Apart from notables like the Opera House, the City Recital Hall, Sydney Lyric Theatre and the all-purpose Entertainment Centre, Sydney boasts very few purpose-built concert venues – especially for a city that aspires to international status. When it comes to staging concert-style music events there’s a long history of making do with an infrastructure that was never originally designed for that purpose.
Take the ramshackle old Sydney stadium in Rushcutters Bay that began its life as a temporary open-air boxing arena, specifically built in 1908 to house a world title fight. Equipped with a roof in 1911 and with a capacity of around 12 thousand people, it became our primary concert venue in the ‘50s and ‘60s housing international acts such as Ella Fitzgerald, Johnnie Ray, The Beatles, Judy Garland, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong to name just a few. New York had Carnegie Hall, London the Royal Albert Hall, and Sydney an old tin shed with a revolving stage (aka “the revolting stage”) that frequently broke down, much to the anguish of those punters staring at a stage full of celebrity rump.
When it was finally demolished in the late ‘60s to make way for the Eastern Suburbs railway there was a collective sigh of relief but a sizeable void in facilities available to stage concert events for audiences of 1,500 or more. By the mid ‘70s television had taken its toll on the viability of many of Sydney’s grand picture palaces and concert entrepreneurs eyed them off as potential venues for live music.
The Regent in George Street soon became home to a series of musicals and international rock and pop artists as did the unrestored Capitol some years later, the stage for some truly remarkable artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. By the early ‘90s the much-loved State Theatre had joined the list of cinemas transformed into concert venues, and in 1995 the dilapidated Capitol was finally restored by the Sydney Council to its once former glory.
The Sydney Town Hall, with its cacophonic acoustics also became a popular venue with promoters in the late ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, albeit one of the last choices given a general dislike by concertgoers for its echo-like sound. Artists such as Muddy Waters, Herbie Hancock and Odetta all played there during that period.
These days promoters will tell you there is still a chronic shortage of good concert space in Sydney with bookings for venues such as the Opera House and the State Theatre always highly competitive. Ironically, it’s the old-style picture palaces like the State and the Capitol that have the best acoustics, with the Concert Hall of the Opera House very much a ‘hit and miss’ proposition given the nature of the music presented and the position of your seating in the venue.
Whether we will ever get another large concert venue capable of seating around three thousand people like Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall remains to be seen. Given the current popularity of concert-style events with both local and international touring artists it would certainly seem like the demand is there. In the meantime we make do with a variety of good and not so good venues but at least the embarrassment of the ‘old tin shed’ is long gone.
As a footnote this is the 50thyear of the Beatles’ tour of Australia, during which they played several shows at the rundown Sydney Stadium, affectionately known by boxing fans as the “house of stoush”. In its pugilistic heyday the cheapest bleacher seats were surrounded with chicken wire to prevent missiles being launched at the boxing ring. Ironically, when the Beatles played there somebody launched an egg at John Lennon, hitting him on the foot. In the minor mayhem that followed he supposedly shouted “What do you think I am, a salad?”