I was in a band that performed at a bar in Wellington called The Carpark.
The Carpark had a rock’n’roll rep based on someone getting stabbed in the alley outside one night. The Carpark turned into a yuppie bar called The Malthouse for a long time before becoming expensive inner-city apartments (that are sometimes used to manufacture P), and the dangerous stabby lane (Chews Lane) is now lined with cafes and sushi bars with nice bricks on the pavement. It sounds a bit like I am in favour of the Carpark and stabby lanes, but Chews Lane is much nicer now. I suppose I just don’t like places like The Coffee Club.
I can’t remember what our band was called at that time. Maybe it was called The Wake, or maybe it was called Bittersweet. It doesn’t really matter too much. At the time I was a bit of a snob about band names and spent my time shooting down other band members’ suggestions rather than contributing anything myself. I still think The Wake was a bad name (we were not musically talented enough to escape the connotation that we were playing at our own funeral), but Bittersweet isn’t too bad. I apologise to the bass player. He was the one who kept suggesting names and I was the one who kept shooting them down. In the end I did suggest a name. I wanted us to be called Amateur Hour. Mainly because I wanted to say – I was the lead singer, which is pretty ridiculous – “Welcome to Amateur Hour” whenever we did a gig. I felt, I suppose, that it would sufficiently lower expectations.
Anyway, I was telling you about our gig at the Carpark. It was a battle of the bands gig. On reflection I think this was the bar’s flash name for an open mic night. The only other band I remember performing were called NIHL which stood for Noise Induced Hearing Loss (such a great name). We went on first.
At the time one arm of my glasses had broken off. Even in normal circumstances this meant that my glasses would slowly creep down the bridge of my nose and I was forever nudging them back up again, but under the bright stage lights and with the tension of a live performance I began to sweat and this caused my glasses to begin skiing down my nose every ten seconds threatening to slip off altogether and fall somewhere really cool like half across one eye and half across my mouth. With my hands trapped holding a guitar I spent the first song suddenly jerking my head back at the end of each line so that my glasses would shoot back up to the top of the nose slope. I had longish hair then so it’s possible that this looked sort of rock-n-roll but I kind of doubt it. No doubt the bar staff had their hand on the phone in case my perceived seizures went full blown. In the end I did a sort of epic head thrash and managed to fling the glasses off my face and far back into the drum kit: a kind of nerd’s rebel yell.
Even without my facial thrashing into account I have no doubt that we were musically shit, but the sheer adrenalin of having performed on an actual stage in an actual proper venue pumped me up enormously. I was on a high when I came out into the bar afterwards to hang out with my friends who had come to see us, and to listen to NIHL.
My friends were honest about our performance. Which means they told us, not directly but told us nonetheless, that we had been embarrassingly shit. I felt both cross and devastated. Cross because I felt that my friends were being rude, and devastated because I knew that they were right. It made me realise how brutally democratic the music business is. If you are no good people will not be polite. How right my friends were about us was about to be proved by NIHL. Even though NIHL were just a covers band, NIHL were a very good covers band. They performed Smells Like Teen Spirit note perfect when Smells Like Teen Spirit was brand spanking new. In fact, it was the first time I had ever heard Smells Like Teen Spirit and it shot through me with incredible force. Of all the much more important things I have forgotten in my life, for some reason I remember this moment vividly: the moment I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit in The Carpark off Chews Lane. “This” I thought, “is the music I want to make”. It was the music I would never make because I was not Kurt Cobain, but I did make better music as a result, and our band did get fairly good in the end. The end was in 2009.
Which is my really, really long-winded way of saying that I like Dave McArtney.
Hello Sailor remain a famous band in New Zealand because of three songs and – for those who saw them live – their spirit of rock’n’rolliness. The most famous of their three songs is Gutter Black written and sung by Dave McArtney (the other two songs would be Blue Lady and Lyin’ in the Sand). Above is a picture of Dave McArtney on Radio With Pictures in 1984 (in case you couldn’t straightaway guess the time period from the colour palette). By 1984 Dave McArtney was a solo act (with the Pink Flamingos as his framing band) and he was promoting his third album called The Catch.
In 1984 I knew nothing about Dave McArtney or Hello Sailor. 1984 was the last year that Dave McArtney was big in New Zealand. By big I do not mean that he dominated the charts, I mean he had a record out, and was touring, and people who were into music and going to live gigs knew who he was and knew he’d do a great show. Neither of the two singles off his album charted. Dance On reached number 29 at a time when nothing outside the top twenty registered in the popular consciousness, and I’m in Heaven failed to chart in the top fifty at all.
Dance On is a very cool song with some good lyrics:
And I love the whistling wind
Oh I, I love the whistling of the wind
How can I arrange the rain?
And the whistling of the winds?
But it also has some odd musical moments, and some really weird lines:
I like to go down to the Rising Sun
And drink with spastic clowns in drag
I’ve listened to these two lines over and over and I’m convinced that this is what he’s saying. I say nothing against this desire – to drink with spastic clowns in drag – we’ve all felt it at one time or another in our lives, I’m just concerned that the people in question might not like being characterised in this way. About this song Dave said:
“I’ve always looked on it as a defiant song, taking a second look at lovers’ games.”
I’m in Heaven was a catchy single and New Zealand radio’s snobbery and indifference must have been the only thing that kept it out of the charts; it’s certainly much “catchier” and straightforward than Dance On and based on a fairly intense moment in McArtney’s life:
The review of his album in Rip It Up is not that nice.
I feel both mean and churlish for writing this, because McArtney is such a damned nice guy who has taken a lot of knocks. I honestly hope the fortunes of this album match his optimism about it. But also, in all honesty, it doesn’t excite me.
Which reminded me of coming back to me friends’ table at the Carpark after doing our first performance and getting panned. The panning was fair, which proves that in the businesses of entertainment there is very little return on graft and nerves if you can’t make people want to tap their feet or bob their heads. McArtney’s album, of course, is much much better than my crappy little show at the Carpark, but it’s not quite “good enough” and that little gap between “good enough” and “not” was definitely enough, in 1984, for narrow-minded radio stations to keep him off the air. We could have Split Enz, DD Smash and Dance Exponents, but that was about it.
In popular music Dave’s 1984 album was about it for him. He carried on with sound tracks and teaching music, but moved out of even the edges of the limelight for the next few decades before he popped up again, shortly before his unexpected death in April 2013, with one of his best songs. The presenter’s introduction in the clip below tells you everything you need to know about the shit-ness of breakfast television.
This bird has flown.
See also: Audioculture