A R T I C L E
The Outsiders II: What Memories do Bands that Toured Hamilton have of us?
By Ian Duggan
Hamilton has hosted a number of notable bands, including those from elsewhere in New Zealand and international visitors, although the rate at which really significant bands have toured here has slowed somewhat in recent years. I approached musicians from some of the noteworthy bands that played here in the past, and posed a single, simple question: “Do you have any lasting memories or impressions of playing in Hamilton?” I wasn’t sure what to expect. Were we remembered? Was it worthwhile them coming here? Would anyone actually respond? Happily, for the latter, they did!
In early August we published Part I of our responses, with a theme that emerged strongly being that Hamilton crowds were enthusiastic. That did come through again, yes. But interestingly, many of the responses for this article were also quite different. In particular, answers this time around included many quite specific memories, regarding things such as the food, the motels… and the smells.
From a personal perspective, one of the most exciting musicians that got back to me was Jonathan Jamrag (a.k.a. Jonathan Griffiths), vocalist for late-‘70s punk band Proud Scum, known for songs such as ‘Suicide’ and ‘I am a Rabbit’, which appeared on the classic AK79 compilation. Of course, I was polite in my approach. “Dear Proud Scum”, he repeated my introductory message back to me; “the punks of today are so polite”. Interestingly, Proud Scum’s only gig outside of Auckland before heading to Sydney was at Jupiter’s, a short lived venue at 474 Anglesea St: "It was an ugly concrete box, which had the worst acoustics in the Southern Hemisphere" he informed me. Unfortunately, the band wasn’t met with the enthusiasm others musicians have noted, observing that they “play[ed] terribly to an indifferent crowd”. To his chagrin, rival punk band The Terrorways had played at Jupiter’s a few weeks earlier, a gig for which fans travelled down from Auckland to support. “None came to support Proud Scum”. In common though, both bands were paid less than the agreed rate by Jupiter’s…
Our enthusiastic crowds didn’t go without mention though. I spoke with Glenn Robson, guitarist and keyboardist for These Wilding Ways, about their time playing Hamilton in the early 1990s. These Wilding Ways, if you don’t remember, were a band who unfortunately never became as successful as was anticipated, especially considering they were led by former Screaming Meemees guitarist Michael O’Neill. I was at their gig at The Club, now the site of Briscoes on Ulster Street, where they supported the Exponents, and I managed to find myself backstage hoping to get some merchandise. “No, we never had any merchandise. We were never that organised of course. Plus we were always a bit pleasantly surprised if anyone actually liked us, let alone came to the gigs!”. He did remember The Club gig though:
“It had like a mezzanine balcony all around the sides. We had finished playing. I think we went down alright but like the Exponents were on and the joint was packed and the crowd were just going mental. We were kind of watching from the side of the stage or something and the whole balcony was just bouncing up and down with the crowd dancing. And we just thought... shit it's going to go at any time... It didn't, but it must have been pretty touch and go there for a while”.
Someone I got a number of great responses from was Nick Sampson, guitarist, vocalist and one of the primary songwriters for Netherworld Dancing Toys, who are widely remembered for their 1985 #3 hit, ‘For Today’. Among his memories was the high energy of Hamilton crowds. “I can’t remember if our first experience of Hamilton was an Orientation Tour gig at the Varsity in early ‘83 or a normal pub gig at the Hillcrest a bit later in the year. Either way, we played those venues many times until the band broke up in 1990”. Regarding playing at the University, Nick gave me a comparative rundown of the pros and cons of playing the various campuses. Regarding the university, he stated: “We played there a lot. We played all the varsities. Otago was nuts… well we were from there. Canterbury was also pretty crazy. Lincoln was mad — always packed, but an awful place to play. Violence, flying glass jugs and so much urine and vomit on the floor. Vic was always a bit hit and miss. Massey was great fun. Auckland was also pretty up and down. But Waikato was a good solid gig. Always high energy, usually packed to the rafters. And very receptive. Good times. Driving into the grassy, tree lined, leafy grounds was always a nice respite after days or weeks of vans, motels and grimy venues”.
Pete Warren (a.k.a. Rooda), drummer for the Dave Dobbyn-led DD Smash in the early ‘80s, felt the Hamilton crowds were not just enthusiastic, but discerning. “I always loved playing in Hamilton. Hamiltonians are big music fans and the gigs always went OFF! Packed venues and the punters partying the night away... no compromise. Hamiltonians know their music and let you know if they love what you’re doing. They also let you know if they think your crap! If you ain't real, they see right through you. They don’t suffer fools – [or] shite bands – easily. Great people. Great town. Love you Hamilton!” Jeremy Eade, lead singer of Garageland, spoke similarly of Hamiltonians astute nature; “If you can't win over Hamilton, you don't have it. It's the litmus test of rock ‘n’ roll”.
Enthusiasm is a great thing to be remembered for, but David Kilgour’s strongest memory was of an audience member who was ‘creepily’ enthusiastic. Kilgour played here solo, with Great Unwashed, several times with the Clean, and as part of USA artist Barbara Manning’s band. He remembered playing “Ward Lane with The Clean, where after the show we were followed back to our hotel by a strange fan called ‘the Hairy Beast’. That’s probably my lasting impression”. Scary!
As a final mention of Hamilton crowds, Grant Fell, bass player from Headless Chickens — who also played Hamilton numerous times — similarly remembered the "wild crowds", but also "Aotearoa's best stage divers", and the "DB Waikato"!
The importance for bands visiting Hamilton in the ‘90s of Contact 89FM, Hamilton’s defunct student radio station, also got a mention. Jeremy Eade, singer and guitarist from Garageland, and regular visitors to Hamilton from the mid-‘90s to the early-2000s, stated “Hamilton had bigger audiences for us than Auckland at one stage. I would say Garageland strongholds were Auckland, Hamilton and Christchurch. Never felt at home in Wellington or Dunedin".
"Contact radio was a very important station for us. They pumped us up big in Hamilton. To this day I don’t know how they got our music because we didn't send it out. BFM, Contact and RDU were our stations. Those three cities made our band bro”.
My most left-field correspondent was Oliver ‘Olllie’ Green, MC for hip hop crew Urban Disturbance, who played at the campus pool in the early ‘90s, and who also supported Supergroove here early in their career. I had talked to Urban Disturbance DJ Rob Salmon in Part I, who only had very vague memories of playing here. “I hope your memory is working better than Rob's”, I offered. “Rob who?”, Oliver joked. Things went seriously downhill from there, however, and I strongly suspect the remainder of his memories were invented. These included, “Playing hip hop to farmers. One girl came to a gig and took of her high heels and her feet were muddy”, and “I got an STD from a very good looking girl with low standards”. Spoiling the final story for him, however, was that he had already told me that this had occurred in New Plymouth…
Moving back to real memories… an important venue in the ‘70s and early ‘80s was ‘The Lady H’ (a.k.a. Lady Hamilton), which now lives on as Altitude. Hello Sailor guitarist Harry Lyon stated, “I have plenty of great memories of gigs in Hamilton, but most centre on The Lady Hamilton. The Lady H was an almost perfect venue; it was kinda Goldilocks in size. Not too big and not too small. It had an upstairs mezzanine floor which meant the audience was almost floor to ceiling and that there was enough height to hang a good light show. And importantly, it had great acoustics. Add to that wonderful Hamilton audiences and a few hard case owners, including the inimitable Peter Bernie who insisted on paying us more than anyone else and providing a 'top shelf' rider”.
Interestingly, Hello Sailor members Graham Brazier and Dave McArtney came up in conversation with Netherworld Dancing Toys’ Nick Sampson, while telling me about Hamilton’s accommodation. “There was a motel where all the bands stayed at the top of a hill on a busy main road. I think it was called the Hillcrest too. The Dance Exponents, or maybe Doug Hood from Flying Nun, put us onto it. We stayed there so often it’s indelibly burnt into my memory. The Hillcrest had a great line in unfriendly staff and single beds with orange/brown ‘70s covers. I vaguely remember attempting to write a cheesy radio jingle for a Nelson hardware store sitting on one of those beds with Grant Hewson [trumpet player in the Milton Stowaways]. He roadied for us on a few tours and also played on an early EP. Surprisingly, the tune got used in an ad and Grant paid me the princely sum of $25 at some point down the track… my one and only excursion into jingle writing, if you don’t count ‘For Today’… The other thing I remember about the motel — apart from some terrible ‘80s photos taken outside with Annie Crummer, etc — was driving in once as a van with Graham Brazier’s Legionnaires pulled out. They were the enemy. The old guard. They represented everything we stood against. Sitting in the back staring out the window, to my young arrogant eyes, was a gaunt, wasted looking, Keith Richards-like, Paul Hewson… recently ex-Dragon. Tragically, he was dead a few days later. After I grew up and got over myself, I became friends with Messrs Brazier and McArtney, acknowledged that Hello Sailor are one of the best bands we have ever produced and became a lifelong Dragon fan, understanding how cool and talented poor ‘young’ Mr Paul Hewson was”.
The Hillcrest was of course a major Hamilton venue. Another band that played there in the late ‘70s and ‘80s was Pop Mechanix. Bassist Paul Scott stated, “Hamilton? It was our first gig outside of the South Island and the first of our first tour. We played the Hillcrest Tavern. My abiding memory is that people came along to see us. I think this must have been a generous Hamilton thing because we had slightly less than zero profile. They clapped along politely to our selection of new wave covers and may have been a little nonplussed by the originals. We never announced them as original songs; in fact Richard [Driver] would often attribute them to other well-known acts: "here's a song by Willie Nelson”, for example. However, when we played one of my tunes, 'Spanish', and got to the line 'everybody’s got a conscience - even in New Zealand', there was a hearty cheer from the crowd. The penny dropped! It was a special moment. We always played the Hillcrest whenever we could after that”.
Netherworld Dancing Toys’ Nick Sampson had some different, again quite specific, memories of the Hillcrest, which revolved around the food! “A good traditional pub venue. Not the best. But good to play. The stage was a bit boxy… and the crowd could be a bit wooden until they got enough drink in them. But it did have the only ‘eat-all-you-can’ smorgasboard restaurant on the touring circuit. We used to look forward to the gig just for that. The problem was that after driving all day, loading in, setting up and sound checking, then racing back to the ‘friendly motel’ to wash and change, we’d be back lining up for dinner about an hour before start time… Eyes bigger than stomachs, far too much would be eaten. Pretty hard to sing and jump around after that. So maybe it wasn’t the local punters being wooden in the first set — yes we used to play sets in those days — maybe it was us…”.
Tim Mahon, bass player for Blam Blam Blam, gave me many stories, the first of which I presented in Part I of this series. One thing that he remembered about the Hillcrest Tavern, not mentioned by others, was the smell — while also referencing the serious accident following a show in Taranaki which cost him several fingers, that effectively led to the end of the band: “I remember playing the Hillcrest and some bogan asking us to play Led Zeppelin. Wished we could! I remember the smell of old beer and stale cigarettes as we packed in. I still remember that revolting smell, even though the Blams car accident robbed me of my sense of smell in 1982. Gee, I can use a portaloo at a festival in high summer in the middle of the day and be immune”.