Reprinted without permission FROM THE LISTENER ARCHIVE: ARTS & BOOKS August 23-29 2008 Vol 215 No 3563, but hey they might go under or get bought out by Fairfax or someone and now that it’s on here it’s as good as gold, safe as houses, and won’t go away…
The Puddle’s George D Henderson has an almost shamanic knack for neatly concise pop songs.
The Chills’ Doledrums (1984) is a much celebrated dole day anthem, with Martin Phillipps’ almost lifeless and deadpan refrain “the benefits arrive and life goes on …” But there was another Dunedin band and Flying Nun label mate of The Chills who turned out a much better ode to dole day. The Puddle’s Thursday (1993) is a joyous pop gem. “My sweet little Thursday/I wouldn’t swap you for the rest of the year …”
“Well, as a Chills fan, I was kind of disappointed by Doledrums. And as a beneficiary, I thought it was sort of ungrateful,” says George D Henderson, singer/guitarist/ founder of the Puddle.
“I guess I didn’t share Marty’s work ethic. For me and my friends, dole day was the only day of the week we really lived. So I was trying to express that devil may take tomorrow and live for today ambience that I saw around me on Thursday nights in Dunedin.”
Formed in 1984 with the stellar line up of Henderson, Leslie Paris, Norma O’Malley and Peter Gutteridge, the Puddle have contributed an almost mythical and romantic legacy to New Zealand music.
On a bad night, they were a shambolic and broken spectacle. But on a good night, the band would be like a majestic rush of lightning right up the nervous system. While the Puddle’s sound is steeped in muddy, psyched out, sci fi cod metal and narcotic cool, the bottom line is always gleaming pop.
Henderson has an almost shamanic knack of writing neatly concise pop songs that are riddled with hooks and melodies. Spindly guitars are punctuated with jabs of wonky, scrunched up organ, brittle flute interjections and savvy lyrics sung in a proud Kiwi accent. But the real magic lies in Henderson’s innate ability to write songs you think you’ve heard before. They just instantly click.
Henderson’s history includes heroin addiction, crime and jail. Diagnosed with debilitating hepatitis C in 1991, which he has learned to manage successfully, there were even rumours that he had died.
“I never heard those rumours! But, of course, I’d be the last to know,” he says with a laugh.
I can confirm Henderson is very much alive. When I saw his reformed Puddle perform recently in Auckland, he played such a long and ferocious set (including a thundering and blissfully irony free cover of Smoke on the Water) that I had to sit down. The man is unstoppable.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Henderson moved to Invercargill with his family when he was eight. Inspired by local band Watchdog, who played T Rex and David Bowie covers, he formed his own band with his younger brother, Ian, and Tweedsmuir Intermediate chum the late Lindsay Maitland.
“Did you ever see that television series Freaks and Geeks? That was us, man. We started as the geeks and grew into the freaks,” says Henderson, 50.
A bit of a rascal during his school years, he admits he would do anything for attention.
“One teacher said he didn’t know if I’d grow up to be a genius or a madman. For a long time I thought I’d have to choose.”
I first heard the Puddle via a dub of a dubbed cassette (minus track list, of course) of the Flying Nun classic Into the Moon (1992). I was 15. We listened to Slayer and Black Sabbath back then.
So, comparatively, the Puddle were like music from another planet. Produced by Alastair Galbraith, Into the Moon sounded like it had been recorded in the bottom of a tin can. Dusty and sprawling, there was still a heaviness about it that appealed. As did the thrillingly dangerous and volatile nature of Henderson’s songs, courtesy of the metallic edged and drugged up psychedelia.
Starting with opiated pot at 17, Henderson moved on to heroin (or as he says in Junk, the devil’s petrol) at 20, tripping on LSD in between.
“The drugs I took were historical counter culture landmarks. But it quickly got seedy: cough mixture, painkillers, diet pills and benzos. But opium was always the drug of choice because it was a romantic thing,” he says.
Henderson’s drug addiction contributed to a flirtation with crime. In 1990, he snuck into the science department of the University of Otago to steal ether. Though he cunningly wore a white lab coat, he was caught.
“Just before they grabbed me, I tipped the ether all over my clothes. That way, they couldn’t stop me getting off. The police took a picture of me wearing the lab coat, and it was posted all over the university.”
Because he was already on probation for a chemist burglary, Henderson was sent to Invercargill Prison in 1991 for three months. He says his time in prison blew away any remnants of his liberal youth.
“I decided to take the music seriously when I got out. To get the girls and so forth.”
Musically, the Puddle had more in common with post punk/soul popsters Orange Juice than the spikiness of The Fall, who were a favourite with sexless, stand back and impress me, black jersey bands in 1980s Dunedin. Henderson reckons that with your music you’ve got to get them between the legs as well as the ears.
“It sounds obvious now, not to mention crass. But I was never into the po faced thing of the Dunedin Sound. I wanted to shake people up. A lot of people came to our shows to dance, to hook up and to have fun.”
So, are the Puddle sexy music, then?
“Most rock music is kind of pre sexual, kind of ‘I wanna’, and it’s more meaningful to me to write about the consequences of getting your heart’s desire, or not,” says Henderson.
There’s a certain kind of knowing voodoo that runs through Henderson’s songs. He’s got spunk. He knows that the way women and men regard each other is one of life’s great mysteries, and that the pop song is the ideal vehicle to explore this.
“Well, that voodoo thing you mentioned is such a pleasure to play. You can be sure it’s that voodoo, not blood transfusions, keeping Keith Richards alive.”
The Puddle’s latest offering, No Love No Hate (Powertool), clearly shows Henderson still has that fire within him. Lyrical, garage rock, his songs are smart, sharp, and while there’s still that blissed out psychedelia, they’re more lucid than ever.
“Well, I’m not as filthy with drugs as I once was, put it that way. I have no idea how much longer I’ve got. I’m already old for a rock musician. Many of my peers are dead or out of action. But now life is fascinating and exciting without being too intimidating.”
For my last year of high school I had to go to a private boarding school in Christchurch where pretty much the only music the other boys ever listened to was Led Zeppelin, the Doors, the Stones, & Pink Floyd. (This was in 1980, 21 years ago as I write this, but I bet if you went back to the same place today you’d hear the exact same shit echoing down the same halls, played by the sons of the same guys). I hated all those bands then, ’cause they just seemed to stand for all the stuff I figured rock’n’roll was supposed to be opposed to – conservatism, conformity, stuff like that.
By this stage of my life rock’n’roll music was about the only thing I cared much about, so the heavy teen alienation vibe of being at a new school (when I didn’t much even want to be at school at all) was double ’cause of being surrounded by other “rock fans” who if they heard me listening to the kind of stuff I liked (the Stooges, the Saints, the Ramones, whatever residual British punk rock still seemed good by that time, whatever stuff I could find that seemed weird, some ‘60s rock… I can’t remember what else exactly) they’d go “What’s this shit?”, & it’d seem like the criterion for stuff being “shit” was mainly “I didn’t get told this was good by my creepo big brother with the expensive stereo” or something. You know, “We can’t like this ’cause it isn’t part of the accepted canon of rock’n’roll” sorta shit. Yeah well I loved rock’n’roll too, but I was looking for something as far away from this kind of fossilised shit as I could get.
Anyway – one Sunday, wandered into the Arts Centre – that was just down the rd. from the school so if you know yr way round Christchurch you know which school I’m talking about : Christ’s College – & I heard the disjointed, discordant strains of a kind of music I didn’t exactly know already but had maybe been waiting to know – oo-ee-oo, spooky! – coming from the Centre Gallery – OK, in I went. The scene in the hall confused me somewhat, though – there were a few spectators, but the band at the far end of the gallery didn’t act like they were giving any kind of public performance – not that I’d’ve known for sure what that was supposed to be like, I’d never really seen any rock shows in my life (see footnote) – but it kind of looked to me like I’d wandered in on a band just dicking around with a few of their friends hanging out. I went outside again & listened from out there for a while. Anyway, that was my 1st sighting of the Perfect Strangers, a group & a sound that was to have a profound effect on my subsequent life. I can’t remember too many specifics of that 1st encounter other than that it was a heavy flash (like, Shit, I wanna be in a band like this), but simultaneously completely unsurprising ( i.e. I immediately knew that I had been looking for something like this & expecting to find it pretty soon).
There were 2 bands playing, although members of each seemed to wander in on each others’ performances at random. Neither sounded anything like any kind of Punk Rock that I was familiar with, apart from in terms of abrasiveness – the trio that had been playing when I 1st went into the place were the Perfect Strangers, who played some kind of disjointed primitive blues (with loud guitar – meet Bill Vosburgh); the other group, The And Band, were more, I dunno, psychedelic. I don’t remember what all my reference points were back then (I was 17, I was from Timaru. I’d heard more arcane sounds than probably any other 17 year old from Timaru in 1980, but still we can safely assume I didn’t know shit as far as things to compare this to went), but I know I thought , OK , early Pink Floyd.(& was right). (Bands that I hadn’t heard yet but soon would & I’d go, “Hey , it’s the And Band!” – The Fall, Alternative TV, Red Crayola, Faust, Slapp Happy, Can [actually I mighta heard them already, can’t recall exactly.])
A big deal thing about seeing these bands was, I realised, that accidentally wandering in on ’em like that was the only way I could’ve found out about ’em. I don’t think they were ever even mentioned in RIP IT UP or the local papers, they were apparently banned from all the pubs that bands played at then (not that I, as a boarder at a private school, had much opportunity to attend pub gigs) (that was supposedly the derivation of their name – Abused And Banned, which is what happened to ’em when they did get to play at a pub) – they only played free shows, mostly unpublicised – as underground as it gets. But as it happened, another Sunday a few weeks later I was walking by the river in Oxford Tce when I recognised the And Band there on the old band rotunda – Mark Thomas ([now] deceased) was wearing plastic devil horns attached to his forehead & spouting bile at the straggling “audience” – the only ones who stuck around were me & a couple of boys who looked about 13 & were obviously drunk as shit. (& that was the 1st time I ever saw Stevie McCabe).
Once again both the And Band & the Perfect Strangers played, & once again it was sometimes difficult to tell where one ended & the other began – Mark Thomas was in both, playing drums & sometimes singing with the And Band & also augmenting the Perfect Strangers trio as vocalist & crowd-stirrer (not that there was a crowd) – I couldn’t tell if he was meant to be in the band or whether he’d just gotten carried away & couldn’t leave the stage when the And Band set finished.
None of the other members were anything like as extroverted as him, but in their if-you-don’t-like-it-fuck-off demeanour all manifested righteous sullen cool. I’d definitely located the, I dunno, something like the Sex Pistols of my scene (‘cept of course I didn’t even have a “scene”). I only got to see the A.B./P.S. double-bill again 1 more time that year (at the Centre Gallery again, I found out about it from a flyer in the Public Library, but over the next few years this music would keep sort of turning up as a mysterious link to people & things that would loom majorly in my life & I’d find out more about the mysterious AND BAND & PERFECT STRANGERS. Not much more tho’, they’re still pretty mysterious. Part #2 soon & I’ll tell you more (their record, people I met later that knew them, how I met Bill Fosby & played in his band[s], stuff like that).
[reprinted with the permission of author, George D Henderson]
Memoirs of a Metamusician:
the Story of the Spies
1978 – 1980
I arrived in Wellington at the start of ’78, newly punked up after seeing Dylan Tate’s epochal “Radio With Pictures” punk special and Sex Pistols interview (outside Buck House) at the end of ’77. Meanwhile I had, in Dn in ’77, bought a copy of Damned Damned Damned from mr Knox and jammed with Bathgate and Dooley with my best friend Lindsay Maitland (who – get this – had nothing ever to do with the Clean and couldn’t play drums – even Clean style, which is to say Mo Tucker style – to save himself. How DO these things start?!?) My amp died and got left at their flat in the (now) shop on corner of Arthur/Russel st. Loved Dooley’s drumming even then: reminded me of Drumbo ((Beefheart’s main collaborator John French, all rolling toms)) – as vital as Knox to the excitement that was the Toy Love sound.
On arrival in Wellington I crashed at Ex-Invercargill (hometown of Knox and I) proto-punk guru Bob Sutton’s house (more on him – a very influential non-musician – later, hopefully). I courted Susan Ellis by mail, got into smack with Dick Sedger, and auditioned for Bill Direen (then a smarmy commercial radio DJ called Bill Diamond) after selling him one of our packets of H (when they were still good), who also auditioned for me. I played him the song that became “Mamelons D’Amadou”, but was then called Sodomy (Sodomie, tout est permis, je penetre le peluche penumbre, indocile codentu – very Genet). Dunno (don’t care) what he played but remember thinking his guitar and voice even reedier than mine and nothing to write home about. He never got back – wanted musos not rival writers, quite rightly, I assume. (His songs and mine would eventually get much better.)
Just as well because soon after we sold some H to Kevin Hawkins and – as I had a Farfisa Organ – was invited into his existing band The Amps, a (mostly) punk covers band with Kev (gat) Chris Plummer (drums) Mike someone (bass) and Brent Hayward (vocals). Vietnamese Baby, Johnny Too Bad, Police and Thieves, See Emily Play, a few derivative originals including City Girl “High heel shoes – baby can you walk? Pills and booze – Baby can you talk? City girl, its a sunny night, City girl come and play with me tonight” that became The Lollipop Man for The And Band later. Richard Sedger picked up a young girl working in a record store (he was always doing that – it was he that scored Sam Swan for the scene later), Jessica Walker (Jane’s sister, from Dunedin – she introduced us to the kids that became Clean-Chills-Snapper) and she learned bass and after a split the Amps became The Jellyfish (she replaced me on bass so I could play farfisa and guitar): this was me & kevin sharing vocals, chris and Jessica. On a good night I think we were pretty seminal – the Syd Barret, Lee Perry & Beefheart influence seeping into the Punk/ new wave (Elvis Costello this year’s model big influence esp on my keyboard playing/writing then) matrix.
Now it gets complex. I wanted to follow my Syd Barret/steve naive-jonah lewie/Lee Perry/Kevin Ayers – and especially Slapp Happy c. Desperate Straights inclinations, while Kevin and Jessica (now a couple, like me and Susan) were into PIL, Beefheart, and wanted to get – uglier where I wanted to be pretty, Freeform where I wanted structure and vice versa – Chris was a fence sitter who liked both but after a spell with us went with the better organised Kevin and Jessica- who took back Brent Hayward as a singer and became the defiant, abrasive, negative Shoes This High, who, like the Gordons, attracted an ugly violent bootboy following (slumming rich kids on DMA) that beat up and scared off most other fans – then they moved to Auckland and without Brent (who became smelly feet and Fats White) became the mostly instrumental, Dave Mitchellesque Fishschool.
Meanwhile there was The Spies – Me, Susan, Richard (bass) and Chris. We are well covered in George/Wade Churton’s classic “Have You Checked The Children” book on the post-punk NZ scene. Chris was (mostly) replaced with Mark Thomas, a renegade “street kid” with both the natural Maori talent for guitar and melody and a psychedelic craving much like mine. Before he died, Mark performed the best Iggy Pop cover (Dirt) I have ever heard – an even better voice than Shayne Carter, which is saying a lot. Another genius wasted.
Richard Susan Chris and Mark, with me and Bill Vosburgh as decoys, stole a revox tape deck, 8 channel mixing desk, and some good amps and speakers from shops: an amazing operation I can take no credit for. We recorded several reels – and got busted with everything.The cops eventually gave us back the tapes, which still exist : they’re reviewed and discussed in that highly readable work “Have You Checked The Children?” by Wade Churton.
Bill Vosburgh was the child prodigy from Christchurch who originally taught the Gordons the Detroit sound and how to write snappy riff-based songs. So we followed him to Chch, without Chris – The And Band.
The Tall Dwarfs thread on ILM is fascinating – love, hate, or both him Chris Knox is a Monolith of this scene and you have to deal with him or his legacy at some stage. I went to Ak in 1978 to see the Enemy at Zwines (and Susan Ellis in West Auckland somewhere) and they blew me away. Chris did all kinds of crazy shit, but the songs were stronger than punk, and the sound was so professional – yet – spontaneous sounding. To me the late Enemy and early-to-prime Toy Love were the same thing exactly with keyboards added and poppy hooks in the new songs (the Troggs and Bubblegum – TL used to do yummy yummy yummy – a big influence on the difference between the 2. They also did a searing Positively 4th street). The Spies opened for them twice. And contrary to Mr Dix in “Stranded in Paradise”, the Cuba Mall free sunday gigs (outdoors, central downtown Wellington) were organised (c. 1979) by Mark Thomas and Chris Plummer (Spies) and Marty et al. (Wallsockets) and started by both bands. The Ambitious Vegetables came along 6 months later and got the credit from Dix. Our high point was getting Toy Love to play. That was so sweet. Downhill from there – I played on Datura once. 7 beats to the bar, then 61/2, then 4, then 5; dried up my voice and made me forget to sing and play. Made me think I was singing and playing when actually not. That would have been a better scene with better drugs. It was all STP/DMA and bad pills, datura and cactus.
If history is the record of the crimes and follys of mankind, we sure made history back then.
As requested, here are the tracks from the flipside of The Perfect Strangers: Not To Be Taken cassette, labelled as And Band: Outhern. Being that the track titles are in Kawowski’s inimitable handwriting, let’s assume that the cassette is a dub he made from an original compilation by Lindsay Maitland, that came into Stu’s possession c.1984.
There are a few tracks on the tape that have been listed here as “Untitled” – (actually “Unknown title” would be more exact). If George D. Henderson or anyone else can indicate the correct titles, let it be known below in comments.
(Some tracks may have been inadvertently chopped up, or not: Such is the nature of this sprawling session).
George Henderson’s move to Wellington was notable for many reasons, including the formation of the band THE SPIES, sharing Chris Plummer with the legendary Shoes This High.
The full lineup of the Spies consisted of:
George Henderson– Guitar, Voice, Organ
Susan Ellis – Organ, Piano, Voice, Guitar
Chris Plummer – Drums
Richard Sedger – Bass, Clarinet
Mark Thomas – Drums, guitar, additional folly (special guest)
Note the tradition of folly artist has been a kiwi tradition beginning with (notably for rock bands that is) BLERTA and SPLIT ENZ, the ENZ’s Noel Crombie being effectively a non-participating (spoons and tambourine solos excepted) musician but an intense and integral part of the band, being hugely influential on their ‘look and feel’ and the concept (long before it was widely fashionable) of having a specific ‘image’ for the band. Note this had been done in a general sense with bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Herman’s Hermits, but this was on a much more general level, promoting ‘good boy’ / ‘bad boy’ imagery in a more or less generic way, ie suits = good, leather jackets = bad. Crombie’s whacky haircuts and stylish, well-constructed yet quirky suits gave the band their own dignity, their own character / look and feel, over and above any intrinsically ‘kiwi’ characteristics the band may otherwise have exerted had Crombie not have been a part of the mix during this period.
The addition of a clownish entity to be an integral part of the live show was widely accepted amongst the band community in New Zealand at this time, and The Spies (and the Axemen in later days, taking on Brent Hayward (STH, Smelly Feet) and Davey G (Gestalt, Marty Source and the Source, EOE) as interpretive dancers in the 90-92 period) were no exception; Mark Thomas making the move to Wellington specifically to fulfill the role, horns and all.
To this day it is saddening to me that such a talent was taken from us too soon, as is of course the case with Screamin K Hawkins, gone forever but in no way forgotten. I can still hear him raspilly singing “I want My Pension” right into my ear, his scraggly beard rubbing against my cheek and the occasional relic of spit clicking on my eardrum…. take me back to Africa…
Reprinted by permission of the author
First published Friday, February 02, 2007
The art and magick of The Perfect Strangers, Chch 1980-1982
If The Perfect Strangers were only the blues-jam outfit implied elsewhere, I’d not be writing this story. The thing is, that Bill Vosburgh and Mark Thomas were two songwriting naturals; Mark, as an instinctive “singing fool”, Bill, as a precocious master of all techniques. More than that, the core trio of Vosburgh, Richard Uti (drums) and Helm Ruifrok (bass) were artists, from art school (while The And Band were all language and philosophy rejects), and Bill Vosburgh (William Wallace Vosburgh III) in particular soon came to see his music and painting as part of a larger “great work” in the Magickal tradition.
It was from Bill that I first learned how to write a song around a corny, clichéd phrase or a simple riff. He first brought the vernacular to my attention; a relaxed wit and self-deprecating honesty in love songs, with a simultaneous awareness of the larger, metaphysical picture, was his forte. As in this example, Self Interest:
I’d like to tell you ’bout a girl that I knew
But I can’t remember much about her
I just remember what I wanted from her
And how it broke my heart when I couldn’t get it,
Which was written in 1981 long before I’d written anything comparable. His style, and this song in particular (which The Puddle played often in the early years), opened my eyes to what was possible in a song. Nor do I know where it came from; his major influences seemed to be The Stooges and the MC5. The Smiths were only beginning their career, and Orange Juice were years away from New Zealand.
It was 1980 and I living in Wellington, playing in The Spies and living in a squat in Bosworth Terrace with Susan Ellis, who later became my wife and the mother of my child, when Bill Vosburgh came to stay; he was a friend of Peter Hall-Jones, who was a friend of my brother and myself and a guest at this party. Bill charmed Susan and I as soon as he arrived. Borrowing Susan’s pastels and drawing hundreds of short curved lines in different colours all over the page in no apparent pattern, he eventually created a vivid landscape with donkey (my memory says it was a representation of Sancho Panza, but I may be deluded) in a pointillist style. That he was an artist and, at 17, a prodigy, was obvious. Bill was roped into our equipment-stealing exploit and helped us carry the Revox home, but fortunately, by the time we were arrested he was back in Christchurch and his part escaped notice.
When the Wellington scene lost its appeal, and Chris Plummer left The Spies for Shoes This High, Mark Thomas went to Christchurch to stay with Bill, and soon Susan and I followed, together with Richard Sedger.
This move would involve me in a scene that university life in Dunedin and punk rock squatting in Wellington had not prepared me for. Living near the centre of the city, there was nonetheless something commune-like about the way our increasingly intoxicated lives focussed on our art. One of the first things I did was to buy a second-hand reel-to-reel tape recorder (which came with tapes of born-again Christian sermons, to be taped over piecemeal as we created). Bill had only just formed The Perfect Strangers; his first bass player had been John Halvorsen, who left to form The Gordons along the same Detroit-punk lines that Bill preached; to me The Gordon’s earliest songs (on the Adults and Children E.P.) show clear signs of Bill’s influence. The art students that formed his band were drummer Richard Uti, a Polynesian prince, and Helm Ruifrok, a mild mannered Dutchman, senior to the others, whose highly, but subtly sexualized landscapes hang in cafés throughout the South Island. Bill and Helm’s exotic art student girlfriends Ita and Besa were also a revelation; Besa, Turkish with a piercing singing voice, would soon go to Cairo and become a Moslem fundamentalist ahead of her time; Ita was dark, mysterious and quiet. She seemed moody, but who wouldn’t be with Bill as a partner and me as a houseguest? The opposite of Susan in every way except child-like beauty, Ita attracted me in a way I dared not think about and thus terrorised me greatly for some time.
The internet articles on The Perfect Strangers/And Band axis tend to suggest that the latter were the more disciplined, but in fact The Perfect Strangers were the tighter band. Bill’s many songs in their first set included A Haunting Refrain (“The lover did his dreadful deed and vanished out the door”) with its gorgeous riff of descending suspended 4th arpeggios, Life Goes On, with its catchy 2 note chorus and obvious similarities to early Gordons (this was the first song I watched being written), the Peter Gunn twelve bar Man (“You know that God created him, and he’s alright”), which had been written early one morning, inspired by the sight of a long-haired league player jogging past the window on a training run, the faux-disco/punk crossover rave-up Dance You Fuckers Dance, the Lovecraftian Curses, and the intricate The Man Who Knew Too Much. This early set’s piece de resistance was Robbie. Taking the melody of The Bonnie Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond as its bass line, Robbie (chorus: “Robbie, och aye och!”) was a reggae song hailing the mythical return of the Scottish diaspora “We’ll never have to borrow money again/ when we return to Highland Zion evergreen”, with Robert the Bruce in place of Haile Selassie. Even the musical mechanics of songwriting was something Bill attacked more confidently and knowledgably than I did.
As Bill’s facile approach to songwriting influenced me, so our experimental and literary approach to music influenced him. The first example of this to be recorded was probably The Dunwich Horror. Bill took for lyrics a monologue from the H. P. Lovecraft story, the part that begins “They’s prints in the rud, mis’ Corey – great raound prints as big as barrelheads, all sunk daown deep like an elephant had been along, only they’s a sight more nor four feet could make!” That last phrase made the chorus; “They’s a sight more nor four feet could make!” The song turned on a loping bass riff, the kind of simple but compellingly syncopated figure that became Helm’s trademark, with Richard Uti’s drumming for the first time evoking his Pacific island heritage, evoking tribal drumming and a nocturnal bacchanal around a bonfire, while Bill’s fuzz guitar snarled, squealed and bit.
The Dunwich Horror and the later Self Interest were, tho only lo-fi demos, proof that The Perfect Strangers could have made a fascinating and original pop record if they were ever allowed to. But no sooner did they hit on the formula for success than things began to go wrong. Success on the terms available in Christchurch, 1980 just wasn’t what Bill wanted in any case. The Narcs, later The Great Divide, were an example of what the city really wanted, and the arrogant, immature and opinionated Perfect Strangers secured a support slot, only to fall out with The Narcs’ management and be sacked before the second night. As there were only a few rock venues in Christchurch at the time, all managed by the same promoters, who were supportive of local music but very protective of their hard-won niche in the business, this behaviour was commercial – and artistic – suicide.
From now on, both The Perfect Strangers and The And Band (the two bands were not easily separated in practice) could only play together in the daytime, at a few unlicensed venues; twice at the Christchurch Arts Centre, once in the Band Rotunda by the Avon, and once at the controversial Four Avenues alternative school. The second Arts Centre gig was disastrous; an intoxicated Richard Uti clambering over the equipment in front of a silent audience of Pacific Island elders, sent there because of concerns that their future king was losing the plot. He was packed off back to the islands to dry out – and he was one of the lucky ones, like Besa, who got out in time to recover the pattern of their original lives.
All of us (I think) drank to excess at times, and when we could afford it we bought pot from The Gordons. We also found San Pedro cactuses and tripped from time to time (it was on such a trip that I wroteInterstellar Gothic*and recorded the And Band songs on the E.P.). In the summer we stole and bled poppies, which indirectly led to my hospitalisation and introduced me to a drug called Doloxene (dextropopoxyphene), a mild (but very toxic) opiate which had an amphetamine-like effect in small doses. Others became addicted to codeine products, and from time to time we drank antihistamine cough syrups. Mark Thomas, who replaced Richard on drums, drumming for both bands and fronting the later Perfect Strangers line-up, was especially prone to excess and was the first of us to go on methadone, an experience that he turned into songs. If Bill showed me how to write songs, Mark encouraged me to create them out of the minutiae of everyday experience, including relationship dramas and drug taking, and to be brutally honest in the name of humour. *(from a cassette called “AND BAND – against the odds.”)- Stu K.
The extent to which I was imposing on people I hardly knew amazes me today. “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.” Were it not for Susan, who always found us flats, food and money, I must surely have died long before. My unawareness or suppression of unwelcome truths was surely at an all time high in those days.
A typical morning at Bealey Ave. might go like this; I awake to find Bill or Helm making coffee, and turn on the tape deck to listen to the last night’s recordings. Deciding what to keep (most things), I turn on Bill’s amp and plug in the guitar that Susan and I bought on HP, and which I still have today. Soon I have a pattern I like, and play it to Bill who sits down at the Farfisa and taps out a few notes, or suggests a lyrical theme with a few clever lines. Helm comes and sits by the drums, Mark walks in and takes the microphone, and I start the tape rolling. Before breakfast, while the girls are still showering. Later in the day we’ll add overdubs and I’ll talk Susan into dubbing more organ, or let Richard S. play his clarinet.
Every flat we lived in had its own vibe, its own particular sort of creativity associated with it. Worcester Street is where Susan and I, with Mark and Richard made super 8 films. The flat near the Police Station is where we wrote, with Bill and Lindsay, the surrealist and parodic stories that became the MKULTRA collection, published on Susan’s Gestetner press. The old warehouse in town, The Perfect Strangers’ practice room, our last stop before leaving altogether for Dunedin, is where we sniffed ether, mixed with the homeless and mentally ill riff-raff of the City, and stopped feeling special and invulnerable. This was where the music first began to sound like noise to me. Almonds and Crocodiles, the only real collaboration between the members of the then And Band, Mark, Susan and I, was written there, but could only be turned into a real song later, in Dunedin with The Puddle. But this is not a story about The And Band.
The road trip that Bill, Ita, Susan, Mark and I took to Able Tasman National Park in the Morris 1800 that Bill got from his parents is forever etched in my memory. We left Christchurch drunk and hung over from cough mixture. On the busy motorway north, Bill, driving wildly, clipped a Holden Monaro while overtaking. When the irate gorilla driving the big V8 pursued us, he drove up onto the grassy centre plot in a reckless overtaking manoeuvre, then cut across all four lanes to make a surprise exit down a country back road. It was like a car chase from a movie, our little car dicing with the traffic; exhilarating. Safe from our pursuer on the gravelled country road, Bill had an asthma attack; without medication, the girls talked him down in the back seat while Mark took over. This was a mistake; Mark, always macho, had envied Bill his turn at the wheel during the chase, and now he was determined to see how fast the little 1800 could go. I can remember him reading the miles-per-hour from the speedo; “80!” “90!” “A hundred!” and then the car lost control in the gravel, spun round once or twice, and, missing a power pole by inches, smashed backwards into a fence post. We had whiplash problems for some time to come, but we all knew we were lucky to be alive. The post had driven the car’s body into the back wheel so that we couldn’t drive away, but a farmer drove up in a tractor and fixed it with a crowbar. He told us that the night before two drunken motorists had stopped for a swim in the irrigation ditch and one had drowned. We figured that, if we were still alive, it was because death had already been satisfied on that road. We drove more soberly to Takaka, and camped on a beach in the park. In the morning we saw a pod of whales enter the bay. The water was clear and warm, and little octopuses scuttled over the kina-encrusted rocks. We stood on a rock, threw in a baited hook and, in seconds, pulled out a flat silver fish six inches long. The hooks didn’t even need bait; we pulled in several of these fish using only hook and line, and cooked them in tinfoil over our fire. They were delicious.
The Perfect Strangers soon lost the pop focus that I admired so much and went off in search of something more authentic, organic and bluesy. Bill Vosburgh had always wanted to be Ron Asheton from The Stooges, and he pulled this off with his later band Christchurch. He often seemed to take his painting (and his magick) more seriously than his songwriting. I remember him painting one large canvas, mixing menstrual blood and semen with his paints, and praying quabbalistic prayers for inspiration. He would psych himself into altered states and, especially when the wrong drugs were added to the mix, the resulting mania could be terrifying (or, more often, annoying). Sidelined for frequent repairs, Bill’s psyche has had to calm down considerably since those days. His superb jazz piano playing is always a pleasure to hear. He had a profitable business at one time playing high-end cabaret as Celia Pavlova’s accompanist, and one of my ambitions is to record a set of my songs as arranged by Bill. Bill still plays with Helm occasionally. The other day I watched a video of Charlie Parker; while the other guy took his solo, you could see Charlie’s face as he fingered his sax; I was amazed to see that the sly little movements of his eyes and lips were pure Bill. Bill, who has long played sax, idolised Bird, but I don’t think he had ever seen a video of him to copy, and, though I have seen the video, I know that I couldn’t copy those facial expressions to save myself. Spooky. Mark Thomas went to Australia and became a communist. He recorded two songs with The Puddle during the sessions for the Into The Moon CD, Peter’s Plague and Abo Hunt. In Nelson he became Sharkface and fronted a rock band that I can remember playing a superlative cover of Iggy’s Dirt when they supported The Puddle in 1993. Mark died a few weeks later [1996 – S. S.] of a drug overdose. He had a classic baritone rock voice, lived life to the full, had an irresponsible and violent side that concerned his friends; he was truly self-destructive and infuriatingly perverse, yet he was the most naturally creative of songwriters and the best male singer I have ever known.
In this picture of The Perfect Strangers, taken by Stuart Page at the Christchurch band rotunda, Bill Vosburgh Plays guitar at left; that is probably me adjusting the P.A. with my back to the camera; Richard Uti is behind the drums; Helm plays bass behind the Farfisa, and Mark Thomas is on the right. Mark sports a small pair of horns. These latex horns were made for him by Helm, and wearing them necessitated constant shaving of his scalp and reattachment. He wore them for many years. They served to accentuate his natural faun-like features, and to warn all-comers of his Panic character. Later in life, he grew dreadlocks and became much more obviously Maori.
(Click here for aPerfect Strangers track off “Thunder at the Rotunda” cassette and more recordings & photos of The Perfect Strangershere.) –A Kit Wok Wuss
There are no digital copies of The Perfect Strangers’ music extant. Live cassettes of poor quality exist, and the original reel-to-reel tapes of mixed And Band and Perfect Strangers recordings, which exist among a scattered collection of reels many of which, re-recorded onto second hand tape in the first place, have deteriorated beyond salvation, will be a major project to search and transcribe. The very rare And Band/ Perfect Strangers EP will be transcribed from vinyl to MP3 one day soon.
Here’s a live recording of The Gordons playing “Adults and Children” from a cassette of Roger Fogorelli’s (probably recorded at “Billy The Club” or “Last Resort” in Wellington around 1980).