In early 2015, I joined a Facebook group called “I drank at the Sydney Trade Union Club” because, well, back in the 80s, I did. When other venues were mentioned in that group, I brought up French’s Tavern, which I frequented even more than the TUC. Liza, a former staff member at French’s suggested we start our own FB group. We gave it the name “I might have drank at French’s Tavern“, riffing off the TUC group with the twist that French’s clientele would often be in a condition where both memory and grammar were likely to fail them.
Located at 86 Oxford St, Darlinghurst, French’s was a cramped, crowded, smelly, sticky music venue that became a Sydney legend from the 60s to the 80s.
Within six months our Facebook group had a thousand enthusiastic members, a raft of personal anecdotes and an increasing understanding that French’s had a history well before we started hanging out there. The trouble with a FB group, though, is that it presents the comments in a way that doesn’t reveal the full scope of the contributions. It’s just not made for easy browsing that way.
Being a web designer, I built a website that would let us present the cream of the anecdotes in a more organised way. Along the way we added sections for a list of all the bands who played French’s (339, at last count), profiles of some of the more interesting regulars, a gallery of photos, videos and other bits and pieces – for a while we even designed and sold t-shirts that brought poster and logo designs of the day back to life. The website’s still going strong and the Facebook group has grown to 1,686 members.
One of the most interesting parts of the website is what we call History. We found that from the mid ’60s to the late ’80s, French’s was home to a conga line of musical styles: jazz, blues, R&B, folk rock, hard rock, hardcore and punk. They were almost like geological eras. We struck gold when former owner / manager, David Williams, wrote out a potted history of the place for us.
Throughout its history, French’s kept its own character, different to other places: maybe a bit more intense because of the small capacity, the closeness of bands and audience, its willingness to showcase new bands, and the literally underground feel when the music moved downstairs in the 70s. In the 80s, it was one of the few places where the tribes of punks, bikers, folkies, rockers and skinheads mixed freely, mostly without serious incident. Hm, OK, maybe not the skinheads so much, but you get the idea.
Along the way, French’s gave early exposure to some of our most popular and enduring acts: Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil, Paul Kelly, INXS, The Triffids, The Reels, Radio Birdman, Mi-Sex, The Birthday Party and heaps more. For the Foreday Riders, it was home base for many years. It gave Ol’ 55 their first gigs. Richard Clapton honed a new album there. The late, great jazz giant Dick Hughes played there regularly from 1969-73.
And then there were the less widely known bands: feedtime, Sweet Poison, Lubricated Goat, Box the Jesuit, The Exploding White Mice, The Slugfuckers, Real Fucking Idiots, Smack of Jellyfish, Thug and over 200 more.
But let’s hear from those who were there.
David Williams: “I first went to French’s in the late 60s, when there was a lot of trad jazz there. I don’t know too much about it pre-Ray French, only that it was an old style “four penny dark” wine bar. The people called them “four penny darks” apparently because that was how much a port cost. I do know it was nicknamed “Watery Les’s”. Les and his wife owned it and were known to water drinks down. Apparently it had been a wine bar for many, many years.
French’s became French’s in the mid-late 60s when Ray French, who worked at the ABC, bought it when it was a run down wine bar. He loved wine and music but had a strict policy of only using bands who didn’t use amplification.”
Melbourne-based Broderick Smith, later of Carson and The Dingoes, was seeing out his National Service at Holsworthy base in western Sydney when he discovered French’s in the late 60s.
Broderick Smith: “We started talking and he told me he was a good friend of this band called The Foreday Riders. I knew the name because they were the band that advertised in OZ magazine. I mentioned the Adderley Smith Blues Band and soon John was taking me down to French’s Tavern near Taylor’s Square, Darlinghurst Sydney.
French’s was a longish narrow room that had been a wine bar years back when the poor would drink cheap plonk there. In the late sixties, Taylor’s Square was a student hangout and in fact the whole area tended to cater more for hippies and bikers. The gay scene hadn’t started there in any big way yet. Ron and Jeff King would let me sit in with them and were part of the reason why I didn’t go totally insane at that time.” Man Out Of Time
David Williams: “It worked well for a few years with mainly traditional jazz bands: Harbour City Jazz Band, Colonel Crint’s Regimental Band Of Foot And Mouth Deserters (who won New Faces or something similar), Dick Hughes Trio, Graeme Bell … but that didn’t last as a successful formula for too long and Ray had to make exceptions to his rule for The Original Battersea Heroes and Foreday Riders, who were also working as Bluespirit (’69-73), as they drew crowds of a weekend.
I was talking to Ray at the door one night when he was approached by Greg Quill and other members of Country Radio, who asked for a job there. When they told him they used amplifiers and were miked, he ended the conversation. I told him he was mad.
So it’s 1973 and my brother Paul and I agreed to buy the business from Ray French, who is glad to be rid of it, methinks. First thing we do is slightly raise The Foreday Riders money to $35 a night as they are the backbone of the bar. Every top interstate and some overseas acts passing through always dropped in to check them out and sit in. Remember, drinks were 35 cents at this time.”
David Williams: “When Ray French sold us the bar in 1973, we decided not to change the name. But soon after we got lawyers’ letters telling us to change the unregistered name, by The French Restaurant in the city. They were tired of getting phone calls about what band was playing, just as we got lots of calls from people wanting to book in for a meal there. We were advised that the only way around it was for one of us to change our surname to French. I said I was prepared to do that. Upon hearing that, The French Restaurant gave up their challenge, and I didn’t have to change my name. We registered the name French’s Tavern.”
Dave Graney: “Another night, I went to see the Foreday Riders play at French’s Tavern, an underground wine bar on Oxford Street. Another band called the Mangrove Boogie Kings played. They had a guitar player called Rex. That helps.” 1001 Australian Nights
David Williams: “Then two of my heroes, Ian Winter and Greg Lawrie from Melbourne boogie band Carson front up asking if they can put a band together there, it was Late News, amazing band.
Soon after, Richard Clapton, with whom I had worked with at the Taxation Office, sees me about playing there solo. I say no, that I want it as a band venue. Later, I agree and he originally gets Dave Ovendon and Brian Bethall from The 69’ers to back him on Wednesday nights.”
Richard Clapton: “Back in Sydney, French’s had become established as the premier venue for credible rock and blues music. Every night the place was packed to the rafters with drunken music lovers. Locals the Foreday Riders belted out the best blues this side of Chicago, and Glyn Mason’s band Home played the finest swamp rock outside of Muscle Shoals, the legendary studio in Atlanta.
I was having the time of my life hanging out with the many beautiful girls who frequented the place and getting blind drunk with my mates. And it was at French’s where perhaps my best-known song came to life.” The Best Years of Our Lives
David Williams: “About this time, guys from Radio Birdman were hassling me to play there. I keep saying no, as it wasn’t the style I wanted, I was into blues and rock. I believed they’d attract the wrong audience, but I relented – and they did attract the wrong audience. It was a busy but troublesome night, so I said never again. But months later, I relented and had them back. Same problem, they were never to play there again. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all nice guys.
Other bands about this time who went down well were Junior and the GoldTops, Big Swifty (later changing their name to The Radiators), Dutch Tilders, Home, Jackie Orszaczky, and the unbelieveable people who’d guest with The Foreday Riders.
One night I am watching them play and I look up the stairs to see the legendary Bo Diddley checking them out. They become his backing band for his tour, he was unhappy with the band provided by the promoter. Another night prior to this, USA blues legend Hound Dog Taylor had called to check them out and sit in. They are killing it, having to play two nights a week.
Not long after this, we’re approached by a new band Ol’ 55 to play their first gig. I still remember them asking where the dressing rooms were. Off they went to the kitchen. They were great fun. Soon, good friend Peta Wilcox – who had introduced me to some great bands – asks me to put on the unknown Pelaco Brothers from Melbourne. They featured Joe Camilleri (Jo Jo Zep) on sax and Steve Cummings (The Sports) on vocals. Amazing night.
Around this time, Rob Hirst fronts and asks about Midnight Oil. Great! They kill the audience also and thankfully continue on for quite a while as well. Again, great band and nice people.”
Dave Graney: “A tall, shaven-headed figure stalked the room. After Angry and the Reptile, there weren’t that many others with the Krishna/pinhead look so it must have been Peter Garrett – Midnight Oil were making the scene around that time.” 1001 Australian Nights
Peter Garrett: “Towards the end of 1976 and through early 1977 we’d started playing occasional gigs at a wine bar on Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, called French’s, and on weekends at a northern beaches pub called the Royal Antler, in Narrabeen. It was increasingly slash and burn, playing all the songs we had, taking them as far as we could, as the sweat of the audience condensed on the roof and returned to the stage as smelly rain.”
“The night after the fire, the Oils were booked to perform at French’s. Its minuscule, dingy basement was the in place to play and we were building a loyal following. Mum had come to see one of our first shows there, and of course ended up in animated conversation with a bunch of strangers, who were bemused that someone over fifty was actually in the room.” Big Blue Sky
David Williams: “At another after-French’s night at The Bondi Lifesaver, I meet up with Broderick Smith who was there playing with The Dingoes. We realise that nearly all the members of his former band Carson are in town, and wouldn’t it be great to have a reunion? It’s agreed to do it that Saturday afternoon at French’s, where until then there were no Saturday afternoon bands. Radio 2JJ won’t promote it as they say it won’t happen, but it did. As it was on, I see Grant who worked there yelling at someone on the phone. I go to see what the problem is, it’s him telling Double Jay on air to “Listen to this!” Good one, Grant.
About this time, Hank Davis (ex-Bakery) was tied up with a new band, AC/DC. I got along great with Hank, but he was pressing me to allow AC/DC to play French’s. After the Radio Birdman incidents, I declined. They were at the time playing The Denison Hotel in Bondi Junction.
Not long after, Don Walker fronts and asks if Cold Chisel can play there. I book them in for the next six weeks and then as often as they want.”
Jimmy Barnes: “Back in Sydney, early in 1977, we were told we would be playing a few nights in an Oxford Street wine bar called French’s Tavern, for little or no money … So we basically played shows for as much wine as we could drink. I hated wine.
We had been playing to crowds all over Sydney but mainly out in the suburbs. Oxford Street was not our strong suit. Radio Birdmnan were the band everybody liked around this area. Cold Chisel were never an inner-city band. We were never that cool. And we didn’t want to be. Punks didn’t like us because we were too wild for them. I remember when the whole punk thing exploded and people started spitting on bands and shit like that. I just hated it.
But we did make some good friend at French’s, friendships that have stood the test of time. Midnight Oil were the next band after we finished our little run at French’s Tavern. They came down a couple of nights for a glass of wine or two and to see how we were doing. We became friends immediately.” Working Class Man
David Williams: “There was an electronics shop next door in the mid-to-late 70s, they had the lease to downstairs of 84 and downstairs of French’s. They didn’t use it and agreed to accept “key money” to swap the lease over to us, I think the rent was $20 a week. Originally the plan was to try to get number 84 and extend sideways but they were not interested in selling. Our brother Michael started work on getting downstairs built, after council and police approval.
By this time things were getting bad between Paul and myself, we had different ideas on the place. He wanted to up bar prices and reduce bands costs, as bands were approaching him offering to play for nothing just to get in. I disagreed strongly. Also Paul wanted to be able to sell beer and spirits, but legally we couldn’t, so he came up with the idea that we change from a wine bar to a restaurant, which meant we could only serve alcohol as an accompaniment to a meal consumed.
To take the restaurant permit, Paul surrendered our Wine Licence. The irony was that not long after, as there were only a handful of Wine Licences in NSW, the law was changed to allow wine bars to sell beer and spirits without restrictions.
A good friend from the UK, Michael Samler, who liked the place and realised the problems, asked me to ask Paul if he would sell his share. Paul wouldn’t so I said I’ll sell my share to Michael. Paul freaked and offered to buy me out for the same price as Michael offered. I agreed.
For food, Paul purchased frozen pre-cooked meals in bulk, thawed them, microwaved them and served them up. Paul kept on some of the bands we’d been using, but started using some that offered to play for free. The regular bands soon started leaving. I asked Ron King from the Foreday Riders why they’d left after almost 10 years, and he told me the place just got too heavy. I was talking to Paul at the door one night when Mental As Anything asked about working there, but he knocked them back. It reminded me of Ray French, and I could see the place changing.
The amount of trouble in the place and nearby increased. When I was there, we didn’t need a bouncer – Ray came later.”
If there’s a single person who made an indelible impression on those who frequented French’s, it was Ray the bouncer. Staff, punters and musos alike regaled the Facebook group with stories about Ray. At least in its incarnation from the late 70s to the mid 80s, Ray epitomised French’s.
CM: “I got thrown out by Ray every Friday night ’til I turned 18. I used to hide up the back downstairs and get others to go to the bar for me. Ray would eventually find me while doing the rounds and say ”YOU … OUT!”
AT: “Six skinheads pile in the front door, all start beating up Ray. They actually get Ray on the floor and kick the shit out of him. We (a bunch of tripping / speeding / drunk / stoned punks) make it stop. We help Ray up (it took four of us). There’s not a mark on him. I mean, his glasses were crooked, that’s about it. Ray says “Well, they’re banned”.
KW: “Good ol’ Ray, I remember him coming up to me wiping the blood from his hands on his t-shirt and saying, “God, I hate violence”. He also saved me one night, when someone decided to beat me up, by pulling them off me and chucking me in a taxi.”
NK: “The first Level 3 gig I played there was when I first met Ray. When we were bumping out, I was on Oxford Street with a bunch of band gear waiting for the next lot to come up the stairs so I could go down and load out some more. A bunch of idiots started mucking around with the the gear, acting like they were going to take it or break it. I was toughing it out, telling them to piss off and leave it alone. Me, skinny, 16 years old and them just laughing at me. Suddenly, they looked scared, put the gear down and took off. I turned around and there was Ray with his arms crossed and his knife eyes on. Ray looked over me like a guardian angel for the rest of my relationship with French’s. A few years after French’s shut I caught a cab from Clovelly and guess who the driver was. Of course, I instantly recognised him but assumed he would have forgotten me, given the number of people that went through that joint. I asked him to drive me to Taylor Square. He said, ”Jeez Neil, aren’t you even going to say hello?” We talked and laughed all the way to Darlinghurst. Oddly enough it was Anzac Day. I never saw him again.”
MC 09/08/2015: “Hi, just wanted to let you know that Ray Spillard was my uncle. Sadly he died about 8 years ago of respiratory illness. He was still living in Redfern when he died where he had been living for as long as I can remember. Ray was in the navy and served in Vietnam but I don’t think he spoke of it much. He was a taxi driver and did study sociology and psychology. He was a colourful uncle (and used to let his underage nephew sneak into French’s). I’ve enjoyed remembering him through your website.”
There’s a lot more anecdotes about Ray and French’s in all its phases on the website. Personally, it was my second home for just a few years in the early 1980s. I remember being shocked when I came back to Sydney after a theatre tour and finding it shut.
Mid 80s popsters Electric Pandas were not your typical French’s band – a bit too Top 40 and pretty haircuts – but they did play the joint and they recorded the video for their 1984 hit, Big Girls, at our downstairs dive. What’s notable about the video is that it shows the stage and the room – and the downstairs route to get to it – quite clearly. A bonus is that the audience largely comprises actual French’s regulars, roped in for the task – even some staff members got in on the act.
David Williams: “By the mid 80s, Paul had to close. It was losing money just by opening the doors.”
Maybe the best way to end this post is with a track from Richard Clapton’s 1975 debut album, Rose Wine Cafe, which you might have already guessed is about French’s.
2 thoughts on “French’s”
Just brilliant! A huge part of the that time. And I didn’t know the Pelaco Brothers played there.
Because this has been a passion project of yours for years, Ricky, I had heard various of these stories. But seeing them all together like this and getting a real sense of French’s evolving place in Sydney’s music and cultural scene has such impact. Great piece!