First published in Rip It Up, April 1987
I have a theory. It’s been my belief for a while that reverie of a certain kind is a significant part of the New Zealand character. It’s that disposition to sit back and dream, more especially in this case to recall, to yarn, to embellish memory.
You’ll see it at its most pronounced in New Zealanders away from home; prompting each other into recollections of old TV programmes, seeing who can whistle theme tunes, echoing songs from dead hit parades, remembering five-cent ice creams and 50 cents to the pictures, or as far forward as the first, fifth and fifteenth times they got drunk and sicked up and swore never again. Some great parties, the better gigs and one or two sunsets.
The tendency to shining memory marks our country’s literature too, be it the well-known callings-up of Janet Frame or Ian Cross, or the heart of yarning in Sargeson, Morrieson and Crump. It’s the nation’s relative youth that makes this storytelling essential. It’s a setting-in-order of the past, laying a base for personal and national myths. On the other hand, Māori have had a lot longer to listen to the land – and a rich oral tradition to match.
The further you are from the jaded modern world, the more time there is to make a good story of the past. As that past becomes at once less and more “real,” people, places, objects and events are accorded totem status, they serve as landmarks. People begin to collect physical and emotional memorabilia. For the kind of people who read this magazine, phonograph records are often the most vivid totems. Within an established record collection lie highs and lows, hopes, dreams, pride and creeping embarrassment.
Not surprisingly, Martin Phillipps of The Chills has an established record collection. He draws too. He drew a picture for the inside cover of the first issue of the Jesus on a Stick comic, a fine line drawing called ‘Machines Crossing’. In the picture a wide-eyed young face stares out the back window of a bulbous old car with a number plate reading “Holiday”, on the road in the middle of nowhere, probably Central Otago. Huge power pylons carry cables high over the road and off into distant foothills. But the wide young eyes see the lines in the grasp of alien metal giants, who march off into the distance, unnoticed by all who don’t take the trouble to look, then as a convoy of swaying elephants.
It is quite a haunting picture. The car and its occupants will stop some time for five-cent ice creams.
February 8, Clapham South, London
Craig Taylor arrives home and begins to make one phone call after another on a Sunday night, most of them to do with the Chills’ gig at Dingwalls in three days’ time, the first of their 1987 European tour. In between he confesses to some “trepidation” about it. There’s a lot riding on it for him. There are 40 or more journalists on the guest list and it does have to go right.
Taylor has been in England since he gave up being a student scallywag in Dunedin in 1977. He lucked into a job doing the back door at the toilet-like Marquee club, which meant he saw band after band, night after night. He met a lot of people too, and wound up making rock videos for a few years. From there it was on to contract tour management and a bigwig job with Point Music Publishing.
He became involved with Flying Nun Records after a friend sat him down and played him the Chills’ ‘Pink Frost’ a couple of years ago: “I still think that’s an amazing record – incredible space for something done on four-track bumped up to eight-track,” he says. “And as a Dunedin boy I was proud that this kind of thing was coming out of it – because there was nothing like that when I left.”
Taylor’s interest came just in time for the Chills’ first trip to England in 1985. In a rush he arranged gigs, studio time, press, a video and floors to sleep on. It all went quite well and then, of course, the band went back home and broke up.
In the interim Flying Nun UK has been set up and has so far released Tuatara, The Verlaines’ Hallelujah LP and The Bats’ ‘Made Up in Blue’, recorded during their tour last year. Set for imminent release (it has been “due out in two weeks” for some time) is the Chills’ ‘Leather Jacket’/’Great Escape’, which may top the English indie chart. To follow are Sneaky Feelings and Tall Dwarfs compilations and the EPs by the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience and Look Blue Go Purple.
Now Taylor has backpedalled the secure publishing job and thrown himself into the Chills. He is aided by English journalist Martin Aston, who handles all the FN press for the love of it, which is considerable. He says he identifies strongly with the Nun experience, even though he’s never been within half a world of its homeland. He does, however, have abnormally large collections of comic books and records.
Aston arrives and the pair sit down and compare their respective guest lists for the Dingwalls gig. They snipe good-naturedly: “You’re giving him a plus-one? Look, there’s just no way ...” The list is swelling, and Craig will have to placate the Dingwalls management by paying for most of it. “Look,” he sighs, “get yours down to the bare minimum and I’ll get it typed up. It always looks less typed up.”
The tour party begins to arrive. First are Justin Harwood and Andrew Todd, bass and keyboard players respectively in Chills Mk 10. If you don’t already know the well-chronicled Chills saga, Phillipps searched long and hard before choosing these two and drummer Caroline Easther to replace the band which dissolved after the first English tour. Commitment to the band, one of the flaws in the last Chills, was one of the key criteria in choosing new members this time.
Justin explains that the band is 14 New Zealand gigs old and that while some of those were good ones, the band won’t be playing to potential for at least another two or three months.
Caroline doesn’t show, but sound/lights partnership Andrew Frengley and Lisa Coleman arrive, along with Martin P and his girlfriend Kate Tattersfield. Craig’s mate Nicky Tesco, the old Members’ singer, calls in too. He’s a songwriter/producer now. Not to mention a talker. It being a Sunday evening, things are adjourned to the pub, where the jet-lagged ones have one pint of something strong and look like falling over.
After the pub, Doug Hood (who, as all the fanzines will tell you, used to be soundman for The Enemy) phones up from Auckland to see that things are going okay, which they are. Tongues get looser and Craig explains publishing to Martin P, who listens intently. It will be good to try and hold on to the Chills’ publishing for as long as possible, he explains. But in the short term that involves coming up with some money. This is not like the neighbourhood music industry in New Zealand. There is money at every turn in the real world.
It gets late and Craig leaves to drop off Martin and Kate in his battered BMW. You see battered BMWs everywhere here – they’re two-a-penny in a relative sense and no one has any particular regard for them. They’re a kind of a wide boy’s car. About half an hour later, Craig phones. He has been picked up and breath-tested and is at Battersea copshop. It’s okay, he’s under the limit, but they won’t let him drive. A cautious breath of relief is breathed.
This is the news: the colour has drained from Auckland – no venue, dissolution. A few people are a little lost; where do you drink when the party’s over? A golden year fades? Or just changes. Those as can move on, do. Peel is in Sydney, happyish, sends her love, sorry about no letters. There’s a pic of the Battling Strings in the paper – Andy looks awful!
Feb 11, London Camden Dingwalls
In the afternoon at Dingwalls the place is still a little bit sweaty and beery, which you’d expect after all these years. Martin is off doing one of his three interviews for the day and the others are setting up around a half-finished meal of pizza and gruesomely English cake. Everyone is upbeat, energetic and a bit nervous. It’s hours before the gig. Caroline takes a couple of photos of the stage.
By the time most of the hours have passed there’s a slow queue stretching around the corner. Inside, there’s a bubbly, excited mood and every expat NZer you never knew is in London. There are a lot of us and we kind of look the same.
There’s S---lager at the bar at a princely £1.20 a can and not shifting as fast as it did last time. So maybe most of these people aren’t ex-Kiwis. They just kind of look the same. There’s the American at the bar who likes the Chills a lot but actually flew over from NY to see Alien Sex Fiend tomorrow night. There’s Dave from HMV in Norwich who loved the Chills last time. He’s just bought the cassette of Tuatara and is a bit put out when he’s told that most of the bands on it aren’t around anymore. There’s a lot of must-keep-in-touch and address exchanging.
Dingwalls is a great place for a chat. Not such a good place to see a band really. That’s the thing you find out when all those names you clocked in the NME gig guide become reality – most of the venues are public toilets with car stereos for PA systems. Dingwalls’ major foible is a mezzanine platform which obstructs the view of the stage for anyone who’s not on it, or in front of it on the dancefloor. So after the young, naive My Life Story from Brighton and the party cool of New York band Crash, two-thirds of the crowd crams into less than one-third of the space to see the Chills. It gets vigorous quickly. A bunch of No Tag fans demand to know why No Tag aren’t playing as advertised (a misunderstanding).
It’s immediately clear that this is a very different band from the last Chills. The first thing apparent is a great big, tensile band sound that hasn’t got to know itself yet. At Dingwalls the band doesn’t ever murmur quite like past Chills have but there’s a real unified muscle at the high points. For the moment it’s the thunderous re-entries of ‘Ghosts’ and the buzz of a revitalised ‘Leather Jacket’ that translate better than ‘Night of Chill Blue’. In the back of your mind you worry a little about the Chills taking the wrong road someday and ending up the living hell that is tight’n’ragey.
But in the end, after an encore ending with ‘What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?’ (“... sodomise and keelhaul him ...”), yes, it’s good, it has worked, really all this gig was meant to do. It’s unfortunate that so many people have paid their money to watch the gig on TV monitors at the back, but there’s always the Savoy Ballroom in a month’s time.
Craig and Martin Aston are well pleased. Martin talks to some hack who reckons they were tamer than he thought they’d be, and he’s right, even if he did spend most of the gig by the bar.
Craig has been talking to the producer of The Tube, who doesn’t see why the Chills shouldn’t be on his show. “Doesn’t see why not?” Craig relates. “After a gig like that what are you supposed to do, suck God off?” Craig! Never end a sentence with a preposition!
A foul-tempered hangover stalks the outside rooms in search of me. I bolt the door and nestle under the blankets until it leaves, bored. There are weird things on the wind. If your brain was your nose, it would be smelling the kind of smell that is harsh but intoxicating. If your brain was your nose ...
No, if I could I’d have water for blood, I would. The clearest, fastest water, like it rains in the country or jumps over rocks. This blood I have now is thick and brackish, like the slow, pungent water in swamps. Because of this I rot and stand where every second should be fresh and passing. What do I give up? Slow, sticky red stuff for clear, shining, fast and fresh? And ... no rainbows in this blood.
Feb 19, Amsterdam, Netherlands
It’s a myth to think that when you go on tour somewhere you’ll automatically meet the locals. You don’t. What you find at this time of year is American preppies, hordes of them. Healthy and chubby, with voices like a thumb pushed across a lump of polystyrene foam.
It’s a bad thing to say, but you come to understand the logic of all the Halloweens and Elm Streets, where squeaky clean American youth pop off by the dozen. After a short time surrounded by high volume chatter, wading in with a chainsaw seems to have a certain appeal: “Omigod you guys, I’m, like, totally severed in the middle, y’know?”
There’s a bunch of the girl kind sitting at the next table, before noon at the Hard Rock Cafe. They’re drinking pints of beer but they’re the only ones in the place not smoking cannabis or preparing to. They’re the only ones talking. But the warm, red, seedy tone of the place seems to have coloured even their forthrightly ingenuous air. They look a bit sleazy.
That’s the thing. The hash cafés of Amsterdam should be free of tiresome sleaze and subterfuge if cannabis is decriminalised and its sale tacitly permitted by the authorities. But they’re not. They’re relaxed and friendly but the man in the corner selling grass and hash will always be a bit sleepy, seedy and slow and there’s a slight electricity to each transaction. Maybe everyone likes it because it tickles their sense of guilt.
People ride bicycles, old bicycles, everywhere. New bicycles wouldn’t take these cobbled streets and wouldn’t look right. Wouldn’t wobble gracefully like old bikes do. They glide through the arches over Museum Road, while a lone woman busking saxophone, long, dreamy notes, echoes around under the stone slabs.
(Still) Feb 19, The Melk Weg, Amsterdam
The Melk Weg, or Milky Way, is probably the most famous café in Amsterdam, if café isn’t too mild a word. With a little council help, it incorporates two coffee shops, a well-appointed bar venue, a theatre, cinema, gallery and bookshop. It hosts everything from African jazz to New Zealand rock and roll, and it’s the latter which is happening tonight.
The Chills have played seven gigs since Dingwalls, in Belgium and Holland. The set-up at the Milky Way is noticeably more matter of fact, even though this is in theory the big Dutch gig.
“Lisa,” says Martin, sitting down on the edge of the stage. “Apparently someone’s making us a flying nun to fly above the stage. Do you want to go and have a look at it?”
Lisa finds the big staging room where two long, pale goths (Goths. You know goths? More on goths later) are working on their creation. It is not very Chills-y. It is not very nice. A purple-clad nun straddles a big crucifix like a broomstick. The dark side of Dutch Catholicism perhaps.
Lisa goes back and they all agree this cannot go up. She goes back and tells the two goths they’ll have to take the cross out. “But it’s a gold cross!”
After soundcheck, dinner is due. And due. And due. One of the prices of eating out in Amsterdam is the service, which is friendly but slow and sometimes unbelievably disorganised. It takes a full hour and a half to eat at the venue’s front café tonight.
Stage time, 11pm, rolls around and the venue has filled up with a crowd spanning the spectrum from old-style hippies to goths, about 700 of them. There are a few sound problems, mainly with the old strings on Justin’s bass, but seven gigs on from Dingwalls the Chills are markedly tougher. Maybe a bit too tough for some of the crowd, who look like they’ve been hit over the head with a frozen dog roll, but are perhaps just too stoned to move.
This full, the whole thing is weird. But mostly good weird and occasionally very good weird. This is a crowd with little use for inhibition. A blonde woman pushes her way towards the front, and then with slow and purposeful motions, clambers onto the stage and kneels on it, swaying and waving her arms. The stage man from the venue tries to persuade her to leave, but you don’t do things like chuck people off stages in Amsterdam. It’s not nice. Then she tears off her T-shirt. Then she leans over and begins holding onto Martin’s leg as he plays. His expression is part pissed-off and part terribly embarrassed.
After two storming, noisy encores, the floor clears a bit and the disco, run by the two goths who made the nun (which ended up looking like a torture victim, strung by arms and legs above the stage), hots up. People draw round to watch those who choose to dance fling and contort themselves, no two dancing alike. There’s a trim, healthy, hippie pulling some Tai chi out there on the floor, while an immaculate leather-chick frugs like there’s no tomorrow.
Later, after the key to the rental van has been lost, given up, and located, there’s a quiet party in Martin and Kate’s hotel room. They haven’t been partying up a lot so far, what with Martin having trouble with his throat. As a matter of fact, the Chills are building up a backlog of beer – they’re having trouble drinking their rider. The rider is the proviso a band lays down before playing and at this level it’s standard for it to include, say, a bottle of spirits and two crates of beer. But pissy Euro-Pilsner at its worst can make one bottle seem plenty, especially when you put your head up and remember you’re travelling all over the place and you’re knackered. Anyway, so the riders are piling up.
Small, quiet parties being what they are, there’s a lot of talking – a lot of shit-talk. Now don’t get me wrong. What I mean by shit-talk is a fine thing, a kind of ambling, musing, storytelling talk of sublime unimportance. And from which, like any other kind of shit, good things grow. You’d be surprised how many people can’t do it.
This night, old TV programmes are eulogised and it turns out that Justin, although a mere stripling of 21, can call to mind more stupid old telly programmes than anyone else. He’s too young to remember Gigantor. “I only go back as far as Space Ghost.”
As is their wont, drinks start getting kicked over and being mopped up: “Pat it, don’t rub it ...” Kate muses. “Remember that? My father always used to say that if something got spilled. Did yours?”
Mmmm ... he was keener on “Were you born in a tent?”
Into a silence creeps a strange scratching noise from outside the door. Investigation reveals Lisa, who went outside to smoke a cigarette, feverishly retrieving spilled ash. All together now ... “PAT IT – DONT RUB IT!”
TV programmes ... by the very depthless nature of television they’re a shared memory, because they happen the same for everybody. Everybody heard the Daleks intone “Exterrrminate!” or Selwyn Toogood bellow “What’ll it be, customers?” and they saw it all from the same, presented, angle. The only possible difference is whether they saw it in black and white or colour. That would be the Kiwi class gulf in action.
“Were you born in a tent?” they used to say. “Were you born in a bloody tent?” when what they meant was “will you please remember to shut the door!” A simple command would have been clear and instructive, especially backed up with an explanation of how shutting the door saved on bills, cut down on outside noise and prevented unwanted intruders. But no, they had to ask you if you were born in a tent. As if you’d bloody know!
Feb 21, Patronaat, Haarlem
The Quentin Hotel is a rock and roll hotel – or, more correctly, a performers’ hotel. At the bottom line this means they serve breakfast until noon. But it also denotes special qualities in the group of young gay men who run it, in keeping their guests happy while keeping them in line. They have only had to throw one group out, the notorious King Kurt. The Chills of course are comparative cherubs, but they do have to have a parental telling-off on occasion. Andrew Todd, for example, keeps leaving the outside door open, allowing the cold air outside and the warm air in the lobby to change places.
He does it again. “Ahum, Ahhndrew...” begins co-manager Philip, with smooth mock ingenuousness. “Do you not have to shut doors in New Zealand? Are you not taught ...?” Yes. We are taught. Were you born ...
The band plays this night in Haarlem, a small town not far south of Amsterdam, so there’s time to explore Amsterdam for a Saturday afternoon and catch up with them later. With its lookalike streets and canals, it can take some exploring, but the locals will positively queue up to give you directions. An extraordinary number speak English. It’s the argot in the hazy cafés too; you hear conversations in which neither side is a native speaker. Those are good to overhear, halting bursts of tonal fireworks with much more drama in them than privileged native speakers would bother with.
The Patronaat is a nice little club in a nice little town. Everyone is young and helpful (when you get old you move to Amsterdam and be helpful) and the DJ is a real sharpie, even managing to pluck out The Clean’s ‘Tally Ho!’ for the occasion. He’s rewarded later on with a 12" of ‘I Love My Leather Jacket’.
Craig is back from London, bearing new bass strings for Justin and news of the van he’s just acquired for the band. It’s a ... Volkswagen. A high-top one, and Ivan Purvis is driving it over. Ivan used to be Sneaky Feelings’ soundman but through Craig’s good offices he’s recently finished a British tour as part of the Human League’s crew. One and the same thing really ...
The new strings render the rhythm section clean as a whistle, and before an enthusiastic crowd takes place the best gig of the tour so far. The crowd won’t let the band go without three encores. You can even hear the words to the newer songs. Martin Phillipps may only manage self-conscious thank-yous between songs and encores, but he’s positively bursting to say things in a song like ‘Background Noise’ – “I won’t play drinking music for boys / Making background noise ... I won’t compromise / In my eyes / and that’s a promise I’ll make ...”
Martin is happy to keep on saying things afterwards too, when two earnest young men from the local paper take him under the stairs for an earnest young interview while everybody else has a crack at drinking the rider. Even though he’s been doing a lot, he’s still an incredibly conscientious interview subject. Kate says he quite enjoys the interviews: “He just likes to emphasise that he’s an ordinary person.”
It’s an easy load-out at the Patronaat, no stairs, straight out a side door, and the last ride in the rental van is only delayed while a young woman gives Andrew Todd her address. On the short trip back to Amsterdam humour is good and there’s singing. It’s a weird feeling when you realise you still know all the words to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
It’s late, let’s talk Roots. Musical roots. Where ya comin’ from. Some of the young New Zealanders trying to make things in music today might cite the first Velvet Underground album as the heartland, or Otis Blue, or Forever Changes, or Closer, or Never Mind the Bollocks. But those are the ones they choose. All these young people are the ones who spent their formative years listening to the radio. And what was seeping into those innocent musical consciousnesses? It sure as hell wasn’t Big Star, Genesis or Little Feat. It was the Partridge Family. This is the one we don’t talk about, the one that speaks within us. This wasn’t like the sophistipop of the 80s. This was … naïve.
A generation in this country had its very pubescence mapped out by 20 Solid Gold Hits, volumes one to 12. Were YOU too young to quite understand Grunt Machine? Martin Phillipps, blessed of a mental condition called Poetic Memory, has embraced the experience in Apollonian terms, shining and haunting, while the likes of the Sheets (probably the most complete and terrifying visitation we have witnessed) grab right at the oily heart of it. They cover ‘Cover of the Rolling Stone’.
Feb 22, De Pul, Uden
Uden is miles from anywhere, even, as we’ll later discover, from the hotel for the night. Stuck amid miles of lookalike flatlands, with only the occasional twisted perspective of water stacked up above the road to relieve the tedium of travelling there. There is fluid on the lungs of rural Holland.
The venue is signalled by the presence of a huge truck, and another one, outside it. The trucks belong to The Damned, with whom The Chills share the billing at tonight’s “festival”.
The Damned’s crew seems to number about a dozen and they have already set up a PA that seems way too big for the club. They have set up the stage too, which is mostly occupied by Rat Scabies’ star drum-riser and flashy kit. It is made clear that the kit will not be moved, and Caroline’s has to be set up at the side of the stage. These men are proper roadies – coarse, a little gutty, good-humoured with each other. They mostly ignore The Chills, with the exception of the guitar roadie who is genuinely helpful, making adjustments to Justin’s bass.
There’s been a slight bolshiness within the Chills to do with blowing The Damned off the stage, and when the soundcheck comes they blow through two of the newer songs, ‘Rain’ and ‘Dan Destiny and the Silver Dawn’ very confidently and impressively. This proves to have certain repercussions later on …
Dinner at a long table at a nearby restaurant is subject to yet another exhibition of loony Dutch catering, with the kitchen staff presumably deciding the order in which dishes are brought out on the roll of dice (“Soup now? Nah … dessert and salad …”).
The audience back at the club seems divided between music fans and goths. Goth is a classic English youth cult, in the same tradition but more middle-class in orientation than, say, teddy boys or mods, that has caught on big in Holland. Like many such youth cults, music is utilised more as an interpretation of a dress code than in its own right. The look is dark and vampiric, accessories lightweight arcane, and the momentum is hippiewards.
Musically, godparents Robert Smith and Siouxsie have been largely supplanted by the dumb metal of The Cult (who have, at least, stopped pretending to be Native Americans) and the astoundingly silly romanticism of the Mission. But goth has also adopted, as its bunch of good blokes, the tired old Damned, whose lead singer Dave Vanian has been doing vampire chic since 1976.
Anyway, so a few goth children repeatedly demand to hear The Damned throughout The Chills’ set, and things get a tiny bit needly. The result is a gig the band don’t enjoy, but consequently play with such a bad-arse feel that it’s good listening. The tone in Martin’s voice when he snaps, “This one’s for all the goths,” is a rare and thrilling one.
By the time everyone reassembles in the dressing room things are coming clear. The Damned’s crew are notorious as Chelsea FC fans and it appears there have been one or two, er, professional fouls this evening.
For one, it has just been discovered the bands had equal billing for the gig and should have equal stage rights rather than having to climb around The Damned’s constructions. Two, Andrew was quietly advised to check the EQ settings on the PA and found they had been altered since soundcheck, so had to scramble to reassemble a decent sound during the first few songs. Nebulous things, but they taste bad in the mouth.
But now The Damned are on. The Damned have not used a dressing room, but have pulled up in their heated bus just before showtime and leapt through the side door, made up and dressed, onto the stage. When the gig finishes with Rat Scabies donning guitar for ‘Pretty Vacant’ (yes …) they will scoot out and back onto the bus, where they will presumably sleep. Their gig is the same loud theatre as their Auckland gigs a year ago and the young man on the Emulator still plays most of the music, no matter how much the bass player jumps and grins. Still, it’s easy that way.
So, ships in the night. Two very different tours of Europe these: one where it’s all new and different and upwards and one that barely touches down. God it must be boring being The Damned.
An edited version of ‘Dutch Courage and Dan Destiny: the Chills in Europe’, first published in Rip It Up, April 1987.
Part 2: A day off in Sin City … the 70s are rising … ‘Ya Ya Ya’ in Gronigen … Waakzaamheid and home.