Jac Vidgen has got the right...RATtitude
INTERVIEW WITH JAC VIDGEN FROM THE RAT (RECREATIONAL ARTS TEAM)
The Recreational Arts Team (or RAT for short) have gone down in history as some of the best party designers in Australia and Sydney during the mid to late 80’s. The RAT parties would not have been the same without Jac Vidgen, who was a driving force behind the development and continued success of these parties. He paved the way in Sydney with eclectic party styles and over the top production. They really were at the root of dance parties in Australia with sometimes tens of thousands of people attending, all jam packed into different locations around Sydney (and other states sometimes). They organised over 30 Sydney RAT parties from 1983 to 1992, Jac Vidgen and his team must be thanked for paving the way for the Sydney rave scene. SRH’s Mandy V has a chat to Jac, and we find out about some of the origins of the events and what made them so popular.
Explain to us how you got into organising parties and the production company. What was your role in the organisation? How many people were involved?
I used to share houses and flats during my student days in Brisbane, and whenever a party was organised at our place, I’d hire lights and organise the house so there was a particular place for dancing (no sitting on the floor there!) and organise the music (taped on cassettes from our collections) etc.
Then in 1982, at my last house party in a shared apartment in Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, I’d hired Reno Dal (who used to work for Ellis D. Fogg) to do the lights. At that party, neighbours complained that plaster was falling into their bed due to the vibrations from the music - and I recall there was a trail of glitter from our front door down to the street. Then Reno suggested that we create a party where people contributed towards the costs I had a mate at the time called Billy Yip, an exotic looking artist/graphic designer from Hong Kong, so he and Reno and another party-mate, John Benfell (who used to work at Arthur’s, the grooviest bar in town at that time) combined to produce RAT Rock Wreck in Oct.1983 - a small event in an old house (and back garden) in Cleveland Street, Redfern which we hired from the occupants for the night for $50! We created little sculptured tickets for the 220 guests who paid $10 each (but if they brought 10 friends, they got a free one!). Some brought food, and we provided three bins of punch and gave one jelly baby to each guest impregnated with a 1/4 trip of good acid. We decorated, hired some props, had 8mm movies in one room and played taped collections of DJ friend’s music. The event was a hit and everyone asked when the next one was. And so followed RATsurrect on Easter Sunday 1984 at Bondi Pavilion etc. etc. Billy had so named the first party because the place was a bit ratty so we kept RAT and decided on Recreational Arts Team as the basis for what we did.
This team changed over the years - although I was always a driving force, I guess - with Billy mostly at my side. But there were many significant contributors along the way Reno Dal, Wayne Gait-Smith, Mark Taylor (SLATS), Geoffrey Rose (lasers), Ian Hartley (video DJ), many top djs, Phil Edson (projections), Tim and Mic Gruchy (visuals/video/slides) + too many more very supportive (and talented!) people to actually name. And so it went. And grew.
What was the hardest part of promoting?
There were numerous challenges; venues, liquor licences, noise complaints, budgets, bureaucracy - all the same sort of things which are probably even worse these days
Raves were pushed underground and venues hard to find, did you ever have issues obtaining a venue and were you ever shut down?
We certainly had issues finding the right venue which was available, but no, we were never shut down. I remember one of my favourite events was A Midsummer RAT’s Dream (3rd RAT party - at Balmain Bijou - the old deco theatre which had become a roller skating rink, then a film studio, then left to gather dust (it’s now shops!). It no longer held a licence as a theatre and public hall, so technically we were not allowed to charge admission nor sell booze. So the liquor shop at the Balmain pub across the road sold out that night! We’d created a total fantasy in that place - but 2 uniformed cops arrived around midnight saying that it seemed we were charging admission. So I met them (in my rather wild costume!) and said well, they not exactly paying to get in, but rather contributing to the costs of the night. Then I took them through a UV tunnel into the fantasyland of the party. They stood aghast, then turned to me and said well, don’t do it again and then they left..
Your parties were extravagant, full of style and dynamic elements; did all this come at a cost? Were parties profitable?
Sometimes we did well - like with the hugely successful NYE party with Grace Jones - but we were always pioneering and trying new ideas, and this was often costly. Two of the team's technical producers gave up along the way due to losing time and money, and, at the end (early 90s) I was left with a $20,000 debt to my brother - which I finally repaid (with interest!) over some years later. The point is that RAT was a kind of artistic indulgence, rather than a good business. And after the success of the Grace Jones party, so many promoters and entrepreneurs started to do similar events some were great (like Dance Delirium, Sweatbox, Paradise Garage etc.), some were mediocre, and some were pretty poor - even though they were promoted cleverly so many even got good numbers. I think the distinction of the quality of the parties got a bit lost, and then it seemed to grow to be more about the quality of the drugs!
Do you think the dance scene would have been as successful in Sydney if our gay and lesbian scene wasn't as strong?
Well, the original RAT core was mostly gay, but we tried to appeal to the edge of mainstream - the more alternative crowd, rather than just the gay and lesbian crowd. The history of gay and lesbian parties and musical trend-setting were certainly an important influence of what happened.
Did you continue to organise parties after 1988?
I think the last RAT NYE was done in conjunction with FUN in Pyrmont in 1992. We also combined with Dance Delirium in 1989 to do a fashion party called UNITE, and then with Sweatbox (NYE 1991).
I was “over" producing events by the early 90s and tired of not getting properly paid for the huge risks and efforts, so I moved into a very different field - promoting an extraordinary breathing method developed years earlier by a Russian doctor/scientist - called Buteyko’s method - which allows people to reverse many chronic health concerns. I’ve been teaching this for 20 years as my only form of income - and brought it to Asia later in the 90s. Now I am based in Manila and teach in Philippines, Hong Kong as well as online. It’s quite a different world. Yet still rather alternative, as it allows people to manage their health with little or no dependence on the medical industry. (www.buteykoasia.com)
As the dance party scene morphed into the rave scene, where were you, did you enjoy the 90's parties?
I have to admit that I found the intensity and style of techno and hard house was rather too much for me - I found it hard to move my hips after a while (too fast and jerky?!) - And I guess I became a bit “partied out”. I did still check out parties after RAT, but less and less over the years. And I did do some regular club nights at Black Market in the 90s (with Miss 3D and Bruce Mann) - the one which went off for a while was Dragetrade. I could see that many of the 90s raves were quite exciting productions and in some interesting venues, but rarely stayed for long!
When I return to Australia every few years, I occasionally enjoy Bad Dog parties in Sydney and Tropical Fruits NYE in Lismore (as they both have some elements of RAT days). And honestly, these days (at 64!), I rarely chase the party scene much at all.
During the 80's Australia's trends were months, sometimes years behind the rest of the world. How far behind Europe and U.S.A. were we in the dance scene?
It’s hard for me to assess that - although I didn’t realise we were so much behind the trends in Europe and USA. Certainly, many DJs and acts from overseas performed at the 80s parties in Oz - and clearly the style and size of the parties in Oz was rather unique at that time.
Got any funny stories to tell?
Too many over the years. I’ve mentioned some of them above
What are you up to these days? What sort of music do you listen to now?
Definitely a quieter life when it comes to clubs and big parties - although I do sometimes go to clubs in Hong Kong (and have seen some excellent DJs and acts there in the past 15 years) and sometimes also in Manila. I have fairly broad tastes in music - and often play my iTunes at home on shuffle - but not too much dance music. I love jazz, some blues, disco, soul, some house, R&B, it’s less intense!
I am honoured to have found myself being involved in the club and party scene in Sydney etc. in the 80s. It was a very vibrant and colourful era. Many of the most outrageous and talented people who made a huge contribution to our events have already passed on - so I regard those of us who were there and who are still here to reflect on that wild time to be rather blessed and privileged. I should say that I really found myself doing RAT almost by default, rather than by design - and I also want to acknowledge the many very talented and devoted people who teamed with us to make our events so extraordinary.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to SRH today Jac.
For people interested in more about the RAT Parties have a look on WikiPedia (and don't forget to check out the links at the bottom)
Jac Vidgen, Billy Yip and Reno Dal (pic by John Webber)
Art by Billy Yip
A RATty New Year (pic by William Yang)
A Midsummer RAT's Dream - Balmain Bijou, January 1985
A Ratty New Year - Hordern Pavilion NYE 1988/89 (pic by William Yang)
The laser whiz (pic by William Yang)
Wayne Gait-Smith's fab design
1989 (pic by Robert Rosen)
The Infamous Line. Behind that curtain there was apparently a guy selling party energy.
Jac Vidgen, Billy Yip, Elise Hawthorne and Harold The Kangaroo (RIP)
ERATcipation in The Dome