A R T I C L E
The Outsiders: 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, between the 1960s and 2000, 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!
Being such a broad question, I got a diversity of responses; from the generic to the specific, positive and negative, and on a variety of topics. One theme that emerged strongly, however, was an enthusiasm of Hamilton crowds.
The Chills were a band that played Hamilton a number of times from the mid-‘80s to mid-‘90s, at a variety of venues: The Metropole, Roxoff, The Hillcrest and The Wailing Bongo. Caroline Easther, drummer for the band from 1986 to 1988, remembered Hamilton well: “Ha ha, yes, l vividly remember The Chills’ [early 1987] Hamilton experience because it was the first gig of our New Zealand tour before we went to London! An astonishing, high energy gig... we played hard and got sweaty and l wondered what the fuck a nice middle class girl like myself was doing in a place like that and if l might be about to die. It was a promising if pretty overwhelming start. Very punk, very responsive crowd. Full on. I don't know Hamilton well but suspect they don't do stuff by halves”.
Flying Nun stable-mates The Bats also played here a number of times, and lead singer Robert Scott answered similarly: “I remember Hamilton for the few enthusiastic fans that did come to the shows. They said they missed out on a lot of bands, so [they] were very happy when we did make the effort to go there”. I was somewhat surprised by his use of “few”, as in my memory, The Bats’ gigs were always well attended: ‘Yeah, the crowds were good”, he responded.
It wasn’t always just the audience enthusiasm at gigs that Hamilton was remembered for, though. One recalled Hamilton for the size of the crowds, but also for…ahem… enthusiasm of another kind. Harry Harallambi, drummer for the Dance Exponents (and later the Exponents) — again, once frequent visitors to Hamilton — stated: “Love the Tron. It was the first North Island town the Dance Exponents ever played in, when we supported the Screaming Meemees in ‘81 or ‘82, and since then the Tron has always been a blast when we play there. We'd be doing a tour and stiffing everywhere, but show up in Hamilton and it was always packed. Seemed the ladies of the town liked us a lot also”.
Alright, let’s leave such positivity for the moment. Surely Hamilton can’t be seen in such a great light by everyone? In fact, Goodshirt wrote a song about Hamilton, their 2004 single ‘Fiji Baby’, which begins:
When we went to Hamilton I said,
“Just pretend it's a holiday" and you said,
"Yep, I'll just pretend it's Fiji baby."
So I was pretty stoked when Gareth Thomas, Goodshirt’s keyboardist (and 2016 Silver Scroll nominee!), responded with reference to the offending song. “Rodney was a bit worried that the song Fiji Baby might be taken the wrong way. When we first played it in Hamilton I remember the audience cheering in approval hearing Hamilton in a song - all apart from one guy who raised his middle finger at Rod, and then kept it raised and aimed at Rod's head for the rest of the gig”.
“Was the song based on a true story”?, I asked. “Yup, it's a true story, based on a conversation with his girlfriend when they went to Hamilton”. “Now ex-girlfriend I trust!”, I responded. “Ex-wife actually!”, he replied… oops…
At least we left a lasting impression, though. Some musicians I approached had played here as early as the ‘60s, and for them (and some touring here in the not-so-recent past), memories will have degraded with the passing of time. For others, Hamilton was likely just one segment of an intense and extended tour. For example, the English band Manfred Mann played Founders Theatre in February 1965, a year after having an international hit with “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”. Neither Manfred (keyboards) nor Tom McGuinness (bass) had “any real memories of this time. Sorry!” I’m not sure if the “this time” they referred to related specifically to the time they played at Founders, or the ‘60s in general, but I was just happy musicians of such long-standing stature even responded! Both Manfred Mann and Wellington’s Head Like a Hole have covered Bruce Springsteen songs, but in another parallel, the latter’s Booga Beazley also noted: “Lasting memories — not so much bro, not so much”.
Interestingly, even for gigs for which I had strong memories could not be remembered by some artists. For example, hip hop trio Urban Disturbance played a gig at the University of Waikato swimming pool, during which a ‘bombing’ competition was held; based on the setting and associated activities this was one of the most surreal, and seemingly unforgettable, gigs I have ever attended. However, DJ Rob Salmon noted “I do remember the gig, but vaguely”, and asked “to jog my memory, who did we play with?”
Of course there were a number of musicians who didn’t get back to me, a proportion of whom may have had similar reasons.
Another non-response was Australian instrumental rock band The Dirty 3. I was at their gig at the Wailing Bongo sometime in the mid- to late- ‘90s where, during a particularly intense song, the DJ, thinking the set was over started up the dance music and shouted “Let’s give it up for the Dirty Three!” Unsurprisingly, the band stormed off, and had a bad word or two to say about us in interviews. Probably a bad experience they didn’t want to remember. Good memories can come from bad experiences, however. Andrew McLennan (a.k.a Andrew Snoid) of the Pop Mechanix, a popular band in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, stated: “I loved playing at the Hillcrest. We had [Dragon members] Marc and Todd's brother Ross Hunter on our crew. He was a giant of a guy and one night stood behind a drunk yahoo who was causing the band and the crowd grief. The whole room watched in delight as the drunk toss-pot turned around to see Ross standing right on his ass. Ross never lifted a finger; with a flick of his head he signalled “Out you go”, and that was the end of that”.
Tim Mahon, bass player for Blam Blam Blam, also remembered ‘elements’ of the Hillcrest crowd: the “Blams played with Screaming Meemees and Newmatics at the Hillcrest in 1981. The Springbok tour was on and we were the voice of the protesters. Rednecks were everywhere and in those days we came across them often. The Hillcrest had a fine collection of rednecks, but they still loved ‘There is no Depression in New Zealand’” — a song with lyrics full of irony, including “we have no racism, we have no sexism”, in reference to the rednecks themselves.
What about bad behaviour from the bands themselves? Any archetypal ‘rock and roll’ experiences that took place in Hamilton? The closest I got was from Jon Toogood from Shihad: “One enduring memory from me was watching Phil, our guitarist, throw a toaster out the window of a hotel after first ringing reception to find out what the replacement value of the toaster actually was. He paid when checking out. Ethical rock-star behaviour in Hamilton, if there such a thing”.
Jon also remembered the “many seriously out of control sweaty rock shows at The Wailing Bongo [at the University] that totally ruled”. One band you would expect to have had enthusiastic crowds anywhere was Supergroove, but trumpet player Tim Stewart also had lasting memories of this venue in particular: “I remember playing Wailing Bongo in '93. We were quite concerned that the crowd would knock over the PA in their general desire to get onstage and throw themselves off. Gigs there were always crazy.” The same venue was remembered for slightly different reasons by 3Ds bass player Denise Roughan, however: “The Wailing Bongo – arguably the silliest name for a music venue, ever…?”
Unfortunately, the Bongo is now history, and at least one artist believes the current venues just aren’t up to standard. Booga Beazley of Head Like a Hole noted: “The thing with Hamilton is there isn't much choice for venues and basically you have to play Altitude bar which for me isn't ideal. The stage is too high and the room is all wrong. Nothing about it says ROCK. All it says is NIGHTCLUB, which is soooooooo last month. ha!” He also noted, “Hamilton just isn't appealing for anything apart from passing through, but with the housing crisis Hamilton may have hope?” hmm…. alright, let’s finish with some more positive stories about our enthusiasm!
Mark Silvey, bass player from Garageland, who were regular visitors to Hamilton from the mid-‘90s to the early-2000s (and now a solo artist), couldn’t have spoken more highly of Hamilton: “Hamilton crowds were always fun to play to. Very appreciative and [they] love a good old singalong. So yeah, good crowd memories, not only at the gigs but in-store at record signings too. If Garageland ever reform for a national tour, Hamilton will be on the dates for sure”.
Singer/songwriter Jan Hellriegel, who had a number of charting singles in the 1990s including ‘The Way I Feel’, answered remarkably similarly: “I loved every show I did in Hamilton. The audiences were always good to play to. To be honest I don't know why I haven't been back — but then, I have hardly toured in the last 20 years... will try to do something about that one day!”
I leave the final word to another international group, Australia’s Little River Band, who had commercial success in Australia, New Zealand and the USA, with hits such as ‘Help is on the Way’, ‘Lonesome Loser’ and ‘Cool Change’ in the early ‘70s and early ‘80s. They played at — of all places — our international cricket ground, Seddon Park, in February 1983. Wayne Nelson, bass guitarist and sometimes lead singer for the band, remembered the incredible reception the band got in Hamilton that night, and that it was one of the band's first performances in New Zealand with a new lead singer. “There had been many large audiences in years before, so there was some trepidation about how the new front person would be received. Everyone was very happy with the result... it was a beautiful night”. And happily, I hear the new lead singer John Farnham went on to be quite successful in his own right.