'If we lose our town hall, the music dies'

05:34, Nov 22 2012

One night in February, 1982... Two songs into their set at the Christchurch Town Hall Clash frontman Joe Strummer stops playing mid-song.

He's been covered in a dripping shower of spit, flowing from the mouths of a group of bootboys at the front of the stage, perhaps a saliva-filled attempt to impress their punk credentials upon the British band.

Strummer retaliated with an angry tirade along the lines of his displeasure at the thought of catching hepatitis from a well aimed gob to the mouth.

Something resembling order returned and The Clash played the rest of their set, songs that resonate throughout generations - London Calling and Tommy Gun.

This slice of musical history may run contrary to the dignified image many have of our city's Town Hall.

Built and designed primarily with classical and theatre performances in mind the Town Hall has nevertheless hosted many of the world's biggest international rock acts.


As a rock and pop venue many have played in the auditorium - everyone from Cypress Hill to U2 to Roberta Flack to David Bowie.

Earlier this year Carlos Santana, who played at Woodstock, told me that the best gig he has ever performed in his life was in Christchurch in 1973 at the Christchurch Town Hall.

"I am telling you from the centre of my core, it's the best concert I've ever done in my life," Santana said.

''Oh my god', it was like the sky opened up and I could see into the great beyond. There was something about that concert in Christchurch in 1973. Once in a while everything just happens with a divine flow, you don't have to try, it just happens."

After a debate over where to put it (sound familiar?), the Christchurch Town Hall opened in September 1972.

It was received with much civic pride by Cantabs who admired the spacious foyer, wide stairs and fountains by the Limes Room.

To my mind the list of performers who have trod the Town Hall's stage is notable - The Cure, here on their Seventeen Seconds tour, Talking Heads, XTC, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Devo, Ultravox, The Ramones, REM, Bjork, Portishead, Supergrass, The Smashing Pumpkins, The The, Norah Jones, Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson (that unforgettable Smile concert), Duffy, Harry Connick Jnr, Rufus Wainwright, Tom Jones, Diana Krall, John Fogerty, The Hollies, Joe Cocker George Benson and local favourites like Shapeshifter, Crowded House, Shihad and Bic Runga... and that's just those off the top of my head, there are countless others.

Too young to have seen it in its prime, I have always viewed the Town Hall as a building with inner beauty.

A deferential nod here to Sir Arthur Marshall, recognised internationally for his craft, particularly his work on the importance of lateral reflections.

For this reason many of the prominent international musicians I have interviewed over the last 10 years have genuinely enthused about performing at our Town Hall "oh the acoustics'' they gush.

Our little place at the bottom of the world has a vital place in music history.

It's a special place with special memories - it's so much more than just another building or as some ignorant people would say ''an old dunger''.

We've lost so much of our city's heritage already, and the Town Hall's walls are etched with our city's rich entertainment history, not to mention our personal celebrations, be it generations of our annual children's concerts or our graduation celebrations. It's hosted everything from ballet to boxing to talkfests from Hillary Clinton.

The Town Hall complex in general suffered badly as a result of the earthquakes and subsequent aftershocks.

It sustained damage from liquefaction and ''differential settlement" which includes a frightening separation of the Limes Room and Boaters wing from the main structure.

Earlier today the Christchurch City Council voted unanimously to repair the Town Hall at a cost of $127.5 million.

Now Gerry Brownlee has not ruled out the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority overriding the council's decision.

Clearly this city doesn't need both a massive new convention centre and a town hall. The convention centre proposed in the blueprint is tipped to cost $220 million.

I would argue that a repaired town hall, even if the costs blow out, is a better solution.

New doesn't always equal ''better''.

It would surely be utilised far more regularly by a wider range of Christchurch residents than the proposed grandiose stadium.

The insurance shortfall for the Town Hall is puzzling (insured for $65 million, going to cost $127.5 million to repair - and ratepayers shouldn't be expected to pay the difference when we have ratepayers paying full rates on red-zoned homes) but Lydia Aydon, GM Public Affairs for the Christchurch City Council has offered the following explanation via the comment section on today's story about the Town Hall's future.

On the night of Monday, February 21, I walked into the Christchurch Town Hall to review Don McLean's concert.

I wasn't to know it was the last time I'd walk into that venue for some time.

If I had I would have appreciated the acoustics more. I would have touched the red velvet curtains. I would have stared longer at the UFO-shaped light above me.

Certain moments from that Monday night replay over in my head now.

The walk in fading sunlight to the Christchurch Town Hall from The Press building, through Cathedral Square, past Victoria Park.

I remember, too, the walk back after the show, and how surprisingly silent the city was after dark on a Monday night.

Now, when those in fluoro jackets put away their hammers, and I stare at what's left through wire netting, the silence is ominous and overwhelming.

After Don McLean's gig on February 21, 2011, I sat at my desk until it was 2am on February 22, wrestling with tiredness and humming a line from his enduring classic American Pie - "the day the music died".

If we lose our town hall, this line, the last line sung on stage in the Town Hall before the quake, comes true.

The Press