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Photographs: Simon Grigg collection; Malcolm Brow
Photographs: Simon Grigg collection; Malcolm Brow

Pop CultureMay 25, 2021

Clinton Smiley, the man who defined Wellington nightlife for a decade

Photographs: Simon Grigg collection; Malcolm Brow
Photographs: Simon Grigg collection; Malcolm Brow

Jason Harding, aka Clinton Smiley, is an unforgettable name and face for a generation of Wellington dance music lovers. After he suffered a debilitating brain aneurysm and stroke in 2006, the Clinton Smiley Trust was set up to support his children, and on June 6 a special one-off party, The Floor – 90s Wellington Club Scene, a celebration of the people and music of the decade, will be held to raise funds. Ahead of the event (more details here), we republish a tribute from Audioculture, written by his friend and fellow DJ Lewis Tennant.

Before his world came to an abrupt full-stop in 2006, Jason Harding had been a pivotal figure in the capital’s musical landscape for over a decade. He’s best known for defining Wellington’s nightlife in the 90s, but he also worked as a journalist for various magazines and newspapers, holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Studies and English Literature, and co-founded Capital Recordings, a Wellington label that, at the turn of the millennium, was responsible for releasing early music from Die! Die! Die!, The Phoenix Foundation and Jet Jaguar, among others.

Though a record buyer from the age of 14, it wasn’t until late 1988 that Harding saw a nightclub in action. It was a Sunday night at Clare’s on Garrett St. Christiaan Ercolano and Gerhart Pierard were playing the music. In an article he began writing on the history of Wellington’s club and dance music culture Jason remembers, “the night was crap, though the DJs were good … along with Koa Williams and Matt Popplewell, these were the guys who appeared to be running things at the time.” However, Harding is probably best known by his alter-ego “Clinton Smiley”, the celebrated Wellington DJ, radio host, tastemaker, socialite and hedonist. Smiley was always one or two steps ahead of the game, music and style, cutting his teeth DJing in the late 1980s when Wellington, in line with other cities across the world, was opening up to broader night-time options than faded chrome nightclubs and tucked-in dress shirts.

That summer Harding began visiting record store The Soul Mine in Kilbirnie. It was a rare source of hip-hop and house imports at the time. Owner Tony Murdoch remembers the first time he came in. “He was covered in badges. As well as being a nice respectful guy with eventual style to burn, he developed such wicked DJ skills in the fact that he didn’t just reflect music trends as a lot of DJs do, he actually set them. Plus of course he was so well schooled in every genre he played; that enabled him to move effortlessly from gig to gig.”

Jason Harding began DJing on Radio Active in 1988, making his club debut at the station’s club night, The Love Factory, the following year. In 1989 he returned to Victoria University and to DJing on Radio Active, meeting “some pretty cool fucking people”, including Christiaan Ercolano, then deep in the Wellington dance and hip-hop scenes. Jason has written that he thought Ercolano was “the epitome of cool, made even cooler by the fact he thought I was a classless wanker from the suburbs. He was right.”

It was around then that the moniker Clinton Smiley was created. It was half Clint Mansell from Pop Will Eat Itself and half aceeeeeid! He was now the DJ who would go on to define cool for the next generation of music-loving Wellington miscreants.

In 1993 or 1994 I was where Jason had been in 1989, though thanks to him and others I was introduced to a more developed nightlife. By this time Leon Baldock (Coda) and Chris Morley-Hall (Tank Girl) were getting thousands of ravers to their Eden parties at disused sheds on the Wellington waterfront. Dave Anderson and Paul Knowsley’s 1991 club Naked Angel had all but killed nightclubbing as we knew it from the 1980s – with Clinton at the helm. At Eden Two I decided there and then I had to DJ.

Clinton played most of those big raves, and I began going to his then regular Thursday club night Juice, which consistently reeked of amyl nitrate. Day or night, whenever I saw him he played up his moniker well. He knew that I wanted to be doing what he was doing, and I’d either get the “fuck off” stare when I tried to watch him on the decks at night, or the “fuck off” stare when I saw him in his massive black jacket with record bag slung over his shoulders during the day. But as I myself got more involved with Radio Active and began getting gigs of my own, I began to get to know Jason, rather than Clinton.

Long-time friend Matt Johnston reflects, “I think Jason was a hell of a lot more aware of the DJ persona than most of the DJs from that period were because that was not how Welly rolled – ah, New Zealand, you tall poppy land! He crafted that image very carefully. I think it allowed him to be two people, the larger than life Clinton and the regular Jason.”

Simon Kong, who booked the house tent for The Gathering, remembers Jason dropping off a mixtape in order to get a set. “I remember telling him, ‘you don’t have to provide a mixtape’, but he was all like ‘aw shucks, it probably sucks anyway’.”

Kong continues, “he worked hard as a DJ and key socialite in the Welly scene, always there playing the music you wanted to hear – the DJ everyone by default associated with good times. The night party is a voracious beast … it’s an all consuming, non-stop insatiable monster. But Smiley was a master in this domain. He owned the party with great music – some of which most DJs could never think to play – tight mixing, and the perfect balance of attitude. He was a chimera of humble, surly, arrogant, cheeky, assertive, witty, dry, uninterested and yet totally engaged.

“I really only watched him mix a couple of times up close. But having watched a lot of DJs he was incredibly effortless. He was part of a very rare breed of club DJ, mixing, drinking, smoking and talking all at the same time. He gave people attention, but never neglected the mix. He could pick time wasters and be quick-as to tell some to fuck off with the finger, while simultaneously fluffing the club girls and totally pushing the vibe.”

It was as Clinton Smiley that he held residencies at Clares, The Sub Club, Naked Angel, Mas-if, the legendary Juice night, Edward Street Cafe, Tatou, La Luna, The Matterhorn, and finally Trash at Good Luck. He played support for a swag of internationals DJs, including Sasha and Paul Oakenfold. Towards the end of his long career he’d begun playing overseas, with gigs in Japan’s Kansai district and at London’s Southside Soul.

Clinton Smiley’s last set was November 23, 2006, on The Floor, the Radio Active show he founded in 2000. The next day, Jason Harding suffered a brain aneurysm. This caused a debilitating stroke a week and a half later. Jason currently resides in a nursing home in Porirua, and many sorely miss Clinton Smiley.

“The untold joy of living a nightlife and the subsequent ability to create work opportunities by being a nice guy, playing good music, getting the beers in and dancing like you don’t give a fuck in a nightclub, should not be underestimated in my view.” – Clinton Smiley

For information and tickets on the event at Club 121 (formerly Tatou) on Sunday June 6 (don’t worry it’s a long weekend) go here. Read more on Wellington’s club scene of yore at Audioculture.

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