Melbourne by the (Rock) Numbers: On a Vinyl Trail in the Aussie City

A passion for vinyl records helps one traveller discover a parallel city.  
Trams Melbourne
Melbourne is known as the cultural capital of Australia because of its many trams, art museums, and cafés which contribute to the vibrant energy. Photo: Scott E Barbour/The Image Bank/Getty Images

“Walking is a virtue and tourism is a sin,” I told my husband, quoting British author Bruce Chatwin, as we landed in Melbourne. We had already been travelling for a good week and a half around Malaysia, through luxurious suites and isolated forest resorts. By the time we got to Australia, our holiday fund was greatly depleted. We had eight days to kill but little money to spare in a city full of pricey art galleries, theatre shows, big-ticket music concerts and cutting-edge restaurants.

We decided to take things on the trot. What better way to understand a city than to see its underbelly, to sniff its stinks and discover the music on its streets? Armed with a day pass for the tram network, a much-thumbed copy of Lonely Planet Australia, regulation sunscreen and a couple of packaged meat pies, we were ready to take on Melbourne. Our first stop was Queen Victoria Market—a heritage site and bargain hunter’s paradise. It was filled with racks of faux crocodile boots, dubious Chinese herbs, tacky cowboy hats, artisanal cheese stands, and boomerangs. Fate struck. My husband and I had been walking our separate ways, but suddenly bumped into each other at the entrance to a stall selling second-hand vinyl records.

I had been drawn into the shop by the sensuous black-and-white sleeve of Madonna’s iconic Like a Virgin album. It was one of my favourite albums from the 1980s and reminded me of evenings spent with girlfriends dancing ourselves silly to “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin”. For my husband, on the other hand, it had been a copy of Miles Davis’s A Kind of Blue in near-mint condition. As we jostled each other, excited by the piles of LPs (as 12-inch vinyl records are known), the owner looked at us with a bemused expression. An elderly man with twinkly blue eyes, he gave us a great discount and handed my husband a pamphlet. “Well mate, if you like your vinyl, that’s the best kind of tour you can go on,” he said.

Bookstore Melbourne

Polyester Books is a shop known for stocking books on alternative cultures including themes like witchcraft, tattoos, and vampires. Photo: Michael Coyne/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

The fold-out pamphlet-map had been created by Diggin’ Melbourne, an initiative started by a bunch of vinyl enthusiast store owners and resellers. The Q and A on their home page made their conviction for the medium obvious.

“Q: Do they still make records?”

“A: Yes—they still make records, they still make turntables, and yes—new bands are still putting out records. To some people the idea of putting out this kind of map may seem a little pointless. But if you’re reading this you know the score. Vinyl will never die.”

Our trip was suddenly given a whole new purpose. We’d been vinyl freaks for two years, ever since I’d received a birthday present with a note that promised, “This will change the way you listen to music.” When I unwrapped the cheery red record player that came with the message, little did I realise that the birthday gift from my husband would find us spending the rest of the weekends of 2009 hunting for rare albums, quirky cover art, and our favourite artists on vinyl.

Though my husband and I weren’t experienced audiophiles, vinyl records had a certain purity of sound that we grew to love. Some LP lovers insist that listening to records is just like having a band performing in your living room. The richness and warmth of analogue technology seems much more natural than the cold digital quality of CDs. Compared to an iPod-toting worker bee, the record lover is a vibrant butterfly. That’s why LPs have been back in popularity for the last four or five years, after losing out to cassettes and CDs for two decades. Records are easily available in large music stores in many Indian cities—but they’re very expensive, a luxurious indulgence for audio aficionados.

While we love music, our pockets don’t run deep. So we have dug out second-hand LPs in flea markets across India, from back alleys of Mirza Ghalib Street in Kolkata to dusty multipurpose antique stores in Bangalore’s Avenue Road. We’ve found treasures in the colourful hippie shops of Thamel in Kathmandu and the twisted lanes of Chor Bazaar in Mumbai. Many of our records had their sleeves restored with duct tape, and scratches removed by multiple wet wipes. Our earliest finds came from a decrepit warehouse in Delhi’s Daryaganj, run by the enthusiastic Syed Akbar Shah, who travels the country in search of records old, forgotten and lost. Instead of sending us postcards, kind friends who had been subjected to endless sessions of Pink Floyd’s Meddle and Kraftwerk’s ManMachine would bring us LPs.

Restaurant Melbourne

Diverse world cuisines from Moroccan to Japanese thrive in Melbourne’s restaurants. Photo: Kylie Mclaughlin/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Statue Melbourne

“Mr. Poetry” on Brunswick Street is a smiling bronze statue of Adrian Rawlins, one of Melbourne’s famous poets. Photo: Tom Cockrem/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Though our passion for vinyl had dulled a little over the past few months, finding the Diggin’ Melbourne pamphlet reignited our fervour. The next day, we started working our way through the city’s musical byways. We set out for the artsy and bohemian Brunswick Street in the suburb of Fitzroy. By the mid-twentieth century, Brunswick Street, with its low rents, had become the destination of choice for immigrants from Europe. With them came open-air Mediterranean cafés serving good coffee and wood-fired pizzas. Music venues, graffiti, vintage clothes stores, edgy pop art boutiques and record stores followed in the subsequent decades.

But instead of getting to the cool Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, we found ourselves in an altogether different part of town in a distant suburb also called Brunswick. Not only were we lost, we also ambled along with different agendas—I wanted the record store and vintage shops, but my husband wanted some food. A florist came to the rescue, pulling out a sheaf of maps to show us how far we had strayed. She gave us a flower for good luck and we clambered back onto the tram.

When we got to Fitzroy, we were thrilled to find that Brunswick Street was everything that the guide books and internet had promised. The pavements were filled with chic people in alternative fashion and resounded with the strains of jazz bands practising for an evening gig. Between drinking the best cider I have ever tasted, nearly inhaling a crisp pork belly in apple sauce, and shaking hands with a crazy man who wanted a few dollars for bestowing his good wishes upon us, we found what we had come all this way for—Dixons Recycled.

Florist Melbourne

Bees embellish the side of a florist’s shop on Brunswick Street. Photo: Richard I’Anson/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Menu Melbourne

Brunswick Street is known for its bohemian fashion shops and unconventional cafés. Photo: Andrew Watson/Alamy/Indiapicture

 

Established in 1976, with outlets all over Melbourne, these guys call themselves the “original second-hand specialist”. The store had something for every whimsical buyer on a budget. Neat rows of records awaited us, tagged according to their condition, rareness, album art and assorted other categories. We figured that if we’d been brave enough to buy battered records from Shah Music Centre in Daryagunj, we could take a chance with Dixons’ cheaper, lower-quality discs and gain in quantity what we’d compromised in quality. Who knows when we would find such a mind-boggling variety of LPs again?

Soon, our arms were piled high with the classic albums we had first heard on tape and later possessed on CD: Simon and Garfunkel’s sound track for The Graduate, The Best of Cream, Santana’s Greatest Hits, U2’s Joshua Tree, Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. Substantially poorer but much happier, we put our Diggin’ Melbourne map away for another day.

That day dawned sunny and warm after the debaucheries of New Year’s Eve. The first day of January was perfect for a walking tour around Federation Square and the colourful gates of Chinatown in the city’s central business district. Shorn of office crowds, the lanes were deserted, like unopened oysters full of hidden promise. While the city slumbered, we walked through a glorious sunny afternoon and a mellow dusk, creating our own stories under the awnings and empty promenades along the Yarra River, the alleys of Flinders Lane painted with careless, colourful masterpieces by some of the top street artists. Since rents were high in the CBD, some of the stores on our map had vanished. Others had been transformed into strange animals. One second-hand vinyl shop along Elizabeth Street, for instance, had become a Japanese supermarket selling odd edibles and even odder pink Hello Kitty-themed bric-a-brac.

Dancer Melbourne

Performing artists showing off their skills, like this dancer with drummers, are a common sight on the streets of Melbourne. Photo: Eryk Fitkau/Photographer’s Choice/Getty Images

Fitzroy Melbourne

The suburb of Fitzroy has a large artist community and walls here are filled here with colourful and quirky murals. Photo: Thomas Cockrem/Alamy/Indiapicture

Then, as we were walking along a crowded intersection along Swanston Street, we realised that we had dropped our Diggin’ Melbourne map somewhere along the way. Terrified at the prospect of losing our lifeline to the city, we retraced our steps, peering into dustbins into which we had thrown plastic coffee cups, sifting through the public ashtrays in which we had stubbed out our cigarettes, carefully circling every bench and every clump of grass we had trod on. As we descended into the dumps of despair, we saw a familiar piece of paper fluttering round and round a lamppost. We were on the road again.

After discovering that at least three stores in the vicinity of the CBD had shut down, we stumbled upon the sign and ponderous stairway to Collectors Corner. “From the dirt cheap to the ridiculously rare” is what they claimed to stock. The no-frills space was filled with piles of vinyl stacked in cardboard boxes. We spent so much time browsing and querying that the once-friendly owner soon lost his smile and growled at us till we left the place—but not before we had got ourselves a rare twosome: The Best of the Mamas and the Papas and From the Mars Hotel by the Grateful Dead. Gratified by the loot, lulled by the evening nip and stuffed with grilled crocodile from a friendly café in Chinatown, we were nearly done with our tour and our time in the city.

We had seen Melbourne through squares on our map. We had smelled a city of stale dust and old paper. We had tapped our feet and clapped our hands as an ignored street band belted out great music. It seemed that elves had come out of the crevices and taken us on a tour of a parallel city of forgotten music. We had relived our rock ‘n’ roll preteen years, our waspish teenage love for grunge, our pretentious jazzy early twenties and our fun, indie whims of the years that followed as we marched down the vinyl trail in the land Down Under.

Appeared in the November 2012 issue as “Walking the Vinyl Track”. Updated in January 2017.

Map: Omna Winston

The Guide

Orientation
Melbourne is in the southeastern part of Australia, and the capital of the state of Victoria. It is a port city, built around Port Phillip, which opens into the Bass Strait separating Tasmania from mainland Australia. Melbourne is around 660 km southwest of the Australian capital Canberra and 880 km southwest of Sydney.

Getting There & Around
Air India operates a direct Delhi-Melbourne flight. Current routes used by other airlines require a minimum of one layover, in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hong Kong or Singapore.

Melbourne’s public transport includes trains, trams and buses. It’s convenient to buy a prepaid Myki magnetic card (usable on all public transport; www.ptv.vic.gov.au/tickets/myki) from a railway station or convenience store and travel without worrying about tickets.

Seasons
Being in the southern hemisphere, Australia’s winter is between May and September (Max: 14-16°C; Min: 4-8°C). Melbourne is cooler than most parts of the Australian mainland especially in winter. Summer in Melbourne is characterized by warm, humid days and occasional thunderstorms (From October to April, Max: 25-35°C; Min: 12-15°C). Maximums are usually around 30°C, although the highest recorded temperature is 45°C.

Visa

Indian travellers to Australia require an Australian tourist visa. A 30-, 60-, or 90-day visa costs AUD135/₹7,200, with an additional service charge of ₹984. For application forms and a list of documents required to process the visa, visit http://www.vfsglobal.com/Australia/India/tourist.html. Visas generally take anywhere from 15 days to a month to be processed, so apply well in advance.

  • Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.

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