Saturday evening, 1980, and six Lynfield College 15- and 16-year-old boys gather to take the bus into the CBD. Decanting outside the St James cinema, they begin to walk up Queen St. Their destination is XS Cafe, an unlicensed music venue on Airedale St that serves as the epicentre for Auckland's punk rock scene. From Aotea Square's shadows emerge a group of youths who begin crossing Queen St towards the schoolboys.
"KCs," hisses one of the Lynfield lads, having noticed those tailing them, and he and his friends quicken their step. The schoolboys are Pakeha punks — although beyond a preference for charity shop jackets and short(ish) hair you would be hard-pressed to place them as such — from Mt Roskill and Blockhouse Bay, while the KCs are King Cobras, a Polynesian street gang hailing from Ponsonby. The KCs run towards the punks who sprint into Airedale St, rushing through XS's entrance shouting "KCs! KCs!" This brings forth
a swarm of bootboys, hungry to ruck with the KCs. Are the schoolboys safe? Not quite: the bootboys love a fight and, if they can't find a KC or a fellow skinhead to bash, might decide to tear into the teens. Such was my introduction to an Auckland Saturday
Thing is, I took this carnage in stride: violence was a constant, at school and on suburban streets, in parties and at burger bars. Because someone didn't like someone else's haircut or jacket or the way their eyes briefly met. Or, as one Mt Roskill thug said to me when I asked why he had hit me as I walked along Dominion Rd, "Cos I felt like it." This was all a very long time ago but, across the weekend of February 19-20, I will get a chance to relive my bruised youth: Punk it Up, a festival of Auckland's new and veteran punk bands, is hosting its fifth event at Galatos, off Karangahape Rd. I've never attended any previous PIUs but I imagine there will be familiar faces from decades ago, now surely less rowdy and more jowly. Hopefully we can enjoy the bands without fights breaking out on the dancefloor. Hopefully.
Why, you may well ask, bother going to a nostalgic celebration of a scene soaked in violence and racial tension? Simple: Auckland's punk scene was brilliant. Inspiring. Exciting. My destiny was shaped by wanting to write about the bands while Flying Nun and a host of other indie record labels and publications were encouraged to set up due to punk's DIY ethos. Indeed, the musicians and writers and label owners and promoters who evolved out of punk would go on to achieve radical acts of creativity. It was a golden time,
marred only by, well, violence and racism and police harassment and drug abuse and… anyway, a golden time!
Auckland punk seems to have occurred in three stages: the first bands formed in late-1976-early 1977, the second in 1978-79 and the third at the start of the 1980s. Pioneering bands included the Suburban Reptiles (most perfect Kiwi band name ever), The Scavengers, The Masochists and the impossibly glamorous (four women, one guy) Idle Idols.
Dunedin's The Enemy soon migrated to Auckland, finding the city awash with newly formed bands: Rooter, The Terrorways, Proud Scum, The Primmers, The Instigators, The Gordon Bennetts, The Tigers (the first — only? — Māori punk band) and many more formed and performed. Christchurch joined the game with The Gordons — art punks who employed extreme volume — and The Androids (whose sole 45, Auckland Tonight, is a classic).
Wellington struggled with punk, that city's foremost new bands, Shoes This High and Naked Spots Dance, both being experimental outfits (the latter fronted by the beautiful Fran Walsh — yes, that Fran Walsh). By the early 80s Auckland's No Tag, Wellington's Flesh D-Vice and Christchurch's Desperate Measures played remorseless rock, hard music for hard youths.
The pioneers varied greatly: Suburban Reptiles had art school/Remuera roots and, in Zero (Clare Elliot), the most striking frontwoman in Kiwi rock history. Mt Roskill's The Masochists were led by Bones Hillman (Wayne Stevens), a brilliant bassist. The Scavengers
and Rooter had, in Ronnie Recent (Brendan Gallagher) and Dean Martelli, two English youths who both experienced the dawn of London punk before their families emigrated (separately) to NZ. Chris Knox was at his most crazed fronting The Enemy (who would soon morph into Toy Love).
None of these bands sounded anything alike and many wrote remarkably strong songs. The Suburban Reptiles made NZ's first punk record (Megaton) but it's their stunning second effort (Saturday Night Stay At Home) that's now heralded internationally as a punk classic: a copy recently sold for $1288 — the highest price ever paid for a Kiwi 45.
I was too young to experience these bands: when I started going to gigs in 1979 they had either split or migrated to Australia. I did purchase AK79 — the seminal album documenting the scene's best bands 1ZM presenter Bryan Staff issued on his own label, Ripper Records — marvelling in its majesty. Simon Grigg, the visionary behind The Reptiles, then set up Propeller Records and issued great records by Spelling Mistakes, The Features, Blam Blam Blam and No Tag. All are now highly collectable.
By 1979, punk bands could command nationwide audiences and Toy Love scored a Top 10 hit with Don't Ask Me. It couldn't last: violence at gigs meant most venues stopped booking punk bands and Flying Nun's gentler, more cerebral, lo-fi rock showed a new way forward. This noted, the Kiwi punk era was a remarkable epoch and I'm thankful I caught its latter days.
To preview Punk it Up I spoke to four participants in the original Auckland scene.
Simon Grigg (manager Suburban Reptiles, founder Propeller Records). "To be honest, it's amazing that we had a punk scene, we were so cut off from the world. Initially, we were far less UK/US derivative. In 1977 we effectively invented our own 'f*** you!' look. When
I went to Sydney in 1979, I was astounded by the derivative nature of their look and sound. We were far more individual."
Dean Martelli (guitarist Rooter/Terrorways, Rebel Truce — performing at PIU 5). "At the start of 1978 I was 16 and living in my uncle's caravan in Rānui. I was used to living in Essex and spending lots of time in London — it was like stepping back in time. Then
I joined Rooter and, after the first rehearsal, I was playing Zwines (Auckland's first punk venue) with them. It was great. It felt to me like being part of the UK punk scene in its early days — Zwines was the real deal, very intense."
Sonya Waters (singer The Instigators — performing at PIU 5): "We wrote songs about injustice, living in the Muldoon era, getting busted by the cops for having a party, being on the dole. We related to music that was political and criticised what was wrong with our society."
Andrew Boak (guitarist No Tag, founder PIU): "The scene in Auckland was very vibrant at the time and there were a lot of good venues. I think we (No Tag) were just lucky that once we had enough songs to perform live there was an audience needing their punk rock "fix". With most of the older bands either moving to Oz, or disbanding, we naturally inherited their punters."
Simon Grigg: "What did punk achieve? It broke down barriers — as it did worldwide — and engineered an explosion of new bands and music. There were literally dozens of new bands in the 1976-79 years. It revitalised the live music scene. It gave us a new record industry, a vital music press and the pivotal student radio scene."
Dean Martelli: "We played five or six nights a week, touring became my full-time job. People from the provinces would get straight into it. Unfortunately, we always attracted a few losers who wanted to fight us — luckily, our drummer Gary Hunt was a good boxer."
Andrew Boak: "I think the perseverance of people — from punters, through record labels, venues and rehearsal rooms — creating and maintaining their own scene is really one of the main reasons why I can do things like Punk it Up. Punk created an ecosystem of sorts
and this is why there are people who remain willing to go see a bunch of bands."
Simon Grigg: "It was Zwines, heroin and the tabloids that added the violence to punk and, eventually, destroyed the scene. It took years to extract that violence. Auckland kinda grew out of it in the early 1980s but then Wellington, Christchurch and the provinces
were cursed by it. NZ is such a heavy place."
Dean Martelli: "Below Zwines, in the same building, was a disco called Babes — to get to Zwines you had to walk past Babes and, every time you did, 10 or 20 guys would want to jump you. We ended up meeting pre-gig and going up in groups. The scene was violent — I was surprised how much violence there was. That said, I'd been beaten up in Essex for having an earring, so that kind of brutal behaviour wasn't just in Auckland."
Sonya Waters: "A small element of the scene was violent but it didn't stop me from going out to gigs and parties or playing music. I remember seeing Jane Walker fighting off some crazy guys who tried to accost her while she was playing on stage in Toy Love — sometimes people were just carried away and having fun grappling with you."
Andrew Boak: "First off, I reckon that there was more violence at a West Auckland pub with a bad covers band on a Saturday night than there ever was at our gigs. We also made it known to our regular punters that if the fights continued we would stop playing gigs -
in early 1983 there were one too many fights and we did just that."
Dean Martelli: "There was a Zwines and Babes combined Christmas party one year so Kerry Buchanan and I went along — we always loved disco — and when I went to the toilet I found myself confronted by this big Polynesian guy announcing that he was going to beat me up. There was nowhere to run to so I reasoned with him, asked him why he wanted to fight me, and we came to an understanding that we weren't so different and there was no need for violence. I then said 'let's go and have a dance', and we did!"
Post-punk, Simon Grigg signed OMC to his Huh! record label and thus reaped the rewards when How Bizarre became the biggest-selling hit record ever made in NZ. Now owning the Ripper Records masters, in 2019 he reissued AK79 as an extended double LP to celebrate the album's 40th anniversary. He is working on a memoir of the era.
Dean Martelli returned to London in 1981, where he became a hip-hop DJ, before resettling in Auckland and subsequently being reunited with his Flyte guitar (that appears on the cover of AK79) in 2019.
Sonya Waters sings with several groups and releases The Sheltering Ranges, an ambient album, in February. Bones Hillman joined The Swingers then Midnight Oil, later playing sessions in Nashville.
Brendan Gallagher formed Dead Can Dance with Lisa Gerrard and won a large international audience. He now resides in an Irish castle.
Andrew Boak lives in San Francisco where he plays in (and produces) local bands. Of the many other individuals involved in Kiwi punk, not all are still with us: drugs carried some away, cancer others. A few even ended up far-right conspiracy idiots, ensuring their old bandmates groan every time they post "the truth" on social media. Many continue to make music, even if only on occasions like PIU.
As Boak remains the keeper of the flame, he gets the last word.
"The consistency and longevity of NZ punk are because, for each band that falls apart or goes overseas, there's 100 more rehearsing in Grandma's basement, plying their art, ridding themselves of their teen angst, and having a bloody good time doing it."