The Tote Hotel at 71 Johnston Street,  on the corner of Johnston and Wellington Streets, in Collingwood,  is the most famous music pub in Melbourne. There is a ghost on the stairs (below) and the place is also haunted by the memory of legendary gigs, by everyone from The Hoodoo Gurus to The White Stripes.

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The pub itself dates from 1876. Almost 100 years later it began hosting bands and a legend was born. It was saved from closure in 2012 by a rally of 2,000 Melbourne music fans and became caught up in a bigger fight about saving band venues in the city. The fans won.

Source: Flickr/Craig Anderson.

Source: Flickr/Craig Anderson.

The Damned were here too, at a show by a band called Faxed Head. ” At one point I walked into the toilet and busted Captain Sensible,” remembers a former owner. He was “trying to knock the bottle top off Crownies that he’d smuggled in from the bottle shop down the road. That was impressive.”

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Little Murders guitarist and singer Rob Griffiths says, ” It is legendary in the sense that London clubs like the Marquee, the 100 Club, and New York’s CBGBs are legendary.”

The Tote gets its name comes from the Frank Hardy novel (1950) Power Without Glory and it is rumoured to have secret tunnels from the cellar, to the building opposite, once used by bookies involved in illegal betting for a fast getaway.

Bruce Milne is another former owner. 

“Richie Ramone conned me into investing in the business with him,” he says. 

The roll-call of Australian bands at The Tote includes The Meanies, Cosmic Psychos, Magic Dirt, The Birthday Party, The Spazzys, Underground Lovers, The Drones and Mach Pelican. It has also hosted everyone from The White Stripes to The Donnas, Fugazi, Billy Childish and Mudhoney.

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Melbourne author and journalist Marieke Hardy remembers, “The Tote hotel was never the prettiest of venues – in fact for the most part it was a stinking, sweaty bitch mistress, luring blinking punters in off Johnston Street with the promise of grubby sex in the toilets and twelve-minute guitar solos, and propelling them back out into the night with bleeding ear drums and the sort of blossoming liver problems once enjoyed by a young and wild-eyed Oliver Reed.”

THE TOTE – PART OF COLLINGWOOD LIFE
Collingwood is famous for its football team but also for its band culture, its preserved streets and buildings (although developers are moving in) and its easy-walk-home status. 
Unlike Sydney, which has destroyed inner city band culture by allowing retail and high-rise to take over, Melbourne has hung on to venues like The Tote, partly through the efforts of SLAM, the most famous live music activism organisation in the country. Helen Marcou and partner Quincy McLean (formerly with Scrap Museum and Blue Ruin) have turned SLAM into a formidable lobby group and have helped save Melbourne from the same fate as Sydney, where Pitt Street (once the home of live music in the city) is now just another shopping street.

The  Tote pub sign (below)  comes from Carlton Draught, the beer company which takes its name from another ‘football’ neighbourhood, just a few miles away. Carlton, of course, was immortalised by Skyhooks in the 1970s, together with its main thoroughfare Lygon Street – when Melbourne was just beginning to cement its identity as the music capital of Australia.

It is this network of fiercely protected little sport and music villages within Melbourne itself which has preserved its personality, in a world of Hard Rock cafes and Westfield shopping centres.

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Collingwood is close enough to the city centre of Melbourne and its surrounding suburbs – like Northcote, Fitzroy, Brunswick – to allow people to take a determined walk home after a gig (no Uber necessarily required).

The Tote is also well-served by Melbourne’s iconic trams. You may not always know the names of the bands painted on the exterior walls of the pub, but that’s the point. The Tote has always been, and always will be (Melburnians hope) a big, noisy, music experiment.

Sometimes the only ‘known’ musical factor in the whole line-up is the legendary Spencer P. Jones, who has been a Melbourne fixture since the Eighties. Sometimes it’s a band who only just received airplay on Melbourne indie radio station 3RRR. If you mourn the loss of CBGB and Bowery culture in old Seventies New York, though, you might just want to take a trip to The Tote in Collingwood on a Saturday night and see what a lovingly preserved music venue (and its surroundings) can still feel like.

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Edited extract from The Holiday Goddess Guide to Melbourne  (Jessica Adams and Anna Johnson).  Copyright Curtis Brown 2016.

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