Buster Stiggs is best known as a member of New Zealand punk pioneers The Suburban Reptiles and the band which grew out of the Reptiles, The Swingers.
On the eve of The Swingers’ brief Australian success, he left the band and immediately joined top Australian band Models, serving long enough to record with them and enjoy a stint in post-punk/new romantic London. Stiggs’s time in high-profile bands lasted about five years, yet his influence was felt both before and after his period of prominence.
In the mid-1970s Stiggs was part of Auckland’s music scene as it was on the cusp of turning from MOR pop, singer-songwriters, country-rock and cover bands to confronting punk. After his time in Models, he went back to his first love, graphic art. His snare drum didn't come out for 20 years, but he was never away from the music scene, designing art work for musicians, and recording young bands.
Stiggs was born Mark John Hough in London on 8 December 1954. The family immigrated to New Zealand shortly after, settling in Hawke’s Bay, first in Wairoa, then Napier and, finally, Hastings. At Hastings Boys’ High School he felt at odds with the prevalent sports and beer culture and found solace in art classes, and connected with a bunch of like-minded friends which included Phil Judd, two years his senior.
There was no formal band during his school years, although a collection of friends, including Judd, congregated in Hough’s bedroom for a weekly jam, with Hough playing tea-chest bass. That finished when the older boys finished school and left Hastings, Judd to Auckland and the Elam School of Fine Arts. Hough followed him two years later, by which stage Judd was in a band called Split Enz.
Attending Elam, Hough fell in with the Split Enz crowd. He met Te Awamutu schoolboy Neil Finn during his weekend visits to Auckland, and they started writing songs together. When Finn shifted to Auckland in 1975, he moved in with Hough and his wife Miranda. Hough and Finn began songwriting and formed a band, named After Hours, which was short-lived and played few gigs (guitarist Geoff Chunn was briefly a member). The songs were arty, like early Elton John. “That’s because it was Neil on piano. He didn’t write lyrics, so I did. I just wrote free form, without pre-conceived ideas: I just went with how it felt.” After Hours came to a sudden halt in April 1977 when Finn was summoned to London to join Split Enz, replacing Judd.
THE CAMARADERIE AND EXCITEMENT OF THE PUNK SCENE IN AUCKLAND FROM ’77 TO ’79 WILL NEVER BE REPEATED
Later that year, also at Elam, Hough met a group of fellow students who would make up one of New Zealand’s first punk rock bands: The Suburban Reptiles. When original drummer Des Edwards departed, they recruited Hough, who was rechristened Buzz Adrenaline and later Buster Stiggs. In truth, Hough had little drumming experience and considered himself more proficient on other instruments, although in 1975 he had unsuccessfully auditioned for Hello Sailor.
“The punk scene was a blast,” wrote Stiggs in a memoir first published by Café Reader and accessible at AudioCulture. “The camaraderie and excitement of that music scene in Auckland from ’77 to ’79 will never be repeated.”
It was an exciting time: the rebellious nature of the music and the provocative clothes, the tabloid headlines. “We were the punk rock band,” Stiggs said in 2017. “There were also journalists trying to get on the punk band wagon. We were in the mainstream media more than in Rip It Up. We were interviewed by Truth and told them all this bullshit about how, in our spare time, we’d go to the waterfront and strangle seagulls. And that The Ramones sent us their glue from New York. They printed it all.”
The Suburban Reptiles released two singles, ‘Megaton’ (written by Billy Planet) and ‘Saturday Night Stay At Home’ (written by Stiggs), the latter produced by Judd upon his return from London in mid-1978. However the Reptiles were already in disarray.
Reunited with Judd and with the Reptiles defunct, Buster pulled in Bones Hillman, an ex-Reptile, and the trio began rehearsing. “We took a page out of The Police’s book and kept it down to a three-piece and that is how I became the drummer.” The Swingers’ first gigs were supporting Split Enz on the Give It A Whirl tour, followed by a residency at Liberty Stage on Symonds Street. Offers soon came in from other parts of the country.
In April 1980 The Swingers’ first single, ‘One Good Reason’ was released on Ripper Records, having earlier provided two tracks, ‘A Certain Sound’ and ‘Baby’, to Ripper’s AK79 compilation. In July, at the instigation of Mushroom Records’ Michael Gudinski, The Swingers shifted to Australia. David Tickle – a young, English producer in Australia working on his second Split Enz album (Waiata) – was impressed by the trio and recorded two tracks at Sydney’s 301 Studios. One of them was ‘Counting The Beat’.
Released in New Zealand in February 1981, and a month later in Australia, ‘Counting The Beat’ was a huge hit, topping the charts in both countries. “I call it the first drum’n’bass song ever. Because Juddzy’s not really playing chords, he’s going chinka chinka. I joke that’s there’s everything wrong with the drums: it starts with a drum fill, the bass drum’s late, the snare is early, and it speeds up in the end.” Stiggs is quick to credit Tickle for the big snare and bass sound of the single.
Stiggs didn’t get to enjoy the success of ‘Counting The Beat’ in person. “I’ve only enjoyed the royalties,” he jokes.
After months of struggling to get a foothold in Australia, “playing shit gigs”, The Swingers were suddenly massive. But Stiggs didn’t get to enjoy the success of the song in person. “I’ve only enjoyed the royalties,” he joked to AudioCulture in 2017. In December 1980, prior to the release ‘Counting the Beat’, he suddenly left the band after he’d heard that Judd was looking for a new drummer. Gudinski tipped him off that so too were the Australian group, Models – and Stiggs’s audition quickly turned into a job. “In Australia, there were an incredible amount of bands going through the pub and RSL circuit: Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl, The Church, The Reels ...”
Sadly, ‘Counting the Beat’ proved to be The Swingers’ sole hit single. In Australia at least, the groups is remembered as a one-hit wonder. Subsequent releases failed to sell, and the band split up in April 1982.
Performing with Models was a totally different experience for Stiggs. “I loved playing live with Sean Kelly, Andrew Duffield and Mark Ferrie. They had been playing together for three years before I joined and they trusted each other’s abilities implicitly. Playing live was a joy, they had a big loyal following and the gigs went off. Plus we had the luxury of a good manager, and a first class road crew: soundman, lighting guy, stage guy and luggers. A far cry from The Swingers’ early days in Oz playing three shows in one day and lugging my own gear. In Models the band just turned up to the gigs and left after the gig. Yes please!”
As it turned out, Stiggs’s stint with Models lasted only eight months, but long enough to record Cut Lunch (a mini album), and the LP Local &/or General, and spend time in post-punk London. For Stiggs, returning to London at that time was living the rock’n’roll dream.
“We played all the historic punk venues where the Sex Pistols and the Clash played, like the Hope and Anchor, about the size of a garage, a cramped little hole; our rehearsal studio was 10 times bigger … I met Nico at a Richard Branson party at his Manor Studios and for the first time in my life I was rendered speechless. We supported UK Squeeze on tour. At a festival headlined by Ultravox, I rubbed shoulders with my contemporary drumming heroes Rat Scabies from the Damned and Clem Burke from Blondie. I had kind of fulfilled my lifelong and even my most recent rock and roll ambitions. My musical goals had been achieved really quickly. Only five years earlier I had failed the audition for Hello Sailor.”
My musical goals were achieved really quickly. Only FIVE years earlier I had failed the audition for Hello Sailor.
Back in Australia, the band toured to promote the UK-recorded album, Local &/Or General, but bandleader Sean Kelly had decided that Stiggs’s drumming wasn’t quite suitable for the band after all. Hearing this, once again Michael Gudinski came to the rescue, employing Stiggs in Mushroom’s merchandising division. “It suited me perfectly,” Buster says. “I was over travel and strange rooms … I hadn’t had a weekend off for four years.” Going out almost “every night of the week” to see bands was also part of the job.
In the 30 years since, although there have occasional musical units and lots of songwriting (he has over 200 songs registered with APRA), Stiggs has excelled mostly as a graphic artist in subsequent years, designing tour posters, album covers and T-shirts. “I made a good living from it. The first album cover I designed was for Pseudo Echo, and I got nominated for an Aria award.”
Stiggs moved to Perth with a girlfriend. At first the pair performed together and he also played in a covers group, Animosity, that played “the best of Australian rock”. However in recent years he has been battling cancer and kidney disease. “I’m on dialysis three times a week,” he told AudioCulture in July 2017. “I’m dying, basically. They reckon I’m not strong enough for a kidney transplant. By the time they realised I had cancer, it was all done, right through me. The haematologist is surprised I’m still alive.”
Over 35 years since its stint at No.1, ‘Counting the Beat’ lives on as part of a long-running TV advertisement on both sides of the Tasman. In 2015 the song was belatedly recognised at the APRA NZ Silver Scroll award, when it was given the award as the “lost scroll” of 1981, a year the awards were not held.
Stiggs’s appearance in Auckland at the 2015 APRA Silver Scroll function to pick up the award was his first taste of the limelight for 35 years.
“It was so cool for me,” he reflected. “Back in the day when The Swingers were getting Countdown Music Awards for best new band and biggest selling single in Australia, I was in Models in the UK. I missed out on all the formal honours and the respect that such awards afford. I always longed for public recognition for ‘Counting The Beat’s’ success. I wanted to take some credit and here at last I was able to do so.”
Since 1981, the song has seemed unavoidable, yet unacknowledged for most of that time. Stiggs told AudioCulture that when he got back to his hotel room, “there it was: la da de dah. Hell, I can’t get away from it.”
After a long struggle with ill health, Buster Stiggs died 7 January 2018.
Rip It Up, July 1979
“Band File” No. 7 – The Swingers
Born December 8, 1954 (Haroldwood, Essex).
Education From 1959 to 1971, Wairoa, Te Awa and Napier Primary Schools – Napier and Hastings Intermediate Schools – Hastings Boys High School. Elam School of Fine Arts (1972-75), Sec. Teachers College (1976), Elam and Park Avenue (1977).
Musical Career Started writing songs with “Fang” (1976) until he was exported. 1977 to mid ’78, drums and song writing with Suburban Reptiles. Played guitar with Scavengers for two gigs, a person died at each, so gave up. Picked up sticks again and been swinging ever since.
Other Jobs Stripping and polishing off, doing the dishes, tidying up and trimming the edges with Phil while Bones mows the lawns.
Albums Ogdens Nut Gone Flake – Small Faces
Singles ‘Fever’ – Peggy Lee, ‘Eight Days a Week’ – Beatles, ‘Tommy Gun’ – The Clash.
Drummers Gene Krupa, Spike, Mike Dooley and Des Hefner
Equipment Tama, Imperial Star (fibreglass shell and crimson metallic finish), Paiste cymbals. All Tama fittings and pedals.