The idea to take the three key Propeller bands on the road together was Paul Rose's, Dave Merritt’s (the original Screaming Meemees manager) and mine. It came to us over a few late night drinks one evening in March 1981.
Paul, who was also manager of The Newmatics and my partner in the label, and I put it to Tim Mahon, the Blam Blam Blam bassist (and co-manager) in their shared flat in Brighton Road, Parnell. Tim came up with the name on the spot. It was broadly accepted as a concept but remained just that until the Blams took it to the next level. It was their idea to talk to the New Zealand Students Arts Council, and utilise the network first set up in the 1970s. Don McGlashan made the approach.
The notion that we would take three bands, three vans, three lots of crew and management around the country was potentially a logistical nightmare and a massive money loser. As far as I know, no NZ three band touring circus like this had happened since the 1960s, and never three left of centre acts who were perceived as underground at best in large parts of New Zealand.
It verged on the fiscally reckless, but that is, so they say, rock and roll.
It verged on the fiscally reckless, but that is, so they say, rock and roll. Every tour was a potential disaster. You simply crossed your fingers and tried. However we worked out that we could, if we had the NZSAC guaranteeing fees at the universities, just cover costs if we were ruthless in our expenditure. The initial contract from the council restricted us to the university venues in each city as exclusives, however Don and I explained to the folks in Wellington that this made the tour potentially disastrous. A budget that allowed us to just break even was always going to blow out.
I had visions of being stuck in Dunedin, in debt. Besides, it was important to support the venues that had taken earlier risks with all three bands, most particularly The Gladstone in Christchurch, which had so successfully hosted the overflowing Class of 81 gigs in April. Outside of Auckland it was our key national venue and we all felt an affinity both to it and to the city.
The other thing we didn’t want was the tag “student band” attached to any of the acts. All of the bands had records due for release in July, so that seemed to nail the date when we would all put on our scarves, hat and op-shop sourced winter jackets and head south. We decided to pool backline gear but would travel in three vans – The Newmatics’ rather modern Bedford CF Jumbo, and two ancient Commer Commercial vans: the Blams’ much loved blue and white one, nicknamed The Milk Wagon; and a green wreck borrowed by Dave Merritt from another band, The Pleasure Boys.
I was the tour manager and handled the day-to-day details, all venue liaison and the finances. Initially nobody clicked that the tour coincided, in fact in places precisely both in time and location, with the event that was to tear New Zealand apart in 1981 – the infamous Springbok Rugby Tour. As the coincidence became clear and the nation braced for the inevitable clash, we issued the first of the two singles to student radio. Blam Blam Blam’s ‘There Is No Depression in New Zealand’ was music from Don McGlashan matched with lyrics from Richard Von Sturmer that spoke perfectly to the wretched collision New Zealand was approaching. It was officially released the week we hit the road. The second single to go to radio was The Newmatics’ double 7”, Broadcast OR, which featured the slightly more direct ‘Riot Squad’, a song actually written about a police raid on the XS Cafe venue in Auckland’s Airedale Street in March 1981.
It wouldn’t actually hit the stores until the first week of October for a variety of reasons but student radio had rough mixes of a couple of tracks before we left. By the time we hit the road both songs had started to sink into the alternative mind-set of the nation.
Wed 8th, Mainstreet
The first gig of the tour, and an easy warm-up in front of a friendly home crowd for whom these bands could do no wrong. The bands were to rotate as headliners on the tour and from memory The Screaming Meemees, who were by this time easily the biggest live band in Auckland, were the headliners this night. It gave us petrol money and paid the poster bill. We were on our way.
We left in convoy (as we would proceed until the last gig, always nervous that the Meemees’ junk-bucket would die somewhere miles from telephone or human contact) on the Saturday morning. The Newmatics had played on the Friday at the New Station Hotel and were slow to arrive at the Blam’s Hobson Street practice rooms, where we had arranged to rendezvous.
Sat 11th, Massey Uni
We arrived in Palmerston North to find that the student union had forgotten to arrange accommodation as agreed. Every hotel and motel in the town was booked so we decided to wing it. We made contact with various members of the then unknown local band, the Skeptics. The Newmatics had become close to the guys. To be honest I have little memory of this gig. I do however remember (the start of) the after-party – an uproarious beer-sodden affair. There was a mini-tanker. I slept in the Milk Wagon until Don invited me into a house. Others slept under vans and wherever they could find a pillow. We crept slowly, painfully, to Wellington the next day.
Tues 14th, Wed 15th, Terminus
The first two gigs, in a central pub, were packed and largely uneventful. However they meant we had cash in our pockets – not vast amounts but enough to treat us all at the legendary greasy spoon, The Green Parrot in Taranaki Street.
Thurs 16th, Victoria Uni
The third Wellington gig was another thing altogether and, as hardened as we liked to think were, we were unprepared for what happened. The details of the three-hour brawl are fairly accurately set out in the letter here. It was a night that rocked our soft Auckland world a little – even after the years of skinhead trouble at gigs in Auckland, and the vicious police violence that was also so much a part of the live music scene back then.
I have memories of the always mild-mannered and measured Don McGlashan with a bulky thug in a head-hold.
I have memories of the always mild-mannered and measured Don McGlashan with a bulky thug in a head-hold, punching as if he was a seasoned slugger. By the stage, mid-song, Michael Meemee caught one chain swinging scumbag with his guitar and floored him. Mark Clare knocked a chair wielding skinhead unconscious and then accidently hit me in the cheek – which allowed me to claim a war wound the next day. We gave as well as we received and more importantly saved the gear that these guys, were determined to wreck. I spent the best part of an hour in the VUSU offices screaming and banging things to try – quite literally – to save our bodies and tour but met a wall of complete disinterest. It was a low point of my touring life, but it wasn’t over.
The next morning, on the way to Christchurch, we sat quietly on the ferry to Picton nursing our damaged bones and egos. Sid Newmatic had a large Doc Martens tread mark on his cheek. Others had split lips and black eyes. The drive to Christchurch, in convoy, was pleasant, and the Blams, who I was with, had a pastoral picnic beside a small river. Given that it was freezing (Don swam!) and I was still both bruised and vaguely hung-over from the post brawl painkilling drinks, I would perhaps have preferred the steak pies and L&P that the other vans enjoyed in nearby Cheviot over the camembert and French loaves beside the stream.
We arrived in Christchurch and it was blissful. Christchurch was always a wonderful place to play. Our favourite promoter, Jim Wilson, had arranged, with the university, warm, sufficient and comfortable accommodation for us all. I spent the week with Roger Shepherd, my best mate in the city and a man who was about to launch his own rather important label, Flying Nun Records.
Sat 18th, Lincoln College
Springbok Tour and here we were, a bunch of Halt All Racist Tours (HART) badge-wearing Jafas, deep in enemy territory – an agricultural college full of farmer’s sons brought up on the righteousness of the game played against their white Afrikaner brethren. Our hero was Nelson Mandela, theirs were Terry McLean and Danie Craven.
Some of us sat quietly in the back of the TV room as students loudly cheered the images of the Red Squad long-batoning protesters.
In the afternoon some of us sat quietly in the back of the TV room as students loudly cheered the images of the Red Squad long-batoning protesters as the Springboks arrived in Auckland. We said nothing. Because of some long forgotten timing issues, only two bands were to play that night and Blam Blam Blam were stood down. The story that it was because they were political isn’t true.
It was mayhem. Students, the offspring of farming families sent at great cost to understand the ways of the land – or to kill a year or two before they took over the farm – were having vomiting contests from the lighting towers into beer jugs, whilst others were setting their friends on fire to much amusement. The Newmatics were playing to some disinterest from the Canterbury agricultural massive, who were more Jimmy Barnes than Little Jimmy Jewel, and I wandered out to a side room.
There, Tim Mahon was having a strident discussion with a towering chap who seemed to have been raised with a hogget on each shoulder. It centred around the HART badge Tim was proudly wearing on his lapel. The student was prodding Tim with his finger and the situation was quickly elevating towards a bloody resolution.
Putting on my tour manager hat, I moved between them. “C’mon guys, this is solving nothing. Only jerks resort to violence…” BAM! I was on the ground, blood pissing out of my nose and torn lip. “You called me a jerk,” yelled the clown as he booted me in the ribs. He was quickly pulled off by supportive (of him, not me) observers and I staggered backstage to clean up.
Twenty or so minutes later, I was standing at the sound desk wanting the gig to just be over and I saw this same meathead coming towards me again, beer jug in hand. Oh, god, here we go again was my immediate thought, and I cowered courageously behind the desk. My assailant arrived and thrust out his ham-hock hand: “You took that like a real man,” he said, and handed me the jug with a smile.
Sun 19th, Canterbury Uni
Canterbury University was a blast. The crowd went nuts and I found myself locked in a lift for an hour or so when it jammed.
Mon 20th, Tues 21st, Wed 22nd, Gladstone
Three gigs at the famed Gladstone Hotel. The first was, for some forgotten reason, a matinee – afternoon – show. It must have been a holiday that year but I’m damned if can remember why. The place was rammed and the police turned up in some numbers during the Newmatics set, which caused the band to launch into a slow and measured version of the still unreleased ‘Riot Squad’. The cops, nervously and obviously, left the venue.
They were not the only visitors. The Wainuiomata boys, the same guys we had the problems with in Wellington, turned up – or at least a core three or four of them did. They’d followed us down to Christchurch to extract utu after their failure to beat the living daylights out of us all in the Student Union hall at Victoria University. To that end they stood at the back waiting, we guessed, until the show finished and we were leaving. The gig finished around 4.30 or 5pm and the crowd thinned.
I talked with Fred Kramer. Fred, who we all knew affectionately as Animal, because of his size and presence, was a student who split his time between the Master’s Degree he was completing and doing band sound. Fred was about to become a lifesaver.
He’d noticed the group of thugs too and was eager to do something about it. Grabbing a microphone stand he walked over to the bunch and said “C’mon, who wants it?” They backed away from the threat and he moved forward. They backed away again. Fred moved forward. He pointed to the door, swinging the mic stand. They moved outside. Fred followed but the cops were outside and had decided that the Wainui boys were of interest and moved in.
We didn’t see them again. The next two shows were evening shows and both filled to capacity. During the day both Paul and I did the record company stuff, visiting retailers and press. Michael Higgins interviewed me for the student newspaper, Canta, for what was a fairly major piece that I thought was one of the best Propeller profiles to date. I spent time drinking whiskey and talking with Roger Shepherd at Warners and hanging with my buddy, the late Tony Peake, in his University Bookshop Store. On the Tuesday David Swift from The Press interviewed Paul and me. It was a special week.
Someone had remixed the A-side and substituted their muffled disaster for our finished mix.
The test pressings of the new Screaming Meemees single, ‘See Me Go’ arrived by courier. We rushed over to Michael Higgins place and put it on. I was aghast. The band was aghast. Someone had remixed the A-side and substituted their muffled disaster for our finished mix. We soon worked out that it was the marketing guy at Festival Records who had it in his head that he was a producer. He wasn’t and I was forced to call the production manager, who quickly reinstated the original mix. The marketing guy didn’t ever know and told people for years after that he had remixed a No.1 single.
On Friday night we drove to Dunedin. For some reason we decided to leave at about 10pm and drive into the night, to arrive before dawn. The three vans went in convoy again and there was a lottery to decide who went in the Meemees’ borrowed shit heap – it was the only unheated van, and it would be very, very cold in the mid-winter South Island night. I escaped the lottery as the tour manager and jumped into The Newmatics heated CF, which led the convoy. The Newmatics, in a way that now horrifies all of us, had, as they often did on tour, packed the PA system in the back of the van, with mattresses on top. We each took turns lying on the top of the large speakers and amp-racks in the space between the mattress and the roof. If, as almost tragically happened to the Blams a year later, the van had rolled or even gone onto its side, whoever was on the top would have been crushed – dead – mashed. The thought never crossed our minds at the time and we simply treated the risk as routine – until the Blam Blam Blam wreckage outside Wanganui in 1982 snapped us back into a reality that was absent.
We thought we would gas up in Timaru or Oamaru. In the North Island, after all, there were 24-hour gas stations every few kilometres along State Highway 1 and we routinely did late night dashes after the gig to the next town. However the South Island is not the North and we were yet again Jafa naïve. Timaru passed and there were no stations open. For a moment we were distracted by the Southern Lights in the sky ahead of us and we all got out, found snow beside the road, and were thrilled by the silence and beauty of the night.
Then we looked at the gas gauges and pressed on to Oamaru. Closed. Not even a 24-hour dairy, so we headed to Palmerston and found the same. Desperate and all with pointers below empty, we arrived in the tiny town of Waikouaiti about 4am. It was freezing and we found our way to the phone exchange, which had the only light on in the town. “Petrol?” I asked. The local operator was making a cup of pre-dawn tea, and pointed down the hill through the fog to a building with a Mobil sign. “It opens at eight but he often arrives earlier.” The three vans went down to the station, which was also a general store, and parked in the forecourt outside. Around 5am the gas ran out in the vans one by one and the heating in the two vans that had it died. We covered ourselves in whatever we could find and waited, chain-smoking until they too ran out.
Around 6am the local volunteer fire brigade up the hill coming out to practise briefly distracted us. We argued about whether one of us should head up and ask for a litre or two when they disappeared in the other direction. Finally at 7am we noted some life in the store. The light went on and I got out and tapped on the window. The guy inside, happy in his warm Swanndri and with the glow of a heater obvious, pointed to the sign on the door that read 8am, and walked away. As we waited, he sat at a table inside by the window and slowly consumed a plate of eggs and bacon followed by hot coffee. At around 7.50am he walked slowly to the front door and opened it. “How long have you been waiting?” “Since 4.” “You should’ve woken me.”
We staggered into Dunedin, to our student-provided accommodation in some motel, half an hour later, broken. Michael Meemee looked at me and said, “We should’ve spent the night in Christchurch, Simon.”
Sun 26th, Otago University
Another gig that I have no real memory of at all. I know it was a sell out as I have receipts that tell me it was a roaring success. We were hassled on the street. We worked out that we stood out.
Mon 27th, Tues 28th, Shoreline
The last two gigs on the tour. The first was maybe the quietest of the tour – it’s a big call asking Dunedin to fill a venue on a Monday in mid-winter. However the crowd that was there was both enthusiastic and generous – none of us had to buy a drink all night. The second, though, was huge and a roaring way to go out with an encore that featured all three bands on the stage, doing an extended ‘Louie Louie’.
And it was after this that the convoy that had trekked down the nation over the last two weeks broke apart. The two Commers were going to slowly head back up country over the next couple of days. The green Newmatics van however was going to leave after the gig and drive straight through to Auckland non-stop. I opted to go in that one – Paul and I had a label to run. We hit the road about midnight with four of the seven of us crammed into the van taking turns at the wheel whilst others slept.
We made Picton mid-afternoon and caught the Cook Strait ferry to Wellington, driving into the centre of town around 7pm. We were just off the boat and in search of food when a local punk, Geoff Ludbrook, known to most as simply Void, jumped onto the van’s running board. “There’s gonna be a riot,” he shouted and we, with a mixture of wary trepidation and excitement, followed his directions to the intersection of Molesworth Street and Lampton Quay where, leaving the van, without further forewarning we found ourselves in the middle of a baton charge. The riot gear-adorned police line were forcing the chanting protestors back down the hill, away from Parliament. The last time we were in the city we had skinheads from the suburbs attacking us with metal sticks and now, 13 days later, the police were attempting to do the same to us with wooden ones. We moved back with the crowd into Lambton Quay, where both sides were now angrily taunting each other. Keep it down, it’s the Riot Squad.
As the cops surged forward, protected behind shields, we thought better of the moment and, shaken by the unexpected assault, we retreated to our van parked in a side street. By 9.30am we were back on State Highway One again and we drove straight through to Auckland. I drove from Taupo onwards, with only Mark Clare and I awake, chewing gum, stopping for coffee at the (plentiful) 24-hour gas stations. Around 7am we were back in the streets of Ponsonby … and that was The Screaming Blam-matic roadshow.
In the years since, the tour’s legend has grown, often to epic proportions.
The three bands reunited for a finale in mid August, at Mainstreet in Queen Street, which was sold out 20 minutes after the doors opened.
In the years since, the tour’s legend has grown, often to epic proportions. There is no doubt that it made a huge difference to the way the music that we were making was received and perceived outside our home city, and all three bands benefited immensely from both the exposure and reputation. Their growing record sales and live crowds in the years afterwards were evidence of that. From mid-1981 onwards our audience was firmly national rather than regional as a result of the work we’d put in (and the blows) on The Screaming Blam-matic Roadshow.
For all that it was a harrowing couple of weeks; a mixture of joyous crowds and quite heavy violence, the likes of which we were simply not used to. I look back on the tour with happy nostalgia tempered by the memory of those fists, batons and boots coming our way. However, more than that, I still fully resent that prick in Waikouaiti with his bacon & eggs!
Dave Merritt left the tour in in Palmerston North and The Screaming Meemees had returned without him. Somebody misplaced The Pleasure Boys’ van. I’m not sure if it was ever found.