They hooked up with New Music Management and moved to Auckland, sought out Mike Chunn during his brief tenure as head of A&R at CBS and were signed to that label, and they went after former Hello Sailor guitarist Dave McArtney to produce their debut album.
They put their heads down, worked their arses off and became one of the few New Zealand recording artists to get on the radio in the bad old days of next to no local content.
It was enough to see the movers and shakers in the burgeoning independent label scene declare The Narcs their enemy, as was any act represented by NMM. But there was no reciprocal animosity on the part of The Narcs – they put their heads down, worked their arses off and became one of the few New Zealand recording artists to get on the radio in the bad old days of next to no local content.
Their massive 1984 hit ‘You Took Me (Heart And Soul)’ was a dramatic departure from the straight-ahead rock the band had been touting up and down the country for the previous four years and it charted all over Europe. It also brought the inevitable cries of “sell-out” from NZ music reviewers.
But The Narcs were braced for it. Even as McArtney was polishing ‘Heart And Soul’ in the studio, the classic line-up of Tony Waine, Andy Dickson, Steve Clarkson and Liam Ryan were discussing how the critics of the day might greet this new direction.
Audiences embraced it. With their penchant for sweatbands, singlets and shorts and with Dickson leaping off even the tallest PA stack, The Narcs drew large crowds through to the middle 1980s.
But by 1986 outside interests were affecting the time the band spent on the road. Two years later The Narcs shut up shop for nearly 10 years.
Oddly enough, theirs is a name often skimmed over in the annals of New Zealand rock. Maybe it’s the 1980s majors versus indies argument, the old school versus the so-called cutting-edge post-punk. But The Narcs knew what they wanted and they went after it. They bloody got it for three or four years there, too!
Upon leaving school in 1975, singing guitarist Tony Waine and keyboards player Gerard Moody pulled in drummer Neville Walker and took their repertoire of Santana, George Benson and Everly Brothers covers into the workingmen’s clubs of Christchurch as Easy. Along the way, Waine switched to bass guitar.
After two years, he took off to Australia but returned to get capped in commerce at the University of Canterbury. He bumped into drummer Bob Ogilvie at the Gladstone Hotel in 1980 and they decided to get a band together, roping in partially blind guitarist Garth Sincock.
When it came time to name the trio, Waine recalled a comment from an old friend a few months earlier. “Oh, you’ve gotta be joking, someone’s called their band The Police? Next thing there’ll be a band called The Narcs!” Waine was crazy for The Police’s Reggatta de Blanc, Cold Chisel’s East and the music of Joe Jackson and Lene Lovich, and The Narcs started playing a bunch of their songs.
They scored some gigs at the Imperial before the logistical nightmare of Sincock’s impairment and the fact his wife had to drive him to gigs led to the guitarist’s departure. Ogilvie suggested a young guitarist he had met while playing the Sydney circuit a year or so earlier.
Andy Dickson had been honing his grunty power chords playing along with the records of Ted Nugent, Bad Company, Status Quo and Australian pub rockers like Cold Chisel, The Angels and Midnight Oil, but his limited live experience was in a band with Ogilvie’s former Christchurch singer Barbara Fox. When Ogilvie phoned with the invitation to join The Narcs in New Zealand, Dickson eventually agreed to make the move.
He arrived in Christchurch on 4 July 1980 with a handful of his own songs, a hot-rodded Gibson Les Paul and a hot-rodded Fender Twin amplifier. The fact he was a fine singer was an added bonus and the band organised rehearsal space at the university.
The Narcs hit the local clubs and pubs with their combination of English new wave and punk and Australian rock.
The Narcs hit the local clubs and pubs with their combination of English new wave and punk and Australian rock, building up quite a following, and ended up with a residency at the nightclub Doodles. As a Christchurch stop-off for touring bands, it meant The Narcs supported the likes of The Crocodiles, The Tigers and Flight X-7.
After being fired on Christmas Eve, Waine approached the Hillsborough Tavern. Despite the pub having noise problems and recently axing live entertainment, The Narcs were offered a residency as long as they “keep it down”. By the time the audience had grown to 800-odd a night, they bought two Transit vans and hit the road, gigging in Nelson, Ashburton, Timaru, Queenstown and the West Coast. In June, they opened for Mi-Sex at the Christchurch Town Hall.
With the South Island under their belts, Waine contacted Mike Corless at New Music Management and The Narcs headed for Auckland. Their first Auckland support slot was for Graham Brazier’s Inside Out album launch at Mainstreet, and NMM set up a North Island tour.
The band had recorded some demos and drummer Bob Ogilvie tracked down former Split Enz bass guitarist and newly appointed CBS A&R head Mike Chunn to ask if he would help The Narcs record an EP. Chunn signed them to his own XSF label, produced the midnight-to-dawn session and the Narcs EP was released in October.
Waine and Dickson believed the band should set up permanently in Auckland, but Ogilvie decided it was time to bow out. They all drove back to Christchurch, bid Ogilvie farewell, and Waine headhunted drummer Steve Clarkson, who was playing at the Imperial with friends of Waine’s – Annie Davies, Nancy Kiel and Gary Verberne – in a covers band called Nude Wrestling.
For Clarkson, the opportunity of getting back up to the North Island and playing original music was too tempting to pass up. They also picked up a manager in the form of Waine’s school friend and former Imperial bar manager Peter Fairhall and set off north in an old Valiant towing a trailer.
First stop was the Avalon Studios in Lower Hutt to film video clips for EP tracks ‘Here She Comes’ and ‘First Chance To Dance’ with Clarkson miming to Ogilvie’s drum parts. They then drove to Gisborne to pick up a Cerwin-Vega PA system before backtracking to Hawke’s Bay where they set up base for alternate dates at the Cabana in Napier and the Mayfair in Hastings over the next few weeks.
It was the perfect scenario to tighten up the new line-up. By the time Mike Corless arrived with several other New Music Management bands for the Raw Rock Festival at Tomoana Showgrounds, Hastings, on 12 December 1981, The Narcs were humming.
They played Sweetwaters in early 1982 and opened for Mental As Anything at Mainstreet but really broke nationally when they were chosen as support for the DD Smash Cool Bananas tour in April and May 1982. Midway through Cool Bananas entered the national album chart at No.1 and audiences were huge.
CBS signed The Narcs and their major label debut single ‘Over My Head’ was released in August, just as the band embarked on a five-date North Island concert tour opening for Split Enz. At its conclusion, The Narcs set off around the country on their own.
CBS signed The Narcs and their major label debut single ‘Over My Head’ was released in August.
After another Sweetwaters slot and more touring came the No Turning Back EP in April and a 30-minute special on the TVNZ music show Shazam! The exposure saw No Turning Back spend nine weeks in the top 20, peaking at No.12.
By the time of follow-up single ‘Look The Other Way’, The Narcs were intent on a different sound and decided to hire session keyboardist Liam Ryan. Another ex-Cantabrian, Ryan had seen the band around Auckland and they’d built an instant rapport. Tracking him down was a bit more difficult.
On arriving in Auckland in 1979, Ryan found work in clubs like The Foundry and Cleopatra’s alongside the likes of guitarist Tuhi Timoti and singers Erana Clark and Mo Dawson. Session work followed and he formed The Flying Doctors with guitarist Mike Farrell, drummer Mike Abbott and bass guitarist John Dodd, cutting his teeth in songwriting.
He joined The Midge Marsden Band and appeared on the LPs Midge Marsden Connection and 12 Bars From Mars, contributing three songs including the reviewers’ favourite ‘One Wheel In The Sand’. He’d also undertaken trips to the United States with country performers Gray Bartlett and Brendan Dugan. It was while on one such sojourn in Texas that Peter Fairhall telegrammed Ryan to book him for the Narcs session.
His ostinato keyboard part on ‘Look The Other Way’ gave the track a driving urgency, and the band were impressed enough to invite him to become a permanent member, which he accepted. But after a four-week tour to promote the single, Ryan had a prior commitment and The Narcs had to call on Tony Waine’s former bandmate Gerard Moody to play keys for a Radio With Pictures Mainstreet gig.
CBS released the gig as Whistle While You Work – side one featuring The Narcs, side two Coconut Rough, riding high on their Top 10 hit ‘Sierra Leone’. Ryan returned for the national tour to promote the record, which saw The Narcs supported by comedian Peter Rowley and the Street Level Dance Crew, who would clear the dance floor for a breakdancing display.
After touring with The Pink Flamingos and opening for Elton John at Mt Smart Stadium early in 1984, the band hunkered down at Aerial Railway Studio at Sandy Bay, at the top of the Coromandel Peninsula, to write and demo material for their debut album.
One day, Andy Dickson started messing around with a B-flat, B-flat/A, G minor progression, adlibbing lyrics over the top – “Maybe I was meant to be a farmer. Maybe I was meant to be a father.” Liam Ryan sat down behind his keyboards. “I like that,” he said, offering up, “Maybe I was meant to be a soldier.” Ryan came up with the chorus, “You took me heart and soul, over and over,” and an ominous synth part ending with a dramatic G-G-F-G figure.
While Ryan’s inspiration for the arrangement was Australian Crawl’s ‘Reckless’ from the previous year, Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’ was in drummer Steve Clarkson’s thinking when the band jammed the new number, now called ‘Heart And Soul’. He knew the big ballad needed a mood change and kept his part sparse until bringing in the snare well after the first chorus, nearly two minutes in.
When CBS heard ‘Heart And Soul’ they could barely hide their excitement. The band chose Pink Flamingos frontman Dave McArtney as producer and went into Mandrill, where McArtney polished and crafted, adding some Neil Young guitars to Dickson’s at the end. The single was released in May as ‘You Took Me (Heart And Soul)’ and spent three months in the Top 40, peaking at No.4.
While the song was climbing the charts, The Narcs toured the country supporting Midnight Oil, and they returned to the studio with McArtney to record their album Great Divide. It was released late in the year with the single ‘Lazy Susan’, written by Clarkson.
In November, The Narcs and ‘Heart And Soul’ were up for several gongs at the New Zealand Music Awards. With a lack of NZ music on the radio and RIANZ preferring to wait for a voluntary minimum local content quota to be achieved “to ensure a positive spirit of free enterprise and cooperation develops between the music, recording and broadcasting industries”, Rick Bryant, Mike Corless and others encouraged Liam Ryan to make a stand.
‘Heart And Soul’ took out Single of the Year and Most Popular Song (voted by the public), and Dave McArtney was awarded Producer of the Year and Graham Myhre Engineer of the Year at the nationally televised ceremony. Andy Dickson was also a finalist in Top Male Vocalist, won by Jordan Luck of The Dance Exponents.
When accepting one of the awards, Ryan mentioned something along the lines of, “Thank you for this award. It means a lot to us. This is the only country in the world where the radio announcers and television presenters have a higher profile than the musicians.”
The speech prompted wild cheering, but walking back to his seat he was intercepted by pop music royalty Ray Columbus. “Good on you, mate,” the Modfather said. “As soon as I started talking like that about the New Zealand music industry, all my records got taken off the air.” The Narcs were on notice.
Life on the road was more fitness and efficiency than sex and drugs and rock and roll.
But they couldn’t put a foot wrong on the live circuit. Life on the road was more fitness and efficiency than sex and drugs and rock and roll. These were four health-conscious outdoorsmen. If you thought you saw members of The Narcs jogging from Wairakei to Taupo for a sound check or throwing a frisbee in the park or skiing all day at the Whakapapa ski field before a gig, you probably did.
CBS Australia was taking notice, but they weren’t enamoured with the name The Narcs and wanted to call the band The Great Divide, after their LP. They did some showcase gigs in Sydney and TV spots as The Great Divide, but an Australian tour with a version of UK punk rock act Tom Robinson Band – eight years after their sole recognisable hit ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ – was a flop.
In April 1985, The Narcs supported Queen for their first (and only) appearance in New Zealand, at Mt Smart Stadium. Steve Clarkson was asked to talk up the show at the 89FM studios. On arriving, he found Queen bassist John Deacon was also in on the interview, and at its conclusion Deacon invited Clarkson to a TV studio in Khyber Pass Road where Queen were rehearsing.
Queen hadn’t played since Rock in Rio three months earlier and had the rehearsal space booked for the best part of a week. Clarkson met their tour manager, chatted with Freddie Mercury, and watched as guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor ran through an arrangement, culminating with Taylor kicking an inadequate snare drum off the stage. By the time the rest of The Narcs got wind of where Clarkson was and arrived, Mercury was disappearing with a towel around his head. When it came time for the concert, Deacon watched The Narcs’ set from the side of stage.
CBS had the grand idea to set The Narcs up with American Tim Kramer at the Music Farm in Mullumbimby, northern New South Wales, to record their second album. Kramer had mixed or produced for everybody from The Band to Neil Diamond to Bonnie Raitt, not to mention a dance remix of Monte Video’s ‘Shoop Shoop Diddy Wop Cumma Cumma Wang Dang’.
The band had demoed new material at Grey Lynn’s Montage Studio, but after a tentative tracking session at the Music Farm, Kramer sent everybody but Steve Clarkson away and they spent the next three days programming drum parts on an Oberheim DX drum machine. The rest of the band came in individually to lay down their parts over the next week or so.
Kramer set about mixing the album at maximum volume, but by the time he’d blown up every speaker at the Music Farm and they refused him any more, he moved to 301 in Sydney and blew up speakers there. The idea to emulate the Go West sound that was all over the radio in early 1985 came through on the first single ‘Diamonds On China’, written by Liam Ryan, which rose to No.15 on the NZ chart.
Sophomore album The Narcs was released in November and The Narcs hit the road with Shona Laing as support. Clarkson’s former Nude Wrestling bandmate Gary Verberne toured as second guitarist to emulate Dickson’s layered sound on the new record. By the end of the tour Verberne was also playing guitar for Laing.
With the birth of Ryan’s first child he began to question the financial viability of the band. It wasn’t uncommon to make upwards of 30 grand a week, but by the time the crew, posters, advertising and other overheads were taken care of the band would be left with just $100 each. Manager Peter Fairhall always insisted The Narcs had the biggest PA and lighting set-up of any touring band, but it was costing them a fortune.
Ryan needed other income streams and started taking work outside of the band again. He signed a publishing deal with the Criterion Music Corp in Hollywood and spent time there. The rest of the Narcs spent the first three months of 1986 resident at the Mon Desir on the North Shore as the Rocking Love Gods, with former Crocodiles singer and guitarist Rikki Morris, while Ryan toured in Canada with Suzanne Prentice and The Rodger Fox Big Band.
The Narcs set off on tour in April in support of the next single, Tony Waine’s ‘Abandoned By Love’. He’d had the structure of the song as a 13-year-old and the band demoed it at Montage. At Tim Kramer’s suggestion, he added another verse at the Music Farm. Waine won the 1986 APRA Silver Scroll.
When the CBS deal ended, the band released ‘It’s Got To Be Love’ on RCA in mid-1988. There was a national tour to support the single and then The Narcs quietly went to sleep. Even a proposed contract with BMG Australia wasn’t enough to reignite The Narcs’ passion. Tony Waine and Andy Dickson began working as a duo in Sydney and then Queensland, Liam Ryan continued gigging and taught songwriting courses in Hamilton, and Steve Clarkson headed for London, playing with a revamped Pink Flamingos with Dave McArtney, Paul Woolright and Brett Adams before getting into IT and Apple computers.
By 1995, Ryan had set up a songwriting and production course as part of the Media Arts Degree at Wintec (Waikato Institute of Technology) in Hamilton. The course would use Zoo Studios, where engineer Zed Brookes taught music production. One day the two tutors got talking to radioman and indie label Hark Records head Grant Hislop, who agreed to help finance a new Narcs album.
Waine and Dickson flew in from Australia and Clarkson from London, and with Brookes engineering and rootsy acoustic singer-songwriter and friend Wayne Gillespie producing, they recorded Push The Boat Out, released in 1996. It was a cathartic, relaxed experience and the band’s favourite album.
There were short tours in 1997 and 1998 and The Narcs have been active again with summer gigs over recent years. Clarkson returned to New Zealand permanently in 1999, Waine in 2000. Dickson has been resident in Brisbane since 1999, and Ryan recently moved back to Auckland after several years in the South Island.
In 1987, Andy Dickson and Tony Waine teamed up with Gurlz singer Kim Willoughby, Citizen Band guitarist Greg Clark, Mi-Sex drummer Paul Dunningham and Grammar Boys keyboardist Simon Alexander in a Party Boys-style line-up called The Kuhtze Band, touring and releasing a single of 60s pop covers.
The Narcs’ 1996 album Push The Boat Out was named by drummer Steve Clarkson from English slang for spending big on a boozy night out. Clarkson also named Whistle While You Work, the live album shared with Coconut Rough.
In Sydney in 1990, Andy Dickson was an original member of Ghostwriters, a band brought together by Midnight Oil drummer and songwriter Rob Hirst while the Oils were taking a break. Dickson appeared on their self-titled 1991 album.
The Fane Flaws-produced video for Diamonds On China won Best Video at the 1985 New Zealand Music Awards. Flaws also did the artwork for the 1985 album The Narcs.
Tony Waine - bass, vocals
Bob Ogilvie - drums
Garth Sincock - guitar
Andy Dickson - vocals, guitar
Steve Clarkson - drums
Liam Ryan - keyboards, vocals