K Road was a busy shopping area. Visitors would peruse items at George Courts department store, which was built in 1926 – or St Kevin’s Arcade, built in 1924 and providing access to Myer’s Park. There were a dozen cinemas in the area and during the silent film era many of them had their own musicians. The Prince Edward Theatre – originally named King’s Theatre – had its own orchestra. It has gone through several owners including Robert Kerridge, who renamed it the Playhouse Theatre, and in 1968 it was renamed the Mercury Theatre. Music has continued there in recent years although the venue is currently closed for earthquake strengthening and refurbishment. The current owners plan to reopen it in 2024.
The swing era saw the arrival of new clubs, such as the Carlton Cabaret, which opened in 1934 near Woolworth’s. Above what is now the Hemp Store on K Road, the Polynesian Club was opened by Tahitian immigrant Lou Mati in the early 1940s. Popular hits of the day were performed alongside “Island Music” with lap-steel guitar being one of the lead instruments. In the 1950s the Polynesian Club became a cool hangout where jazz musicians interested in the latest styles of music would come for a “blow”.
Another new arrival was the introduction of “dine’n’dance” venues where patrons could eat the latest in cuisine (T-bone steak!) and listen to smooth lounge music. On K Road the home for this style of eating was the Hi Diddle Griddle, located at number 507 (“food from heaven”, the marketing slogan rhymes).
By the 1960s, many of the cinemas on K Road had closed down so some were repurposed as venues. The Tivoli, which was between Liverpool Street and Symonds Street became “Surf City” and hosted rock’n’roll.
However, the popularity of K Road diminished in the late 1960s due to the construction of the Central Motorway Junction, which turned the middle section into a construction site: 50,000 residents left the surrounding area after 15,000 houses were demolished.
Over the same period, K Road also became known for its strip clubs. The low rent had brought the country’s first dedicated club, Windmill Follies, in 1962. This was followed by one of the longest-lasting clubs, Las Vegas. The delineation between strip performances and the music scene wasn’t so clear in those days, and bands would sometimes play Las Vegas in the 1970s. Strip clubs often had drag acts who sang as part of their routine and K Road’s connection with drag continues to the current day, especially since it holds long-running drag venue Caluzzi, which opened in 1996.
The edgy reputation of K Road made it seem like the perfect spot for alternative musical acts. The upstairs bar at the Rising Sun Hotel was taken over by booker Simon Coffey and Alister Reid in June 1985; with Paul Rose taking over in April 1986. Rose promised variety, and his opening weekend featured a stilt theatre group, a solo Chris Knox, the electronic duo Selwyn Toogood, and the Headless Chickens. Many top independent and Flying Nun acts of the day played there. A notorious performance by Ministry of Compulsory Joy involved a dead sheep onstage.
Near the corner of Ponsonby Road was the Dog and Trumpet, a sports bar that hosted occasional gigs. Its most fruitful period was during 1991 when Stuart Broughton took over the functions room facing Newton Road and began running it from Thursday to Sunday as The Dog Club. Two of Auckland’s most popular bands of the era played there – Supergroove and Semi Lemon Kola – and Broughton went on to manage both. There were visits from The Renderers and Axel Grinders, as well as early shows by Hallelujah Picassos and The Mutton Birds. Noise issues brought the endeavour to an end after only six months.
In 1996, on Newton Road, the Dog’s Bollix opened in the space where Dog Club had been and survived as a venue for 20 years, hosting a huge range of music, from international acts to local indie favourites and traditional Irish music.
In 1997, Gene Jouavel turned the corner room of his upstairs office space on the corner of Queen Street and K Road into a bar and venue called Khuja Lounge. Jouavel also worked alongside John Minty and Tony Johnson to re-open the old Druids’ Hall as a venue, which they called Galatos. Still there under different ownership, the venue has hosted local acts, industry gigs, and Big Day Out sideshows including Foo Fighters and The Mars Volta.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, a number of musicians practised and lived nearby, including the Headless Chickens.
In keeping with the trend of old cinemas becoming music theatres, the Vogue Theatre, which first opened in 1940, became a nightclub in the early 1990s. First it held DTMs (Don’t Tell Mama’s) and then became important to the LGBTQ community as the new location for Staircase/The Case after it moved up from Fort St/Albert St.
This also fed into K Road’s role as a home for the local dance music scene and a raft of new clubs opened through the 1990s into the 2010s, such as 420, Ink Bar, Coherent, and Feel.
One of the most influential clubs was Calibre in St Kevins Arcade, a home for drum’n’bass and then more general dance music.
During the golden years of local hip hop in the early 2000s, the magazines Back2basics and Disrupt The System had their offices on K Road, and the Rising Sun became a home for the scene. In 2008, the old Staircase/DTMs location became the Studio venue where both top local acts and international visitors often perform, including many hip hop acts.
By the 2000s, K Road had a wide range of associations with the local music scene. There are instrument stores such as the long-running Rockshop and specialty seller Cadenza Guitars. Matthew Crawley and Jo Galvin booked under-used spaces such as Paradise and Eden’s Bar for their “Kiss and Make-Up” club nights/gigs, which is where Cut Off Your Hands and Lawrence Arabia played their early shows.
The music store Flying Out opened on the top of Pitt Street, with regular instore performances and its own music festival, Others Way, which took place in bars in the area – the Thirsty Dog on the corner of Howe Street, at Galatos – and one year the Las Vegas Strip Club was used.
In the basement of the former Rising Sun, music photographers, ex-pat Kiwi Maryanne Bilham and her American husband Robert Knight opened the Anthology Lounge, while slightly down the road (where Eden’s Bar had been) legendary pianist Billie Farnell played some of the last gigs of his 60-year career in the venue he co-owned, Shanghai Lil’s.
Rohan Evans first opened the Wine Cellar in St Kevins Arcade as an outlet for his family’s winery, Purangi Estate, and soon began hosting gigs – first in the tiny main bar, then in the backroom of Calibre. When the final owners of Calibre were locked out by the landlord, Evans took over the space as Whammy Bar before passing it on to Tom Anderson and Lucy Macrae five years later.
Also near St Kevins Arcade, the Bizdojo crew took over another old nightclub as a co-working space. Events at the spot were so popular that in 2015 it was converted into a venue in its own right as Neck of the Woods. This was run by Jonah Merchant from Bizdojo working alongside Josh Moore, a former general manager from Rakinos café in High Street. Merchant had been inspired by the dance events he had attended at Calibre, and welcomed other genres such as hip hop, indie music and pop, which is how the venue came to host the first show by now internationally successful act, Benee.
The importance of Karangahape Road to the local music scene has taken on a new aspect with a set of internationally focused companies setting up shop – Kiwi-owned Serato and Melodics are based here, while international company InMusic (whose subsidiary brands include Numark, Denon and Akai) have an office of developers nearby. So while K Road has quite a musical past, it also has a bright musical future too.