It was a midweek night in King Cross, over three decades ago in what were the buoyant and often permissive 1980s. Live music echoed from a whole variety of venues scattered around the area, often continuing well into the wee small hours. At the Piccadilly Hotel in Victoria Street, Lubricated Goat were hosting one of their semi regular ‘grunge’ nights. The music had finished but the real fun was about to start.
Notorious as a group that embraced nudity, the Goat had created history when they were the first band to appear totally naked on ABC TV’s Blah Blah Blah with Andrew Denton. As an apres gig entertainment they also pioneered the unique pub sport of ‘nude chesting’, in which two naked men (usually band members) would confront each other and attempt to bump each other into submission. On this particular night the chesting was well underway when a smartly dressed young man and his girlfriend walked into the hotel for a late night drink. As they stood by the bar waiting to be served, the furious naked argy bargy was virtually in their face – but they hardly blinked an eye. After all this was Kings Cross in the 80s.
Over 30 years later the old Piccadilly Hotel building remains somewhat forlornly in Victoria Street, a disputed development application hanging heavily over its art deco façade. Destined to become yet another block of up market apartments it’s one of a number of buildings in the Cross and surrounds that house ghosts of another era.
Whilst plaques set in the footpath mark many of the Cross’s historic sites, a quick walking tour today provides some insight into the way change has taken place – and the ghosts that remain to haunt our sense of history.
Let’s start the excursion with an expresso. The Piccolo and Colluzzi bars brought Italian style coffee to the Cross in the 50s and managed to survive for over 60 years. The old Colluzzi premises in Victoria Street are now closed, even though the name lives on next door. The Piccolo is currently closed after a short renaissance but is set to reopen, yet again, with even the suggestion that Vittorio will return for one or two days a week. The macchiato will have to wait. There’s no longer a juke box in the Piccolo but the ghostly strains of John Coltrane’s Blue Train fill the air.
It could be time to take in a movie at the Minerva Theatre in Orwell Street, where I have fond memories of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey way back in 1968. The ghost of Hal lives on in a beautiful old theatre that was recently sold by film director George Miller to the Abacus Property Group. But sadly no matinee today.
Maybe it’s time to check into one of the Cross’ once numerous budget hotels, the type that catered for visiting rock bands and all the debauchery that entailed. The Bernley in Springfield Avenue might have morphed into the Quest today, but in its 80s heyday it was only a stone’s throw from the sticky carpet of the much loved Manzil Room. It will be interesting to see if the much sought after rooftop room remains, the scene of many a drunken after gig celebration. The ghostly groans of an inebriated roadie can still be heard just before dawn.
There’s still much to take in like the old Roosevelt Club in Orwell Street, once the domain of Abe Saffron, later the studios of radio 2KY and for a short time the home of music weekly Drum Media, when a group of its journalists split from On The Street. Who knows what spirits have been left behind in its various incarnations.
Over on Bayswater Road, the Mansions Hotel has now been turned into apartments but for years it was your quintessential old school KC pub where in the mid 80s legendary Sydney saxophonist Merv Acheson often held court with his jazz trio. Playing there one New Year’s Eve, Merv and his trio were joined by a man on a horse, a Don Quixote figure, who rode briefly into the bar, then disappeared into the nearby Hampton Court Hotel. We can no longer get a beer there but perhaps it’s a fitting place to finish the tour as the clip clop of the phantom horseman still resonates through the inevitable gentrification.