Chicks JicksFeaturing the well-known New Zealand chart hit “Tally Ho!” by The Clean here is just a way to say a fond farewell to Dunedin’s iconic – and a bit odd – live music venue, Chick’s Hotel which closes its doors as a bar and live music on Sunday after a final (sold out) show featuring The Clean and current lessees/ venue operators The Shifting Sands.

First, the song and some background on that. Then there’s some observations on Chick’s and on the future of small live music venues in Dunedin. Read on…

“The song was the band’s debut single and was the second release on the Flying Nun Records label.

The song was born on a Christchurch afternoon, when the band was returning to Dunedin after touring.

Scott played a three-chord riff on a keyboard and Kilgour and Dunedin musician Martin Phillipps wrote lyrics on a napkin.

Kilgour said he wrote the lyrics after nearly having a mental breakdown from taking a hallucinogenic drug.

The lyrics were about the yearning for a connection.

”It’s a very confused lyric, which is the state I was in when I wrote it,” he said.

Scott said the song cost about $50 to record.”

[Read the whole Otago Daily Times article and watch a short video interview with The Clean on the song here]

The Wireless has just published an article and a great short video documentary on the end of Chick’s Hotel which is recommended viewing.

This odd venue with it’s Twin Peaks vibe has been a huge part of PopLib’s musical universe over recent years and many of the artists featured here have played at the venue too.

Because it only started as a live music venue about 8 years ago it was never associated with the previous era of Dunedin music. Being run initially by an ‘ousider’ (the colourful if disorganised ‘Hector Hazzard’) before being taken over by Mike, Tom and friends in 2012, and building its reputation on supporting a community of new musicians in Dunedin (and around NZ) it was something fresh. It had a sense of being a new start, belonging to the present and future, rather than clinging to any past glories. It also began to fill that ‘community hub’ role Arc Cafe had once been in Dunedin. It brought a lot more of the underground music from the rest of the world to Dunedin than we could ever have hoped as well.

Dunedin has always gone through boom or bust cycles of live music venues. New venues inevitably rise, as long as there is a demand to meet and a way to make them pay their way. As Tom Bell says “some things need to end for new things to start.”

Something of the nature of Chick’s Hotel in the city would be ideal. But it is difficult times for live music venues here, as in other cities worldwide. Small central city venue Taste Merchants is also closing the same weekend.

That will leave Dunedin with a handful of small venues. The Crown Hotel will be the only real option available to most for the bands who regularly played at Chick’s but it is not ideal. It is a small public bar with double figure capacity, mostly taken up by crusty regulars nursing jugs of Speights draught ale. It has no stage and a rudimentary PA but a long-time supportive host in the legendary Jones Chin. It also has a “Dunedin Sound” jukebox and poster display so cranky youth seeking to dismantle the oppressive shadow of the past will have to grit their teeth to play in the actual “last bastion of the Dunedin Sound”.

At the Northern end of the city centre ReFuel (capacity 250) is a University owned and run bar on the campus with the character and vibe of a school hall disco supervised by teachers. The Robbie Burns pub downtown sometimes does live shows, fitting sound-checks and start times around rugby coverage on the TV for the regulars. Neither places are particularly welcoming spaces for “counterculture” music, musicians or their audiences.

Dog With Two Tails Cafe may pick up some of the small acoustic or low volume shows Taste Merchants ran. You could include the Musician’s Club if you were desperate and there are a few halls of course. There are also a few informal (ie: unlicensed/ unauthorised) spaces occasionally hosting live music however these have a troubled history in Dunedin.

In Dunedin access to venues is one of the important contributors to the development of a vibrant music scene, just as it was in the 1980s. While we like to joke that Dunedin is such a creative place because the weather is crap and there’s nothing else to do, the reality is that there are lower entry barriers to creating and playing music here compared to most other cities.

The City Council, 30 years late to the game, have decided the city has a “thriving and internationally respected music sector…counterculture in the footsteps of the Dunedin Sound” in its new arts and culture strategy.  That’s no thanks to the Council itself, which has been either directly or indirectly responsible through noise control or alcohol licensing inflexibility for the demise of several of the “counterculture” music venues in the past decade.

Take the small cultural music hub Queens for example.  Central city bars in the Octagon, fuelled by all-night binge-drinking crowds, have seen vicious assaults on patrons, passers-by and Police and even a murder, yet continue to operate. Queens had its license renewal declined in 2014 because it supposedly presented an unacceptable ‘alcohol harm’ risk to the community. This despite the Police stating they had never been called to an incident at the place. At Queens the “counterculture” music, door charges and a modest selection of pricey craft beer were all guaranteed to repel the casual drunk, who could head 200 metres up the road and find a public bar with cheap jugs of Speights.

Arc Café – which closed around 2009 – was also on the receiving end of lack of understanding and concern on the part of the Council for pre-existing established live music venues when allowing inner city apartment gentrification to proceed nearby without soundproofing.  The costs of soundproofing Arc Café in order to meet noise control limits contributed to its level of debt and eventual demise. Progressive local governments overseas have brought in “Agent of Change” principles to counteract this and retain their important live music scenes, placing the onus for soundproofing on developers or residents that move near an established venue.

Glue Gallery in Stafford Street was an arts collective utilising the adjacent former Chippendale House building (an important live music space in the 1980s) for informal music events by the city’s “counterculture” musicians. It was also closed down because of noise complaints.  One door down None Gallery, another artist-run collective space utilised by Dunedin’s experimental electronic/ noise music scene, also stopped running events in its basement as a result of noise complaints. Both these spaces operated as occasional live music spaces well before inner city gentrification and enforcement of noise control regulations by the Council’s Environmental Health team.

There has always been an unhealthy co-dependency between live music and alcohol in New Zealand. Venues depend on alcohol sales to cover rent and operating costs.  Today, the combination of people with less money ‘pre-loading’ on cheap supermarket alcohol and those with more money drinking less (drink drive limits, healthier lifestyles) along with the seasonal variability of crowds at music events means there is a gap between the income from bar spend at gigs and costs of running a venue. There needs to be another way found to provide music venues without tying their viability to alcohol sales.

So, interesting times ahead for Dunedin and plenty to think about for musicians, music fans, potential venue operators and promoters, and in particular the City Council, who now seem to finally accept the importance of “counterculture” music in this small city.

“Now you said it was yesterday, yesterday’s another day
had a lot of make believe, I don’t know if it’s you or
if it’s me oh, I don’t know, I don’t know
Tally Ho! Tally Ho!”