Wellington: A rock ‘n’ roll guide

Where to see music

San Fran© Rock 'n' roll travel / William David Wilson

Officially the San Francisco Bath House (but widely known as just San Fran), this fine institution on Cuba Street is one of the coolest music and arts venues in Wellington, hosting the best in touring bands as well as local upstarts.

Right in the heart of Wellington’s bohemian enclave of Cuba Street, the venue also plays host to local wannabe stand-up comedians and bigger touring acts (such as Kiwi favourites Jeremy Corbett and Dai Henwood) and DJs provide the music for its often rock orientated club nights.

Recent internationally-renowned performers to play at the San Fran include Lou Barlow, Kurt Vile and rappers DJ Yella and Pusha T.

Location: 171 Cuba Street, Te Aro, Wellington, New Zealand 6011

Website: www.sanfran.co.nz

James CabaretJames Cabaret

James Cabaret, situated near the Basin Reserve cricket ground and at the foot of the scenic Mount Victoria area, is another decent live music and entertainment spot in the world’s most southernmost capital city.

Established in 1936, the venue has been a major player in Wellington’s culture, though it has run into financial and ownership problems in recent times. Its acoustics and hospitality have seen it rated among the capital’s best venues by Wellingtonians.

Notable bands to have pitched up at James Cabaret over the years include Scottish post-rockers Mogwai, Portland court-jesters Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks and psychedelic folk collective Neutral Milk Hotel.

Location: 5 Hania Street, Mount Victoria, Wellington, New Zealand 6011

Website: www.jamescabaret.com


TSB Arena© Rock 'n' roll travel / William David Wilson

Perched on Wellington’s fabulous waterfront, the TSB Bank Arena is the city’s premier indoor multi-purpose venue.

The TSB is utilised as an indoor sports arena and for public exhibitions, trade shows, galas and award shows. More importantly, it has played host to some memorable rock concerts over the years.

With a maximum seating capacity of 4,002 (and 5,655 standing) it is a sizeable space to see a big-name rock act, such as the Arctic Monkeys (who played here back in 2014) and Tame Impala, who graced the stage in late 2015.

Location: 4 Queens Wharf, Wellington, New Zealand 6011

 Places of Rock ‘n’ roll interest

Ian Curtis Wall© Rock 'n' roll travel / William David Wilson

This mural in the Mount Cook area of Wellington has been a noted memorial to the late Joy Division singer since 1981.

Less than a year after Curtis committed suicide following years of worsening epilepsy and depression, the words “Ian Curtis Lives” were painted on a Wallace Street wall. Later, a nearby wall was tagged with the tribute “Ian Curtis RIP Walk In Silence”.

However, the Curtis tribute site has endured a turbulent history of its own, having been a target of indiscriminate taggers and Wellington City Council throughout its existence. The mural has had to be repainted and campaigned for by defiant fans on several occasions.

Indeed, Wellington City Council’s anti-graffiti team’s paint-over in September 2009 caused enough of an outcry among locals for them to allow the wall to be restored once again. The council subsequently seemed to note the popularity of the wall and took no action on the re-chalking days later.

Local artist Maurice Bennett was the last person to restore the wall in February 2013, adding a new and improved design, Curtis’s correct birth/death dates and the original “Walk In Silence” motto (itself a nod to the band’s 1980 posthumous single ‘Atmosphere’).

Curtis and Joy Division have proven remarkably popular in New Zealand, with their classic single ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ hitting number 1 in the charts in 1981, and entering them on two other occasions.

Location: Wallace Street, Mount Cook, Wellington, New Zealand 6011

Google Map


Hotel St. George© Rock 'n' roll travel / William David Wilson

Probably Wellington’s most famous hotel, the Hotel St. George entered rock and roll history when The Beatles stayed there following a crazy 1964 New Zealand tour.

The city accommodation – which was converted from a bank by noted local businessman John Plimmer, knocked down and then rebuilt to eventually become Hotel St George in December 1930 – sits just off Lambton Quay on Willis Street in the city’s CBD. It was supposed to provide the Fab Four with a refuge from screaming fans at the height of Beatlemania, yet it ended up being the site of a near-tragic event.

The crowds outside the St. George were so large that the band had to be escorted in through another entrance, before their management suggested they make their way up to the third floor balcony to wave to the hordes and prevent them from stampeding into the hotel.

John, Paul, George and Ringo were reportedly overwhelmed as a huge number of Kiwi fans trekked back to the St George after a concert in Wellington, some keeping a night vigil. Four particularly eager girls managed to force their way onto the sixth floor and into the arms of a mortified Ringo Starr.

But most infamous of all was the “slashed wrists” scandal which threatened to overshadow the entire tour down under. A 20-year-old super-fan desperate to meet her heroes decided to cut her wrists in one of the rooms used by a member of the band’s support entourage, after he refused to set up an introduction.  The New Zealand newspaper headlines the following day proclaimed: “Girl tries to die for Beatles”, and it is perhaps little wonder The Beatles never returned to New Zealand, or indeed the Hotel St. George, during the remainder of their glittering career.

Location: 124 Willis Street, Te Aro, Wellington, New Zealand 6011

Google Map


Slow Boat Records© Rock 'n' roll travel / William David Wilson

The magnificent Slow Boat Records is a true Wellington institution.

The city’s longest running independent record store, it is situated right in the heart of Cuba Street, and its unmissable bright yellow sign has ushered in many a music aficionado over its 30-plus year existence.

The store has an impressive array of used and new CDs and vinyl across a whole range of genres, plus some cool posters, t-shirts and music related DVDs. Knowledgeable and friendly staff make browsing here a pleasurable experience, and the Slow Boat top 50 is a good starting point for any record-collecting newbies looking for some decent guidance into what is indispensable.

Slow Boat has also hosted a number of live performances in-store over the years with John Peel favourites The Wedding Present, Sebadoh frontman Lou Barlow and Neil Finn of local heroes Crowded House among those to play an intimate show here.

Major rock stars spotted perusing the vinyl in recent times include former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr and Nick Cave.

Location: 183 Cuba Street, Wellington, New Zealand 6001

Website: www.slowboatrecords.co.nz

Google Map

Featured image courtesy of William David Wilson 

More to follow.

About Sam Wilson

Journalist. Music Lover. Traveller.