Underground (and not-so-underground) clubs in Sydney

Red Rattler club in Marrickville

When I wrote this feature on Sydney’s underground clubs for The Sydney Morning Herald I was surprised not only by the number of illegal venues that were operating but also by the quality of them. Most had a friendly and intimate atmosphere that’s hard for many clubs to create and the bands were often great – for example, the artist line-up at jazz venue 505 (who were nice enough to talk to me for the feature) is usually impressive.

Update: Since writing this in 2009, the old 505 venue closed down but a new, licensed 505 has opened up legally and will have performances six nights a week and host performances for the Jazzgroove Association and Cafe Carnivale. Their new address is 280 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills (corner Cleveland and Perry Streets) – see the 505 Facebook page for more information.

The reasons why people start illegal clubs vary but the high cost of running a legal club is usually part of the mix. However, the owner (who requested to remain anonymous) of an underground club in Marrickville that’s known for its great line-up of jazz and folk bands added another point that I didn’t have room in my SMH feature to mention: namely that underground venues are important for a city’s culture.

“There has to be an underground scene in every city because it fuels arts in different directions,” he said. “It fuels mainstream artists to think in different ways.”

Writing the feature also made me think of three legal, but nevertheless unconventional, Sydney venues I’ve come across:

The El Rocco Jazz Cellar
This subterranean survivor from the 50s is a quirky and atmospheric reminder of how funky Kings Cross used to be. Located underneath Bar Me, this truly is a jazz cellar that looks like it came from 1950s Greenwich Village. A variety of performers play here plus they also have fortnightly open mic nights on Mondays.
Brougham Street, Kings Cross. Phone 9368 0894.

The Red Rattler
Ok – I already mentioned this in my SMH feature, but I like it so much I thought it worth mentioning here as well in more detail. The Red Rattler looks and feels like an underground club and certainly has an offbeat vibe, from the retro 60s bar counter to the salvaged booths and old sofas (all the furniture is second hand, in keeping with the Rattler’s aim of being environmentally sustainable). The venue has a strong gay and lesbian focus but it’s also straight-friendly and has an eclectic line-up of performers.
6 Faversham Street, Marrickville. See the Red Rattler website

Hot Lips
No, this isn’t a shrine to Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan from MASH but rather a cocktail bar and restaurant that … well, I don’t know how to describe it. From the street all you can see is a sign with an illustrated pair of lips on it, and inside it looks a little like a 70s Italian restaurant thanks to its red and white décor (which might explain why there’s pizza and pasta on the menu).

Yet if you get past the less than glamorous façade and sit back with a drink (although I don’t recommend the cocktails) this can become a surprisingly cosy live music venue. When I was there last there was a decent singer playing an acoustic guitar while the crowd was a mix of oldies, families and goth girls sipping blood red cocktails.
200 Enmore Rd, Enmore.