Featured Story

The Wildest Jazz Bar You’ve Ever Seen

Clean Living Clive's Good Time Palace Orchestra

By Clean Living Clive's Good Time Palace Orchestra drummer, Geoff Sullivan

The band I played for in the "Back Bar" of Hotel Canberra was 'Clean Living Clive's Good Time Palace Orchestra' led by trumpeter Neil Steeper.  The name came about from the band leader's wife Libby, who gave the 'Good Time Palace Orchestra' part to the title, and Neil the 'Clean Living Clive' part. He thought the 'Good Time Palace' part was a bit too bawdy so watered it down adding 'Clean Living Clive'.  Even after over more than 50 years the name is still remembered by many people Australia wide.

I joined the band in 1969 as Clive's drummer quite accidentally. I'd actually played drums in a high school band and later bass guitar in a rock band. I had heard Neil was looking for a drummer for his band and the drummer in my rock band seemed interested in joining.  He rang me on the morning of "Clive's" practice at the ANU to say he couldn't make it, so I had to drive to the session to give Neil the bad news. Neil asked if I could keep a beat on the practice kit there and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the early days the band consisted of leader Neil Steeper on trumpet/cornet/slide trombone and vocals, Gerda Busch lead singer, Sas Douglas on piano, Juan Sillano on clarinet, Terry Pallett on banjo, "Grandpa" John Evans on trombone, Laurie Buckland on double bass and myself on drums as the baby of the band.

It's probably no secret that as a fledgling eight-piece jazz band we were not as musically proficient as other bands, but the crowds seemed to love us, especially Steeper. He was a natural performer, and when the crowds got too noisy, he'd simply stand up on a table and shout out his song with his guttural voice.  The audience used to go wild!

We played at the Hotel Dickson before the 'Back Bar', and in May 1970, 'Clive' was sacked!  The "Canberra Times" reported on 19 May that year that it was a monetary issue with the Dickson manager, who obviously didn't like Neil's request for the band to receive equal pay as members of the musician's union.  Luckily, Ralph O'Connor, the manager of the 'Back Bar' heard about the Dickson situation and hired us immediately for his hotel.

As word got out that 'Clive' had been sacked from the 'Dicko' and playing at the Hotel Canberra, our old crowd followed us and Jazz and Jug became the place to go - Hotel Canberra and the 'Back Bar' had solidified its reputation in history as the wildest jazz bar Canberra had ever seen. As Saturday afternoon proved so successful, the manager employed us for Tuesday and Thursday nights as well.

At the band's peak, the crowds were so large that the band sometimes couldn't get through the entry doors. I remember having to pass my drum kit through the rear windows onto the stage and I’d climb in after them.

We also began to develop a bit of a reputation on the music scene and had a few well-known interstate jazz performers drop in to play.  Some of the ones I can remember were Tommy Hare (reeds and trumpet) from the Galapagos Duck, Paul Furniss (reeds), Graham Coyle (piano) and Lachie Thompson (reeds).

The band dispersed in March 1974 when the 'Back Bar' and the Hotel Canberra's lease with Tooheys was not renewed as a result of the Whitlam government's decision to use the building for other purposes.

I still love jazz music today, getting to as many live gigs as possible. My dad was a trumpeter in dance bands, I played drums, washboard, guitar and electric bass as well as vocals, and I'm pleased to see that the music genes might have flowed down to my grandchildren. Finlay, the eldest, does DJ work in local nightclubs, Thredbo and the South Coast.  Ashby is studying a musical orientated degree at Melbourne University and my three granddaughters have all been involved in musically related endeavours.

I'd like to think my family, especially the grandkids would be pretty chuffed if they could have watched me in the day - in a jazz band people still remember over 50 years on!

Read more about the infamous Back Bar here.