Anyone who’s spent time in Lyttelton will know Al Park. He’s a musician, songwriter, one-time bar owner and all round good sort. He’s been part of the creative scene in Christchurch since the 1970s and he sat down with Zara Potts to talk about those early years starting out in music.
Part One of this interview looks back at Al’s first club – Mollett Street – and the origins of Lyttelton becoming a town that’s synonymous these days with creativity.
“At that stage we were getting booted out of everywhere we were trying to play. I guess you could say we had a punk attitude but we were a bit older than the actual punks. It was fun, though. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that wasn’t fun.”
You weren’t born in Christchurch?
No, I’m a Naenae kid. I think I came to Christchurch in about 1975. My girlfriend at the time and I came here around Christmas and decided we were going to open a second hand shop, because I had been junk shopping pretty much forever. I used to search through junk shops for records while I was at university. Basically vinyl records have determined my life.
You started a junk shop here in Ōtautahi called Junket. Where was it?
It’s still there actually. It’s a Thai restaurant on the Carlton corner. It was an old house and we got it super cheap and it was big and it was right in the heart of the St Albans student area. I had that and when I first came down here, I only knew my girlfriend’s friends – who were all pretty straight – but within three months or so, the shop actually started introducing me to people. My girlfriend was a librarian and she was meeting people in the library, like Barry Read. And I met Mike Meek and John Britten and so I started building up a circle of new friends. I’ve also been a person that’s been a good connector. I have a real ability to connect people.
You should have been an agent.
Yeah! I’m good at names and I’m good with people. When I was in the shop it just started mushrooming and started picking up some smarty arty people and we started getting quite an interesting bunch of people around. We scored a really good flat in Fendalton, which was the bottom of a big house, and within the first year we did a big New Year’s Eve party and it just snowballed.
What was it like in those years with respect to the creative scene, in the late 70s, was it wild?
It was awesome. When I met John Britten, he just lived across the road from where we lived. He’d just taken on The Stables and was living up in the rafters at this point. The shop also introduced me to lots of creative people. We started doing these things, putting on performances and that kind of thing. We were sort of dressing up a bit, I remember John Britten once painting himself blue and sitting on the stage naked for fifteen minutes – it was very much like performance art.
And you started doing these performances for an audience?
What happened was that Lee Perry and Ian Whitehead were really keen to start a band. My music abilities were somewhat lacking at the time, but I had a good idea about what a live performance should be, and I think that carried me.
Could you play music at this point?
Yeah I could. Simon Morris and I wrote a song that got into the TV One song writing finals actually. So I was playing guitar but not in a band. So we had Lee on a guitar and Ian on a microphone at the end of a broomstick, just kind of hooning around.
So this band was put together for a specific purpose?
Not really a specific purpose as such, but as part of the group we were going to have a big fashion parade that was going to be all the seasons, the four seasons. John Britten had created a wedding dress. He was into doing things like casting metal, and so he cast these high heel shoes into aluminium, that were outrageous, they weighed a ridiculous amount of weight. We hired where the Speights Ale House is on Bealey Avenue, which at the time had a huge room above it, and this was going to be our first performance.
So this was the band that would become Vapour and the Trails?
Yeah. At that stage we were getting booted out of everywhere we were trying to play. I guess you could say we had a punk attitude but we were just a little bit older than the actual punks. It was so bizarre because this fashion show extravaganza was held over two nights – there were about 400 people each night.
Was it just your friends who came?
The public could come too, we sold tickets. But the first night, we were so hyped up to play, but the fashion parade was so unstructured and all over the place it took about four hours. We were pretty pissed off, because the hype for us to play our first ever gig was pretty high. By this stage we’d got a bass player and a drummer and an amp. So all our friends were so apologetic about us not playing the first night that the next night the show was shortened and we came on and played and I have to say it was one of the most exciting nights of my life. I think because we hadn’t played the night before everyone was determined they were going to really get into it. We hooned through our eight songs and then played the set again.
Were they original songs?
No, they were all covers. My friend Chrissie had bought back two Ramones records and an Elvis Costello record from London and so we covered these.
You got the bug at that point?
It was as good as any drug you could have. We were pretty into it. It was pretty fun.
How did your nightclub Mollet Street came about?
I was about 25. This is during the oil crisis and rents were pretty cheap – there were lots of empty spaces. Mollett Street was an upstairs space that had originally been a market. It was meant to be a low key thing, it was going to be our own little private club. The first night we opened our private club, we had Michael Hurst and Russell Smith, and Liam Ryan played. We didn’t have a PA or anything, and we all just played together. It was meant to just be private but other people turned up.
Was it open every night?
No, just Sunday nights. Maybe every second Sunday. It was totally illegal. It was a mix of hippies and punks. We had alcohol and weed. The police totally turned a blind eye to us.
I’ve heard stories that the floor was a bit unstable and would bounce if there was too much dancing…
There was a leather shop underneath us and I think the guy started to get pissed off with the roof moving – probably displacing dust and that sort of thing. There was also a burger bar underneath. It think it was called The Medway. Great burgers and the guy that ran it loved us.
So how did you get people to play?
People would just come and ask. It kind of splintered our original group actually. I was adamant that we just needed to open it up to anyone, it couldn’t just be for us. But the others weren’t so sure. I decided we should build a stage, and so we did and then started charging $1 to get in and we paid everyone with a crate of beer. There were four slots each night and it stopped at midnight.
Did you have to keep bands to time?
I was pretty strict about it. If you started at 8.00 you had to finish by 8.45 so the next act could set up. If you didn’t start until 8.30, then you only got to play for fifteen minutes. Whenever I had Bill Direen’s Vacuum Blue Ladder on, they would spend at least 20 minutes tuning up – it was painful – but I would get pretty bossy about things.
Could it be any kind of music? Did they have to audition?
No, no. It could be anything. We had interesting bands. Not all of them were punk or new wave. Chris Knox had come up from Dunedin and his act was pretty outrageous. It was such an odd collection of people in those days. It was all sorts of people. Mostly hippies and punks and arty people.
You also had Christmas parties?
For kids. And we did parties for after shows.
Did you have Lou Reed there?
Lou Reed never came to Mollet Street but he did come to our Fendalton flat. He came to a pretty groovy party but I suspect he was looking for more than just a bunch of middle class New Zealanders.
There’s a folklore about Mollet Street now. How long did it actually exist?
About eighteen months. It didn’t make any money – you could get a couple of hundred people in there tops. The one constant with Mollet Street, was that The Trails played pretty much every night. Some nights we’d open up and some nights we’d close. Because of Mollet Street, I went from being no one in the Christchurch music scene, well in any music scene really, to being someone who was seen as the go to guy when it came to anything to do with punk.
Tell me a bit about what it was like living in Christchurch at this time –in the late seventies early 80s you were living in Lyttelton which was in itself a pretty vibrant creative scene…
My girlfriend at the time, Brigid Brock, was totally instrumental in me moving into Lyttelton. At the time she was designing fashion socks and she started up Shands Emporium. It was a pretty joyous time in my life. She introduced me to Bill Hammond and his wife at the time, Jill, who lived just round the corner in Cressy Tce and then they moved out of there and moved right across from Brigid and I in Webb Lane. Then Lawrence Aberhart moved up the road into Voelas Rd and then Warwick Brock – Brigid’s ex husband – lived just up the hill. Then there were other people in the area like Gerard Smyth, Russell Smith and Keith Nicholson. I would say that was the first wave of arty farty’s moving into Lyttleton. When I came here, there was without a doubt, an attitude of ‘Fuck off, townie.’ We were definitely a minority then.
You all knew each other?
We spent a lot of time together. There was a mateship. We played volleyball up the road at the school. We’d have jams together, Bill Hammond and I would jam with the kids.
But at that time you weren’t really creating things together?
Bill Hammond and I did. We jammed together and had a couple of great songs as far as I’m concerned. We had a song called dirty Old Dennis which we got all the kids to sing on.
I remember singing on that one.
Yeah, you are on it too! I should have released that song when the big furore with Denis Connor happened over the Americas Cup. It was so quirky, and so South Pacific feeling.
So that song was written by you and Bill Hammond?
At that stage The Trails had finished and I started hanging out at Bill’s house at night times and we’d just jam – him playing drums and me playing guitar – that kind of shuffle sound we had. One day Bill and I were driving down Brougham Street talking about having an actual band and I said what would we call it? And we’d just passed this thing– I don’t know if you recall them – but there were these signs back then of an O with a line through it and a D – and we’d just passed one of those and Bill said ‘Oh we’ll call ourselves OD’ and I said ‘what’s OD?’ and he said “Old Dennis.’
So you started playing gigs?
Old Dennis expanded into the British hotel because there were a few of us going through relationship breakups. And Simon Morris had come down to Christchurch to do a directors course and so I asked him to join the band as a bass player and he did. He played bass on the Dirty Old Dennis song.
You even had John Britten playing sometimes?
All sorts of people. The creative people kind of just found each other. There were so many different groups, the TV people, the musos and the artists. It still happens now with the Lyttelton scene, Delaney and Marlon – it’s always been like that for me.
And how big was punk back then?
It was really a threat to a lot of established musicians. Lots of bands were doing kind of that Beach Boys thing, harmonies and stuff, in the bars. They were big bars and they would pack them out – 500 people – a night. There was a real divide between them and the punk and new wave scene. So playing and booking?
It was around this time that you started playing the pub scene – rather than just Mollet Street – with Vapour and the Trails?
Yeah and then we did a North Island tour and broke up. The funny thing was the boys didn’t think we were good enough to be a proper band. Murray Olds was one the band members and I think they just didn’t have faith in the band. It was so strange to me because everywhere we went we were super popular. We went to the North Island – places like the Hillcrest in Hamilton and pack it out.
But there was a lack of confidence?
It’s been a bit like that with lots of people I’ve worked with. There gets to a point where the confidence to take it to the next level gets a bit shaky. Louie and the Hotsticks were a bit the same. It was a great band, a big band, and we had some great concepts and it was a bit different to anything else that was around…
Louie and the Hotsticks had a massive following…
Yeah. We weren’t a hip cool band, we were a fun band that made people dance and walk out of a place feeling like they’d had a real good time. I still have people coming up to me now and telling me about their days seeing The Hotsticks, when they’d sneak in to The Marine… we did have a huge fan base with that band.
Let’s talk about your part in Victoria – The Dance Exponents video….
That was Simon Morris directing. Simon did a great video of The Trail’s but it’s been lost now. He wanted to make Victoria as a story.
It still stands up even though its 40 years old
I know. It’s cool. Now I tell people that if they want to see me when I was 25 then look up Victoria. The young people all know these songs and it’s a great little calling card for me to say well look this is what I was doing back then. It was fun. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that wasn’t fun.