New doco about Newcastle’s infamous Star Hotel riot suggests it probably wouldn’t happen today
Forty years ago today in Newcastle, 12-year-old Glenn Dormand saw his older brother head off to the closing of a live music venue called the Star Hotel.
Its owner, Tooth and Co, had announced suddenly a week before the place was shutting its doors on Wednesday, September 19, 1979.
Essentially this mecca for live music fans was run down and grungy and not worth the cost of doing it up.
But the word went around the cops were behind it.
The farewell would see bands playing from noon until closing time at 10 pm, with free beer between 4pm and 5pm.
The Star held 200 people. A thousand were expected. Altogether 4,000 arrived.
Dormand distinctly recalls when his brother came home that night. “He looked like he’d been in a war, he was really flipped out about it.”
Over 90 minutes, King Street had indeed become a battle zone, as police were pelted with cans, bottles and rocs. A paddy wagon was flipped over and burst into flames.
Heavily outnumbered, the cops fought back with batons, fire hoses and arrests.
There were scores of injuries on both sides.
Footage from late-night news went viral around the world.
The BBC in England finished off its report with, ‘‘This is what happens when you try to close a pub down in Australia.”
The younger Dormand, who would change his name to Chit Chat Von-Loopin Stab – from the band Machine Gun Fellatio and later a filmmaker – has made a documentary of the day.
Watch the Star Hotel Riot:
The myth of the riot has grown over the 40 years; at least 8,000 are estimated to be claiming to have been there.
Some romanticise it as a modern-day Eureka Stockade, of good working-class kids taking on the might of the state.
Was it caused just by a drunken rabble and a mob mentality gone mad?
Did the cops stuff up because they were untrained to read the crowd and respond properly?
What liability did the Star Hotel itself bear?
Don Walker, who’d drink at the Star when visiting his brother, wrote ‘Star Hotel’ for Cold Chisel’s 1980’s East album.
The powerful upsurge of the song married with the madness quotient in the accompanying footage created more debate and mythologising.
Australian Crawl who’d played up the road on the night came down to have a look, soon realised things were out of control and left.
The band’s singer James Reyne says in the doco, “We were there but we didn’t get a song out of it.”
HOUSES OF THE HOLY
Chit Chat’s documentary Star Hotel Riot deliberately doesn’t offer any definitive explanations or analysis.
It painstakingly gets everyone who was there – the punters, cops, musicians, media – to jog their memories.
“I thought, God, how do I bring this story to life without a presenter or narrator, but just highlight the people telling their own stories so the viewer can form their own opinion.
“In this case, it’s the footage that is the star of the doco.”
Everyone chipped in. Newcastle Museum provided data, the TV cameramen donated their footage, the Newcastle Herald sent overall its photos, and Chisel let them use their song for free.
Chit Chat’s underlying theme looks at the passion that music venues – the houses of the holy, as Led Zeppelin put it – once generated.
In the front bar of the Star Hotel was filled with sailors, RAAF personnel from Williamtown air force base, bikers, crims and dope dealers.
In the second bar, the LGBTI+ community staged its shows.
In the back bar was where the bands played, always assured of a juiced-up and enthusiastic crowd.
“The Star Hotel riot spoke of that era,” he explains. “It was in the golden era of pub rock, the late ‘70s and the early 80s.
“There was a love and loyalty to music and venues that doesn’t exist today.
“Music fans loved their pubs.
“The fact that 4,000 people turned up to a pub meant for 200 on its final day told you everything you needed to know!
“People had been drinking since noon. Plus there was no security on that day.”
The problem started when thousands spilled onto the road, and traffic couldn’t get through, so they called the police.
The officers who came were traffic cops, not trained to handle riots.
The crowd’s mood darkened, and suddenly they were being pelted with cans, and arrests followed.
A cop’s gun got stolen in the melee, adding to the panic.
Someone climbed up on to the roof and taunted them from the flagpole, egged on by the crowd.
When the paddy wagon caught on fire, an officer rushed to ensure that none of the arrested were inside. He later got a bravery medal.
The police turned off the beer supply, and then their wrath on the final band of the night, Heroes, whom they accused of inflaming the crowd.
Heroes had just done a cover of Sweet’s ’Action’ and during the encore sang a song with these lines:
‘‘I want action, I want fighting in the streets,
I’m gonna take this town by storm,
Gonna burn the village down,
Take no hostage, give no quarter,
They will remember the night of
The star and the slaughter.’’
The police insisted they wrote the song backstage that night.
In fact ‘The Star And The Slaughter’ had been penned a year before, about a rock star returning to his hometown to gloat over the doubters.
A police officer shook Heroes singer Peter de Jong’s mike stand to get his attention to stop the music, and accidentally hit him in the mouth.
Enraged, the singer told the crowd, “We’ve got to go because when the pigs say you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.” He’d later admit it was a wrong choice of words.
Police quickly rounded up some of the perpetrators, mostly
identified from TV footage.
Another man was at another pub a week later, boasting to the bartender about his role at the square up.
He wasn’t to know police had been holding their regular social meeting there, overheard everything and arrested him on the spot.
The man literally shat himself, and embarrassed beyond belief, began scooping the stuff out of his pants with his hands and throwing it out the window.
The first 46 faced court en masse, the courtroom turned into an amphitheatre-style seating.
A QC from Sydney advised them, “Plead guilty to the riotous behaviour charge and ask for the maximum penalty.”
After the first ten, the prosecutor asked for an adjournment.
The judge smiled, “I thought you would have done it by now.”
The riotous behaviour charges laid by the police had been based on the law from the 1870s, and the maximum penalty was hanging.
They got $200 fines each instead.
“A case that was to last six months ended up in less than an hour,” Chit Chat chuckles.
“It was my favourite part of the documentary, but I had to leave it out because it was detracting from the riots.”
However, the deleted scene can be seen in the Stories Of Our Town website and Facebook.
During the filming of interviews, a police officer had expressed, “Time moves on, I’d like to meet all these people.”
Chit Chat brought them all together at his house for a preview of the documentary.
Initially the cops had their arms crossed.
But the drinks Chit Chat served were deliberately the relaunched cans of Toohey’s classic ‘70s beer – the same as the ones flung at the cops.
Everyone laughed and the ice was broken.
They watched the preview of the doco together, and by the end, were even chatting amiably to the dude who had led the charge to flip the paddy wagon over.
Things had indeed moved on: so much so that one of the cops married one of the crowd members.
WHEN THE WAR IS OVER
The Star Hotel site is now an apartment building.
The Heroes got so much publicity that they got a recording deal with Alberts, went on Countdown and opened for AC/DC.
Police policy has changed drastically from those days.
Today if the closing of a popular venue was expected to draw a huge crowd, there will be extra bouncers hired, traffic barricades and portaloos, and the riot squad would be on standby in strength around the corner.
The Star Hotel Riot is the first of a series of 12 local stories about Newcastle on Stories Of Our Town.
Chit Chat and Carnivore Film’s Tony Whittaker are working on the impact of BHP coming to Newcastle and then leaving, as well as the advent of the town’s rubber-burning speedway races and petrolheads.
What he’s most excited about is a look at the local First Nation community: “there is evidence that surfing used to happen and they held sports carnivals on Merewether Beach.”