While editing Rip It Up in the early 1980s, I flatted with Simon Grigg and observed the early signs of recording moguldom. Grigg invented the mobile phone. He got a friend who installed phones to give him a 20-foot phone cord which meant he never had to get out of bed or out of the bath to answer the phone. But to find the prototype mobile phone, flatmates had to find the cord in the hallway and follow it to the communication appliance.
“I’d been talking to Jimmy Salter [sax player] about forming an avant garde, tongue-in-cheek jazz band in 1976 and Jimmy wanted to call it something like ‘Froggy Morton’. David Blyth the film director was sitting around in my flat and said, ‘This punk thing is taking off in Britain, that’s kind of cool isn’t it’. We thought maybe we should do a punk band instead of a jazz band, it sounds like far more fun. I said to Jimmy, ‘Let’s do a punk band’. His flatmate was lying on the couch said, ‘I can play bass, I’ll join’. Jimmy’s girlfriend Zero joined as the vocalist. All his flatmates were in the band and a friend of mine on drums. We went out and almost played a couple of gigs before anyone could play their instruments.”
When the Suburban Reptiles started were you already a fan of the Sex Pistols and the Clash?
“No. They existed but we didn’t really know about them. I hadn’t heard of the Clash when we formed the Reptiles. I’d definitely heard of the Pistols because that was the inspiration. About February ’77. NME used to take three months [to get to New Zealand]. We got a December ’76 NME, there was a review of the ‘Anarchy in the UK’ single. Things took so long to filter out to New Zealand in those days. Then I heard a little snippet, must have been Dylan Taite’s interview on TV One news, a few weeks later.”
So punk was something you read about before you heard it?
“We read about it and that was when we formed the Reptiles, having read a single review and maybe a live review. Before they played any gigs we bumped into Tim Blanks [trend-setting Hot Licks writer], who was an old mate of ours and he was working for Bryan Ferry as his personal assistant. He arrived back in New Zealand in April 1977 and he had all the records. Not only did he have all the punk stuff, he had the first Damned album, the New York Dolls etc. I had already purchased the debut Ramones from Taste Records – they imported two and Johnny Volume of The Scavengers bought the other I later discovered.”
I saw Suburban Reptiles as more of a fashion statement than a serious musical undertaking.
“Wasn’t punk rock a fashion statement, rather than a serious musical undertaking? That was the nature of it, it came out of art schools. Punk rock in Britain came out of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. Fashion statement or not, I still think ‘Saturday Night’ is New Zealand’s best punk single and they were great live during 1978.”
Did you see the established bands such as Hello Sailor as the enemy?
“Not so much Sailor as they were the good guys, they were slightly edgy and they played rock’n’roll and they had a bit of attitude. We always liked Hello Sailor, they were cool. The enemy were the generation before, the resident bands in the clubs. No one was really the enemy, but it was fun to take the piss out of them. I can remember being in a club called Moody Richards in Airedale Street with the Scavengers and taking the piss out of Brent Eccles [former Citizen Band and Angels drummer, now a promoter] who was on stage in some resident band. ‘Get your wheelchairs out boys, your walking frames, it’s all over boys, we’ve come to take over,’ and getting in a big scrap. Johnny Volume got in a fight with everyone, Johnny was not sober often. He was always getting in scrapes as a result, although not intentionally.”
Was the first line-up of The Scavengers, with Mike Lesbian and Marlon Hart, a band to be taken seriously?
“They were a good R&B band. There were just doing covers. The Scavengers did covers for the first year. They couldn’t be taken seriously as a band until Brendan [aka Ronnie Recent] joined and all of a sudden it clicked. He came out to New Zealand in 1975. It was very credible to have a guy with a cockney accent in the band, he looked the part as well, plus he had the right attitude and he had a great voice.”
Grigg booked the Suburban Reptiles on to the bill of the August 1977 Student Arts Festival in Wellington. As he was flatting with two of the “Scavs”, they said, “Wicked – we’re gonna come down too”.
“We stayed in this place in Newtown, it was freezing cold with 10 of us all sleeping in this one room. Getting up in the morning and going off and stealing bread from outside dairies so we could feed ourselves and bouncing cheques at various Chinese takeaways around town. Johnny Volume got up in the morning and blew his nose on the curtain. Billy got arrested for writing on the wall ‘Suburban Reptiles have you licked, all over’ and had to go to court. Got fined $50. Somebody else got picked up for stealing sandwiches from a coffee bar. We did three gigs, there was an Elvis Presley memorial gig because it was just after Elvis died and the Reptiles got up and said, ‘1, 2, 3, 4 fuck Elvis’ which didn’t go down very well, and they played with Simon Morris’s band, The Heartbreakers, at the Cricketers Arms. They did one gig at the Student Union building with this Hare Krishna hippie band, Living Force, supporting the Suburban Reptiles.”
Halfway through the set the sound company wanted to turn the Reptiles off.
“The band said, ‘Fuck you’ and Buster threw a drumstick into the air and it landed in the crowd and hit a girl just above her eye and the Reptiles got in the Evening Post, ‘Piqued, Punk Pop Star Hurts Girl’. The Reptiles and the Scavengers managed to get in the Wellington newspapers every single day they were in Wellington, Johnny got beaten up the next day, we were followed by vigilante squads. Wellington, it was a backwater. But that was fun.
“You remember how bad the skinhead crowd used to be in Auckland, XS Café, all the punk gigs were really heavy. I remember seeing Karl from The Features pulled off the stage at XS Café because he happened to laugh at some skinhead, while he’s doing the gig, then have the crap beaten out of him and then thrown back on stage to finish the gig. Which he did.”
How deliberate was starting the Propeller record label?
“It was a deliberate accident. I always wanted to do a record label. When ‘Megaton’ came out the copyright on that was my record label Partizan Politik. My mum had taken me to meet Phil Warren in the early ’70s because I wanted to be in the music industry and make records, and she thought Phil Warren’s done it so I’ll take him along to meet this fellow. She rang up Phil Warren and said, ‘My son wants to make records’ and Phil Warren said, ‘Come and see me’. I remember going into his office in Cook Street and being incredibly impressed that I was in the office of the guy from [TV show] Studio One. I was overawed at age 16. Phil basically said to me, ‘If you’re going to do it, go and do it yourself, don’t wait around for other people to find you, go and do it yourself’. I kind of took that to heart.
“When we started the Asylum nightclub in 1986 [later the Powerstation], it was a partnership with Phil, and Phil and I laughed a couple of times about me 16 years old, going to see him, he said, ‘Well you did it, didn’t you?’”
If The Scavengers hadn’t moved to Melbourne in 1979 would they have been the first release you did on Propeller?
“Definitely. They were almost family. We’d flatted together. We’d spent years together.”
Was Propeller New Zealand’s first alternative label or was it equally a pop label?
“There was no grand vision behind Propeller. My flatmate James Pinker had a band the Features who were incredibly popular and I thought they should’ve made a record. He’d been to see all the majors and been turned down. I thought this is ridiculous and we borrowed some money off my flatmate, James’s girlfriend, and set up a record label. My brother-in-law was managing The Spelling Mistakes and we engineered them to win the Battle of the Bands and got a day’s free recording out of that and we got another single. There was no business plan behind it, we didn’t even think about financial side – how to pay bills and such – for a while. By the time The Screaming Meemees started to happen I had started to develop some sort of a vision as to what I wanted to do with the record label. Paul Rose became a partner in the label. I got Paul on board because he managed the Newmatics and I wanted the Newmatics for the label. Paul was the man behind No Tag as well. He managed No Tag and that was his baby.”
Were you a fan of the cool indie labels like Stiff?
“I loved Stiff, I was totally addicted to Stiff. I used to buy everything on the label and a lot of it was shit. And Rough Trade was a very cool label. Factory was a very cool label. Those English indie labels were the prototypes.”
Adding to the local repertoire, the Marching Girls’ 1980 single ‘True Love’ was licensed from Bruce Milne of Au Go Go Records in Melbourne, and Propeller also released two Birthday Party albums from Keith Glass’s Missing Link label in Melbourne.
“I turned down ‘Blue Monday’. Rob Gretton was not happy with [distributor] RTC in late 1982 and offered the Factory label to Propeller. He said, ‘You’re a little indie like us, do you want to handle us?’ I thought Joy Division have broken up and New Order are really cool but I don’t think it’s going to go through the roof. I turned it down and the next thing was ‘Blue Monday’.”
The Propeller label peaked with the success of The Screaming Meemees and Blam Blam Blam debut albums, but suddenly the label’s three biggest bands all decided to split.
“The Newmatics splitting was quite disappointing, because we thought an album was next for them. The Meemees sort of self-destructed, there were girlfriend problems and all sorts of things. They were North Shore kids. They were never going to last that long anyway. Michael O’Neill and Tony Drumm used to moan about having to play. I’d book a tour and try and persuade them that they should maybe go on this tour to promote the single.”
A van accident in Wanganui took Blam Blam Blam off the road. The demise of the band made Harlequin Studio worry about whether they would see final payments on the recording bills and they went after Grigg.
“I got arrested on the basis that I was going to leave New Zealand and not pay the bill. Flight with a debt or something. I’d done a deal and they went back on their deal. I got taken to the Auckland District Court, Friday, five o’clock, and I was told unless you can post bail of $4000 you have to stay in the cells for the weekend. I couldn’t find my parents anywhere. I rang Jerry Wise at Festival Records and he came straight down. He was fantastic. He let the bailiff have it and tore into the judge as well, he posted bail and went and tore into Harlequin and let them have it. I didn’t have to spend the weekend in the cells. On the Monday we had a court hearing and it was resolved. I paid off what was owed with help from Festival but primarily help from my parents. I said to Paul Rose, ‘I’m paying it off, I want all my shares back’ and Paul said, ‘Okay’. The Blams played a couple of benefit concerts to help sort my parents out. They raised pretty much all the money that was owed to my parents.”
Why did you move to London in 1983?
“Propeller was collapsing all around me, so it was time to go and have a look. In London it was the end of the new romantic era and the beginning of the clubbing era. Dance clubs had become part of London culture when the new romantic/post punk thing happened. The hip inner-city clubs then became black music orientated rather than playing Spandau Ballet. When I arrived in London my heroes were Paul Weller, Elvis Costello and people like that. The Smiths were rising when I got to London. I saw the Smiths in South London and I thought they were extremely mediocre. I saw Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five about the same time at the Venue and I thought they were mind-blowing. It was amazing. Other people helped transform my taste, Stefan Morris [former Rip It Up graphic artist and ex-Penknife Glides drummer) and Neil Barnes who became part of Leftfield: people like that were playing me stuff and it didn’t take long and I was buying a lot of black music. People I was hanging out with were listening to black music, it was just part of what we did and we started going clubbing.”
You were sending dance cassette tapes back to Auckland DJ entrepreneurs Mark Phillips and Peter Urlich (A Certain Bar, Zanzibar, Six Month Club).
“I was and they were using the cassettes to DJ in their clubs. I didn’t have a lot of money but I was still voraciously buying records. And I was also a buyer for Radio New Zealand of new singles for Barry Jenkin’s ZM indie radio show. I was always anglophile in my outlook. Going back to London certainly sorted that out, I came back disliking London as a place. To this day I still do, I think it’s a dirty, horrible depressed place full of people who don’t inspire me. I don’t find London a very exciting city at all and I don’t find English music that exciting, but the English seem to have a focus on popular music that the Americans still fail to grasp.
“The thing that got me down about London was the grind to survive, all this great music and great art is around you but it’s such a total battle to go and see it, to enjoy it.”
Originally published in Real Groove, September 2000