Wellington’s Spies – Memoirs of a metamusician

[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.

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