Friday, October 28, 2011

A Short History of Palmerston North Nightlife in the 1980s ... a personal journey:

The following has been written to help provide some context and background to the ‘Fezzed’ Facebook page, which has been set-up to help facilitate a 25-year reunion of a group of 1980s Palmerston North nightclub patrons ... and it has also been written because there are certain times in your life you just feel an irrepressible need to document for posterity.
Facebook Link: http://goo.gl/xVMXi
Part One: Buffalo Music (1982-1984)
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the best of times because we were in our youth, wild and crazy-eyed, and anything seemed possible. It was the worst of times because we were trapped in Palmerston North, smalltown NZ, and many of us yearned to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. It was also the 1980s ... the decade that taste forgot.
To the outside world, Palmerston North – aka Palmy – had very little going for it in the early Eighties. As a town-cum-city it had still to morph from its traditional role as an over-sized market town for the rural economy that surrounded it, into the culturally diverse sprawling hub of learning and education that we recognise today. To an outsider, particularly those of the big city persuasion, it simply had to rate as one of the most boring destinations on the planet.
But for those of us who lived there, those of us still enjoying our wild-eyed and crazy youth phase, well, we just needed to scratch a little beneath the surface to find what we were looking for. It was there, it was all around us in fact, our own little “scene”.
It was a scene spawned by the three things (in the main) – Massey University and its wider “flatting” community, which absolutely guaranteed a plethora of young people and a vibrant party circuit. Secondly, there was a strong desire to be “different” – or at least a desire to appear different – or to look like we actually were from somewhere else. And last but by no means least, it was a scene created by the passion and resilience of a handful of determined local DJs who by dint of some miracle, had seemingly unlimited access to some of the best black magic plastic/vinyl ever imported to these shores. It was a recipe for good times, and for a brief period from about 1982 through to 1988, the most boring town on the planet had its own little secret – our very own version of Studio 54, NYC ... (hey, just go with it!)
By 1982, Palmerston North had gained a reputation for its lively pub circuit. Great covers bands like Snatch (Majestic, Cloverlea) and Shades Of Grey (Cafe de Paris, Lion Tavern) played the latest “new wave” or post-punk hits of the day, each building up a fanatical following in the process. Meanwhile, the David D’Ath (RIP) fronted Skeptics took things a step further by not only running its own venue (‘Snail Clamps’, behind Square Edge), but by also releasing some of the most original, outrageous, and loudest experimental music ever released in little old NZ.
Around the same time, one Gerhard Pierard was making waves of his own. Massey University had its own radio station, something that would ultimately prove pivotal in establishing Gerhard as Palmy’s leading DJ of the era – not only within the confines of the studio and the four walls of just about every student flat, but out there playing live in the pubs and soon-to-be clubs. And Gerhard had more than just a fantastic record collection, he also had exquisite taste and exactly the right sort of industry connections to make things happen.
"...and they told two friends .."
Before long, Gerhard’s own ‘Buffalo Music Show’ was not only a staple of Radio Massey, it was firmly established as the main alternative to Palmy’s burgeoning live music scene (as covered above) – by mid-to-late 1983, Gerhard had secured a weekend gig playing “live” at the rough ‘Super Liquor Man’ pub on Main Street. Despite the less than ideal surrounds, and the less than appreciative original crowd at that particular establishment, word of mouth quickly gathered a momentum of its own, and it wasn’t long before Gerhard’s steady diet of quirky pop, post-punk, reggae, funk, and pure unadulterated disco, became virtually the only show in town ... but not before it was forced to relocate to a more “freak-friendly” venue ...
Here’s Gerhard’s own take on it ... “it only lasted a month there as the owner of the hotel shut me down because he didn't like the look of the 'Freaks' we were attracting, even though the bar was full - rich coming from a bloke who dressed up in a Super Liquorman outfit and directed traffic in the carpark”. (WTF! – Ed)
Freaks indeed! ... from there the ‘Buffalo Music Show’ moved to the small lounge (back) bar of ‘The Commercial’, which - despite having similar shortcomings to the previous venue (as well as being much smaller) - is where things really started to take off, the crowd growing with every Friday and Saturday night gig , thanks primarily to word of mouth and the radio show. So much so, the tiny dancefloor was ill-equipped to deal with the ever-increasing number of patrons. It was around this time that Gerhard’s younger brother Karl became seriously involved, and a further venue relocation was required in order to accommodate the growing “scene”.
On a personal level, nights at ‘The Commercial’ represented great times for yours truly. At 19, I lived for those weekend nights, I was happily “in love” (hi Jude!), and my music taste was really starting to change – gone was the doom-laden angsty post-punk of my teenage years, largely replaced by the big bouncy electro of the ‘Buffalo Music Show’ – tracks like Donna Summer’s extended ‘I Feel Love’, Shannon’s high energy classic ‘Let The Music Play’, and Shriekback’s immortal ‘All Lined Up’. It felt like a whole other world had opened up – which to some extent was the truth of the matter.
Your blogger auditions for the role of
the Geek in 'Breakfast Club' circa '85
The ‘Cafe de Paris’ on Main Street had already established itself as an ideal “freak-friendly” venue ... or so we thought. It had formerly played host to the aforementioned Shades Of Grey crowd (a loose collective of local punks, skins) in the back bar, while the front (public) bar was the long established haunt of Palmy’s very own patched “gang”, the Mothers Motorcycle Club. With that band having moved on, and ‘The Commercial’ no longer being large enough to deal with the hordes of ‘Buffalo Music Show’ punters, the relative expanse of the Cafe’s lounge bar was the next port of call for Gerhard and Karl.
The Cafe probably only hosted the ‘Buffalo Music Show’ for around six months max, but I had so many top nights there it feels as though it was a lot longer. I had already been part of its rather shabby furniture and fittings during the Shades Of Grey era (as an underage punter), so it always felt a little bit like returning home to me by the time Gerhard and Karl were spinning their wares there. By early 1984, things were really pumping, and key Cafe-era tracks included The Special AKA’s ‘Nelson Mandela’, Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’, and rather fittingly, Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Buffalo Gals’. From memory, Gerhard and Karl were largely sharing the DJ role by this stage.
But like most good things, it couldn’t last. Tension with public bar patrons (aka The Mothers) was slowly reaching boiling point as Buffalo Music/lounge bar numbers grew to the point of overcrowding. The ‘Cafe de Paris’ had always been The Mothers’ turf, so their own “freak” tolerance levels were rapidly receding as the venue started to be claimed by bizzarely-dressed young people with an affliction for what might otherwise be called “disco”. One night it all came to a rather disappointing and abrupt end when one particularly worse for wear patched patron staggered through to the back bar, across the dancefloor, and over to the usually very hospitable DJ Karl ...
Karl Pierard: “They didn’t really know how to deal with all the dancers. On the last night there we had problems with one of the members in particular who tried to impose his music requirements on me. It ended in a fight on the dancefloor with a few of our regulars. (We) had to literally pull the plug that night. About a month later we started ‘Fez’ at the ‘Southern Cross’.”
And it’s at about this stage that the story starts to get really interesting ...
Part Two: Fez, Zed, and beyond ... (1984-1987)
At the start of 1984, Palmerston North didn’t really have a “nightclub” of its own, or any late night social space truly befitting of the description, so pub venues were generally the poison of choice for anyone with an appetite for a party – more by default than by design. There were always student “flat” parties, but they tended to be booze-orientated affairs, with far less emphasis on the music. That was all about to change, and the term “clubbing” was about to enter the vocabulary of Palmerston North’s ever-expanding collective of party animals ... or Freaks, as they might otherwise have been known!
Within a year or so of Gerhard and Karl Pierard pub-hopping their way from Main Street to The Square and back, basically taking their own record collections out to the masses, Palmerston North had, almost inconceivably, three clubs it could call its own; the old upstairs cabaret space on The Square formerly known as the ‘Southern Cross’ would ultimately become ‘Fez’,  the converted ‘Fishbowl’ monstrosity (youth club?) on Cuba Street became the appallingly named ‘The Ritz’, and Cuba Street would soon claim a second “club” when a rather staid piano bar was converted into a less than desirable club space called ‘Champers’. Roughly the same number of clubs as Wellington had at that time, but with less than a quarter of the population to support them. The ‘Buffalo Music Show’ (see Part One) had established that the demand existed, and it led the way in setting up a dedicated “club” space.
So in mid-to-late 1984 things took off with a bang, and the Pierard-established ‘Fez’ was the club that initially blew the scene wide open – the groundwork having already been put firmly in place in terms of attracting core patrons. The old ‘Southern Cross’ venue was certainly the most central (being on The Square) but it was still far from perfect – it was essentially an old-style cabaret space, the furniture was rudimentary at best, its low roof wasn’t especially sound-friendly, and it had a very limited bar space. Perhaps worst of all, pouring insult upon potential catastrophe (for some), its fire exit overlooked Palmy’s central police station and was fully visible to any rogue officer lurking in the police canteen!
DJ Karl at Fez
But, in the greater scheme of things, those issues were minor and completely superfluous to everything else going on – the venue had a large (teak?) dancefloor, a couple of extremely switched-on DJs, and almost from the first night a large set of regular patrons, a crowd that would continue to grow and grow over the course of the next year or so.
I don’t know exactly what it was, but from the moment it was established ‘Fez’ quickly became the “go-to” venue for many people who weren’t actually there for the original ‘Buffalo Music Show’ incarnation(s). Original followers – or the hardcore pub patrons – were soon completely outnumbered, and a genuine “scene” was born ... incorporating students, hairdressers, the surfie crowd, whole crews of cafe workers, fashionistas, thespians, musos, Goths, geeks, regular ‘Joe Public’ dorks, “Madonna-wannabees”, and about half of Palmerston North Girls’ High School’s sixth and seventh forms (and younger!), all mingling comfortably together in the name of a bloody good night out (and perhaps a few other things!).
At the centre of it all was that great dancefloor and the music. By now Karl Pierard was firmly in place as the main DJ, with Gerhard more often than not arriving stylishly late on those occasions he wasn’t plying his trade up in Auckland. The most memorable tracks for yours truly from the ‘Fez’ nights include: Steve Arrington’s ‘Feel So Real’, which for some inexplicable reason always seemed to be playing when I arrived (and that in itself is not without irony, given the song’s title), Fatback’s ‘Spread Love’, Colonel Abram’s ‘Trapped’, Change’s ‘Change Of Heart’, and Was (Not Was)’s fantastically trippy ‘Tell Me That I’m Dreaming’. But each and every one of us had personal favourites, and the dancefloor was seldom empty.
The scene quickly grew beyond the limited parameters of the club itself. Key flats – for both pre and post club gatherings included the surfie hangouts in both Ada Street and Church Street, the dens of debauchery at West Street, Waldegrave Street, Broadway Ave (top of), and Linton Street (among many others). In fact, start in The Square at midnight and walk half a mile in any direction and you could just about be sure you’d come across a large group of happy people making their way to either ‘Fez’ or ‘The Ritz’ (which before too much longer would become ‘Zed’). That’s if they weren’t already skinny-dipping covertly at a local swimming pool of some repute, or as with one horrifying case which I can barely bring myself to recall, being a passenger in a car driving through the Manawatu Gorge post-club with the headlights turned off (not looking at anyone but the word “toxic” and the car “Avenger” spring to mind).
Beyond the flats, mini-scenes were also established at places like Matt & Caro McAlpine’s ‘Dejeuner Cafe’ on Broadway – absolutely the place to go weekdays, pretty much the entire crew there were ‘Fez’ and later, ‘Zed’ regulars, and the wonderful food there was always essential to the detox process on the Monday – and various hairdressing salons such as ‘Scarpers’ and Greg Bassett’s ‘Beyond The Fringe’. It was at these peripheral meeting places that many friendships established in the clubs were reinforced, and strong bonds formed between various individuals. Many of which remain in force, even today, some 25 years or so later. There were other relationships that were not quite so long-standing, or fondly recalled, of course.
Naturally, as the number of regular club patrons increased, so did the number of clubs (see ‘Ritz’, ‘Champers’). The seed had been planted, the market firmly established, and of course that meant opportunities for other DJ-types. Among the original ‘Fez’ crowd was one Scott Bulloch, an audiophile and sound technician extraordinaire, who himself was no stranger to the odd DJ set (in support of Snatch). Scott started playing regular gigs at ‘The Ritz’ on Cuba Street, as ‘Deco’ – in tandem with his good friend John Blomfield – and as a direct alternative to what the Pierard brothers were doing at ‘Fez’. A healthy and generally friendly rivalry had been established, with the direct result being that we, the consumers, were for a period of time at least, spoilt for choice.
Green magic plastic
I’m fairly sure Scott had tapped into the same source of top quality vinyl dance music – specifically the Funk 12-inch variations so popular at the time – that were being imported into Auckland by the likes of ex-Palmerstonian Simon Grigg – who was by now the boss of Propeller Records – and ex-Dude, Peter Urlich. Grigg, Urlich, and Mark Phillips, along with a couple of other key players, were largely responsible for the rise of genuine club culture in Auckland through the mid-to-late Eighties at venues like the ‘Six Month Club’, ‘Brat’, ‘Playground’, and ‘Asylum’ (which, I think, is now the ‘Powerstation’), not only as prolific importers of vinyl, but as club owners. This was the era of those fine ‘Streetsounds’ and ‘Upfront’ compilations, available only on import, and Grigg in particular was relentless in his efforts to get the sound of urban New York out on to the streets of Auckland and beyond.
There was also a crossover of sorts with the fast growing Wellington scene, and a large group from Palmy regularly travelled south to Wellington, more often than not for Sunday nights at Wellington’s premier club of the era, ‘Clares’ on Garrett Street. Proof, if it were needed, that clubbing was fast becoming a lifestyle choice for some, as opposed to any normal run-of-the-mill pastime. Similarly, there were a few key individuals from the mid-Eighties Wellington scene who deemed the two hour trip north to Palmy an equally rewarding experience. I could probably write extensively on the Wellington scene as I personally knew it from 1986 to 1993 – coinciding with the rise of both Acid House and Hip Hop – but this isn’t the time or place.
It becomes a little vague for me now in terms of timeline and the exact sequence of events at this stage, not helped by my own move to Wellington in mid 1986, but I think a hairdresser named Joe Ruhe (spelling?) had been the original DJ at ‘The Ritz’, but Joe had moved on to ‘Champers’ by late 1985, which is roughly the stage ‘Fez’ hit its use-by date and ceased to exist. I’m really not sure how that came about but Gerhard had been increasingly absent, and almost overnight, ‘Fez’ died a death before reinventing itself as ‘Zed’ at what was originally ‘The Ritz’, Karl back behind the decks. In a strange twist, Scott Bulloch and John Blomfield (aka ‘Deco’) then started playing up at the old ‘Southern Cross’ around the same time. Equally strange is the recall I have of them also having a short stint at ‘The Commercial’ – the scene of the original ‘Buffalo Music Show’! ... 
Original Zed Flyer early '86
By mid 1986, ‘Zed’ was in full swing, the original ‘Fez’ crowd still largely intact, but because the venue was somewhat more upmarket than the ‘Southern Cross’ – arguably better decor (lots of chrome, plush seating), better sound/lighting, a glassed mezzanine level, and a large dancefloor – it soon became rather more than our own little secret. It could be argued that ‘Zed’ was Palmerston North’s first genuine “mainstream” nightclub. It was certainly the most popular venue for the best part of the next year at least (and probably longer) – undergoing a name change to ‘Exchequers’ by around 1987 or 1988. There was a brief revival of what might be termed the “underground” scene when the ‘Cafe de Paris’ back bar became the ‘Kaz Bar’ for a short period of time, but on the whole clubbing was no longer the domain of a select few insomniacs with a passion for dance music.
Over the course of the following decade the concept of “clubbing” pretty much became ingrained in the collective psyche of youth culture in Palmerston North, and more generally, within every major city in New Zealand. I don’t know what Palmerston North is like today in terms of nightlife, but my experience of Wellington and other cities overseas suggests that going out to a club is now firmly entrenched in mainstream culture, and very much part of normal teenage/youth behaviour. That certainly wasn’t the case back in 1984. Back then it was something akin to an extreme sport – new, exciting, and definitely a little dangerous ... and ultimately something worth documenting and celebrating a full quarter of a century on.
The ‘Fezzed’ reunion takes place in Palmerston North on March 2, 2012.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Blog update: Glasgow, King Tut's, Thrum and all that ...

If any of my reader (hi Mum!) has been wondering just what has happened to this blog over the past couple of months, then let me assure/warn you that my prolonged period of inactivity is just as likely now over. I say “just as likely” because in all reality, I really can’t be sure!

What I can say for certain is that since my last post here, life has certainly been busy – August and September being months that found me (and my family of five) completing a 25,000-mile round trip across the globe, or more specifically to Scotland and back. I probably could have carried on posting up the odd piece here and there, but frankly life is too short and as one of the heroes of my misspent youth once famously said ... “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it” (thanks Ferris, sage advice, as ever).
So anyway, given that this entire blog has been about music so far (though I do intend to expand those limited horizons at some point in the not too distant future) it would be remiss of me not to mention the one music-related highlight of the aforementioned trip:
Rewind: King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut – St Vincent Street, Glasgow, circa 1994 – my beloved and I witness a smashing gig by local outfit Thrum, a country/indie band of some repute. Thrum, magnificently fronted by the talented (and somewhat gorgeous) Monica Queen, had - at that point - developed a strong following on the back of a successful single, ‘So Glad’, and my soon-to-be-wife and I counted ourselves as definite converts. Not long after that gig, we married, moved to New Zealand, lost touch with Glasgow and its vibrant music scene, and heard no more from Thrum.
As it turned out, Thrum broke up around 1995, Monica went on to work for the likes of Belle & Sebastian and Snow Patrol ... and then, some 16 or 17 years later ... Thrum reformed.
Fast Forward: King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, St Vincent Street, Glasgow, 10 September 2011 – my beloved and I were celebrating our 17th wedding anniversary with a night out in Glasgow, and thanks to the marvels of the internet we found ourselves pre-warned and armed with tickets for a Thrum gig at the very same venue we’d caught the band at 17 years earlier! We were late in arriving thanks to over-indulging in the delights of old friends and a Turkish restaurant down the road, but we still caught the rousing finale, still heard ‘So Glad’ again after all these years, and if anything, the band – and Monica’s voice – sounded better than either of us could recall.

Our evening was complete when I caught up with a few more old friends at The Griffin (a pub round the corner) and the lovely Manuelle (hi darling!) and I then stayed the night (as guests) at the very hotel we had originally met at as workmates (The Marriott on Argyle Street) all those years ago ...
Small things and all that ... a series of coincidences, some planned, some just spooky, but it was a great night of nostalgia for both of us, and definitely one of the highlights of a great stay in Scotland.