In 1981, during an administration change, there was no annual APRA Silver Scroll ceremony. In 2015, to celebrate the 50th award, a panel of songwriters considered a selection of 1981 releases for “the lost scroll”. The winner was ‘Counting The Beat’ by The Swingers. The band’s drummer Buster Stiggs was at hand to accept it.
Stiggs is best-known as a member of New Zealand punk pioneers the Suburban Reptiles and the band which grew out of the Reptiles, The Swingers. Sacked on the eve of The Swingers’ brief Australian success, Stiggs immediately joined top Australian band Models, serving long enough to record an album and survive an ill-fated shift to London. His musical career, at least in those high profile bands, lasted just five years.
Little had been heard of Stiggs until he returned to New Zealand to pick up the “lost” Silver Scroll for that song, familiar to a generation as the theme music to a supermarket television ad. It is a great song, simple, memorable; it topped the charts on both sides of the Tasman but proved to be a millstone.
Stiggs was born Mark Hough in London on 8 December 1954. The family immigrated to New Zealand shortly after, settling in Hawke’s Bay, first in Wairoa, then Napier and, finally, Hastings. Hough attended Hastings Boy High School, feeling at odds with the prevalent sports ethic and finding solace in art classes and hanging with a bunch of like-minded friends which included Phil Judd, two years his senior.
When original drummer Des Edwards was sacked, they recruited Mark Hough, rechristened Buzz Adrenaline, later Buster Stiggs.
There was no formal band during his school years, although a collection of friends, including Judd, congregated in Hough’s bedroom for a weekly jam, Hough playing tea-chest bass. That finished when these older boys finished school and headed to the city, Judd to Auckland and the Elam School of Fine Arts. Mark Hough followed him two years later, by which stage Judd was in a band called Split Enz.
Attending Elam, Mark Hough fell in with the Split Enz crowd; his wife Miranda (Hough was married at 18) made the early Enz costumes, designed by Noel Crombie. He met Neil Finn, still a Te Awamutu schoolboy, during his weekend visits to Auckland and they started writing songs together. When the young Finn shifted to Auckland in 1975, he moved in with Mark and Miranda. They formed a band, named After Hours, which was short-lived and with few gigs; drummer Brent Eccles and guitarist Geoff Chunn were members. It came to a sudden halt in April 1977 when Finn was summoned to London to join Split Enz, replacing Phil Judd. But by that stage, Hough had a new interest.
At Elam Hough had fallen in with a group of fellow students, which included the musicians who would make up one of New Zealand’s first punk rock bands – the Suburban Reptiles. When original drummer Des Edwards was sacked, they recruited Mark Hough, rechristened Buzz Adrenaline, later Buster Stiggs. In truth, he had little drumming experience and considered himself more proficient on other instruments, although in 1975 he had unsuccessfully auditioned for Hello Sailor.
It was an exciting time: the rebellious nature of the music and the provocative clothes, the tabloid headlines. The band released two singles, both written or co-written by Buster, ‘Megaton’ and ‘Saturday Night Stay At Home’, the latter produced by Phil Judd upon his return from London in mid-1978. The Reptiles were already in disarray.
“The punk scene was a blast,” Buster says. “The camaraderie and excitement of that music scene in Auckland from ’77 to ’79 will never be repeated. No one wanted to book us so we organised our own gigs, pre-selling the tickets through record shops and using the money to buy the ingredients for a huge punch and giving away free drinks at the gig. We had the Black Power gang as security after a chance meeting with some of them at the Globe one afternoon. Billy Planet charmed them with his sheep-shearer stories. 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.”
Reunited with Judd and with the Reptiles defunct, Buster pulled in Bones Hillman, himself an ex-Reptile, and the three began rehearsing. “Originally, I wanted to play rhythm guitar,” Buster remembers, “but we couldn’t find the right drummer. We auditioned heaps, mostly good players but they put their licks all over the music rather than laying down a steady groove. We took a page out of The Police’s book and kept it down to a three-piece and that is how I became the drummer.”
It was a practical decision as well as a musical one. “We actually auditioned other guitar players but none had the right vibe for us. Jed Town had a jam: he was good and the closest. And we thought of asking Dave Dobbyn (too blonde) or Mike Caen (too bluesy), so they never eventuated. We wanted to play the New Zealand pub circuit so we had to have enough material to play four 45-minute sets and a couple of songs for encores. We spent around six months rehearsing, three nights a week and all weekend, while holding down our day jobs. We got really tight before we played in public.”
The Swingers’ first gigs were supporting Split Enz on the Give It A Whirl tour.
The Swingers’ first gigs were supporting Split Enz on the Give It A Whirl tour, followed by a residency at Liberty Stage on Symonds Street. Offers soon came in from other parts of the country. “We did really well at the Hillsborough in Christchurch, thanks to the efforts of Jim Wilson and his team who gave us good door deals and got people into the pub. We had some of our best gigs ever at the Hillsborough. Jim shared our vision of playing original music in New Zealand pubs when no one was. He was street smart. Then we started putting together new songs, rehearsing during the week and playing gigs on the weekends. We had a great practice room in all old wooden-floored warehouse in Newmarket.
“That's where we wrote ‘Counting The Beat’, with Bones starting off on bass, me following on drums, Judd on guitar and all of us singing. I remember setting up and Bones starts playing the riff. 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. Okay, it’s got both.”
In April 1980 The Swingers’ first single, ‘One Good Reason’ was released on Ripper Records, having earlier provided two tracks, ‘A Certain Sound’ and ‘Baby’, to Ripper’s AK79 compilation. In July, at the instigation of Mushroom Records’ Michael Gudinski, The Swingers shifted to Australia. David Tickle – a young English producer in Australia working on his second Split Enz album (Waiata) – was taken with the trio and recorded two tracks at Sydney’s 301 Studios. One of them was ‘Counting The Beat’.
‘Counting The Beat’ was a huge hit, topping charts in Australia and New Zealand.
Sadly, in Australia at least, The Swingers are remembered as one-hit wonders. Subsequent releases failed to sell, and the band split up in April 1982. None of which mattered to Buster. In December 1980, prior to the release of The Swingers’ sole hit single, Stiggs suddenly left the band after he’d heard that Judd and Bones were looking for a new drummer.
“When Gudinski heard the news, he told me that Models were looking for a drummer. I joined them two days after leaving The Swingers. My first audition turned into the first rehearsal and after the second rehearsal, after getting really stoned and playing a couple of numbers, the guys decided I had the vibe and everything will be fine.
“I loved playing live with Sean Kelly, Andrew Duffield and Mark Ferrie. They had been playing together for three years before I joined and they trusted each other’s abilities implicitly. Playing live was a joy, they had a big loyal following and the gigs went off. Plus we had the luxury of a good manager, and 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. In Models the band just turned up to the gigs and left after the gig. Yes please!”
As it turned out, Buster’s stint with Models lasted little more than a year, but long enough to record two albums and shift to London. For Buster, London-born, it was living the rock’n’roll dream.
“We played all the historic punk venues where the Sex Pistols and the Clash played, like the Hope and Anchor, about the size of a garage, a cramped little hole; our rehearsal studio was 10 times bigger. The 100 Club was long and skinny and the stage was sideways, not down one end, it was weird. Dingwalls was cool and we went down a storm. I played my new drum kit. What a buzz. Blondie played there the night before we did.”
Models had signed to A&M Records with an international deal. “We signed the contract on the same desk that Sid Vicious had allegedly pissed on when the Pistols signed with A&M. I met Nico at a Richard Branson party at his Manor Studios and for the first time in my life I was rendered speechless. We supported UK Squeeze on tour. At a festival headlined by Ultravox I rubbed shoulders with my contemporary drumming heroes Rat Scabies from the Dammed and Clem Burke from Blondie. I had kind of fulfilled my lifelong and even my most recent rock and roll ambitions. My musical goals had been achieved really quickly. Only four years earlier I had failed the audition for Hello Sailor.”
Back in Australia, the band toured to promote the UK-recorded album, Local &/Or General, but bandleader Sean Kelly had decided that Stiggs’s drumming wasn’t quite suitable for the band after all. Hearing this, once again Michael Gudinski came to the rescue, employing Stiggs in Mushroom’s merchandising division. “It suited me perfectly,” Buster says. “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.
Although there have occasional musical units and lots of songwriting (he has over 200 songs registered with APRA), Stiggs has excelled mostly as a graphic artist in subsequent years, designing tour posters, album covers and T-shirts. His appearance in Auckland at the 2015 APRA Silver Scroll Award to pick up the “lost scroll” for ‘Counting The Beat’ was Buster’s first taste of the limelight for 30 years, an occasion he relished.
“It was so cool for me,” he confesses. “Back in the day when The Swingers were getting Countdown Music Awards for best new band and biggest selling single in Australia, I was in the Models in the UK. I missed out on all the formal honours and the respect that such awards afford. I always longed for public recognition for ‘Counting The Beat’s’ success. I wanted to take some credit and here at last 35 years later I was able to do so.”