Thursday is the 40th anniversary of the Star Hotel riot, a remarkable moment in Newcastle's history when thousands of Hunter youths came into violent confrontation with police at the closure of one of the city's most famous and outrageous pubs.
Police cars were overturned and set alight as beer bottles, cans and rocks rained down. The riot shook the city and stunned the world as images flashed around the globe.
In 2009, the Newcastle Herald's GREG RAY wrote a series of articles about a night of infamy that will forever be connected to its name. We will republish his series over the next week.
In its famous heyday in the vibrant 1970s, Newcastle's Star Hotel polarised local opinion.
It was a favourite haunt of gays and transvestites, of bikies and sailors, of RAAF personnel from the Williamtown air force base and of thousands of youngsters who loved the music and the spectacle.
But some of Newcastle's civic leaders frowned on it as a den of vice, a magnet for under-age drinkers and a general blight on the city's relatively peaceful nightlife.
What made the Star special was its strange blend of disparate lifestyles.
What made it successful was a business formula that seems unremarkable today: live bands and entertainment and no cover charge to enter.
In a town whose young people were hungry for live music and bands and where high unemployment meant money was in short supply, the Star was a magnet with few parallels.
When the Star's best-remembered licensee, Don Graham, moved to Newcastle to take over the rambling pub in late 1973 from previous operator Lloyd Moffatt, he inherited a strange phenomenon.
According to the Newcastle Herald at the time the Star was "the biggest pub in Newcastle and currently the most popular".
"No description could do justice to the Star, it has to be seen to be believed - an immense, crumbling ruin of a place that exudes the seaminess and rough life one expects of a seaport. Four bars, in various stages of decay, and a beer garden courtyard make up the drinking area.
The paint has peeled off the ceiling in places and plaster is chipped off the walls. The only attraction is its atmosphere, and of that there is plenty.
The drinkers in the Star are a diverse lot. Depending on the hour and day any one of the bars could be crowded with business men, seamen, students or steelworkers," the Newcastle Herald wrote.
The property stretched all the way from Hunter Street to King Street, with at least three bars and an upstairs gallery and function room.
The fishing-net and flag-bedecked "front bar" at the Hunter Street end was where sailors from ships in the harbour drank when they were in town, alongside surfies, bikies (of the genuine 1970s variety) and a colourful mix of waterfront characters including - according to at least one former detective - some of Melbourne's heavier criminals, sent to Newcastle from time to time to lie low.
The "back bar", at the King Street end, was where the bands played, where hyped-up girls danced on the bar and literally let it all hang out and where Novocastrian kids flocked in their hundreds for cheap fun and excitement.
READ MORE: The riot and the myths
Graham ramped up the live entertainment until there were live bands six nights a week, as well as the drag shows and other entertainment.
Many bands played at the Star and, until the famous last night made the Heroes synonymous with the pub in the popular imagination, Benny and the Jets was perhaps the best-known regular act.
Star regulars revel in stories about how the back bar was often so crowded it was impossible to buy a drink in person. Instead, drinkers passed their money and their order to the person in front and, eventually, the drink and the change would make their way, hand to hand and overhead, back to the person who'd made the order.
"I always got the right change back," one former regular marvelled.
It was the "middle bar" where for years the city's gay and transvestite community held court, putting on their own spectacular drag shows that became, for a time, a popular drawcard for the bold and the curious.
There was also a beer garden in the middle, where a drug deal or two is reputed to have taken place and where some regulars say the whiff of marijuana sometimes hung in the air.
Many middle-aged Novocastrians confess to visiting the pub before they turned 18 and according to folklore, regular patrons made it their business to shepherd under-age drinkers out of sight if police came by.
Warts and all, it was a very good business. But as time passed conservative Newcastle's reservations about the Star began to accumulate.
The fights, the allegations of under-age drinking, the complaints about the moral danger posed by the unrestrained display of gay and cross-dressing lifestyles took their toll.
By early 1979 the undisguised hostility of many civic leaders and, more tellingly, the licensing police, may have been making the brewery that owned the pub freehold more than nervous.
Perhaps to persuade the authorities that the Star could clean up its act, Graham embarked on a much-debated advertising campaign of a type that would be impossible today.
Big display ads in Newcastle's papers boldly proclaimed: "No more 'puffs' at the Star". The Star was "going straight". There would be "no more camping in our new guitar bar".
The Star removed a number of "drag queen" staff and banned any obvious gays from entering its bars. Gay libbers protested, setting up pickets at the pub, but Graham told newspapers he had hired 10 bouncers and would not back down.
"Maybe I am discriminating against them but the main thing is that I have removed the stigma associated with the name of my hotel," he said at the time.
If his move was designed to save the pub from the machinations of the authorities who clearly wanted it closed, it failed.
A report commissioned by Newcastle City Council after the riot revealed that "the licensing police had recommended some time prior to the hotel ceasing business that renovations be carried out by the owners, Tooths Brewery, to satisfy the provisions required for continuation of the licence.
"The licensee, Don Graham, was placed on a weekly tenancy."
Newspaper reports from early 1979 state that licensing police and Newcastle City Council had both warned Tooths that they planned to object to the renewal of the Star's licence to trade.
The hotel's death-warrant was signed in early September. Tooth and Co evidently weighed up the costs and benefits of keeping the pub open in the face of opposition from Newcastle authorities and decided to surrender.
Graham was given the legally required one week's notice and told to cease business on September 19.
He flew to Sydney to try to change the owners' minds, but Tooths was adamant.
Even an offer to buy the pub was turned down flat. Tooths issued a public statement, asserting that Newcastle already had too many hotels and stating that it would cost too much money to bring the Star up to an acceptable standard.
Graham was given no choice. His lucrative business was being taken away.
"Taking the Star out of Newcastle is like taking Kings Cross out of Sydney," he lamented.
Many Novocastrians agreed. And some thought that was a good thing.
But to thousands of young people who had enjoyed the Star's cheap, casual and exciting brand of entertainment, the announcement was a tragedy.
In a city wrestling with high youth unemployment, there were some who considered the loss of the Star as a personal affront: a heavy-handed action by authorities directed fairly and squarely at the unruly young.
"Save the Star" T-shirts appeared, petitions circulated and some Newcastle tradesmen are said to have offered to renovate the hotel for nothing.
All to no avail, as Don Graham could have told them. Graham appeared determined, however, to give the old girl a good send-off.
"We'll have the biggest wake the city has seen," he promised.
The Star's last night was to be a Wednesday and, as usual, closing time was officially 10 pm.
Many former regulars insist that the pub commonly traded on for the odd 15 minutes or half-hour, depending on the band.
A number of former regulars say they had fully expected the last night's entertainment to run for an extra half-hour - maybe even an hour. It was widely publicised that the beer would be free between 4 pm and 5 pm, and the entertainment was to be supplied by popular local rockers Heroes, who had been regulars at the Star for years.
As expected, the crowds poured in from late afternoon and by 6pm it was clear that thousands would be attending the event, which took on the character of a noisy wake, mixing a mood of celebration with a sense of regret and an undercurrent of resentment.
Many drank heavily. Many others didn't, for the simple fact that getting to a bar was a difficult job.
Heroes gave the crowd their usual heady playlist of rock anthems, planning as a final encore a one-time country and western song, retuned for the band's style, the prophetic and subsequently controversial The Star and the Slaughter.
Considering the fact that as many as 5000 people may have been present, the night was relatively orderly.
Some incidents were reported, but nothing really problematic occurred until the crowd overflowing from the back bar onto King Street began to seriously interfere with traffic.
Some brave motorists attempted to nudge their way through the milling revellers on King Street's east-bound lanes. Their attempts weren't appreciated by the crowds and the predictable harsh words and bonnet-pounding ensued, prompting complaints to police.
To many people, this was the pivot point from which events leading to the evening's shocking finale radiated.
It appears to be universally accepted that, despite some signs of potential issues at the Star that night, the city's police didn't have a clear action plan in mind.
Today, in the unlikely event that police even let such an event proceed, they would probably cordon off King Street and have dozens of well-equipped officers on-call.
On that night in 1979, it was left to some general duties officers to sort out the traffic problems and, almost incidentally, enforce the hotel's 10 pm official closing time. The police who first attended made their way through the crowd and into the back bar, where one officer signalled to the band to stop playing.
Conflicting accounts of the next events exist, but it appears likely the officer made some active attempts to stop the music when the band members tried to finish the song they were playing. Some say the leads were pulled out. Others say the lead singer was hit in the teeth by a shaken microphone stand. Others say the police tried to physically remove the band from the stage.
In fact, when the police moved out of the back bar, the band plugged in their leads and sang the encore they'd planned all along, with de Jong urging people to contain their emotions and "keep it subdued'.
By then it was too late. Many people had left the back bar and joined the throng in King Street, where numbers were also bolstered by spectators from the nearby Newcastle Workers Club, who came out in hundreds to see what was happening.
Police efforts to clear the road for traffic by driving their vehicles slowly through the crowd prompted a rain of cans, bottles and flagons.
It was later claimed in Newcastle City Council's official report on the incident that a person was hit by one of the police cars, precipitating still more anger on the part of the crowd.
From that point, control of the situation moved well beyond the capacity of the police at the scene. Officers tried to make arrests and as they waded into the crowd, locked in combat with the initial handful of pub patrons, other members of the crowd joined in. Soon the situation became chaotic. A chant of "piss off pigs" can be clearly heard on recordings made on the night.
While most of the crowd stood back and watched, many got involved in a series of running punch-ups and many more rained missiles at the police.
Realising their disadvantage, the police withdrew towards the King Street headquarters of the Hunter District Water Board, setting up a watching post.
The crowd, now thoroughly whipped up and led by troublemakers who obviously relished their upper-hand over the authorities, still surged around the street, finally charging the police.
The water board building had, at that time, an impressive rock garden. Many in the crowd found the rocks made ideal replacements for the cans and bottles they had previously been throwing and the police were again on the back foot.
The most active rioters then overturned a police car and, when petrol spilled into the gutter, it only took a deliberately thrown match to start the fire that destroyed two police vehicles.
Many people have noted over the years that it was the police who bore the full brunt of the crowd's anger. Numerous non-police vehicles sat all night in the middle of the riot zone and remained untouched except by stray missiles. Bad as it was, the riot's destruction and malice mostly retained a tight focus on the heavily outnumbered but extremely determined police.
Video from the night shows the savage enthusiasm with which some police and rioters exchanged blows, but it also records the moment of impressive bravery when three uniformed officers raced to the back of a burning paddy wagon and, surrounded by flames from burning petrol, threw open the vehicle's doors.
As it happened, nobody was inside, but the image spoke volumes for the fundamental decency of the police officers and their understanding of their duty as protectors. By this time, the vast majority of the crowd had lost their stomach for confrontation.
Most were horrified and shocked at the torching of the cars and numbers quickly dwindled to a hard core of ferocious and reckless rioters who persisted in raining rocks and bottles on police and even firefighters who were trying to douse the flames from the burning cars. Firefighters were initially reluctant to have their hoses turned on the crowd, but when some people allegedly tried to slash the hoses with broken glass, their reluctance disappeared.
The jets of high-pressure water were what finally dampened the ardour of the remaining rioters, bringing the night's events to a close.
By the end of the riot police had arrested 29 people, including three women. Several police were injured, some seriously. King Street was a mess and the Star Hotel itself was hardly any better, having suffered at the hands of rioters and souvenir hunters.
Dozens of people spent the night in Newcastle's old Hunter Street police lockup, while the police, themselves dazed and shocked, did their best to deal with the charging procedures and paperwork.
News of the riot flew around Australia and the world. Initial reactions included amazement that a normally conservative Australian city could produce such mob violence: all over such an apparently trivial thing as a hotel closure.
In the weeks that followed police, aided by press photographs and television footage, sought out can-throwers and conspicuous brawlers. These were often arrested at their homes or workplaces, and the eventual total of people charged rose to some 46.
To begin with, the police charged people with an old, little-used offence known as "riotous assembly". This was reputed to have been a capital offence in years gone by and it still carried the threat of a long prison sentence.
The idea that a relative handful of people might be forced to pay a massive personal price for a mob action prompted some, like trade union activist Rod Noble, to form a community-funded committee to hire the best possible legal defence.
This so-called "Council for Social Justice" hired a Sydney QC and organised fund-raising activities.
"When we analysed the charges we found the most over-represented group was RAAF personnel," Noble says. The prosecution was quickly persuaded that the element of conspiracy required for a conviction was not present, so they changed the charges to "unlawful assembly".
Even with seized press photographs and television footage it proved extremely difficult for the police to prove who did what. In the end, many fines and bonds were issued but nobody was jailed.
The court cases, investigations and soul-searching went on for many months and people tried to find somebody or something to blame. Some accused the band, others blamed the police. Some said it was caused by unemployment and frustration. Some even blamed the media.
Ultimately, the best anybody can say is that the riot happened because of a unique combination of circumstances. Alcohol, unhappiness at the closure of an extremely popular venue and a lack of proper planning by police all played their part in an event that put Newcastle on the world map, for all the wrong reasons.
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