Once-upon-a-time someone described Ric’s Bar quite accurately, but rather dispassionately, as a place where no matter where you stood, you felt like you were perpetually in someone’s way — even if you were in a band (playing a show there).
And although I suspect there’s a point in the career’s of most Brisbane bands where they just won’t play there anymore, and it has been at times quite fashionable to dismiss and derail Rics — certainly now, and even in the old days — I will argue it meant a very great deal to a lot of people in Brisbane.
It was sometimes a ‘default’ venue — in other words I’ve found myself saying a billion times, “Aw, there’s nothing else on, let’s go to Ric’s”. But I would argue that is actually quite a compliment to the place. Ric’s is a pretty humble venue where the music was generally good, you always had a familiar face there to chat with and it felt safe and cosy and very, very “Brisbane”.
So this is a story about Ric’s — not quite a history, and not quite a beginning, middle and end tale. And in telling this tale I have asked a few of my friends to help me out with their experiences too.
When I first went to Rics in the late 90s as a terrified, snotty-nosed kid with horrible clothes and the most stupid (but sensible) footwear imaginable I had no idea this humble place would mean so much to me in the future. In this place I saw some of the most awesome shows ever. In this place I played at least the top 5 of the most awesome shows of my life. In this place I met and hooked up with Dee (and many, many of my friends hooked up with their life-long partners too). In this place a billion other very, very cool and meaningful events happened — and some very heartbreaking and profound. Rics, like it or not, was THE centre of A universe that I was wedded to in those days. Like it or not, it was our “local”. It was our natural meeting place. It was where you could go on a Friday or Saturday night (perhaps even through the week too) just on your own, no matter what time, without any worries that you could not bump into a bunch of your mates there already (or just about to arrive).
For the uninitiated — Ric’s is a very small venue that often punched above its weight — through necessity and the circumstance of Brisbane being so devoid of decent live music venues. That tiny space it occupies is at the top of the Valley Mall and gradually it evolved from a ‘quiet/relaxed/sunday-afternoon’ vibe into a place that could accommodate any band — as long as they could fit on that 6 square metre stage.
One thing that differentiates it from almost all other venues in Brisbane — and perhaps all of Australia — is the fact it has always been FREE ENTRY. And as you may have suspected from the words above — I have spent a lot of time at Ric’s. I have certainly PLAYED most of my gigs over my humble rock n roll career at Ric’s and I would bet that I have probably SEEN the most bands I’ve ever seen live at Ric’s.
A “SHIT HOLE”
At this point I know a lot of my peers will look at this subject matter and think, “What a fucking shit-hole. I hated that place” — which was essentially the words of the first person I asked for an opinion. And at times I have felt that vibe, but with the warm, blissful, fuzz of the passage of time (and the beautiful failings of memory), I look back at Rics and I think exponentially of the good times and gloss over all that bad stuff. And there was a lot of bad stuff, but it all seems so trivial and funny in that sense that drama gets endearing once you aren’t there anymore.
I think people got over Ric’s was because it eventually got quite MOR successful. But it’s eventual mainstream popularity was more to do with the Valley itself being suddenly “de jour” with ‘city nightclubbers’ than any planning on its behalf.
And like a deer startled by the headlights of a bogan 4WD heading straight at it — it managed to just jump out of the way of oblivion by slowly playing catchup.
So it got “serious” with a stage and more security and that second entrance when it got late enough. And a lot of deadshits started frequenting the place. I first knew something was up when one Saturday night I went to see this band from Perth called “Turnstyle“. They were one of my favourite indie bands but just before they played I was denied entry inside because I was wearing Doc Martins, Vinnies old-man-trousers and a cowboy shirt. The guy at the door explained quite matter-of-factly: “Sorry, but this is a t-shirt and sneakers venue”.
Rather than protest or wallow in that extreme rejection I treated this as brutal but necessary constructive criticism and a wake-up-call. A few days later I went out and bought some sneakers and hid those Docs in the most inaccessible region under the bed.
And the success of Ric’s got even more real when a few years later, around 2005, the Brunettes from New Zealand were playing there and outside was a line up that stretched for 50 metres or so. And I pretty sure it was a Thursday night. Wow. Our ‘local’ was growing up. I didn’t get to see the Brunettes that night but I still felt part of history just being outside and witnessing the spectacle.
Photo by Michelle Brown
The other reason certain people started hating on Ric’s was because of a venue just around the corner called “610”. And I have documented about the phenomenon that was 610 so you’ll just have to read it. Or if you can’t be bothered — just suffer this very simplistic interpretation of that vibe at the time: one of the biggest ‘characters’ in the scene at the time, and a major promotor of ‘indie’ shows, decided 610 was cool and Ric’s wasn’t cool anymore. And thus 610 was about the ‘kids’ and Ric’s was about the ‘establishment’. And more accurately (and quite base at the same time) 610 was BYO and sans-security whereas Rics was the opposite. (In other words you could party seeing some equally shithouse and equally some very cool bands at the same time saving a lot of money in the process and looking quite fashionable.)
There were very vocal and influential proponents of this philosophy and I guess a lot of people got caught up in it. (Possibly myself included — cause I fucking loved 610.) But when 610 imploded all that rubbish was forgotten and people started coming back to Ric’s.
AND YES: GETTING BACK TO RIC’S
Ric’s in the 90s and 2000s was small but NOT small at the same time. It was not quite a TARDIS but I would describe Ric’s as a series of vignettes. And in this way it could seem almost grand and spacious.
The performance area was tiny. (Until recently when they moved the sound booth) it has been the space from the roadside wall across to about 1.5 metres from the bar where the DJ/sound booth sat.
This is my humble drawing of the layout.
Of note, the toilet area was, well, “eccentric”. It was this dirty, shitty, mostly outdoor place out the back through a winding passage past the pinball machine (and below) and next to the iron backstairs up to level 2. Further back was this big fridge thing that looked like a ship container which was eventually locked after someone decided to piss inside it. But despite all this nonsense the toilet area was another zone where you could chill with your friends and it didn’t really matter that you could see the guys pissing through the gaping door-less opening to the men’s toilet or see someone doing lines through the window. Indeed these facilities became almost non-gender specific as every other user of the male side toilet was a woman.
And the graffito on the walls was always a fantastic insight into what was happening in the scene. If you had something derogatory (or occasionally complimentary) posted there — you knew you were a somebody.
BACK IN THE DAY
My first memories of Rics were when it wasn’t quite a “proper live venue”. With its ‘no cover charge vibe’ I guess it almost felt like a ‘little place’. But it was quite the opposite. A lot of really, really good bands or side-projects of really good bands would play and it was the kinda venue you could invite your friends or your parents to.
In those days Rics had bands playing on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and even evening gigs were usually “quiet” bands, jazz stuff or acts playing their more laid-back material. You could rock out I guess, but in an intimate, softer way. I remember when we first got a show there I was unnecessarily flustered, determined to put as many clean songs into the set without sounding all wimpy and non-rock.
Part of that vibe was the fact there was no stage in those days. You just played on a bit of carpet and there was a shelf behind where you could sit a smallish amp. If the room was fucking packed — like that time I saw Miami’s CD Launch — you couldn’t see anything (and I am 6″ tall) but the vibe was amazing.
THE FIRST HORRIFIC TIME I PLAYED AT RIC’S
My fledging first band was gifted a support at Ric’s one Thursday or Wednesday night by David McCormack. It was the first time I played there and this was in the days before a stage and I had seen other bands rest their amps up on this thin shelf behind so I thought that was what the cool kids did so I dutifully copied. And then during our last song I was strumming away and suddenly no sound was coming out and I checked my lead and the volume and eventually I looked up in some apologetic notion to the audience and they all looked horrified and were gazing not quite AT me, but directly BEHIND me. And I swung around and saw my amp had fallen off the shelf and punched the two leads flush inside. When I lifted it back up it refused to resume working so that was the end of the gig. We got a big applause — probably out of extreme sympathy.
In the late 90s and early 2000s a lot of new apartments were built in and around the Mall area and these people started complaining about live music noise — which is a bit like someone buying a house next to an expressway and complaining about too much traffic noise. So in 2004 the government imposed draconian noise restrictions upon the valley — Rics included. And then my band had a gig there, only about a week later (from memory) and we couldn’t play with amps — everything amplified had to go through the desk. It was surreal. It was the strangest gig of my life.
ANNA (pictured above avec awesome left arm tat), the soundbabe in the 2000s: “Ric’s was a pretty weird time in my life and a lot of fucked-up stuff happened to me while I was the sound guy there. On the whole, though, I feel like I got more good stuff out of it than bad. The good – I have a handful of true friends from this time, people I think the world of, who I would never have met had I not worked there- ie Racheal Johnston (an ass-kicker, genius, and one of the greatest supporters I’ll ever have), and Heather Mansfield (who later gave me an entirely new life when she asked me to tour with her band, the Brunettes, in the US). I saw some absolutely astounding shows that shaped how I think of music and performance to this day. The bad, I’ve mostly let go of now. Please note, haters, that I absolutely LOATHED enforcing the noise restrictions. I was 20 when I started that job; the final responsibility should NEVER have been on my inexperienced, intimidated little shoulders. I’ve pretty well atoned for that one though – I mixed Lightning Bolt a couple times last year, and I’d say the Coachella set got up to 118dBa at times.”
I was so appalled I wrote my very first and only letter to my local MP about this issue — which was a big deal cause I worked for years in an MPs office and I was convinced 99% of people who wrote letters to MPs were certifiable.
This was the response: (not by Peter Beattie, my local MP, but the Minister for Liquor etc)
It was just all so wrong. And sound people running around looking so defeated looking intensely at these noise-meter contraptions is so, so silly. Beside the fact a noise meter is like a DAD-O-METER — “Oh, these noise levels will cause irreparable damage” — it just put a big dent in the evening. It felt like everything was being monitored. Like THE MAN was always watching you, ready to shut everything down — even at this humble music venue where everyone was mostly just minding their own business and having a good time.
Anyway — only about 6 agonizing months later there was some special cultural zone applied to the Valley and we could all rock out again. Yes!
David McCormack of Custard: “One of my fondest memories of Ric’s is when me and Paul Medew and Glenn Thompson became Grant McLennan’s backing back for a month long residency. We got to play a whole lot of Grant’s solo songs and some GB classics. It was just before we recorded Loverama and just before I moved to Sydney and everything changed.”
And David was there with Grant on stage at Ric’s only a week before he died.
Grant McLennan was one of the singer/guitarists in the Go-Betweens. Most people had a favourite — you were a “Grant” type or a “Robert” type. Grant, at least superficially, was the straighter one. Less theatrical and more reserved. More up and down, rather than side to side — someone so compulsively charming you would have no fear taking home to dinner with your mother.
Anyway, Grant had a stool at Rics. It didn’t have his name on it or anything like that — but it was his chair.
It was at the side of the bar heading towards the back and he would be there — sometimes a few nights a week — drinking his own version of a Long Island Ice Tea. All the bar staff knew how to make it for him. And you wouldn’t even notice he was there. (And when Grant died tourists from all over the world would come to Rics just to see Grant’s stool.)
The last time I saw Grant was when he sang that last song in David McCormack’s set. The last lines are “Putting out a fire”— over and over. And that Saturday he was gone.
David McCormack (centre) at a early Custard gig at QUT — maybe 1991?
We found out a few minutes after we got to Ric’s that night. Wintah, Ben and me — the Little Lovers at the time — had just had a Saturday night practice and we were mingling around and lost eachother. So eventually I went looking for the other two and found them upstairs. They were at the very top DJ booth which was high above the floor and you needed to climb up a ladder and they were talking to Matt Brady (I think) and I was pulling faces at them from below — just being a dickhead — but they just looked at me ashen-faced and black with something that could only mean really, really bad news.
And Wintah (pictured above), whose dad played drums in the Go-Betweens, had been invited to Grant’s party that night. He took it pretty hard. There were tears and a dark, dark malaise. I remember I tried to break up with this woman I was with at the time cause she was so dismissive and unfeeling — when all I could do was “feel”.
And below — Ric’s in modernity:
NEXT PART (COMING SOON!):
And this is me in 2006 drunk texting while climbing the stairs to the second level. More on that later…
Talking to the Ric Frearson, the “Ric” in Ric’s, Smoking and Lockout. Dancing. That Del Toro gig. The CHARACTERS of Rics. Meeting Dee, the Little Lovers and the crazy days of 2006 plus much, much more.