5 March 2024

Rocking through time: The Shellharbour Club’s musical legacy from Elvis Costello to Iron Maiden

| Kellie O'Brien
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The Shellharbour Club David Whyte

David Whyte with some of the posters hanging inside The Shellharbour Club. Photos: Kellie O’Brien.

Whether it was international acts like Elvis Costello and Iron Maiden or national heroes like Cold Chisel and INXS, The Shellharbour Club was home to some of the biggest names in music from the 80s to early 2000s.

Known then as Shellharbour Workers Club, former club CEO and music lover David Whyte was given a front row seat to some of the Illawarra’s most memorable nights – and backstage pass to the real stories behind them.

Working at the club from 1986 to 2013, David said nationally recognised bands wanted to perform at Shellys due to the quality of the auditorium with there being “nothing else like it”.

“There were a few major acts performing per month and there would be bands every Friday and Saturday night,” David said.

“It was a big venue and there probably weren’t many venues of that size around then.”

He said the club had not long relocated from Shellharbour Village to the current premises on the corner of Wattle and Shellharbour roads.

“It was good foresight to build it,” he said.

“At the time, this was like a pimple on a pumpkin,” he said of it being a lone building among cow paddocks.

“I can remember standing outside the doors out there, looking up the escarpment, and there wasn’t a house in sight.

“They had to give people a reason to travel here, so the bands were the attraction to get them to the club.

“The housing development was supposed to start years before the club was built, but it kept being put off.

“It came to the crunch that the club was built and the housing that was supposed to be there wasn’t.”

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David said before he started, the club had already attracted acts like Elvis Costello and Billy Connelly thanks to his predecessor Kevin Harvey who had a relationship with a Sydney booking company, and Ron Garbutt from Illawarra band The Premiers who worked as entertainment manager.

Then, the club’s capacity was 1850 people, until regulations in the early 90s saw it restricted to 1500.

However, he said by that stage it wasn’t worth making changes to adhere to the restrictions, with acts either not attracting enough punters to be able to perform in the space, or gaining much larger audiences than they could accommodate and being attracted to a new Wollongong Entertainment Centre instead.

Until then, the calibre of bands that played at Shellys were among the best in Australia and the world and are memorialised in the posters that don the walls of The Precinct area in the club.

They included Canadian band The Tea Party, English rockers Motorhead, INXS, Mental As Anything, Hot Chocolate, Mondo Rock, James Reyne, The Wiggles’ previous band The Cockroaches, Dragon, Rose Tattoo, Killing Heidi, The Whitlams, The Little River Band, Noiseworks, Rose Tattoo, John Farnham, The Choirboys and Ice House.

Locals remember Cheap Trick, Skyhooks, Baby Animals, 1927, Eurogliders, Divinyls, Pseudo Echo and Diesel.

And with capacity at less than 2000 a night, gigs sold out quickly.

“It would have been around the early 90s when Midnight Oil was booked for two nights,” he said.

“We had queues out the door to buy tickets and the two concerts sold out in an hour.

“We had a Cold Chisel warm up gig,” he said of them doing a quiet show to prepare for a larger gig.

“It came in late and was advertised very little but sold out.”

Shellys music

With Jimmy Barnes a regular at the venue, David credits those moments watching him and Cold Chisel among his favourites.

“We had INXS down for three nights … and they came to do their encore and suddenly a Ferrari appeared at the front of the building and out jumps Jimmy Barnes – walked into the auditorium; INXS came on to do their encore and Jimmy Barnes came on with them and sang Good Times,” he said.

However, in his early days as assistant general manager, there were stressful moments too, such as when they used to have tables and chairs that were bolted down.

“These tables were long and thin and if you leant on them, they would bow.”

He said on this particular night Scottish comedian Billy Connelly’s wife Pamela Stephenson was on stage.

“Pamela Stephenson walked off the stage, onto a table and walked all the way along those tables, then up onto the next row of tables,” he said.

“I thought ‘Oh no’, because they were that fragile and feeble.

“I think I’d only been here a few weeks at that stage, so I probably wasn’t that confident in approaching her.”

Another occasion involved Aussie band The Angels and the club’s rules about “offensive things on T-shirts”.

“This night we’ve got The Angels on, and kids are rocking up in their T-shirts,” David said.

The T-shirts included well-known additional “colourful” lyrics to the rock anthem Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again.

“We tried to stop them getting in with these T-shirts and they said, ‘But we bought them here’. We said, ‘What do you mean you bought them here?’. ‘Last time The Angels were here we bought those shirts here.’”

The kids were let in.

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He recalls the night American singer-songwriter George Thorogood’s concert attracted attention from police, with the very real threat of them closing all major acts after that.

“We had to change all our security just to be able to continue,” he said.

American group Village People chose to use the inhouse sound system, something that never happened due to bands always using their own more superior equipment.

“They went to one of the sound guys just before the show and said, ‘Look, I don’t think that speaker is quite right, can you guarantee that it will be right before the show?’” David said.

“He said, ‘No, I can’t’.

“We had a full venue and they said ‘No, we’re not going to perform’. They never went on stage.”

He said in good faith they had to refund every ticket.

Some of the memories give him a chuckle, like Motorhead’s gear filling the entire carpark, a bevy of older women showing up to see Ridge from Bold and The Beautiful play with his band and being subjected to Aussie pop-rocker Doug Parkinson collecting his pay cheque shirtless and with just braces on.

While not all of David’s backstage stories can be shared, he said on stage the quality of the music was always of a high standard – apart from when that odd band indulged at the pub prior.

The Shellharbour Club now regularly supports Illawarra music acts.

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