Sydney’s Culture War and the Underground Punk Scene

In a city that’s been culturally decimated by poker machines, lockout laws and aggressive real estate development, the punk scene is dark.

When I moved from Melbourne’s north to Sydney’s inner west, I was told by pretty much everyone I knew that it was a bad decision. The lockout laws were in full swing; music venues were closing down; Sydney transport was a cluttered mess; then-premier Mike Baird was sacking local mayors in order to ram dodgy policies through the state parliament. Sydney, it seemed, had become a city run by greedy, conservative men whose idea of “culture” was another casino in Barangaroo.

Meanwhile, Melbourne activists had successfully protested against the East-West Link Expressway and won; the world’s most liveable city was about to get 24-hour public transport; great gigs were happening every night of the week.   

Before long, I ended up at my new local—the Marrickville Bowlo—to see a punk band from the US called Lumpy and the Dumpers. But it was their support, a Sydney band called Oily Boys, who left more of an impression.

Oily Boys

The Oily Boys singer was big, hairy and intimidating, like an angry bouncer. He wore a black waterproof jacket with the hood up and black gloves—the kind you’d wear while throwing building materials into a skip, or committing an armed robbery. A hefty beard covered most of his face and the veins in his forehead were visibly bulging as he growled into the microphone. The band was playing a thrashy brand of hardcore punk with distorted vocals. I loved it.

I’d definitely seen heavier bands, but these guys, and the crowd in front of them, were more fierce than anything in recent memory. The vibe was dark and I almost felt scared, but by the time Lumpy and the Dumpers came on, the mood had lightened. Soon there were multiple dudes with no pants on, waving their dicks around, laughing and jumping on and off stage. The crowd had a laugh at them and the bouncers didn’t seem to give a fuck.

Not long after that, I went to The Chippo to see Robber, another heavy local band. Midway through their set, someone pulled a fire extinguisher off the wall and started spraying it everywhere, filling the room with noxious gas. Almost instantly, everyone, including the band, was piling up the stairs and out of there, coughing and spluttering toward the street.


The next gig I remember seeing was at the Portuguese Club with a whole score of punk and hardcore bands, including Oily Boys, Rapid Dye and Sex Drive. Within 20 seconds of entering the mosh pit, I copped a stray elbow to the face and blood was running from my nose. I retreated back toward the edge of the crowd and watched glass bottles being hurled across the room and punches being thrown at random. It was the scariest gig I’ve ever been to.

The point of these anecdotes is that Sydney punk shows seemed a lot wilder than anything I’d seen in Melbourne.

I’ve mentioned this to a few Sydney bands and they’ve generally agreed that the heavy music scene in Sydney can be pretty full on. Jack Sniff from Pist Idiots was also at the gig where I copped the nosebleed. “I like going into the mosh but that was fucking full on,” he told me. “It was completely dark, full of punters and there was one security guard but he didn’t enter the room (where the bands played).”

Drew Gardner of Totally Unicorn described a gig where people “were fighting and pushing people around that were just standing back,” telling me, “I felt a bit scared, I felt like someone was going to knife me.”

These incidents are just one pocket of a larger music scene, but the nudity, vandalism, and violence at these shows have got a lot to do with the lack of venues. There are a few well-run pubs that promote live music (shout outs to The Landsdowne, The Bald Faced Stag, The Chippo, The Captain Cook, Brighton Up) but a lot of Sydney punk shows have moved to more unexpected places, like illegal warehouses, living rooms, Portuguese clubs and bowlos.

Totally Unicorn (this photo and top—Britt Andrews).

In a city that’s been culturally decimated by poker machines, lockout laws and aggressive real estate development, these venues are picking up the leftovers. They’re cheaper to hire for the night and the venue owners often don’t seem to be too worried about what happens during a show. They let the bands take charge.

In a way, this situation is perfect for a punk scene: it’s cheap, it’s DIY and it’s run by a small community of bands who push it. Gigs are heavy, sometimes dangerous, and could definitely be more inclusive to women and those who don’t fancy an elbow to the face, but there are some wild and genuinely unpredictable gigs to be seen. And it’s largely driven by the pervasive sense of frustration and futility in Sydney.

This is a city at war. It’s a place where real estate profits are prioritised over pretty much everything else. It’s a place where homeless people get pushed back into the shadows. Where big highways trump public transport. Where pokies are equated with culture. Where a curfew killed Kings Cross and Oxford Street. And, unsurprisingly, where the punk scene is dark and scary.

Melbourne, on the other hand, is a fun city where the bars stay open late and great bands play every night of the week. Great venues like The Reverence, The Tote and Old Bar have become institutions for a healthy music scene. The vibe is more irreverent and funny. When I visualise Melbourne punk, I think of an ironic t-shirt, funny lyrics and a lot of people with fringes. In Sydney, I see a bleeding nose, a skullet and a bum bag.

Punk shows in Sydney can get pretty fucked up, but it makes total sense. The people of this city have a lot to be angry about.

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