Melbourne: the world-class music city

For those who don’t mind sticky carpet or the odd spilled drink, an evening of loud live music is one of Melbourne’s top drawcards.

Beatles, Melbourne, Victoria
The Beatles at Melbourne Town Hall, 1964

For more than 70 years, generations of artists, bands, music lovers, myths, memories and moments have embedded a music culture in Melbourne that runs deep.

Post war, Melbourne enjoyed a jazz scene as well as the standard imports of the time – a country and western following and the croon tunes of the USA. In the mid to late ’50s, kids started to pack out cinemas all over town to catch the latest American rock and roll films. And it wasn’t long before local artists, bands, venues and TV and radio hosts began to tune in.

In 1964, the Beatles toured, playing sets at Festival Hall and swaying teenage fans to a more English sound and mod aesthetic. But by the late ’60s and early ’70s, the antiestablishment of US rock became too strong to ignore. Melbourne rock has dished out style and rebellion with equal measure ever since. In 1972, the late Michael Gudinski founded Mushroom Records, which would go on to launch the careers of Skyhooks, Split Enz, Kylie Minogue and countless others, cementing Melbourne’s position as a serious music town. Other Melbourne bands to kick off in the ’70s, to name but a few, were Daddy Cool, the Little River Band and Boys Next Door, who would become the Birthday Party and launch the career of Nick Cave. Still going strong decades later, Nick Cave returns to Melbourne in November for the Always Live festival, which celebrates live music all over Victoria. 

The city has also never been short on bands with colourful names, like the Band Who Shot Liberty Valance, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, and Attila and the Panel Beaters.

But this isn’t just a story about the locals. Melbourne has cast its spell on many of the biggest artists in the world. In 1988, Melbourne was where Mick Jagger wanted to cap off solo tour dates with a secret pub gig. News of the set was leaked by local music rag Inpress, 3,000 punters showed up at the Corner Hotel, which only fit a few hundred, and police were called. The street party cleared out all nearby bottle shops of beer and the clean-up lasted well into the wee hours. Melbourne is also where Prince fell in love with the cosy Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, and stopped in for intimate warm-up and afterparty sets during a couple of big stadium tours. 

Made from Melbourne

A one-of-a-kind electric guitar made of wood from four iconic Melbourne venues, The Tote, The Espy, The Corner Hotel and Cherry Bar. Photo by Jay Hynes.

It’s also where, in 2012, pop goddess Lady Gaga was turned away from an impromptu set at Cherry Bar – the venue refused to bump local rockers Jackson Firebird, who had a show booked. That night Gaga and co had to head north to party the night away at another popular venue, Northcote Social Club. Hopefully proving there were no hard feelings, Gaga ventured back down AC/DC Lane two years later and partied until late with lucky Cherry Bar punters. It’s also where Bruce Springsteen played for threeand-a-half hours, two nights in a row, loving Melbourne’s audience and atmosphere and promising to return. 

The Corner, Cherry Bar, Northcote Social Club… They’re but a few names that come to mind when thinking about great Melbourne venues past and present. The Reverence, Forum, Palace, Punters Club, Prince Bandroom, the Espy and Crystal Ballroom are also burned in Melbourne music lovers’ memories. Despite the love, it can be difficult to make it as a venue in Melbourne. In 2010, The Tote announced it was closing its doors, unable to keep up with the costs and red tape of the licensing laws of the time. Refusing to lose yet another classic Melbourne music haunt, fans and bands responded with the 4,000-strong Save the Tote Rally, followed soon after by 10,000 people at the Save Live Australian Music rally in the city. 

ACDC Lane, Melbourne, Victoria

ACDC Lane, Melbourne

These were no flashes in the pan, either. Paul Kelly, Missy Higgins, Dan Sultan and Paul Dempsey were in attendance, and the SLAM rally worked. The Victorian State Government passed the Live Music Accord, which, among other arts initiatives, protects local venues from noise complaints from new developments in the area. Just maybe there were a few rockers among the suits in State Parliament. Oh, and the Tote reopened a few months later. Jon Perring, partner at Seventh Tipple, who acquired and reopened the venue, told ABC radio:

“I think the government’s learned that live music in this town is really, really important, and there’s a whole lot of people in this town who hold it very dearly to their heart.”

This article was commissioned from RMIT's Marketing faculty for Visit Victoria's printed Official Visitor Guide publication. Written by Professor Francis Farrelly, Associate Professor Bernardo Figueiredo and Ben Ice.

A version of this article first appeared in our spring 2022 Melbourne and Victoria Official Guide.