At the dawn of the ‘80s, Winnipeg punks gathered in droves at Wellington’s, the dark, grungy basement bar of the flea bag St. Charles Hotel. The venue supplied misfits and miscreants a place to call their own, away from the mainstay disco and country bars of the time. It would continue to provide a place for the city’s underground to bloom until closing its doors in 1998.
Today both Wellington’s and the St. Charles are just two more abandoned spaces in the Exchange District. But Wellington’s once catered almost exclusively to the city’s underground subcultures at some of their most vital times – punk in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and the rave scene in the ‘90s.
“My first time at Wellington’s I saw the Dub Rifles and I remember getting kicked out because I wasn’t drinking,” says John McGowan, legendary Winnipeg punk rocker and ex-Manic Depressor.
“Harry (the owner) had this policy that if you didn’t drink you shouldn’t be there. Despite paying cover charge he still threw me out.”
McGowan says Harry later came to his senses.
“I think he realized that the alternative scene was making him some money and it was in his best interest not to piss people off.”
Frequently remembered as the Wild West of nightclubs, Wellington’s was, McGowan says, “always very anarchic in the sense that you could do whatever the fuck you wanted, as long as you weren’t an asshole.”
According to McGowan, Winnipeg’s punk scene germinated in 1980 and by 1982 it was in full bloom, making Wellington’s the main punk venue in the city. Other than the Spud Club and hall shows, Wellington’s was the only place booking punk acts. The Albert occasionally booked shows, but it had a strict policy against slam dancing, which repelled a lot of the punks.
Punks were free of restrictions atWellingtons, free to slam dance, free to do what they pleased. The only thing you couldn’t do, McGowan remembers, was wander into the area with the pool tables.
“That was where the bikers and the drug dealers hung out, and they hated punks. A few punks got a bit of a lashing from them. Someone would just go over to use the payphone, wrong place at the wrong time and (they) became a target. There was a lot of violence in the early years,” he says.
Many influential punk and alternative bands, such as Personality Crisis, Dub Rifles, The Unwanted, The Manic Depressors, Missing Children, Beach Mutants, and Stretch Marks trod the tiny stage at Wellington’s.
By 1985, the scene was thriving.
“Everyone was on each other’s side and there was a good unity,” McGowan says. However, by the end of 1986 things started to sour on the local scene because, as McGowan says, “punk was starting to lose its direction.”
In 1985 a “rape rock” band called The Mentors was booked by main punk promoter at the time, Mike Lambert, to play Wellington’s.
The gig resulted in a near riot. (With lyrics such as “Find her, feel her, fuck her, forget her,” and “Heterosexuals have the right to rock so put your homo head on the chopping block,” it’s not hard to imagine why.)
“I thought booking them was a bad idea,” McGowan says.
A band poster plastered around town depicting a man’s boot pushing a woman’s face into a dog bowl prompted a women’s-rights group to picket the show. Inside, redneck fans started fights indiscriminately.
“That was the most violent gig I ever saw. It didn’t develop into a full-scale riot, but it could have,” McGowan says.
“After that, Wellington’s was not too keen on booking punk bands.”
By the end of 1986, beginning of 1987, the local punk/alternative scene began to morph as hardcore lost some of its momentum. Popular bands at the time included Sinners Parade and Raised by Wolves.
“People were going for more of an artier sound by then,” McGowan says.
In the spring of 1987, Wellington’s became a blues club, a move that barely lasted a year until the club closed in 1988, not to be heard from for seven years.
In 1995, Wellington’s re-opened as an alternative dance club, playing the music of bands such as Ministry, The Cure, and Depeche Mode – but it wasn’t until Phil Koch took over the bar in 1996 that the place really started to take off.
Sean Allum, of local mod-pop band Duotang, worked at Wellington’s from ’96-’98 acting as both DJ and assistant manager.
“What was cool about Wellington’s (in the ‘90s) was the people that helped run it,” he says. “That made it what it was.”
Allum says that the friendships he, Koch, and Cam Loeppky (now a well-respected sound engineer and studio owner) had with up-and-coming bands such as Red Fisher and The Weakerthans brought in the who’s-who of Winnipeg’s music scene, and attracted a wealth of business for the venue.
“All the bands that we knew would go and hang out there,” Allum says. “Even out-of-town bands, if they didn’t play Wellington’s, they would show up there later on in the night.
“It was the scencesters or hipsters of the time that were hanging out down there and actually creating a scene, which could have been taken so much farther if Harry would have had some money to expand,” Allum says.
“Bands would play, and I would DJ in between sets and after, and we’d go all night. Even if we had a crowd of, like, 40 people, there’d still be 20 drunk people dancing at, like, three in the morning. It was like having a party in a friend’s living room.”
In the ‘90s, two distinct groups co-existed at Wellington’s: the post-punk/alternative rock scene and the rave scene.
Allum explains how the two complimented each other.
“If you know about good music, it doesn’t matter if it’s country or if it’s jazz, you like good music. The people that were running it knew about good music and appreciated other genres. That’s why it worked.”
Although electronic music had been going strong for years in Britain, it was new to Winnipeg. The rave scene blew up and Thursday nights at Wellington’s became hugely successful.
“That was the music of the time, and that’s what kids were really getting into. Fuckin’ droppin’ Ecstasy and dancing to rave music. It was a total musical revolution. Around that time (’96-’97), music in my opinion became watered down, and techno was totally different, it was a little more dangerous,” Allum says.
Allum remembers some of the people who would show up for techno night.
“We had transsexuals going into the women’s bathroom to do whatever they did, it was really cool, it was just a free for all.”
Still, it seemed that Wellington’s could never survive, and the club closed for good in 1998.
Allum says that he and his friends still fondly recall their times at Wellington’s.
”We (Duotang) wrote a song about Wellington’s. The Weakerthans wrote a song called Wellington’s Wednesdays and a few other bands wrote songs, too,” he says.
“Everyone who was hanging out there knew that it was something special.
And that it wasn’t going to last forever.”