“Art deco perfection in the house of musical erection, now there was a charmer of a Rock Hotel.” – Graham Brazier, Hello Sailor, 2006
“The Cabana was the mother lode, NZ’s finest rock and roll finishing school.” – Midge Marsden, 2006
Napier's long-serving rock and roll venue The Cabana began in the mid-1800s when a local carpenter obtained a licence to build a hotel on the corner of Shakespeare Road and Brewster Street. Gleeson’s Empire Hotel served the small town of a mere few thousand inhabitants until 1899, when it was reported by the police that it was no longer suitable to be licensed as a public house. They stated that the accommodation for the travelling public was inadequate, and the hotel needed to be rebuilt.
Plans were drawn up for a new 40-bedroom hotel, and building began in 1901. All went well for many years until a great blaze ripped through the hotel in 1928, and then catastrophe struck again in February 1931, when the great Hawke’s Bay earthquake dealt another blow, this time demolishing the front part.
The front section of the hotel was rebuilt in the Spanish mission style of the day, and when it re-opened, The Empire was the first hotel in Napier able to provide accommodation for visitors after the earthquake.
The year 1956 was the great turning point, when rock and roll swept through New Zealand, and it was then that the Cabana Hotel was born. Claude and Melva Walker were the new owners of what was destined to become Napier’s and one of New Zealand’s most unique and legendary venues. The name was changed from Empire to the Cabana Hotel, named after the Walker’s most successful racehorse, Lady Cabana.
With its close proximity to the Port of Napier and the lack of security fences surrounding the port, the hotel became a very popular place for sailors and seamen. Plans were drawn up to build a new bar on the empty lot next to the hotel, which would later become the famed band bar. During these early days a Thursday night dance was held with local bands including Ernie Rouse and the Trad Band and The Shadracks.
Still very much a seaman’s pub, with the introduction of a wider range of entertainment, the crowds kept coming back. It had a rough reputation and there were fights on such a regular basis that it seemed as if they were part of the entertainment, six nights a week. Ship moles, drugs, fights, cross dressers and rock and roll created the Cabana Hotel’s rather seedy reputation in its early days.
Dick Kellett arrived as the new publican at the Cabana Hotel in 1972 and took the final steps towards creating what would soon become one of New Zealand’s premier rock venues. Kellett had tired of the local middle of the road bands and decided to hire a touring band from Wellington. This band, 5th Movement, along with another, Freeway, soon worked out that the following they had in Napier was far superior to that they had in Wellington. With the added bonus of accommodation in the hotel’s upstairs, they became the resident Cabana bands. Ragnarok also drew huge crowds during this time.
“A lot of venues around the country were all Monday to Saturday by this time, and we were cashing in on the early days of 10pm closing,” recalls Steve Grant of 5th Movement, “but the amazing thing about the Cabana was it would be quite normal, unlike other venues, to have 200 odd people coming along on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night! ... the place would be packed!”
Dick Kellett managed to draw huge crowds during his relatively short tenure and it was he that put the Cabana on the map. Touring bands were provided accommodation with meals; he also offered the house bar (after the hotel had closed for the evening), which for many became an integral part of the gig.
1974 saw the arrival of Charlie Morrison, originally from Newcastle in the UK, and she continued to run the hotel with the help of her husband Trevor and their two daughters.
Charlie was respected by all – if you misbehaved in her hotel, you would not be coming back. She had her fair share of difficulties to deal with – Napier City Council noise complaints were a regular problem, and she was taken to court on numerous occasions. The hotel is situated on an inner city/residential border. Charlie once argued, “If the Bishop of that Cathedral [Napier Cathedral] can ring them bells and wake me up every Sunday morning, then I can make as much noise in my hotel as I like!"
On one New Year's Eve in the early 1980s, noise control wasn’t the only problem. Reports were that that 710 people had been crammed in to see the band. The heat inside had reached a level of intensity high enough to activate the fire alarms. Firemen evacuated about 400 patrons and set about trying to find a fire.
Harry Lyon of Hello Sailor: “Charlie was a larger than life character, she used to get up about 11am, come and have a cup of tea and a chat then spend all day getting ready for the night. Hello Sailor wasn’t a band known for going to bed early but I don’t think, in the whole time I went to the Cabana, that we ever went to bed after Charlie. She was always in the house bar to the bitter end.”
The Cabana grew from strength to strength and was increasingly important as part of the lucrative local touring circuit of the late 1970s and early 1980s. With a nationwide reputation, it became a must for a band to play there. Bands were booked to play six nights a week.
“‘Play some Stones, you wankers!’ was the call of the day from the Cabana crowd; ‘Fuck off’ was the obvious response. Remember this would have been 1978-79 and we were one of the first bands to play all originals and not throw in a handful of covers when the going got tough!” – Bones Hillman, The Swingers
Liam Ryan of The Narcs remembers, “This one particular tour we played at the Cabana, there were 600 people in the room. The scary thing was that once the band was on that stage, there was no way you could get off … bloody scary! We were dressed in white, the whole of the Cabana was soaking in sweat and of course you could smoke in bars in those days. We came off the stage at one point before an encore and looked at each other and all of our white clothes were streaked in this brown shit that was coming from the ceiling. It was the nicotine dripping from above onto our clothes, it was that hot and that full-on!”
Charlie hosted hundreds of touring bands during her 10-year reign at the Cabana. They included The Human Instinct, Hello Sailor, Citizen Band, Th’ Dudes, Dragon, Toy Love, Knobz, Herbs, The Scavengers, Space Waltz, Blam Blam Blam, The Swingers, The Crocodiles, DD Smash, Netherworld Dancing Toys, The Narcs, Midge Marsden, Sam Hunt, Dance Exponents, Mi-Sex, and The Mockers. Many overseas acts also played, including Dr Feelgood and Midnight Oil.
“The Cabana was more rock and roll than the phrase itself.” – Karyn Hay, 2006
When Charlie Morrison retired in 1984, members of Hello Sailor, The Pink Flamingos and DD Smash, plus Hammond Gamble, took part in a free farewell concert to see her off.
The mid to late 1980s saw the hotel with a new name, The Shakespeare Inn. Despite the name on the door, it was still known to all locally as the Cabana. The long, rectangular shaped no frills room was where hordes of sweaty punters would rock out to their favourite bands in a mist of cigarette smoke on a sticky, beer-soaked carpet. It was always a hot, sweaty night at the Cabana, with the very best of entertainment on offer.
The 1990s saw a new wave of local and touring bands, including Paul Ubana Jones, Chicago Smokeshop, Backdoor Blues Band, The Chills, The Warratahs, Shihad, Greg Johnson, and Supergroove through the Cabana, until in 1997, the publican at that time, Jim Hunter, decided to call it a day and close the bar. The Mutton Birds played the final show.
Hunter had spent thousands of dollars on the place, lowering the ceiling slightly to create more soundproofing as the neighbourhood noise complaints grew. Unfortunately, during this makeover, decades of rock and roll autographs dating back to the very early days were painted over, with no thought to their importance.
In 2006, I visited the former venue, which was now the Willow Art Gallery, and I stood where the stage used to be. As an ex-patron with a passion for watching and playing live music, and with vivid memories of heady nights – like Ted Clarke’s Backdoor Blues Band performing their non-stop, full tilt R&B, with Ted blowing his harmonica on the bar and blowing fire onto the low ceiling – I felt a flashback to the good old days and realised how historically important the place was.
There is no heritage protection on the building and yet the Cabana was an important stage for many emerging rock bands over the years. As the Cavern was to The Beatles, so the Cabana was to Napier.
Understanding its importance, I decided to write a book on the Cabana Hotel’s history.
When I first met Ian Morris (Th’ Dudes, Tex Pistol) at the Willow Art Gallery in 2006 for an interview, we took good look around the place together. He told me some of his fondest memories of the place, and I cheekily asked him if he would play at my book launch the following year. Ian replied, “Yeah, I would love to.”
With that promise in mind, and with the generosity of so many NZ musicians and entertainers who also shared fantastic stories, I finished the book in 2007.
It was New Zealand Music Month, May 2007, the Cabana Hotel book launch: about 300 people were in the room again and the place came alive. The near 10-year absence of live music within its walls was now over and local band Double Vision welcomed Ian Morris onto the stage.
“Fuck me, the Cabana … never thought I’d be standing on the stage of the Cabana again,” he said as he ripped into the intro of Th’ Dudes’ classic, ‘Walking in Light’.
In early 2008, myself and six others – Ian Morris, Matt Baker, Richie Jackman, Brett Taylor, Ian Bates and Ross Gannon – took over the lease from Willow Art Gallery and reopened the venue, during it purely for the music and the passion, and to give the growing local music scene a stage to play on. We made furniture, sound tweaked the place with Ian’s help and knowledge and built a bar, all from donated materials from businesses around Napier. As volunteers we would run it all, occasionally calling in for back up when the band of the night required it. Napier was once again on the touring circuit.
We renamed the place The Cabana and retained the venue’s 1970s motto: “Only and always the best entertainment.”
The Checks, Little Bushman, The Datsuns, The Phoenix Foundation, The Black Seeds, to name a few, have all become part of The Cabana’s living history, alongside returning legends Hello Sailor, Midge Marsden, Jordan Luck and Don McGlashan.
Napier musician Roy Brown is the current owner and guvnor of The Cabana. Roy has a passion to support local and touring bands, and a vision to ensure that The Cabana will be rocking in Napier for many years to come.
Four walls, a bar and a stage. That was and is The Cabana, the well-worn name of a legendary establishment.