Circus Block Four were, for a brief time, something else altogether. Their 12-inch single, ‘In Stone In Steel’, had a funk backbone that could have been imported from New York via Talking Heads. Or, more likely, got its groove from the roiling Australian funk-rock of Hunters & Collectors' 'Talking To A Stranger'.
It’s one of the great “what if’s” of NZ music, because no one seems to remember the followup, a three-track 12-inch called ‘Take Another Look’ (backed with ‘Jump’ and ‘Sleepless’), released February 18, 1985.
Gavin McLean and Jeff Thorp formed Circus Block Four after their previous group, The List, fell apart in 1983. McLean says that both Circus Block Four and The Tin Syndrome “came out of a group of Wellington Teachers College students, and the flourishing arts scene in Cuba St in the early 80s, which was like Greenwich Village. Because of the Summer City (city council arts) programme and the Employment Department seeding projects, everyone was an artist or starting a small business.”
The group started out strong, with a busy 1984, performing more than 50 gigs, including supports to international acts Icehouse and The Fixx
The group started out strong, with a busy 1984, performing more than 50 gigs, including supports to international acts Icehouse and The Fixx and a tour up to the Big Smoke. Their barbed song about city living, ‘In Stone And Steel’/’Dead Inside’, appeared late that year to a positive reception if little sales action. ‘In Stone In Steel’ wasn’t just a cool art-funk groove, according to McLean, who says, “At the time a lot of Wellington’s historic buildings were being pulled down, so it was a kind of protest song.”
One of the best-sounding bands of the mid-80s (courtesy of Marmalade studios and Ian Morris), Circus Block Four accentuated the polyrhythmic contributions of percussionist Dean Hutton to great effect – McLean says that Hutton’s “idea of putting a cymbal on a snare drum” helped to achieve this distinction – but in their short two-and-a-half year lifespan, the group never achieved commercial lift-off.
“We spent a while in EMI studios recording our album, but Jayrem weren’t that impressed,” says Jeff Thorp. It remains unreleased to this day.
“The CB4 album was actually great”, says McLean. But only one track, ‘The Tribe From Nowhere’, saw the light of day, on Jayrem’s Package To Sell compilation. Then the band imploded: “The band wasn’t up to the stresses of recording, Caroline left … we all had a bunch of personal issues going on,” says Thorp.
Afterwards, Thorp and McLean briefly played in a “drum machine” band, but shortly thereafter, they both moved to Australia, where they once again formed a group, Razorbrain. Razorbrain recorded a still-unreleased album for EMI, and got one song on the movie Muriel’s Wedding, ‘T-Shirt And Jeans'.
Gavin McLean became a high school teacher and second drummer Caroline Easther (who had already served time with The Spines and The Verlaines) went on to drum for The Chills, Let’s Planet and The Warratahs.
The Circus Block Four catalogue is currently unavailable.
Jeff Thorp - bass, acoustic guitar
Gavin McLean - vocals, guitar
Dean Hutton - percussion
Wayne Frampton - drums
Peter Robinson - keyboards
Bizarre review excerpt from Russell Farmery of the Manawatu Evening Standard: “It should not be confused with the pure Top 20 pop. It can be put with most other New Zealand pop into a “cultured” pop category. This type is in vogue for the followers of songs placed 21 to 40 on the charts.”
Between sets the group employed its manager and tour manager to dress in clown suits and perform on a unicycle, according to the Auckland Star’s Wendyl Nissen.