When White Chairs was the centre of Brisbane's counter-cultural revolution

In the evolution of Brisbane music, there were always epicentres of creativity.

These days, it could be the Brightside or the Southside Tea Room, among others. In the '90s, it was Ric's. Before that, it was White Chairs.

Remembering White Chairs, the pub that offered Brisbane's punks some tolerance in the late 1970s and '80s.

Remembering White Chairs, the pub that offered Brisbane’s punks some tolerance in the late 1970s and ’80s.

White Chairs, the public bar at the back of what was Elizabeth Street's Carlton Hotel, was the centre of Brisbane’s punk and music counter-culture for about a decade from the late 1970s.

Demolished to make way for the Myer Centre, its facade still fronts the Queen Street Mall.

The bar flourished well into the 1980s; its big glass window into Elizabeth Street letting everyone watch patrons arrive and leave, often on their way to see bands played at the also-since-demolished Festival Hall.

It was at White Chairs that Brisbane's music set would meet friends, talk about the records they had bought from nearby stores, and drink. And then they would have another drink.

Often, the conversation would turn to then-premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen's oppressive and corrupt regime.

Marty Burke and Stephen Mee of Brisbane's Razar in 1989 at Brisbane's Albert Street Speakeasy. This was their last gig before Sunday's 2018 show at the Triffid.

Marty Burke and Stephen Mee of Brisbane’s Razar in 1989 at Brisbane’s Albert Street Speakeasy. This was their last gig before Sunday’s 2018 show at the Triffid.Credit:Chris Converse

One of those patrons was Marty Burke, the lead singer of leading Brisbane punk band Razar.

Their single Task Force summed up the huge gap between the Bjelke-Petersen government and young people.

“White Chairs started off as a place to stop off and have a few beers,” Burke said.

“Then it started to become quite a congregational place. It was a real catch-up sort of place opposite Elizabeth Arcade, which had Discrete Records, which was the original import record shop back in 1976.

“It actually never had that name; it was just the such and such pub.

"But it had those white chairs.”

Burke was 16 and an apprentice carpenter when he wrote Task Force about the Queensland Police's infamous Special Branch.

“I went to a couple of dances and saw some pretty aggressive behaviour by the police. Really, really bad stuff, you know. Police saying, ‘I’ll get this dog to rip your c—’ to a woman," he said.

“Seven police cars to 30 people at a dance; all a bit over the top, you know.

“It just affected me and I decided to write a little tune about it.”

But it was not until recently that Burke discovered the Special Branch had a file on the band 40 years ago.

“I found out about a month ago that there actually was a file on Razar,” he said.

“So I guess the song was perfect for its time.

“… We didn’t take ourselves too seriously but a lot of other people, including the police, obviously did.”

Bob Wackley, Greg Wackley, Marty Burke and Stephen Mee of Razar.

Bob Wackley, Greg Wackley, Marty Burke and Stephen Mee of Razar.

Former Go-Betweens bassist John Willsteed, who went on to become a lecturer, sound producer and social historian, said he spent a lot of time at White Chairs, lured by the nearby record shops.

He is documenting the influence of the changing city on its music in his It's Not the Heat, It's the Humidity series of talks, shows and gigs.

“Not everywhere in town was happy to have spiky little people in their bars at that time,” Willsteed said.

“So a pub that was tolerant like that, in an intolerant town in a very intolerant state, becomes a little haven.

“It was an oasis in some ways.”

White Chairs' proximity to the Elizabeth Arcade, Discreet Records and Rocking Horse Records ensured a steady stream of patrons.

“Those record shops were big gathering spots. Elizabeth Arcade had the Red and Black Bookshop and it had  [vegetarian store] The Source," Willsteed said.

“Rocking Horse is well remembered because it still exists but Discreet Records was a powerful force back then, but I think the closeness of Elizabeth Arcade made White Chairs a bit of a thing.”

White Chairs was not complicated. It was a simple, classic Aussie pub, with those white plastic chairs.

But its jukebox immediately made it a magnet for anyone interested in the music that was still being snubbed by radio stations, with the notable exception of community radio 4ZZZ.

Radio Birdman, the Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Iggy and the Stooges, the Saints, XTC, the Damned, Patti Smith, Television, MC5, the Buzzcocks, the Sex Pistols, the Birthday Party, Echo and the Bunnymen, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, the Cure and tonnes of rare rockabilly and '60s rock gems. They were all there at different times.

White Chairs quickly became Brisbane’s meeting place for punks, goths, rockabilly – just any independent music fans – before they headed elsewhere for the night.

Bands were formed there, bands broke up there. Friendships were formed there, friendships faded there.

Brisbane's White Chairs was one of the few pubs in Brisbane relaxed and tolerant of Brisbane's punk and alternative music culture.

Brisbane’s White Chairs was one of the few pubs in Brisbane relaxed and tolerant of Brisbane’s punk and alternative music culture. Credit:Paul Matthews

It was the Brisbane DIY generation, before Powderfinger and Regurgitator deservedly made it big.

And this Sunday, that generation will have its renaissance.

The Triffid, part-owned by Powderfinger’s John "JC" Collins, on Sunday hosts the second of the “Back to White Chairs” gigs, headlined by Razar in its first show in 29 years.

Razar plays the Triffid with Toy Watches, Scrap Metal, Public Execution, The 5 Hanks, Vacant Rooms and the Chrysalids this Sunday, from 12.30pm until late.

More details were available on the venue’s website.

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