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How to birth a beast

Words by Jordan McDonald & Anton Forte

SWIPE TO VIEW GALLERY. Frankie's Pizza photographed by Boaz
Frankie's Pizza photographed by Sean Burns
Lemmy Lager launch party, Harry Hayes.
Frankie's pizza photographed by Sean Burns
Lemmy Lager launch Party, Harry Hayes
Frankie's Pizza photographed by Sean Burns

Sydney has a bad habit of squashing the cultural institutions that give vibrancy to the underground hub of the city. All too often live music establishments that have pumped blood through the veins of a perpetually struggling industry, get shuttered without fanfare, fading from the memories of its regulars and revellers. 

In late 2022, Frankie’s Pizza shall meet the same fate as its comrades, buckling to the seemingly unstoppable power of Sydney’s infrastructure boom. As the original rock n’ roll late night dive bar, with pizza by the slice in the front, live bands in the back, and a whole lotta lunacy in the Fun Room, Frankie’s Pizza will surely go down as one of the all-time great, hard rock institutions.

Here’s to the axe gods, anti heroes, thrashers, mashers and mangled musos who’ve electrified Frankie’s, and to the ringmasters who orchestrated the entire, beautiful mess.

Tear open a tinnie and enjoy a few slices of Frankie’s Pizza’s origin story, straight from the mouths of its two main co-conspirators.

Jordan McDonald, Frankie's Pizza Co-Owner and Beer Monster.

My first live concert was Alice Cooper's TRASH Tour in 1990. I was six. My face was painted like Alice, and I proudly donned the tour tee from shoulder to shoe. 

It could probably be argued that on an embryonic, microscopic, cellular kinda level, the origins of Frankie's Pizza could be traced back to that night. Or upon witnessing Bobbie Brown swingin' that baseball bat with a 'fuck me' face and a wink in Warrant's, “Cherry Pie” filmclip. I dunno, they both happened somewhat simultaneously.  

This was the pre grunge era of ultimate excess, there were snakes and swords and studded jackets, and about every element of Shock Rock theatre you could cram onto the stage of Sydney's Entertainment Centre. I was fucking bedazzled.

The backing singers sported gravity-slaying do's, torn stockings and mile-high heels. Alice was killed about three times that night, miraculously reappearing from the rafters with a cryptic insistence that Rock & Roll will never die. And we believed him!

By 2012, I can't tell you how uncool each notion mentioned to this point in the tale had truly become. Beaten into submission by ten years of boy bands, Brit Pop and apathetic Indie, Hard Rock had surrendered to a landscape of inorganic noise and inoffensive wardrobes. I saw Sydney's nightlife scene as a creatively barren, barrio of bad ideas. There was your faux Southern Fried phenomena, Texas BBQ for babies, and a sorry stench of 'America Misinterpreted', bamboozling consumers with cuts like brisket, and phrases like ‘falling off the bone’. Surly door guys, dress codes and a miasma of music with no decipherable beginning, end, or human quality of any kind, made for exactly the kind of atmosphere I committed to countering.

I'd been touring overseas in a band a bunch, relishing in the rest of the world's enthusiasm for Rock & Roll, marvelling at the pedestal upon which they'd place those who play it.

"I sailed through this period of exploration on a sea of beer, good beer, bad beer, ugly beer, but mostly totally fucking amazing beer. It was never hard to find out there in the wilds of the road, and I made it part of my routine to find the local treasures."

Enabled by Rock, I’d haunt the hotspots, hovels, biker bars and bordellos of the world, making as much hay as I could til' the wheels came off. I'd often haul up in LA and trawl the Strip for landmarks of the Hair Metal heyday.

The Heavy Metal magic felt in the hotbed of Hollywood, for example, is not geographically bound. It can be conjured anywhere in the world, but you have to believe in that magic, and you have to build a temple conducive to conjuring it. So we built it!

This didn’t happen all that seamlessly I must admit, the ‘dreaming to doing’ ratio was way out of whack (still is!!). I did discover a deep passion for hanging out on the wrong side of the bar though, pullin’ beers!

"Welcoming cunts with gusto was my specialty! I also excelled in drinking on the job, telling tales, and fostering an unforgettable experience for customers—it took all my energy, but I loved it."

Fortuitously, I'd found allies in two dudes who were making bold and ambitious moves in Sydney’s bar game. They were loud, proud, inspired, and pretty darn nuts, if I’m gonna be honest. 

I’d set out with no ambition to own a bar, or a venue. As a little kid I wanted to be a 'rude photographer'. As a big kid, I pretty much wanted to stay out on a perpetual tour cycle, the party unending. After meeting Anton and Jason though, I recognised that there was another fantasy job option out there, and (unlike my previous exploits) this one pays in actual useable currency.

Their idea: A Rock Club where everybody is welcome, wall to wall with the best beers in the world. 

Frankie's Pizza, Sean Burns.

Who do I have to kill and when do we start? 

I adopted the 'fake it til' you make it' routine daily as the planning and build of the venue unfolded. The Swillhouse team had a different work ethic and it was utterly inspiring. What would this place become? How would it be received? How am I going to actually run it once it's open? How do you make a Jack & Coke? The truth is, I didn't give a fuck. I was just loving the adventure of it all. Building all day and dreaming all night. 

"We’d be bold and brazen, bulldozing the nightlife norms of boring beer, limp-dicked bands, and pretension of any kind. It’s party time, all the time, and everyone’s invited."

Fortuitously, my new friends in this quest seemed to know everything that I didn't, inside out. They'd already created wicked bars—and attracted a pretty bulletproof team, too! Aside from a whole-hearted belief in the project, I couldn’t quite work out what they wanted me for? Authenticity? Maybe I was kind of like the walking archetype for their vision. I dunno, but if I can lend a little authenticity in return for a bottomless treasure-trove of prized memories, outlandish events and enduring friendships, count me in! 

Twenty layers of posters on every surface of the joint later (thanks Anton), we needed a House Band. An act explosive enough to speak for the venue, a tour de force to fly the flag, blow minds and annihilate expectations. This band of mythic proportion would be at the centre of a new scene for local heroes and road-warriors alike to drop in, chop out and challenge themselves. Just slightly presumptuously, we named them Frankie's World Famous House Band. Thankfully the best guitarist in the world is also my brother, Joel, so I didn't need to look too far for the right personnel. Bobby Poulton and Dave Ferry would round out the act, with a rotating door of vocal acrobats weekly. As their reputation towered, they’d be sought out to collaborate with some of the biggest names in Rock from KISS to Guns N' Roses—a self fulfilling prophecy indeed.

Frankie's World Famous House Band, photographed by Nicky Rodriguez.

Once the ship eventually set sail, everything I thought I knew about hard work, excess, and disastrously lewd conduct on the work clock went way out the window. Touring would twinkle on the horizon as a beacon of rest and reprieve. Now, there's a paradoxical concept if ever there was one. 

Frankie's Pizza, you’re exhausting, you’re exhilarating, and you're the best damn thing I ever did.

Anton Forte, Frankie's Pizza Co-Owner.

I never thought that I would be writing an origin story for one of my bars. Probably, because I never believe that they are really going to close. Or, if they are going to close, it's because I've really fucked up, or people have gotten so bored of the bar that it can't sustain itself anymore. Either way, the last thing I would want to do is write about it. 

However, this is a different situation. We're closing, but the business isn't failing. In fact, it's kicking arse. But Sydney Metro is taking over the location in 2022 and turning the whole building into a light rail station. Alas, things don't always work out the way you plan them.

I didn't know where to start, so figured I may as well start from the top. Writing this piece transported me into a different time, a different mindset. Somewhere special.  

I was 28, full of confidence, and in love with bars of all shapes and sizes, but particularly American dive bars. Of course, I'm still in love with bars, but tastes and styles change. It's morphed into more of a daggy Euro fascination with the bars of Italy. 

In the few years before Frankie's, I was living my dream life. I had opened Shady Pines Saloon and The Baxter Inn, and both venues were incredible, pumping, and more fun than I ever could have imagined. It was sick. I created venues I wanted to spend time in, owned my own business, drank too much, stayed up too late, and worked with people I loved. 

At this time, the CBD was dead, devoid of life, the venues in vogue being prominent glossy places, big pubs and corporate restaurants. Sure, those venues had a reason to exist for some, but it wasn't for me. It was mainstream and boring. Sydney was missing what other cities took for granted, creativity & soul, a niche bar scene. 

Every awesome city had a divey rock bar. Melbourne had Cherry, New York had CBGB's, and LA, The Viper Room.

CBGB, New York via AnOther Magazine

"These places hold a special place in society. They are part of the subcultural glue holding their cities together, businesses that accept all people, regardless of race, sexual orientation, or societal standing."

They are designed for the weird, deranged and twisted. This melting pot of society is what makes these venues so unique. We thought that we could create something that touched on that philosophy.  

We started conceptualising our dream spot. We'd keep it simple. A heavy bill of live music, a cool space, top booze, a good product. It would always be open, it would be loud, and most importantly, it would be welcoming and friendly. 

I grew up in the hardcore and metal scene of Melbourne's '90s. My favourite spot was Zombie Music. A little guitar shop above a kebab store on Nicholson St, Fitzroy. I’d make my pilgrimage there every day after school. I’d ogle guitars I couldn’t afford, learning how to restring them, servicing amps and falling in love with metal. The owner, Andrew, would always make time for me, welcoming me into his shop, always patient and kind. He taught me valuable lessons, especially that you could be cool as fuck, as well as being a kind person. The whole scene was like this—look past the upside-down crosses, vintage tees and leather, and you will find the most genuine, kind people who welcomed me with open arms.

"This feeling of welcome is what we wanted to recreate in our new venue."

A few months before we started down this path, Jason Scott (ex Swillhouse co-founder) and I were approached by the owners of The Hunter Bar. They wanted to offer us the bar, take it off their hands, and operate it. We didn't like it, immediately turning it down, even though it had a rare 24-hour liquor license. It was ugly, run-down, and sad, the antithesis of a great venue. We couldn't see the potential in it. 

Inside, large grey tiles lined the floor, off-white plastered walls were decorated with drink specials, bright downlights buzzed on and off, and poker machines tingled their tunes of sadness. This was representative of the whole place, the bones were there, but the soul was gone. 

But, a few months later, we reconsidered Hunter Bar in a new light. We could turn the place around. We could make the late-night bar of our dreams. We could make it unforgettable. We met with the owner, Jim Poulos, and started negotiating on the space.

A publican from a bygone era, Jim had been instrumental in developing Sydney's hospitality scene for over 40 years. He was a character full of energy, stories and schemes, with enough runs on the board to contemplate retirement and enjoy a quieter life. He was seeking kindred spirits to pass the baton onto, who’d care for his pub and, importantly—pay the rent on time.  

We took a second look around Hunter Bar and knew that it was the right site for Frankie's. An awesome location with an invaluable liquor license. A strangely cavernous space, but we could make it work. The challenge was to change the look and feel while keeping the layout essentially the same. 

Frankie's Pizza, Sean Burns.

The simplest way to accomplish this was by splitting the venue in two. Reduce the size of the hall-like space, making it less intimidating, more intimate. Nooks and crannies, cosy spots to get comfortable, and hideaways to do naughty things in. We modelled one side after La Porchetta, our favourite pizzeria growing up in Carlton. The other would be a classic rock dive, inspired by CBGB's and the great live music venues before it. 

As much as Jason and I loved late-night dive bars, we didn't know the first thing about booking bands, hosting a gnarly roster of events, and creating a vibrant music program. We needed someone on the ground who had expertise in this field. We knew who it was right away, and we wouldn't have done Frankie's without him.

Jordan McDonald was (and still is) a regular at Shady Pines Saloon. He pulled us into his orbit as soon as he entered the bar. Throwing back beer, his presence is unmistakable. An Adonis carved out of stone, flowing hair, chiselled jaw, singlets, muscles and tattoos. His look draws you in, but it's what's beneath the surface that counts. Infectious positivity, gregarious, and kind. He has time for everyone, shunning snobbery and pretense; Jordan has unbridled enthusiasm for life. 

He also lives and breathes music, all genres, all styles, understands the industry and is as passionate and knowledgeable about beer as anyone in the country. 

We pitched Jordan the brief: create an excellent beer list, design a ball tearing music program and host the most extraordinary events in the city. Jordan, ever thoughtful, took a few days to consider the offer before accepting with gusto. 

The rest of the core crew consisted of Allie Webb - Creative Director/Laborer, Gianni Christo - Head Chef, Toby Hilton - Swillhouse GM, Jason Scott - Business Partner, Dardan Shevchenko - Assistant Manager, Mark 'Chops' Wiley - Assistant Manager, Electrician, and myself - Building Manager. We all did the shit work, cleaning, lugging rubbish, painting.  

It was the quickest and most efficient build that, to this day, we've ever done. From start to finish, it took just 7 weeks. We created dividing walls, closed off the kitchen. Installed a pizza oven and a massive marble stone to roll the dough out on. We “Frankienstien’d” the stainless steel, making ice wells that you could actually make delicious drinks in. We unintentionally made the toilets worse versions of their previous incarnation, but they’ve become part of the place’s folklore.

Frankie's Pizza, Sean Burns.

The coolest part of the space is the main room: massive long bar, five booths flanking the area, vintage pinball machines, heritage band posters and a low, half-moon stage, designed so that you're close to the action, part of the show, tight, sweaty and intimate.

It was raw, it was fresh; it was perfectly imperfect. It was Frankie's.

Frankie's Pizza via Monster Children.

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