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Insects That Jive: post punk Wellington in 1980


Chris Knox was no stranger to the curly edge of the emerging post-punk scene in New Zealand’s capital city when he picked up a movie camera in November 1980 to get a slice of Wellington’s creative tumult down on film.

Toy Love, Knox’s disbanded group, had always checked in for shows in the windy city and used its cutting edge bands for support. It was Toy Love’s PA that often powered the early Cuba Mall Sunday afternoon events that gave local groups, including The Ambitious Vegetables, The Wallsockets and Shoes This High, their earliest exposure.

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The Ambitious Vegetables (later The Mockers) in Cuba Mall, 1980

Knox’s documentary focused primarily on the Terrace Scene bands, especially L.I.F.E (Life In The Fridge Exists), The Wallsockets, Beat Rhythm Fashion and Naked Spots Dance, who would all be included on the era defining **** (Four Stars) compilation. A glimpse of the city’s wider post-punk scene, including footage of ska band The Preservatives at a house party, also peeked through.

Shoes This High, a key Wellington group, had already departed for Auckland after a farewell show at Billy The Club in August with The Gordons, The Protons and Eat This Grenade, while The Steroids and The Mockers were beyond the collection and documentary’s scope.

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Beat Rhythm Fashion photographed for Wellington's In Touch magazine  - Photo by Charles Jameson

It’d certainly been a busy year in the hilly harbour city. There had been post-punk outbreaks in 1980 in Auckland, where The Features were cutting up audiences at Island of Real, Mainstreet and Liberty Stage with their nervy frenetic sound; and Christchurch, where The Gordons brought a heavier metallic noise to bear. But it was Wellington that first established a cohesive scene full of the adventurous mindset of the era.

The new decade had started slowly but surely. In January 1980, mid month, The Steroids’ Alan Jimson (guitar, vocals), Andy Drey (bass, vocals) and drummer Robbie Holmes teamed up with Auckland’s Whizz Kids, another group with an at-times unsettling sound, for four summer nights at all ages venue The Last Resort, in Courtney Place.

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The Steroids - Alan Jimson (Jansson), Andrew Drey, Robbie Holmes - Murray Cammick Collection

Formerly Johnny Mono and The Steroids, the spiky trio had been on the scene since September 1978. They’d since fronted up alongside fellow Wellington pioneer punks The Normals and art rockers Smashed Executive at Lower Hutt Town Hall in May 1979. 

The Steroids soon became regulars at inner-city Rock Theatre and as a support group for touring bands. In August 1979, the Wellington trio recorded their first songs in the city’s Crescendo Studios, including the punk-ish political finger pointer ‘Out Of Control’.

Now, late in February 1980, The Steroids were back at Rock Theatre with teen punks The Ambitious Vegetables in tow. Formed out of Rongotai College in November 1978, the teenage quintet of Gordon Costello (guitar), Gary Curtis (bass), Peter Henderson (guitar), Chas Mannell (drums) and Andrew Fagan (vocals) was one of Wellington’s first punk groups.

The Ambitious Vegetables performed often at post-punk incubator Thistle Hall and outdoors on Sunday afternoons in Cuba Mall. They could also be found at The Last Resort and Rock Theatre in late 1979, chopping out British punk movement covers from The Clash and The Damned alongside original material. In early 1980, the raucous teen punks got their first set of demos down.

February 1980 started with a bang with frequent visitors The Swingers and Toy Love filming their live sets at Rock Theatre for a Radio With Pictures TV special. Toy Love lingered long enough in the capital to support English new wavers Squeeze at Wellington Town Hall, three days later.

Meanwhile, The Ambitious Vegetables had two nights at Last Resort and Split Enz arrived in town on their national Trooping The Colours tour at Wellington Town Hall on 19 February. That month the lower North Island city gained an affordable and welcome 4-track studio in Robbie Duncan’s Sausage, which would prove vital in the coming months.

The Ambitious Vegetables returned to The Last Resort in March while The Steroids, now represented by Auckland booking agency Muchmore Associates, headed south for four nights at the Hillsborough in Christchurch. They returned to the Garden City again the following month.

The New Zealand capital’s music scene developed an articulate media voice in March as well, when journalists Gary Steel and Mike Aston established the monthly music newspaper, In Touch.

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Alan Jansson on the cover of In Touch magazine - Gary Steel collection

An early feature in the new magazine in April 1980, pointed to the Broadcasting House recordings made by The Ambitious Vegetables in Wellington on 31 March 1980. The article doesn’t say whether ‘Who Needs It?’ was one of the songs captured, although it’s likely, as the track got as far as being filmed for Radio With Pictures. The film itself is a minimal and colourful take of the group kicking out an impressive chunk of second wave punk that echoes the rockier end of The Ruts.

The other songs recorded were ‘Art Student’, ‘Do It To Me’, ‘Prisoner Of Her Majesty’ and ‘20th Century Sellout’.

Founding Veges Andrew Fagan and Gary Curtis had left already the group by then to form The Mockers – suddenly it seemed – as Fagan’s name had been scratched from In Touch’s printing plate and replaced with Gerard Moran. The new look Ambitious Vegetables joined The Notes for a Thistle Hall show in Cuba Street on 24 April.

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Naked Spots Dance as they appeared in the 1980 Rip It Up feature on new Wellington bands. L to R: Katherine McRae, Matthew Fisher, Kate Walker, Stephen Norris

Pop Mechanix was a popular Christchurch group that started their musical life in 1979 as Splash Alley. With the south’s potential exhausted, the powerful new wave and power pop outfit headed north in April for a run through the North Island rock pubs and clubs.

The first stop was three nights at Willy’s Wine Bar in Manners Street’s Regent Tavern, chased by four more at The Last Resort. “We really hit our stride as a live band at Willy’s Wine Bar,” bass player and songwriter Paul Scott remembers. “It’s hard to explain. We were good before, but one night, perhaps our second night, something just clicked and it all leapt up a gear. I loved playing the Last Resort, Willy’s was good, but the stage was small and awkward, at The Last Resort, you could leap around. It had a really cool vibe.”

Over at Sausage Studios, The Wallsockets recorded four songs. They’d get 12 more down there in August.

The transformation of Vivian Street’s Rock Theatre into Billy The Club by Kerry Hessel in late April 1980, gave Wellington’s musically adventurous new groups a more permanent stage after months of scattered shows in nearby Cuba Mall and Thistle Hall.

First up at Billy The Club on 14 and 15 May were The Newz, a popular Christchurch group who had Wellington art punks Shoes This High in support.

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Shoes This High: Brent Hayward, Chris Plummer, Kevin Hawkins, Jessica Walker - Photo By Peter Avery

Brent Hayward (vocals), Kevin Hawkins (guitar), Jessica Walker (bass) and Chris Plummer (drums) had been provoking Wellington crowds as Shoes This High since 1979. In late May 1980, they played before The Spelling Mistakes, an Auckland second wave punk band, at The Last Resort.

The Ambitious Vegetables remained busy as the new line-up fronted up for three nights at The Last Resort with The Steroids and two as headliners at Billy The Club. Shoes This High closed the month out at the new venue with The Wallsockets.

The Swingers had a top 20 hit, ‘One Good Reason’, to push at the Last Resort in May where Christchurch pub rockers Vapour and the Trails also checked in.

Wellington was still well and truly on the national and international touring map in 1980. While not punk or new wave, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers brought plenty of anger and energy to the Majestic Theatre on 8 May. Irish new wavers The Boomtown Rats had The Steroids in support at Wellington Town Hall on the 14th for their Surface Down Under tour, while synth-based hitmaker Gary Numan was impressive at Majestic Theatre the day after.

In that light it’s worth noting the array of brilliant and often chart-placed albums from overseas groups that were released locally. The Jam’s Setting Sons, PiL’s Metal Box/Second Edition, Elvis Costello and The Attractions’ Get Happy, The Clash’s London Calling, Iggy Pop’s Soldier, The Specials’ The Specials, The Ramones’ End Of The Century (produced by Phil Spector), The Pretenders’ The Pretenders and The Sex Pistols compilation Flogging A Dead Horse, all made the New Zealand album charts in March alone.

The Cramps’ Songs The Lord Taught Us, The Slits’ Cut, Gang of Four’s Entertainment, The Mekons’ Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Velvet Underground and Nico (reissue), The Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady, UK Subs’ Another Kind of Blues and The Damned’s Machine Gun Etiquette were on NZ record store shelves by May. All of which helped set the critical and creative climate for the local releases and shows to come.

On Queen’s Birthday Weekend, in early June 1980, over a dozen leftfield groups took to Billy The Club’s stage for three nights of bent originals and cracked covers, which finally brought the emerging Wellington post-punk scene into full focus.

In Touch’s David McLennan, whose group Domestic Blitz was on the bill, put pen to paper. “The Wallsockets have improved from their early shambolic gigs at Thistle Hall and Cuba Mall,” he wrote. “They’re now very much a band and have a number of good melodic songs, mostly original, with a very heavy, guitar-dominated sound. It was perhaps too heavy for some of their more tuneful songs, but great on such old favourites as ‘H & C’ (I wish they still did ‘Stepping Stone!’).

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“Life In The Fridge Exists (complete with genuine fridge) debuted on Sunday night. This band (I use the term loosely) offered an interesting version of Jonathan Richman’s ‘Hospital’ and a shambolic anti-Phil O’Brien ode. The crowd went bananas and called them back for an encore of ‘Jean Genie’, which they’d never played before. This lot were purely the most entertaining event of the weekend.

“Twisted Daydream is an ad hoc combination, featuring George Henderson and Susan Ellis, the musical force behind the much missed Spies, and Kevin Hawkins from Shoes This High. Loved it. I’d call it chamber rock due to the absence (almost) of drums.

“Susan sang a lovely version of Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’ and later George gave us Elvis Presley’s ‘Teddy Bear’ (!!) In between were Syd Barrett’s ‘Gigolo Aunt’ and The Spies song, ‘King of China’s Daughter’, a really beautiful number. Shoes This High’s performance on the Monday was intense, lots of aggression evident, even on ‘Pop Song’.”

‘Pop Song’ as ‘Sop Pong’ was one of the nearly two-dozen Shoes This High songs the group recorded with Andy Drey at Billy The Club on 22 June 1980. The best of the set would eventually be released as Straight To Hell on Siltbreeze Records in 2014.

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The Ambitious Vegetables had a busy June with performances at The Last Resort in support of The Tigers and Coup D’Etat, and as headliners in their own right. Not to be outdone, The Mockers with Chas Mannell now joining Fagan, Curtis and Dale Monahan debuted before touring Aucklanders Lip Service. The Swingers couldn’t stay away and were back in town on 17 June, as part of Mi-Sex’s Space Race Invasion at Wellington Town Hall.

When their City Scenes EP charted in the middle of June 1980 and climbed as high as No.32, weirding up the top 50 for five long weeks, The Features were at the tail end of an erratic, fate-filled national tour. Early June dates at Dunedin’s Captain Cook were cancelled after one night and a University of Otago show with Bored Games, The Clean and The Gordons was closed early by police because of underage drinking.

Christchurch always warmed to The Features, but it was Wellington’s adventurous post-punk scene that the Auckland band had most in common with. The city’s finest, Shoes This High, were first night supports at Billy The Club. The following evening, the capital’s most out-there groups The Wallsockets, L.I.F.E, Domestic Blitz and Unknown Wrecks joined them.

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The Normals at Chez Paree, Wellington

Auckland’s finest, in good company, found the audience and environment to their liking, improvising ‘We Don’t Need No Guns’ in a wide ranging set that included ‘Manifesto Jam’, ‘Police Wheels’, ‘City Scenes’, ‘Wanting War’, ‘What Are You Going To Do Tonight’, ‘Maximum Speed’ and ‘Victim’. A video for ‘City Scenes’ filmed at Television New Zealand’s Avalon Studios in Lower Hutt was abandoned after an argument with director Tony Holden.

Christchurch’s The Gordons came to town in July and stayed. Stranded financially, the sonically challenging trio found a second home in Wellington’s thriving post-punk community. Kicking off with three nights supported by The Wallsockets at Billy The Club, The Gordons returned the next week with Domestic Blitz, L.I.F.E and The Mixers.

The Garden city trio made time while in Wellington to record a long lost album at Sausage and play shows with The Steroids at Last Resort and The Wallsockets at Billy The Club in August.

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Condemned Sector at Last Resort Cafe, 1981

Likewise, The Androidss, on the rebound from their first stint in Auckland, checked in at Billy The Club in late July and early August with The Wallsockets, who’d also supported The Whizz Kids there in late July.

The Ambitious Vegetables, having finally folded, donated one member to The Red, who went on before The B52’s, the quirky US act, at Wellington Show Buildings on 11 July. Eleven days later, The Ramones supported by The Techtones graced the same stage, with the Auckland group staying on for four nights at The Last Resort with The Mockers.

The older punk groups remained active that month. An interview with the Steroids, published by In Touch, noted the group as “reticent interviewees”.

“They are retaining only a few Wire and Gang of Four covers, feeling that these are closer musically and (especially lyrically) to their own style and content – harsh. Often gloomy appraisals of anything they feel justify it,” Gavin Smith reported.

“But they aren’t humourless – beware taking anything they say at face value. Rather than trying to create a temporary respite from reality, they are mirroring aspects of it: holding people and situations up to scrutiny.  The small crowds at the beginning of year had made them despondent and feeling like giving up.”

August was, if anything, an even busier time in the capital. Cutting edge British post-punks The Cure arrived in town in the midst of their Get A Dose Of The Cure tour and followed their Wellington Town Hall show on the 3rd with an early morning jam with like-minded musicians at a local primary school.

L.I.F.E joined The Wallsockets and the soon-to-split Whizz Kids at Billy The Club early that month. The Steroids remained busy in August with a four-night season at The Last Resort with The Gordons. 

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David McLennan reviews L.I.F.E. at Rockfest, Billy The Club, July 1980 in Wellington's In Touch magazine

Visitors in town included The Androidss at Billy The Club with The Wallsockets, and Toy Love, back from Sydney for three nights at Billy The Club and at The Terminus with The Protons. 

From further afield came The Members from England at Wellington Show Buildings on the 21st.

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The Wallsockets at Thistle Hall, September 1980

In Touch printed the first detailed article on The Wallsockets in August. Wanda Lust’s Another Plug In The Wall, noted, “[They] Brett Carstairs (rg), Francis Walsh (vocals), Martin Walsh (bass), Nezzie (drums) and Tennessee (g) had only been formed a month, when the Socialist Workers Alliance asked them to play at a dance. They played covers.”

They played the previous night with Ambitious Vegetables at Thistle Hall after Cuba Mall gigs. Frances Walsh: “It was okay, but all a bit shambolic, cos we had no PA and the sound just wafted around all the time. There was also quite a lot of squabbling between bands, as to who got play, and in what order.

“Then Tennessee went off to Auckland and Nezzie just went off, and Lynette (Dunn) joined us as vocalist. She’d always been really keen on the band. We found Simon in an advertisement he’d put up on a wall downtown, advertising to join a band. That was about March 1980.”

In April 1980, the group taped four demo songs at Sausage Studios, including ‘Snerl’, ‘Surprise’ and ‘H & C’. Their first show at Billy The Club was on Queen’s Birthday Weekend, with intermittent work there supporting The Gordons, Shoes This High, The Features and The Whizz Kids.

The Wallsockets songs were getting some late night airplay on John Barry’s show, Walsh said, but they’d had no luck with record companies, so they were planning a compilation of Wellington groups. “We’ll just keep playing and see what gives,” Walsh concluded.

Things tamped down a bit in September with Toy Love at The Terminus with The Mockers. Britain’s impressive post-punks, XTC, rolled into town for a date at Wellington Show Buildings on the 14th with a No.1 album, Black Sea, in the NZ charts and the ‘Generals And Majors’ single sitting in the Top 20.

It was a lull before the storm, as October 1980 brought all sorts of new activity. The Mockers, The Red, The Protons, The Wallsockets, Condemned Sector and Domestic Blitz fronted up at Radio Windy’s Rocktober: Battle of the Sounds at Wellington Town Hall. Taste of Bounty came out winners amidst claims of judging bias against the post-punk groups.

Rip It Up’s short-lived Xtra magazine took note of the capital’s emerging post-punk scene with a full-page overview by Connie D. Martin that mentioned bands “still in garages” such as Condemned Sector, The Rejects, The Demo Boys, The Digits and The Active Ingredients. Mini-bios of Domestic Blitz, The Wallsockets, L.I.F.E, Naked Spots Dance and Janet and John were included.

The Steroids recorded what would be their second single at Marmalade Studios in October, while Condemned Sector, augmented by David McLennan, whose group Domestic Blitz was out of action, stepped out live.

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Condemned Sector

McLennan’s group recorded five songs (‘Fake It To Make It’, ‘Daydream Believer’, ‘Amphetamine Psychosis’, ‘Domestic Disco’, ‘Social Whirl’) at Sausage Studios, while Condemned Sector managed four (‘Private Schools’, ‘Help’, ‘Split-up’, ‘Mutants’). A mooted EP didn’t eventuate and all the songs remain unreleased. 

Never mind, the first record from the windy city’s post-punk scene arrived that month and quickly sold out its first pressing. The Mockers’ ‘Good Old Days’ b/w ‘Murder In Manners Street’ was recorded at Marmalade Studios by Peter Blake and out on Mocker Music.

‘Good Old Days’ is Godzone’s first decent electronic pop song while ‘Murder In Manners Street’ is chunky, tuneful punk. Written like most of his great songs with Gary Curtis, Andrew Fagan’s distinctive voice comes through loud and clear. The Mockers promoted the new release at Billy The Club on 3 and 4 October.

The Steroids threw their first record onto what would be a growing pile in November, with another Peter Blake-recorded song, ‘Mr Average,’ backed with an older track, ‘Out Of Control, recorded in August 1979. The 45 appeared on the band’s White Light label.

Shows in support of the debut single were staged at The Last Resort, mid-month, with The Red and The Wallsockets on first.

November was the month The Androidss returned for four nights at The Terminus with The Wallsockets. Shoes This High was back in town, as well, after a busy and controversial stay in Auckland, coupling with The Wallsockets for a late month afternoon show at Last Resort. The Mockers, too, remained busy with three nights at Last Resort and four at The Terminus.

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The **** (AKA Four Stars) collection released by Sausage Records. It featured L.I.F.E, Naked Spots Dance, Wallsockets and Beat Rhythm Fashion.

Remember that Wellington compilation album The Wallsockets talked about in In Touch? It finally saw the light of day in December 1980. The first major post-punk compilation since AK79, **** (Four Stars – a type of LSD), didn’t disappoint. The Sausage Records LP contained genuine highpoints from L.I.F.E, The Wallsockets and Beat Rhythm Fashion and soon sold out the 250 copies pressed. 

The city’s live stages similarly showed Wellington’s post-punk scene was in good health. The Mockers joined Shoes This High and touring Auckland mods The Screaming Meemees at The Last Resort on the sixth; it was the last of a four night stand there for the Aucklanders. The Mockers returned to The Last Resort for In Touch’s Xmas party on the 16th.

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The Mockers at The Last Resort, 1980/81 - Courtesy of The Ambitious Vegetables

With two strong top 50 singles under their belt, Pop Mechanix arrived in town with The Crocodiles for two nights at The Last Resort as part of a North Island tour. The Gordons, too, were back, pairing with Shoes This High at Brooklyn Community Centre, the latter having recorded their solitary EP in Auckland’s Mascot Studios just days before. Across town, The Steroids returned from a profitable tour through the North Island to play Billy The Club.

The Terrace Scene’s prime movers The Wallsockets headed to Palmerston North mid-month before holding down three post-Christmas nights at The Last Resort. It was left to the embryonic Blam Blam Blam as “Inside Information” (Don McGlashan, John Schmidt, Richard Lello, Richard von Sturmer and Charlotte Wrightson) to see the year out at The Last Resort and the Terminus.

 
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