Should you ask me to put a date on when Th’ Dudes began, I’d point to a Saturday afternoon sometime early in the Auckland summer of 1975. If the past is a foreign country, then New Zealand in the 1970s was another planet. When the world ended, the joke went, we’d be okay because everything here happened five years late ...
We were isolated, protected colonials. We pledged allegiance to Great Britain and played ‘God Save the Queen’ in the cinemas at 11, 2, 5 and 8 every day except Sunday, when the country was shut. After the national anthem and before the main feature there would be a National Film Unit short about P Class locomotives or touring the central North Island by Austin Allegro. A Clockwork Orange carried an R20 certificate. Ulysses was screened to sexually segregated audiences, lest Joyce inflame the senses and cause spontaneous public coupling.
DAVE DOBBYN, PETER URLICH AND I HAD KNOWN EACH OTHER SINCE FORM ONE.
For entertainment that went beyond the local booze barn, the Ace of Clubs featured Diamond Lil and Marcus Craig. The Pink Pussycat had girls “in G-strings only” (according to the ads). His Majesty’s Theatre (does your blood still boil when you see the carpark it became?) and the St James hosted shows “direct from the West End”: local-girl-made-good Nyree Dawn Porter in Charlie Girl; Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett & Jonathon Miller reunited for Behind the Fridge; “ooh-you-are-awful” Danny La Rue and slapstick Norman Wisdom – though Wisdom did not prevail and went home after two nights of empty seats. Hair came, and was put on trial for obscenity. Germaine Greer came, said “bullshit” in public, and was put on trial for obscenity. Our nanny justice system was determined to do the thinking for us. We could have been the laughing stock of the world, if only the world would notice us.
Tommy Adderley’s club, Granpa’s, was nearing the end of its blues-wailin’ life. The Inbetweens played at Aladdin’s, Steampacket at Your Father’s Mustache, Dalvanius at Cleopatra’s out east in the shadow of Mount Wellington. Woe betide you if you tried to get in to any of these places wearing jeans, though if you said they were “dress jeans” you could get lucky. Draconian licensing laws meant many clubs – like Maurice Greer’s Crofts in Airedale Street – served soft drinks only. It’s hard to believe that grown adults would go out for an evening’s entertainment without the chance of getting wildly pissed. There’d be a drop of the real stuff under the counter though, if you knew how to ask.
Television One and South Pacific Television – state-owned but programmed to offer the pretense of competition – transmitted from 2pm daily and closed down well before midnight. Entire families would gather at 8pm each Saturday to watch the pinnacle of the week’s broadcasting: Des O’Connor, Morecambe and Wise, The Seekers, The Two Ronnies, or the innocent and spectacularly popular Black and White Minstrel Show.
Sunday nights provided a musical lifeline to the outside world as Dr Rock – Barry Jenkin – presented Radio With Pictures, flashing us images of the birth of punk and the music video revolution. The biggest-selling colour television set on the market, the Philips K9, cost $999, about 20 times the average weekly wage. There was no “reality” or “bloopers” TV, and the announcers just announced and the newsreaders just read news. Radio Hauraki – far superior to the NZBC’s 1ZM – was the only radio station worth listening to. On Saturday mornings they had American Top 40 beaming in Dr John and Marvin Gaye with Casey Kasem exhorting us to keep our feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars. There was no “classic hits” or “easy listening” or “news-talk” radio, and the disc jockeys knew something about music and didn’t have the sense of humour of your average snickering 13 year-old schoolboy.
A café was a place where stonking great portions of bacon and eggs and baked beans were piled on thick, buttered white toast and washed down with Choysa tea and instant coffee. Fish and chips was the staple takeaway. McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken were rare and extravagant novelties, watched warily by the neighbourhood burger bar. The few restaurants around were for special occasions only: the Hungry Horse, Hagan’s, El Matador, El Trovador. At the Tai Tung in Wyndham Street you had to book days in advance and could still wait an hour for your table. Local wine was thin and sweet: Cook’s Chasseur, Blenheimer, Cold Duck, Marqué Vue. Imported wine was scarce and expensive. We drove Hillmans, Holdens, Fords and Austins. The occasional Toyota or battered Datsun drew curious glances. Buying a new car – perhaps an HQ Holden “with distinctive W-shaped front” – required something mysterious called “overseas funds”.
Peter Urlich was a living light-entertainment show in himself.
There were tariffs and controls on everything imported. In shops the range of goods was slim and the prices high. Clothes, furniture, appliances, electronics, hardware, toys: if you could get them at all they would cost you two, three, four times as much as in their country of origin. Things that were made here by our protected industries were usually of poor quality, hence our still-persistent belief that offshore is better.
Fruit and vegetables though were big and cheap: Golden Delicious apples and Packham pears, plums and apricots from Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay, oranges from Kerikeri, watermelons and crates of Golden Queen peaches from the Henderson orchards. Dairy products were cheap too of course: four cents for a pint of milk, 25 cents for a half pound of butter. All the best meat was sent to Mother England, but the leftovers were affordable and plentiful and many a suburban chest freezer held half a beast.
But better do your shopping before the weekend. After 9 o’clock on Friday night there was nothing open but the corner dairy, selling goods at premium prices. Many people dreamed of owning a dairy for a few years and retiring on the profits. “A little goldmine,” my dad said.
Businessmen wore locally-made Cambridge suits and Summit Viyella shirts. In summer, office workers, plain-clothes policemen and All Blacks in mufti switched to too-tight walk shorts and walk socks, a local fashion aberration that brought to mind hairy-legged sixth formers. Crimplene, seer-sucker and velour were big. Ladies’ fashions filtered slowly south of the equator, arriving a season or two after their northern debut: the culotte, the trouser suit, the maxi dress. Hippies, beads, kaftans, incense and love oil thrived at Cook Street Market.
There was no fresh fruit juice, no low-fat milk, no flavoured milk, no soy milk. No energy drinks or smart drinks. No light beer, no boutique beer. No short blacks or flat whites. No one-day cricket, no Black Caps or All Whites or Silver Ferns, no aerobics, no sportswear-as-fashion, no sports-shoes-as-streetwear. No video games, video players, or videos. No compact discs, DVDs, laser discs, or laser light shows. No fax machines or Filofaxes, no cell-phones or phone cards. No personal computers or desktop computers or laptop computers or palmtop computers. No Internet, Intranet, World Wide Web, WAP or email.
There was no GST, no CER, no ATM, no EFTPOS. If you wanted money for the weekend you had to remember to go to the bank and cash a cheque before 3pm on Friday. No one- or two-dollar coins, no fifty dollar notes.
There was no Prozac, no Viagra, no Ecstasy, no AIDS, no herpes. No hole in the ozone layer...
AND ON THIS balmy Saturday afternoon in late 1975, Dave Dobbyn, Peter Urlich, Peter “Nyolls” Coleman and I were gathered – as usual – in Nyolls’s grandmother’s basement in Greenlane. We were “getting a band together”. Dave, Peter U and I had known each other since form one at Sacred Heart College in 1968, laughing at Spike and Sellers and Cleese, passing notes in sex-ed class, and blanking out the wretchedness of canings and new maths and Latin verbs with a love of music and a heightened sense of the absurd.
I’d come from England in 1966. Wild colonial New Zealand was all a bit of a shock after the sandals and socks and shy reserve of the Old Country. I had trouble fitting in to this bare feet and beer jugs place. I did have a guitar though, and an older sister who – back in England – had exposed me early on in life to the wonders of pop music: the overwhelming magic of Beatlemania, the depravity of the Stones. Radio Caroline and Top of the Pops and Ready Steady Go. I was hooked on the soundscape of the three-minute wonder. Tennis racquet as guitar? I was that cliché.
Peter Urlich was a living light-entertainment show in himself. He could grease up the teachers yet still spit with the bad boys at the back of the class. And a sharp dresser: even then he was the sort of guy who could play a hard rugby match in a hurricane and still look like he’d come straight from the dry-cleaners via the hairdressers. Together we had been harbouring a dream: that one day we’d be like Mick and Keef, or Bowie and Ronson, or Daltrey and Townshend.
I knew I was going to be friends with Dave on our first day at SHC. When he walked into class late, wearing a too-large hand-me-down uniform and a savage crew cut courtesy of his mother’s kitchen shears, I recognised a fellow loner. I see him still: ginger on porcelain swaddled in a tent of navy blue. He was picked on and put upon all through school and found solace in his guitar.
At lunchtime a sport-hating half-dozen of us would gather in the hall or a music room, banging away on guitars. While the others were diddling around with Simon & Garfunkel, Dave would stonk into some riff-driven Neil Young. When Abbey Road was released and everyone was trying to plinkety-plink their way through ‘Here Comes the Sun’, Dave impressed upon me the blackfoot boogie of ‘Come Together’.
He and I lived for the days when Mr Gannaway, the music master, brought his electric organ to class and played the Peddlers’ ‘Girlie’ with wah wah and everything. Together we’d jam for hours on endless Santana riffs. We’d yell “fuck the neighbours!” along with the Small Faces. We’d pound out the entire bridge of ‘Something in the Air’ on an out of tune piano. There was never – praise be – a scrap of formal shape to Dave’s music; he’s probably never read a chord chart in his life. If my guitar playing was ordered progression, his was a tumbling, swirling cloud.
Nyolls came to SHC from the Waikato in third form to work hard and pass exams, but when he wasn’t studying or breaking both legs skiing he’d be sitting around with a bunch of guitar-strumming boarders, all plinking and tinkering away at Cat Stevens songs, easing the misery of life far from the farm. Despite Cat, Nyolls was sensible enough to realise – even at that early age – that The Guess Who could never be cool. And sensible enough to realise that becoming a doctor would most likely be a more prudent career choice than playing the bass guitar. He would eventually leave the band to explore his own personal Hippocratic frontier.
In his place we pulled in someone we’d had our eye on for a while. Peter White had been playing in bands for – ooh, ages. Over a year. And he’d even managed to grow a slight beard. He played a solid and melodic bass, like his heroes McCartney and Entwistle. His Jewishness and deadpan humour were perfect foils for our arrogant, tight-arsed Catholicism. His high kicks alone could provoke hours of scoff and counter-scoff. The only thing really wrong was his name. We felt we couldn’t have yet another Peter, so we shortened his middle name and – whether he liked it or not – made him Lez.
Anyway, this afternoon here we were with our Teisco and Jansen guitars and some fuse-blowing, shock-giving amps made by a bearded valve-nerd in Forest Hills. Also an endless supplies of L&P and Krispie biscuits. A year out of school and still chemistry-class daydreaming of Fender Twin Reverbs and Telecaster basses, Shure microphones and JBL K120 speakers, Ludwig drums and WEM Copycats. The Stones and Little Feat and Ziggy Stardust. Playing at Madison Square Garden and the Hammersmith Odeon and the Marquee club. Recording at Strawberry Studios and Muscle Shoals and Abbey Road and the Manor, produced and engineered by Glyn Johns and Ken Scott and George Martin and Bill Szymczyk. Day-glo posters, album liner notes, Creem and NME, Lester Bangs, Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent.
Just for now though we’d settle for the sniff of a chance to get up and play at the Glendowie Tennis Club annual dance.
For some weeks we’d been honing a repertoire of other people’s songs, the songs that had inspired us. Some of them we could play passably well, some were a shambolic lurch, and some would always remain beyond our ill-timed and out-of-tune grasp. The rhythm and blues of Chuck Berry, the Stones, the James Gang and Little Feat. Funk from the Commodores and the Average White Band. The perfect pop of Mott the Hoople, Bowie and T.Rex. Wildly ambitious covers of 10cc and Steely Dan, trying to recreate on a Saturday afternoon with two guitars what Godley and Creme and Becker and Fagen had taken a year and several million dollars to achieve.
There was but one thing holding us back, we reckoned: we had no drummer. Today we had advertised for one in the New Zealand Herald. Three people answered.
The first guy was ancient – 25 at least – and wore the ubiquitous leather jacket of the aged. He pulled up in an Anglia van and unloaded case after case of Tama gear, which wasn’t exactly Ludwig but there was a lot of it. Once he’d set it all up though, he played with a skippy little beat that reminded me of shiny suits and saxophone sections. He paradiddled and mum-madaddad his way around the edges of the songs. He looked blank when we mentioned Keith Moon and Charlie Watts. Tama.
The next auditioner was more our own age and had at least heard of Ringo Starr and even the Prairie Prince, but his kit was a mish-mash of put-together parts. His pants, however, were fashionably high-waisted with huge flared legs. Peter counted in ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. The guy got the stops okay, but when we hit the chorus it sounded like a split bag of King Edwards tumbling down the cellar stairs. We staggered on for a few more seconds. Strictly a play-in-the-bedroom man.
Finally a yellow Toyota Corolla station wagon reversed down the drive. A Japanese car was unusual in itself. Looked like it cost a few grand. Had a tow bar. Certainly a step up from my hundred dollar Humber 80. The driver had bad hair, neither short enough nor long enough, and bad jeans with creases in the front. Bruce, he said, and he certainly looked like one.
Bruce set up a Premier kit – about midway between Tama and Ludwig in our estimation – all polished and tidy. We decided to skip ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. Instead, Dave started the riff to ‘All Right Now’. Bruce raised his meaty arms.
Clenched in his carpenter fists were small tree trunks. The thick varnish on them glinted in the exotic half-light of the fly-spotted fluorescent over the pool table. Through an L&P-induced haze I watched as they hammered down towards drum and cymbal.
In the explosion on beat one of bar five, a new universe was created. I took on a dazed expression of bliss, like a tummy-scratched Labrador. The music took shape and hovered over us with electrified, uncontrollable life. A heaving Frankenstein’s monster of noise created from the darkest parts of our individual souls. I came close to almost believing there could possibly be a remote chance that there might be some sort of God somewhere.
Either that or I’d eaten too many Krispies.
This memoir first appeared in the liner notes of the 2001 compilation Th’ Dudes: Where Are the Girls? Th’ Definitive Collection. Published with permission.