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Remembering Honkytonks: The Club that Defined Melbourne’s Hedonistic Party Scene

We look back at a club where there’d often be more people dancing in the women’s bathroom than on the dancefloor.

Image: Rhonda Bonnici

If you lived in Melbourne during the 2000s, had a creative spirit and prioritised fun, it’s likely you spent a fair chunk of time at Honkytonks. Opening at the time that the rave and house music scenes were being subsumed by a more booze-friendly bar scene, Honkytonks combined the best of both into one gloriously hedonistic retreat.

Honkytonks made you feel like you were part of a special club. It was where you’d take your out-of-town friends to impress them with a quintessentially Melbourne experience.

At the end of a graffiti strewn alley you’d come to a spot that did not look anything like the entrance to a club. If the club wasn’t already at its limit, and the doorman deemed you worthy, you’d climb a rickety, wooden stairwell and begin to hear music being played on the club’s centerepiece - a customised white grand piano DJ booth.

Image: Rhonda Bonnici

Honkytonks looked like Studio 54 had sex with your grandma’s house. It had all the elements: a sunken lounge at the back with a view of the street, the dance floor in the middle, a smoking area, relatively fancy (but mostly out of order) toilets with cool sinks and shiny bits everywhere. And while most of the place didn’t take itself too seriously, the bar did, which meant you could get a decent cocktail at any hour - it was open every day, except Monday, until at least 5am.

Honktyonks revolved around music. It wasn’t genre specific but was heavy on the electronic spectrum. House authority Angela Mason was the first regular DJ and other professional party starters like the Bang Gang DJs, Andee Frost, Kano, and Mike Callander all had residencies.

Image: Rhonda Bonnici

Michael Delany started Honkytonks with high hopes and great intentions that never faded. Delany was typically there, often dressed in women’s clothing, overseeing proceedings and basically having a ball. It’s essentially Delany’s vision and hard work that gave Melbourne’s creative community a place to meet, dance and carry on every night of the week. And don’t even get us started on the mid morning lock ins where it was like the essence of Honkytonks had been boiled down and made into a concentrate.

We spoke to Michael and a few key players about their memories of the club that defined 2000s nightlife in Melbourne.

Noisey: How did Honkytonks come to be?
Michael Delany: My friends and I were all throwing big parties at our own warehouses in the late 90s. We’d try to outdo each other with how weird they were. The problem was we’d always run out of booze and the toilets would stop working, so we were looking for a site where we could do that more professionally.

What a great spot to find!
It was the last place the real estate agent showed me. It had been a bridal wear manufacturer; there were still about 40 wedding gowns hanging when we went through. It was kind of spooky. It was called Chantilly Bridal. We were almost going to call it Honkytonks Chantilly because it was such a sweet name.

What made it such a special place from your perspective?
It had a lot to do with it being the right time. We all had lots of friends: the Fitzroy art scene and the people who did bars like Gin Palace, so there was a lot of word of mouth.

It was the perfect blend of debauched and classy.
I used to go to a club called Centrifugal at the Mercat Cross and the music was amazing but I’d be drinking a terrible tasting vodka and tonic with no ice. Our idea was to have the great music and atmosphere with the kind of drinks you’d get from a cocktail bar.

Do you have a fondest memory?
We’d have DJs in the girl’s bathroom. It was called Dunny Disco. One night when I was playing in there to about 10 people, the two best looking people you’ve ever seen waited in line politely then went into a cubicle together and everyone in the room couldn’t believe it. It was a funny, shared moment. The toilet cubicles were huge, you could fit nine people in there.

You had regular international DJs too?
We made sure we had a lot of them: Derrick May, Super Pitcher, Kevin Saunderson, Carl Craig, hundreds of them. There weren’t so many massive festivals then so it was more affordable. We never made that much money from them but those nights were amazing.

And how did it all end?
We’d been told the lease was running out. They allowed us to stay until NYE and we made a big deal about it being the end of Honkytonks. Then the landlord’s plans didn’t come together so they asked if we wanted to stay on. It was awkward as it looked like we’d made it up to rip everyone off.

We were always a busy club and turned a lot of people away every night so we had a joke that we’d take the floor downstairs, paint it black, pipe the music down there and we’d tell anyone we didn’t let into Honkytonks that they could go to Third Class. In the end we just gutted Honkytonks, made it really ghetto, called it Third Class and ran it like that for two years. It was amazing.

Andee Frost
Andee Frost remains a fixture behind the turntables at Melbourne’s best clubs but originally found his feet at Honkytonks, learning his skills from Michael Delany.

What was your involvement in Honkytonks?
Andee Frost: I started as an eager DJ after gaining a coveted DJ spot at Saturday night’s Slap Shack and quickly became part of the family. I think though my most important job was buying the sausages for the free Sunday night BBQ.

What made it such a cool place to be?
The people, the venue, the cocktails, the music, the attitude, it sounds cliche but it wasn't a club full of models or sleazy coke lords. Sure they came through, but the majority of the people who hung out were the interesting yet bonkers party people of Melbourne who knew how to have a good time. There was almost the perfect mix of patrons that you don't really see anymore.

What's your greatest memory from the time?
DJing back to back with 2 Many DJs for a few hours at the Big Day Out unofficial after party where James Murphy, Diplo, M.I.A, Hot Chip and every important Aussie dance act was dancing in front of me. Or warming up for Derrick Carter on a Wednesday night before he played a mind blowing six-hour set. They definitely stand out and are probably the safest options for print.

What was on high rotation?
It was the crossover period between house and electro and there was always a healthy dose of disco, so: “Achy Breaky” by Zdarlight, Vitalic La Rock, “Chocolate Salty Balls” by Chef, Fleetwod Mac’s “Beautiful Child”, anything by Derrick Carter, “Music for Freaks”, Tiga, LCD Sound System, Soulwax, “Disco Circus” by Martin Circus, “Dancer” by Gino Soccio.


Mike Callander
Mike Callander was the Saturday night resident DJ at Honkys during its last few years. Prior to that he was a regular on the dance floor.

What made Honky Tonks so cool?
Mike Callander: The musical programming was ambitious and flamboyant. There were Wednesday nights with artists so popular that a club that size could never normally afford them, and yet they did it anyway and everyone turned out and blew off Thursday. And there were Saturday nights when the international guest would play in the ladies’ toilets while the residents played the ‘main’ floor. At the bar you’d get a seriously fine cocktail and on the dancefloor you’d meet an interesting new friend.

What's your greatest memory?
My greatest memory, that can be published, was when Michael Delany played "Stairway To Heaven" as the club’s last track ever. The closing party had gone on so long I had left to eat and shower a number of times, and upon my return I remember being surrounded by the happiest and saddest people in the world, all dancing and smiling and crying at once on the dancefloor.

What was on rotation?
On our Saturday night you’d hear LCD Soundsystem alongside Ricardo Villalobos, Carl Craig alongside Daft Punk, and on a night that Michael Delany played you’d hear Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”.

Image: Rhonda Bonnici

Royce Akers
The editor of Vice Australia, spent many nights of his formative years at Honkytonks, even working in the cloak room for a stint.

What was your involvement?
Royce Akers: I was a punter. Back in university, around 2002, I would go there at least four times a week. Whether it was packed out or completely empty, we'd be sitting there trying to make our vodka lime sodas last as long as we could. I later worked for a stint in the coatroom. It was good money. You'd get $120 for a shift but there was an unwritten rule where you could charge whatever you wanted as long as the house got $2 per item. It's amazing what people will pay to have their coat looked after.

What made it such a cool place to be?
Well, getting in was a process. It was hard to find and when you did find it, it was hard to get past the door person. We got knocked back a bunch of times and eventually started doing stuff like bringing chocolates for the bouncers. But the feeling of cruising past the queue, getting in for free, and climbing up those stairs like you owned the place was what nightclub dreams are made of. Especially for a group of young douchebags, which is what we were.

What other thing about Honkytonks or Third Class you can tell us?
I had so many party milestones at Honkytonks. First try of ketamine, first instance of looking around a party and feeling old. That was probably at Third Class. It seemed like there was always a few older people at Honkys but when it became Third Class it was all kids and they were all much cooler than we had been. But yeah, when Third Class ended, it was probably the end of hanging out in the city. Clubs are great when you're invested in them. When you've put in the time to skip queues and not pay. Starting over wasn't an option and when I think about it, there wasn't really another bar that could take its place.