Auckland's club scene: scandals, secrets of the golden age of nightlife
David Herkt talks to Simon Grigg about the heydey of Auckland's nightlife.
For around 15 years in Auckland, there would be many people who would pack a pair of sunglasses when they went out at night because there was a major chance they'd be coming home in the daylight.
Sunglasses could even be purchased for $2 from behind the bar at the Supper Club on Beresford St for patrons arriving at the light-filled venue in the morning, determined to continue to party until it closed at 2pm.
It was often impossible to drive up High St at night in the 1990s because the road was so crowded with club-goers. When the Box, Cause Celebre, or Squid shut their doors at around 6 in the morning, pigeons would rise in flocks in front of rows of going-home taxis leaving from the Shortland St rank. Other club-goers would find a lift or catch that first bus or train back to the suburbs.
If it was a little earlier, there was a good chance there would be a stop at a food joint like the White Lady, or Al & Pete's in Parnell — with its Whale Burgers, its Elephant Toasties and lime milkshakes, or Albert St's Sgt Pepper's pie cart for a cheese and pepper pie.
But two and a half months into New Zealand's Covid-19 shutdown, when all venues and bars had ceased to operate, those all-nighters and dawns were well in the past. Then Simon Grigg, the owner of legendary record labels like Propeller and Huh! Records, proprietor of more nightclubs than easily countable, and founder of Audioculture, the major New Zealand music website, almost casually formed a Facebook group, The lost nightlife of inner-city Auckland.
Like similar groups, it was intended to be a virtual space where people of common interests could share their thoughts and recollections. It was focused on the its clubs, bars and venues in the area "bounded by K Rd, Parnell Rd, Ponsonby Rd and the harbour", specifically from 1960 to 2000.
"I created it on 1st May 2020 but it was something I had considered for quite a spell," says Grigg from Bangkok in Thailand, where he now lives. "However, it kicked off properly on 12th May. It was online but unplugged. Somehow 10 people had found it and joined — probably because I linked it to the AudioCulture page somewhat accidently."
Then he told a few friends and within 18 days, 15,000 people had become members. The group was a phenomenon. It was one of the most active and most talked-about places on the New Zealand internet. Soon there would be a quarter of a million posts, comments, and reactions. The shared stories, the photographs, the memories flooded in.
The lost nightlife of inner-city Auckland revealed a different world from the Covid-19 lockdown and, indeed, an entirely different world from clubbing in the 21st century. After the hard regulation and 6 o'clock closing of the 1960s, restrictions had gradually relaxed until, by 1989, all-night clubbing was a common experience. In the 2000s, however, the clock would begin to wind back. Clubs closed earlier. Variety was lacking.
It had been a golden age for club-goers, the venues and their staff. Music changed to reflect it. Clothing stores opened purely to cater to night-life fashions for the young. New Zealand food tastes were transformed by a vast variety of restaurants.
Grigg had uncovered the motherlode of all stories. There were the rich and famous — seen perhaps as they would prefer not to be remembered. Grigg, himself, recalls an underage and big-haired Rachel Hunter trying to blag her way into Siren in 1989. Called from upstairs by the doorman Risiti Tanoi, he came down to face Hunter's tantrum. "Don't you know who I am?" she demanded. "Yes, and you are still not old enough," Grigg replied.
Billy Joel turned up at the Casablanca and said he was Billy Joel but the doorman didn't believe him ... Freddie Mercury may not have been admitted to a crowded De Brett's for a similar reason. There was Mick Jagger's "anonymous" 1988 gig at the Gluepot in Ponsonby, where he and his band were billed as "The Sons of Sodom" and played a 30-minute set for those in the know. The father of one group member, Rochelle, bumped into David Hasselhoff in the toilets of Napoleon's in 1985 and brought the star of television's Knightrider and Baywatch out to meet the guests at her graduation party.
The well-known weren't always well-behaved. "I remember Nick Cave pulling out his willy and peeing off a table at the Lava Bar on Fanshawe St," one group member recalled. Cave and his entourage were also asked to leave Attica after either he or Blixa Bargeld had fought with a female fan on the pool table. "I also remember Billy Idol passed out in the urinal at the City Hotel," someone else responded. "Billy swimming with the loo lollies," another confirmed.
But more than anything, the Facebook group was devoted to the shared experiences of the ordinary punter. One story followed another. DJs were remembered, long-lost nights revisited, and clubs, now demolished, were affectionately recalled — frequently from unexpected perspectives.
There were the notorious stairs at the Khuja Lounge at the top of Queen St, offering a tricky ascent going up but an even trickier descent for the possibly intoxicated on the way out. "I miss Khuja but I don't miss those bloody five flights of stairs!" commented Phoebe. Surviving photos show the vertiginous perspective, hell for patrons on high-heels and a nightmare for DJs with the bags of music.
And there was, for example, Mainstreet, also on Queen St, which offered access through a toilet window for the adventurous and under-aged. "Climbing in the toilet window to get in," Emma recalled. "14 years old!! My girlfriend threw up all over a Head Hunter. I thought we were dead."
"That toilet window was dodgy!" Sarah confirmed. "You had to get on the roof then shimmy down the drainpipe — not at all good for your pantyhose, so it's just as well ladders were fashionable."
Even the drinks were different. People drank ouzo, raspberry and lemonade, Brown Cows — kahlua and milk, or Marque Vue, a sparkling cheap local wine. Beer was fashionably sucked through straws by young women at the Windsor Castle in the 1970s. Fluffy Ducks were sipped at the Box, while the Princess hit, Say I'm You're Number One, played on the sound system. Stanley's on K Rd sold Italian Stallions and Hurricane Harlots.
And every memory brought other memories with it …
"There is the fact that to many people, now 40-plus, who are unlikely to go out clubbing again, these were very special years," Grigg says. "There is also a tangible sense of community, a big 10,000-plus community now, who feel unique because they were "there" with the other members."
And being there, meant the details.
A post about Ponsonby's Plusone Restaurant quickly gathered 209 comments as people remembered Rosa, the Finnish waitress. Despite menu items like deep-fried camembert with berry coulis and tuatua soup, it was Rosa who made a lasting impact.
"Aaah, this place!" commented Kate, "I went there with a group for dinner. Rosa told my friend that she liked her hair and when my friend said thanks, [Rosa] said she always liked dark roots."
On the stairs there was a framed letter from a customer complaining about the off-colour jokes Rosa told their friends during lunch which they found offensive, and spoiled "what was otherwise a lovely meal" ... The evening would end with Rosa's "Now is piss-off time, soon it will be f*** off time."
It was also an era of increasing diversity with the opening of gay clubs like Backstage, Alfies, and Staircase and the parallel development of venues where racial integration was full-front and forward. Many of the best clubs in the 1980s and 1990s such as ACB, Zanzibar, The Brat, the Playground, the Box, and Siren were 50 per cent Maori/Pasifika, 50 per cent European.
"One thing I think was important for the group's cut-off date was that 2000 or so was when the Pasifika clubland really ended," Grigg suggests. "The 1980s and 1990s were a time when the races came together and we tried our very best to embrace everyone."
One area where this was apparent was in the clubs' doormen. They were guides, repositories of taste, and possessors of practical judgement. Often they created the ambience of a venue. They saw people in and out and they kept people safe.
"Soane was a big part of that, as were our other doormen," Grigg says recalling the late Soane Filitonga, who worked initially on the door at Roma and the Box/Cause Celebre, before going on to become a pioneering DJ and international dance producer. "They were never doormen or bouncers but simply part of our community and people I regard as close family still, even after many have passed. Soane was DJing for us, as Big Daddy, right from the beginning. "
Soanne died in 2014, aged 43. His funeral attracted more than1000 mourners.
"I think that coming together of the races changed all of us forever, those of us immersed in it," Grigg comments. "It changed how we related to others, how we dressed, what we listened to and created countless relationships and offspring. I was thrilled to see Soane's daughter signing up to the Facebook group — imagine seeing your dad at the top of the page. It was in large part why that era mattered, why it was a golden era."
"And yet around 2000 the races diverged again — look at the whiteness of the rave and club pics afterwards — and Clubland Pasifika disappeared, never to return." Grigg sounds regretful. "I think it died after Calibre, although the process started before. Once Fu went it was completely gone. The twain never meets now."
It was a time of personalities and the era often gave them a perfect stage.
At the Gluepot, people had to pass Phyllis at the top of the stairs: "If she didn't like you, you were out. No amount of begging or pleading would get you in." At Alfies, after admission by Onno, the doorman, there would be Brett ("Yummy Yummy Boys") Sheppard, one of the owners of the gay club, in a sharp suit or even white shorts, who had a whistle permanently around his neck and oversaw the smoke machine. The club instituted the well-known midnight drag revue, Bloomers, starring Nicole Duval and Georgina Beyer.
Some club-goers stand out in photographs, like Darren Dempsey, whose energy is immediately apparent. "He was a little scoundrel and we banned him repeatedly from our clubs but always relented because he was one of us and everyone loved him despite it all," comments Grigg.
"Darren had a T-shirt, as a tiny kid in Arthur St, that said 'Here comes trouble' and it was strangely prophetic," one group member recalled. "Darren — a true gem — he saved me one night out the back of Galatos," Penny related. "The man that tried to attack me didn't come off so well … [afterwards, Darren] calmly and kindly sat with me in the car for about two hours. Such a beautiful person. I'll never forget.
"He was a champion snowboarder and he kind of calmed down in the early 1990s," Grigg adds. "His snowboarding took him around the world. He was half-Irish, half-Dalmatian and had two brothers." Dempsey would die of a rare cancer in the 2000s.
The lost nightlife of Inner-city Auckland also provided other more thoughtful posts. Would people let their own children out to experience the same thing? Some were practical: "I don't know whether they could afford it." There were those who said "Hell, I want my son to have great memories but I hope he doesn't party as hard as his old mum did!" Sophie commented: "I would expect nothing less!"
But ultimately, it was Marissa who asked the crucial question. "I love seeing these photos," she wrote, "but what's really striking is the diversity — and it's not contrived. We were just friends with people; it didn't matter where you were from or what colour, gender, sexuality or ethnicity ... We all were just happy to hang out with like-minded people having a really good time."
"It seems like now we talk a lot more about it but not sure it's as easy as it seemed back then. Or am I just remembering things through rose-tinted glasses?"
Heather provided an answer nearly instantly: "In the city, we just wanted to dance."