On June 27, a remarkable lineup of DJs, performers and punters will convene in Auckland for Take Me Back, a celebration of the culture around The Box and Cause Celebre, the twin clubs that defined Auckland's High Street life in the 80s and 90s. Simon Grigg, co-founder of both venues, recalls the good times on High Street.
I remember one night about 1993, I think it was a fairly quiet early morning, mid week, I was sitting or leaning outside the door of Cause Celebre, likely on the Herald box which served a useful purpose, chatting about not very much to Roseti, our head doorman (and a gentle giant who is much missed), when two arms wrapped themselves loosely around me and a very drunk John Hurt placed a wet kiss on my cheek, shouting “dear boy, it’s been ages ...”
I’d met him very, and I mean extremely, briefly, about a decade earlier at an opening in London, and, yes, he was a wee bit pissed then too. That he remembered me was very doubtful but I guess it was one of those Cause Celebre things.
I smiled and waved him down into the darkness.
Cause Celebre and Box (it was officially just Box but everyone referred to it as The Box, so that’s what it’s become) were nightclubs. That’s what our ACC designation said, or more precisely as I recall: A venue for people to gather, drink and listen to or dance to music.
But somewhere they developed a life beyond that. There were lots of clubs around Auckland at the time but pretty much all largely forgotten, as is the way with such places. For some reason this particular one, or more correctly, two in one, seems to have a reputation that’s held and maybe even grown over the past decade. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that as The Hacienda was to Manchester, Cause Celebre and The Box have become to the Queen City.
I was rather uncomfortable writing this as it felt a little egotistical and self-anointing but on reflection I realised this club worked because it wasn’t about the owners and to celebrate it’s 20th anniversary isn’t about us at all. Ok, we were the facilitators perhaps (and wore the financial burden…because it rarely made money), but because of the philosophy we inherited and built on we were never more than part of the reason people still write about or talk about a couple of pretty dark and grotty rooms downstairs at 33 High Street in Auckland city.
Cause Celebre and The Box were really the culmination of the thing that Mark Phillips and Peter Urlich started at the legendary A Certain Bar in 1980, upstairs in an old DB pub in Albert Street. It had opened its doors primarily as a gathering point for like-minded people to hang and listen to fairly cutting edge music in a non-threatening environment. A simple concept really, but Auckland offered nothing like it before. If they hadn’t invented it at the time, it may well have invented itself out of need, because there was such a swell of energy, mostly kids (meaning 18-25), who’d come out of the punk and post punk scenes, but older creative sorts too, that needed an alternative to the booze barns and the Queen Street clubs where faceless DJs played Top 40, or bands played mediocre cover versions of those hits. The punk scene had, rather radically for Auckland, offered this freedom and it grew from there.
This alternative club scene grew rapidly throughout the decade and I found myself DJing at a few of Mark and Peter’s places simply because I had the records and enjoyed playing them to people...there were a bunch of clubs: Zanzibar, The Six Month Club, The Brat, Mantrap, Berlin and Roma, as the scene jumped from venue to venue, with an average six-month life span.
I’d left Peter and Mark and jumped into bed, if you will, with my old mate Tom Sampson, and a young DJ, Roger Perry, who’d learnt his chops from Russell Crowe at The Venue in Symonds Street. In 1986 we opened The Asylum, the first club to play House Music in NZ, and then, a year later, The Playground in Nelson Street (in what is now the two floors underneath Toto), before deciding, as the economy crashed down around us, that we needed somewhere more permanent.
The economic turmoil offered us the old Club Mirage, former home of the now penniless stockbroker set, and, after the traders’ expense accounts had dried up, almost bust.
We took it over on 9 December 1988 and reopened immediately as The Siren. The self-anointed doyens of glitz, in their mouthpiece, Metro’s Felicity Ferrit, snarled that we were the Hell Hole of High Street (their gold cards had been revoked and they were not pleased) and we used their disapproval in our advertising as a badge of honour.
One afternoon, shortly after we’d opened, Tom and I lifted a curtain (at the back of the coat check) to find a door, which we forced open. Beyond it we found a large, musty, long sealed room (complete with an unfortunate dead cat in the middle of what would be the dancefloor) and we set about tracking down the owners. This, the former RSA basement had been shut off when they didn’t have the members to fill it anymore and they’d moved a few years earlier. We rented what was essentially dead basement space, moved the cat, painted the floor with bright red rubber based paint to give it an extra bounce, bought in a new celebrity barman, the infamous Hat, late of the Dean Martini Club, and installed a new Gavin Chilcott and Ann Sampson designed interior in The Siren.
We then made the fateful, and thoroughly unsound business decision, to allow the club to be primarily driven by the music. Both sides of the club would have an uncompromising musical policy. The Box, the new room, would have DJs, who would play contemporary and credible dance music without any demands on them to play the hits or cheese, pretty much as we’d tried to do over the previous years; and Cause Celebre, the old Siren, would feature jazz...not the soft mush that often passes for jazz, but the cream of Auckland’s jazz scene playing very late sets, often through to dawn as the 90s went on.
So through Celebre over the next years went the very young and precocious Nathan and Joel Haines, Mark de Clive Lowe, Greg Johnson & Bluespeak, Murray McNabb’s magnificent Quartets, and, as we stretched the policy from jazz, the Fuemana family, a pre-hits Supergroove, Che Fu on his own, Upper Hutt Posse, Lava Lava and dozens more. I look back with some pride at what became the epicentre of what was happening musically in our late night city (and beyond as these acts often went on to sell records around the world … in the case of Paul Fuemana, millions).
Next door in The Box, Rob Salmon, Greg Churchill and others played regular eight hour sets that are still talked about on the dance forums.
But we struggled. Tom, Ann, Kevin and myself, for the first two years also cleaned the place … night after night we’d finish at 4am and be back at 1pm the next day to ready it for the night. We loaded the fridges, cleaned the loos, we battled grumpy landlords, Auckland’s less than helpful council, and the IRD but somehow made it through.
Over the next decade or so a culture built up around the club. Our door policy was simple: if you understood you were in … we had a personality code rather than a dress code and women were, and this was as important to us as the music, hopefully made to feel safe. This all attracted the cream of the creative industries in Auckland, many of whom, the writers, the musicians, the TV people, the designers and so on, and the people who wanted to hang in that sort of atmosphere, made this their second home at night and on weekends.
Writer Chad Taylor commented recently that he used to give out the phone number at Cause Celebre as a business contact.
And the touring artists and actors could be found here … seeing Tom Jones at the bar buying David Soul a drink didn’t really draw much comment.
But mostly it was about the music and the extended family it drew. High Street became quite the centre of something rather special for a while, and it was in an era where the most munted punters seemed to get was a beer or two too many, or a joint too much. In those rather more innocent years there were few green kids seen staggering up the stairs, as you find in the more drug-swamped later years of Auckland clubbing.
In a decade the real only violence we had inside were a couple of scratching fracases between hairdressers over girl, or boy, friends. Aside, of course from the big one which involved a member of The Stray Cats, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Barnes’ sister.
Somewhere around 1991 UK style mag, I-D, named Cause Celebre and The Box as one the world’s best ten clubs. We smiled. Take that Felicity Ferrit.
Twenty years after we opened, like Woodstock, the number of people who claimed to have spent just about every hour we were open there seems to be on the increase again, which is fine with me. Whatever, but over the decade or so it mattered it was home to literally thousands of people including the regular crew who were waiting outside on Friday or Saturday night and stayed on the dancefloor until we closed at six am. Some of those haunt this forum.
I guess it has a legacy, but mostly I just like the pictures or the stories you hear….like this one from Tom Sampson:
I remember the night that Kenneth, whose claim to fame as an amateur actor and professional barfly was that he knew Harvey Keitel, came to us one night to pass on that Harvey had asked if we could tell our barman Kurt to please refrain from yelling Yo! Iris every time he went near the bar, as the Taxi Driver references were passé in 1990.
I think I’ve still got one of Harvey’s credit card receipts tucked away somewhere…