The summer of 1988-89 began misty and dismal in Auckland – or maybe it was just that I’d arrived direct from the Second Summer of Love.
At any rate, after a dispute with my employer in 1988, I took six weeks’ pay, booked a flight home from London and worked out the remaining time at the Virgin Records store in Marble Arch. I ended the most fun year of my life by kissing my future life partner goodbye and getting on a plane.
Nineteen eighty-eight, the record will show, was the year of Britain’s acid house explosion, which would in turn echo around the world in the form of contemporary electronic dance music. My first contact with it came that spring, when a couple of girls came into the Virgin store on a Monday morning, enthusing about their Saturday night out at an acid house club called The Trip.
The following Saturday night, I was lining up outside the Astoria in Charing Cross road, waiting for The Trip to start at 11pm. By the time the theatre’s doors opened, there must have been nearly 1000 of us. Clearly, there was something going on here. And there was certainly something going on inside.
I’d always envied older friends who had been in the UK for the birth of punk rock, and it quickly became evident to me that I’d lucked on to another great British pop culture phenomenon. It was perhaps an echo of the way British kids picked up R&B and the blues in the 1960s – adopting marginalised artists who could barely get arrested at home and making them stars in London.
I consciously resolved get involved and, because British pop culture identity is always about dress, got myself a smiley-face T-shirt and a bandana at Camden market. Months later, we’d take New Zealand indie gods The Clean to the last night of The Trip, and blow their minds too (see link below).
Murray Cammick kindly agreed to let me write about the new dance music phenomenon for Rip It Up, where I explained its social and musical provenance and how a flood of bedroom recordings had challenged the music industry, the idea of the pop star and the whole concept of nightclubs.
“These were not nightclubs as there had been nightclubs before,” I wrote. “Posing, exclusivity and the drinking of alcohol were pretty much out. It’s hard to describe the energy and excitement at one of the big, early events – a kind of wigged-out adrenalin that had crowds moving like one big, sweaty muscle. Flickering visuals all over the walls, strobe lights, UV lights, dry ice, any old stimulus towards the collective buzz.”
It wasn’t that house music was unknown in Auckland, but this new way of doing things seemed within reach.
So that was the fizz I came home with. It wasn’t that house music was unknown here – Simon Grigg was busy building a local club culture in High Street, and DJs like Roger Perry knew and played Chicago house records. But this new way of doing things – it seemed within reach here. I could do it.
With the confidence of the just-flew-in, I found the AUSA’s entertainment officer and proposed I put on a party for that year’s Orientation. She readily agreed, and that was how Housequake! came to be. The name, I think, was another one of Murray Cammick’s contributions to the story. For a man who visibly flinched when I enthused about this new kind of dance music that wasn’t funky, he ended up having a bit to do with what happened.
I explained the idea to my friend Grant Fell, then with the Headless Chickens, and he suggested we involve his flatmate, Stuart Page, who I’d met as a member of the AXEMEN, but didn’t really know. They had both been experimenting with film and video and seemed to immediately understand what I was saying about multimedia experiences.
Of course, it’s not a dance party without music. Happily, I’d brought back some of my records from that year and so had my friends Chris Esther and Andy Rice. So that was the line-up. Some of the local DJs would later grumble about these guys who couldn’t mix – and they were right, we couldn’t. But we did have the tunes.
One weekend, I went out to Manukau for a rap competition being judged by Simon Grigg and others, to see if there was any talent we could put on stage. There was, mostly in a lighter, street corner style, and I asked four or five acts to play, including a very young Semi MCs and an American basketballer called La Koi Wooten, performing as Ski Down Productions, who would later that year record for Simon as part of the one-off Newmatics side project Sistermatic. It wasn’t really what we’d come from in London, but genre boundaries seemed to matter less here on the far side of the world.
The Powerstation was the venue because, I think, AUSA already had an arrangement, but it made sense to me after the London experience to use these big rock venues, with big PA systems. We’d back ourselves to pull a big enough crowd. I had fliers done at a local printer, riding away from the shop with them stacked in the front basket of my borrowed bike. “No nightclub bullshit on the door,” the fliers read. I had the religion, and the belief was that you dressed for comfort and everyone was allowed in.
In the event, about 600 people danced and enjoyed the rap line-up. The PA system, tuned to a tee by Tom Sampson, sounded amazing. I think a few people were surprised that we’d pulled off a club show in a large rock venue, but I was already thinking we could do it again and go bigger. Grant and Stuart thought the same with respect to the visual elements.
La Koi was the obvious candidate to bring back from the rap line-up, but Murray was raving to anyone who’d listen about this young hip hop crew from Upper Hutt, who’d played their first show in Auckland. He gave me the number of their manager, George Hubbard, and I got in touch and agreed a fee for Posse to drive up the island and play for us.
Then a young guy from South Auckland gave me a tape of his band and asked if they could play too. The guy was future legend Phil Fuemana and his band was House Party. I listened to the tape and it wasn’t really in line with what we were doing – it was South Auckland R&B – but they were so keen. “We’re really about house music,” I told Phil when he called me to make their case. “Yeah, we’re house music!” he insisted. I caved and said yes.
In the meantime, we needed to promote this thing on our own this time, without the help of the students – although, as ever, 95bFM was right on board and its reach made a big difference.
Murray (yes, Murray again) had been very excited when Yoh, the former Screaming Meemees drummer, who was working at Rip It Up came back with a bundle of old magazines he’d found in a skip. They were precious copies of New Zealand’s founding pop mag, Playdate. And inside one of them was an ad for a Ponds pimple cream, featuring a model in a close-fitting polka-dotted hood against a contrasting background. It was an arresting image and I borrowed the magazine to show to Stu to see if it might make a good poster.
I wasn’t really ready for what Stu did with it. Relax, he assured me, and in the basement of the big house in Anglesea Street where he and Grant lived, began to screen-print what I still think is one of the great gig posters. He’d converted the original image to a negative and was printing that up with fluoro green and orange, at A1 size.
I provided the text, advising that it would be “The last time for a long time” and concluding with the words “PAGAN EASTER WORKOUT”, because our show was on Thursday, March 23, the day before Good Friday. (I also scripted an ad for bFM that featured Jesus on the cross, which provoked great anxiety for the young Samoan bFM volunteer we asked to voice it.)
I went out on a poster run with Stu and Grant and I still have a treasured mental image of a bank of them on the corner of K Road and Queen Street, eye-popping bright in the morning sun. (This was in the old days of poster wars and it was about half an hour before someone started putting mucky old band posters over them. I was outraged.)
We didn’t sell advance tickets, largely because I had no idea how one might do that, but on the evening of the 23rd, there was a queue outside stretching down Mt Eden Road. The place was filled with 1200 people – and filled early.
Inside the room, the battery of projectors, lights and lasers had expanded radically over the first show; Justin Jordan had built a glowing crucifix out of old TV sets, there were skaters hitting ramps on the stage and the place looked like the real thing.
We encountered an early hitch: there was no sign of La Koi as her timeslot came up. I had to go out on stage to ask if she was in the room. As I was doing that, there was a yelp from the back. She burst in the door, the crowd parted and she ran up to the stage, where I handed her the mic to noisy applause. It was an unplanned killer entry.
Some of the music we played sounds unfathomably hardcore now and it wasn’t all house music.
Some of the music Chris, Andy and I played sounds unfathomably hardcore now and it wasn’t all house music (I peaked by throwing on the Patrick Cowley remix of ‘I Feel Love’). Headless Chicken Michael Lawry plugged in his sampler and added extra noises on the fly. If the records we were playing were unfamiliar to many in the crowd, they certainly seemed to get them dancing. That crowd was also evidence for the belief that Auckland clubbing used to be a lot more socially diverse.
Then it was time for Upper Hutt Posse. They proved to be an entirely different proposition to the South Auckland rappers I’d seen. They had been recording at the Skeptics’ studio, Writhe, in Wellington and they sounded huge and fierce through the Powerstation PA. Most of the crowd hadn’t really heard anything like this before – the group probably hadn’t heard themselves like this – and the people loved it.
As the evening continued in an enthusiastic vein, it dawned on me that I’d made a terrible mistake. House Party weren’t going to work. Wrong music, wrong part of the evening, wrong time to stop the music. It was my fault, not theirs. I’d thrown in one element too many, and for a while I made it go away by delaying their set. But that couldn’t continue – Phil was twanging his bass impatiently behind the stage curtain – and I ordered the curtain up … and they cleared the floor.
A few people ventured back into the dancefloor, but it was really tough for the band and they cut their set short. The next time I saw Phil was several years later, when I went southside to report on the Proud phenomenon for Planet magazine. Phil and I reminded each other where we’d met last.
“Yeah,” he said, “playing to empties …”
We agreed it had been character-building.
That wasn’t the last problem with my determination to throw everything possible at the show. During set-up, I’d had the idea that a surprise lolly-scramble would be fun and asked Rohmana Jordan to go out and find a big bag of sweets. All she’d been able to source in the time available was toffees. When we cast handfuls of toffees out over the crowded dancefloor, no one stopped dancing and a couple of hundred sticky toffees got stamped into the dancefloor. It was a hell of a mess.
I decided I’d better find the venue manager, Mike Corless and tell him.
“Uh, Mike, I thought I should let you know that we did a lolly scramble …”
“Giving the punters something for free?” he said. “Great stuff!”
Mike was having an excellent night and it seemed prudent to leave it at that.
The last thing I saw as I left, clutching a huge bag of cash, was Mike looking disconsolately at his munted dancefloor. Sorry, Mike.
GRANT FELL GOT THE BUG AND STAGED A COUPLE OF SMALLER DANCE PARTIES AT SIREN AND THE BOX.
I paid everyone over the next couple of days, and a week and a half later I was back off to London, not exactly as a dance party king, but with several thousand dollars more than I’d arrived with.
The story would go on without me. Grant Fell in particular got the dance party bug. He soon staged a couple of smaller parties, including Raise the Roof and Hit the Floor, at Siren and the Box respectively, then pulled 2500 people to Auckland railway station for Unity on New Year’s Eve, 1989.
I was also merely the first of a succession of expats who came back with the new electronic dance bug – from London, Europe, Goa – in the years that followed. Those people created Entrain, The Gathering, Splore and the outdoor party scenes of Auckland and Wellington.
Back in London, I got a gig as the dance music columnist for the Rough Trade magazine The Catalogue and ran a couple of wild squat parties with some friends (two of whom would later go on to open the Wellington institution that is Café Astoria). But Housequake! I and II would be the beginning and end of promoting large dance parties for me. I still like to run the dance occasionally, but for 50 people at the local bar, not 1200.
I began the summer of 88 in London wanting to be part of something I could see happening around me and finished the summer of 89 in Auckland doing that in a way I never expected.