Written by John Ruffels, Photo: Waverley Library Local Studies
Say the magical words ‘The Bondi Lifesaver’ to any person over fifty in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs and their eyes will light up and a smile will cross their face.As we get older more memories are stored. These are frequently triggered as ‘Rainy Traffic Light Moments’: where an imagined glimpse of an old flame, accidental whiffs of a forgotten smell and snatches of a long-past song bring it all back. The Bondi Lifesaver is one of those pleasant triggers.Seemingly air-brushed from history, The Bondi Lifesaver was an amazing live music venue at 56 Ebley Street, Bondi Junction from 1971 to late 1980.
Today, the site is merely part of the long concrete wall entrance to the Eastgate parking station.Anyone who was anyone in the Australian music scene did a gig at ‘The Lifesaver’, and many major overseas acts took to the stage there too. From Johnny O’Keefe in a leopard skin suit to Rene Geyer, Billy Thorpe, Bo Diddley and Wendy Saddington.Several freshly formed rock bands got their start at The Bondi Lifesaver in the 1970s including Mi-Sex, Dragon, and The Angels, and many others such like Rose Tattoo, John Paul Young, Kevin Borich, Split Enz, Richard Clapton and even the mighty AC/DC got a decent leg-up at the venue. The time-tested booking arrangement at The Lifesaver was to have a great bill of top bands on the Sunday night of a long weekend. This ensured all of the patrons were there for a good time. And if a band pulled out at the last minute, The Lifesaver staff could always help bring Dragon’s gear in from their house next door as fill-ins. In 1975, they even became the mid-week resident band. The Bondi Lifesaver building itself was one or maybe two former terrace houses, renovated at first into two rooms as a wine bar, then, in around 1973, the middle wall was knocked down and the rear portion was transformed into an elevated eating and viewing area. A long elegant bar stretched the entire length of the eastern side of the room.
A large fish-tank filled with every imaginable type of tropical fish decorated the middle area at the rear of the dance floor and the open verandah and nicely landscaped courtyard lent itself as the ideal place to escape the steamy dance floor on hot summer nights. Many crusty Lifesavers punters will willingly regale you with stories of how they got in for nothing by scaling the outer wall to see an amazing line-up of up-and-coming bands before they were big-time. Or how they met the most beautiful girl and danced with her all night. Or how they drank scotch with Jimmy Barnes. An added allure for many locals was that they could simply walk home afterwards if they’d spent all their loot. Some girls even hitched to Central Station to get a train home to the western suburbs. Out there among the Baby Boomers there will be Lifesaver posters, long forgotten photographs of Australian music legends performing at the Lifesaver and the favourite yarns of dedicated groupies and rock fans. Memories like the night Angus Young from AC/DC strung an incredible length of guitar cord across the dance floor whilst the band shook the Tropical fish tank. Angus has said The Lifesaver was one of their favourite gigs.
Myself and a couple of other keen ex-patrons, Craig Griffiths and Kimberly O’Sullivan, want to do something with those treasured memories, whether they be photos, film clips, spoken reminiscences, or posters: to see if enough material emerges to create a viable exhibition, book or even a documentary.