Richie McNeill was 18 when he launched his first club night, Illusion.
A weekly affair held every Wednesday at Star Bar in South Melbourne, throughout 1990 it played host to numerous DJs such as Rudeboy, Terry Ho, Steve Robbins and McNeill himself, then performing under the name Mr Rubbish.
Though relatively short-lived, it well and truly ingratiated McNeill into the Melbourne electronic music scene.
By New Year’s Eve 1991, however, he was ready to take things up a notch with the very first Hardware event at the Mercantile Rowing Club on the banks of the Yarra River.
A sell-out of 800 people, it was the start of a career that has seen McNeill build the Hardware electronic music brand into an internationally recognized powerhouse, launching numerous festivals such as Stereosonic, Two Tribes and Apollo, and bringing myriad international artists such as Carl Cox, Sven Väth, Richie Hawtin, Tiesto and David Guetta to Australian shores.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Hardware, McNeill has released a sumptuous coffee table book called True Faith: 30 – Tales From The Hardware Dancefloor. A biographical account of the rise of both Hardware and the Melbourne and Australian electronic music scene, it’s filled with firsthand accounts from McNeill and other scene luminaries, not to mention a frankly staggering array of fliers, posters and photos.
It is, in short, a hugely important record of a pivotal period in Australian music history. Here, McNeill explains the process of penning the book, while casting an eye over his life in electronic music…
How emotional was the process of writing and compiling True Faith?
It was emotional. And it was actually really enjoyable because it was during COVID, during lockdown, over a two year period. I was putting the music on in the background and going through the photos and going through the fliers.
And I'd already prewritten some of the book, I had stuff collated all over the shop on hard drives, in Apple notes, on Google Docs, some handwritten stuff and fliers everywhere. And the process of bringing it all together was fun. It was emotional, but it was fun.
As you started digging into the archives, were there any revelations? Did you get a different perspective on the history of Hardware?
Not really revelations. It was probably more I knew that it was something that the older generation were going to appreciate. I wanted to make the quality of the book as high as possible, because I wanted it to be special and be like a time capsule that people can pick up in 10 or 20 years and go, ‘Wow, that was the ’90s in Melbourne rave.’
I guess the thing that hit me was, do the younger crowd really care about it and the history? So that was probably one of the things I was trying to figure out: how can we get them to care or get it out to them? Hence why we've been giving the book away with bundles all this year and will into next year.
Going through this whole project I guess [I realized] how kind of special and religious almost the experience was [in the early ’90s] for people. Because it was just so new. Now music is so easily accessible with Spotify and streaming platforms, and it's so prevalent on TV and in sport. Where back then you had to sort of dig and go to these gigs, find out where they were, it was underground.
Having to work to find the music meant that once you found it, the bond was incredibly deep…
Yeah, definitely. You had record stores that used to curate, and you had street press and you had fliers out in the street. You had some locations where you had to get a double 0 double 5 number and get the address on the night, and you're driving out and you see some dudes at the service station, they're obviously going to the rave [so you] follow them, and these car trails of 10, 20, 30 cars would start rocking up to factories in the back end of Footscray or West Melbourne or North Melbourne or out in the bush.
So yeah, it was more of an adventure back then, and it took a lot of effort.
"One of the magical things I remember was that we had security and everything, but you didn't really need them. People weren’t troublesome. They were having a good time."
What do you remember of the very first Hardware show at Mercantile Rowing Club on New Year's Eve in 1991?
I remember the possums in the morning rummaging through the bins out the front that were full because it was New Year’s Eve, people had been along the river.
The Rowing Club was almost like a community hall type thing. Literally people were hanging from the wall dancing and standing on speakers, like dancing with sunglasses on, sunlight coming through the windows, and it was just so free and easy going.
One of the magical things I remember was that we had security and everything, but you didn't really need them. People weren’t troublesome. They were having a good time.
I remember we bought a door without the handle, and we put it on top of these toilet dressing rooms. And that's what we were standing on to DJ overlooking the dance floor. I mean, OH&S wise you would never have got that through.
And that's how it was, it was real renegade. Just slap it together, do what you need to do. It was our first event and we did a lot of stuff ourselves, like setting up the sound system and tuning it and carrying this stuff up the stairs.
You couldn't do that these days without safety officers and weight loadings and fun police everywhere.
Do you miss the innocence of those days?
Yeah, totally. But I think it's what's needed now, because it's so mainstream, and there are so many events on, but it is very over regulated. When you're doing 5,6,7, 800 people, it's not too bad. But I guess now when you're doing 10, 15, 20,000 it's a different story.
But I miss those days. Part of the fun was pulling the gig off and putting it all together and people volunteering, hanging up banners and all that sort of stuff. Now everyone's got to wear a hard hat and have a high vis vest and a certificate…it's just different.
In the book you call the Melbourne Docklands Hardware’s spiritual home. How would you describe the spirit of the early events you put on there?
It was like going to church, really, the lead up to it. Everyone was super excited, everyone would get there early. If it started at 10 you had massive lines out the front at 9.30, half an hour before doors, and it was packed by 11. People were so amped and so in tune and into it, they were just dying to get there.
When I say it was our spiritual home, it was in the sense that it was our base where we did our main two or three shows a year. There were quirks that came with that, like the sunlight coming through the dust in the morning, the golden beams would come through, and people kicking the footy during the day while Sven Väth played an extra four hours to 11 o'clock when he was supposed to finish at 7 [AM]. All those sort of quirks that came with the venue – it was like a religious experience.
In the years since you've built many iconic brands and events, such as Stereosonic, Pure, and Two Tribes. What’s the key to building audience and brand loyalty?
Put on a good show. That is what builds it. There are plenty of events that say, oh, it's gonna be the biggest thing ever, and it's just not.
I think if you do good work, and you have integrity with how you go about things, then that shows in the end result. And people get to a level of trust – okay, that promoter doing that event, we went there last night, it was great. It gets better every year. As long it's not going backwards.
And if every year you’re showing improvement, whether it's getting bigger or you're fixing things and you fix the queues at the front and you've got the right number of toilets, people aren't waiting 40 minutes at the bar, those sorts of things, that speaks for itself and that's where the loyalty comes from.
How long did it take you to establish that with Hardware?
I don’t think it took that long because there wasn't that much competition in the ’90s. And we had our INTERFACE newsletter, our database, which is how we used to talk to people.
It was funny, because I had a PO Box address in East Doncaster where I grew up, where it was our Hardware registered address and people would send in a letter going, ‘Hey, I'm moving address next month, I don't want to miss out on the newsletter, can you please update my postal address to this from this date?’
You didn't have mobile phones or emails or websites or social media. So I'd get three or four of those a week. And we would have the PO Box details on the envelopes [we sent out] as a return to sender thing, so if somebody had moved it would come back to the PO Box and I'd go and update it and delete those people off. You know, that was the loyalty thing.
People would want to stay on the list, because it was the main way to find out about our shows. We’d do some posters back in the day in shops and things and word of mouth was obviously the greatest marketing tool, but the newsletter was certainly a really powerful one. I’d try and get six or seven of these newsletters out a year if I could. And that I think helped us build loyalty and brand recognition.
"When I launched my first night, Illusion, at the Star on Wednesdays, I already had a database of 7 or 800 people on the list. And that's why that first night was hugely successful. Because I had a really good list."
It's fascinating that you had the foresight to build that INTERFACE mailing list program in COBOL-85 even when you were 18…
It was in 1990 when I was at Monash [University], I had to come up with a project for software development for coding. And I wrote that [program] in first year, and then started writing down on the back of coasters and on match boxes and scraps of paper people's postal addresses from when I was busing. I would go, that person looks like they're a full time clubber, [an] industry type person. I'd write their details down and at some point I'd collate it all, just keep entering and entering.
And then when I launched my first night, Illusion, at the Star on Wednesdays, I already had a database of 7 or 800 people on the list. And that's why that first night was hugely successful. Because I had a really good list. It was probably the coolest list in in town.