“It was raining hard in Sydney. I needed one more fare to make my night. A lady up ahead flagged to wave me down. She got in at the light” (almost the lyrics to Harry Chapin’s Taxi)
I was recently digging around some photos of Sydney’s Kings Cross and uncovered a series of photos by Rennie Ellis. They were shot over a six month period during 1970 and early 1971, when American servicemen from Vietnam jostled money through the bars and strip joints alongside bikies, hippies, oddballs and junkies. Everyone was, as Barry McKenzie might have said, “as busy as a one-armed taxi driver with crabs”.
Rennie Ellis’s 1971 work captures the Cross at its eccentric and seedy best. A mesmerising gateway into what he called “the surface glitter and underground guts of the Cross”
“Sydney was, in effect, a tabula rasa. Unlike the cities of the Old World, no slow sedimentation of history lay beneath its streets. Old World centres founded in Roman or medieval times grew organically… Cities of the New World sprang into being, often at a single, identifiable moment in time” (John Birmingham, ‘Leviathan – The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney‘)
The Sydney of 1970 had not shifted far from its origins – except perhaps for a quick roll in the glitter. Back in 1788 the first freight-loads of male and female convicts were dumped together two miles west at Sydney Cove just as a terrible storm hit. It took several barrels of stupefying rum – thrown in courtesy of some relieved and exhausted Officers – to turn the scene into a full-blown squall of lightening, liquor, filth and fornication.
But the seed scattered in virile soil.
“The scene which presented itself beggars every description: some swearing, others quarreling, others singing, not in the least regarding the tempest” (Arthur Bowes Smyth on Sydney’s first landing, 1788)
By the early 20th century the Kings Cross district had become Sydney’s bohemian heartland. It also provided ground for a notorious turf-war in the illegal alcohol trading – known as sly grog – between Sydney’s celebrated crime matriarchs Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh.
In 1970 the neon protegee – set behind the spooling enclave of exclusive 19th century terraces - had refined history into a red lather of lights, action, sordid glam, the eccentric and the criminal.
“Some call it Australia’s Barbary Coast – and there are a few pirates there for sure. Others call it Sin City – and here’s some of that around too. One Sydney Alderman wants it cleaned up. Another says it is worth a million a year the way it is. If you can believe what you read about it the inhabitants make their living out of baccarat, dope, witchcraft, prostitution, stripping – and selling each other salami.” (ABC TV, 1969)
By 1970 Abe Saffron – known as Mr Sin – ruled the roost. It was during his reign Jim Anderson shot dead Donny ‘the Glove’ Smith dead outside the Venus Room – now a less salubrious Backpackers Hostel. Australia’s celebrated witch Rosaleen Norton held court. Free love was for sale at the artists open residence The Yellow House. The area was a certified home to artists, writers, poets journalists and actors – including Australia’s Peter Finch and Chips Rafferty.
Rennie Ellis went on to photograph bar rooms, strip joints, celebrities – with a seemingly boundless backstage pass – around the world. He also caught some great AC/DC dressing room moments with Bon Scott in 1977.
His photo gallery captures the great Australian cosmopolitan throughout the decades, from the beehives and rockers of the sixites to the hyper-colour of the eighties and ninties – with sex throughout. Ellis passed away in 2003. Kings Cross has since been tidied up some – instead it is now littered with plaques commemorating the characters who once coloured the area.