Last Call: Unplugging the Kings Arms

Publish Date
Thursday, 22 February 2018, 1:22PM
Chris Stapp

Chris Stapp

By Chris Schulz

More than 20 years of musical history will end when the Kings Arms shuts its doors for good later this month. What will happen to the bands? The fans? Auckland's live music scene? We asked the questions. The answers, well, they're not good.

The wedding

The ceremony was in the garden bar, dinner was hosted on the deck. Once the dishes were cleared, it was time to party. And party they did.

When Renee Jones and Phil Armstrong wanted to get married, there was only one venue that could host the raucous wedding of their dreams.

"We wanted to throw a really big party but also incorporate bands," says Armstrong. "The Kings Arms was perfect for everything we wanted to do."

The couple invited 450 friends and family to their favourite live venue, one they'd been going to on a weekly basis for years.

"It's become the most incredible venue in the city," says Jones.

"We're here all the time. We love the place."

To help soundtrack the celebrations, they pulled some strings and persuaded their favourite acts to play. But they kept the line-up a secret.

"We started with Wayne Anderson. The oldies loved it," says Armstrong. "Then we had Chris Knox and the Nothing ... and then we had Blam Blam Blam. They hadn't reformed, hadn't played gigs for years.

"The crowd had no idea ... they thought it was maybe a covers band. When it clicked, it completely went off."

Sitting on the Kings Arms deck nursing beers in the afternoon sun, Jones and Armstrong's eyes light up with memories of their 2007 wedding. The party didn't stop till 4am. When it did, they'd set a record for bar takings. They're not sure it's been beaten.

With its low ceilings and glum interior, the Kings Arms isn't a natural wedding venue. Neither is it a natural live music venue. The front door is by the stage. There's a bar and fireplace in the middle of the floor. The toilets are right there too.

But, like so many others who've attended the thousands of gigs held there over the past 20 years, Jones and Armstrong consider it their second home.

Just like today, there's always a band they want to see, friends to drink with, stories to share.

The Kings Arms has history. It's got a community. It's become a legend.

In a week's time, it will be gone.

The beginning

It was never supposed to host bands and fans. And the Kings Arms wasn't supposed to become the vintage music venue it is today.

It started life as a bar. When Maureen Gordon took it over in 1993, it was intended to stay that way.

"It was predominantly a working man's public bar," remembers her daughter, Lisa. "It was a party bar from 3pm every day, a haze of smoke."

Lisa, who was in her own band, Gaunt Pudding, had other ideas. With her mum's support, she started regular Thursday shows in the garden bar out the back. It was the mid-90s.

"I just borrowed a vocal PA, we set it up on the deck and we just played into the garden to about 50 people. It was free entry. Bands got a bar tab and I got $50 for organising it."

She splattered flyers around town. "We had to put a map on the first few posters because no one knew where we were," she says.

Maureen supported her, but didn't always like the music. "I always hear the tune-ups in the afternoon and that's enough, thank you. At 5pm I can't get in my car quick enough sometimes," she told the Herald in 2014.

As the venue attracted more bands, crowd numbers grew. But there was a problem. There was no stage.

"The first time I ever played here I was on the ground," says Andrew Wilson from Dunedin noise-punk outfit Die! Die! Die!. "Then it was a step. Then it got higher."

The stage got bigger, so did the crowds. Bands kept coming. A who's who of New Zealand's garage-rock scene came through in the early 2000s, from Nothing At All and Missing Teeth to The D4, Pan Am, The Bleeders and The Datsuns.

The venue rose in prominence. Many artists considered it a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

"The first time we played here, we were like, 'Yeah! We're playing The Kings Arms!'," says Rodney Fisher, the frontman for Goodshirt. "It was quite an achievement."

"You'd see bands from Dunedin come up and play the Kings Arms," says Wilson. "Then we got to be here. It was pretty amazing."

Matt Heath, from Deja Voodoo, remembers "playing here to no one, and then playing here when every inch was rammed. That transition, to people actually wanting to see you play, was quite good."

International acts started showing up too. Eighties hitmaker Lloyd Cole was one of the first big overseas headliners. But there was another problem.

"I had no idea what our capacity was," admits Gordon. "We hadn't discussed numbers. We just kept selling tickets. I was freaking out."

Officially it's 550, but many estimate up to 800 would pack into some of the biggest shows. And there were big names from the flourishing alternative scene coming through: Peaches. Sticky Filth. The Misfits. Band of Horses.

It was a stepping stone for international acts. The White Stripes performed there in 2001; in 2006, Jack and Meg White headlined the Big Day Out.

The Black Keys played there in 2005; in 2012 Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney sold out Vector Arena.

Local acts flourished too. Fisher, from Goodshirt, says his band played there "when no one knew who we were, and at the peak of what we got to in New Zealand".

"We grew alongside the Kings Arms," says The D4's Jimmy Christmas.

"Rock and roll growth through that period was anchored at the Kings Arms."

Despite many bands growing to command bigger venues, everyone says they enjoyed coming back to play there. Goodshirt believe they played 40 shows there, The Bleeders about the same.

"Most bands of the last 20 years have started on this stage," says Bleeders' frontman Angelo Munro.

He goes on to compare it to an iconic New York venue. "It's an institution for Auckland. It's the CBGB of New Zealand."

The stories

Ask anyone who's been to the Kings Arms, and stories roll off the tongue faster than bar staff can pour beer. Buckle in: it gets wild.

There's the time Deja Voodoo's Chris Stapp was dared to climb over the venue's two-storey noise-restricting concrete wall just to score a free beer at a D4 show.

"I scaled up their 'Rock N Roll Motherf*****' banner," he says. "I have no idea how I got down on the other side." Why'd he do it? "Jimmy [Christmas] dared me."

Matt Heath remembers surprising fans with fireworks. "We pulled the curtains back behind the stage and had all these people letting off fireworks. Skyrockets, four or five boom boxes. We didn't tell anyone we were going to do that."

Angelo Munro remembers "bottles in the face, fighting … we've had times when there's probably been more people in here than there should be".

Regular gig-goer Alice Murray was so desperate to get into the second show of a two-night stand by The Shins that she got a flatmate to help her climb onto the roof. "I had a big cut on my wrist … there was blood pouring down my arm. I felt like a bit of a hero - even though The Shins are a bit of a wussy indie-pop band."

Broadcaster Charlotte Ryan remembers a Mint Chicks show where Ruban Nielson was hanging from the roof while frontman Kody jumped up and down on the bar. "There were air conditioning units that spun around. I was worried he was going to chop his ear."

Relationships also blossomed there. Promoter Xan Hamilton went to see Trans Am play, met someone from the band, and hit it off. "This guy started talking to me," she deadpans. "We had a couple of kids."

Heath met Lani Purkis of Elemeno P there as well. They have two children together. "My family essentially started at the Kings Arms," she says.

Perhaps the most famous story, the one everyone talks about, the one everyone claims they saw firsthand, is when The D4's speakers caught fire.

"In the midst of a solo, the speaker caught fire, started smouldering, just burst into flame. I could see the eyes of the crowd widen and look up to the speaker. You could see the smoke billowing out of it." explains Christmas.

"They thought it was the most incredible thing. Some people thought at the time that we set it up. I had nothing to do with it. We played on on one side of the PA.

"I remember the rest of the show being really good."

What's next?

Like the D4's fire, the Kings Arms will soon be extinguished. After a packed run of shows through February, the Newton site's life as a music venue is over.

Maureen Gordon, who died last year at the age of 86, sold the site to developers in 2016 for $7.4 million. A flash property website shows plans for 100-plus apartments across six levels. Residents will enjoy "hand-picked fixtures and fittings" with "wide views to the city skyline".

They look slim and sleek, with manicured gardens and designer furniture. There'll be nothing left to remind anyone of the site's rugged rock n roll history.

But the Kings Arms isn't the only venue closing. In Ponsonby, much-loved bar Golden Dawn will shut its doors in March. It's smaller, but has a similar kind of community vibe to the Kings Arms, one that built a loyal following. Rising Lyttleton singer Nadia Reid and spooky indie act Wax Chattels are booked to perform before it closes. It too will be mourned.

New Zealand on Air's head of music David Ridler says those closures are part of a trend that isn't limited to Auckland. "It's nationwide. Wellington's having problems: Bodega's closed. Lorde played her first show at Mighty Mighty. That's gone." Christchurch is having problems too. Its version of the Kings Arms, Dux De Lux, closed after suffering structural damage in the 2011 earthquake.

It's a major blow for bands wanting to make the step from small 200-seat venues to something bigger. "When you outgrow those smaller venues but really need to be able to play, places like the Kings Arms are so valuable," says Ridler. "It's a real shame to lose a venue of that size."

Paradoxically, the closures come at a time when live music in New Zealand is at an all-time high. More international acts are coming than ever before, more people are going to shows, and the local scene is booming.

The stats prove it. Over the past 15 years, APRA's Concert, Events and Live Revenue has increased 350 per cent. That's the money it collects from venues wanting to host live music - whether it's a small local act playing in the Wine Cellar or a major international at Spark Arena.

Just this summer, there have been so many shows it's estimated you can see a major international act perform every two days. In March, Ed Sheeran will break audience attendance records at six shows in Auckland and Dunedin. That record was set just last year by Adele, breaking the Dire Straits' attendance record from 1986.

Locally, shows are packing out too. Up on Auckland's K Rd, Whammy Bar's two rooms are booked solid until May. Many believe Whammy Bar is the natural successor to the Kings Arms, with a community and reputation building around it with each show.

Owner Lucy Macrae is mourning the loss of the Kings Arms like everyone else. She hopes someone steps up to open something of a similar size. As for Whammy, she says it's not going anywhere. "We're two years into a 10-year lease," she says. "There are always risks [but] we're in a basement venue, we have no noise complaints. It's not an issue. We go late and we go loud."

The Kings Arms' final month was also in demand. For many, it's one last chance to see a band perform at their favourite venue. The last time they can grab a beer and sit on one of the venue's cracked leather seats outside.

Its closure will hurt. Xan Hamilton, who's booked bands like Lambchop and Sleater Kinney, agrees it will be harder to bring bands over who would attract a Kings Arms-sized crowd to their shows. "It's a fun place for bands to play. They like it here."

She isn't surprised it's happening. She's seen it before. "Noise complaints and pressure from developers happens in so many cities across the world. I used to manage a punk rock club in Portland and the same thing happened ... you have to cave."

Mention the Kings Arms is closing, and it hurts. Many are taking it personally. Everyone the Herald spoke to is struggling to accept it is happening.

"It sucks balls," says Stapp. Fisher: "My heart's fluttering." Christmas: "It's a real loss."

Adds Heath: "Good things have happened to me in this place. I'm not dealing with it very well at all."

Most cut up is Elemeno P's Purkis. "I'm really bummed about it. I feel like part of my life is disappearing. I built a lot of my life here."

Last call

If you get the chance to walk around the Kings Arms in its final days, you'll see the rough and ready venue is in a bit of a sorry state.

Weeds climb up the outdoor tables and fences. Cobwebs ripple over the back windows. Party popper string dangles from the ceiling. Leather chairs are ripped and worn. The floor feels sticky.

On stage, the carpet is ripped and covered in gaffer tape. Cords and speakers are scattered haphazardly. Guitar picks lie discarded, and six-point plugs look well past their best.

An old setlist has been thrown to the side. "Lazy. Fear," it reads. "Weak. Poison." And for the encore: "Lost."

It's in disarray. But no one cares. That rough, easy-going mentality is what everyone loves about the Kings Arms.

Outside the bar, a businessman happily sips on a beer on the deck. A retired couple chats to bar staff. In the garden bar, bands laugh with their shirts off in the sun, killing time before the show.

Like many in its last month, tonight's gig is sold out. The Kings Arms' final month is testament to its drawing power, every night booked despite the crazy mash-up of genres.

There are rowdy shows from The D4 and Elemeno P. New York rapper Wiki is playing. There's a tribute to the Swinging Sixties. Jordan Luck's in the mix. So's Shayne Carter's Dimmer. Country crooner Al Hunter, the first act to ever play the Kings Arms, will perform last.

Three days after death metal band Cattle Decapitation performs, there's a Family Fun Day to take your kids to.

"I like all types of music," explains Gordon. "As long as it's original." She hasn't made plans, but she thinks she'll take a month off. She'll stay in hospitality. But she admits: "It's going to be weird."

Once those doors close for the final time, and the apartments go up, those questions will remain, lingering like a dark cloud: Where will the bands go? What will happen to the fans? The regulars? Everyone who feels ownership of this Auckland institution?

Where will Renee Jones and Phil Armstrong go to celebrate their wedding anniversary?

Ask Lisa Gordon, and she'll pause and stare out the Kings Arms window, towards that view over the city that the site's apartment dwellers will soon enjoy.

Then she'll fix you with an unblinking stare and say: "You tell me."

This article was first published on and is republished here with permission.