial Hotel.
Originally opened as the Shannon Hotel in 1854, the pub first served as a layover for carriage and bullock drivers. It also played a role in local political life, including holding meetings in the early 1890s of the local branch of the Progressive Political League, later to become the Australian Labour Party. Demolished and rebuilt in the mid-1890s it passed through many hands before being run by the Nortcote Park Football club.
By the late 1980s the pub was one of the few left in the area still holding gigs, as recalled by singer-songwriter Jimmy Stewart.
Jimmy Stewart: From the mid to late-‘80s through till really the mid-90s there was there was a real “Carnival Is Over” feeling on High Street. That kind of recession that went through the 90s and the Jeff years. There was expectation but not much realisation. Kind of a series of false starts.
I was playing in the Warner Brothers at the time and then later in the 90s playing in the T-Bones. At one point all of the T-Bones lived in Northcote. It’s an interesting comparison. There’s probably more artists and more creative types in Northcote now because the population so much bigger, but it seemed like back then that it was either the old school people who had been there for 50 years or whatever, and then the low rents like us who’d moved in.
It was kind of muso-ville. It was it was possible to live in that area, afford it and play in a band. We were really only a 10 or 15-minute tram ride down to Brunswick Street and they were the hot times for the Punters and the Evelyn and those sort of joints. Pretty much everyone I hung with, if they worked, they worked casually or occasionally. The Warner Brothers were a band that I was in existed outside the indie circuit for a long time and we made enough to make a living out of it.
We’d rehearse at my place in Bent Street in Northcote. People would go, “No one complains?” and I’d say, “Well they’re either old and deaf or they’re at work. And if they’re not at work or they’re not old and deaf then they’re musos themselves so no one gives a flying frig about the amount of musical noise you make.”
It was never far to walk to the next person who played music’s place. You’d be house hopping, particularly on Sunday nights when there were a couple of regular Sunday arvo gigs that we’d go to. We’d end up back at our place, and someone like Peter Lawler would be playing Bacharach songs, early 70s disco songs on a Casio keyboard in the kitchen.
The Commercial was in that area was probably, next to the Charles, one of the last classic old Aussie pubs. But it was pretty grim at the time. We kind of figured that someone would buy it and do something with it but you know that lounge was kind of grim and toilet stank in a way that I think I only demolition would have fixed. Great building, but it was just it was the epitome of the sticky carpet lounge.
Narrator: Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the Commercial Hotel was mainly known for country music. The Keats Family Band played a Saturday afternoon residency there for 14 years. Joy and Les Keats had started out playing as a duo in the 1940s and 1950s and hosted their own radio show in Launceston before moving to Melbourne. They later co-founded the Country Music Association of Australasia and with their sons played requests and favourites week in, week out at the Commercial. Alongside these veterans came the new crop. Over the years everyone from Slim Dusty to the Gusset Rustlers played the Commercial and Jimmy came to hold down a semi-regular Monday night gig of his own.
Jimmy Stewart: The Melbourne scene has always had enough country bands to be a thing. It’s always pervaded the Melbourne scene and Northcote was always part of it. In fact probably more than the Fitzroy sort of the area because there was the remnants of a lot of the early ‘70s country rock bands. A lot of those guys lived around Northcote. It didn’t move there, it kind of grew there I reckon. In that era there were still a lot of old Aussie country bands bordering on the Slim Dusty type of thing.
It was also the end of the era where you could just walk into a pub and say “Can we play a gig here?” And they’d be like, “Maybe, how much money do you want?” And you’d say “We can bring 100 people and they’ll drink a fair bit.” So there were lots of gigs they weren’t part of the “indie circuit”. You might see some pubs that just had one band a week and it was the same band, they just pulled their crowd into that joint. So we were kind of used to just dealing straight with the pub, not teaming up with other bands and playing circuit pubs where they had three or four bands a night, six nights a week.
The Commercial suited my purposes totally. I’d take a PA over there and and play an old Grech that I had. I’d play Warner brother’s songs and a couple of sort of country covers and bits and pieces of stuff that I was working on the side. It was sort of “off scene”. I was going to say “Broadway”, but that’s a step too far.
There’s something about Monday night because it doesn’t have that kind of pay night hysteria that Thursdays and Fridays had in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Monday night was a couple of kind of rubbing their head and just a couple of quiet songs. I think that was the essence of the Monday night idea. It was like just slow down, take stock, few breaths and let’s get started for the week again.
Narrator: Although the area, and The Commercial Hotel with it, have changed greatly country and roots music remain a major part of Darebin’s flavour. Indeed in 2017 the Australian Performing Rights Association declared that the Northcote postcode had the nation’s highest concentration of country music songwriters. The dedicated post weekend show made a comeback at 301 High St from 2012 with Monday Night Mass, an evening that has featured free entry and three local acts every week.
09 – Commercial Hotel/NSC (301 High St. Northcote)