Their bass player was Garry Russell, better known as Harry Ratbag or ‘arry, his punk and writing names. When music media readers first encountered him he was enquiring after five important albums not yet available in NZ in the October 1980 Rip It Up Xtra magazine.
The Cramps – Songs The Lord Taught Us
Swell Maps – A Trip To Marineville/ Swell Maps in Jane From Occupied Europe
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures/ Closer
The Fall – Live At The Witch Trials/ Totales Turns
Alternative TV – The Image Has Cracked
He was back in the December 1980 Rip It Up Xtra talking up a Herco Pilots set in the domain. Mr $3 Haircut, writer Mark Phillips called him, as Ratbag dragged him along.
They ratcheted out a set to an audience that included Andrew Snoid from The Whizz Kids, Karel von Bergen from The Features, and Sid Pasley from The Newmatics.
Harry Ratbag was Herco Pilots’ bass player. Chris Williams and Steve Wester completed the Auckland trio. In 1980 they played Newmarket with a portable generator. Wester didn’t turn up at the domain so Chris’ brother Peter drummed for a while until the group gave up and decamped to find Wester. Proper drummer found and installed they ratcheted out a set to an audience that included Andrew Snoid from The Whizz Kids, Karel von Bergen from The Features, and Sid Pasley from The Newmatics.
Herco Pilots was Harry’s second group. He was bass player in The Gordon Bennetts with Alan Ringwood, future Children’s Hour drummer Bevan Sweeney and journalist Patrick Smellie. Steve Wester was an early member.
The Gordon Bennetts performed around the harbour city, securing a Thursday night residency at The Squeeze in Fanshawe Street, and recorded some demos but released no songs.
In mid-February 1981 you could find Herco Pilots at XS Café in Airedale Street with post-punk moodists Danse Macabre and Vivid Militia. The following month they’d make it as far as Wellington's Last Resort for shows.
Not content with the UK’s indie stocks Harry added a record of his own – Herco Pilots’ Wonderbook Of Things To Do 7-inch EP – released on the group’s REM Records. “The last great punk rock record of the golden era,” punk historian Wade Churton later dubbed it, and it’s hard to deny that ‘Essential Services’ and ‘NZ Rec’, recorded with Lee Connelly at Harlequin Studios, are enduring chunky punk tracks.
REM Records also fostered the recording of three Danse Macabre tracks – ‘Shred’, ‘Mission’ and ‘Torch’ – although none appeared on record – and Alms For Children’s Alms Not Arms 7-inch EP, a surprise NZ Top 50 entry in August 1981.
Late summer, the Pilots were back with new drummer, Hugh Tercel in Auckland Domain, and at The Rumba Bar in the central city with Danse Macabre. Simon Grigg caught them there for Rip It Up. “In spite of the fact they have obviously read their NMEs thoroughly (and who hasn’t?), the Pilot’s music is highly original and engrossing. While much of it sounds similar, their songs are full of intriguing ideas that more than justify catching the band and forking out for their single."
And fork out for the single the public did. New Zealand’s first true DIY release of the punk era sold steadily.
And fork out for the single the public did. New Zealand’s first true DIY release of the punk era sold steadily. Under the headline “Hercopalypse Now” the trio spoke to Mark Phillips from Rip It Up about the release. “We played at XS Cafe, and half the crowd left, yet we’ve done the single and it has sold really well. I think recording is a better way of getting to people.”
“We really wanted to do the single, but we couldn’t be bothered trying to convince anyone else that we should. I did approach Simon Grigg about being on Class of ’81, but the others threatened to beat me up,” Ratbag explained.
The self-funded recording was done at Harlequin Studios and cost $282, and Chris Williams designed the cover for a first run pressing of 300 copies. At two dollars a copy the trio were taking a loss before they even released it. Harry’s advice to aspiring bands: “Start saving!”
Off the back of the single, you could catch The Herco Pilots with Danse Macabre and Alms For Children at the Rumba Bar in June, and all through July at the Reverb Room, Rumba Bar and Station Hotel. August was spent finishing their second record, the Jumping At! double single, co-produced by Barry Jenkin and Steve Kennedy, another DIY NZ punk first (it was released simultaneously with The Newmatics’ double) – although the sounds are way more varied than the first record – signalling the musical progressions free minded punks were now making, influenced by post-punk Britain.
David McLennan, in In Touch magazine, named it Single of the Week 2 (with The Clean’s Boodle Boodle Boodle), proclaiming: “This is a huge improvement over their first effort. The Hercos have a sound that’s uniquely theirs. Their songs are abrasive, amusing, and entertaining. They are New Zealand’s Mekons, no less! The music on this record is sparse and direct. The Hercos don’t put any frills in, they just go straight to the heart of the matter. No soft options are offered. The music is neither pretty nor bleak.”
South Island fans got a chance to check them out when Herco Pilots, Alms For Children (who had Alms Not Arms out on REM), and Danse Macabre arrived in the southern capital by car, plane and train for three days at The Gladstone in early September. It was The Herco Pilots’ swansong. Chris Williams and Hugh Tercel re-emerged as Coalition in 1982 with Pete Williams and Chris Todd on board.
Chris Knox, reviewing Coalition’s Collaborators, remembered seeing "this lurching, gangling outfit a coupla times and loved ‘em. Lots of irreverence and neat bits on wacko instruments etc. Y’ know, just my cup of tea. This is a totally live tape and as such you miss out on the great facial expressions and bodily contortions but get most of the music. Side One (wherein found are most of the “songs") is great, especially ‘Fish’ and ‘Red Tape’. Side Two (looser, jammy stuff) is more self-indulgent and correspondingly less approachable."
Meantime Ratbag, having crashed his way from acerbic letter writer to RipItUp columnist with his King Shag and ‘arry columns now had a permanent forum to dis local night spots, catalogue and decimate the beer stocks in others, crash birthday parties, and skewer local rock and rollers in the ‘arry Awards (including the: “Um, er…Four cans, Officer” Silver Key ring to Doug Hood, Dave McArtney and yours truly”) as he looked up from his new bar job into the Auckland rock and roll underworld, lording it in his grumpy, occasionally brilliant way.
His Dream for 1982 included late night drinking bar Cream reopening. Steinlager’s price falling. A rooftop bar at the Queen’s Ferry. The deporting to Australia of any band that played more than six Gluepot weekends a year. And that silly people stop singing silly songs about yours truly.” The last bit referring to The Gurlz’ ‘Legend In His Own Lunchtime’, a cheeky ode to the Ratbag.
At the peak of his writing power in August 1983 he contemplated the Last Tango At The Rumba in RipItUp.
“This month saw the closure of one of Auckland’s more established wrestling rings, the Rumble Bar. Down the pub, we find out why it was closed, in a rather heated discussion.
‘arry: It was the warm steinies – nobody’d buy them.
Russell Brown: And the lager – took five minutes to pour.
Roger Shepherd: Wilson’s Whisky – I hate Wilson’s Whisky.
Mark Phillips: And bands like Fetus Productions. I hate Fetus productions.
Chris Knox: I hate Mark Phillips.
Peter Urlich: Well I hate warm Steinlager, Wilson’s Whisky, Fetus Productions and Mark Phillips.
Peter: Right first time – drink more bliss.
Mike Corless: It was the bloody skins.
Andrew Boak: Yeah, that’s right, blame it on us. You know there are only 10 true skins …
Paul Rose: Shut up, Andrew.
Mike Corless: But there were too many fights.
Andrew Boak: Yeah, that’s right, blame it on us. You know there was only one real fight …
Paul Rose: Shut up, Andrew.
Graham Brazier: There were too many cops.
Andrew Boak: Yeah, that’s right, blame it on us. You know there are only 2,500 …
All: Fuck OFF Boak!
Paul Rose: What about the heater?
‘arry: The one in the beer fridge?
Paul: No, at the door. I was chilled to the bone.
‘arry: Pity the beer wasn’t.
Bryan Staff: Who said I was on Close To Home?
Mark: It was closed because I never went there. I’m really certain.
Peter: Or me!
Chris: Wank, wank.
Roger King: It was because DD Smash never played there. Everyone likes DD Smash.
Mike Corless: I agree.
Chris: Wank, wank.
Nigel Russell: The stage was too small, it couldn’t fit all my synthesizers.
John Quigley: Or the Pig Bagways.
Roger King: Or my head.
Graham Brazier: Or my habit.
Mike Corless: Or my dick.
I’m off to the Public Bar, sez ‘arry.
He’d ramble on for a few more years yet laying down the complete prophecies of Harry Nostradamous (world’s most famous seer), dissecting a Battle of the blands (“Dunno fell asleep. Did the same last year and I was a judge”) and writing about organising the Auckland post-punk contingent for a cricket match against the establishment – New Music Management. God, knows what he was on come August 1984 when a flesh eating, brain biting zombie ‘arry decimated the rock and roll population of Auckland (again), but we'll leave him there. A future as a music importer and club DJ in New York awaited.
Harry Russell - bass
Steve Wester - drums
Chris Williams - vocals, guitar
Hugh Tercel - drums
As ‘arry, Harry Russell was an acerbic columnist for Rip It Up. As Harry The Bastard he became a well-known DJ and dance music tastemaker in New York, with three very successful US released compilations and a profile in US Rolling Stone.
Chris Williams was part of the Coalition collective who released several tapes after Herco Pilots’ demise.
Harry Russell is the brother of Nigel Russell (Car Crash Set, The Spelling Mistakes, Danse Macabre).