by Alex Johnson
Lunch time on Sunday afternoon found the traffic on Newtown’s King Street at a standstill. Not an unusual state of affairs, except that this time the cars weren’t to blame. A huge crowd of protestors gathered around a truck parked outside the Sandringham Hotel had managed to halt an entire lane.
Perched on the back of the truck, with a full band in tow, was Doc Neeson, former front man of iconic Australian rock band, The Angels. The crowd enthusiastically joined him in a rendition of the band’s classic pub anthem, Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again?, albeit a slightly altered version, reworked to fit the theme.
“Am I ever gonna bank with you again?” Neeson held the microphone out and protestors responded with gusto. “No way! Get fucked! Fuck off!” Dotted throughout the crowd, T-shirts and hastily assembled signs declared the protestors’ aim – “Save Our Sando.”
The Sandringham Hotel, affectionately known as the ‘Sando’ by locals, stands as the latest casualty of ‘Project Magellan’, an audit undertaken by the Commonwealth Bank after it acquired Bankwest (the pub’s original loan holder) in 2008. Close to 1000 small businesses across Australia are thought to have been negatively impacted by the Commonwealth’s takeover of Bankwest.
Despite publican Tony Townsend’s repeated claims that the business was viable and turning a profit, the hotel accumulated a $3.6 million debt after an independent evaluator hired by the Commonwealth Bank deemed the loan ‘high risk’, and the bank began charging penalty interest, tripling the Sando’s loan repayments to almost $48,000 a month. Despite a senate enquiry into the banking practices that led to the pub’s decline, the sale of the Sando is set for the 13September.
Threatened with the loss of yet another live music venue and unhappy with the behaviour of the banks, the Sando’s many fans sprang into action. A panel of musicians, promoters and concerned citizens banded together to organise a rally in Sydney Park.
“The beautiful thing about this is a lot of people who play music and who look like bums actually have pretty serious day jobs,” said Ross Waraker, a market researcher by day and musician by night. His hard work helped form the advertising strategy that attracted the 1500 plus who clogged King Street.
He maintains it was all worth it to keep the Sando’s doors open. “The vision for this pub is music and community housed in hotels – to make hotels our living room to listen to live original music and create culture,” he said.
In fact, as much as the behaviour of the Commonwealth Bank has raised the ire of many, the main focus of the protest was the music. Hosting between 100 and 140 live shows per month, the Sandringham Hotel attracts everyone from unknown Australian folk acts, to international punk bands.
“It is a central hub in Newtown, which encourages cultural diversity, artistic creation and a lot of music,” said Max Alexander, a promoter who has been working with the Sando for the last six years. “It’s really valuable to our culture and our community.”
Community is a key word for the crowd. In spite of the looming threat of Monday morning, the Sando was packed to the rafters, overflowing with a mix of every oddball, hipster, gutter-punk, metal-head and regular Joe that Newtown has to offer.
The pub practically groaned under the crush of the crowd filtering in from the street. The Slowdowns, featuring Ross Waraker on the keyboard, ran through an expansive repertoire that ranged from old blues tunes to quirkier choices, like Young MC’s Bust a Move.
Older couples waltzed to the slower songs. Younger fans thrashed tangled mops of hair. Toasts to the continuation of the Sando were raised often and loudly. A tap dancer named Charlie kept time with the band on a box elevated above the beer-soaked carpet.
Matt Davis, creative director of Tilt digital, volunteered his company’s services to help live stream the show online at saveoursando.com to help reach a wider audience. Having monitored the website’s stats throughout the day, the link had over 2000 views from remote locations.
“People care,” he said, simply. “You can have every real estate company doing their hip suburb studies, but it doesn’t actually prove what those people are all about. We’re about music, we’re about culture and we’re about community. If we don’t have a venue like the Sando, where’s the next AC/DC going to come from?”
There is a kind of wish fulfilment inherent in the Sando’s existence. In amongst the established acts are handfuls of bands playing their first or second gig, getting a feel for playing in front of an audience.
Mitch Hertz, who coordinated the social media for the campaign, has been playing the Sando since the mid-90s. The pub allowed him to feel as though he’d made it, even if it was only for a moment.
“Pub rock is one of the great contributions Australia has made to world culture and it’s in danger of being strangled. I’ve played in a number of very unsuccessful bands that have none the less been able to maintain a fan base because of places like the Sando. That’s where all bands start,” he said.
Some of the acts that come through the Sando peter out. Others, like the Whitlams, go on to cement their place in the Australian music landscape. God Drinks at the Sando is their ode to the pub they got their start in.
The Slowdowns’ jam session turns into a protest song, with apologies to the Doors’ Riders on the Storm. Mitch Hertz, drink in hand, grabbed a microphone and joined in. “Guys! It’s a Sunday night. A Sunday!” he shouted, as though he couldn’t quite believe how far the evening had escalated. The crowd whooped in response. There was a real sense of witnessing a community in action. They love the Sando, in all its scruffy glory, and it loves them right back.