NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND

Former punk rocker, founder of Cherry Bar and now rebuilder of Ding Dong Lounge after the fire, Bill Walsh chats with Business State about rock and roll and food in Melbourne..

Photography by Jim Wilde.

Bill Walsh's Days as a punk rock drummer and his resulting love of nightlife, live music and culture has led to his becoming a successful Melbourne bar owner for the last 20 years.

He’s the owner of Ding Dong Lounge, a venue which, for the past 15 years, has enjoyed hosting some of the world’s biggest rock acts and very loyal patrons. It has since reinvented itself to include a New Orleans-style Creole and Cajun menu.

At Ding Dong, Walsh was one of eight partners who opened the venue in 2002. In 2012 he bought the others out and began operating as a solo act. “It’s got my personality, I’m the boss – 'big cheese' as they call me here!” he says.

GETTING INTO VENUE MANAGEMENT

Walsh’s experience and love for the Melbourne music scene goes back to the formation of cult punk band Cosmic Psychos in 1984 with a couple of university mates.

From there he toured Australia and the world with the band and became involved in Melbourne community radio station PBS FM.

A desire to stay in Melbourne and start a family eventually led him to leave the band and pursue a career in hospitality. “I didn’t want to be an aged punk rocker without the ability to provide for my family.”

Having enjoyed rock and roll bars the world over, it was disappointing that none existed in Melbourne. So it was a fortuitous meeting with a café-owning friend that would result in the creation of one of Melbourne’s most iconic music venues.

Walsh jumped at the chance to open a bar. “I’d been thinking about doing a rock and roll bar. I knew about rock and roll and I knew about bars.”

In 1999 they opened Cherry Bar, and within a year it had become a smash hit. It’s still going strong. Walsh is no longer involved. His decision to pull away to focus on Ding Dong in 2012 came as an indirect result of this growth.

“I like to inhabit the underground and do things that are little but interesting, perhaps cutting edge. I felt Cherry had become mainstream, a heritage sort of place.”

A fire in 2011 at a neighbouring property left Ding Dong closed for a year.

The silver lining was that it made for a clean slate on which Walsh could stamp even more of his own identity.

“The fire enabled us to change the whole direction. The new Ding Dong is like the phoenix rising up from the ashes.”


ON LONGEVITY AND SUCCESS

Fifteen years is a long time to enjoy success under one business name in Melbourne. The ability to reinvent Ding Dong, combined with good old-fashioned hard work, is what Walsh credits for the club’s longevity.

“Everything has a use-by date, and you have to keep giving a lot of energy for it to work. You can never take your hands off the wheel. You’ve always got to be paying attention.”

Running the venue as a family business comes with the territory. “My wife is also involved in the business; it’s very much run as a small family business and we employ 15 to 20 people.

“We have a booker, a bar manager, a head chef, a publicist and I have an artist.”

The small business set-up of Ding Dong enables the team to work effectively. “We talk regularly about what we’re doing, where we’re going, why we’re booking, what we’re booking, and from time to time I also do the cleaning. It’s a very glamorous lifestyle!

“Most restaurants don’t make it through the first year. It’s tough and competitive and with small business there’s a lot of effort that goes into it.”


CUISINE, DIVERSITY AND MULTICULTURALISM

Aside from exposing him to music industry contacts and great rock scenes all over the world, touring in a rock band also introduced Walsh to countless cultures and cuisines.

A particular favourite was the combination of food and music in Louisiana. This led him to hire a chef from Louisiana for Ding Dong’s new kitchen and menu.

“It’s got a great story,” he says about New Orleans’ French, Spanish, Italian and African influences. “It’s a fantastic melting pot and what I would hope Melbourne could be one day, a complete food and music city.

“I don’t think we’re there yet. You go to New Orleans and it drips food and music. I wouldn’t say Melbourne does this yet.”

Ever an enthusiast of emerging culture and creativity, Walsh talks of the emerging artistic suburbs of Northcote and Thornbury. He compares these to St Kilda when he lived there in the 80s.

“Cheap rent always draws people in. When I moved to St Kilda in 1981, you could get a two-bedroom apartment for $145 a month. It was cheap because people didn’t really want to live there.

“Low rents attract young people who might be musicians, artists, students or whatever.

“Of course, St Kilda’s not like that now. The music, and in some ways our arts scene, exists now on the north side.”

Diversity and multiculturalism are two things Walsh would like to see embraced more fully in Melbourne – in music, food and all other aspects of life.

“We’ve had European settlement here for 200 years, but I think it’s only in the last few decades that we’ve found our own identity.

“We’re definitely heading in the right direction, but they’re all steps along the way. We’re very lucky here to have all that we do, but it’s an ongoing story”.