After the Meemees split in early 1983 O’Neill occupied himself in a variety of ways. He worked in the family real estate business, his father grooming him to take over. He wrote a book on his days in his former band. And he launched a clothing label, The Cutter Of Newton.
Needing to make music again, O’Neill gathered a group of friends around him in early 1989 and formed These Wilding Ways, with ex-Dance Exponent Mike Harralambi (drums), Jason Dempsey (bass), and Glenn Robson (guitar, keyboards). O’Neill played rhythm guitar and sang, digging deeply into the songs he had written since leaving his high school band, The Screaming Meemees.
With The Exponents reforming Harralambi was replaced by Wayne Bell and teen prodigy Joel Haines was added on lead guitar (both played before U2). Dianne Swann was also brought in as a second live and studio vocalist, although not as a full time band member.
They soon had several recording offers for their melodic power pop, including one from Sony and another from Tim Foreman’s Tall Poppy label, also home to Push Push.
The single was an immediate student radio hit and These Wilding Ways began to pull substantial crowds in Auckland venues including The Gluepot.
Opting for Tall Poppy, and thus almost unlimited studio time in Foreman’s Air Force Studios, the first release was the single ‘Can’t Control Her’ in early 1991. The single was an immediate student radio hit and These Wilding Ways began to pull substantial crowds in Auckland venues including The Gluepot, where they were headlining by the end of the year.
Tapped as fourth band on a nationwide tour headlined by Jimmy Barnes, The Stray Cats and Sam Browne they headed off in November 1990 but only played the Supertop show in Auckland as time constraints at the other venues meant there was no time for the local support.
Tall Poppy then hired Mark Tierney to produce an album for the band and they entered Air Force for album sessions in October 1991. In the midst of these sessions These Wilding Ways headed off as a support band on The Exponents 1991 New Zealand tour, thus neatly returning a favour from 1982, when The Screaming Meemees took the then unknown Dance Exponents out on the South Island band’s first nationwide trek.
Festival Records, who distributed the Tall Poppy label, supported this 1991 tour by buying These Wilding Ways an aged and somewhat decrepit VW Kombi van, which unfortunately proved to be a lemon (as it was quickly so tagged by O’Neill) barely making the end of the Southern Motorway as they headed south.
Drummer Wayne Bell has more: “The van had no starter motor and we could literally watch the gas gauge go down as we were driving. After pushing it through the main street of Gisborne to get it going, we were driving over the hills to Napier. Jay (Dempsey) was driving and because it was freezing he had wrapped a stage black around himself like a giant Batman cape. We were low on gas (again) and Jay was terrified the van was going to blow up as it was overheating and in the red. We were all sitting on the floor in the back (no seats and only a tiny porthole to look out of)."
“Joel had a Zap drink container that, when he finished, he stamped on. It exploded with this incredibly loud bang. Jay thought the van had blown up. When he found it was just Joel, without uttering a word, he stopped the van, got out, walked around to the side door, cape blowing in the breeze, extracted Joel, punched him, put him back in the van, got back in extravagantly gathering his cape around him, and we drove on.”
The “lemon” was abandoned in Napier, forcing manager Simon Grigg to rush a rental car down to ensure the tour’s continuation.
Meanwhile, Mark Tierney was proving to be a something of a mismatch for the band’s subtle melodic pop, and the album sessions were providing mixed results with several of O’Neill’s songs suffering from somewhat overattentive production.
The first result of these sessions, the next single ‘Take My Hand’, released in June 1992, was overpowered in a sound seemingly inspired by The Stone Roses’ experiments with drum loops and indie guitar. While it found favour with commercial radio and charted (No.30), it seemed like a backward step for These Wilding Ways.
The album Paul (named after O’Neill’s late brother), released in April 1992, had its moments. Despite a third single ‘Set Love A-Sail’, which heavily featured Joel Haines, and mostly positive reviews, it spent only a couple of weeks at No.48 and No.49 on the NZ Album Charts.
A financially mixed tour was cancelled after a handful of dates, however the band were saved by a sellout at The Gluepot, indicating that they were still primarily an Auckland act. These Wilding Ways split at the end of 1992, although O’Neill, Dempsey and Robson would continue to play together sporadically in the years after.
In the mid-90s Michael O’Neill opened the hugely successful Liquid Studios in Grey Lynn with fellow former Screaming Meemees member Peter van der Fluit. The duo would find themselves back in the charts when, as The Zephyrs, “Something New’, written as an ad for Air New Zealand, peaked at No.3 in 2003.
Michael O'Neill - vocals, guitar
Jason Dempsey - bass
Joel Haines - guitar
Glenn Robson - guitar, keyboards
In 2013, Michael O’Neill and Peter van der Fluit’s musical Romeo and Juliet – A Love Song screened at the New Zealand International Film Festival