Frenchs Tavern

David Williams (Owner, 1973-1978): So it is 1973 we have agreed to buy the business from Ray French, who is glad to be rid of it, me thinks. The premises are owned by Sydney Council and the rent is $40 a week. We have a largish loan to pay off and the business is losing money. I get an initial free hand to organise the bands from Paul who is unfamiliar with this music scene, we both keep our jobs to pay loan and expences, Paul drives taxis, I work in the Taxation Department, I’m boss of a section so get a bit of freedom.

First thing we do is slightly raise The Foreday Riders money to $35 a night as they are the backbone of the bar, every top interstate and some overseas acts passing through always dropped in to check them out and sit in, remember drinks were 35 cents at this time. Soon after Richard Clapton, with whom I had worked with at Taxation sees me about playing there solo, I say no that I want it as a band venue, later he agrees and originally gets Dave Ovendon and Brian Bethall from The 69’ers to back him on Wednesday nights.

Then two of my heroes Ian Winter and Greg Lawrie from Melbourne boogie band CARSON front up asking if they can put a band together there, it was LATE NEWS, amazing band. Soon after John Robinson (ex-Blackfeather, now lost in Lismore) asks the same and he gets a regular weekly spot with his band.

The business is picking up, still having to close at 10PM as all Pubs/wine bars did, We talk about extending and our neighbour has the lease on the downstairs of the premises and he agrees to sell us his lease for “key money”, very illegal but we needed the premises. Rick Lock the drummer from The Foreday Riders is a draughtsman so he draws up plans to put stairs leading to downstairs, they are submitted for approval.

In the meantime we have extended bands out to 5 nights a week, and very busy most nights, Richard has released Girls On The Avenue, its an enormous hit and despite threats to boycott him from other bigger venues and booking agents unless he stops playing Frenchs, he tells them to get fucked and keeps playing for quite awhile until it was impractical.

About this time guys from Radio Birdman was hassling me to play there, I keep saying no as it was not the style I wanted, I was into blues and rock, I believed they’d attract the wrong audience, but I relented, they did attract the wrong audience, it was a busy but troublesome night, so I said never again, but months later I relented and had them back, same problem, they were never to play there again, don’t get me wrong there are all nice guys.

Other bands about this time who went down well were Junior And The GoldTops, Big Swifty (later changing name to The Radiators), Dutch Tilders, Home, Jackie Orszaczky, and the unbelieveable people who’d guest with The Riders, the most memorable being USA blues legend Hound Dog Taylor, and just about anyone who was anyone on the Oz Rock scene.

One thing to point out to those who were not there was that we were not allowed to have a cover charge, nor did we ever. Over the first year or so the Darlinghurst police kept a close eye on our trading hours, and made a few threats if we didn’t do the right thing legally, having said that their attitude became if you don’t do anything wrong we don’t hassle you, they said if people did drugs on the premises they’d hassle us, if they did it outside away from the front then it wasn’t our problem. Fair call, I thought.

About this time Hank Davis (ex-Bakery) was tied up with new band AC/DC and I got along great with Hank, but he was pressing me to allow AC/DC to play there. After The Radio Birdman incidents I declined. They were at the time playing The Denison Hotel in Bondi Junction.

Also at this time we toyed with the idea of installing a kitchen, later on, to try to get around the law of no cover charge, whereas you could charge for a meal before entry, by this time my good brother *Michael started work on getting downstairs built after council and police approval.

I’ll point out now, that Paul and I were not getting on, his idea was to make money quick and build an empire, no matter who he could rip off. I was enjoying the people, the business and the music, we were still doing other jobs, I was still in my half hippy mode. I’d start work at Taxation at 8.25AM until 4.16PM, then race up and get Frenchs opened by 5PM, as at that time we featured great jazz and blues pianists Dick Hughes, Graham Bell and others from 5.30PM until the band started at 7.50-9.50PM. About late ’74 I think licencing laws changed allowing bars to stay open until 11PM, that saved us.

OK it’s probably ’75/’76 now and good brother Michael has built downstairs and we hope it is ready, we front up to the boss of Kings Cross Licencing Police to ask them to do the inspection needed, he says well if you think it’s ready just open, we were pleasantly surprised, having said that I always felt we got more than a fair go from the police, all they asked was we do the right thing legally.

So it was under way, 11PM closing, regular bands attracting an increasing crowd, bands like The Foreday Riders, Junior & The GoldTops, The Doyle-Wilson Band. At that time The Foreday Riders have released an album “Blues Live At Frenchs” (recorded at EMI Studios), it sells over 350 copies over the bar alone, their two following albums sell well also, one night I am watching them play and I look up the stairs to see the legendary BO DIDDLEY checking them out, they become his backing band for his tour, he was unhappy with the band provided by the promoter. Another night prior to this USA blues legend HOUND DOG TAYLOR had called to check them out, they are killing it, having to play two nights a week. Not long after mid night closing is introduced by Govt.

Not long after this we are approached by new band OL ’55 to play their first gig, I still remember them asking where the dressing rooms were, off to the kitchen, they were great fun. Soon good friend Peta Wilcox who had introduced me to some great bands asks me to put on unknown PELACCO BROTHERS, they featured Joe Camelleri (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 Hurst fronts and asks about Midnight Oil, great they kill the audience also and thankfully continue on for quite a while as well, again great band and nice people.

Everything is falling into place and one night after Frenchs I am at The Bondi Lifesaver and get introduced to Jim Kelly, John Proud and some other great musicians that I admire, and they say they are wanting to put together a band and would I give them a night, I’m blown out saying they’d be out of Frenchs price range but the money is not an issue, we agree that Monday nights would best suit them so the legend of CROSSFIRE begins.

At another after Frenchs night at The Lifesaver I meet up with Broderick Smith who was there playing with THE DINGOES, Brod used to very often play with The Foreday Riders whilst doing his national service at Moore Park Barracks, it is realised that nearly all members of his former band CARSON were in town and wouldn’t it be great to have a reunion, it’s agreed to do it that Saturday afternoon at Frenchs, where until then there were no Saturday afternoon bands, Double Jay wont list it as they say it wont happen, BUT whilst it did and was, I see Grant who worked there yelling at someone on the phone, I go to see what the problem is, it is him telling Double Jay on air to listen to this, good one. *John Power I still remember that afternoon and cringe at how you were treated.

Another top band to play there when passing through were PANTHA, an afro-rock type of thing, great band, their manager Graham McKee knowing that we cant pay the same as other venues comes up with a great idea, that we guarantee bands a fee, which by now had increased, but if bar sales go over a figure they get 20% of the takings, it worked well.

I must also add that I refused to book bands through agencies, it was nearly 100% done direct, that way we didn’t owe favours to take bands not suited. Also all bar/kitchen/cleaning staff who worked there got paid an hourly award wage for work done, no exceptions.

The nearby deli owners’ grandson Jim used to come in, aged about 10, to pour ciders for early customers, he was my shadow, the parents/grandparents had no problem with that, I think the drummer from Big Swiftys aunt worked at the deli also, we got on well, they put up with a lot. There was an electronic shop there at 84 in mid to late 70s, they had the lease to downstairs of 84 and downstairs of Frenchs, they did not use it and agreed to accept “key money” to swap the lease over to us, I think the rent was $20 a week. Originally the plan was to try to get number 84 and extend sideways but they were not interested in selling.

The bands used big double doors into the lane downstairs to load and unload, also in early days if police came to hassle us about people on premises after 10PM or 11PM closing, we’d sometimes get a warning or they’d stay at the front talking whilst we chased everyone out those doors to the back lane before they’d enter to inspect all was OK, you had to have the premises empty within 10 minutes of closing, it was a game.

BUT also by this time things were getting very bad between Paul and myself, we both had different ideas on the place, he wanted to up bar prices and reduce bands costs, as bands were approaching him offering to play for nothing just to get in, I disagreed strongly.

Also Paul wanted to be able to sell beer and spirits, but legally we could not, so he came up with the idea that we change to a restaurant from a wine bar, the big problem with that “IDEA” was that you could only serve alcohol as an accompaniment to a meal consumed, I couldn’t agree as I knew it would put the police offside as well.

10PM closing ceased about 73/74, the licensed restaurant came in 78/79 so as to be able to sell beer and spirits, surrendering the wine licence, serving what the label said was food, but I had my doubts.

So a good friend from the UK Michael Samler who liked the place and realised the problems, asked me to ask Paul if he would sell his share, Paul would not so I said I will sell my share to Michael or advertise it, he freaked and offered to buy me out for the same price as Michael offered, I agreed.

Another incident prior to this was negotiating with Council to get a kitchen operating, we ran into a brick wall with this as the council health inspector told us that without a greasetrap it was impossible, that was until he asked us for a very large bribe to bypass this issue, I was against paying the creep, Paul agreed, and Bob W*****e got his money,

Also council had raised the rent a few times, very fair to market value, it was all week to week tenancy but everyone else had the same deal. This period of time has brought us to ’78 when I sold up, within days I was asked to meet two guys Greg Cole and Neil Sheldon who ran a nightclub down the road from Frenchs called SOUL 33, a nice venue, they said they were closing and had been offered another venue further up Oxford Street and they invited me to join them, they impressed me so I did.

TZ: I came from 5 years on the international road in 1977 to Sydney where the happening “music scene” convinced me to stay, and Frenchs was a big part of that, Punk music was exploding, grappling and pogoing was wild, Frenchs a home for music experimentation, misfits and outsiders.

DW: When Ray French sold the bar in 1973, we decided not to change the name. But soon after we got lawyers letters telling us to change the unregistered name, by The French Restaurant in the city. They were tired of getting phone calls about what band is playing, as we got lots of calls from people wanting to book in for a meal there. We were advised that the only way around it was for one of us to change our surname to French, I said I was prepared to do that. Upon hearing that, The French Restaurant gave up their challenge, and I didn’t have to change my name, and we registered the name Frenchs Tavern.