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Design: Tina Tiller
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BooksNovember 21, 2022

True to raw feelings: The story of Marie And The Atom

Design: Tina Tiller
Design: Tina Tiller

In this excerpt from Needles and Plastic: Flying Nun Records 1981 – 1988, Matthew Goody explores Auckland’s underground through the adventurous all-female group Marie And The Atom.

When post-punk outfit Marie And The Atom emerged in late 1982, they really had no antecedents or contemporaries in Auckland’s underground scene. Led by Gill Civil (keyboards/banjo/vocals) and Virginia Were (guitar/vocals), and later joined by Sarah Westwood (viola/guitar/ percussion), Marie And The Atom were something entirely different – a group that crafted atmospheric and eerie songs built around vocal harmonies, intense found object percussion, swirling keyboard, field recordings and droney strings. As one press release declared, Marie And The Atom’s music was “unashamedly non commercial, it demands concentration and attention from an audience”.

Looking at the bands Gill Civil played with in her early days, it is hard to believe she would go on to form one of the period’s most adventurous post-punk outfits. When she was only 19, Civil appeared at the 1980 Battle of the Bands and Sweetwaters with slick new wave outfit Rhythm Method. A year later, the core of that band formed The Bongos, another commercially minded rock act that appeared on the Furtive Four 3•Piece Pack in 1982. “All the stuff that I’ve done before was like a training ground for confidence to begin to do something that feels like it’s true to raw feelings,” said Civil when she looked back on those bands.

Gill Civil and Virginia Were of Marie And The Atom at Rutland Street, Auckland (Photo: Collection of Gill Civil)

Civil’s desire to start Marie And The Atom really started when she fell in with a music workshop run by Ivan Zagni that was part of a city Project Employment Programme (PEP) scheme for the unemployed. Zagni had brought together a group of musicians including Mark Bell (Blam Blam Blam/Coconut Rough) and Brent “Sid” Pasley (Newmatics/Miltown Stowaways) as part of an initiative to play music around the city. Civil’s involvement in the group, which eventually became Big Sideways, never really got off on the right footing. She spent her days at a Ponsonby rehearsal space with a bunch of men who preferred to smoke weed and drink rather than play music. She soon lost interest and drifted to another room to work on her own music. ‘Isol’ was the first song she wrote, a song that became the stand-out track on Marie And The Atom’s first EP.

When Zagni noticed Civil’s commitment to the group had waned, he fired her and placed her as an assistant with street performer clown Alan Clay. Her time with Clay did not last long, but the experience inspired her own busking act. Down in Vulcan Lane, with an amp often powered by a cord running up to Last Laugh Studios, Civil performed with a banjo and droning keyboard while sporting a painted face and wild yellow hat with protruding tubes. Watching some of these performances was Virginia Were, a photography student from Elam School of Fine Arts, who approached Civil about playing with her. Although Were had little experience playing guitar, her willingness to experiment allowed the two to construct compositions that moved away from traditional pop structures in favour of atmospheric, fractured and experimental material. 

Russell Brown of Rip It Up (centre, in front of the red door) watches Gill Civil performing in Vulcan Lane, Auckland (Photo: Collection of Gill Civil)

Calling themselves Marie And The Atom, the duo’s early live appearances included a performance piece called ‘Yello Yello’. They then secured a modest $200 QEII Arts Council recording grant to make their debut EP in mid-1983. Working at Last Laugh with Greg Brice, they recorded five songs for an EP titled Yellow Read Aloud, which included two songs apiece from Civil and Were along with the co-written ‘Karaka Bay’. Helping out were many of Civil and Were’s friends. John Quigley, who had played with Civil in The Bongos, played bass on ‘Isol’. Sarah Westwood, a friend of Were’s from art school, added viola and backing vocals.

Several songs also integrated field recordings made by Civil and Were. ‘A Town Called Women and Men’ was built around Were’s recordings of motorway traffic and snippets of the duo stomping up and down the Last Laugh stairwell with bells on their legs. For ‘Karaka Bay’ Were and Civil drove to the beach of the same name and recorded the waves. On that same trip, Were dug the Spiral Jetty-like coils in the sand that were photographed for the Yellow Read Aloud cover. After she settled by trading her new amp to Last Laugh. The band then sent their tape to Flying Nun, who responded positively. “The immediate support and interest we got from the Flying Nun crowd was really encouraging,” Civil later told Craccum.

Marie And The Atom – Yellow Read Aloud EP (YELL 001)

Flying Nun released Yellow Read loud in late November 1983 to solid reviews. “A strange and haunting record more concerned with moods, musical and poetic, than actual song structures,” noted Colin Hogg in his three-star write-up. “Definitely an out of-the-ordinary record – and that’s a definite recommendation.” In Rip It Up, Russell Brown called it “a personal, bold, beautifully executed five-track EP”. The EP sold quite well, too. Flying Nun sold through their first pressing of 500 and ended up doing two more runs of 500 over the next couple of years.

In the period between the recording and release of Yellow Read Aloud Sarah Westwood became a full-time member of Marie And The Atom. In the latter half of 1983, the trio played numerous gigs around Auckland, including opening for John Cooper Clarke at the Gluepot in October and This Sporting Life at their farewell gig. Chris Knox was at the latter show and wrote a glowing review for Rip It Up, writing that Marie And The Atom were “much more cohesive than I’ve heard them before, coming close to outstanding. From the opening totally percussive Submarines to the dreamy closer Circus it was like reading an absorbing anthology of short stories by a gifted (if eccentric) writer who is equally adept at realism and fantasy.” That same month, Knox submitted his year-end favourites to Rip It Up. In a year when Flying Nun had released great stuff by The Verlaines, The Great Unwashed, Builders and others, he chose Yellow Read Aloud as his favourite release from Flying Nun.

Needles and Plastic: Flying Nun Records 1981 – 1988 by Matthew Goody (Auckland University Press, $70) is now available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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