Thank you ANU Bar, for some of the best nights of our lives
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Thank you ANU Bar, for some of the best nights of our lives

There was nothing like it.

Feet stuck to the alcohol-soaked carpet, beer in hand, tables and chairs stacked against the wall. And a room full of 1700 people as obsessed with the people on stage as you were.

Peter Spicer at home with some of his ANU Refectory band memorabilia from the 1990s.

Peter Spicer at home with some of his ANU Refectory band memorabilia from the 1990s.Credit:Rohan Thomson

The frenzied joy of attending an ANU Bar gig was always underpinned by a stomach-clenching feeling of disbelief - are they really here? In Canberra? Playing for us? Did we really get that lucky?

The recent news that ANU Bar (formerly the ANU Refectory) will be torn down next year to make way for a major redevelopment of ANU's Union Court was, of course, inevitable.

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Backstage access - Peter Spicer's memories of ANU Bar gigs past.

Backstage access - Peter Spicer's memories of ANU Bar gigs past.Credit:Rohan Thomson

But for thousands of us who were young and carefree in a 1990s Canberra, it's just more subtle reinforcement that - alas - we've really hit our stride in the race to middle-age.

Hunters and Collectors. The Church. Tool. Lou Reed. Faith No More. Beastie Boys. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. Frenzal Rhomb. They've all graced the ANU Bar stage - blaring amps pumping out rock, hip-hop and punk anthems to a writhing, sweaty mass of Canberra fans.

Located between Melbourne and Sydney, the ANU Bar's geographical location was, in the 1980s and '90s, hands down its defining feature.

The biggest acts understood economy of scale - they wouldn't mind ducking off the Hume Highway for a night in the capital, playing a makeshift venue (let's be honest, it was a glorified eatery) because they needed the exposure or because you were mad not to bank a quick $50,000 on the way to major gigs in Sydney or Melbourne.

Peter Spicer at home with some of his ANU Refectory band memorabilia from the 1990s.

Peter Spicer at home with some of his ANU Refectory band memorabilia from the 1990s.Credit:Rohan Thomson

Everyone has a favourite ANU Bar story.

But Peter Spicer, former events manager of the ANU Refectory, easily has the best.

Spicer was the refectory's events manager between 1992 and 1997: a time before online music streaming and Facebook when bands actually had to hit the road to gain any significant exposure.

"That was the most prolific time in Australian touring history for international and Australian touring artists," he said.

"It was just prolific - you just had great Australian bands like Midnight Oil, Hunters and Collectors, The Church - just all the great Australian bands of that particular era touring and it was commonality to see them once a month at the ANU.

"Touring was like their bread and butter and it was without the Facebooks and Twitters we have now so the promotion was really in your face with a lot of posters - it was a totally different marketing environment."

Thanks to Spicer, "I saw them before they hit the big time" has become the catch-cry of ANU Bar regulars from a number of decades.

"The highlight was just seeing bands come through - new bands," Spicer said.

"I remember Beasts of Bourbon were touring and touring manager Kate Stewart said, 'Pete I've got this new band coming out with Beasts called You Am I,' and I remember just saying, 'Jeez that's a silly name."'

"That was it. These bands were coming up through the ranks - you'd see them rise to fame - watching Tex Perkins come through with the Cruel Sea and watching them play to 100 people - and then four months later playing to a 1700 capacity room.

"It was crazy and I remember bringing these huge bands to Canberra - these humungous bands from the States - and they were essentially just playing in an eatery!"

The crowds grabbed their beers and rolled in for hip-hop, Australian rock, indie and even country music over the years. And each November between 1990 and 1996, the nation's metal fans would roll in for Metal for the Brain, a charity concert that got its start at the ANU Refectory and played there for six years.

It drew the best metal bands from across Australia and is one of former Alchemist frontman Adam Agius's favourite ANU Bar memories.

Metal for the Brain was established as a fundraiser for Canberra teenager Alec Hurley, who, in 1990, was rendered a quadriplegic after a fight outside a Canberra nightclub.

"It was the highlight of every band's touring schedule - if you got a spot at Metal for the Brain at the end of the year, you had a successful year," Agius said.

"We'd often put on bands that weren't popular but were really trying. And I suppose at that stage we [with fellow bandmate Rod Holder] were the two most influential people on the metal scene in Australia.

"At the end of the day we knew we'd made some money for a good cause and we'd brought the entire metal community together, it was great - I've got nothing but fond memories."

Alchemist played more than 30 gigs at the bar over the year, and the musicians would hit gigs like Mud Honey and The Young Gods in the mid-90s for inspiration."[Knowing the bar is closing] has been hard to deal with - I've got so many great memories at the ANU but you know what? Change - you can't stop it," Agius said.

"It's not good to lose venues - music at a grass roots level is becoming a thing of the past - people are only interested in superstars or going to the pub and listening to a blues cover band.

"I know the plans [for Union Court] are all in flux and this could go one way or the other but I'd be shocked if they didn't provide at least one live music venue, so look - one thing dies, and a new thing arises."

What does Peter Spicer reckon we need in a new venue at ANU?

"If they're targeting the live music scene then it has to compete with other venues around Australia in providing the infrastructure and production values," he said.

"It's an old building - it's gotta come up with the times, you can hold on to history and hold on to the memories but that was 25 years ago and it has to change.

"It has to be a relevant venue and it has to cater for a new audience and that'll be a wonderful thing."

So many gigs, so many stories.

We asked three Canberrans to share their favourite ANU Bar memories.

Public Enemy, 1997

Public Enemy.

Public Enemy.Credit:Gabriel Wilder

Back in the late '90s, Public Enemy toured to Canberra.

Out of sheer curiosity, a large proportion of Canberra's indie crowd (myself included) forked out the $40 (heaps back then) for tickets and went along to the ANU Bar.

I, for one, was not going to miss it for the world, which is silly, really, because today, I remember relatively little about the show itself, although I recall there were several – as in six or seven - large dancers in complex black costumes whose main role was to strike poses along the edge of the stage, and the crowd was filled with a remarkably diverse cross-section of Canberra's live-music-loving community.

I wasn't much of a fan then and I can't truly say I am now, but it goes down as a particularly memorable night, both as a uni bar gig and a night on the town.

There had been some preposterous rumour going round that the band's official after-party would be held at the Red Room (now Hippo Bar).

The place was completely packed, when suddenly someone looking out the window saw a black van with tinted windows pull up in Garema Place.

Sure enough, the whole group suddenly appeared at the top of the stairs, and before anyone could say "Shake Your Booty", Chuck D had taken over the music. Flavor Flav, wearing an eccentrically large clock around his neck, actually called me a "pretty lady".

The whole night lasted well into the wee hours as everyone shook their booties and fought the various powers that … were, back then.

Sally Pryor
Canberra Times Arts Editor

Nirvana, 1993

Nirvana played ANU Bar just weeks after Nevermind went platinum.

Nirvana played ANU Bar just weeks after Nevermind went platinum. Credit:Andrew Meares

Steve Hyde had booked the gig in through Steve

It was at the inception of grunge - when Nevermind came out it was a pretty groundbreaking record.

So then they toured and they played the bar - at the time the capacity was 1790 people - there were more than that inside and there was probably 2000 or 3000 people outside just having a look because it had sold out quite quickly.

​It escalated quite badly because Channel 10 turned up with their camera crew just to get some shots of the gig and as soon as they turned the camera light on and started taking footage the outside crowd just went beserk.

​They were breaking down the glass doors, ripping them off the hinges - you know, it went down as one of those legendary gigs, if you weren't there, you should have been.

The sad part was Nirvana weren't actually that crash hot!

Peter Spicer
Former Events Manager, ANU Refectory, and founder of BMA Magazine

Powderfinger, 1996

Powderfinger.

Powderfinger.

The first real concert I went to was Powderfinger supported by Jebediah in 1996 at the ANU Bar.

I remember it for also being the first time I crowd-surfed, after which I was told unceremoniously that people "my size" shouldn't crowd-surf.

In the past few years, Cell Block 69 have been responsible for some of the most fun nights I've had at the Bar. I'll be sad to see it go.

I heard the ANU Drama Lab is also going [as part of the redevelopment of Union Court].

I performed my first solo Canberra Comedy Festival show "Man Baby" at the ANU Drama Lab in 2014. Both people who attended thought it was very funny.

It was a great place to perform, you just got the sense that some great performers had done amazing things there in the past.

One of them was definitely not my role in the Secret Show in last year's Canberra Comedy Festival.

I'll never forget walking out nude in front of 80 gasping (and squinting) people in my role as Naked Dad in the sketch "Jimmy Infinity-dads".

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It can't be confirmed, but this may be why they are knocking it down.

Greg Kimball
Comedian

Bree Element is the life and entertainment editor at The Canberra Times