The beginning of the end was not when bands began advertising their 'farewell' gigs at the venue, because those began a whole 15 months before the doors were actually due to close. It was when things began disappearing. The sign for the ladies toilets. Somehow, mysteriously, the Rheineck clock from behind the public bar. The illuminated picture of a king's head which hung outside. It was the souvenir hunters that officially marked the last days of the Kings Arms pub.
Co-owner Maria Sheridan was sick of people going on about it being "their" pub. It wasn't. The pub’s manager, Peter Burney, was sick of the grief tourists who did a lap of the bar and never bought a pint. "They come in, have a walk around, ask 'can I have this?' And they walk out. They've done us no favours. That's why we're closing guys: all you had to do was come in and buy a fricking beer."
The Kings Arms will finally shut on February 28, after 198 years on the same site in the Auckland suburb of Newton. When the bulldozers roll in, they will demolish not only one of New Zealand’s last remaining old-school, big inner-city boozers, but also one of its most important live music venues.
The tale of the Kings Arms is actually a few different stories. It’s how we’ve changed the way we drink. It’s how we’ve changed how we listen to music. But it’s also the story of Maureen Gordon, who for 35 years, ran this pub with complete command.
The television news once called her the ‘rock n’ roll granny’. On her watch, The Kings Arms became a hub of the metal, punk, indie and reggae scenes. The irony was Maureen, who was 86 when she died last year, was a classically-trained singer who would often leave after the bands’ soundchecks to go to an orchestral concert. But music proved to be a way to keep alive an old-fashioned pub whose core clientele were literally dying off.
An aerial photo from the 1940s shows the Kings Arms sat squarely in a busy grid of worker's cottages. Newton was then a working-class area, described by the Truth in 1926 as "the haunt of many of Auckland's best-known crooks. Every one of them is known by the local CID." The pub, built in 1880, was then a traditional weatherboard street-corner affair, with a lantern-lit gable end and a cursive sign bearing the name of Arthur Robert Hardy, one of the earliest licensees.
But in 1965, the north-western motorway shoved through the bottom of the gully below, taking 14,000 homes with it and leaving the pub no longer parked on a corner, but down a dead end. Artist John Radford, who once built a series of miniatures of those lost homes, observed: "They knocked down almost a whole suburb..." and talked of standing on the nearby Karangahape Rd overbridge and feeling "an overwhelming feeling of desolation."
If you were kind, it made the Kings Arms a destination venue: when the venue’s music promoter, Maureen’s daughter Lisa Gordon, first began making posters to advertise gigs, she had to include a little map because nobody knew where they were.
In 1983, when Maureen and her husband Peter Gordon bought the Kings Arms’ lease, with assistance from Lion Breweries, it was a tough pub with a gang element which needed tidying up - and Peter did just that.
As each of the five Gordon children - Susan, Michael, Simon, Maria (now Sheridan) and Lisa - came of age they were pressed into service. Maria remembers, at 19, her dad giving her shifts in the pub’s sports bar, a busy taproom with pokies, a TAB and heavy-drinking tradesmen. “I wasn’t all that keen. He brought me in here and I just looked around and thought ‘you’ve got to be kidding’.”
“It would be packed,” says Lisa of her first spell working in there. “You would walk around in a haze of smoke… it was real old school, but it was party night every night in there.”
Maureen had been raised in hospitality - her parents owned a small hotel nearby - but was trained as a singer after nuns at St Mary’s Catholic school recognised her vocal talent. She won the New Zealand Aria award and then a scholarship to study in London. She’d already met Peter by then, probably at a local dance hall, but he waited for her. They married after she returned, and went into the pub trade - the Jolly Farmer at Drury, the now-demolished Carpenters Arms in the city, the Nepean in western Sydney and even an ice-cream parlour, but it was the Kings Arms that prevailed. But Peter died the year they bought the building outright, 1993, leaving his wife to run the pub alone.
What was she like? Tough, says the pub’s longest serving staff member Yvon Bauld. Tough, says music promoter John Baker. Tough, says the man she sold it to, Kelly McEwan. She had to be, as a woman presiding over a male-dominated bar room.
Also, immaculately dressed. Graceful. Loved a chat. Knew the business. Knew the punters - such as the now septuagenarian dominatrix, who came in her working clothes for a quart and a chat and try to persuade Maureen to go out drinking with her.
Jack White, singer-guitarist in a relatively-unknown Detroit two-piece called the White Stripes, was in Cleveland, Ohio, when he took a call from a New Zealander named John Baker.
It was early 2000, and Baker wanted the band to tour here. When White hung up, he was asked who was on the phone. Some guy from New Zealand, he said, with incredulity. Baker sent him the air tickets, and White rang back: so Baker was serious after all. The White Stripes would play two nights at the Kings Arms as part of a five-date tour of New Zealand, and by the end of it, Baker had become their road manager. So he was there to witness first-hand as the UK realised 12 months later what New Zealand had already worked out, there to see the band play Glastonbury and Reading and Leeds festivals and become a big deal.
The White Stripes gigs at the Kings Arms have become pretty famous. But a host of other name acts have passed through those doors: the Drifters, Lloyd Cole, the Misfits, the National.
Matt Stroobant from Rock and Roll Machine jumped off the PA during a guitar solo and broke his leg. There was a mid-gig speaker fire thanks to a screaming D4 guitar solo, the band playing on as someone hosed it down. With no real backstage, the Drifters jogged to and from the car park for their encore, then got stuck into drinking with the locals. One promoter slit his wrists because his girlfriend had dumped him. Two radio DJs got married, with Blam Blam Blam playing in support. Dai Henwood’s band Meat-Bix played with raw meat strapped to them.
Baker promoted a two-date stop by Japanese band Guitar Wolf, and got a noise warning on the first night; pocketed it, forgot about it, and had noise control shut down the second gig. He paid off the band on stage at Ponsonby bar Java Jive, and Guitar Wolf and the audience walked down the road and resumed the gig.
Even the toilets have their stories. The graffiti in the ladies reads: “I’ve got the heart of a lion, and a lifetime ban from the zoo.”
The music began back in the late 1980s, with a country singer called Al Hunter, who played twice a week, including Saturday afternoons, to a raucous crowd in an otherwise deserted lounge bar. “They’d be pissed as chooks,” says Tim Werry.
Werry was back from almost making it big with a couple of country bands in Sydney, and became an enthusiastic regular at Hunter’s gigs. When the Gluepot in Ponsonby closed, costing his band The Waltons their residency there, they moved over and took on Friday nights (they’ve also played a Christmas party at the pub for the past 24 years).
That two-pronged music line-up might have been it, except that Maureen’s youngest daughter, Lisa, who had left home early to work in record stores in Sydney and London, came home with remarkably diverse music tastes and formed her own band.
Werry persuaded her mother to let Gaunt Pudding play, borrowing his PA. “Maureen said ‘Oh god, have you heard them?’ and I remember like it was yesterday, saying ‘what you might think is rubbish, the young people might like and if you give it a go, you might be surprised’.”
And then Lisa began booking other bands. In was the mid-90s, and a lot of older venues - including the Gluepot - had closed. There was a definite gap in the market.
At first, the bookings were local acts, but then came promoters such as Baker, who began bringing overseas artists - in his case, mainly Japanese guitar bands.
Steven Shaw, editor of the music history website audioculture, played in several bands that performed at the Kings Arms and has been going to gigs there since the Hunter days.
The Kings Arms became a home for a diverse range of music scenes. “They had a unique, fairly organic situation on their hands, and they went with it,” says Shaw.
The sports bar’s decline had begun, and instead music became the meal ticket at the Kings Arms.
Baker reckons Maureen, rightly loyal to her regulars, worried that the music might upset them and would persuade promoters to let them wander from the sports bar into the music bar.
But, says Lisa, there were rarely objections, except once when a punter came in when one band was playing rather loudly, and unplugged them (she was secretly rather grateful). “One of the locals, we used to call him Wobbly Wayne, because he was always wobbling after he had a few drinks. He’d be in his stubbies and his jandals and be dancing away and I think the bands had never seen anything like it.”
But Maureen also stood up to those who didn’t want the music in this gentrifying corner of town. When the noise complaints started coming, she put shipping containers in the car park to dull the sound, then built a $40,000 bespoke noise wall.
“I used to feel sorry for mum,” says Lisa. “The phone would ring and people would say ‘what band is playing tonight?’ And we’d have a band called the Sore Cocks, and she’d have to mutter these names.”
So the Kings Arms became a pub with something of a split personality. Take a typical Tuesday night in late January, a month before the final closure.
A queue of well-mannered Goths waited patiently to see Norwegian black metal band Mayhem perform. The queue snaked past the plate glass window of the sports bar, where the quiz regulars answered questions about Billy T James, James Bond and Sex and the City.
To take the stage, the band - wearing corpse-white face paint, black robes, stoles and crosses on chains - had walked down from the ‘Green Room’ upstairs, a dirty lounge with carpet worn bare and an old beerbox propping open the window (“charming?” said promoter John Baker. “A pain in the arse more like”). They then strode through the main bar, into the pub office, adorned with old posters and mugshots of banned patrons, and stood in a windowless chipboard passageway, waiting for their introduction. The rest of the band went on first, leaving lead singer Attila Csihar pacing beside a pile of Lion Red swappacrates and the support band’s collection of goat skulls. Burney, manning the door, stood pulling faces at the incongruity. Promoter Ben Mulchin later explained it wasn’t the original lineup - he’d brought the ones who hadn’t committed suicide, burned down churches or murdered each other.
In the sports bar next door, Maria Sheridan was panicking a little. The pub quiz had four Tuesdays left, and quiz host Brendan Lochead had yet to find a new venue, and thus a guaranteed weekly escape from their teenagers for her team, the Depressed Parents.
Lochead had been busy. His business partner was in a coma, his administrator on a long holiday. He’d run this particular quiz for a decade (Maria’s husband Liam and her brother Simon were his predecessors). But also, there was nowhere quite like the Kings Arms. “Dead right,” he said, with the authority of someone who tours the nation’s pubs annually for professional purposes. “There’s not many old school taverns left .. and not many with this history.”
Why was that? Bruce Robertson, long-time chief executive of Hospitality New Zealand, was blunt. “It’s sad, but it’s simply a sign of the times. It’s a matter of straight economics.” Modern venues are smaller, more intimate - he couldn’t think of any with the sprawling footprint of the Kings Arms, which has two bars, a large beer garden and a 60-space car park. They were driven by food, not booze, and as the falling gig ticket sales would attest, bars were no longer necessarily the home of new music (thanks, the internet).
The market for pubs like this - quart bottles of Lion Red, bar leaners, a TAB and pokies - was declining. And the punters were, literally, dying off.
“For the style of bar it is, there’s only a small market,” observes manager Peter Burney, who has been in the trade a long time. “There’s been a lot of passings of people. That’s normal for a place where regulars have been drinking for 20, 30 years. You see it at all places. [But others] have got a young crowd to replenish it. We’ve not got that.”
Those that remain are well known: where they sit, what they drink, even what they drink it out of, how to pretend one who can no longer drink beer is still drinking beer when it’s really diet Coke, a list of phone numbers for another who sometimes needs some assistance heading home.
But the change in drink drive laws, tradies who once struck contracts over a quart bottle now drinking at home, older punters drinking at RSAs, the loss of the local working-class population all contributed. “Newton isn’t what it used to look like 25 years ago. It’s all angular and shiny now,” observes Baker.
Even (again) the internet is at fault: “People tell their stories online instead of in person, thats my theory,” says Yvon Bauld, who has been pouring pints since 1998. It’s a weekday afternoon, and there’s eight punters in the pub, half in high-viz, most drinking Lion Red. The upshot is, most nights now, if there’s nothing on, they’re closed by 7pm.
Maureen had turned down plenty of offers for the pub over the years. Developers Urban Collective’s own advertising for what will replace the Kings Arms - a “refined” brick-walled, timber-floored apartment complex called 59 France - admits they had coveted the site for well over a decade. "You sit there in quiet times, and look at a map [for possibilities]," explains developer Kelly McEwan, who used to live locally and once drank at the Kings Arms.
But the pivotal moment came early in 2016, when Auckland Council - in consultation with Maureen - made the site the focus of a Special Housing Area, allowing fast-track development and a lifting of the height limit from six to eight storeys. That boosted the value of the land far beyond what the balance sheet of a struggling pub could sustain. A petition was mounted, although a deal was far from done. Peter Burney recalls fending off worried customers and callers for weeks.
But it was not widely known that Maureen, who was now 86 years old, was not well. Her children suspect that played a big role in her eventual decision to put the pub up for sale.
“I don’t think mum ever wanted to let go,” says Maria. “I never really wanted to sell [either] but I could see why. It’s a really tough business.”
There were 69 tenders lodged. She rejected the 63 that relied on borrowing. Of the remaining six cash buyers, she didn’t accept the biggest offer, but the one which came closest to allowing her to keep the pub for the two more years she wanted.
Urban Collective paid $7.4 million and agreed to delay settlement for 18 months. "A fair price," says McEwan. It translated to about $3600 per square metre: not the biggest, he says, pointing to a car park off nearby K Rd which went for about $5.5m, or $6000 per square metre. But Maureen was happy; McEwan says she knew the business didn’t work any more. “It's just what happens when the city pushes out. Other places will go too."
Knowing the gap it leaves - with a 550 capacity, it was the only real mid-size venue in Auckland - John Baker wished New Zealand was like Sweden or Japan, where a purpose-built music space might be built into the development. Developer McEwan, who understands the strictures of modern noise regulations, says that would be impossible, but the new building has provision for a cafe-bar.
The Kings Arms building, sitting on wooden piles, could be moved (the council had no heritage designations on it). The developers would be happy to see it taken away by someone. "Everyone's an idealist," says McEwan. "But no one has put their hand up."
So some time between April and October, the pub will be bowled, ready for next year’s earthworks season. The apartments will be ready early in 2020. Half have pre-sold: two to members of the Gordon clan. Maureen planned to buy a third before she passed away. Maria Sheridan can't think of anything worse. She doesn't want to come back here once it’s gone.
On October 13 last year, Maureen Gordon passed away. The funeral, at St Michael's Catholic church in Remuera, was packed. So was a wake, which lasted late into the night in the music bar at the Kings Arms. Tim Werry was among the many to speak. “The place is coming down, but the memories will still remain,” he told the assembled.