Kōrero: City styles

Whārangi 2. City music

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Music in early settlements

Early colonists were encouraged to bring musical instruments with them to New Zealand. In 1848 Edward Jerningham Wakefield described music as ‘a recreation in the intervals of a Colonist’s labour, and as relief to the solitude of a distant location’.1

Music was played in homes, churches, pubs, hotels and at outdoor venues such as band rotundas. Overseas musicians and companies visited the new towns and military bands played regularly. In Auckland and Wellington, balls and classical music events were held at Government House. Christchurch became noted for its church and choral music. Concerts in early Dunedin usually comprised ballads and folk songs, which reflected its working-class settler population.

20th-century urban sounds

New styles of music, largely imported from overseas, emerged first in cities – from jazz to rock ’n’ roll to punk to hip hop. The associated lifestyles often led to moral panics in mainstream society, which saw them as threats.

Rock around the pie cart

Early rock ’n’ roller Johnny Cooper found success with a tune of his own called ‘Pie cart rock ’n’ roll’, released in 1957. The song referred to a pie cart he visited while in Whanganui running talent shows. It is believed to be New Zealand’s first indigenous rock ’n’ roll recording, though ‘Resuscitation rock’, written by Wellington teenager Sandy Tansley in March 1957, may have been released a few weeks earlier than Cooper’s song.


Jazz became popular in New Zealand cities in the 1920s. Jazz cabarets, where music was often improvised and dancing styles informal, were a city phenomenon frequented by fashionable people. Some venues offered jazz coupled with classical music.

Rock ’n’ roll

Rock ’n’ roll arrived in New Zealand in 1955 when Wellington-based country singer Johnny Cooper (popularly known as the ‘Māori cowboy’) released a cover of American Bill Haley’s hit song ‘Rock around the clock’.

Local performers had to move to the larger cities if they wanted to succeed. Johnny Devlin (the ‘New Zealand Elvis’) grew up in Whanganui and performed at talent shows throughout the lower North Island but only hit the big time once he moved to Auckland. By the late 1950s all smaller cities and towns had amateur rock ’n’ roll bands, which played at dance halls or informal venues like church halls and youth clubs.

Butch slags and boot boys

Punk gigs were characterised by high-energy, expletive-laden performances, on-stage brawls and heckling between band and audience. Hard-core, vocal women fans were sometimes labelled ‘butch slags’.2 Male fans who took punk’s violent energy too far were called ‘boot boys’. By 1979 boot boys were a problem in Auckland, beating up other fans and trashing venues, some of which closed as a result. When Auckland band the Terrorways played in Wellington, boot-boy fans followed them down, smashing toilets at the venue and assaulting locals.

Punk rock

The first punk bands – including the Suburban Reptiles and the Scavengers – formed in Auckland in the late 1970s and were soon followed by groups in Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin. Some bands toured provincial centres. Punk is still heard in the 2000s.

Dance music

Dance parties where DJs played electronic music before large crowds happened in New Zealand cities from the mid-1980s and continued into the 2000s. The parties, often involving recreational drug use, were mostly held in large warehouse-style venues.

City sounds

Auckland is the centre of New Zealand hip hop, which first emerged in the mid-1980s, and has been closely associated with Māori and Pacific Island performers from South Auckland.

In the 2000s Wellington was known for its musical collectives, including Fat Freddy’s Drop and Fly My Pretties. Fat Freddy’s Drop member Mu said of the city, ‘[E]veryone exists in this little valley. You’re forced to live with people in quite close quarters. So all the different scenes exist and they have to learn how to respect … and support each other.’3

Early 1980s Dunedin groups like the Clean and the Chills, recorded by Christchurch label Flying Nun, typified what became known as the ‘Dunedin sound’ – droning vocals, jangly guitars, simple drumbeats and keyboards.


Venues allow performers to test their music and gather fans, and also host overseas acts which bring new sounds. New Zealand’s most important venues are in big cities. Auckland’s notable spots included the Jive Centre (a 1950s rock ’n’ roll venue), Zwines (a punk venue of the late 1970s) and the Gluepot, which hosted bands from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. Other important venues have included Wellington’s Bar Bodega and Christchurch’s Dux de Lux. Some small towns also have nationally recognised venues – Ōamaru’s Penguin Club is a good example.

Food and music are closely connected. In Wellington in the 1960s, people would go to cafés like The Settlement and Monde Marie to eat continental European food and listen to contemporary music.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in John Mansfield Thomson, The Oxford history of New Zealand music. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1991, p.17. Back
  2. John Dix, Stranded in paradise: New Zealand rock and roll, 1955 to the modern era. Penguin: Auckland, 2005, p.185. Back
  3. Bianca Zander, ‘The disciples of Mu.’ New Zealand Listener, 10 May 2003, p. 58. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Kerryn Pollock, 'City styles - City music', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/city-styles/page-2 (accessed 16 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Kerryn Pollock, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010