The Buster Stiggs Story
“The Huia black and the scarlet band, the urgent word and the stern command, symbols all of the fine old school, proud in strength and mild in rule.”
Words to the school song boomed out every morning at school assembly. The dickheads got supreme adolescent pleasure by replacing the opening words with “The whore is black”. Followed by a universally reluctant listening to a classical piece played over the hall sound system. That was the extent of formal music education at Hastings Boys’ High School in the late 60s and early 70s.
Apart from Bruce Robertson, the All Black centre, Hastings Boys is not famous for much, except it is where the Mongrel Mob had its roots. A lot of the lower stream students left school as soon as possible to work at the meat works and join the Mob. There were lots of fights at school during lunchtimes usually. A very macho, rugby orientated mentality overall.
Thank God the Art Room was a different world. The art teacher, Roy Dunningham was a cool, switched-on guy in his early thirties. When we were all working away on paintings and projects, he would play music on the stereo he had set up just outside his office.
His vibe was The Doors, Blood Sweat & Tears, Creedence, and Chicago. We could also bring in and listen to our own albums. The first album I bought was by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, some of whose members later did stuff with Monty Python. I loved “I’m the Urban Spaceman”. Then I bought Weasels Ripped My Flesh by Zappa because I liked the cover art-work. It caught my eye as I flicked right through to the back of the new release bin at the record shop.
I already had a huge collection courtesy of my elder brothers and sister who had all moved out of the family home by the time I was 14. There were the Beatles’ albums Revolver, Rubber Soul, Sergeant Pepper’s and The White Album, the Rolling Stones’ albums Aftermath and Between the Buttons, Traffic, Vanilla Fudge, John Mayall, the Yardbirds, Otis Redding, Canned Heat. Then someone brought in the Woodstock triple album, and it opened up new musical worlds: Mad Dogs And Englishmen with Joe Cocker’s soulful intense performance, the Who looking and sounding like rock gods, Richie Havens (RIP) frantic acoustic jam, Santana, with the awesome 17 year old drummer Michael Shrieve, Crosby, Stills & Nash, serving up stunning harmonies, and Country Joe and the Fish with their strong anti war anthems. All totally inspiring to this 15 year-old, searching for some truth, depth and meaning to life.
Music was so important to my sanity in my early teenage years. John was right, the Beatles did mean more to me than Jesus. The band that first really moved me was the Beatles. I loved listening to “Piggies” from the White Album; I was overwhelmed by the emotion in the music like never before and experienced an incredible empathy with the lyrics and John’s voice. It was like someone at last knew how I felt about the world. My hero was seeing the world like I did. I cried. I was no longer in a loner state of mind. I lived with the feeling of being removed from most of the people I knew, especially in my own age group. I struggled with accepting social attitudes I encountered and disagreed with.
I so wasn’t into the beer-drinking, rugby-playing, hoon-driving of Hastings Boys High School. I would hang out in the Art Room as much as possible. I had a fantastic drama teacher, a young Irish guy called Bertie O’Connell, who was very driven and very funny. His infectious character was the driving force for getting the school plays happening, some big production numbers like Royal Hunt of the Sun and Macbeth. Somehow I wangled the job of painting the cyclorama, and it was often my get-out clause to avoid sport.
Another guy that also hung around the Art Room was Phil Judd. He was in the 5th form when I was in the 3rd form. That age gap alone made me a little in awe of him, but it was his artwork that really inspired me. The art teacher would often bring out work Phil had just finished to show us lesser mortals that this is how it’s done. Right from the start. I followed in Phil’s footsteps. He got 90% for School certificate art; two years later so did I.
I was singled out by a group of Art Room seventh formers. There was Stuart Spackman, who later became editor of NZ Rolling Stone, John Hadwen (RIP), who I later shared my first flat with when I went to art school. He wrote songs and poetry and meditated, and became an important New Zealand weaver in later years, and he had an awesome record collection. The third guy was Phil Judd, who didn’t say much but played pranks a lot, mainly at Spackman’s expense. Spacker’s complexion was so fair: he had blonde rock-star-feathered hair and was theatrical and very girlie—so easy prey at an all boys’ school. Sometimes I would ride home with Phil as we shared part of the route on our way home. I would try to talk to him, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, but all I would get was a “yeh” or a “nah”, or a nothing from Phil. But I was still stoked to have ridden halfway home with him.
By this time, due to Roy’s encouragement, I was getting good at art, and this along with my Lennonesque looks was making my presence felt in the Art Room. So these cool cats ask me to be in their Pooh Baar Jug Band. Which I thought was a crap rip off of my beloved Bonzo Dog Doo Dah band. But hey, what is in a name when I get to hang out with these cool dudes.
On weekends we would play in my bedroom. I had it decked out with floor to ceiling hand painted posters of Lennon, Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jimi Page and Frank Zappa. I had one stereo speaker on top of a big pipe, groovy. I painted the wall with the door all clouds, and put a tap on it for the door handle. And had a cut-off wooden table, with cushions on the floor, incense burning and mobiles hanging; it was our jamming den.
I played tea chest bass that Juddzy built; Stuart played lagerphone (a broom stick with bottle tops nailed onto it: a hillbilly tambourine). Judd and John played acoustic guitars. John sang most; Judd would play till his hand bled: he was a chronic nail-biter, which didn’t help. We jammed on Leadbelly and other blues classics. My big moment was singing, “I listen to your footsteps coming up the drive.” Ringo’s song, mmmmm, so I could be a drummer I dreamt.
It all came to an end when Phil went to art school in Auckland, John went to do a BA, and Stuart went to do journalism at Wellington polytechnic. They all left at the end of the 7th form, but I still had two years to go before I could go to the holy grail of art school. In the sixth form, I was suspended for a week for starting a riot at lunchtime in the school quadrangle. Truth is, I was slagging New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War and would not shut up when the deputy head told me to. After a meeting with my parents and the Principal, it was decided I should be disciplined. I subsequently convinced mum and dad, probably with Roy’s help, that I should go to Auckland and check out art school, just to see what I would be missing out on, if I got expelled. My god, what a time I had in Auckland, tripping out with John and his friends, all muso types, some hilariously gay. I loved it, and the Californian Sunshine made it hysterical and heavenly. After this experience, I so wanted to go to art school I headed home and consequentially became a model student during the week; but the weekend was another story.
I would travel by bus or hitch hike to Napier, Hastings’ sister city, and only 12 miles away. I would stay the weekend at 84 Marine Parade with Red MacLean, a printer who I thought was cool, and was the president of the Hawkes Bay Progressive Youth Movement—started as an anti war organisation in the sixties, that the police liked to beat up on. I loved those weekend trips to Napier, listening to Led Zeppelin 1, 2 and 3, Jethro Tull, Who’s Next, Iron Butterfly and Neil Young. Music was everything. It was a non-stop party with lots of girls.
Richard, who was one the few of us with a full time job, would blow his whole pay packet on cartons of beer for everyone. Fuck, they used to get pissed. Paralytic. Especially Richard and his girlfriend and Red’s younger brother, Lochie, who was only 17, but looked a lot older with his long straight hair and mutton chops running into a Chopper moustache. I always felt safe with him around.
At last I was at art school. Phil had already left as Split Enz was now taking up all of his time. I helped out at many of the early Enz gigs, stage dressing and just being around. At one big show, near the end of the last number, the curtains behind the drummer opened and there were three more drummers. Brent Eccles, who later went on to drum with Citizen Band then the Angels; Noel Crombie, who would become Split Enz and Schnell Fenster’s drummer; and me, who later drummed for The Suburban Reptiles, The Swingers and Models. Some pedigree—and we were only the extras in this theatrical, musical extravaganza that was an Early Split Enz Concert. We all knew Split Enz was going places.
Around this time, I met and got to know Neil Finn, who was still at school in Te Awamutu but came to Auckland to do a ‘half-time’ solo spot during interval at an Enz gig. I was determined to do something with him. When he moved to Auckland he moved in with my wife Miranda Joel and I. Neil’s mum and dad, who were staunch Catholics, were only too happy to have him live with a married couple. We wrote songs constantly. Miranda and I were looking after her parent’s house in Remuera, while they were on holiday for six months in the UK. Miranda’s dad, Wolfe, played classical flute and had a beautiful Steinway grand piano in the lounge room. Neil would pound out on the piano and I would scribble out ‘stream of consciousness’ lyrics as he played. This was my first go at song writing since I wrote a song on my bongos when I was 8 called “Party Time”. It was so cool and Neil was such a lovely guy, so earnest and dedicated and could sing like a bird, even at the tender age of 17. We wrote a batch of songs together and Neil already had some that he had already recorded in Te Awamutu.
We did two lunchtime gigs at the Maidment Theatre at Auckland University, with Geoff Chunn on guitar and Brett Eccles on drums. I sang, played a ukulele in one song, and an old Mazzini piano accordion in another. Then, out of nowhere, Neil gets the call up to join Split Enz, as Phil has left the band again and was returning to New Zealand. So off Neil went to London, with only a few days notice, leaving his hospital orderly job behind and without any regrets whatsoever.
I ran into Zero at art school and was amazed by her dress sense and fantastic makeup, and by her boyfriend Jimmy who looked Bowiesque. I heard they had a punk band called The Suburban Reptiles. Yes, please. I basically talked my way into the band on the fact that I had written songs with Neil Finn, and I had a drum kit. Up until then, I had only jammed along to records like ELO, nice simple beats out at Malmsbury Villa (made famous in an early Enz song) in Kohimarama. I got the gig, and after the first rehearsal I started writing songs for the Suburban Reptiles.
I was living in Park Ave, by then. I shared a place with Paul Pattie, who was an art school buddy in Phil, Rob and Noel’s year. He was a fantastic airbrush artist. He painted our hallway with stencilled tigers on a Chinese-red background. My room was black, with red roses stenciled on the wall. Neil had left behind his Gunn amplifier. I liked it, because the volume knob could be pulled out to put a fake distortion on the sound, which was cool as you could get the big chainsaw sound without having to turn up. I set up in the lounge room with my new Les Paul Junior copy guitar after imbibing some sacraments, courtesy of my mate who had contacts with Mr. Asia. In this relaxed euphoric state, I wrote the bulk of the Suburban Reptiles repertoire.
I had seen the Sex Pistols on TV, and noticed that Steve Jones only played the E and A shapes on guitar. Oh wow, it’s that easy. I know those chord shapes. Our first guitarist Cissy Spunk couldn’t play guitar, so I just tuned her guitar to E and she just single-fingered bar chords. All the Reptiles’ songs were in the major key. Cissy later had a son, Joel Little, who is a songwriter-producer and the other half of Lorde.
We created mayhem wherever we went, notably the Catholic boys’ school dance that Simon Grigg booked. Brother Humphrey was incensed. The local tabloid ran his quote as the headline : THEY COULDN’T PLAY STRAIGHT-OUT ROCK’N’ROLL. That said, the media lapped up the Suburban Reptiles. We fed sensationalist bullshit in interviews to papers like NZ Truth that got us lots of column space: “In our spare time, we kill seagulls down at the wharf and sniff glue imported from America from the Ramones,” or, “Our 6 ft. 5 guitarist is only 14.” With help of Jewel Sanyo, who had a journalist background and knew how to format press releases, I got stories and photos of the band in the British music press, the Melody Maker and the NME.
The punk scene was a blast, and I made life-long friendships with many of the guys from the other bands like Johnny, Des and Brendan from the Scavengers, later The Marching Girls and Bones’s mate Kev Gray, who later married and had a family with Zero. Also Roger Roxx from the Assassins, who I also went to high school with. The camaraderie and excitement of that music scene in Auckland from 1977 to 1979 will never be repeated. Not just with the bands, but people like Ricky, who prepared all my artwork into images to send to be printed and who also worked the door at the State Theatre gigs. He was a Mormon, so didn’t drink and wouldn’t be going off to buy drugs with the door money, which was fine by me.
There was Leone Bachelor, who helped organise the Classic Cinema gigs. We would presale the tickets through the record shops. Get the money to buy all the ingredients for a huge punch, and give away free drinks at the gig. It was an invite-only party, that’s how we got around the Liquor Licensing laws. We had the Black Power gang as security after a chance meeting with some of them having a beer at the Globe one afternoon. Billy Planet charmed them with his sheep shearer stories. Around this time, Johnny Volume seemed to be getting bashed up every weekend, and Zero had already been pulled from the stage and assaulted at Disco D’Dora’s. It was under the strobe on the dance floor and arms were going everywhere. I just kept playing as I thought she was just dancing with the audience. In true Billy Planet style, he hadn’t told Zero that the Black Power dudes sitting on the front of the stage were our mates. They were cool and did security for nothing because they said they liked looking at the punk chicks in fishnet stockings. Fair trade, I reckon. Others that helped us out were: Greg Peacock who supplied our sound system, Stuart Page, Jonathan Tidball, and Paul Hartigan who took heaps of photos. And Dylan Taite, who got our first film clip done by TVNZ. And the fans that came to every gig, like Julie Curlette, Sandra Jones, Merrin and Deb Jones. And last but not least, the Scavengers. We were always borrowing Johnny Volume’s rig. I played with the Scavs for a few gigs. JV showed me all the chords to new songs like Johnny Thunders that were a bit more complex than the minimalist Ramones, Lou Reed, Iggy, Jonathan Richman and Pistols riffs I was accustomed to. Soon after that, I wrote “Saturday Night–(Stay At Home)”. Thanks, JV.
One night Phil, fresh back from England where he had seen the punk scene first hand, came down to Zwines to see what I was up to. In true Juddzy style, he sat outside to listen to the band. He picked “Saturday Night…” as his favourite song. We had already released the first New Zealand Punk single, and first ever 12-inch single, in New Zealand on the Vertigo label, through Polygram: “Megaton” b/w “Desert Patrol” and the first pressing had sold out. I saw it on eBay for $680 recently. Polygram wanted another single, so we put down “Saturday Night…” at Mandrill in Parnell with Doug Jane. Phil played lead and produced; I played the drums and rhythm guitar; Tony Baldock was on bass; Jimmy was on sax and Zero was singing. Then we made a film clip courtesy of TVNZ, and Gary Glitter asked Zero to be in the Rocky Horror Picture Show after seeing her in the clip on TV. Phil and I worked on arranging new songs, which was so much more rewarding musically than playing with the Suburban Reptiles. As much as I loved the attitudes, I was looking long term, and getting gigs for the Reptiles was hard work. There were 5 in the band, so it meant always two vehicles.
The Reptiles did a gig at the Awapuni in Palmerston North that ended when I jumped off stage to stop a guy pouring his beer into our monitors. All hell broke loose, and the pub owner stopped the gig and cancelled the next night too. So some bottles of whisky mysteriously appeared in our midst, courtesy of Billy Planet, and we drunk our revenge. Fuck that, getting bashed trying to save someone else’s PA gear. All I wanted to do was make music full-time, play and tour. Soon after, the guy that was instrumental in signing us to Polygram got fired for stealing records to support his heroin habit. This was not a good look for the otherwise-straight record company, who soon went cold on the Suburban Reptiles. Things were falling apart for the band internally; there were lots of frictions. I had known the other Reptiles for eighteen months, I had known Phil for ten years, and he had written songs that were a part of the soundtrack of my life. It was inevitable that we would do something together.
The Swingers auditioned a lot of drummers. I was playing rhythm guitar, but none of the drummers seemed right. They were all good players but put their licks all over the music, rather than laying down a steady groove supporting the lyrics in the song. We kept it down to a three-piece, so that is how I became the drummer. It was a practical decision as well as a musical one. The band and a sound guy, with all our gear, PA, and lights, could tour in one van. We actually auditioned other guitar players, but none had the right vibe for us. Jed Town had a jam with us, he was good and the closest. We thought of asking Dave Dobbyn, too blonde, or Mike Caen, too bluesy, so they never eventuated. We went about six months of rehearsing, three nights a week and all weekend, while holding down our day jobs. We got really tight as a band. My girlfriend Julia Dennis, who also made our stage shirts, bought a pair of earrings on K Road that were dangly and garish and called Swingers. So the band was named after some cheap and tacky 60s retro plastic women’s jewellery.
We finally got to support Split Enz on their ‘Give It A Whirl’ Tour of NZ. Our first gig was to 4000 people at the Auckland Town Hall. After that one tour, promoters in all the main centres knew about us. We were offered a residency at the Liberty Stage, at the time not even open, which we gladly accepted. When we were away playing outside of Auckland, there were heaps of new young original bands to take our place at Liberty Stage. The Whizz Kids, which later morphed into Blam Blam Blam, Techtones, Electrobeat, Sheerlux and the Dentists. It became a hub for the New Wave scene.
We toured NZ a couple of times, and did really well at the Hillsborough in Christchurch thanks to the efforts of Jim Wilson and his team who looked after us, gave us good door deals and got people into the pub. We had some of our best gigs ever at the Hillsborough.
We had a great practice room in an old wooden-floored warehouse up in Newmarket in Auckland. It was so huge, we could kick a soccer ball about which served us well for getting energized and gig-sweaty by the time we started playing. That’s when we wrote “Counting The Beat”, with Bones starting off on bass, me following on drums, Phil Judd on guitar and all of us singing. I remember just setting up, and Bones starts playing the riff. “What’s that?” said Phil. “What’s what?” says Bones. “That riff you were playing.” “Um, I dunno, what riff?” Phil had to physically press Bones’ fingers on the bass fretboard so he could play it and remember what he had done. Once he had, we were off. All the backing vocals came from Bones and I singing while we played through the song for the first time. Phil recorded all our rehearsals, went home, sorted through everything, and wrote the lyrics, which were heartfelt and about his romantic adventures, which is why the song resonates with so many people. It’s actually about real emotions from a real-life relationship situation, not just made up nonsense. Well, my chorus is made-up nonsense. OK, it’s got both.
In my 3rd year at Elam Art School, I shared a place with Rob Gillies.He started art school in the same year as Phil Judd and Noel Crombie, and he became the sax player for Split Ends, as they then were. I moved into the backroom when Noel moved out. In the evenings, Rob’s girlfriend, Geraldine, would play the Doors, Traffic, Led Zep or MC5’s Kick Out the Jams, while Rob and I sat at the kitchen table drawing endlessly. Rob would always draw these futuristic creatures with strange armour and weapons. Years later, he became the art director of TV shows Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess, and worked for Peter Jackson on The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I have a vivid memory from 1980, after the Swingers moved to Melbourne, when I was living with Neil Finn, his wife Sharon and Noel Crombie. Us boys were chucking a rugby ball around the front garden when it got stuck up a tree. Neil being the youngest was commandeered to go up the tree, but while he was up there, retrieving the ball, his wife Sharon, came out of the house and quietly said, John Lennon has been shot—and he died. The fun and games were over. I looked at Neil and he had turned white with shock. The day Lennon died was the 8th of December, and it happened to be my birthday.
My whole life, John was my guiding light in music, philosophy, and fashion and now that light was out. The romance of playing in a band was tarnished severely for me from that day on. Straight after the number one with The Swingers, within months, I had recorded two albums, one in Australia and one in England with the Models. I joined the Models two days after I left the Swingers. Well, I had my first audition that turned into the first rehearsal with them. The second rehearsal, after getting really stoned and playing through a couple of numbers, the guys decided I had the vibe and everything would be fine at the gig, and we went downstairs to a cafe for coffee. I loved playing live with Sean Kelly, Andrew Duffeild and Mark Ferrie. They had been playing together for 3 years before I joined and trusted each other’s performance implicitly. Playing live was a joy, and the gigs went off. Plus, we had the luxury of a good manager, a first class road crew, soundman, lighting guy, stage guy and luggers. A far cry from the Swingers early days in Oz playing three shows in one day and lugging my own gear. Dragging my drum kit up and down three flights of stairs and playing on a lino floor at the lunchtime RMIT gig then going onto a four set pub gig followed by a two-set club gig. No wonder I got strong and good at playing.
In the Models, the band just turned up to the gigs and left after the gig. Yes, please. They were so casual after being in the very regimented approach in the Swingers; this was a welcome change. I would be like: “So, when does it slow down into the instrumental bit?” And Mark would say, “Don’t worry about it, I will give you a nod”. Rock’n’Roll, brother.
We had some sublime gigs, and when we rocked out mid-song in the instrumental jams we rocked into space. As it turned out, the new drummer position was down to me and Paul Hester. Ironically, I got the gig ahead of Paul and he went on to join Split Enz and then formed Crowded House with Neil Finn. Just before the Mullanes (who became Crowded House) formed, a group of us mates got together, Paul on guitar and vocals, Bones on bass, Rob Wellington on guitar and me on drums. We hired a rehearsal room and had a few rehearsals at full volume. It was very energetic and raw, like the Velvet Underground. One song we did was Paul’s “Plastic Fantastic” that ended up on the first Crowded House album. I asked Mark Ferrie recently why they picked me for Models and not Paul. “Because you were more fun,” he replied in a blink.
Four years later, leaving a late night gig with Models, three guys staggered across the road in front of our car, arms around each other’s shoulders, singing at the top of their voices, “La da de da, la da de da”. “Hey Buster, you are famous,” the guys in the band jibed me. I thought to myself, “Oh my God is this what making it means? Is this really it?”
Herb Albert, the famous Sixties trumpeter, formed a record company with Jerry Moss in America and called it A&M. A&M Europe had a brilliant roster of artists, including The Police, Joan Armatrading, and Joe Jackson, The A&M boss experienced the Models for the first time at Melbourne’s Festival Hall, supporting his band The Police. When we Models went on stage in Melbourne the Police drummer Stewart Copeland said “Why don’t you guys just give up?” My reply was, “We can’t because we haven’t learnt how to play yet,” as I ran past him onto the stage to a thunderous round of applause. I was bursting with energy.
The audience was rushing the stage as we tore into the first number. The Models had built a huge following in Melbourne in the three years before I had joined and they already had an album out. Well, it seemed like every Models fan in the world was there as we went down triumphantly with the audience playing a high energy set of songs they knew backwards, all with a catchy chorus that they could sing along to and a four on the floor beat that you just had to dance to. Andrew’s extraordinary keyboard sounds, paired with Sean’s unusual, unique voice and quirky lyrics gave the Models a very contemporary feel, way, way ahead of the times. We were signed to A&M on the strength of that performance.
Michael Gudinski (Mushroom Records) loved us and got us that gig through his Frontier Touring Company. He got the A&M guys there, and then did our English deal with them. Soon, we were living in the middle of London in Chelsea in a beautiful apartment in Sloane Square. There were classic mural paintings on the walls, a huge lounge and connecting folding glass doors to the dining room, leather couches, a glass serving tray for drinks that we used to chop out on. I freaked out when the A&M guy told me not to carry my own luggage, “as that was the driver’s job,” when we first arrived at our digs from Heathrow airport. Welcome to the class system. We were a stone’s throw from the Kings Road. Right in the middle of the Punk Rock and emerging New Romantic scene. I loved it.
We were told by A&M to assimilate ourselves with the London vibe for the first month which basically meant getting paid to have a party and go out to see bands and clubs. We saw Split Enz at the Hammersmith Odeon, and partied with them afterwards, Kraftwerk, The Jam at the Rainbow, where the whole audience sang every word like a football crowd, Ultravox, Tenpole Tudor, the Cramps — where a fierce longing punk approached Andrew Duffeild, took his pint of beer, drank it then gave it back. The toilet walls were covered in blood where people had been bashed, Mohawks everywhere, scary stuff. The Birthday Party in a shit pub sounding shrill and shrieky, playing to a mangy audience, some with West Ham Skins tattooed on their necks, even scarier. A New York funk band called Defunkt at the Venue in the middle of London, where they searched punters for weapons at the door, that was all new to me.
When they released Local &/Or General I had no say in it, I was just the new drummer, so the Local &/Or General tour went ahead and the album only sold 30,000 units. The same as Cut Lunch: that stopped selling and subsequently fell, plummeted out of the charts. What a waste, all that effort to go and record in England, and the band was no more popular than before.
Then Sean rang me. He said he had been thinking a lot and had decided I wasn’t for the band. Sean had earlier fired our tour manager and sound guy Mark Woods (bad mistake), who went on to mix Men at Work and then Tina Turner, when she was huge in the 80s and had the biggest PA in the world. In later years Mark told me that he always put Tina’s vocals straight through the desk dry, no effects, flat EQ. All the effects were on the band, not Tina. Amazing. He once said that I was the only drummer that he knew of that could turn a gig around. If it was going bad, I could get it back on track and make it go off. I really ‘dug’ Mark big time, he was so sensible, reliable and efficient. But in Sean’s eyes we were for the scrap heap. Cool, I thought, “See-ya, I’m outta here.”
The day I left the Models, Gudinski gave me a job helping out in the merchandising division of Mushroom Records, managed by Adrian Barker. “We can’t let a good man go,” were his words. And that suited me perfectly. I didn’t mind my mate Adrian being my boss, and I was over travel and strange rooms. That teenage desire to stay in hotel rooms so you could make a mess and watch TV in bed had long since faded. I wanted my own place to stay put in, to cook, be with my girl every night, and do a regular job with weekends off. I hadn’t had a weekend off for four years.
While at Mushroom, I helped master printer Dave Hodson print the merchandise of T shirts and caps; then I got to design T-shirts and tour jackets for bands from Frontier Touring, like Devo, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Go Go’s. Basically, any artist on one of Michael’s record labels, like Joe Cocker, Judas Priest, and local bands booked by Premier, like The Church, Split Enz, and Australian Crawl.
Michael Gudinski had it all covered. At one stage, when Australian Crawl were at their peak, during the Sons of Beaches tour, we were printing 4,000 T-Shirts a week just for them. I did all the press ads for the Enz With A Bang Tour. I designed tour posters for Australia Crawl, Noiseworks, Daryl Braithwaite, and album covers for the likes of Andrew Duffield and Pseudo Echo. My cover artwork on Pseudo Echo’s album, Love An Adventure, earned me my first ARIA nomination for Best Album Cover Artwork.
Thirty years later, 2015, and I find myself at the 50th Anniversary of the APRA Silver Scroll Award. The Swingers are nominated for song of the year for 1981, the year “Counting The Beat” was released. I had just come good after five years of fighting a multitude of health problems, including bone marrow and blood cancer. Heavy shit, requiring 18 months of chemo and another 18 months getting over the side effects of the treatment. Actually, I am still getting over it. It is hard for me to talk about it because it was such a horrid time. Let me just say I have been to hell and back, to the realm of the half dead. My dreams were filled with dead people I had known. I had to dig deep into my inner resolve just to get through a day. No one knew what I was going through. Thankfully, Support Act in Oz helped me financially through the first year of the cancer battle, and Neil and Sharon Finn helped me out in the second year. But I have touched the bottom of the bottomless pit and kicked off and come back to the surface.
Out of the blue, APRA NZ boss, Anthony Healey, invited me to attend the 2015 Awards because The Swingers had been nominated. My Renal Registrar said: “You should go, you only live once.” My Cancer Specialist, Dr Brad Augustson, who had basically saved my life, said: “You should go to the 50th Anniversary because you won’t be going to the 100th.” Funny bugger. Fresenius, my dialysis supplier, arranged to have all my needs in the room of my hotel when I arrived in NZ. I could catch up with my mum and brother that I hadn’t seen in years, other relatives, nieces, kids that I was yet to meet and friends I hadn’t seen since I left NZ in 1980. Phil couldn’t make it. He said the anti-social side of his character wouldn’t allow him, so he would just dream about being there. Bones, now a session player in Nashville, was on tour doing a gig in Toronto that night. I was the only one representing the band, with Ian James from Mushroom Publishing there to hold my hand.
I was sick as a dog that night. I had caught a lung infection on the flight over. I nearly passed out a few times earlier in the evening when I was standing up, chatting. I picked at my beautiful three-course dinner and just drank water. My nose was dripping so much I was pinching everyone’s napkins. So I was struggling a bit. At one stage I was so hoping we wouldn’t win the award, as I didn’t think I could manage to get up there to accept it. My mind was reeling at what was happening. I hadn’t been out and socialised for years, and now on my first night out I had been interviewed, photographed and filmed. What a buzz.
I had talked to Bones about who I should thank if we won. He said, “No one, we did it all ourselves”. Which in a lot of respects is true. In NZ we did do almost everything, writing the songs, getting the gigs, performing, lugging the gear. In Australia, The Swingers were limited to playing terrible gigs, after the relative luxury of supporting the Sports on an Australian tour, until “Counting The Beat” came out six months later. When we were supporting the Sports, the crowd at Blacktown RSL, chanted “Angels, Angels, Angels” before, during, and after we played. Poor Juddzy was shattered.
But there were people to thank for our rise to the top in NZ. Hugh Lynn, who gave us great gigs at his club Mainstreet. Michael Chunn, who was around then sorting stuff out for us, and eventually released CTB as Ripper Records’ first release—That success allowed them to sign and release other new NZ artists. Bryan Staff for recording us at 2ZM. Gary, our first sound guy—he got us sounding big on our first NZ tour right from the word go. Murray Cammick for giving us great reviews and a cover of Rip It Up. Michael Gudinski for being a real music fan and flying over from Melbourne to see us play live on a Sunday night at the Island of Real, after which he invited us to Oz. But more than anyone we had to thank the ones that inspired us to write the song.
“Counting The Beat” was written for our fans. We wrote it so they could dance. Back then, to get a pub gig you had to play four x 45 minute sets, with encores. That is a lot of songs, and we turned them over, wrote new ones, dropped stale ones. Pub gigs were hard work: intimate, so you had to interact with the audience; they were right there in front of you.
Neil Finn once told me that he had only played concerts up until he did a pub tour of NZ with Dave Dobbyn, and his opening remark “I have never played in a pub before” was greeted with a lone but booming: “Well fuck off then.”
Welcome to Kiwi Pub Rock, son.