‘You Always Felt Safe, And It Was Always About The Music’: Farewell, The Zoo

9 May 2024 | 10:29 am | Steve Bell

With Brisbane institution The Zoo set to shut its doors for the last time in July, we look back at the venerated room’s 32-year history.

The Zoo on its 30th anniversary in 2022

The Zoo on its 30th anniversary in 2022 (Credit: Cat Clarke)

For over 30 years, The Zoo has been one of the pillars of the Brisbane music scene, alongside counterparts like community radio stalwarts 4ZZZ and the city’s longest-running record scene, Rocking Horse Records, the only institution that’s been in existence that whole time.

Musical styles have changed across generations, other venues have come and gone, and the street press has moved online, but that hallowed Fortitude Valley space accessed by the dimly lit staircase found inside an unassuming Ann St doorway has been providing a haven for music lovers since late 1992 when those doors opened for the first time.

Back then, the Valley was a lot different to its current incarnation. During the ultra-conservative Joh Bjelke-Petersen years of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Fortitude Valley was an unofficially sanctioned hotspot of vice and corruption, with gambling, drugs and prostitution rife throughout the precinct. As that notorious regime was gradually brought down in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s and such nefarious activities became untenable, the Valley became destitute, a wasteland of empty buildings and dying dreams.

It was in this rough diaspora that two young ladies from the local music scene – Joc Curranand C. Smith – decided to set up the cafe and art space that they’d been dreaming of opening, having long sensed that their city was missing such a place to hang out. Having tried and failed to find a suitable location in the CBD – where all the action was at the time – they settled on the nondescript space above the Valley and set about transforming it into their vision.

The building itself had been built in the 1920s, designed by renowned local architect E.P. Trewern, who’d originally envisaged it as four first-floor apartments before, in actuality, it became a large semi-industrial warehouse space (which had long since fallen into disrepair).

In those early years of The Zoo, it resembled a pool hall as much as anything; the walls were adorned with local artworks, and a makeshift bar and stage were constructed to allow for occasional musical happenings. During its early years, the venue had a cabaret licence, which meant that patrons had to be served a meal before they could acquire alcohol, legal requirements that staff always strictly complied with regardless of the ensuing confusion (and waste).

The fact that both Joc and Cee had been part of the local music scene themselves and still moved in band circles – they’d both played in a band called The Creatures Downstairs, which had split just prior to their Zoo adventures – as well as both being aspiring photographers/visual artists, meant that from the outset they exhibited a peculiar empathy for both bands and punters.

The Zoo’s ethos was built around respect. There was no dress code to speak of and, for the first decade or so, no visible security, but—unlike so many other places in the then-roughhouse Valley—there was an expectation of civility, that all involved would act with a certain decorum, both to the staff (usually members of local up-and-coming bands or artists of some description) and to each other.

As Brisbane put the Joh years behind it, the city gradually began to flourish. By the time of the mid-‘90s musical boom – when bands like Powderfinger, Regurgitator, Custard and Screamfeeder made it abundantly clear that Brisbane was no longer the cultural backwater that so many people in Australia had for so long perceived it to be – The Zoo was a prominent part of this revolution.

The Zoo (alongside other then-established venues like The Roxy) afforded some permanence and stability to the scene. This, combined with external factors such as Triple J going national and the rise and rise of the Livid Festival, meant that Brisbane was no longer a place that artists needed to flee to flourish. The fact that this generation stayed put had a tangible flow-on effect, which helped magnify the scene’s already healthy vibrancy and community.

The Zoo itself changed and morphed physically over time – the bars and stages moved around, and the PA was expanded and improved – but the room’s welcoming vibe stayed steadfast. Those central tenets of respect and decency remained set in stone. It hadn’t always seemed predestined for longevity – there are many tales of early hardships and innovative fundraising initiatives to keep the doors open – but belief (and lots of elbow grease) eventually won out.

In time, playing The Zoo became a rite of passage for Brisbane bands, who would rightfully celebrate milestones such as their first support at the venue, their first headlining slot and (if things fell their way) their first sold-out Zoo spectacular. Interstate bands would hear lavish tales from friends and contemporaries and aspire to add a Zoo show to their next Brisbane itinerary. So many of the international acts who graced the stage returned again and again on future forays, delighted by the vibe and ambience (despite the fairly rudimentary backstage set-up and ongoing lack of air-conditioning, a factor that plagued the venue until very late in the piece).

Even as the Valley itself changed, The Zoo remained a sanctuary. In 2006, when the Brisbane City Council designated Fortitude Valley the country’s first Special Entertainment Precinct – making entertainment venues exempt from the amplified music noise requirements of the Queensland Government’s liquor licensing laws – Brisbane’s nightlife quickly relocated from its long-term home in the CBD to the Valley, nightclubs and all. The area was no longer solely the domain of the counter-culture, and the streets became a seething maelstrom of humanity at its worst, but again, The Zoo stuck resolutely to its core principles. The new circumstances now necessitated an element of security, but within those walls, respect for others remained paramount.

On a larger scale, even Brisbane itself has changed and evolved over the last three decades. It’s a large and thriving capital city now compared to 30 years ago – no longer the massive country town of yore – with the prominent cultural cringe of yesteryear firmly in the rearview mirror. There’s a belief in the city’s cultural relevance that has encouraged investment in infrastructure. In recent years, venues such as The Triffid, Fortitude Music Hall and the revamped Princess Theatre joined The Zoo’s local landscape. The stability that The Zoo afforded our scene for so long is, in some ways, no longer as necessary, but it doesn’t make the imminent closure any less sad.

Over the past 32 years, this writer has enjoyed in excess of 500 different nights at The Zoo – many while reviewing for this publication, or back during stints managing bands and doing merch, but mostly as a punter – and for decades, the perpetually welcoming space has been like a constant home-away-from-home.

Just the thought of walking up those dingy, nondescript stairs ushers in a raft of countless memories, a stream of smiling faces and visages of friends old and new, vivid recall of that heady rush as the lights dim and a favourite band emerges from the dark recesses of stage right. Favourite vantage points in the room that changed slightly over the years as the needs and priorities of the live music experience altered with age. You always felt safe, and it was always about the music.


I could regale you with countless hours of tales and anecdotes of Zoo gigs large and small—the music, the mayhem, the love, the laughter—but my memories of the amazing space aren’t what make The Zoo so special. It’s the fact that everyone from the Brisbane music scene (and our many friends and visitors) each have their own similar experiences, a cavalcade of good times that have added so much value to our lives.

Now it’s time to say goodbye. It’s hard to even imagine the Brisbane music scene without The Zoo. Management may have changed over the years – we’ve even had air-conditioning for a while – but the room’s always been there for us, an oasis of calm in an ever-changing world. I feel the most for the bands and fans currently coming through the ranks, who might not get to experience The Zoo’s immense (and often sweaty) charms.

I’m a romantic at heart, so I’d like to believe that there’s somehow life in The Zoo yet. The outpouring of love and sadness from all corners of the Brisbane scene (and beyond) spurred by news of its closure has been immense and gratifying; maybe it will prompt a salvage mission of some kind. We can only hope.


But if magic doesn’t happen, and come July, the room we’ve loved for so long ceases to be, the spirit of The Zoo will continue to reverberate through our scene. It’s part of us now. Those lessons of decency and humility – if not yet ingrained within all of us – remain, at the very least, something tangible to aspire to.

I’d like to thank Joc and Cee for their amazing vision and the incredible ‘scene within a scene’ that they fostered back in those heady early years, all of the incredible staff over the journey (including subsequent managements who’ve all done their best to keep The Zoo so special), the hundreds of amazing bands I’ve seen rock that stage, and the generations of punters who’ve enjoyed the room by my side for all the right reasons.

While I’m not sure you can love an inanimate object like a building, you can surely love an institution and all that it represents, so mainly, I’d like to thank The Zoo. I love you, and I’m going to miss you a lot.

But ’til then, let’s not despair. We have two months to make more memories (and pray for a miracle). Get behind this amazing bastion of Brisbane music and make the last couple of months just as magical as the first 32 years. It really is a special place. I’ll see you at the bar…