The Diva of The Ballroom: An interview with Dolores San Miguel.

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Dolores San Miguel, legendary band promoter, and one of the prime movers of the Punk and New Wave movement of the late 70’s and 80’s, has published a memoir about her experiences during the period. I caught up with her near the Ballroom, at the George Hotel, still considered by many of those involved as the headquarters of the movement - the place where much of the fashion, music, art and technology of the period was developed, displayed and performed.  

Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of The Ballroom. How did the book come about?

I’ve always wanted to write about my experiences as a band promoter. I had kept a lot of my diaries, thinking I’d so something with them some day. I spoke to people about writing a book, and they all thought it would be a great idea. But I also wanted to write about my family history and about my personal life, so I started to think about how I could incorporate the two strands and started doing some research. It all took off from there.

There seems to be a lot of pain as well as excitement described in the book, especially about your personal life. Was it difficult to write about?

It was difficult, especially when it came to writing about my mother’s death. I had to go through police records as part of my research, which was quite harrowing. But it was important for me to get it out there. In fact, the original book was much longer. It had to be edited down quite a lot, but I was very happy with the result.

How did you become a band promoter?

I had always been interested in music, but for a while I had been too busy with my marriage and raising my daughter to be actively involved. When I did, it all came about by accident. My husband at the time was in a band called Secret Police. They were booked to play the Anglers Hall, in Prahran. It was an important gig because an agent from Premier Artists was going to be there, but they found that the hall had been double booked on the night. Another venue had to be found quickly. Their manager approached the licencees of the Seaview Hotel, as it was known then, here, in St Kilda, about the possibility of the band playing in one of the small rooms there, to which they agreed. The evening was a great success, so we put to the management the idea of using the space for bands to play in on a regular basis.

And so the Wintergarden Room in The Ballroom was born. It became a great vehicle for promoting bands who had taken up the Punk and New Wave sound, including some who became famous, such as Boys Next Door and Crime And The City Solution. You became an integral part of the whole operation. What was it that appealed to you about promoting these new bands?

I discovered that there was something very exciting happening. There was a new sound and look emerging in Australia, based on trends from England and America. There were a few local bands around that were inspired by this new sound and wanted to experiment with it, but there were very few venues where they could perform it – other than at parties and their own share-houses. I liked what I was hearing and I had met quite a few of the musicians and knew how difficult it was for them to find suitable venues that would let them play this sort of music. It seemed very natural for to me to want to promote these young bands and give them somewhere to play.

What was it about the punk/new wave movement that appealed to you?

It was the feeling of rebellion – a rebellion against fashion and music that had become established – that I was drawn to. It reminded me of when I was growing up in the 60’s. I felt a certain affinity with this new fashion movement, even though I was a little older than some of the kids. It wasn’t an overtly political movement, as it had been in Britain. It was more about creating a new aesthetic in the fields of art, film and music. It was an incredibly vibrant movement, led by people in art and fashion design schools who wanted to create a new look and sound for themselves. It seemed that all that creativity needed an outlet, and The Ballroom gave them that opportunity.

Can you tell us what it was about the Ballroom that appealed to people like you and to the many fans of punk and new wave?

Firstly, there was the appeal of where the Ballroom was. In 1978, St Kilda was a tough place where there was always the possibility of danger. Prostitutes and drug dealers would conduct their business openly, just metres from the Ballroom, and rough characters and petty criminals were always about. The public bar of the Ballroom was known as ‘The Bloodbath’, because there were always so many fights. We had good security, and the vibe among the punk kids, though sometimes aggressive, was never violent, so the punters knew they were pretty safe. Still, the idea of that kind of violence and danger so nearby made St Kilda an enticing place for the kids to come to.

There were also plenty of cafes and restaurants for the kids to hang out at after the concerts, and some of the musicians and the punters had moved in to the area, so there would be lots of parties for people to go to as well.

And then there was the building itself, which was beautiful and so different from any of the other venues. It had lots of architectural character and a kind of faded glamour that seemed to form a perfect background to the style of music, art and fashion that was happening.

In what ways do you think that the punk/movement made a contribution to the cultural life of St Kilda?

St Kilda will always be identified as the place where the punk and new wave movement in Australia was developed and where it established itself. There were other venues where punk and new wave bands played, but none was able to match The Ballroom as a place in which art, fashion, technology and music could come together in quite the same way. I suppose that that whole period at the Ballroom has become a part of the cultural landscape of St. Kilda. And, of course, some of the musicians – Rowland S. Howard, member of Boys Next Door, most notably – lived and composed music in St Kilda. There are plans afoot to name a laneway after Rowland. If it’s successful, it will be another way of immortalizing the period in the suburb where much of it happened.

Who do you think was the most influential Australian Punk/New Wave band of the period?

A band called Crime and the City Solution, which I talk about a lot in my book, were very influential on many artists that came after them, including on people like Nick Cave. Ultimately, though, I really think The Boys Next Door, who then became The Birthday Party and then The Bad Seeds, were probably the most influential band of all. There have been so many great musicians in it. They have been composing and performing music up to this day, and they still have a huge fan base.

The Ballroom: The Melbourne Punk and Post-punk Scene, by Dolores San Miguel, is published by Melbourne Books. It is available at all groovy bookstores and retails for $29.95

By Angel Torrijos

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Josephine

    08/04/2012 at 9:27 AM

    It’s spelled ROWLAND S. HOWARD.. Please amend, as his family & friends get very annoyed.. Thanx.

  2. debra

    06/04/2012 at 6:48 PM

    I can only hope that when the alley way in St. Kilda is named after Rowland S Howard that they spell his name correctly. It is RoWland not Roland.

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