In the early 70s, Mammal were an important New Zealand band: original, ambitious and talented. The paucity of their recordings means their significance has sometimes been overlooked. At a time when New Zealand’s musical landscape was dominated by pop acts and covers bands, Mammal were pioneers of an uncompromising experimental rock.
They travelled the country in a psychedelic-painted bus, boasting an eye-opening light show and challenging audiences with their often-lengthy original songs, extended instrumentals and elaborate harmonies. They were one of the first NZ bands to use a synthesiser on stage. A showpiece of their set was ‘Play Nasty For Me’, an epic original that could last upwards of half an hour and ran the gamut of musical styles, from country and western to heavy metal. They would also pepper their sets with a smattering of unexpected covers, such as The Temptations’ ‘Cloud Nine’ complete with five-part harmonies and Motown funk arrangement.
Mammal was known as a university band. This referred in part to their academic accomplishments: in addition to Rick Bryant, there was pianist/guitarist Tony Backhouse with a degree in composition, and guitarist/mandolin player Bill Lake, who was working towards a doctorate in philosophy. But the university tag also indicated that it was student audiences who were most receptive to the group’s unconventional mix of acid rock and sophisticated soul.
Their tours, which frequently but not exclusively took them to campuses, were organised by the group’s manager, Graeme Nesbitt. A counter-cultural entrepreneur, he pioneered a local touring circuit for what at the time were referred to as “underground” bands. (Today such bands would be classified as “alternative”). Groups that sometimes performed with Mammal included Tamburlaine, Billy TK and Powerhouse, Butler, The 1953 Memorial Society Rock ‘n’ Roll Band, Dragon and Split Ends.
Mammal played at the Great Ngaruawahia Music Festival in 1973, taking the stage after Black Sabbath.
Mammal also played at festivals, including the Great Ngaruawahia Music Festival in 1973, where they took the stage in the early hours of the morning, some time after Black Sabbath.
Mammal was formed in Wellington in 1971 from the remnants of several other capital city bands. Vocalist Bryant previously sang with Lake in the acoustic Windy City Strugglers and electric Original Sin. Backhouse had been involved in rock operas and staged happenings (Jenifer, Santa’s Liquid Dream), had written songs for 60s pop act The Avengers and studied classical composition. He and Lake had also played together in Simon and the Mammals, a short-lived precursor of Mammal (other members of this group, Simon Morris and Mark Hansen, went on to play in Tamburlaine). Lead guitarist Robert Taylor had moved to Wellington from Waipukurau, ostensibly to go to university but in fact to make music with Bryant, with whom he shared a love of blues and funk.
Mammal’s original rhythm section of Steve Hemmens (bass) and Mike Fullerton (drums) were both with the blues band Gutbucket, with whom Bryant sometimes sang. When Hemmens left in 1972 to study art in England he was replaced by Patrick Bleakley. When Bleakley left a year later to join BLERTA, he was succeeded by Mark Hornibrook, and when Fullerton departed the drum seat he was replaced by Kerry Jacobson.
In 1972 Mammal recorded what was intended to be a trilogy of albums with poet Sam Hunt, for Red Rat, an independent record label set up by alternative book publisher Alister Taylor (who found success with several counter-cultural publications including Tim Shadbolt’s Bullshit and Jellybeans, the controversial Little Red Schoolbook and a New Zealand edition of Rolling Stone magazine, as well as several volumes of Hunt’s poetry). Backhouse and composer Ian McDonald set Hunt’s poems to music, which Mammal performed while Hunt recited the occasional verse. Only an EP and one album of the proposed series were ever released. Titled Beware The Man, the album did not really represent Mammal’s live sound. The group toured with Hunt while the title track became a staple of their live repertoire.
In 1973 they released a double-A-sided single, ‘Wait’/‘Whisper’, which was more representative of their complex, harmony-rich sound. A follow-up single (‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman’/‘Solo’) was recorded at Wellington’s HMV studios, but remained unissued.
After Lake’s departure in mid-73, Backhouse moved to guitar, sharing occasional keyboard duties with Taylor, while Julie Needham was added on violin and vocals.
In a pre-Spinal Tap moment, the band became engulfed in black clouds as the cathedral filled with acrid fumes.
This incarnation of Mammal made a promotional film of the song ‘Beware The Man’ under the direction of Roger Donaldson (who would later find fame with New Zealand features such as Smash Palace and Hollywood hits No Way Out and The World’s Fastest Indian). But like many of Mammal’s pioneering projects, this early music video never reached the public.
Mammal’s performances were characterised by a DIY element. Once, at a concert in St Matthew’s cathedral in Auckland, Nesbitt – hoping to enhance the group’s light show with special effects – ordered a roadie to procure a smoke machine. The roadie returned with a portable stove and a flammable powder. In a pre-Spinal Tap moment, the band became engulfed in black clouds as the cathedral filled with acrid fumes while the hapless roadie could be seen side-stage, attempting to put out the blaze with a tea towel. (Bryant wrote his own account of this “fumiferous” incident.)
A drug bust while on tour in 1974 helped to cement their counter-cultural credentials, but scotched their hopes of breaking into the burgeoning pub circuit.
Mammal broke up at the end of 1974 when they were unable to find a suitable replacement for Hornibrook, who was leaving to concentrate on his electronics business. Taylor and Jacobson subsequently joined Dragon and found fame in Australia. Bryant became a featured vocalist in BLERTA before going on to lead his own rhythm and blues-based bands, including Rough Justice and the Jive Bombers. Backhouse went on to play in art-pop groups Spats and The Crocodiles and lead a gospel choir.
Mammal lives on in a handful of recordings, but mostly in the memories of those who saw them live. It’s hard to imagine anyone who experienced the group in full effect – rake-thin Robert Taylor contorted over his guitar, Bryant beating hell out of his tambourines, and a film depicting the life-cycle of the blowfly flickering on the screen behind them – was not in some way changed by the experience.
Nick Bollinger wrote more about Mammal in his memoir Goneville (Awa Press, 2016). An excerpt – with an unreleased recording of Mammal’s ‘Play Nasty For Me’ – is on the RNZ website.