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French’s: A Facebook Love Story

Ah, Facebook. Love it or hate it, you’ve got to love it, haven’t you?

Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense. Which is why it sums up how I feel about Facebook.

The trouble is there’s just so much to love and hate about the pervasive, addictive, simple, complicated, easy-to-use, frustrating-as-hell social media giant.

I joined Facebook in July 2007 and in a short time discovered many positives, including becoming more connected to my relatives in the Netherlands and reconnecting with old friends from school, shared houses and various jobs. I also discovered plenty of negatives: the way it devours time, copyright issues, scams, haters, ads, hackers and the mind-bending task of understanding why and how it works the way it does (work in progress, that one).

But none of that is why this is a love story. I’ll get to that.

The Group Mentality

Facebook Groups are a way of joining with like-minded souls to focus on whatever the topic of the Group is. It’s a convenient way to share all kinds of stuff that might only be of interest to a limited number of people. I’m a member of 21 Facebook Groups but many people belong to hundreds, each reflecting an interest they have, no matter how niche.

Some groups are open to anyone, others are closed and require formal acceptance to join. Some groups are frantically active, and some might only attract a post or two a month. Like most people, the range of Facebook Groups I belong to goes some way to representing the range of my personal and professional interests.

I Drank at the Sydney Trade Union Club

As a resident of inner city Sydney in the early 1980s, I was fortunate to be exposed to what turned out to be a bit of a golden era for live music in Sydney (take a look at some of the gig guides of the day, compared to now). The Sydney Trade Union Club was a very busy venue in Surry Hills, and was a favourite of mine. Not my absolute favourite, though. I loved going to TUC, particularly to see local and touring independent bands. When, early this year, I stumbled on the Facebook group I Drank at the Sydney Trade Union Club, I joined straight away.

In early March, a thread developed that mentioned my absolute favourite venue of the time, French’s Tavern (for the record, TUC would come in third behind the Hopetoun Hotel). My contribution to the thread was the comment, “I would join an FB group called “I Practically Lived at French’s”. Ah, Sweet Poison.”

Sweet Poison was a rocking, theatrical, lyrical, socially aware, noisy, over the top trio who – in my opinion – should have been major stars.

My comment drew a few likes – and a personal message. This was from Liza, a former staff member at French’s, who took my comment seriously, thought there were probably other people with a similar mindset and affection for French’s and wondered if I would like to help her set up a Facebook group for fans of the venue. How could I refuse?

French's

French’s Wine Bar / Tavern

The thing about French’s is that it was a bit different to other venues. By the time I started going in 1981 it had moved downstairs in the cramped premises it occupied on Oxford St, Darlinghurst, and featured one of the most startlingly mixed bunch of punters it’s possible to imagine. On any given night you could encounter bikies, punks, skins, hippies, rajneeshi, pre-teen kids, old Surry Hills survivors, serious musos and local drunks – all at the same time and mostly under the influence of more than alcohol. You would also be exposed to bands with musical styles that showed as much variety as the customers, typically young independent bands making a name for themselves – and some of them became very big names.

It would be untrue to say that everyone got along famously, but my recollection is of only a few incidents that involved violence, less than most pubs. There’s little doubt a factor in that was the presence of a bouncer called Ray, a no-nonsense bear of a man who largely kept the uglier parts of the outside world at bay while we “kids” enjoyed the music.

When I arrived in Sydney, I’d already formed a liking for the music of Sweet Poison from their early days in Hobart, where I grew up. I heard they had a residency at French’s, went to have a look and a listen and a dance, and decided French’s would become my regular. I didn’t know many people there, I just focused on the music and let myself go a bit crazy in the evenings, while my days were filled with working in theatre in education: three shows a day, five days a week performing in schools. It was a fun balance: doing socially meaningful theatre for students from kindergarten to Year 12 by day, then rocking myself stupid at French’s by night.

Starting the French’s Group

When Liza asked if I’d like to help set up a French’s group, I agreed readily, especially after she came up with the group name of “I Might Have Drank at French’s Tavern”. This was a tongue-in-cheek nod to the STUC group, with the added refraction that French’s was the kind of place where people often couldn’t quite remember what they did there, or if they were even there.

Like many projects, there were a couple of key people who influenced the development of the group, the most important being David, a former manager and owner of the place who came on board and gave us an amazingly detailed anecdotal history of the place.

This also delivered the most astonishing insight: French’s had a history that went much further than my own direct experience. I know – incredible, isn’t it? French’s was not there just during the few years of my regular attendance in the early 80s, but had a lifespan that ran from the mid 60s to the late 80s. It turns out there were several phases involving live music during this time, from jazz through blues, folk, experimental rock, hard rock, pop, punk, thrash – sometimes one style dominating for a few years, other times a mix changing from night to night.

Members? We Got Members

The Facebook group drew people who were each familiar with the venue during their time, many of them also surprised to find it was ever anything else. The reminiscences came thick and fast, accompanied by photos, videos, audio tracks, drawings, posters and a never-ending stream of personal anecdotes. Old friendships were renewed, new ones made and within six months the group’s membership grew to over 1,000.

French's

One thing about Facebook is that there’s no guarantee that a post or thread will be seen by every person to whom it might be of interest, even in a Group. It can depend on when a Group post appears relative to when members are using Facebook, everyone’s user settings, how many other posts are made immediately afterward and probably other factors. Even in a small group, some people will miss some of the notifications.

New members of a Group will rarely go very far back to read old posts and comment threads. This is why the same questions and comments can come up repeatedly in a Group. A new user may simply be unaware that a topic has been raised previously. This is generally tolerated in an amicable way, especially since there’s nothing you can do about it. But it does mean that a Facebook Group, while great for browsing and timewasting, doesn’t really build up a complete picture of a group’s focus. For that, you’d need something more structured and organised.

Did I mention I design and build websites?

The Website

It occurred to me that I could build a website that would have the advantage of a navigation system to allow people to browse in a more ordered way than Facebook does, or to find specific things they might be looking for, such as whether a specific band played at French’s.

Once I found out that the domain name frenchstavern.com was available, I discussed it with Liza and David (who would be providing a lot of the content) and we decided to go for it.

The content areas of the website would focus on the History of the place, the Bands that played there, some of the People who frequented the place, Videos we’d collected, other stuff that was Related to French’s, a Contact page and a section we might grow into: Merchandise.

That last section came about when Jeremy joined us. Jeremy had some years ago designed some French’s t-shirts for friends, a nostalgic homage. He now lives in New Zealand where he found a great t-shirt maker to take the task on. Jeremy’s first design is now for sale on the website, and three more designs are in the works.

French's

You’ll note that all the content for the website was already on the Facebook Group page. All I had to do was harvest it, sort it and spread it over each content section. I decided the Bands list (also published on the FB Group page) should include any photos, videos or audio we had of that band at French’s.

Given that these events took place 25 to 50 years ago, a surprisingly large stash of content became available. We’re now looking at adding a Photos section to include all the snaps posted to the Facebook page that are not necessarily of bands or specific people.

Personally, I like the Recollections section of the website the best. Part of the History section, this is just a stream of (mostly) anonymised verbatim quotes lifted off the Facebook page. It makes great reading. My other favourite is over in the People section, where the collected comments and anecdotes build some sort of a picture of Ray the bouncer. There was speculation as to his current whereabouts until his nephew gave us the real story.

And now we can get to the love story.

Sara and Chris

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself with the Facebook Group and the website, and I’ve been amused and amazed at some of the revelations:

… the night David Bowie turned up and sat through a half hour of our set. DB and his crew dropped in after doing the showground, didn’t get to meet him as we were on stage …

… 6 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/ etc punks) make it stop. We help Ray up (4 of us) – not a mark on him, I mean his glasses were crooked that’s it. Ray says “well they’re banned” …

… put on unknown PELACCO BROTHERS, they featured Joe Camilleri (Jo Jo Zep) and Steve Cummings (The Sports), amazing night, 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 will, 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 …

… The punks looked quite upset and asked why we had got so angry and hurt them with our equipment? We said that we didn’t like being spat on. They were shocked! They said that they really loved us and were only showing their appreciation …

Which brings us to the real love story. You already know that Facebook is great at reconnecting people with whom you may have lost contact over the years. And it’s great for feeling connected with like-minded people.

In mid-September, this was posted to the French’s Facebook Group:

To all the members of this group. I, Sara & I, Chris are happy to announce to you all via social media, our official engagement. We met in this den of iniquity back in the early 80’s. I was 17, he was 19. He said words to the effect of “Don’t ever change”, but of course I did.

I have had a secret crush on Chris for over 30 years and when I found him through Crackbook and this site, I decided to stealthily stalk him.

Luckily he was single and the rest as they say is history with hopefully more to come.

Thanks to you all.

Chris & Sara

In any context, this would be a marvellous tale. Love found after 30 years. In the context of a place like French’s it’s extra special. Even people who liked French’s in the 80s called it squalid and edgy and dangerous. The regulars were as eccentric as the bands, and while members of various tribes co-existed, the punks dominated. And punk was never likely to be famous for its love stories, at least not ones with happy endings.

And yet, as Sara further commented,

Old punks are more fun, for example, you don’t have to impress with wild stories, you have similar eclectic music tastes, you have a love of gallows humour, you say fuck and fucken c@*!#:&[email protected] a lot, you laugh hysterically at yourselves and you have a sense of adventure that borders on self harm, it’s all good!

Above all, French’s was a place where music ruled: original, often fringe and sometimes experimental throughout its 25 year life. It played a critical role as an inner city platform for live music and it hosted some great acts.

And all that was over and done with 25 years ago.

That French’s should in 2015 become the focus of a kind of online club within which a thousand people can aggregate and share their memories is possible only through the combination of publicly accessible internet technology, willing people like Liza and David and Jeremy, and a particular application that has dynamically and directly interconnected more people globally than has ever been possible.

Love it or hate it, right now I’m just happy that Facebook helped us bring two punks together in love.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/frenchstavern/

http://frenchstavern.com/

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