Fleets/WestConnex – Ashfield, NSW
Remember when Michael Jordan went from dominating basketball to embarrassing baseball? Today’s subject is a little bit like that, only without the Bugs Bunny team-up to make it palatable (I asked, he’s a busy rabbit). Still sports-related, mind you.
WHOA! Are you into top gear yet? Back in 1994, the clamorous Tony D’Allura was the managing director of Fleets, a sports gear warehouse. At 154 Parramatta Road, Ashfield, D’Allura broadcast this entreaty to those in the market for day-glo boogie boards and flippers…and woe to any piece of cardboard with a dollar value written on it that got in his way.
It was this arresting commercial that gave me pause, first to check my hearing, and second to find out what had happened to that location. I didn’t have high hopes – after all, how long can you last when you’re selling flippers at “unbelievable” prices?
But before we get to the ultimate fate of Fleets, let’s go back a bit further. Even back in its residential days, someone was trying to flog stuff at crazy prices:
Glorious tone and volume, eh? Now, who does that remind you of…
The site’s sportswear days date back to at least 1976, when it was home to Ski-Ace Pty Ltd, owners of the BLACK MAX trademark. I don’t know about you, but the idea of Tony D’Allura screaming about bargain marital aids during The Simpsons back in 1996 appeals, it really does.
In 1978, Ski-Ace became Fleets Sports World, specialising in winter gear, and by 1990, they were a known brand with ONE LOCATION ONLY. As we already know, by 1994 they’d expanded into surfing gear and general sports equipment, and two years later they expanded into Brookvale. As with our old mate Toyworld, country towns followed.
Here’s where things become preposterous…
Fleet Flyers was a small courier company founded in Sydney in 1921. 40 years later, it was bought out by Australian National Couriers, which is still active today.
In 2000, Fleets Sports World vacated the Ashfield location, and was replaced by Canova Interiors. Ok, I hear you say, who cares?
Well, Fleets Flyers began to use that same address, and apparently adopted the extra ‘s’ along the way. Neither the mostly defunct Fleets website or the still-active ANC site (which the Fleets site redirects to) mention Fleets Sports World in their history or about pages, nor do they mention any sporting history whatsoever.
So what happened? Did they move in simply because the name was already on the sign? Unless Tony D’Allura resurfaces to tell us the story via podcasts Cheez TV-style, we may never know.
What we do know is that neither Fleet, Fleets, ANC, or even Canova Interiors operate outta Ashfield anymore:
The old Fleets, along with Brescia Furniture and some other relics have been razed to make way for WestConnex. The sun has set on Parramatta Road’s commercial viability. No longer can you plan a day of shopping for soccer balls, leather lounges or ribs along this soon-to-be-habitrail, and frankly it boggles the mind that it was ever possible.
But should an ANC driver ever feel a chill as they pass this stretch of the motorway in years to come, well, now we’ll know why.
And don’t mourn for Fleets – against all odds they’re kicking on in regional NSW, where it’s appropriate to appear in your own ads. Have a look if you don’t believe me:
Dry your eyes.
Special shoutout to my homie Flemishdog for uploading these and many other old ads. Love your work, Mr Marshall.
Computer Service Centre/Pharmatex – Epping, NSW
Come gather round, children, and I’ll tell you a tale of a time when people played “computer games”.
Epping is a bit of a mess these days: no two floors of a shop can seem to agree on what they’re going to be. This one in particular features voices from the future (education – the Children Are Our Future), the present (the natural health joint), and the past. We’ll get to all of them, but let’s begin yesterday.
In 1983, the market for console video games in the United States crashed and crashed hard. In a panic, the computer gaming industry (there’s a difference) sought to distance itself from its ailing cousin. IBM, Amstrad, Commodore were just a few of the names attempting to usurp Atari as household standards.
In Europe and Australia, it largely worked. By the early 90s, naff adults would refer to kids’ Sega Master Systems and Game Boys as “computer games”. Ugh.
When you’re a kid, it’s a travesty. You and your passions, tarred and feathered by misunderstanding. Or was it a lack of wanting to understand?
It took years for the computer games terminology to wear off. You’ll still hear it today if you listen (or care) hard enough. Sure, there have been some great games for computers during the past two decades, but as our old buddy Lana Del Rey likes to say, something something video games.
Which brings us to today’s focus. This place serviced computers, and wisely separates computers and games. It’s hard to tell where to place this in the gamut of understanding, but I’m going to go ahead and chuck it in the “totally gets it” pile. For one, the sign appears to be neon – cool. And two, the shop doesn’t look that old.
The computers and games and computer games have long since left the building, however. It’s symptomatic of a larger sickness – when was the last time you saw a games department at Myer? At K-Mart? It’s clear this was just another casualty of the digital takeover.
Today, it’s home to Pharmatex. Or it isn’t. Their website has the right address, but the shop itself appears to contain no less than two other pharmaceutical/health food outlets.
If you’re that curious, call them toll free on 1800 GLOVES (seriously).
As for the HSC English specialists, I wonder what percentage of these tutors exist purely to stop the students from playing computer games instead of studying?
C’s Flash Back Second Hand Clothing/City Convenience – Newtown, NSW
What’s this? A second hand clothing store in Newtown that’s no longer in operation?! How could this be?!
I’m sure C didn’t see the convenience in this situation. Nor did the council when it was forced to take a bite out of the awning to get that pole in. It’s not a good look, but neither were most of the fashions C had up for sale. Let’s please leave flares in the past.
C actually fills in the historic blanks him/her/itself on the C’s Flash Back website: “C’s flashback began as a humble stall at Glebe Markets selling antique collectables 20 years ago.”
Here’s where the timeline gets a little muddy: “Within 2 years they had expanded to a brick and mortar store in Newtown and later in Surry Hills.”
So this sign has been here for 18 years? There’s no mention of when the Newtown location closed; in fact, the website speaks as if it’s still operating: “With quality low-cost exotic clothing in the heart of Newtown, the King Street store provides many of the costume pieces for fancy-dress uni-parties throughout the year.”
You don’t say.
It’s also noted that C’s love of dressing people in outdated styles continues to have outlets at Surry Hills, Paddington and Glebe Markets.
Thank goodness Glebe still has a place to buy second hand clothing.
The American Way, Part 2: Coincidence – Double Bay, NSW
Goldfinger said, “Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: ‘Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.’”
– Ian Fleming, Goldfinger (1959)
One of Australia’s greatest sins is envy. In the early years our aspirations cast us firmly in the role of Little England, and ever since World War II we’ve aspired to be Little America. Look around: we’re doing a pretty good job.
But for a couple of decades there we achieved what appeared to be a national identity, entirely based on the most valuable export of all – celebrity. Movies, personalities and music we could call our own. Our Kylie. Our Hoges. Our Mark “Jacko” Jackson.
Up until the mid 1960s, it seems as if Australia’s music scene simply seemed to coincide with what was going on overseas. Johnny O’Keefe wasn’t overly concerned with copying his American contemporaries (for creative reasons, anyway); his association with US-born promoter Lee Gordon barely qualified as even a mere facsimile of an Elvis-and-the-Colonel style relationship.
Largely forgotten by the time of his death in 1963 after years of declining fortunes, Gordon’s contributions to Australian pop culture remain relevant. These include opening Sydney’s first striptease club and drive-in restaurant (sadly, two separate establishments), and translating into local parlance the blueprint for rock’n’roll success.
O’Keefe, Australia’s first “homegrown” rock star, may seem tame by today’s standards, but in 1958 he was a revelation. “Wild One”, his signature tune, persists today, best known to stoners and the unemployed as part of the opening of ABC’s Rage music video show.
The Wild One was soon outpaced by others inspired by his lead, and in 1978 finally bowed out of the race. His death (from a heart attack) had come a year after that of his idol, Elvis Presley.
Throughout a life and death which could only be deemed “wild” by the mannered standards of Australian society, Johnny O’Keefe forged a path for others seeking rock’n’roll fame and fortune to follow. That Col Joye is still alive and O’Keefe is not should tell you all you need to know about how to make it.
For better or worse.
But JOK’s failure to crack the American music market haunted the Australian entertainment industry. It was as if his inability was seen as a national slight – if he was our best, our wildest, and HE couldn’t do it…who could?
And so began the tradition that continues to this day. Musical acts form in Australia (or New Zealand), play the pubs, clubs and RSLs, top the charts and try to take their act – and Brand Australia – overseas. Sometimes they make it big in Europe. Sometimes in Japan. But only rarely is someone from the great brown land able to part the Pacific and Atlantic, and access the pleasure dome of riches in between.
While AC/DC was able to cross over (and stay there) by the late 1970s, the list of Australians to make a splash in the USA that decade is as short as it is dire: Helen Reddy, Olivia and the brothers Gibb. Were these really the ambassadors of Aussie music overseas, especially when there was so much good happening here?
In the following years, the dream seemed to die. The Bee Gees shattered records with their contributions to Saturday Night Fever, ONJ scaled Mount Celebrity with Grease; both acts were on the nose by the early 80s. AC/DC frontman Bon Scott, the most charismatic Australia had yet produced, didn’t even make it that far. In 1979, just as the band’s Highway to Hell was finally breaking through, he died alone in his car, in excess.
Bands used these cautionary tales as incentives to work harder and aim higher, but none quite topped the bill. Among those who came close were Dragon, a bunch of Kiwis who had the charisma and the attitude to make it, but none of the self-control. A disastrous 1978 tour of the USA, intended to break them, did just that, but not in the way they were hoping. When you learn what it eventually took to top the US charts, it’s clear how painfully close Dragon came.
That spectacular failure and the rise of a newer, more calculated sound crossed paths in this curio from 1982:
By that time, Dragon were seen as has-beens, having had their chance and blown it. You can see it in that video, in Dragon’s lead singer Marc Hunter. He’s trying the rock star act but without any real conviction. The shades appear to be shielding him (or us) from the regret.
On the other hand, quiet 22-year-old Michael Hutchence seems self-conscious, fidgety, totally unprepared for what the next few years will bring him. Given Hutchence’s babyfaced appearance and insular behaviour, we can file Hunter’s prescient advice to him firmly under coincidence.
1991. The land at 33 Cross Street, Double Bay has been in a state of development for decades. Originally, the property had belonged to a John Gray, who in 1857 constructed his grand manor ‘Heath’ on the site. By 1934, ‘Heath’ had been converted into flats, and a bunch of other unit blocks had popped up on the site. As the 1970s rolled around, the greed that buried Juanita Nielsen came to Double Bay, looking to commercialise New South Head Road and the surrounding streets, and Cross Street was right in the crosshairs.
In 1986, while Hutchence was busy seducing the USA, ‘Heath’ and the surrounding flats were earmarked for demolition by council. Two years later, as Hutchence basked in the success of his biggest album to date, Woollahra Council approved a proposal to build a six-storey hotel complex on the site. ‘Heath’ was immediately demolished.
Being constructed in the early 90s wasn’t a pretty thing for buildings. More often than not you’d end up with spiffy new brickwork that made you look like that kid at school whose uniform hadn’t been worn in yet and looked a bit too dorkily crisp. Pretentious Roman-esque pylons, entirely too much concrete and a feeble attempt at a futuristic aesthetic intended to distance big cities from the all-too-recognisable frontages of the 1970s were common crimes among the new generation.
And so it was for Double Bay’s new Ritz Carlton Hotel, which shortly after opening for business in December, 1991 was hired out in its entirety by then-US President George Bush for his Sydney visit. Read my lips: no vacancies.
Meanwhile, Michael Hutchence and his backing group, INXS, are beginning their descent from the peak of global rock superstardom. Their monster single ‘Need You Tonight’ had topped the US charts in 1987, the first Australian song to do so since Men At Work’s ubiquitous ‘Down Under’ in 1983. There wouldn’t be another until Savage Garden’s ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ in 1998, by which time we’d apparently settled on lame MOR AOR music as our primary export. And Hutchence…
Well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
INXS had emerged from the same pub scene that had bred Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl and the Angels, all of whom had tried and failed to make it in America. But where those bands had brandished an idiosyncratic, very Australian sound which made for hard listening overseas, INXS drifted away from their earlier, quirkier hits and rough image towards something a lot more contrived.
Apparently overnight and entirely coincidental to the band’s quest for fame, Hutchence transformed from the shy boy in the above video into a feline rock god who seemed to effortlessly channel Jim Morrison. It was as if he had altered himself entirely on the whim of the band, which then found itself struggling to back him up.
Questionable visual appeal of the other band members notwithstanding, Hutchence’s image and the cool, slick grooves the band laid down provided the perfect package for American audiences who didn’t even know they wanted it. In a time of hair metal and butt rock, Hutchence provided Americans with a throwback to an era where rock and roll legends were born. Whether this was intentional on his part is unclear.
I’m sorry, but when you go back and listen now, INXS’s 80s hits are indeed all style and no substance. They’re like animated gifs in music form: just one groove or riff repeated for an often obnoxious five minutes. Hutchence’s sexually charged delivery and very slick production values go a long way towards elevating them beyond sounding dated. At least, they did for a while; sadly, anything from 1990’s X album onwards sounds painfully of its time.
There’s certainly nothing particularly Australian about INXS either. At a glance, they could be American (or at least Canadian). This factor made them a target in the eyes of the Australian media of the day. Hutcho’s profile increased with each supermodel he dated, each paparazzi he punched out, and the media were there to hound him every step of the way.
In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine why he was such a drawcard for the tabloids. Perhaps his sudden rise and boring fall coincided with a boom in Australian tabloid media, which in the early 90s was caught somewhere between American sleaze journalism and hardcore British pap-rags. Maybe he was just more interesting than John Farnham or Daryl Braithwaite. Hard to believe, I know.
Speaking of celebrities, the Ritz-Carlton was, by coincidence, also proving to be a breadwinner for the Sydney paparazzi. Madonna rented several rooms in 1993 (hope they washed them afterwards), and larrikin former PM Bob Hawke married his scandalous amour/biographer Blanche d’Alpuget in front of 150 guests there in 1995 (REALLY hope they washed those rooms afterwards).
But what the Ritz-Carlton didn’t want you to know, with all their boasting of celebrity clients, was that even early on, financial struggles had accepted a permanent residency. An October 1992 report revealed an average occupancy rate of just 37%. Remember that number.
That was also the year that marked the full tilt slide in popularity for INXS. That year’s album Welcome to Wherever You Are had tanked; the accompanying Sega Mega CD ‘Make My Video’ title was beneath the treads. The band, unable to capture their Kick-era glory, were floundering. Hutchence in particular seemed wounded by the fall, with a strange event in August of that year exacerbating things.
During a night on the town in Denmark with his girlfriend, model Helena Christensen, Hutchence had become involved in an altercation with a taxi driver. Punches were thrown, and Hutchence hit his head on the pavement, fracturing his skull. He lost his sense of taste and smell, and became, in the words of INXS bassist Garry Gary Beers, “a dick”.
While Madonna was justifying her love in the Ritz-Carlton in 1993, the band released yet another “comeback album”, Full Moon, Dirty Hearts, the occupancy rate of which would have made the Ritz-Carlton proud. Production of this album was troubled, with the band finding itself at odds with an increasingly volatile Hutchence, who had become prone to violent mood swings and outbursts.
INXS laid low for several years, perhaps sensing its ever-increasing irrelevancy. But despite the lack of success, Hutchence still found himself a tabloid target. Maybe the back-to-back unsuccessful albums were intentional; a misguided attempt to dissuade the paps. Even if so, he didn’t do himself any favours when he shacked up with UK media identity Paula Yates.
Yates was the wife of Live Aid mastermind/Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof, but in 1995, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ was a decade old. For Paula, it was time to trade up. In 1996, she became pregnant with Hutchence’s child and divorced Geldof, sending tabloid media into a foaming frenzy. I’d just like to ask, even with the benefit of hindsight: who really cared?
Meanwhile, the Ritz-Carlton was in the spotlight again, also thanks to a high-profile British divorce. No less than Princess Di occupied the Presidential suite in 1996 following her divorce from Prince Charles. Can I stop right here and ask why an Australian hotel needed a Presidential suite? Why can’t high rollers choose to stay in the Prime Ministerial suite?
Hotels are dehumanising places. Underneath the colours, they’re fake, temporary shelters; a place where you can be someone else and leave yourself at your real home. A place where people treat you like royalty because of how much you spend rather than who you are. You’re never truly yourself in a hotel, you’re just waiting for your next role.
Princess Di would have known it as she pondered what to do with her life following the most scandalous royal decision since the abdication.
President Bush would have known it, as he assessed his plummeting opinion polls and an all but guaranteed loss to a newcomer Southern Democrat.
Bob and Blanche would have known it as they faced a future viewed not as former PM and author, but as adulterer and home wrecker.
Madonna…no, that’s too easy.
And so too would 37-year-old Michael Hutchence have known that gloomy feeling of dissociation and temporary anonymity as he checked into the Ritz-Carlton in November 1997 under his nom de plume. “Mr. Rivers” headed up to room 524, dumped his stuff, pocketed a few fancy soaps (probably), and headed out to rehearsal with INXS.
That evening, he had dinner with his father at Flavour of India at Edgecliff, where he spoke positively about the future, particularly about the prospect of spending Christmas with Yates, their daughter, and her three other kids.
When Hutchence returned to his room, he found himself despondent. He called some friends up to chat and get high, but they didn’t stay the night. Left to his own devices, his personal life imploded, and the tide went out for Mr. Rivers.
Is it coincidence that Hutchence’s final cry for help should place him in the pantheon of tragic rock star deaths, despite his intentions?
Is it coincidence that on the site of a manor named ‘Heath’, a drug-addled, troubled Australian should die alone in his room while riding a wave of international success?
Is it coincidence that in the years after the fates of Hutchence and the Ritz-Carlton became intertwined, both the hotel and Hutchence’s band changed frontmen several times in vain attempts to recapture their former glory?
Where American hotels that play host to scandalous deaths, like the Chateau Marmot, revel in the sordid fame for years to come, the Ritz-Carlton took the very Australian route of distancing itself from the tragedy. For the next three years, there was no tribute, no signifier of what had occurred there. By refusing to capitalise on the by-association fame Hutchence had bequeathed it, the Ritz-Carlton had relegated his rock-star death to the realm of coincidence. ‘He would have died anyway, it just happened to be at a hotel,’ it seemed to say.
In 2000, the hotel itself experienced that feeling of dissociation when it changed hands and was renamed the Sir Stamford Hotel Double Bay. The Stamford Hotels and Resorts group was formed in Singapore in 1995, and named after the city’s founder Sir Stamford Raffles. I get what they were going for, but which fun-hating devils among us wouldn’t want to stay at the Raffles Hotel?
Here’s where things get a little…strange.
The Sir Stamford closed in 2009, with plans in place to demolish the hotel and replace it with 14-storey twin-tower apartments, presumably to keep Double Bay looking like the rest of Sydney. But Woollahra Council, bless ‘em, dared to be different and refused to listen like thieves, canning the proposal and leaving the Ritz-Stamford – and the once-prestigious Double Bay – to sink into destitution.
Illegal parties, prostitution rackets and Russian cabaret dinners all allegedly took place in the husk of the hotel for four long years, dragging down the reputation of the area just as Bondi Westfield dragged out all its money. For the blue bloods who believed Double Bay was still the beacon of avarice it had been in years past (as if that was something to be proud of), this came as a shock.
Now, when I was a kid, Double Bay had the dubious honour of being known simultaneously as “a really rich area” and “a place where smackheads steal VCRs”. Even with my mind conjuring up visions of the Foot Clan emptying delivery vans along New South Head Road, it was cemented for me as a place not to go. Rich people were trouble, “smackheads” sounded like trouble (no kid likes getting a smack, and especially not in the head), and the shops were all boring.
It’s amazing to me that in just 12 short years, Double Bay had gone from being a slam-dunk venue for a world-class luxury hotel to an absolute bomb site. Coincidence, then, that Michael Hutchence’s death had been the match that started the fire? Or maybe it had been destined to fall this far all along. Elegantly wasted, indeed.
In 2013, some extremely optimistic investors saved 33 Cross from the swing of the wrecking ball, and today, it operates as the InterContinental Double Bay, in the same building that played host to presidents, rock stars, Russian hooker parties, and all that other shabooh shoobah.
It wasn’t enough for me just to take some dodgy photos of the extremely difficult-to-shoot frontage; I had to get inside, and short of specifically asking for room 524 (let’s leave that kind of thing to the experts), I explored.
The chap at the front desk instantly denied any knowledge of anything that had remotely occurred on the premises prior to the moment I’d addressed him. In fact, he seemed almost terrified that one of the great unwashed had found their way in. Poor guy. They must have had a lot of stickybeaks coming in to see where it happened, so it must be in their training to deny everything.
Inside, the hotel looks quite vintage, so when I informed him that I was a guest, that I’d stayed there as a kid and wanted to know more about what the hotel was like then, he was much more forthcoming. He seemed quite proud of the place, despite only being the front desk guy – the finest loyalty money can buy. When he finished his spiel I turned to leave, anxious to go and take pics while I had this guy’s tacit approval. He called out after me, “Hey, what was your name, sir?”
The renovation work at the Intercontinental was pretty shoddy: most of the place was plastered up and looked quite tacky. I was convinced there had to be some evidence of the past here somewhere. You couldn’t go this long stagnating under the guise of “closed for renovations” and cover everything up. I was sure they would have changed the room numbers to confuse would-be trophy hunters, but there had to be something.
I found it in the retail warrens that criss-cross beneath the hotel proper. It’s not much, but it’s all you’re getting.
A country with a bad case of identity crisis, Australia backed its boy when he was on top of the American world, stuck the knife in when he wasn’t, and all but forgot about him once he fell on it. By Michael Hutchence, the coincidental rock star, the promise of Johnny O’Keefe was fulfilled. Ever since his death, once an Australian hits the top, they know where they’ll end up: falling down the mountain, end up kissing dirt.
Lifeline 24 hour crisis support number – 13 11 14