Auckland: Bright lights, big city

By Graham Reid

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

Couples dancing in the 'Orange Ballroom' [Orange Coronation Hall] on Newton Rd, 1987. Photo / NZ Herald
Couples dancing in the 'Orange Ballroom' [Orange Coronation Hall] on Newton Rd, 1987. Photo / NZ Herald

Although Peter Lewis also noted the Windy City, the Garden City and Dunedin (rhymes with freezin') in his classic celebration of New Zealand rock'n'roll scene Four City Rock, he kicked off most convincingly with his salute to Auckland - a city which has long been the alluring end of a brightly coloured rainbow for entertainers.

From jazz musicians in the 20s and 30s coming to play in the Orange Ballroom and the Civic, through to Maori musicians in the 50s, then the rock'n'roll generation following Johnny Devlin (the Wanganui Elvis) to the bright lights and dark nightclubs of the big smoke, entertainers of all persuasions have inevitably made their way to Auckland.

This was where there were venues, music stores, recording studios, professional - if sometimes dodgy - promoters, television studios and talent agencies, like-minded fellow-travellers and most importantly, an audience.

Right across the city, from the Dixieland Ballroom on Queen St to Coronation Hall in Pt Chevalier, from the Moulin Rouge in Remuera to the Click-Clack Cabaret in Newmarket and Ye Olde Pirate Shippe in Milford - Auckland was where that exciting new sound called jazz first got a foothold in the 20s and 30s.

The orchestra pit of the sophisticated Civic Theatre, which opened in late 1929, provided employment for decades of musicians, and clubs like the Peter Pan were where they could go for after-hours entertainment.

Auckland must have seemed glamorous and racy to those living in the provinces and so they came, generation after generation - a significant percentage of them Maori as part of the drift, then rush, to big urban centres in the post-war period.

The huge Maori Community Centre which opened across from Victoria Park at the end of the 1940s (long since demolished) became a meeting ground for musicians, and in the 1950s rock'n'roll got a foothold in the milkbars across the city.

The Queen City was calling, and down in Christchurch Max Merritt and the Meteors, and Ray Columbus and the Invaders heard it. Both bands, after considerable local - but localised - success, arrived in Auckland in late '62 and started shaking the city at clubs like the Shiralee and the Oriental Ballroom.

The following year with the Beatles kick-starting pop music again, clubs were thriving and trying to accommodate all the bands which were forming. There was the Shiralee, the Top Twenty, the Platterrack (where the Dallas Four had a two-year residency), the Monaco, the Surfside in Milford, the short-lived Beatle Inn with a resident band the Merseymen (who weren't) which became the Latin Quarter, the Embers for jazz and folk fans...

Auckland had Eldred Stebbing's busy recording studio (the Zodiac label on which early New Zealand rock'n'roll like Haka Boogie through to the La De Das appeared), it was where television shows like Kevan Moore's snappy pop programme C'Mon (7pm on a Saturday) and light entertainment showcases were made and beamed to the nation, and church halls around the suburbs hosted Saturday night dances.

The Mercury Theatre was drawing large audiences, international acts of all persuasions played at the Town Hall, St James and His Majesty's, restaurants and hotel bars employed musicians and cabaret acts, and there were dozens of movie theatres.

Radio Hauraki shook up the airwaves from studios in central Auckland and a pirate ship in the Hauraki Gulf that passed into legend.

The Queen City was booming and the sound could be heard throughout the land. Diane Lee (who became Dinah Lee) moved from Christchurch for a residency at the Top Twenty, Larry Morris and the Hunter brothers of Dragon heard the call in Taumaranui...

The punk movement in the late 70s roared to life in pubs like the Windsor Castle and clubs such as Zwines (above the old 1480 Village), and by the end of the 80s Roger Shepherd, founder of Flying Nun, had relocated his business from Christchurch to rooms on Queen St - because that was where the music industry was.

The main offices of all the major international record companies and many independent ones such as Ripper, Propellor, Pagan, Wildside/Southside, Tangata and others were in Auckland, a city which also had a Town Hall, Supertop, Western Springs and Mt Smart for those massive international concerts, the Powerstation and the Aotea Centre. There were places to play and any number of people prepared to do so.

The Polynesian reggae of Herbs out of Ponsonby, then much of the urban hip-hop of the 90s, came from the streets of Auckland. This has filtered through much of Auckland's music. Would Neil Finn have used Cook Island drummers on his Together Alone album if he had lived in Wellington?

And the sheer physical breadth of the city allows us to speak of North Shore bands (from Push Push to the Checks) as much as Westie rockers (Jan Hellriegel, and Steriogram, two of whom came from Whangarei) or South Auckland hip-hop (artists on Dawn Raid).

Auckland's diverse cultural make-up and geographic reach means there is a home for all newcomers, and residents, in which they can practice their art in a supportive environment. Although...

Some years ago I wrote a story for the Herald about the old clubs where rock and pop had got their start in Auckland: The Jive Centre on Hobson St where Johnny Devlin played to packed houses and recorded his first single Lawdy Lawdy Miss Clawdy one Sunday afternoon in the Beatle Inn in Little Queen St; the Shiralee which later became the Galaxie (where the Underdogs, Larry's Rebels and others played); the Top 20 which Max Merritt opened in '63 and became the 1480 Village where the Pleazers and others made their names; Charlie Grey's Island of Real on Airedale St where Hello Sailor, Th' Dudes and Citizen Band made their noises; the Java Jive in Ponsonby, Squid and The Box/Cause Celebre in High St which were hip and fashionable in the 90s...

All of them and many more including His Majesty's and the Gluepot were gone. The neglected St James remains a blot on our conscience.

You could be nostalgic and weep for the losses but other venues, notably the Vector Arena, have opened. The bands play on and every day musicians and entertainers of all persuasion come to Auckland seeking... What?

A shot on a reality show, a gig at the King's Arms or to dance on the Aotea Centre stage, to be part of the Comedy Festival or Pasifika... a chance to shine under a spotlight.

And the Queen City is still calling.

Graham Reid is a former Herald feature writer.

- NZ Herald

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