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Southland Musicians’ Club

Making Music at the Bottom of the World in Southland, Aotearoa/New Zealand

Edited by Sally Bodkin-Allen

Published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020

A brief history from a bass player’s perspective – Chris Chilton

In an unassuming street in an industrial precinct of Invercargill, surrounded by the piled-up carcasses of wrecked cars, the musical heart of Southland holds a relentless beat. If you drive down Preston Street, it’s easy to miss the rather drab-looking building behind the tall wooden fence at number 33. Appearances can be deceiving.

The repurposed house has been the home of the Southland Musicians’ Club since 1983, and it has seen some action. Inside the club’s committee room, known by members as The Cosy, the walls are lined with dozens of band photographs, some old, some new, each one representing a chapter in the story of a colourful musical collective as diverse as it is entertaining.

Two large honours boards hang in The Cosy, one celebrating past elected officers and entertainers of the year, and the other the names of the inductees in the Southland Musicians Club Southland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That has always been the way of the Southland Musicians’ Club – guardians of the past and champions of the present. Generations of homegrown and visiting musical entertainers have trod its boards, and it has always been a passionate advocate for rising youthful talent.

The Southland Musicians’ Club was the social hub of the local music scene long before it moved into its suburban Prestonville digs. During its first apex, in the mid-1970s, the club’s leased premises in Deveron Street enjoyed the benefits of 11 pm closing. As Invercargill pubs emptied hundreds of happy punters onto the city streets, musos and members of the public in the know flocked to 69 Deveron Street to carry on the party into the small hours. There was simply nowhere else to go, and the atmosphere in the upstairs clubroom was electric. The best musos jammed there, and young bands got their first break there.

A cloud of blue cigarette smoke hung permanently below the low ceilings, and between band sets the clatter of glasses and excited chatter was invigorating.

I vividly remember playing my first and only gig there, in 1984, with the first band I was in – a then-rookie four-piece called Sister Europe. We were all young – in our late teens or early 20s – and for each of us, Sister Europe was our first band. What we lacked in experience and skill we made up for in enthusiasm, but being invited to play a late-night set at the musos club was still a daunting prospect. I can’t imagine that any of the punters there would have been blown away by our raw and scratchy performance, but the support we received that night has stayed with me for a lifetime.

I’ve had many opportunities in the ensuing years to thank club stalwarts, the Daley brothers, Bob and Trevor, for the friendly and genuine encouragement they gave us. Now, as a current club committee member, I feel a responsibility to pass that encouragement on to the next generation of young budding musicians.

It was an honour to undertake this rite of passage in our formative musical years, playing in front of world-wise musos who for the most part would have started out as green as we were then, in a room that had hosted many guests more illustrious than us.

Visiting musicians received a standing invitation to drop by. Major touring acts including Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball, Dragon, and Rodger Fox’s big band took up the offer to join in the revelry. English jazz clarinetist Acker Bilk, who achieved international fame and topped pop charts around the world with his signature hit tune Stranger On The Shore in 1962, borrowed my dad Bruce Chilton’s clarinet during a visit to Deveron Street in the 1970s but could barely get a squeak out of it. Bilk got his distinctive breathy tone blowing a much lighter gauge reed than dad had on his instrument.

“Celebrity” visits to the club didn’t always end in cheers and beers. There is a well-told tale of the night Split Enz ran away, a story corroborated independently in 2018 by former Dance Exponents frontman Jordan Luck. Club president Trevor Daley still shakes his head at that one. “It’s one of my regrets I didn’t write a letter to Rip It Up to set the record straight.” The national rock magazine had reported that Split Enz was refused entry to the Southland Musicians Club. “That was bloody crap,’’ Trevor muses.

The rule was that unless you happened to be the most recognisable art-rock band in New Zealand you had to be signed into the club by a member. The doorman recognised Split Enz all right and told them to head upstairs. At the top of the stairs, another club member was collecting the cover charge off guests as they arrived. From across the crowded room, Trev spotted Split Enz and with a sense of purpose strode towards them to tell the doorman to let them in for free, but before he could get there the band turned around and headed back down the stairs. To this day he doesn’t know why they left, but he insists Rip It Up got the story wrong. “It was their call to leave,’’ Trev says. “Nobody kicked them out. “In the meantime, their support band, the Dance Exponents, were up in the club having a great time,’’ he says. “We let the Exponents in but we wouldn’t let Split Enz in? I don’t think so.”

Establishment and early years

The Southland Musicians Club as it is today was founded on youthful rebellion in the mid-1970s, in the days when musicians were compelled to be in the New Zealand Musicians’ Union. The 1968 Musicians’ Directory lists about 200 musicians playing in Southland at the time. The union held its meetings in the Dutch Club, a building that formerly stood on the site of the current Invercargill Workingmen’s Club car park in Jed Street.

On March 26, 1972, 40 union members attended a meeting at which a committee was formed to adopt a constitution. The Southland Musicians Club Inc was thereby established. This union-based organisation was not the same beast it is today. The committee’s mandate was to find clubrooms, but after two years there were still no clubrooms and membership was dwindling. More than that, though, a philosophical battle line was being drawn, largely between the older musicians who played mostly traditional dance music, swing and jazz, and the younger members who were playing in contemporary pop and rock bands.

One of the younger musicians with a foot in the big band/jazz camp was my father Bruce Chilton, who plays woodwind. Dad recalls being a member of the union for a time but, like others, feeling dissatisfied that he was seeing no gain from it. “Nothing was improving as a result of it,” he says. Trevor Daley, dad and others wanted to have clubrooms and more of a social scene. Some of the older members wanted to retain the status quo. The last straw for many appears to have been a meeting called by the union in 1974 to discuss leasing a building in Tay Street and basing the club there. It came to a vote. The motion was lost. Some of the older members felt that only a few members would end up doing all the work. “It was totally negative,” Trevor recalls. The younger guys, including Trevor, came out of the meeting “really pissed off” because they were all for the building. Revolution was in the air.

Alan Skiffington had a nightclub called The Axeman, at 130 Esk Street. This building had earlier been the first home of the Invercargill Workingmen’s Club before it moved to its current premises a few doors further east in Esk Street. Alan called a meeting of the disaffected musos offering them a base in his nightclub. A committee was elected, with Kevin Mahoney as secretary, but the young musos knew it wasn’t going to work in Alan’s premises for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that they would basically be compelled to be patrons of his establishment. Nevertheless, even without a place to call home, the musos had now officially broken away from the union and formed their own club, which they called the Invercargill Musicians Club.

Many of the younger musos realised that it was ridiculous to have two clubs – the Invercargill Musicians Club and the Southland Musicians Club, which was essentially the Southland Musicians Union by another name. “Initially what the guys wanted was just a place to hang out,” Trevor Daley recalls. “A place to have a game of pool and tell a few lies.” After some tentative conversations between the two factions, in March 1976 at a meeting in the Dutch Club the members of both groups finally agreed to merge into one club, to be known as the Southland Musicians Club.

The Southland Musicians Club’s first elected officers were: president, Trevor Daley; vice-president, Paul Rosel; secretary, Kevin Mahoney; treasurer, Lyall Swain; auditor, Bruce Chilton; committee, Phillip Butcher, Terry Templeton, John Rimmer, Neil Blue, Ken Jones and Tony Ross. The combined clubs’ first social was held in the supper room of the old Kew Bowl in Elles Road. Fifty or so musicians gathered to socialise, with singer/guitarist Dallas Matchett providing the entertainment. The search for a base continued and eventually the club leased premises upstairs at 69 Deveron Street.

Back in 1976 the new club was humming with activity. It’s perhaps a reflection of the members’ social intentions that they installed a bar there two years before they built a stage for musicians to play on. Eventually they would have a band playing every Friday. As often as not that band would have just finished playing at an Invercargill Licensing Trust establishment, packing down their gear and rushing to Deveron Street to prepare for the influx of patrons. The steep, narrow stairs were not conducive to lugging heavy musical equipment, but it was a great environment to play in and bands welcomed the invitation. Jamming inevitably carried on into the wee small hours.

There was a lot of socialising. Bruce Chilton recalls Christmas parties with Santa handing out presents to the children and a barbecue held at the Dunsdale picnic reserve, where musos played on the back of a truck with their equipment powered by a diesel generator. Bruce describes one such event near the Otatara boat club at which a competition was held to demolish a piano. The smashed pieces had to be small enough to pass through a toilet seat. Trevor adds that this was an attempt to break a Guinness World Record. History does not record whether the Southland musos smashed the record, but they certainly had a great time smashing the piano.

The club nurtured young musicians. Budding musos who could barely play were actively encouraged to come and learn their chops in front of an audience that didn’t judge and was extremely supportive. “It was pretty much a youth-oriented club,’’ Trevor says. The experience was intoxicating and educational for young musicians eager to get their foot in the door of the local music scene. In this respect the Southland Musicians’ Club has remained true to its unwritten charter as more than 40 years later the same principle of supporting young musicians is still fundamentally rock solid.

Liquor licensing and the shift to Preston Street

In 1977, the club was told it would have to get a liquor licence to continue running its bar, as well as comply with a raft of fire and health regulations. “We were never going to get one at the Deveron Street premises,’’ Trevor says. By the mid-1970s the draconian liquor laws of the 1950s and 60s had been relaxed enough to permit longer opening hours. However, after 50 years of state-enforced 6 o’clock closing the nation’s thirst for alcohol was unquenchable and the newly liberalised environment allowed the construction of suburban “booze barns”, massive establishments that became exhibition grounds for public drunkenness, violence and drink-driving.

Despite the presence of the Invercargill Licensing Trust, which had been operating with a social mandate as well as a legislative monopoly on the sale of liquor in Invercargill since 1944, the city was not immune to the phenomenon. Outside the ILT pubs’ doors, the prevailing, unadvertised truth was that Southland clubs served alcohol to their members.

Sports clubs were permitted to receive liquor licences only after 1976, when law reform sought to promote a healthier drinking culture through the creation of the Alcohol Advisory Council (ALAC). However, there were no such considerations given to other social or cultural groups such as the Southland Musicians Club. In the finest tradition of amateur entrepreneurism, and despite the prevailing liquor laws, cold beer remained on the club’s menu, along with hot entertainment and pies, and, for whatever reason, the authorities turned a blind eye. “We had a pretty good relationship with the local cops,” Trevor smiles.

Meanwhile, the fire non-compliance issue at Deveron Street was ultimately going to be the club’s biggest problem. The club leased the premises from a building owner who had no intention of paying for the costly structural improvements required to get the clubrooms up to code. Finding new premises was the top priority, and committee member Pat Culhane spotted a possible solution in 1983. After checking the property over, the club signed a purchase deal.

The old house at 33 Preston Street, in the industrial estate of Prestonville, was a doer-upper, but there were plenty of able hands in the club’s membership. However, the property had been undervalued and the club was unable to borrow the required amount. A feverish round of fundraising ensued but the club was facing an uncertain future financially.

In a perverse twist of fate it was the 1984 floods that kept the club afloat. The floodwaters that inundated large tracts of Invercargill and Southland on January 27 swept through the building and, once the waters had receded, the insurance payout ensured the club remained solvent. Club members knocked down walls and removed old sheds. The resolve of their efforts only increased after the Deveron Street clubroom was closed following an official complaint about its operations. The club’s chattels went into storage while the working bees continued in Preston Street.

The first Southland Musicians’ Club annual meeting at the new clubrooms was held in September 1985, and in November the club was finally granted a liquor license. Trevor believes the Southland Musicians’ Club has the unique distinction of becoming the first licensed musicians’ club in the country, pre-dating the radical reforms of the Sale of Liquor Act 1989, which handed licensing responsibilities to local government and enabled clubs of any kind to legally serve alcohol to members. Invercargill Mayor Eve Poole officially opened the new Southland Musicians’ Club premises on February 9, 1986, with members of the Dunedin Musicians’ Club on hand to mark the event.

The club’s relocation to industrial Prestonville in 1986 may have put it slightly off the beaten track of inner-city entertainment, but it did attract some unwanted attention. For the first few years the club’s next-door neighbours in Preston Street were members of the outlaw bikie gang the Damned, who had a fortified clubhouse there. The Damned were affiliated to Christchurch gang the Devil’s Henchmen, and for the latter years of the 1980s they were engaged in a violent feud with the Road Knights Motorcycle Club, which was then based in Tramway Road. The most infamous atrocity occurred in October 1987, when Robert Holvey, a Damned associate, was killed with a car axle after his car was rammed outside the Invercargill prison. Three Road Knights members were charged with murder, but the charges were later dismissed.

For the most part the Damned stayed away from the musicians club, but they had an unhealthy dislike of the band Pretty Wicked Head and the Desperate Men, who had provoked them merely by playing a gig at the Road Knights’ gang headquarters in Tramway Road.

On at least two occasions members of the Damned gatecrashed the musos club to disrupt Pretty Wicked Head gigs, in apparent acts of retribution. On one occasion they tipped band singer-guitarist Shaun Kirkpatrick’s van on its side in the musicians’ club driveway, and on another a small posse jeered and challenged Kirkpatrick and drummer Vaughan Burtenshaw as they performed inside the club, until the two musos leapt off the stage into the midst of an all-in brawl on the dancefloor. Club member Maaki Goodwillie was working as doorman on one of these occasions, and recalls the gang members being abusive and aggressive, and one swinging a punch at him.

Reportedly, the Damned went out of existence in 1990, a year after being repatched as a chapter of the Devil’s Henchmen MC, and life at the Southland Musicians Club returned to a state of relative calm.

The Southland Entertainment Awards and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Over the 40-plus years of its existence the Southland Musicians Club has been an active and entertaining presence in its community, running countless shows and events for the enjoyment of the music-loving public. Daley is particularly proud of two long-standing events: the Southland Entertainment Awards and the Southland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, both shows run under the auspices of the Southland Musicians Club.

The entertainment awards actually started a decade before the club did, in 1966. They were held at Invercargill’s Civic Theatre and organised by Invercargill musician Bill McElhinney, who also wrote a local music column titled The Southland Beat in The Southland Daily News. Readers voted for their favourite acts, with pop band The Answer dominating in 1966 and 1967. The Answer’s singer Dave Kennedy won the best male vocalist award, while Margaret Daley was named best female vocalist.

In 1968 The Southland Daily News closed, Bill McElhinney moved away and the show he’d started went into remission.

It wasn’t until 20 years later that the Southland Musicians Club, at president Trevor Daley’s insistence, revived the idea of entertainer of the year awards with what would become an annual show initially held at the Preston Street clubrooms. The first Southland Entertainer of the Year, named at the 1987 show, was Maaki Goodwillie. Trevor recalls the genesis of the first of the modern-era awards shows.  He says that, at the time, he and the club committee thought it would just be a nice idea to celebrate a new trophy the club had been gifted, the Frank Prattley Award. They had no idea it would turn into the show it is today.

The Prattley Award was donated to the club by members of the Goodall family, descendants of Frank Prattley, who achieved local fame through the middle decades of the 20th century as the leader of Southland’s most enduringly popular and well-travelled entertainment troupe, the Denza Dance Band. It was the Goodalls’ wish that the impressive trophy be awarded annually in recognition of Southland’s most promising musical act.

Trevor says that club members felt they should probably hold an event to showcase the award. “Initially I thought no-one would be interested,’’ he says.

The first presentation of the Frank Prattley Award actually occurred in 1986, predating the revived Southland Musicians Club Entertainer of the Year show by a year. The inaugural winners were an original three-piece band, Geneva. It was from this beginning that the idea of a full awards show percolated and came to fruition in 1987. Over the next 30 years a diverse procession of Southland’s brightest new musical talents had their names engraved on the Prattley trophy.  Along with the award, the silverware was retired and returned to the Goodall family after the 2015 show. The final inscription on the trophy belongs to Sky Henigan.

In time the Entertainer of the Year awards show outgrew the clubrooms and in 2009 the show was revamped and relocated back to the Civic Theatre. The rebranded Southland Entertainment Awards event has grown spectacularly in ensuing years, becoming a glittering celebration of Southland music, musicians and musical theatre, brass and pipe bands. At the time of publication, singer Shannon Cooper-Garland held the distinction of being Southland’s most awarded entertainer, having won the prestigious Entertainer of the Year award three times, in 1996, 1997 and 2009. A landmark of sorts was reached in 2017 when the awards show celebrated 30 years. I was proud to be the convener of the organising committee that worked hard to put together an epic cast to mark the occasion. Guest artists included high-profile expat Invercargill star Jason Kerrison and United States-based songstress Helen Henderson, as well as special reunion sets by seminal Southland bands Airstrike and Pretty Wicked Head and the Desperate Men.

Meanwhile, the Southland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was inaugurated in 2003, the brainchild of longtime Invercargill music enthusiast Neil McDermott. A passionate advocate for southern bands since he managed the band The 13th Hour in the late 1960s, Neil had the idea of celebrating the nostalgia of a bygone area by reuniting former bands and honouring their leading musicians with induction in a Southland Hall of Fame. The concept was a winner, and the annual event became a wild success. In its heyday up to 900 people packed into the Corinthian Centre upstairs at the Invercargill Workingmen’s Club to recapture their youth and kick up their heels. The venue’s concrete floor literally flexed like a trampoline in time to the music under all those dancing feet. For first-timers, this was quite an unexpected and unnerving experience.

At first the events were organised by an independent committee convened by Neil, but in time this show, too, came under the auspices of the Southland Musicians Club, promoted tirelessly by Neil until he stepped aside in 2017. It is perhaps no coincidence that the first person to win the Southland Entertainer of the Year Award in 1966, Dave Kennedy, was also the first person inducted in the Southland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.

Other perennial shows run by the musos club are its annual theatre restaurant, which has been held for 25 consecutive years, and Guitar Legends, which marked its first decade in 2016. The theatre restaurant is a modestly priced themed show and dinner, held in the Prestonville rooms which is run as a fundraiser for the club.  Guitar Legends is a chance for Southland guitarists to emulate their influences and play a song in the style of their axe heroes. The show’s content is inevitably diverse, ranging in genres from thrash metal to country, to folk to punk, and the show has introduced to the public several astonishingly talented, previously unknown school-aged musicians.

Some stay in Invercargill and further their studies in one of the excellent music programmes run at the Southern Institute of Technology. Others look further afield. Over the years Southland has exported many fine musicians who have made their name on stages or behind mixing desks around the country, and around the world. It is no exaggeration to say that the musical gene pool in Southland has always run deep.

The present

With the closure of the late businessman Louis Crimp’s independent Players Entertainment Venue in June 2015, and a lack of other suitable venues for original bands, a gap had opened in the Invercargill music scene. The musos club executive surveyed the somewhat barren musical landscape and started weighing its options. A few years earlier, a serious push led by Trevor Daley to establish a music and arts precinct on the site of the Scottish Hall in Esk Street had failed to gain the necessary momentum.

Still, the concept of moving the club back into the central business district held some appeal to a new, younger roster of club committee members who wanted to see the club reimagined as an entertainment nightspot.  This was a potentially risky move, as the club would have to lease a building and possibly revise its constitution, but there was some appetite for the proposal.

In a series of events that gave credence to the adage the more things change the more they stay the same, two camps within the club faced off – those for the move, and those for the status quo. Committee members inspected a potential site in Tay Street but when the concept was put to the vote at the club’s annual meeting in 2017 the membership voted to stay put in their freehold Preston Street premises. With the distraction of a move back into town off the table the committee focused its energies on improving the asset it already owned.

In 2018, the Southland Musicians’ Club at 33 Preston Street was re-energised, with a new generation of committee members driving a building improvement project, the acquisition of a powerful new in-house sound system and a concerted effort to attract national and international touring acts to play in the club venue. Sunday jams and touring bands were back on the calendar in Southland’s spiritual home of music.

Prominent New Zealand acts Don McGlashan, the Jordan Luck Band, the Chills, Paul Ubana Jones, Greg Johnson, the Skinny Hobos and Paul Martin and Jennie Skulander from Devilskin all performed at the club in 2018 or early 2019, along with a steady stream of touring indie acts – international as well as New Zealanders – and young local luminaries including Jenny Mitchell, Lachie Hayes and Arun O’Connor.

The club has always enjoyed a harmonious relationship with the Southern Institute of Technology.  Bands and musicians from SIT regularly perform on the musos’ club stage. SIT is a regular sponsor of the Southland Entertainment Awards, and the Southland Musicians’ Club reciprocated in 2018 by sponsoring SIT’s Outstanding Live Performance Award. Musicians studying at SIT have been prominent in the local entertainment scene, especially original music. All that creativity gathered into one productive space can only have a positive outcome. Such is the depth of SIT’s musical talent pool that in October 2018 SIT students organised a Battle of the Bands event at the club for original bands made up of or including SIT students.

Extraordinarily, at the time of writing Trevor Daley is still the president, having steered the club unchallenged through an eventful 42 years and counting. The longtime drummer for Invercargill super group Vision, who reunited for a decade-defying 50th anniversary concert in 2019, Daley was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2015 Queens Birthday Honours, recognised for his services to music.

The Southland Musicians’ Club continues to move forward in 2019. Further structural improvements to the building are scheduled to enable a better performance space and entertainment experience for members and guests, and the stream of visiting musicians wanting to perform there shows no sign of abating.

  • With thanks to author Neil McKelvie, and poject committee Neil McDermott and David Goodall for information sourced from Neil McKelvie’s history of the Southland Musicians Club, 45 South in Concert (2006).