The Legends (and Myths) of Swellfoots Assembly
An interview with Marion Arts
by Ian Duggan
STOP THE PRESS: Update 21 June 2017: I have just heard that an earlier version of Swellfoots Assembly existed in the late 1960s, that apparently did feature Garth Porter, and that Marion Arts was only involved in the later 1970s version.
There are many stories revolving around Hamilton band ‘Swellfoots Assembly’, that make you wonder why they are not better known to anyone and everyone interested in music in New Zealand. As John Dix’s 1988 iconic book on New Zealand music 'Stranded in Paradise' stated, [singer, and later ‘The Red Hot Peppers’ member] “Marion Arts had spent much of the early-‘70s in another Waikato University band, Swellsfoot Assembly, which also included Garth Porter (founder-member of Australian group ‘Sherbet’)”. Similar stories can be found all over the internet. What was this band where one of its members, Garth Porter, would go on to write hits like ‘Howzat’ with Sherbet, and ‘We Ride Tonight’ with ‘The Sherbs’, the latter of which ended up being sampled in the Daft Punk song ‘Contact’? And where the singer Marion Arts would go on to ‘Red Hot Peppers', who released three albums and four singles, basing themselves for a time in Australia?
I contacted Marion Arts to find out more about the legend of the band, and a little about ‘Red Hot Peppers’. What I found was that in one ‘Stranded in Paradise’ sentence, a massive pile of myths was born, which have permeated far and wide!
HUP: What did the name ‘Swellsfoot Assembly’ refer to, and what years were you active?
Arts: Firstly, to correct the name. It was 'Swellfoots Assembly' [That was Myth 1 from Stranded in Paradise!]. This name referred to a band that rose out of the tragic ashes of a band called 'Ziffel', who lost their much-loved lead singer in a car crash. I was the replacement vocalist. We worked as 'Ziffel' for a little while. The band decided to reform as 'Swellfoots Assembly', changing much of the personnel. We were active around 1974. ‘Swellfoots Assembly’ may have lasted a year or so, if that [much of the early ‘70s, Stranded in Paradise? Myth 2!]. I am unsure exactly when it stopped. I then joined the tail end of Robbie [Lavën]’s Hamilton band ‘The 1953 Memorial Society Rock ‘n’ Roll Band’, before starting ‘Red Hot Peppers.’
HUP: Swellfoots Assembly included Garth Porter who went on to Australian band Sherbet, and had a massive hit with ‘Howzat’, which he co-wrote. Was his talent for song-writing evident when he was in Swellsfoot Assembly’s songs, and do you keep in touch with him?
Arts: I have never been on stage with anyone called Garth Porter. Perhaps at times he may jammed with some of the members of the band, I don't know. He was certainly not a member of 'Swellfoots Assembly' or 'Red Hot Peppers'. Obviously, since I don't know this person, I do not keep in touch with him [Ouch! That’s a massive Myth #3, Stranded in Paradise!!].
HUP: So who else was in the band?
Arts: The actual line-up of 'Swellfoots Assembly' centered round two talented brothers: Ray and Ken Thomas, so: Ray Thomas (electric guitar), Ken Thomas (vocals, alto saxophone), Paul Middlebrook (keyboards), Mike Abbott (drums), Mike Booth (trumpet), Carl Reinsfield (tenor saxophone), Paul Baxter (bass) and Marion Arts (vocals). We played a lot at the Hillcrest Tavern in Hamilton, clubs (a club called 'Granny's'), University 'splurges' and concerts, [and] also private parties.
HUP: How did the band come together? Was ‘Swellfoots Assembly’ based around students at the Teachers College/University, or is that a myth too?!
Arts: ‘Swellfoots Assembly’ was not based around the Uni or teacher’s college. Myth [That’s strike 4, Stranded in Paradise!!]. Actually, it was based around the Thomas brothers’ amazing house full of amazing music recordings, ability and fabulous women - certainly amazing for me, a girl fresh-faced from the folk world. All these talented players had day jobs but played at night to a high standard and most have carried on to distinguished pro music careers. They were my introduction to the rock scene. This band also came out of the Folk Scene, which was pretty good in Hamilton. They were pretty high profile, touring, award winning...
As to whether I was at Uni or Teachers College : I somehow got an MA in French and a BA in German from Waikato University. During my Masters I was a postie in the morning and played in bands a lot of nights!
HUP: My understanding is that you played soul-funk, and you have been likened by some as sounding like American band 'Tower of Power'. Would you agree with this assessment? And were you playing originals?
Arts: It was a covers band, playing Tower of Power, Chicago, Sly and The Family Stone, Family and more. No originals.
HUP: You found some success in the mid-‘70s with ‘Red Hot Peppers’, releasing four singles and three albums, and being based for a time in Australia. What were your career highlights or best memories from this time.
Arts: I do not have many fond memories of my time in Oz. It was super-stressful and artistically restrictive, although I did enjoy the higher level of professionalism in recording studios, especially Armstrong’s in Melbourne where we recorded 'Bright Red.' Indeed, though the band did not have success with singles (never a 3-chord commercial band), we were a cult band with a great live following. We did not, alas, see the financial reward of this; practically all of it went to others: promoters, agents, management, truck and PA hire companies, propaganda agencies, etc…
HUP: Was there much of a following for bands in Hamilton, including ‘Swellfoots Assembly’, around in the mid-1970s?
Arts: The Hamilton live music scene was certainly thriving in those early days and there were lots of fans and followers. My husband Robbie remembers clubs such as The Chamber and The Marquee, following on from The Starlight Ballroom. In particular he remembers Mandrake, early Dragon, Jacob Manning (blues band; also with Ray Thomas). Some of this was a little before my time. Alas I do not have any pictures of ‘Swellfoots Assembly’ in my collection. Nor recordings. We just played.
HUP: So, in a single sentence from Stranded in Paradise, we have a misspelling of the name of the group, a statement that it was a University-based band (it wasn’t), the book gives a much-expanded timeframe for the group, AND it had Garth Porter as a member, who lead singer Marion Arts does not even know! Unfortunately, none of this was corrected in the revised version!
Arts: There is a lot of misinformation and mythology about these two bands!
For more (accurate) information on the Red Hot Peppers, see the ‘history’ section of Marion's website www.marionarts.co.nz