At the time derided, dissed and dismissed more than possibly any other NZ rock band (except for Mother Goose or The Feelers, maybe), Mi-Sex were oft-regarded as not authentic, or cool, or credible. But to our history, they are very significant.
What’s more, the meaty new wave concoctions on their first two albums stand up after all this time, far removed from the contextual and ideological arguments that raged 35 years ago.
Formed from the hippie embers of Hamilton group Father Time and metal band Think, they evolved into Fragments Of Time before they revamped to fit the emerging punk/new wave sound in March 1978. Taking an Ultravox song as their name, Mi-Sex would prove to be one of the great – if fleeting – phenomenons of NZ rock.
But the group’s brazen quick-change from bellbottoms and tie-dyes to tight leather pants and tighter tank tops had members of the nascent NZ punk scene smelling a rat. And then it came out that Steve Gilpin, the winner of TV's New Faces in 1974, had served time as a cabaret-style singer on television light entertainment programmes: credibility blown.
Who cared? For every punk that sneered, there were thousands who found the group’s novel, tight and rather theatrical shows engaging, and enjoyed the combination of pumping pub rock and dystopian future visions the group had successfully liberated from Ultravox and other early exponents of paranoiac synth-rock. Typically, NZ bands were behind the trends, so just as important was the fact that Mi-Sex caught a wave and rode it, rather than chasing its tail: Ultravox was still a cult group in 1979, and Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army was only just peaking.
Mi-Sex was soon playing to capacity crowds at Auckland’s two main pub venues, the Windsor Castle and The Gluepot, but they had their sights set on Australia.
From scratch, Mi-Sex was soon playing to capacity crowds at Auckland’s two main pub venues, the Windsor Castle and The Gluepot, and played a series of succesful shows in provinical centres when few other acts were heading out beyond the main centres.
They released one single, 'Straight Laddie', for EMI in May 1978 although it disappeared without trace, but they had their sights set on Australia. In August 1978, with no ongoing record deal, management or pre-publicity, they moved to Sydney, and unlike so many NZ bands before them, within mere months they had the Aussies eating out of their hands.
The English music press would have used the ultimate term of denigration, "rockist", to describe Mi-Sex. That’s the word they used to poke the borax at anything that wasn’t aesthetically punk enough: The Buzzcocks were lean enough for punk, while The Stranglers’ beefy, leering grooves were "rockist". In Australia, however, pub rock was ripping, and taking a few tips from beer barn icons like Cold Chisel, Mi-Sex became one of the top-drawing acts in the land, even before their first major label release.
Signed to a CBS deal by expat New Zealander and Dragon producer Peter Dawkins, the group bashed out their first album, Graffiti Crimes. But it was the single ‘Computer Games’, released three months later, that got them real chart action, shooting to No.1 in Australia, No.5 in New Zealand, and charting in 20 other countries.
1979 would turn out to be the group’s moment, and they ended up receiving three awards that year in Australia’s TV Week/Countdown music awards, for Most Popular Album or Single, Best New Talent and Best Australian Single.
It was the single ‘Computer Games’, released three months later, that got them real chart action, shooting to No.1 in Australia, No.5 in New Zealand, and charting in 20 other countries.
1980 was strong, too, with the release of their second album, Space Race, and a lot of touring to support it. But while they did well in NZ, where they performed triumphantly at Sweetwaters festival and saw the album to the No.1 spot, interest in Australia already seemed to be dipping, and the slide would only become steeper.
By 1981 the group couldn’t get arrested, and everyone agreed that their second Sweetwaters performance was a mere replication of the previous year. Despite embarking on their first (and only, as it turned out) tour of the USA and Canada, there was only trouble on the horizon.
Line-up fluctuations sped up the decline. Drummer Richard Hodgkinson departed in 1981, then Kevin Stanton left (albeit temporarily) due to ill health in late 1982. Colin Bayley, another expat New Zealander, joined on guitar in 1983, blowing the group up to a six-piece, but nothing helped. By March 1984, after two more unsuccessful albums, it was all but over, and the group went into a long-term hibernation rather than officially breaking up.
Like Gary Numan in the UK, Mi-Sex had become victims of the novelty factor behind their music and presentation, a certain one-dimensionality that made them exciting the first time, but also made it almost impossible to successfully outgrow the novelty.
The group reformed for two Australian tours in the late 1980s, but tragically, Steve Gilpin sustained head injuries in a car accident near Byron Bay in November 1991, lapsing into a coma, and he died January 6, 1992. Gilpin and the band had been working on material for a comeback album.
The current iteration of Mi-Sex was raised from the dead when they performed in aid of the Christchurch quake relief concert. Fronted by Don Martin, Murray Burns, Paul Dunningham and Colin Bayley, the replacement singer is Steve Balbi (“one of Australia’s finest songwriters, first with Noiseworks, then Electric Hippies”), lead guitarist Luke Cuerden (“of hard rock act Koritni”), and Kevin Stanton (“currently facing a very long recovery from major spinal surgery affecting the use of his left arm and hand… he will be with us on stage as that chemistry is built into the songs and bonds us all through an invisible thread.”)
Steve Gilpin - vocals
Kevin Stanton - guitar, vocals
Don Martin - bass, vocals
Murray Burns - keyboards
Phil "Smarty" Smart - drums
Steve Osborne - drums
Richard Hodgkinson - drums
Paul Dunningham - drums
Colin Bayley - guitar