40 years of St Kilda Festival: looking back at four decades of live music and community celebrations

40 years of St Kilda Festival: looking back at four decades of live music and community celebrations

Photo by Rick Clifford
Words by Tammy Walters

In 2020, Australia’s largest community festival reaches a historic milestone.

The excitement of entering into a new decade comes with a period of reflection, celebration and outlook. For St Kilda Festival, diving into the renewed Roaring Twenties comes twofold as the largest community festival in Australia turns 40, and that excitement has well and truly set in.

Since their humble beginnings in 1980, St Kilda Festival has seen the stunning foreshore come alive year after year with music, arts, entertainment and community spirit. A total of 1,524 different bands have graced the stage, for a combined total of 1,995 performances. There’s been appearances from everyone from Archie Roach to The Cat Empire, St Kilda icon Ruby Carter and Shaun Kirk. An estimated 9,550,000 eager punters have joined in the fun.

During that 40 years, St Kilda Festival has become a local resident and neighbour that you can rely on – it’s part of the Melbourne and St Kilda community; run by the community, for the community.

“One of the things we stick to with St Kilda Festival is we say, ‘To properly be a community festival, the programming has to come from the community’,” Festival Producer Adele Denison says.

“So it should hopefully be a reflection of the community at any given year and I think that has enabled it to grow and stay relevant and authentic which is nice.

“Then there’s the diversity of music as well, making sure there is something for everyone and ensuring we’re getting new bands in – the festival sounds so different now to what it would have sounded like in 1980.

For 2020, that electricity is buzzing. On the music front, Stonefield make their return while the likes of Cash Savage & The Last Drinks, Hot Dub Time Machine, The Kite String Tangle, Kylie Auldist, DRMNGNOW, Press Club, Remi and Tia Gostelow will also perform.

To celebrate the huge milestone, this year’s festival will throw punters into a time machine and back to where it all began. As part of the proceedings, punters are invited to wear their best ‘80s getups.

“We want to see as much of the ‘80s as we can and the more vulgar the better,” Denison laughs. “We’ve got a couple of things going on around the 40th theme … There is going to be a couple of outdoor exhibitions onsite showing some of the old photos, advertisements and old programs from past years, so people can really get a sense of what the festival looked like and felt like over the past four decades.

“Hopefully they’ve been part of the festivals as well and it will be quite nostalgic, or for people coming for the first time, they can learn what the festival is all about and what it has meant to people.

“We have a DJ playing songs from all of the bands that have played throughout the last 40 years – there have been 1500 of them so eight hours is probably not enough – but that is to capture what the festival has sounded like over the past 40 years.

“He’ll be taking requests so if there is a band that you saw at the festival in 1987 and you’ve still got that band in your head, let’s see if we can find them and play them at the festival again.”

But this time of celebration does call for a time of reflection, and the one moment that stands out to Denison and really encapsulates the spirit of the festival, is from St Kilda Festival in 2009.

“In 2009, the festival fell on the day after Black Saturday so we were in a bit of a bubble,” Denison explains. “We knew there had been bushfires, we had no idea how bad it had been and on the day of the festival, within 24 hours of those fires, we were responding.

“We rallied and raised funds for those bushfire-affected areas, but seeing the way the community responded to that and how the community came together that year was something really special. You’ll never want those circumstances to be repeated but I’ll never forget what that day felt like, it was part of the healing.

“That’s really been in my head now with the bushfire crisis we’ve been facing now as well. The role that festivals like this can play for communities who are affected has been at the forefront.”

Celebrate 40 years of St Kilda Festival, in all its free and magnificent glory, when it takes over the beachside suburb on Sunday February 9. Check out the full festival program at stkildafestival.com.au.