The history of live music in St Kilda part one: The past, present and future of St Kilda’s live music scene

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The history of live music in St Kilda part one: The past, present and future of St Kilda’s live music scene

Paul Kelly, Espy Hotel, St Kilda, 1988. Photo by Peter Milne, Port Phillip City Collection.
Words by Luke Carlino

It's rare that every state in Australia agrees on something, but in most cases, people around the country acquiesce that Melbourne is the live music capital.

If that is indeed the case, then the capital within that capital must be St Kilda.

Songs have been sung on this land for a long time. Yalukit-Willam, of the Boon Wurrung territory, are the traditional owners of Euroe Yroke (St Kilda) and have been for over 60,000 years. Gatherings at the ancient Corroboree Tree at St Kilda Junction included the first music to be heard in the region, and we pay our respects to the voices there before the many that would follow.

In this six-part series, we’ll look at the history of live music in St Kilda and its effect on the broader Australian music scene. From its indigenous history to the golden days of the 20s, the rise of pub rock, the bustling punk scene and its current state, St Kilda has had a lot of sound pass through it.

St Kilda’s first pubs and a love for jazz


In 1857, the first pub sprang up and it was called the Terminus Hotel, later renamed the George in 1866. The next spot to appear was the New Bath Hotel on the site of the Esplanade Hotel. Its name was also changed to the Criterion, which became the first live music venue featuring small string quartets and bands. In 1878, another renaming made it The Esplanade Hotel, which still stands today.

The Espy, as it is now affectionately referred to, would become a jazz and dance venue for the rich, hosting music every night. In 1924 the Eastern Tent Ballroom became the primary spot to party, with overseas jazz musicians brought over to play along with a constant stream of local artists. Since then, some of Melbourne’s most iconic live music venues have made their homes in St Kilda, including George Lane, the Prince of Wales Hotel, The Crystal Ballroom and the Palais Theatre.

Jazz continued to be big throughout the 1920s and 30s, and more live music venues opened to accommodate its popularity. The Galleone Coffee Lounge, Bananas and St Moritz were among these, and in the 1950s, venues like Jazz Centre 44 (which is now a McDonalds) opened, offering plenty of live to the public on Sunday afternoons and Friday nights.

From pub rock to punk rock


Fast forward a touch to what we like to think of as St Kilda’s live music heydey, the 1970s-90s. Bands were abundant, and to stand out, you had to be different. Imagination and the search for something new ruled, all with the goal of creating art that hadn’t been seen before. Genres like nu-wave, country, punk and art-rock filled venues where capacity limits were just suggestions. Bands like Zoot, The Masters Apprentices, Hunters & Collectors and Men at Work form their sound and grow their crowds as pub rock thrives.

During this time, the punk undercurrent also grows and is coined The Little Band Scene. The Saints play their first show at the Beverley Crest Hotel on Barkly Street in 1977, groups like Crime & the City Solution move from Sydney to St Kilda in 1978, Dolores San Miguel takes over the legendary Crystal Ballroom at Saint Kilda’s Seaview Hotel and Melbourne’s punk, post-punk and new-wave scene is born. The first band Dolores books is the JAB, who had just moved over from Adelaide. The space is eventually renamed the Wintergarden Room, and the first headline to appear is The Birthday Party, featuring Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard. The Ballroom became the spot for live music every Saturday night until it would eventually close in 1987.

Modern music in St Kilda


As the year on the calendar changes to start with the number two, St Kilda loses a bit of its punk-rock grit and becomes a touch more glamorous. Its live music roots are still present thanks to the continued success of venues like the Espy and Prince Bandroom, which pull acts in from all around the country and the world. The St Kilda Festival, a free yearly event, gets bigger and bigger, showcasing a range of diverse genres and artists on multiple stages.

So, as you can see, St Kilda’s musical legacy is significant and far more than one mere article can handle. We hope you’ll join us for the next five installations as we dive deeper into the colourful history of live music in the influential suburb of St Kilda.

Victoria’s first ever Live Music Precinct finds home in St Kilda

To find out more information about the St Kilda Live Music Precinct, head to the website here.

This article was made in partnership with City of Port Phillip.