As solo performer, bandmember and booking agent since the early punk era, Al Park has had, and continues to have, an insider’s view of Christchurch venues before and since the 2010-11 earthquakes.
Whether headlining or supporting, he and Vapour and the Trails, Old Denis, Louie and the Hotsticks and so on played at classic pubs such as the Gladstone Hotel, the Star and Garter, the Hillsborough Tavern, the Aranui Hotel, the Sandridge Hotel and the Marine Tavern. The bands built up dedicated followings, and at revivals the same faces turn up each time to enjoy the vibe and the music.
Al grew up in Lower Hutt, importing albums while still his mid-teens, then moved to Wellington after school years. He always regretted missing the Beatles and from then on determined to see every international act passing through. Before that, though, one Kiwi band he saw while still at school made a lingering impression.
The Band of Hope Jug Band was a knees-up ensemble doing 1920s vo-de-o-do stylings, Dixie, bluegrass and old-time blues with the usual clatter-bang combo of washboard and spoons, kazoo and stone jug for rhythmic punctuation under banjos and guitars.
“I was 16 or 17 and at Naenae College when I saw them at the Balladeer in Wellington,” Al says. “That was momentous. I had a girlfriend a little older than me who was straight but beautiful, and when we walked into this place with all these bohemian types, we were [Rocky Horror’s] Brad and Janet!
“Warwick Brock, the frontman, was pissed and had his little goggles and helmet on. At his funeral I said, ‘If I’d never seen Warwick again in my life, that first time I saw him he stamped himself indelibly on my brain.’ ” In the corner was artist Bill Hammond (washboard), Dobbin (Robin Elliot, bass); also there, on jug, was Phil Garland. “It was the whole band and so cool.”
Things might have been awkward some years later when he and Brigid, Warwick’s former wife, moved in together in Lyttelton, “but we still stayed good friends. That was the cool thing about Warwick.”
When Al moved to Christchurch in the 1970s, he soon had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances who were involved in music. Among them were Leigh Perry and Ian Whitehead with whom he formed Vapour and the Trails. When their Arts Centre rehearsal room fell through to the neighbourhood decibel monitor, they found the perfect first-floor rental space in the heart of the city.
They built a stage, dressed it with junk-shop items, its address became its name and Mollett Street (aka Mollet) stuck. Opened in 1977 and originally private, it soon became a venue for thundering punk and New Wave plus variety acts.
Mollett Street was “hippies and the emerging punk scene.”
“Entrance fee was a buck and you brought your own,” he says. “It was hippies and the emerging punk scene, and all those punks were like middle-class kids, not your low-rent, bootboys that came to Christchurch in the ’80s.
“At the start we had Michael Hurst, Russell Smith, David Turner, Alan Franks and David Gregory doing skits; Liam Ryan’s band doing Van Morrison, and Bill Direen and the Vacuum Blue Ladder. It was quite arty. The Topp Twins, who were in the Territorials, came up there. They called themselves Homemade Jam.”
A sweep of the programme shows theatre and comedy, movies, magicians, tapdance, a Kidz Xmas Party, mime, a dance troupe, and a bush band among bands like the Doomed, Clean, Enemy, Johnny Velox and the Vauxhalls, Citizen Band, Rough Justice, and the Waterfront Blues Band.
Al ran a tight schedule on Sundays with four bands playing from 8pm to midnight on the dot. If the band didn’t start on time, their hour ran down incrementally. “Bill Direen’s band used to spend half-an-hour tuning up, so they’d play for 15 minutes.”
The burger bar below did a roaring trade, but the leather shop owner complained about the dust and plaster cracking off his ceiling and getting into his hides and sheepskins. “He didn’t love us. He was pleased when we left.”
When Mollett St closed in 1978, 18 months after opening, Vapour and the Trails turned to the Gladstone, one of the cluster of pubs within the four avenues. Built at the dawning of the 20th century on the corner of Peterborough and Durham streets – and now demolished – it is reputed to have hosted the last post-mortem in town in 1901 before a purpose-built mortuary was opened.
Into the 80s it listed Kiwi groups such as the Clean, the Chills, the Androidss and the Verlaines, and international acts like Nick Cave and the Saints. Vapour and the Trails did the standard two-week audition, got the gig and Al also did the bookings for when the Trails were touring.
“It was a great rock ’n’ roll club. Long and narrow with low ceilings and smoky, it had a great sound and a good green room. You could put in 500 people, drive up to the back to unload, and the stage wasn’t too high, so you had good contact with the audience. Even though no bars were actually built for bands, everything about it was good. It’s definitely part of Christchurch rock ’n’ roll history.”
“The Hillsborough Tavern in Opawa was your typical big bar. It was not ideal because, like the Aranui, it had a two-pitched roof. The sound got trapped there and towards the back it wasn’t so great.
“But you could go to the Hillsborough on a Thursday night and there would be 800 people there. It was just a packed-out pub and it became the place for all the bands to play. And not only were the PAs getting better, but every band had light shows by then as well.
In the early 80s the Sandridge Hotel was looking for a band and Al’s band Louie and the Hotsticks were looking for another gig. They had built up a good following and knew they could deliver the goods.
“We gave them a two-week trial and killed it, but when we asked the boss what was happening he said, ‘I’ve got some guys coming in from Friar Tuck and they’re going to be our new band.’ I’d seen what we’d done in two weeks for his bar and couldn’t believe he was telling me that. It was quite a blow to us.”
In a twist they heard that Friar Tuck was the former band at the Marine Tavern in Sumner, but had lost the gig for being too loud.
“We went to the Marine and said, ‘Do you want us? We won’t be that loud.’ We did a Thursday night and about 12 people turned up, but his son-in-law said, ‘Hire these guys. This’ll be good for you.’”
At the Marine Tavern, Park made a deal with the manager. “We shook on it, which he always regretted.”
Al made a deal with the manager (“a guy with a comb-over”) that the band would get 100% of the door takings and pay for advertising and the door guy. “We shook on it, which he always regretted, because after that I’d put in a little Press ad for $14 a week, pay the door guy, charge $3 entry, and we were making between three and four grand a week all through the year.”
Portside pubs have always had seedy reputations, serving hell-raisers on shore leave, outsiders looking to fit in or stand out, prostitutes, transvestites, and others seeking forbidden fruit. Refurbished now, the British Hotel opposite Lyttelton Harbour fitted the picture, with souvenirs such as blood splatters on a ceiling from a Russian sailors’ knife fight and mixed clientele including bikies.
“As I understand it the British was famous worldwide, because it was a port pub and Lyttelton was cut off from the city until the road tunnel beneath the Port Hills was opened in 1964. By the time I came to Lyttelton it was the only pub in town to go to: rough, but attractive rough, but you would’ve pushed it to take your mum and dad there.
“The middle bar was where they put bands on Fridays or Saturdays. The other two bars were too small. It was big enough to take a couple of hundred people and had a really good sound. You’d go down into the dungeon bar and it would be so dark you couldn’t see into the corners. You could be standing alongside 6-foot-10 men from Nigeria or West Africa. It was a wild bunch of people.”
Arguably, the venue Al Park is best known for is Al’s Bar. Opened in 2006 it was a relaxed space that held up to 500 people. Originally an old brick factory with a wooden sawtooth roof, it later became LA’s Café. Al swapped the letters of the name, knocked out walls, added a green room and built stages at opposite ends. When Simon Phillips – drummer from Toto and The Who and also a sound engineer – did a drum clinic there, he was greatly complimentary. It was the only stage sound he mentioned in his drum-clinic diary for that year.
When San Francisco’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club played, Al put local punk band the Transistors on the small stage and the BRMC and their half-a-million dollar PA on the big one. “It was David and Goliath and it was a sell-out.”
The last gig was Seattle’s the Melvins, the night before the 2011 earthquake. Al’s Bar had done five good years, but in 2011 it was red-zoned and later demolished.
Lyttelton’s Wunderbar, with the decadent nightclub atmosphere of Weimar Berlin, cut its own groove, hosting an eclectic range of performers. Designed by one Jörg Schwarz, it was twice knocked out by the quakes and reopened.
“It’s one of my favourites. Small stage, small room, and we’d pack a couple of hundred in. I’ve done many memorable shows there like Marlon, Delaney and Tami’s Hayride tour. Adam McGrath grew his whole Eastern string band, foot-stomping thing there and they had jazz – different things at different times.”
Lyttelton has been Al’s home for some 40 years and its Naval Point Yacht Club his home venue. When the quakes took out most city and port venues, this little club shook off the dust and opened its doors. It is a sentimental hub for many.
“It was like a 70s living-room – almost square with a small bar and you’d play in front of the trophy cabinet with the curtains pulled across it. It has windows along the side and a deck out the back with a stunning view of the harbour. The late manager, Ken Camp, was a lovely guy and a man of arts. He saw the potential and we did shows there for a good two years. Their bar take zoomed up. Man, we put on some great shows – A Hori Buzz, Greg Johnson, Don McGlashan, Marlon’s band the Unfaithful Ways, and international acts like Blind Boy Paxton, Jackie Bristow & Mark Punch, and the Handsome Family.”
Read: Al Park's profile by Rosa Shiels
Read: Al Park on Christchurch skinheads, 1980s.
Read: Christchurch venues, after the earthquakes.