In 1970s’ New Zealand, real men played rugby, not rock, writes musician Nick Bollinger.

It's the early 1960s, Wellington. I am 5 or 6, sitting in our family's Ford Prefect in Molesworth St, waiting for my mother who has gone into a dairy to get something for dinner. Through the windscreen I see a tide of men dressed in grey, surging from the doors of a building with darkened windows, spilling across the footpath and into the street. Their stumbling and shouting frightens me so I slide down the seat to hide on the floor.

"What are those men doing?" I ask my mother when she returns. "It's all right, darling," she says, "they've just come out of the pub."

I had witnessed the 6 o'clock swill - a peculiarly New Zealand phenomenon in which men (and they were all men) would hit the bars at the end of their working day and consume as much liquor as possible before 6pm, when the law required that the sale of alcohol should cease. If this law was supposed to curb the excesses of Kiwi drinkers it had the opposite effect.

A few years later I would witness a different type of revelry. I was 12, in my last year of primary school, and had signed up, with my brother, to play a part in a children's television serial about a group of schoolkids who catch a bank robber. The director, Derek Morton, was a friend of our older cousin, the cameraman Alun Bollinger, which is how two kids like us, with no experience in acting or television, came to be involved. Derek also knew Bruno Lawrence, a drummer and actor who was playing one of the robbers.

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I was more interested in music than movie-making. The Beatles had been my obsession since one Christmas several years before, when Alun and his sister Sue had played me some of their new records. Nothing before had made me feel as good as the shock of rhythm and noise that was Twist and Shout. I saved my pocket money, one shilling a week, until I had enough to buy my own 45 of Twist and Shout, followed by others.

I could never afford all the music I wanted so I was looking forward to the money I'd earn from the TV programme. It took up more time than I expected. We would regularly find Derek waiting for us at the school gate at 3 o'clock, ready to whisk us to Newtown where, in those pre-health-and-safety days, he would have us scaling walls, jumping off roofs, running up and down stairwells chased by a fat man dressed as a policeman, and wielding samurai swords in vacant lots, while he tried to get as much footage as he could before the light died.

One Saturday Derek turned up to collect us at about 7 o'clock in the morning. Before starting on the day's perilous activities, he had to make a couple of stops. We went to a house in Webb St where we picked up Bruno, then headed to the Railway Station. Derek explained that it was the start of the University Arts Festival, although I wasn't sure what that meant.

As we got out of the car in front of the station's grand sandstone entrance, I could hear a fantastic noise. Just inside, by the statue of Kupe, a band was playing. A colourfully dishevelled crowd was gathered around them. A few people were twirling about, arms out, eyes closed, hair flicking across their faces.

"Well, are you gunna dance?" Bruno said, surprised Tim and I weren't rushing to join in. No, I wasn't going to dance. I just stood there amazed by the sound, the way it seemed to be moving around inside the huge high chamber of the station's foyer. I couldn't hear where the notes began, only their mesmerising echoes.

After a while Bruno went off to talk to the musicians and Derek took us to a platform, where students were arriving from Auckland. They stumbled out of the carriages, long-haired teenagers, some with bare feet, some carrying sleeping bags. As they moved towards the foyer someone stretched a length of ribbon across the entrance. A man with a beard, beret and pair of scissors stepped forward and cut it, and the whole group cheered.

By the time I started Onslow College the following year, it was clear to me that there were at least two different versions of the country I lived in. There was the one where most New Zealand men seemed to feel at home; a place where rugby mattered more than music, where drinking beer was the acceptable way of altering your consciousness, where old men in suits were entrusted with the interests of the nation and women were left on the margins.

But there was also the New Zealand I had glimpsed that morning at the railway station. I began to grow my hair long, in rough imitation of a rock musician. Though Onslow had its share of beer drinkers and rugby players, I soon found a like-minded group of dissenters.

We went on marches against nuclear weapons, sporting contact with South Africa, the Vietnam War, and military training, which you could still be called up for once you turned 20. At school we staged our own protests, against hair regulations and uniforms.

But our main obsession was music.

It was clear to me that there were at least two different versions of the country I lived in.

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We'd gather after school at someone's place, colonise the living room and pore over our small combined collection of albums. On the weekends we'd go looking for live music.

The 6 o'clock swill had ended in 1967, with the extension of licensing hours to 10pm. With the law change came a new strategy on the part of the breweries, who owned most of the country's pubs. To remain viable, pubs now needed to be places that attracted both men and women, offered a comprehensive night out, and provided food and entertainment. Lion Breweries employed an entertainment manager, Richard Holden, who created a touring circuit that would employ hundreds of musicians, mostly playing cover versions of material he personally approved.

Janet Clouston with Rick Bryant's hand-decorated jacket, 1978. Picture / Matthew McKee
Janet Clouston with Rick Bryant's hand-decorated jacket, 1978. Picture / Matthew McKee

He handpicked musicians for bands with alcohol-themed names like The Distillery and Pilsener. As we were well under the age of 20, we never got to hear them.

But we were welcome at Victoria University's Student Union Hall, where there were often rock concerts on a Friday night. These were run by Graeme Nesbitt, a musician and student politician with a gift for creating a scene. I soon realised that he was the man I'd seen cut the ribbon to launch the Student Arts Festival.

In contrast to the bland and sanitised local music that made it to radio or TV, the bands at the Union Hall were wild and ungroomed, and often played original material. They were usually accompanied by a light show, which simulated the effects of a psychedelic experience - or enhanced it, if you were already having one. Liquid blobs of colour were projected on to the stage and walls, bubbling and shapeshifting across the faces of musicians and audience.

Nick Bollinger, on stage with Rough Justice, during a lunchtime concert at Victoria University, 1978. Picture / Matthew McKee
Nick Bollinger, on stage with Rough Justice, during a lunchtime concert at Victoria University, 1978. Picture / Matthew McKee

In my teens I saw dozens of different bands at the Union Hall, but the band I saw most often was Mammal. They played an adventurous hybrid of acid rock and Motown-style soul. Standing out from the group's hairy line-up was the singer Rick Bryant. Short-haired and stubbly-bearded, he sang in the kind of aching rough-textured voice I thought only belonged to old black men from the American South. The soulfulness of Rick's singing became the measure by which I began to judge everything I heard. I tried to imagine where he might go in the daylight. I could picture him working on the wharves or a construction site, or standing in a police identity parade, but I was surprised to learn that he was a lecturer in the English department of Victoria University. I also heard rumours that he smoked a staggering amount of pot.

Inspired by the music I heard, I began to teach myself to play bass. I had finished school and, after a series of dead-end jobs, including filling tankers in the Lion beer factory, had embarked in desultory fashion on a university career when, out of the blue, I received a call from Rick Bryant. He was forming a new band, Rough Justice. Would I be interested in joining? It was an invitation to take up residency in that other New Zealand.

In mid-1977 I set out on road with Rough Justice in a brightly painted, ex-Railways Bedford bus.

Rick had given up his job at the university after being busted several times for pot. The university had been tolerant, he said, but he hadn't wanted to embarrass them any more. Sometimes I would sit up front beside Rick as he drove, and listen to one of his fascinating and endlessly digressive lectures. A discussion of the soul singer Joe Tex would lead to an analysis of Tolstoy and wind up with the history of the labour movement. It was almost as though I'd stayed at university, though it was impossible to say what paper I'd enrolled in.

Rick was a committed citizen of that other New Zealand. His favourite audiences were in the backblocks of Coromandel or the West Coast, where we would play in community halls and hippies would come out of the hills to hear us. But such gigs could not sustain a professional six-piece band.

Though there was still a little work to be found on university campuses, that scene had changed since the days of the Union Hall happenings. Graeme Nesbitt had been imprisoned for selling pot, something he had done to help fund his music ventures.

To survive, Rough Justice had to play the pubs. Much of our two years on the road was spent in provincial taverns, where we were greeted by hungover and hostile hoteliers. The most welcoming of them would grudgingly provide us with an evening meal - inevitably a ham steak with a slice of pineapple - which we were obliged to eat in the cramped staff kitchen, out of sight of the patrons.

Though we performed our classic R&B covers with energy and some skill, this didn't placate the crowds who would command us to "play something we know" - presumably the Eagles or Bee Gees songs that dominated radio at the time - and became increasingly belligerent as the evening wore on and the lager kicked in.

The Red Squad and anti-tour protesters face each other at Macalister Park, Wellington, during the second rugby test between New Zealand and South Africa, August 29, 1981. Picture / Mark Hantler
The Red Squad and anti-tour protesters face each other at Macalister Park, Wellington, during the second rugby test between New Zealand and South Africa, August 29, 1981. Picture / Mark Hantler

I was only dimly aware that, on the national stage, a far greater version of this cultural divide was opening up. The decade had begun with the election of Norman Kirk as Prime Minister. He had had withdrawn Kiwi troops from Vietnam, opposed nuclear testing and halted an All Blacks tour of South Africa. But following Kirk's untimely death, Robert Muldoon had been voted in. If the counterculture had enjoyed a moment of optimism under Kirk, it quickly became embattled under Muldoon. He despised academics. He decried "trendy lefties". He once hit a protester outside a meeting of the Landlords Association, where he had given a speech and stayed on for a few drinks. He often talked about "the ordinary bloke", a notional person on whose behalf he was fighting. The ordinary bloke seemed to be a New Zealand male who just wanted to be able to do a day's work, go home, drink beer and watch rugby. Anyone with progressive views on education, environment or equality was the Prime Minister's natural enemy.

As the 70s drew to a close there was increasing talk of a possible visit by South Africa's Springbok rugby team. A violent conflict was looming, between two visions of what sort of place New Zealand should be. As for me, I was still out on the road, worrying about the audience member who was threatening to deck me unless we played Hotel California.

Goneville: A Memoir by Nick Bollinger (Awa Press, $39) is available now.