Persecution Blues: The Battle for The Tote

Madman: The 2010 battle to save Melbourne’s iconic live music venue, the Tote Hotel, is documented in this passionate slice of social history, now available on DVD.
Persecution Blues: The Battle for The Tote
Social histories are usually more fascinating when the dust has settled on the issue and a patina of sentimentality – or distance, if it’s a particularly nasty episode in history – is allowed to form. See, for example, the endless reels of World War II footage SBS seems to throw at us most Friday nights. But there is something exciting about watching a story that is not only recent – in fact, ongoing – but personal. Persecution Blues: The Battle for the Tote not only lovingly documents a piece of Melbourne nearly lost; it morphs into a rousing illustration of how ordinary people can fight unjust, ill-founded laws and win.

Music fans of Melbourne watched with dismay as a number of iconic venues closed in the early 2000s – much-loved live venues the Punters Club and the Duke of Windsor were remade as garish pizza outlets and, later on, the Palace in St Kilda was buried in an unmarked grave. The ghosts of so many people’s youthful memories haunted these venues’ dark, sticky interiors – but it was the silence that followed; the dwindling of public spaces to gather and hear new live music, that caused aftershocks more profound than the loss of the physical space. It was, then, perhaps a collective sense that this was the last straw, which created the huge groundswell of support for popular Collingwood pub the Tote Hotel (named after John Wren’s nearby illegal betting agency, immortalised in Power Without Glory) when liquor-licensing laws threatened it with closure in 2010. Another loss for live music was unthinkable.

Director Natalie Van Den Dungen followed the travails of the Tote and its former owner, Bruce Milne, for seven years to produce this exploration of the inner city pub’s importance to vast numbers of music lovers and its key place in Melbourne’s cultural fabric. Open six nights of the week, and usually featuring three acts per night, the Tote was synonymous with possibility – there was always plenty of room on the bill for small and unknown bands to carve their mark in the local music scene. Bands like Magic Dirt and The Drones had enormous creative support in the form of regular gigs at the Tote in their early days, and went on to stardom thanks in part to the crowds who gathered on the pub’s notoriously sticky carpet.

Milne explains that his margins were always tight, and towards the end it was practically a not-for-profit outfit. The situation came to a head when state government legislation labelled the Tote a ‘high risk venue’, compelling Milne to employ two security guards on any given night. Complying with these laws gobbled up any small profit the Tote was making and made the business of live music in Melbourne – which had been under attack from noise-sensitive neighbours (many of whom were, ironically, initially drawn to the area by the buzz of being near the action), planning laws and circling developers – even tougher.

For all its snippets of performances and tributes from bands, Persecution Blues: The Battle for the Tote is more a socio-political history than a music documentary. Milne, band booker Amanda Palmer and other familiar local faces talk us through the economic quandary the inner Melbourne pub faced. The film outlines how the Tote ran into trouble because it wasn’t associated with the powerful nightclub industry; nor could it find friends among the pubs, most of which these days make their money from pokies. The few live music venues left were on their own, each fighting ridiculous laws that viewed them in the same light as the violent King Street strip in Melbourne’s CBD. We hear the business case for why the pub couldn’t go on, and the blatant unfairness of the situation is laid bare.

In this case, the punters came to the rescue. Thousands of people gathered at the Save Live Australian Music (SLAM) rallies in 2010 and the state government listened. Sheer force of people power saved the Tote. The footage Van Den Dungen has captured here is a powerful reminder that victories like this are possible. The shells of the Punters Club and the Duke of Windsor still stand, tauntingly, in Brunswick Street and Chapel Street. Happy times at those venues become harder to recollect without a filmic record for posterity, and one can’t help but wonder if public organisation, of the sort we saw at the SLAM rally, along with a rousing documentary to jog the collective memory, could have preserved those great venues too.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Persecution Blues: The Battle for The Tote
Now available to rent or buy through Madman Entertainment
Special features: Over 90 minutes of never-before-seen footage, including exclusive interviews and live performances, Q & A with the director, Q & A with former publican Bruce Milne and the SLAM team; and ‘A Brief and Unfinished History of The Tote’
Rated M

Susanna Nelson

Tuesday 10 April, 2012

About the author

Susanna Nelson writes about health, infrastructure and the environment by day and film, music and theatre by night.