At the time it was built in 1938, the Metropole cabaret near the top of Queen Street was Auckland’s largest ballroom, catering to 1500-plus patrons. Renamed the Peter Pan Ballroom in 1952 – after the original Peter Pan moved up from Rutland Street, taking over the £60,000 lease – it mostly catered for private balls, with the music provided by big bands. The venue went through several facelifts and owners before Tony Lipanovic purchased the lease at the end of 1978. Mainstreet Cabaret was born.
In those first few weeks Mainstreet was still largely under the radar when Hello Sailor, fresh from the US, played their welcome home concert there, and it served as an introduction to the venue for most in the contemporary rock’n’roll audience – those that frequented the Gluepot and Windsor Castle. It was a Sunday night and that was another thing: changing liquor laws and Mainstreet’s cabaret licence allowed the club to operate seven nights a week. Sunday drinking was still very much a novelty and Mainstreet took full advantage; Sunday night entertainment became a regular feature.
Strange Brew didn’t last long in those changing times and an advertisement in the May 1979 edition of Rip It Up announced appearances by Sailor, Street Talk, Th’ Dudes, Citizen Band and Sheerlux, all drawcards on the Auckland pub circuit, plus the likes of Schtüng, Living Force and Rick Steele’s Hot Biscuit Band. The venue’s musical policy was to emphasise variety.
Mainstreet Cabaret became an institution within a year: the imposing cavernous venue was the final test of an act’s popularity. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. On July 1, 1979 a teenage waitress, Margaret Bell, was shot dead in the Mainstreet entrance in a drive-by shooting; the bullet was intended for a bouncer who had refused entry to Brian Ronald McDonald, who was sentenced to nine years in jail.
Hugh Lynn came on board as a minor shareholder in mid 1979, bringing international contacts and a direct line to other New Zealand promoters. In August, Mainstreet scored a coup when they presented two nights by The Knack, briefly one of the world’s top bands. It was a turning point for the venue.
Lipanovic: “It was packed both nights, 2000 to 2500 people, they drank the beer tanks dry and there was so much broken glass on the dance floor we changed to plastic containers after that.” Later that same week, one of Australia’s finest bands of the period took the stage: Midnight Oil.
In November, The Members played two nights; they were the first English punk band to visit New Zealand. The gig was even bigger than The Knack and, again, the beer tanks ran dry. The band itself was astonished at the reception, particularly the hardcore boot boys at stage front, gobbing at the visitors. “Bleeding disgusting,” Members singer Nicky Tesco said later.
Despite the inevitable presence of the troublesome boot boys (smashed toilet bowls a speciality), most of the era’s punk and post-punk bands played at Mainstreet. Toy Love was always a major drawcard but The Features, No Tag, Spelling Mistakes, Terrorways and many of the early Flying Nun bands also performed at the venue. International visitors too, including The Birthday Party, The Cure, Dead Kennedys The Fall, Magazine, Siouxie and the Banshees, XTC, and Wreckless Eric.
In the years to come every New Zealand act of note and most major Australian attractions played Mainstreet, plus a host of artists from further afield, including The Cure, Motorhead, Simple Minds, and UB40. On successive nights in January 1983, John Martyn, Taj Mahal, Toots and the Maytals and The Church headlined shows: all four acts had appeared at the Sweetwaters Festival a few days earlier.
Of the New Zealand acts who played during his tenure, Lipanovic cites Th’ Dudes as the biggest drawcard and, yes, on one occasion, the tanks ran dry. Th’ Dudes immediately established themselves as Mainstreet favourites. Drink more bliss, indeed.
Hello Sailor, who had headed the vanguard of New Zealand’s pub rock, experienced the changing of the guard when they played to a near-empty room in 1980, shortly before they split up, prompting a disgruntled Graham Brazier to throw his saxophone onto the deserted dance floor before staggering off-stage.
A format emerged throughout that first year with three, sometimes four bands playing each night. At the beginning of 1980 a second club was established in the labyrinthine building – Jazz Alley, featuring Space Case with Murray McNabb, Bruce Lynch and Frank Gibson Jr; guest players included Kim Paterson, Brian Smith and American trumpeter Bobby Shew.
Th’ Dudes made regular appearances through to their demise in May 1980, when they signed off with three shows at the club. Hundreds queued to gain entry on the final night and Ian Morris famously performed the entire show in the nude. Dave Dobbyn stripped down too, but kept his pants on. The band was joined on stage by various guests – including members of the Features and the Terrorways – and even by Th’ Dudes’ road crew.
Although the final Hello Sailor gig wasn’t the group’s finest moment at Mainstreet, subsequent bands featuring members of the quintet – Brazier’s Legionnaires, Pink Flamingos, Coup D’Etat and DD Smash – all became Mainstreet drawcards. With Harry Lyon and Dave McArtney in the ranks, the Legionnaires evolved into a reunited Hello Sailor and their 1983 Radio With Pictures Mainstreet special (below) remains the best video footage of a live Sailor performance.
The bands that played Mainstreet reflected the fads and fashions of the era – the electronica of Car Crash Set, Herbs’ Pacific reggae, and the young pop bands signed to Simon Grigg’s Propeller Records, notably The Screaming Meemees, and a little later the Flying Nun bands.
A major change came in 1982 when Lipanovic sold the lease to Hamilton nightclub owners Graeme Soljan and Chris Cole, who kept the name and general format through to its eventual closure. In 1983 TVNZ’s Radio With Pictures began broadcasting periodic Live at Mainstreet specials, also released on vinyl by Mushroom Records. Dave Dobbyn’s Live: Deep in the Heart of Taxes won a New Zealand music award for the best album of 1983, while other albums in the series were double bills: Legionnaires/Dance Exponents, Coconut Rough/The Narcs, Mockers/The Idles and, in 1984, a reformed Blam Blam Blam with the Netherworld Dancing Toys.
With a little more backstage space than most New Zealand rock acts were used to, the Mainstreet dressing rooms boasted the usual scribblings on the walls and witnessed its fair share of mischief in the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll genre.
In 1984, All-Stars Play The Blues – a revue assembled by promoter Paul Walker – finished a successful national tour at Mainstreet: singers Beaver, Midge Marsden and Sonny Day, guitarist Mike Farrell, keyboardist Paul Hewson, saxophonist Walter Bianco, bassist Neil Edwards and drummer Dennis Ryan. Special guest on the tour was Wilko Johnson, formerly of Dr Feelgood. Also at hand that evening was guitar superstar Stevie Ray Vaughan, who joined the band with Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton replacing Ryan. Sadly, as well as Vaughan, four of the New Zealanders in the line-up died prematurely: RIP Sonny Day, Mike Farrell, Paul Hewson and Beverley Morrison.
A strange postscript to the Mainstreet story was the very final gig in 1985. After all of the fittings had been stripped ready for the building’s demolition, a handful of very alternative bands, part punk, part dada, performed in the shell, using generators for lights and sound. The following week I watched the demolition from the cafe opposite, along with Graham Brazier and Lisle Kinney, exchanging Mainstreet stories. As we departed, looking across at the rubble, Brazier suddenly exclaimed, “Fuck! I never did pick up my saxophone!”
Links and further viewing