Show Chapters

The Reptiles at the Dawn of Punk


“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 1960s 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 30s. 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.

Music was so important to my sanity in my early teenage years

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 Rubber Soul, Revolver, 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, the frantic acoustic jam of Richie Havens (RIP), 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 incredibly 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 was how it’s done. Right from the start, I followed in Phil’s footsteps. He got 90% for his School Certificate art; two years later so did I.

Phil Judd didn’t say much but played pranks a lot

I was singled out by a group of Art Room 7th formers. There was Stuart Spackman, who later on 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 blond rock-star-feathered and was very 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, but all I would get was a “yeh” or a “hah”, 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 asked 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 broomstick with bottle tops nailed onto it: a hillbilly tambourine). Judd and John played acoustic guitars. John sang most; Judd would play thill his hand bled: he was a chronic nail-biter, which didn’t help. We jammed on Lead Belly 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 6th form, I was suspended for starting a riot at lunchtime

In the 6th 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 Hawke’s Bay Progressive Youth Movement, which started as an anti-war organisation in the 1960s, 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 of 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 The 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

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 the 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 parents’ 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 eight 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 recorded in Te Awamutu.

We did two lunchtime gigs at the Maidment Theatre at Auckland University, with Geoff Chunn on guitar and Brent 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 thay 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 Avenue by then. I shared a place with Paul Pattie, who was an art school buddy in Phil, Rob [Gillies] 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 stencilled 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.

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 barre chords. All the Reptiles’ songs were in the major key. Cissy later had a son, Joel Little, who is a songwriter-producer (and collaborator with 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 foot 5 guitarist is only 14.” With the help of Jewel Sanyo, who had a journalist background and knew how to format press releases, I got stories and phots 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 the printer, 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 Leonie Batchelor, who helped organise the Classic Cinema gigs. We would presell 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.

Billy Planet charmed the Black Power with his sheep-shearer stories

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 (eg, by Johnny Thunders) which were a bit more complex than the minimalist Ramones, Lou Reed, 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” 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 cast of the Rocky Horror Show touring 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 five in the band, so it always meant 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 drank our revenge. Fuck that, getting bashed trying to save someone else’s PA gear. All I wanted to do was play 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 18 months, I had known Phil for 10 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.

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First published in Phantom Billstickers’ Café Reader, volume 9, autumn 2016. Republished with permission. 

The Buster Stiggs Story, part two: The Swingers and This Year’s Model

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