1983 Mardi Gras poster

Dancing down memory lane

© Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences

Stephen Allkins - aka DJ [Love] Tattoo - has seen it all when it comes to Sydney's gay clubbing history.

Stephen Allkins is arguably the most important DJ that Australia has ever produced and this year marks his 40th anniversary DJing, coinciding with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras’ 40th anniversary.

Allkins succumbed to the tentacles of Sydney’s underground gay nightlife in the mid-’70s when Oxford Street was still in its clubbing infancy. From that life-changing discovery he has gone on to see it all - from the debauchery of the Disco days, the New Wave of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the drug headiness of the House days in the late ‘80s, the decimation of the Sydney gay community with the onslaught of AIDS, the ‘90s mainstream acceptance and explosion of Mardi Gras, to then taking the scene back underground in the Noughties and beyond.

Stephen Allkins
Stephen Allkins

He has been an eyewitness and a major player within the gay community from the very beginning, when clubbing was a form of self-discovery and a way to create family around shared nocturnal experiences. He was front and centre in building the scenes, which have become as legendary as the music he has spun.

At the turn of the century he became an award-winning music producer as [Love] Tattoo and scored worldwide hits with a trio of classic house tracks, which were signed to Pete Tong’s Essential Recordings label.

He is a Class Act, the same name as one of his many infamous parties.

So with quill in hand, he takes us through a journey of some of Sydney’s most iconic, insane, artistic and controversial gay clubs, parties and nights as only he knows, memory withstanding.

As the great Bette Davis once quipped, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

STRANDED

Wednesday-Saturdays, Strand Arcade

1980-late ‘80s

“I was the first DJ they got in when it opened in 1980 and they didn’t know what they were gonna do but they knew it was gonna be anti-Disco.

“It was that period in time when Punk, Glam, New Wave, ‘60s revival and everything that went in between was all coming out. I could play the theme from Gidget and then into Marianne Faithfull then to B-52s and Madness.

It was that period in time when Punk, Glam, New Wave, ‘60s revival and everything that went in between was all coming out.

“The best thing about it was the diversity. You didn’t get one sort of person and also it was downstairs at the Strand Arcade, which is a legendary, classy shopping arcade, and the club was beautiful, absolutely beautiful. It had a marble dance floor and it was sort of the only club in the city. The city hadn’t picked up on that level yet.

“It’s hard to say the clientele was just New Wave. You would get ‘50s rockers and then you would get people who would make their own clothes whose look would be science fiction or ‘60s. There wasn’t really a name for that crowd back then. It was a mixed crowd but a lot of gay people went but alternative gay. It was an ‘art crowd’, I guess you would say.

“I played Thursdays to Saturday and Bill Morley on the Wednesday. I played mostly Morley’s records because he had a great collection.”

PATCHS

7 days a week, 33 Oxford St

1976-early ‘90s

“Patchs was upstairs at 33 Oxford St. It turned into DCM (another legendary Sydney gay nightclub) in the early ‘90s. It started in 1976 and I was going there right from the beginning. I left Stranded DJing and went straight to Patchs in late 1980.

“In the early ‘80s, the Exchange (gay nightclub across the road) was huge. What would happen was that the Exchange was open ‘til 2am so before then Patchs would be deserted and then at 2am it would fill up with 500 people in three minutes. But it was the Exchange crowd at that point, so the clones and the other gays who had been at the club earlier had gone to the Midnight Shift (gay club just up the road).

Patchs matchbox
Patchs matchbox

“When it first opened it was the best Disco ever and by the time I had got there, New Wave had permeated Disco so I would play Donna Summer’s Love Is In Control and follow it with, say, The Members or Nina Hagen’s New York New York or Was (Not Was) to Yoko Ono’s Walking On Thin Ice. I could play whatever I wanted and never got critiqued for it. I wasn’t getting a lot of money for DJing there at the time so the owner didn’t care what I played.

“The drag shows at Patchs have become legendary. They would’ve started in about ’78 and there were two shows a night, five nights a week. Trixie Laumonte was the host and the MC. The shows were so amazing because Miss 3D and Cindy Pastel started their careers in those shows. They had never done drag before. Teresa Green hadn’t had much work on Oxford Street but went to Patchs and exploded. Then a year later Sara Pax went into the talent show at the age of 13 and won and became part of the show. You had Julie Ashton, Leggs Galore, Flange Desire, Maggie Burns, Pola Negri, and none of them were the same but they were all so good and different, that you had never seen a lot of what they did before. They all became huge drag stars in Sydney.

“It was a drag queen training ground but it was accidental and it was an incredibly creative time. These things just happened organically because so many people were creating in their own heads and just doing it for the sake of it. People just fell into it at the right place at the right time.”

MARDI GRAS ’88

Government Pavilion, Sydney Showgrounds

February 27, 1988

“This was the 10th anniversary of Mardi Gras. It was held in February ’88 at the Government Pavilion in the Showgrounds at Moore Park after the parade. There were only two DJs. I’m pretty sure David Hiscock was the other. The party went from 10pm to 10am and I came on at around 3am. There was always the commercial stuff first and then the later music second half.

Mardi Gras 1988 poster
Mardi Gras 1988 poster

“House Music had started but there was still all that spunky, funky late night stuff like Stephanie Mills and you could go down to 98bpm at the end of the night. I think we forget how much variety there was in music back then, even in the various genres.

“There were two shows that night. First one was to Diana Ross’ Chain Reaction. I hated that song to death but it was one of the best shows I have ever seen. They had five Diana Rosses at one end of the hall and they were all dressed the same and they were doing the song and I thought, ‘yeah that’s sort of trippy’. Then I remember being in the middle of the dance floor and I just happened to turn the other way and there were five other Diana Rosses at the other end of the hall. It was the druggiest thing I had ever seen. I felt like I was looking in a mirror.

“Then they had this idea of doing a thing called The Four Seasons for the 4am show. At either end of the pavilion were these huge windows. They started with classical music and had this huge light on a cherry picker which represented the sun coming up. Then they did this snow storm which permeated the air and it went for 13 minutes. They had huge industrial fans at both ends of the floor so it whirled around and then you had the sun set at the other end of the hall. It all came out of nowhere and people didn’t know what was happening so when that stuff occurred it just blew people’s minds. It was all meant to be very druggy.”

SLEAZE BALL ’83

Sydney Showgrounds

October 15, 1983

“This was the second ever Sleaze Ball. This was at one of the pavilions at the old Showgrounds (Moore Park). It was when you could actually walk around at the Showgrounds, like go to the old horse stables and have sex and go back and dance. This was just one of my favourite nights DJing ever, because so much back then was time and place.

“The first Sleaze Ball was a sell-out at Paddington Town Hall and was fantastic. There were 500 people outside without tickets trying to get in - which in those days when we didn’t have big parties was amazing. Sleaze has always been a more sexualised party than Mardi Gras on the gay calendar and was held once a year. Mardi Gras was more hands in the air and Sleaze was more dirty.

“They moved it to a bigger space the following year (’83) and the organisers that year decided to start the party at midnight. I decided to begin the set with a club version of Bolero by Kebekelektrik. It was slow and more just to start the party because, you know, at the beginning of the party, no one is there. And I’ll never forget being in the DJ booth starting easy and at midnight they rolled open the huge roller door and 1,500 people all poured in at once. I had a ready-made party in five minutes!

I’ll never forget being in the DJ booth starting easy and at midnight they rolled open the huge roller door and 1,500 people all poured in at once. I had a ready-made party in five minutes!

“It took me so by surprise that I had to throw something on quickly because I didn’t expect it to be like that. I still remember the track I threw on. It was Was (Not Was)’s Tell Me That I’m Dreaming. And I ended up doing a two copy mix of it.”

RAT NYE ’88

Hordern Pavilion, Sydney Showgrounds

NYE 1988

“RAT was an underground dance party that started doing bigger parties at the Hordern Pavilion in the late ‘80s. Every party was or neared sell-out with 6,000 or so people dancing ‘til the sun came up. This was the heady days of House. They did a couple of NYE parties there.

“Grace Jones hadn’t been around for a few years and then all of a sudden they announced that they had her for NYE and everybody wanted to go. So I was to play after Grace Jones at the party. She was on at 2am New Year’s Day. The stage for her was in the middle of the dance floor and the only prop was a beautiful leather lounge chair which twirled. Everybody knew she was coming on at 2am so everyone had taken their drugs at 1ish so by the time she came on they would be peaking. So at 1:30am I watched everyone start coming into the Pavilion and by 1:45am the place was packed to the rafters. Everyone surrounded the stage and were waiting for Grace. And by 2am their pills had come on and no Grace. At 2:15am, no Grace. At 2:30am, no Grace.

Grace Jones at RATty
Grace Jones at RATty

“I was standing in the box watching all this happen and I saw the crowd go from loved-up NYE ‘we need Grace in our face’ to slowly getting angrier and angrier. She didn’t come on ‘til 4am in the morning. Nobody moved because they thought if they moved they would lose their spot and she could come on. You could feel the vibe go from love to hate. At about 3am, Jac Vigden (organiser) got on the microphone and said that Ms Grace Jones had some sort of designer raincoat backstage and somebody had stolen it and she refused to go on until the jacket was returned. It was never returned on the night and Grace eventually went on at 4am and they LOVED her and she was great, amazing.

“I still can’t remember to this day what track I started with.”

PHOENIX BAR

Exchange Hotel (downstairs)

1991-2015

“It was about 1991 and no one was really going to the Exchange anymore. The Exchange was massive in the ‘80s. Ron Handley, aka drag queen Fanny Farquhar, was also a leather queen and he originally had the idea for the Phoenix to open Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday with four good DJs and turn it into a leather bar.

“The Phoenix was downstairs at the Exchange and was basically a dark cave of a club. He lined up John Mason, Ben Drayton, Robert Racic for the three nights and I did Sundays. At the beginning, none of the nights took off at any level and as a leather bar it didn’t work. For about 4-6 months on Sundays it was really dead. Then a few people started coming down to play pool ‘cause there was a pool table there.

“Then one night it went from 10 people to next week 30 people and then the following week we got 60 people then it got busier and busier and after that it was packed. The people that ended up coming on Sundays were just gay men. It wasn’t a leather crowd but it was a sexy crowd and it was packed with 400 people crammed into that tiny room at its peak. The toilets started going off as well.

“The music I played was the music I was playing at the time. It was very House but it was everything from early Junior Vasquez and David Morales mixes to vocals to Jaydee’s Plastic Dreams. All of that was House back then. And I’d always for the last two hours slow it down. I used to even play Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer. I remember The Jean Genie by David Bowie was our song of the summer of ‘93/’94 when I would play it as the last track after this House set for three or four hours. I would always stop the music at the end of the night and play a rock track and for that period it just happened to be the Bowie track and everyone would go off. People weren’t doing that back then.

I remember The Jean Genie by David Bowie was our song of the summer of ‘93/’94 when I would play it as the last track after this House set for three or four hours.

“I was there for about two years but left because I started hearing girlfriends of mine were being physically threatened by gay men and considering there were four women in there with a group of 400 men and they were being pushed and threatened and told to fuck off, I just left. That’s why I went to Thursdays and left Sundays at its peak. I wanted to make Thursdays a mixed and more inclusive night and that’s what happened. It was gay men, lesbians and a whole mix of people. I ended up on Thursdays for four to five years and it was packed. Remember, back then real clubbers would do Thursday and Sunday and not do the weekend as much.”

CLASS ACT

Sublime, Pitt St

1996-1997 (Sublime continued ‘til 2000)

“Sublime was THE club in the late ‘90s. It was underground off Pitt St in the old Brashs building in the city. It was the first good, clean great sound system club we had had for years, if ever. They had three nights - Beat Fix (Thursdays), Voodoo (Fridays) and Cargo (Saturdays), and all have become legendary in Sydney’s clubbing history. Touring and event company, Fuzzy, came out of Sublime.

“Simon Page (Sublime owner) asked me to play the opening night of the club and they had Eve Gallagher (Cleveland City Records) perform. I was like, ‘what is this club?’ It was in the city and I had no idea and I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t know this guy and I’d never met him before. He said, ‘how much do you want to play for two hours’ and I said ‘fuck it, I want $1800’. He went ‘Done!’ It was hysterical.

“I had had a great time at the Phoenix for about six years but I just felt like a change. Every now and then I get an itch and I think, ‘look, that’s done’. I knew Ben Drayton was bored and Simon Page, after the opening, kept asking me to do a night at Sublime and it never clicked, and at the time the club hadn’t taken off and I was comfortable at the Phoenix. Then when I thought about a change, I just thought I’d like to do a night with someone and asked Ben and then we both left Phoenix and approached Simon and said let’s do this night.

Class Act poster
Class Act poster

“We put Class Act on Sunday nights. It took a couple of months but we were happy with getting 300 people then somehow it just took off again. A quiet night was 600 and a busy night was 1,300. People went out on Sundays but nobody went out in the city at that stage. Even though it was not far from Oxford Street, it was still considered the city. Everyone was still on Oxford Street. The city was dead. But once the gay crowd got there they loved it.

“The sound system was amazing and we always had lines of people to get in. We got photographer Harold David to do the door and he was the best doorman I’ve ever had in my life. He was a New Yorker and he understood real clubbing and how to pick people and he was also very democratic on picking people, not just the pretty crowd.

“Ben came up with the name ‘Class Act’ and I think it came from a Simpsons episode. That TV show was so clever in the ‘90s. I think it was the episode where Homer got really drunk and he’s in a depressed state and it’s all done in film noir and then bar names come floating up and one was ‘Class Act’.

“We played all sorts of stuff, basically what we were playing at The Phoenix. I remember Deep Dish wanting to do an underground gig during their tour and they asked Sublime if they could do a set on Sunday as they had heard about us. They were gonna do a 2am-6am late night set and after just two hours we had to get them off ‘cause they were clearing the club. They were doing that one sound, and we didn’t do that, and they were clearing the room. The management said we have to get them off to keep the people here.

“Class Act only went for about 12 months as we had a falling out with the owner of the club and left with the name. A story for another day. Sublime would eventually move to Home nightclub in 2000.”

JAMIE AND VANESSA’S

City Bowling Club, Sydney Dance Company Pier

1994-1996

“Greg Clarke and Tobin Saunders were good friends and had been doing their infamous ‘Patio Parties’ at Tobin’s pad in Darlinghurst at the time. They then decided to do a bigger party at the old City Bowling Club where Cook and Phillip Park Pool is now. People weren’t doing parties back then at bowling clubs. They had made up a couple of characters called Jamie and Vanessa who were husband and wife swingers from the ‘70s. Tobin’s character of Vanessa Wagner would become a household name on Australian TV and a press darling in the ‘90s and would eventually go on Celebrity Big Brother. Clarke would later become CEO of Adelaide Fringe and Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras' Artistic Director.

“Ben Drayton and Robert Racic were the original DJs but as the parties got bigger I started doing them a lot more. So initially they were at the Bowling Club and then via word of mouth they got so big they ended up at the Sydney Dance Company Pier. Vanessa would later do her own parties at The Metro which really blew up and continued into the late ‘90s.

“I think why it got so big was because it was different and fun and it was just at the right time. The Hordern had closed but with the big parties at the Hordern though, they had become so big that people felt like part of a horde. These were more intimate.

Jamie and Vanessa's poster
Jamie and Vanessa's poster

“The music was good quality House with other stuff mixed in and again with late night you’d always slow it down and you’d have your Funk and your Disco. Overall, fairly Housey but with other quirky beats thrown in.

“It just started as a group of friends and grew from there. By the ‘90s you didn’t really have a style, punters were just people. It was just a nice bunch of people.

“I met Tobin in ’85/’86. He and a group of friends were dancers and they were doing a thing called Dance Camp for a while. They were one of the first queer dance groups in Australia. He didn’t do drag at first and I think Vanessa was just a dress-up from his house parties which led to the Jamie and Vanessa parties and then onto bigger things.

“The one thing about the parties were the fabulous shows. There was one show where Vanessa did a sort of Jazzercise exercise with five dancers with those little round trampolines. It was so simple but it was so funny and another time they brought out these women with the biggest tits ever. The women were like 5”2’ but their boobs were like 60 inches. The women were touring for some reason and it was such a weird moment. Vanessa just brought them out and just chatted and that was it. That was the thing about Jamie and Vanessa. They were just weird moments as far as the shows would go and really ridiculous – not rocket science, but just clever.

“Then Vanessa moved to The Metro on Pitt St in the city. The Metro used to have a cinema and, you know, they were very druggy parties. They would show movies like Baraka, Powaqqatsi and Female Trouble and people would sit in there out of it for hours. How fabulous to have a proper cinema though.

“Some parties you do as a one-off and it was so much fun you end up doing another. I think this is how Jamie and Vanessa was. That was the time as well. It wasn’t structured and very organic. Like all great parties, they did one and it slowly built up for them.”

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras celebrates 40 years this year, with festivities kicking off from February 16 to March 4.