Rocking out in Thainatown

Once upon a time, the pubs of inner-city Australia were full of music. Or so we’re told by those lucky enough to have lived through those halcyon days. Global names like Midnight Oil, INXS and Cold Chisel blazed a trail for local heroes like Regurgitator, the Whitlams and, for all I know, Frenté (hey, they were big when I was in high school). And they packed out many a local from the Seventies through to the Nineties.

Then the pokies came. Publicans decided that live music and the beer its audiences consumed weren’t lucrative enough, and cordoned off part of their establishments to become windowless dens full of banknote-devouring ‘gaming’ machines.

In a pokie room, the only original compositions you’ll hear are the dinky electronic bleeps played on the rare occasions when players defy the heavily-stacked odds and win something. But nobody ever took home an ARIA Award for a pokie jingle.

The profits were so great that there was no need to lure in the public with live entertainment, and the hotel business changed so that serving alcoholic drinks became merely a means of getting a pokie license. The opportunities for new bands shrank away, and nowadays live music in a hotel is an occasional indulgence.

But there’s one place where live music is still a drawcard. Any night of the week, you can hear five or six-piece bands performing until the wee hours of the morning. And even at 1.30am on a Tuesday, the fans are out in force to enjoy it.

You won’t see these bands on the Australian charts or touring the world, and I don’t feel I’m being uncharitable if I suggest that they won’t become household names, at least in this country. Because the bands, most of the audiences and much of the music that they play are Thai.

What’s surely now Sydney’s liveliest music scene can be found in the Thainatown region of Sydney, along Pitt and Campbell Sts in Sydney, between World Square and the Capitol Theatre, and to a non-Thai like myself, it’s an incredible thing to perceive.

There are roughly a dozen bars and restaurants where bands chug away each night in a range of genres from the power ballad to the crooned ballad – and sometimes with a power-chord rocker thrown in the mix as well. The bands play long sets of covers, reading the chord charts and lyrics off iPads. The songs are mostly in Thai, but there’s an occasional English-language track too.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife, brother and sister-in-law went for a late meal on a Thursday night. Despite it being 11.30pm, At Bangkok, a restaurant in the food court adjoining the Capitol Theatre, was still packed full of customers enjoying stir fries and noodle soups.

Bands play here more or less nightly, and when we were sitting a table away from them, tonight’s troupe of six musicians were kind enough to vary the Thai pop with a few songs we knew, including a version of ‘Fix You’ by Coldplay so heartfelt that it would have had Gwyneth Paltrow consciously recoupling. They even gave Crowded House a crack, in honour of their and the band’s mutual adopted country.

I particularly enjoyed the wholehearted Guitar Hero soloing moves from the lead guitarist, who deserved to be playing his axe behind his back in some packed stadium somewhere instead of pumping out the jams while people slurped tom yum goong. There was a sense of playfulness which meant that the musos really added to the dining experience, and it wasn’t so loud that we couldn’t chat as well.

We walked back past similar groups playing in the Chamberlain Hotel, Mr B’s Hotel, Khao San and a few other eateries along the strip. It was about half-past midnight, and every venue was full of customers.

Thai pop probably isn’t for everybody, given the prevalence of ballads whose delivery is roughly as sugar-laden as a sticky rice and mango dessert. But it’s heartening to see that at least within Sydney’s Thai community, performing live is still valued, and musicians are finding work.

The crowds these bands pack in late on weeknights is a reminder of what used to be commonplace elsewhere in our cities. And perhaps if café and restaurant proprietors visited Thainatown and saw these bands in action, they’d be inspired to bring back live music as a drawcard for their own establishments?

This area was the stomping ground of some legendary Australian bands – the Civic Hotel was a famous rock’n’roll venue in its previous incarnation, regularly featuring the likes of INXS and Chisel, and the ABC recorded Midnight Oil’s gig at the Capitol in 1982, next door to where we saw that Thai band play.

Maybe if more venues took a plunge on live musicians, it’d help develop the next generation of Australian bands? The way things are looking, there’s every chance that some of our next wave of rock gods will have built up their chops playing Thai covers.

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