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On Wednesdays we went to the Cargo Club

At Play Cultural Heart People of Adelaide

Renato Capoccia stands by the Tasmanian oak bar in the now-defunct Cargo Club. The image is frozen in time, but the details stand out: his coat, his shows, the smile on his face as he holds the beer bottle in his hand – and the rockabilly swagger that was his trademark.

The '90s was a defining period for both the city of Adelaide and the 51-year-old. Like many periods in this city’s history, the details are often hazy as the new replaces the old – the decade marked the last time in which smoking inside a club was legal and it made Renato a titan of Adelaide’s music scene when he ran the Cargo Club from 1988 through to 1999. 

Line ups outside cargo club

Lining up on Hindley Street to get into Cargo Club.

In that decade, Renato transformed a humble family restaurant into the home of a counter-cultural underground. Today Renato is working as a marketing manager for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Back then he was just a 19-year-old kid who took a chance on those bands at the cutting edge of music. While everyone else in town was booking punk and rock bands, Renato was putting together line-ups for funk, acid jazz, techno, hip hop and poetry.

"If you came to Cargo you had an open mind. We had an 'everybody gets along' atmosphere, and everyone was open to people being different from each other and getting along."
Renato Capoccia, former operator of Cargo Club

Inside cargo club
Inside cargo club 2

The interior oF Cargo Club

The club’s busiest night was Wednesday when it attracted an eccentric crowd of artists, students and hospitality workers going for their knock off. Together, they would dance to DJ Groove Terminator until the early hours of the morning.

"It was packed, and the dance floor would be going off," Renato says. "There would be a real party atmosphere, and that would probably last until four o’clock in the morning. It was a very popular night with line-ups all around the block."

The reach of the Cargo Club extended beyond Adelaide’s city limits. Its stage hosted Sia before she was famous, Grammy award winner Samuel Dixon, and figures from bands as diverse as Bjork, Cranberries and the Miles Davis’ band.

"Once," Renato says, "Australian Jazz trumpet legend James Morrison and his brother John Morrison played at the Cargo Club for just $80. They played to a packed house for over two hours, with John doing an amazing jazz drum solo that included playing all the bottles on the shelf behind the bar. He now plays for no less than $10,000."

There were other impromptu performances. If there was something to be said about the Cargo Club, it always had the capacity to surprise. One night the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar: Jon Stevens, Russell Morris, John Farnham and Andy Anderson, came in after a show at the arena, made friends with the house band, and took over the club.

A decade before events like Laneway and Groovin the Moo became popular, nineties-Adelaide paved the way for these festivals. Renato says the options for entertainment back then were limited. Audiences and those booking bands had to look around at a time when everyone was experimenting and dance music was just starting up.

Few today may recall this pivotal role the venue played in the state’s musical heritage, but Lauro Siliquini does. A long-time friend of Renato, he used to bartend at the Cargo Club. Today he is the owner of the restaurant Tony Tomato and has named a pizza, The Cargo, after the venue. The namesake pizza was created when Lauro put the dish on the specials board for his ‘own personal reminiscence.’

"It was a really cool place to work," Lauro says. "Because every Wednesday night was full-on dancing, we used to always jump on the stage, take off our tops and just dance for hours."

One night, Lauro remembers drinking with famous trumpet player Vince Jones. Jones first started making music in 1974 and is still working today. He is known for creating contemporary versions of jazz songs and has sold over 200,000 albums worldwide.

"He was an odd character," Lauro says. "If he was playing and someone was talking in the crowd, Vince would stop and say, 'please stop talking or else he wouldn’t continue'."

Three musicians on cargo club stage peter tea image

Today the Cargo club is little more than a memory. The building that hosted the club stood empty for a decade until the University of South Australia bought it to expand their campus. In 2015, the university built Pridham Hall on the land, which includes a gym, basketball court, and swimming pool.

In a pre-social media era, there were limited ways to record what happened in these cultural establishments. There are no real records online that document the Cargo Club, other than a YouTube video and a short Reddit feed. While these titbits offer a glimpse into the past, its most fantastic moments would today be documented on Instagram. Elsewhere in the US, when someone decided to record Kanye West’s infamous rant at the historic Bowery Ballroom in New York, the internet transformed it into a cultural moment.

The result is that – without an active effort to digitally record this information – what is remembered today is retold through stories and memories which are edited in hindsight, making them products of our interpretation rather than pure fact.

Asked what happened to the building or whether anyone documented the countercultural hub, Renato is only sure about one thing.

"I am not exactly sure why the building was left vacant for so long," Renato says. "There are no documents that I know of - I keep saying I will scan the boxes of photos I have in storage from all those years back and upload them onto a Facebook page. In 2020 it may be a pool and basketball court, but like all of Adelaide’s history its nostalgia runs deep."

Though the building may no longer stand, to those who made memories and witnessed all the star acts, the Cargo Club isn’t a forgotten relic of Adelaide’s past.

The written history of the club can be found at the State Library of South Australia. The archives of the defunct Adelaide music and culture magazine Rip it Up that live at the library are a comprehensive history of the '90s to 2000s music scene.

Cargo club mad poster
Cargo club jazz poster

Promo posters for Cargo Club.

Flicking through the pages of the street press provides a written record of the Cargo Club and other countercultural establishments. Some are still around today, like The Austral. There are also plenty of clubs lost to obscurity like Q Club, Stix: Industry Groovers and Fat Afro. So too were Adelaide’s gay clubs: The Mars Bar, which closed in 2018.

The process of finding documents about the Cargo Club in the library was an arduous task, as it requires asking the librarians for access, then going into the reading room, and flicking through delicate documents.

Even if it were more straightforward to find the archives of Adelaide's nightlife, no one would likely know about it in the first place. As I write this, the world is pulling down problematic statues of historical figures associated with slavery and colonisation. While some groups claim this erases history, the act of tearing down a statue might also be described as history in the making.

If we do have a passion for remembering the past, the question of who and what gets remembered is tricky and it seems the creative arts are not included. At the same time the government is sending police to protect statues, the government is raising the price of higher education in the arts meaning that it’s hard to believe those in charge when they say they care about culture or history.

When it comes to preserving those clubs, bars and art spaces where people danced, played music and created, we have failed. Now, all we can do is organise an effort to preserve their memory.

Until then, Renato continues to remember the Cargo Club when he sees his friends. It is a place still spoken about online. Eventually, Renato says, he will upload a time capsule to Facebook to serve as a digital memory lane for those who come looking.

And for now, that will have to be enough.

All images presented in this article supplied by Renato Capoccia.

This article has been published through a collaboration between the City of Adelaide and the University of South Australia aimed at sharing stories of the city and showcasing the work of emerging local writers.

Discover more engaging stories penned by aspiring Adelaide writers.

The views, information, or opinion expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Corporation of the City of Adelaide.

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Article by

Faye Couros

Faye Couros

Faye is a journalism and creative writing student at UniSA. She has interned for Vogue and Glam Adelaide, and reported on the Melbourne Fashion Festival as part of a mentorship run by Fashion Journal.