To begin with it was mostly a graffiti project. “We figured if we covered Dunedin in the name we’d be famous before we even started, recalls vocalist Bruce Mahalski. "In fact my idea of the ultimate band was one who never played at all but looked fantastic, had great artwork and sold a ton of T-shirts!”
At first the band was a basic four piece with Michael Weston (AKA Mike E Cha Cha) on guitar, Bruce Mahalski (Brucie Prole) on vocals, Eric Neuman on bass and Nathan McConnell – and later Nick Neill – on drums.
“We were contemporaneous with a lot of the so-called ‘Dunedin Sound’ – mostly a group of bands influenced by sixties American guitar music – but their style just wasn’t our thing,” says Mahalski. “Like a lot of new bands we started playing four-chord punk and thrash but gradually we got better and more versatile.
"We went out of our way to set ourselves apart from the prevailing ‘sound’ and for a while it was hard to get gigs so we started setting up our own at Coronation Hall in Māori Hill. We had absolutely no scruples and would play with anyone, from The Mockers to Motorhead. After the first time we played with The Mockers, Wayne Elsey from the Doublehappys said he wasn’t going to talk to me anymore and he didn’t. We were completely brazen about promoting ourselves and would try and get into the Otago Daily Times' music column every week and Rip It Up magazine every month, even if we had to make something up. One time I rang up the music reporter at the ODT saying we had just ‘come out’ as New Zealand’s first all-gay band but he said I must be drunk (not true) and wouldn’t use the story but other papers did.”
The band definitely got up a few noses with its agit-prop piss-takes.
Hooked on Crystal Zoom! (1984) was a rough and ready affair, distinctively packaged.
“Stamp and Garage magazines fucking hated us, and Bruce Russell (The Dead C) was also an anti fan," says Mike Weston. "We took great delight in winding up the self-consciously hip by being completely immature. This was mostly Bruce [Mahalski]’s doing. While my focus was on making the music and the production side, Bruce was channelling a hybrid of David Byrne and Mark E Smith and I wanted to be Trevor Horn, and to play guitar like Steve Stevens (Billy Idol’s guitarist) or John McGeoch [Magazine]. It was a mixed bag scene.”
Crystals Zoom!'s first cassette release, Hooked on Crystal Zoom! (1984) was a rough and ready affair, distinctively packaged in a plush fluffy orange purse with a DIY foldout sheet featuring cartoons and other cut-up art by Mahalski. A lot of copies were sold via Roy Colbert's Records Records, by mail order through Rip It Up, and alternative record stores all over the country. The release was promoted with posters of reworked gay soft-core porn centrefolds featuring naked studs with little bits of orange fluff stuck over their genitals and band branding pasted on.
In late 1984 another cassette release, Live at the Ego Club, featured Crystal Zoom! and Gamaunche at the Empire Tavern. Recorded live to 4-track by Mike Chirnside, this one came in a small orange screen printed Christmas stocking and again featured a printed insert.
Drawn to the chaotic live chemistry of Weston and Mahalski, in late 1984 bassist Robin Murphy and drummer Barry Blackler left popular Dunedin live act The Idles and joined Crystal Zoom!. They replaced the original rhythm section. Trumpeter and synth player Simon “Rumi” Amarasingham also joined and this version of the band played extensively, becoming quite a popular original rock and roll act.
The band is probably best known for the curious single, ‘Uptown Sheep/ Dunedin Sound On 45’, released as a 7-inch single on Flying Nun in 1985.
The band is probably best known for the curious single, ‘Uptown Sheep’/ ‘Dunedin Sound On 45’.
Mahalski: “One night we were playing at the Captain Cook Hotel when this guy called Mike Dagg came up and said he would pay for us to record a single of ‘Uptown Sheep’ at the commercial radio station (4X0) where he worked as a DJ. So we went down to 4X0 and did it at their studio – together with a B-side called ‘I Can’t Get Any Sex. I Can’t Get Any Drugs, I Can’t Get Any BMX’. Mike was pretty into the whole BMX (Bicycle Motor Cross) racing thing then. The recordings went OK but no record company would touch us with a sharp stick so we needed another plan.
“At this time (1984) there were these terrible medleys of perennial chestnuts coming out all the time on the radio with names like ‘Hooked On Classics’. They all had these backgrounds of incredibly repetitive disco handclaps. I suggested we do our own version and call it ‘Dunedin Sound on 45’. Some of our musical chums like Martin Phillipps and David Kilgour could see the humour in it and actually played many of their parts on the finished medley. But many of the local hip priests just thought it was another one of our ambushes (which it was) and they slagged it. There were two songs by The Clean, two from The Chills, one each from The Stones and The Verlaines, and part of our own ‘Uptown Sheep’ at the end. Each song part segued into the next with that infuriating disco hand clap shit in the background.”
Weston: “When it was released in 1985 on Flying Nun it upset a lot of people, but it was a point in time when remixing was just emerging as an idea and I think we did a respectable job of the tracks and the medley was well conceived. For a lot of the people who had grown up in Dunedin it was difficult having the local scene suddenly get taken super seriously by an influx of worshippers, and so the sentiment that prevailed in terms of why David Kilgour and Martin Phillips wanted to do it was they just wanted to cut loose from the too cool for school pigeonhole.”
Mahalski and Weston both relocated to Auckland in early 1985, settling on Waiheke Island and forming a new band with Rob (aka Dick Libido) Brown on bass and Yoh (Laurence Landwer-Johan, ex-The Screaming Meemees) on drums.
Mahalski: “We got into the whole altered consciousness thing and decided to totally divorce our real personalities from the band. We started wearing masks and making animal noises when people tried to interview to us and giving them pictures of trees or other objects to print instead of a picture of the band.”
The group borrowed Paul Luker’s 4-track tape recorder and embarked on a period of continued recording experimentation, creating backing tapes and cut up works, some of which appear on the tape release More Base (1985). The duo’s growing interest in photography spilled into the live shows with the inclusion of slides in an increasingly multimedia orientated presentation influenced by the electronic experimental art scenes of San Francisco and the emerging industrial movement.
“We found the masks made it hard to play and set up a real barrier between us and the audience,” says Mahalski. “A lot of people just didn’t get it. And our new rhythm section never really gelled – no disrespect to Rob or Yoh – we were naive to think we could replace Robin and Barry so easily. Mike and I started getting involved in other things and after a personal tragedy I moved back to Dunedin and the band split up shortly afterwards.”
Just before the final split, the band headed to Last Laugh Studios, where Weston was later to base his production work, and recorded ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’ with Martin Williams producing. The track appears on Contraceptual, a 1987 cassette-only compilation release from Weston’s art project, Zoom Creative.
After Crystal Zoom!, Mahalski formed Dunedin funksters Let’s Get Naked, with Robin Murphy and some other ex-Idles. This band was a regular at The Captain Cook Tavern in the late 1980s and put out an album called Something Like That on Dunedin’s Rational Records in 1987 as well as having a minor hit with the song ‘Funky Dunedin’. In 1988 Weston formed the synthesiser duo Black Girl’s Machine with Johnny Payne (aka Johnnie Pain of the Hallelujah Picassos) and put out the EP Esoterror on Flying Nun (1990). Nowadays Mahalski and Weston are both known as contemporary artists.
Barry Blackler went on to play with the Scottish band The Jesus and Mary Chain as well as The Exponents and The Starlings (with Chris Sheehan). He also formed the well-known music tour promotion company, Blackout. Simon Amarasingham now does sound work for computer games in the States.