In 1980 there was a vibrant local music scene nationwide. Penknife Glides were one of the new Auckland bands to quickly rise to prominence, from the practice room in June to the main stage of the Sweetwaters Festival in January 1981 and opening for The Police in February 1981.
Many music journalists loved their mod style and they recorded a single and two EPs before heading for London July 1982, leaving the local scene as quickly as they arrived.
A promotional biography for the Penknife Glides tells the narrative of their birth succinctly: “The seeds were sown when Steven Gravelle returned from Australia with a wad of lyrics, and enticed Cliff ‘Skeats’ Gravelle away from the prominent punk band The Primmers. Jules Moloney, who had recently left another Auckland band, Electrabeat, brought his bass along and joined forces in early 1980. The three rehearsed for three to four months, writing songs in a Newton basement before finding the right drummer, Stefan Morris, who also came up with their offbeat name.”
In 2015, Morris said, “The name was from a story in a collection of New Zealand stories that my sister was studying at Teachers College.”
Penknife Glides and The Newmatics shared a practice room in Nikau St, Mt Eden and both bands were influenced by the English mod scene.
Penknife Glides and The Newmatics shared a practice room in Nikau St, Mt Eden and both bands were influenced by the English mod scene – the look and sounds of The Jam, The Specials etc.
The Penknife Glides had an early association with Chris Parr. He would manage them briefly, but his first role, mid-1980, was doing lights and gear. Bass player Jules Moloney got him involved. “The name Penknife Glides was already chosen,” Parr told AudioCulture in 2014. “They already had the look, and they had ideas on how they wanted to do their posters. I was very enthused by that. They were onto something interesting there.”
Parr’s role changed to getting the band bookings as he enjoyed setting up gigs and making them happen. “We were trying to find a venue to play Labour Weekend and all venues were booked up six weeks ahead and Jules had the idea of re-opening Liberty Stage.”
Liberty Stage had been located in the upstairs bar at the Edinburgh Castle, corner of Newton Road and Symonds Street. Parr approached Dominion Breweries and the downstairs bar manager and it was agreed to re-open the venue for Labour Weekend. Drummer Stefan Morris came up with the name “The Reverb Room”.
“I’d never heard of a pub called a room,” said Parr. “Hugh helped me out, he got Albi Carr as our security man. Albi became famous on our door.” With a $3 door charge, Penknife Glides were on stage for Labour Weekend 1980 – Thursday 23 to Saturday 25 and Monday 27. The polite closing times were 10pm on Thursday and 11pm Friday and Saturday.
Whether it was bold or foolish, Parr had The Auckland Star music reviewer Louise Chunn at the sparsely attended Thursday night opening of the Reverb Room. The review in the following night’s newspaper noted that Penknife Glides had a sound that was very derivative of the British mod scene. Chunn wrote, “Everybody nicks ideas, but it’s the chewing and spitting them out that produces originals. Competent, danceable and melodic, this band could go far. But before they really score, they’ll have to make their material sound more like their own.”
If Penknife Glides overdosed on British style there may have been a logical explanation. Steven Gravelle was born in Romford, England (1955), Cliff “Skeats” Gravelle was born in London (1958), Stefan Morris was born in Banbury, Oxfordshire and only Jules Moloney was born locally, in Opotiki (1958).
Hugh Lynn, promoter and owner of Mascot Studio, was impressed with the group. “Hugh was quite keen to sign the band for a single,” said Chris Parr. “He liked the sound of the band, he liked the look of the band.”
The single ‘Laugh Or Cry’ / ‘Taking The Weight Off’ was recorded late 1980 with Alastair Riddell producing. The March 1981 single became the first release on Hugh Lynn’s Warrior Records label and was distributed by Warner Music.
"We used to have to crawl into the roof cavity above the mixing desk and give the metal reverb unit a whack with a hammer to get the bloody thing working.”
– Cliff Gravelle
“Mascot was a fairly rudimentary studio,” recalled Cliff Gravelle in 2014. “Alastair was always moaning about how crap all the outboard equipment was. We used to have to crawl into the roof cavity above the mixing desk and give the metal reverb unit a whack with a hammer to get the bloody thing working.”
In manager Chris Parr’s archive we found notes on Mascot pricing – $25.40 per hour plus the cost of 8 or 16 track tapes, cassettes and use of any “specialized” equipment like ADT (artificial double-tracking) digital / analog delay.
The B-side of their debut single ‘Taking The Weight Off’ became the band’s most popular track and was described by writer George Kay as “an infectious piece of white reggae.” (RipItUp March 1981)
At the second Sweetwaters Festival in 1981, there was a big international headliner with Roxy Music, plus our own Split Enz and Mi-Sex and an invasion of Australian bands – Cold Chisel, INXS, The Flowers, etc – trying to break big in New Zealand. Like the first year, the festival was great for seeing local bands debut on the big stage, including Blam Blam Blam, The Mockers, Pop Mechanix, The Screaming Meemees, Herbs, The Rodents and The Newmatics. In most cases, the young bands took to the big stage like ducks to water and a few stars were born.
Penknife Glides got the hung-over Saturday morning opening spot on the big stage, playing as many festival attendees were arriving and Mark Phillips wrote, “they played their originals to an apathetic crowd. Small intense places rather than wide open spaces are Penknife Glide’s forte.” (RipItUp February 1981)
Chris Parr ended his six months as manager soon after Sweetwaters 1981. “Penknife Glides became convinced that I did not have the connections to get them the gigs they wanted. A band meeting decided that they would sever their relationship with me as manager of the band but I should keep Crisp Art Management going and keep The Reverb Room and that the band would come to The Reverb Room on regular occasions. We parted on pretty good terms, but that kind of split is always a little bit unpleasant.”
Promoter Hugh Lynn often used Herbs to open for his international tours but he wisely chose Penknife Glides for The Police tour. Lynn even received praise in print from RipItUp (March 1981) from writer Duncan Campbell: “Full marks to whoever gave the support slot to Penknife Glides. A more impressive and original local band I’ve not seen in many moons, and they deserved the exposure. A touch of reggae shows here and there, especially in one of their best songs, ‘Taking The Weight Off’. Hopes are high for their new single (and let us pray) an album.”
Campbell writing “and let us pray” for an album highlights the fact that albums by New Zealand bands were rare in the early 1980s and bands were regularly coming and going (Suburban Reptiles, The Scavengers etc) and not even leaving an album behind.
Duncan Campbell also reported for RipItUp (May 1981) when Penknife Glides opened for Split Enz at the Logan Campbell Centre, April 29, 1981: “Penknife Glides came on to scattered booing, deservingly chided later by the elder Finn. But there was none of that by the time they finished their set. If you think you know a better band in Auckland at present, please show it to me. But I will be very hard to convince. The group is as Shakespeare once said, ‘hot’.”
It was not the band’s intention that ‘Taking the Weight Off’ was the B-side of their debut single. Distributor WEA decided that the near to five minute song was far too long to get airplay, so it was relegated to the flipside.
After doing their first single on Warrior, Penknife Glides made the move to the Reaction label based at Glyn Tucker’s Mandrill Studios. Tucker signed the group and he co-produced their debut single with them. Penknife Glides appeared on the cover of RipItUp (November 1981) along with fellow Reaction label group Danse Macabre, timed to highlight the Positive Reaction showcase shows featuring both bands in Hamilton, Whangarei and Auckland at the end of that month.
When Penknife Glides promoted the Nervous EP launch gig on August 26, 1981 at Mainstreet, you got a free ticket to the gig if you pre-purchased their EP from music retailer Sounds Unlimited. This kind of promotion was one of the ways 1980s indie labels sought to sell a larger volume of singles in one week for the purpose of achieving a high debut on the NZ Singles Chart. The EP entered the chart September 11, 1981 and charted for three weeks, peaking at No.30.
Cliff Gravelle is the key author of the group’s songs but in the November 1981 RipItUp story he acknowledges the roles the other band members play: “I basically start it off, but in a lot of cases Steve has come up with the words, or I just had some ideas and the band’s done the rest.”
The group started the year with their second Sweetwaters Festival booking and a positive review from Duncan Campbell, who noted that the gig was the final performance with Penknife Glides for drummer Stefan Morris. “They were brimming with confidence. Their extended dub of ‘Taking The Weight Off’ left everyone quite zonked.” (RipItUp February 1982). The Rumours section of the same magazine noted, “Since the departure of Stefan Morris, Penknife Glides have added Missing Tremblers Bill MacRae and Steve Duffels” and the new band members appeared in the ‘Sound Of Drums’ video.
In the March RipItUp the second and final release on Reaction Records, The Sound Of Drums EP, was reviewed by Mark Phillips: “The last release by The Glides’ old line-up and by far their best vinyl effort yet. A full, mature sound is the key on newer songs, ‘Sound Of Drums’, ‘Fewer Than You’ and ‘Three Minute Mystery’, while the older ‘Money To Burn’ has been transformed well away from its modish beginnings.”
Reaction label owner Glyn Tucker was busy with other work, so former Split Enz drummer and sound wiz Paul Crowther was asked to produce the EP and Phil Yule engineered.
With the band already making plans for London, The Sound Of Drums EP entered the chart March 5, 1982 and charted for two weeks, peaking at No.38.
In July, the Gravelle brothers and Jules Moloney headed for London. In 1983 Stefan Morris also headed for London.
“Cliff asked me to drum for the band until a permanent drummer was found,” Stefan Morris told AudioCulture in 2014. “The band was then called Hula Palaver and managed by Daniel Keighley. I played with them at the old Marquee. It was a little dream I always had. Soon after I departed with good feelings towards the guys.”
The song ‘My Life’ was written in 1981 but not released:
“I’ve got a plane to catch, plans to hatch.
Got a feeling London’s where it’s at.
A cheap suit a last farewell,
It’s an opportunity to see the world.
Don’t leave guitars or drums behind,
Let’s see which way this Penknife Glides.”
In London the group stayed together for three years. Cliff Gravelle moved on to The Wyrd Things – who worked live for 18 months – with singer James Vane, guitarist Nasty Suicide (ex Hanoi Rocks), drummer Terry Chimes (ex Clash) and bassist Dave Tregunna (ex Sham 69 and Lords of the New Church).
In more ways than one Penknife Glides had unfinished business in New Zealand. Their debut album was long overdue. Musicians only get taken seriously when they release an album. Thirty years after their debut single, Penknife Glides released a 10-song album made by "assembling 10 songs from a mass of old live recordings and rehearsal tapes … adding some new parts and changing others," wrote Cliff Gravelle. I reviewed the CD for RipItUp (June/July 2012) – “The songs have aged well and Cliff's reviving of the audio is masterful.” In fact, the album is a whole new take on songs that would have been lost for ever, if they had not been reconstructed.
A reunion show took place with former Reaction label-mates Danse Macabre at The King’s Arms on Saturday, May 11, 2013.
Rather than simply release the 10 songs that they originally released on vinyl, Cliff Gravelle chose only three previously released songs – ‘Taking The Weight Off’ (new six minute version), ‘Too Late Now’ from Nervous and ‘Money To Burn’ from Sound Of Drums. At the time of the 2011 release, he wrote: “Some of our best material was never captured on vinyl, and the songs that did make it, seemed to lack the delivery, spark and excitement for which our live gigs were reknown.”
A reunion show took place with former Reaction label-mates Danse Macabre at The King’s Arms on Saturday, May 11, 2013. Cliff Gravelle came from Sydney, Stefan Morris from Melbourne and Steven Gravelle journeyed across the harbour bridge. They were augmented by members of Missing Tremble (who also played on the night): Bill Macrae (keyboards), Steve Duffells (percussion, drums) and Bob Shepheard (bass).
There was a further surprise for Penknife Glides followers when a further album of re-recordings was released in 2013 – Pleasure Thru Tears – with 10 songs, all written between 1981 and 1985. The title track is from Nervous and the previously released song ‘Sound Of Drums’ also appears.
Cliff Gravelle - guitar, vocals
Steven Gravelle - vocals
Jules Moloney - bass
Stefan Morris - drums
Song idea one: Penknife Glides shared their Nikau Street practice room with The Newmatics and a plague of rats. ‘City Rats’ is also about the police attending too many gigs – a reality at time.
Song idea two: When a fellow Nikau Street resident was asked how he killed time while in Mt Eden Prison, he replied, “Oh, I just took the weight off man.”
Song idea three: There was nothing new about the Anzac Avenue’s ‘New Station Hotel’ but the Harbour Lights Lounge was a great gig for Penknife Glides and elusive regular dancers inspired this song.
Song idea four: ‘It’s Too Late Now’ is the sibling song to ‘Taking The Weight Off’ and is inspired by Elvis Costello’s ‘Watching The Detectives’ and the dub reggae desires of drummer Stefan Morris.