The idea to take the three Propeller bands on the road together was mine, Paul Rose and Dave Merritt’s (the original Screaming Meemees manager) in March or April 1981.
Paul, who was also The Newmatics manager, and my partner in the label, and I put it to Tim Mahon, the Blam Blam Blam bassist (and defacto manager) in their shared flat in Brighton Road.
Tim came up with the name on the spot.
It was broadly accepted as a concept but remained just that until the Blams took it to the next level. It was their idea to tie the concept to the New Zealand Students Arts Council and utilize the network first set up in the 1970s by Bruce Kirkland (later US manager of the legendary Stiff Records and a mentor of the equally legendary Trevor Reekie).
Don, as I recall, made the approach.
The plan that we would take three bands, three vans, three lots of crew and management around the country was a potentially a logistical nightmare and a massive moneyloser.
As far as I know, no NZ three band touring circus like this had happened since the 1960s and never three left of centre acts who were at best perceived as underground in large parts of New Zealand.
It verged on the fiscally reckless, but that is, so they say, rock’n’roll. Every tour was a potential disaster. You simply crossed your fingers and tried.
However, smartly, the Blams proposed that we could, if we had the NZSAC guaranteeing fees at the universities, cover costs if we were ruthless in our expenditure, thus allowing the tour to break even.
The initial contract from the council restricted us to the university venues in each city as exclusives. However Don and I explained to the folks in Wellington that this made the tour potentially disastrous. A budget that allowed us to just break even was always going to blow out.
I had visions of being stuck in Dunedin in debt.
Besides, it was important to support the venues that had taken risks with all three bands to date, most particularly The Gladstone in Christchurch, which had so successfully hosted the overflowing Class of 81 gigs in April.
Outside of Auckland it was our key national venue and we all felt an affinity both to it and to the city.
The other thing I didn’t want was the tag ‘student band’ attached to any of the acts.
All three bands had records due for release in July or August, so that seemed to nail the date when we would all put on our scarves, hat and op-shop sourced winter jackets and head into the deep south.
We decided to pool backline gear and would travel in three vans – the Newmatics rather modern Bedford CF Jumbo, and two ancient Commer Commercial vans: the Blams’ much loved blue and white one - called The Milk Wagon by us all, and a greeny-browny wreck borrowed by Dave Merritt (who was still nominally managing the Screaming Meemees at the time the tour was booked although I had been asked to do the job by the band by the time we left for the tour – the transfer was amicable and would officially take place on our return) from another band, The Pleasure Boys.
I was the tour manager and handled the day-to-day details, all venue liaison and the finances.
Initially nobody clicked that the tour seemed to coincide, in fact in places precisely both in time and location, with the event that was to tear New Zealand to pieces in 1981 – the justifiably infamous Springbok Tour which Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, in a conscious act of quite evil self-service, foisted upon the nation to swing the country vote and to hell with the consequences.
As the coincidence became clear, and the nation braced for the inevitable clash and bloodshed we issued the first of the two singles to student radio.
The first, Blam Blam Blam’s There Is No Depression in New Zealand, was a Don McGlashan song with lyrics from writer and filmmaker Richard Von Sturmer which spoke perfectly to the wretched collision New Zealand was being forced into by the Prime Minister.
It was officially released the week we hit the road.
The second single to go to radio was The Newmatics’ second, a double 7”, Broadcast OR (which stood for Our Record – commercial radio refused to) which featured the slightly more direct Riot Squad, a song actually written about a police raid on the XS venue in Auckland’s Airedale Street in March of 1981.
It wouldn’t actually hit the stores until the first week of October for a variety of reasons but student radio had rough mixes of a couple of tracks before we left.
By the time we hit the road both songs had started to sink into the alternative mindset of the nation.
The first gig of the tour, and an easy warm up in front of a friendly home crowd for whom these bands could do no wrong.
The bands were, on the tour, to rotate as headliners and from memory The Screaming Meemees, who were by this time easily the biggest live band in Auckland, were the headliners this night.
It gave us petrol money and paid the poster bill. We were on our way.
We left in convoy (as we would proceed until the last gig, always nervous that the Meemees junk-bucket would die somewhere miles from telephone or human contact) on the Saturday morning. The Newmatics had played on the Friday at the New Station Hotel and were slow to arrive at the Blam’s Hobson Street practice rooms where we had arranged to rendezvous.
We arrived in Palmerston North to find that the student union had forgotten to arrange accommodation as agreed. Every hotel and motel in the town was booked so we decided to bluff it somehow.
We made contact with various members of the then unknown local band, The Skeptics. The Newmatics had become close to the guys and Paul had agreed that we would sign them to our new Furtive label for an EP and more, which worked for me.
To be honest I have little memory of this gig. I do however remember the after-party that was an uproarious beer sodden affair as only Massey can host. I slept in the Milk Wagon, until I was invited into a house by Don. Others slept under vans and wherever they could find a pillow.
We crept slowly, painfully, to Wellington the next day, where we found that we, again, had no accommodation. We slept 6 to a room for most of the next week.
Rock’n’Roll has its limits.
The first two gigs, in a central pub, were packed and largely uneventful. However they meant we had cash-money in our pockets – not vast amounts but enough to treat us all at the legendary greasy spoon, The Green Parrot in Taranaki Street.
The third Wellington gig was another thing altogether and, as hardened as we liked to think were, we were unprepared for what happened.
The details of the three-hour brawl are fairly accurately set out in the letter here although thirty years later they perhaps matter little. However, it was a night that rocked our soft Auckland world a little – even after the years of skinhead trouble at gigs in Auckland, and the vicious police violence that was also so much a part of the live music scene back then.
I have memories of always mild-mannered and measured Don McGlashan, with a bulky thug in a head-hold, punching as if he was a seasoned slugger.
By the stage, in mid song, Michael Meemee caught one chain swinging scumbag with his guitar and floored him.
Mark Clare from the Newmatics knocked a chair wielding skinhead out of the brawl and then accidently hit me in the cheek, which allowed me to claim a war wound the next day.
We gave as well as we received and more importantly saved the gear that these guys, with Victoria University’s complicit non-action, were determined to wreck.
I spent the best part of an hour in the VUSU offices screaming and banging things to try, literally, to save our bodies and tour but met a wall of complete disinterest.
It was a low point of my touring life, but it wasn’t over, as below.
The next morning, on the way to Christchurch, we sat quietly on the ferry to Picton nursing our damaged bones and egos.
Sid Newmatic had a large Doc Marten tread mark on his cheek. Others had split lips and black eyes.
The drive to Christchurch, in convoy, was pleasant, and the Blams, who I was driving with, had a pastoral picnic beside a small river. Given that it was freezing (Don swam!) and I was still both bruised and vaguely hung-over from the post brawl painkilling drinks, I would perhaps have preferred the steak pies and L&P that the other vans enjoyed in nearby Cheviot over the camembert and French loaves beside the stream.
We arrived in Christchurch and it was blissful. Christchurch was always a wonderful place to play. Our favourite promoter, Jim Wilson, had arranged, with the university, warm, sufficient and comfortable accommodation for us all. I spent the week with Roger Shepherd, my best mate in the city and a man who was about, a couple of months later, to launch his own rather important label.
Springbok Tour and here we were, a bunch of Halt All Racist Tours badge wearing Jaffas deep in enemy territory – an agricultural college full of farmer’s sons bought up on the righteousness of the game played against their white Afrikaner brethren.
Our hero was Nelson Mandela, theirs were Terry Mclean and Danie Craven.
In the afternoon some of us sat quietly in the back of the TV room as students loudly cheered the images of the Red Squad long-batoning protesters as the Springboks arrived in Auckland. We said nothing.
Because of some long forgotten timing issues, only two bands were to play that night and Blam Blam Blam were stood down (the story that it was because they were political isn’t true).
It was mayhem. Students – the offspring of farming families sent at great cost to understand the ways of the land – or to kill a year or two before they took over the farm – were having vomiting contests from the lighting towers into beer jugs, whilst others were setting their friends on fire to much amusement.
The Newmatics were playing to some disinterest from the Canterbury agricultural massive, who were more Jimmy Barnes than Little Jimmy Jewel, and I wandered out to a side room.
There, Tim Mahon was having a strident discussion with a towering chap who seemed to have been raised with a hogget on each shoulder.
It centered around the HART badge Tim was proudly wearing on his lapel. The student was prodding Tim with his finger and the situation was quickly elevating towards a bloody resolution.
Putting on my Tour Manager hat I moved between them.
‘C’mon guys, this is solving nothing. Only jerks resort to violence…’
I was on the ground, blood pissing out of my nose and torn lip.
‘You called me a jerk’ screamed the farmer’s son, as he booted me in the ribs.
He was quickly pulled off by supportive (of him, not me) observers and I staggered backstage to clean up.
Twenty or so minutes later, I was standing at the sounddesk with Tom Sampson and Paul Rose, wanting the gig to just be over and I saw this same meathead coming towards me again, beer jug in hand.
Oh, god, here we go again was my obvious thought, and I cowered courageously behind Tom.
My assailant arrived and thrust out his hand:
‘You took that like a real man’ he said, and handed me the jug with a smile.
Canterbury University was a blast. The crowd went nuts and I found myself locked in a lift for an hour or so after it jammed.
Three gigs at the legendary Gladstone Hotel. The first was, for some forgotten reason, a matinee – afternoon – show. It must have been a holiday that year but I’m damned if can remember why.
The place was rammed and the police turned up in some numbers during the Newmatics set, which caused the band to launch into a slow and measured version of the still unreleased Riot Squad. The cops, nervously and obviously, left the venue.
They were not the only visitors.
The Wainuomata Boys, the same guys we had the problems with in Wellington, turned up – or at least a core three or four of them did.
They’d followed us down to Christchurch to extract utu after their failure to beat the living daylights out of us all in the Students’ Union at Victoria University.
To that end they stood at the back waiting, we guessed, until the show finished and we were leaving.
The gig finished around 4.30 or 5 and the crowd thinned. I talked with Fred Kramer. Fred, who we all knew affectionately as Animal, because of his size and presence, was a student who split his time between the masters degree he was completing and doing band sound. Fred was a legend to us all and was about to become a lifesaver.
He’d noticed the group of thugs too and was eager to do something about it.
Grabbing a microphone stand he walked over to the bunch and said ‘C’mon, who wants it?’
They backed away from the threat and he moved forward. They back away again. Fred moved forward.
He pointed to the door, swinging the mike stand. They moved outside. Fred followed but the cops were outside and had decided that the Wainui boys were of interest and moved in.
We didn’t see them again.
The next two shows were evening shows and both filled to capacity. During the day both Paul and I did the record company stuff, visiting retailers and press. Michael Higgins interviewed me for the student newspaper, Canta, for what was a fairly major piece that I thought was one of the best Propeller profiles to date, perhaps ever. I spent time drinking whiskey and talking with Roger Shepherd at Warners and hanging with my buddy, the late Tony Peake in his University Bookshop Store. It was a special week, but, then, most visits to Christchurch were.
On the Tuesday Paul and I were interviewed by David Swift The Christchurch Press who coupled the story with an odd image of us both that is best forgotten, although I've posted it below.
Also arriving in the city around the same time as us were the test pressings of the new Screaming Meemees single, See Me Go.
I was aghast. The band were aghast.
Someone had remixed the A side and substituted their muffled disaster for our finished mix. We soon worked out that it was the marketing guy at Festival Records who had it in his head that he was a producer and a creative force in this record.
He wasn’t and I was forced to call the production manager who quickly reinstated the original mix.
The marketing guy didn’t ever know and was telling people for years that he had remixed a number one single.
On Friday night we drove to Dunedin. For some reason we decided to leave at about 10pm and drive into the night, to arrive before dawn.
The three vans went in convoy again and there was a lottery to work out who went in the Meemees’ borrowed shitheap as it was the only unheated van, and it would be very cold in the mid-winter South Island night.
Really cold. Sub zero.
I escaped the lottery as the tour manager and jumped into The Newmatics heated CF, which was leading the convoy. It was warm and happy in the Jumbo in a way it was not going to be in The Screaming Meemees’ machine that night.
The Newmatics, in a way that now horrifies all of us who rode in the vehicle, had, as they often did on tour, packed the PA system in the back of the van, with mattresses on top. We each took turns lying on the top of the large speakers and amp-racks in the space between the mattress and the roof.
If, as almost tragically happened to the Blams a year later, the van had rolled or even gone onto its side, whomever was on the top would have been crushed – dead – mashed – roadkill.
The thought never crossed our minds at the time and we simply treated the risk as routine – until the Blam Blam Blam wreckage outside Wanganui in 1982 snapped us back into a reality that was missing before.
We thought we would gas up in Timaru or Omaru. In the North Island, after all, there were 24-hour gas stations every few kilometres along State Highway 1 and we routinely did late night dashes after the gig to the next town.
However the South Island is not the North and we were yet again Jafa naïve.
Timaru passed and there were no stations open. For a moment we were distracted by the Southern Lights in the sky ahead of us and we all got out, found snow beside the road, and were thrilled by the silence and beauty of the incredible bright night we found ourselves in.
Then we looked at the gas gages and pressed on to Omaru. It too was closed. Not a light, not a 24 dairy, so we headed to Palmerston and found the same.
Desperate and all with pointers below empty we arrived in a tiny one-horse town called Waikouaiti about 4am. It was freezing and we found our way to the phone exchange, which had a light on.
‘Petrol?’, I asked.
The woman in charge, who I assumed to be the local operator, was making a cup of pre-dawn tea, and pointed down the hill, through the fog to a building with a Mobil sign.
‘It opens at 8 but he often arrives earlier.’
The three vans went down to the station, which was also a general store, and parked in the forecourt outside. Around 5 the gas ran out in the vans one by one and the heating in the two vans that had it died. We covered ourselves in whatever we could find and waited, chain-smoking until they too ran out.
Around 6am we were briefly distracted by the local volunteer fire brigade up the hill coming out to practice. We argued about whether one of us should head up and ask for a litre or two when they disappeared in the other direction. I walked up but the building was locked and deserted.
Finally at 7am we excitedly noted some life in the store. The light went on and I got out and tapped on the window.
The guy inside, happy in a warm Swanndri (as we discovered everyone, not a student or a musician, wore day and night in that part of the world) with the glow of a heater obvious, pointed to the sign on the door that read 8am, and walked away.
As we waited, he sat at a table inside – by the window – and slowly consumed a plate of eggs and bacon followed by hot coffee.
At around 7.50 he walked slowly to the front door and opened it.
‘How long have you been waiting?’
‘You should’ve woken me….’
We staggered into Dunedin, to our student provided accommodation in some motel, half an hour later, broken.
Michael Meemee looked at me and said ‘We should’ve spent the night in Christchurch, Simon…..’
Another gig that I have no real memory of at all. I know it was a sellout as I have a review that tells me it was a roaring success.
We were hassled on the street. We worked out that we stood out.
The last two gigs on the tour. The first was maybe the quietest of the tour – it’s a big call asking Dunedin to fill a venue on a Monday in mid-winter. However the crowd that was there was both enthusiastic and generous – none of us had to buy a drink all night.
The second, though, was huge and a roaring way to go out with an encore which featured all three bands on the stage, doing, and I may be wrong on this, an extended version of Louie Louie.
And it was after this, that the convoy that had trekked down the nation over the last two weeks broke apart. The two Commers were going to slowly head back up country over the next couple of days.
The green Newmatics van however was going to leave after the gig and drive straight through to Auckland non-stop.
I opted to go in that one, as I too was in a hurry to get home as Paul and I had a label to run. We hit the road about midnight with the four of the seven of us crammed into the van taking turns at the wheel whilst others slept.
We made Picton mid-afternoon and caught the Cook Strait ferry to Wellington, driving into the centre of town around 7pm. There, just off the ship in search of food, a local punk, Geoff Ludbrook, known to many as simply Void, and soon to be the front-person of the band Riot 111, jumped onto the van’s running board, stick in hand.
‘There’s gonna be a riot’ he shouted and we, with a mixture of wary trepidation and excitement, followed his instruction to the intersection of Molesworth Street and Lampton Quay where, leaving the van, without forewarning we found ourselves in the middle of a baton charge as the riot gear adorned police line forced chanting protestors back down the hill away from parliament.
The last time we were in the city we had skinheads from the suburbs attacking us with metal sticks and now, thirteen days later, the police were attempting to do the same to us with wooden ones.
We moved back with the crowd into Lampton Quay, stuck near the front lines of the protest, where the both sides were now angrily taunting each other to act.
Keep it down, it’s the Riot Squad indeed.
As the cops surged forward, behind shields, we thought better of the moment and, shaken by the unexpected assault, Paul and I gathered everyone and we retreated to our van parked in a side street.
By nine-thirty we were on state highway one again and drove straight through to Auckland. I drove from Taupo onwards, with only Mark Clare and I awake, chewing gum, stopping for coffee at the (plentiful) 24 hour gas stations
Around 7am we were back on the streets of Ponsonby and that was The Screaming Blam-matic roadshow.
The three bands reunited for a finale in mid August, a Mainstreet in Queen Street, which was sold out twenty minutes after the doors opened.
In the years afterwards the tour’s legend has grown, often to epic proportions. There is no doubt that it made a huge difference to the way the music that we were making was received and perceived outside our home city, and all three bands benefited immensely from both the exposure and reputation. Their growing record sales and live crowds in the years afterwards were evidence of that.
From mid 1981 onwards our audience was firmly national rather than regional as a result of the work we’d put in (and the blows) on The Screaming Blam-matic Roadshow.
Propeller, too, and our new second label, Furtive both also benefited from the national reach we had and we sold as many records outside of Auckland as we did inside the city.
For all that it was a harrowing couple of weeks – mixture of joyous crowds and quite heavy violence the likes of which we were simply not used to. I look back on the tour with happy nostalgia tempered by the memory of those fists, batons and boots coming our way.
However, more than that, I still fully resent that prick in Waikouaiti with his bacon & eggs!
The real upside for me, though, has always been the number of musicians I’ve encountered over the almost thirty years since who told me that they formed a band or simply just thought about it as a result of this post punk expedition south.
It was both fun (on balance) and thoroughly worth it, whatever the legend may or may not say.
Sometime after The Screaming Meemees returned Dave Merritt misplaced The Pleasure Boys’ van.
I’m not sure if it was ever found.