hollywood hotel
The Loud Hailers.
Hollywood Hotel, Surry Hills, NSW
Thursday, August 14, 2023 

Photos: Nick Bleszynski 

Sydney was once a dangerous place.

As a teenager from the bush, I had read about live music venues like French’s and The Southern Cross Hotel; actually being there was a baptism of fire. 

It was the music that attracted me to the inner city in – particular, Surry Hills. It was the heart of a city where there was a pub with music on every corner, and where you could see your first band at 8pm and move from one venue to the next. You could still be watching a band at 3am in Kings Cross – even on a week night.  

It was dangerous yet romantic, a place of beauty with a view of its Harbour but one with a dark undercurrent of lawlessness, corruption and gangs that went back to the Rum Rebellion.


It was a city with a core of outlaw Bohemians, still haunted by the ghosts of the razor gang underworld of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh. Hookers were still around but sly grog had been replaced by heroin, cheap biker speed, Mandies and teenage runaways.  There were fringe clubs and theatres pushing the edge of art; and gay culture mixed with all the tribes of music - punks, skins, mods,  garage rock heads with paisley shirts and white-faced Goths their heavy black eyeliner.

Inner Sydney was still low rent with side streets that smelt of stale urine from squats and rows of rundown terraces. The mix of the wealthy, students, musicians and writers made for households that were direct from the move “Dogs in Space”. 

Outsiders and those who were burning the candle at both ends lived within six or eight blocks of the CBD. Back then, the graffiti on the squats told a story: “Darling it hurts to be in Darlinghurst tonight”
The Hollywood Hotel is still standing in Surry Hills and is both a holy grail and a beacon. For decades, it has housed the ghosts of a past Bohemian Sydney and is still place to have a final drink.  You could imagine Tilly Devine and her razor boys at the bar at one time. It’s a classic art deco corner pub run for many years by the iconic Doris Goddard.  

Doris was a raconteur, a character, and a warm and colourful publican of the sort that Sydney misses. A supporter of local music with her own tales of the underworld and her days as an actress working likes of Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn.  Whether playing her ukulele, drinking cocktails at the side of her bar in her best threads, Doris was a charismatic host and a star. 

christa hughes

The Loud Hailers are everything that Doris would had loved.

They’re the band I’d come to see. Noting the time, I grab a  beer. The Hollywood is an old school venue without a stage. Setting up on the floor is guitarist Ben Fink and drummer Ivan Jordan. Their soundcheck is a loose jam that floats around the venue with a selection of Ben’s arsenal of guitar sounds. 

Ben Fink is master of his game with the three guitars that evoke a time before they emit a note: the gold foils, single coil and lipstick pickups on his vintage guitar make a statement. His array of reverb pedals would have been at home at Sun Studios or with Link Wray.

The jamming builds into a swampy instrumental. It’s the cue for singer Christa Hughes to enter with a bag of tricks that includes a trademark loud hailer. She adjusts the mic and the next couple of hours of theatrics are to commence.

Lou Reed’s, “Waiting For The Man” opens the first set. Christa wraps the microphone lead around her wrist like a prize fighter donning cloth in preparation for entering the ring. It’s an intense 10 rounds tonight as she prances straight into the audience and bellows out the opening line. 

The classic song about hunting down a drug deal is now reworked lyrically into a feminist ode.  Christa turns the venue into a prize fighter’s ring as she corners the room, meeting sections. Of her audience with intense eye contact. As the song rolls along, Christa is now at the entrance of the pub hollering the words to the passing city office workers. She finally returns to put on a Mick Jagger strut in the centre of the room.

christas on the bar2
christa on the bar

You could call her is a national treasure, but I think Christa would respond with a middle finger to such a notion. She has four decades of performing and began singing in her first band at age 11. Back then, her father, the legendary Jazz piano player Richard Hughes, had a residency at the Shakespeare Hotel at the top end of nearby Foveaux Street. Christa floated around the world for 20 years, working in off Broadway Theatre in Manhattan before returning home. Words can never fully capture Christa’s electrifying presence.

At times, Christa Hughes makes Iggy Pop seem like an eight-yearold Donny Osmond at a cub scout jamboree, channelling  James Brown crossed with German cabaret-styled Liza Minnell. She is a rare diamond in a country that draws inspiration from confected TV talent quests that have all the beige appeal of karaoke at a Rotary club function.

The Loud Hailers are The Blues. They take us to dive bars in Louisiana in the 1950s on a Saturday night. Summoning Skip James’ “Hard time Killing Floor Blues”, the guitar is all echo and reverb as Christa croons with a moonshine-laced voice that slides down the notes of the scale.  If you listen hard, you can hear the scratches of old gramophone record.

“Stagger Lee” is another blues work-out that alternately rumbles like mid-‘80s Nick Cave and roars like Led Zeppelin. Christa is now hollering with her loud hailer while Ben peels off Hendrix-like like guitar lines and Ivan Jordan explosively powers along like John Bonham.

The Loud Hailers are not just a band re-inventing old songs from the Delta and the swamp. “Femmejac” is an original and blistering hot. Christa is in her element. One part Lydia Lunch, one part Bessie Smith and one part Liza Minnelli. One moment she gets down with the carpet mites, rolling around the floor and shaking her hips, the next up on the bar, looking down at the patrons. Crowd interaction and confrontations is now the deal, with wild sexual innuendos repeated by the punters.

The night ends on “Amazing Grace” the Wilberforce hymn. I don’t think the father of enlightenment ever imagined that his song would be heard like this, 200 years later. Christa starts with a whisper and builds. The sound of Ben’s tape echo arpeggio evolves into a swamp monster and Christa is now crawling along the floor. Ivan then falls into powerful tribal drumming, moving the song into the territory occupied by the Birthday Party over its five minutes   It’s the finale of more than two hours of Loud Hailers music.

loud hailers front bar

This band gutted the Hollywood Hotel like a fisherman does to a bream.

The Loud Hailers brilliance is by no accident as they are three incredibly talented people at the top of  their game. They are one of the most exciting bands to emerge in Sydney for years. Sadly this the tail end of a remarkable Thursday night run of bands at thge Holloywood.  

Kudos has to go to booker, Catherine Gregory. She has built these nights with a deep understanding of musical heritage by working with some of the most talented and creative musicians in the city. She’s carried on the legacy of the iconic Doris Goddard  

The last night of these amazing gigs is Thursday, August 31 with The Fabels.

I walk out, enthralled by this remarkable night of music, yet saddened that it is a chapter in a book of the many decades of the Surry Hills music scene that is almost over.