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Taking tabs, watching abs – scenes from New Zealand’s late-’90s live music wastelands

Thomas Benny, Joe Nunweek and Richard Bol recount their scurrilous memories of New Zealand live music in the late ’90s and early ’00s.

Tadpole perform in 2003.  (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

Tadpole perform in 2003. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

If you’re in the same demographic as many of The Spinoff’s writers, you came of age during a golden era for festivals and touring acts in New Zealand. A flush Australian economy riding the mid-2000s mineral boom generated its own bubble of big money international lineups. Huge names ducked down to the Southern Hemisphere for an increasingly-established “off-season” circuit, and we piggy-backed Australia’s crest with an ever-segmented set of days, weekends, and blackout-drunk New Years to cater for every genre. Rhythm ‘n Vines. Laneway. WestFest. BluesFest. Northern Bass. Ragamuffin. City Whatever Limits? And that’s before the sideshows, which were often the best part.

This bubble is about to burst. An oversaturated Australian festival market is already in deep trouble – Soundwave, until a couple of years ago the one event deemed too big to fail, just went under with debts of up to $25 million – and we can expect weakening Australian options to make for a quieter few years here in New Zealand.

With that in mind, it’s worth remembering and celebrating the dead zone that was New Zealand from the late ’90s until the mid-’00s – a zone which was that much more dead if you were under 18, but one you made work as best you could. Once a year, the Big Day Out functioned as an impossibly broad church, but beyond it lay a world of mall events, radio competition private shows, regional raves, and all-age Christian festivals. Today, we remember what we can and must.

Richard Bol: It all began with Peter Andre failing to perform at a West Auckland shopping centre. Lynn Mall, 1996: the Australian Abdominal Sensation is set to star in front of dozens of screaming high school fans. However, due to concerns about crowd safety, Andre and his rumoured plastic abs never mount the stage. A few weeks later, All Saints rocked the same venue without incident. As I observed their flawless set (the performance, not their abs) from a handily-placed Rendell’s store, the thrill of live music washed over me. I wanted more, much more. Where to find it was the problem.

The Face, Q and NME revealed a thriving music scene happening far away in Cool Britannia and Sunny Ibiza. Mainstream New Zealand television was of little assistance – the closest thing to musical entertainment there being the cast of McDonald’s Young Entertainers performing ‘G.O.D.’, their Christian-themed reboot of Naughty By Nature’s ‘O.P.P.’. I soon got hooked on bFM and Max TV, but the broadcast of recorded music only made me want to find the live version more.

But where would I find my live music nirvana? The bands I liked either didn’t exist any more or weren’t due to visit New Zealand in the near future. Even if there was something I was interested in, being well short of the-then alcohol-purchasing age of 20 made getting to a lot of gigs impossible. Distance was a problem too – Blur played a midweek show in 1997 at the North Shore Events Centre with Darcy Clay in support, but as a 14-year old in West Auckland, how was I going to get there and back? All-ages events did exist, but matters of taste prevented me from attending both the cheesy rave events held at Rainbow’s End and the shows of the curiously enthusiastic bands who played at my school assemblies.

Joe Nunweek: I was too young for the ’90s Big Day Outs, but surprisingly I did get to go to the 1999 Sweetwaters Festival. Held at Puhinui Reserve near the airport, it’s famous for $200,000 in gate takings going missing, driving Elvis Costello away from New Zealand forever, and an important music documentary starring The Spinoff’s very own Duncan Greive.

Like most of the bewildered families that found themselves there on Auckland Anniversary Weekend, Dad had been handed a pile of unbarcoded Sweetwaters tickets in lieu of being paid for work his business had done on-site. And really, this is his story too: forced to attend an ersatz replica of a festival synonymous with his youth under the burden of adult responsibility, with his pupating nightmare children in tow.

My auntie tried to sneak in goon that was promptly confiscated by the patched dudes they had on security (apocryphally, the contract to man the gates was awarded to the Headhunters). Much later in the night, our family wandered past the same guys, out cold, empty bladders and bottles among unsold tickets like confetti. Local teens were steadily milling through the gates (or immediately back again, faced with the prospect of a Men At Work set).

My enduring memories are of being excited to see Keanu Reeves’ band, Dogstar but also of developing a weird, fogeyish liking for middle-aged, lower-tier rockers like Grant Lee Buffalo and Paul Kelly, who I later accessed on the reg on RealPlayer. Importantly, on the way back from buying chips I ran into a 20-something couple behind the caravans who were absolutely eyes-rolling back caning it. “Bro, do you wanna give me some chips for some mead?”

“Yes… what’s mead?”

“It’s what Viking motherfuckers used to drink!”

So I got a huge swig of mead out of the deal. “I’ll let you see boobs as well,” his partner chimed in, lifting her tank top. Due to that weird pre-adolescent sense of shame and confusion about anything sexual I completely averted my gaze, and tripped and dropped the rest of my chips as I walked away. This was my one and only chance to see another human’s bare torso for 15 years. As context at this stage, I feel I should add that I am and always will be very cool.

1999 Sweetwaters going off. (Photo by Wayne Wilson/Getty Images)

1999 Sweetwaters going off. (Photo by Wayne Wilson/Getty Images)

Richard: Finally, an accessible and suitably hip all-ages event arrived: the 1998 bFM Private Function, held at a now long-gone waterfront warehouse called Old City Markets. The line-up had a strong mix of guitar music and the doof-doof sounds of clubland. I was excited. My first real gig! Even better, unlike high school, no-one there was going to call me a faggot for using a rival deodorant to the only acceptable kind, Lynx spray-on. This was an event for cool people.

Since I had my School Certificate Science exam on the Monday morning after the concert, I achieved the correct balance between rock ‘n’ roll decadence and avoiding disruption of my study routine by arranging for my mother to pick me up at midnight.

Reports of long queues at UK superclubs such as Gatecrasher and Ministry of Sound meant I made sure to arrive the start time of 8pm. Success! The queue consisted entirely of me. Encouraged by media coverage of rampant drug use at dance parties, I had long wondered as to whether someone would offer me ecstasy. In fact I was offered some items at the door – vanilla-flavoured and scented condoms, courtesy of the event’s sponsor. The condoms had also been heavily distributed all over the venue, ensuring that a smell of vanilla prevailed throughout. Even more confusing was the fact that only a handful of desperados shared my punctuality. Where was everyone?

Thankfully, you don’t need a gigantic crowd to rock out, and as first band on, a nascent D4 (some years away from making it big in the new garage rock ‘n’ roll revolution of 2002) showed commendable spirit by giving their all in front of the roughly 20 people watching. I might have been in a dingy, near-empty, vanilla-smelling warehouse, but the band’s lyrical preoccupations of partying, Saturday night and partying on a Saturday night took me to a better, more party-like place.

The party continued with the Kog Transmissions collective laying down some fierce dance vibes. I was especially impressed with their DIY visual set-up of movies projected on to white sheets. There also a taste of New Zealand hip-hop with Dark Tower trying out their Kiwiana-themed tunes, and I happily bounced along to their soon-to-be anthem ‘Baggy Trousers’. More, possibly better, rap came from Lost Tribe, one of whose members sarcastically dedicated a song to all of the E-heads in the audience. He certainly wasn’t talking to me. I was on ginger ale and vanilla condom fumes.

All too soon, the clock struck midnight. Only by this point had the crowds started to dribble in, mostly congregating in the designated dance section of the venue. Voom were about to play on the main stage, but I had to leave. School Certificate Science was calling.

Joe: Casting aside all false modesty, I’m essentially the James Murphy of early-2000s NZ needle-and-qway bands, reeling off the list of the ones I saw and the momentous venues where I saw them. Tadpole at Sweetwaters, Wash at Armageddon Sci-Fi and Fantasy Convention, Eight at Mt Roskill Grammar School. I was there! But there’s one act I do not like to talk about.

For a couple of years, defunct Auckland station Channel Z ran a regular “Live At Yours” competition in which lucky listeners could have a local artist play a live session in the comfort of their own living room. My friend Nik got wind that the uni students next door had won the coveted Holy Grail of in-house sessions. Rubicon was coming to Sandringham.

It was a Friday afternoon, and so we hastily changed into “rock shirts” on our way back from school to match our fashionably baggy regulation school shorts and their pocket protectors. I refuse to type the name of the artist involved and let Google nail my coffin shut, but the shirt I wore is now available here as 15-quid vintage wear.

Though I no longer held the same unadulterated fear of mead and norgs, it all turned out to be a pretty tame affair.  We did not get drunk and there were awkward little technical gaps between the four songs before an acoustic rendition of “Funny Boy”. Whole ecosystems thrive around American house shows – the huge basements, the outgoingness and reciprocity. New Zealanders look at the ground and worry about what’s going to get knocked over, and the sense of being strangers watching strangers in a house no one there owned started to get to all of us us. Almost Famous II – Mind That Cord!

We decided to save face by gamely helping the band get their gear to the van afterward. Finally, Paul Reid, Bad Boy Marshall himself, had our undivided attention.

“What are you boys up to tonight? Big Friday?”

“I have to get up early for 1st XI hockey trials but if I wasn’t I would definitely have a big night,” Nik half-lied.

“What about you?”

This was my chance to bond with a fellow thespian. “I have a technical rehearsal for our school production of West Side Story. It starts at 8am so I’m taking it easy too.”

“Ha! Production. Little poofter.” And with that, he was in the rock van, and piling on to the next place sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll could be found. It’s taken me a decade to conjure up l’esprit de l’escalier to say “Hey, you are also an actor though”.  Paul Reid is now a successful property developer.

Thom Benny: A few years ago now, I attended a small psychedelic festival, deep in the damp cold of southern New Zealand where I’d grown up. It was the tail-end of the Gathering and the era of homegrown raves in places like the old Seacliff Asylum in Dunedin. I never got to do The Gathering, though my friend pissed on a laser at the 1999 one when she was absolutely totalled, and her squat and arc formed a huge unexpected projection across the performers at the time. I guess a lot Dirty South festivaling was about trying to hang on to that feeling.

Anyway, I have a friend who brings the devil out of me when we party. He has this supreme appetite for debauchery that drags the rest of us along with it. But there’s only so far mere party mortals can push the boat before we have to head for shore. This guy can push it past the horizon and wash up days later ready to do it all again.

I’ll call him Munter S. Thompson, MST for short.

MST flew in straight from the oil rig he’d been working on. He was cashed up and frothing at the mouth to sink vast amounts of booze and ingest lots and lots of everything he could get his sweaty hands on.

The partying proceeded pretty much as you’d expect for an obscure little tripper-fest way out in the native bush. As the rain set in, our stoned and high crew stumbled back to a tent to get more stoned and high.

MST was already on another level. Sitting in the tent passing joints and blabbering to one another, the crew realized MST was blabbering to someone who wasn’t actually there. An Italian woman, to be specific.

As his mates tried to help him get a grip, our man became more and more agro and agitated. After a heated, drug-fuelled debate, MST ran out of the tent screaming for his sister.

And with that, MST was gone. No-one saw him until months later.

After the festival, he had headed back to the oil rig without a word to his mates who’d been there. And presumably not to his imaginary Italian friend, either.

In the following weeks, we learned what went down after he’d bailed out of the tent.

It wasn’t good.

MST had tried to enter a marquee, where a hardcore contingent of veteran caners were peaking the night away to quintessential Kiwi drum n’ bass and proto-dubstep. Security saw him coming a mile away, flying saucer eyes rolling around in his scattered, shattered head, tongue repeatedly licking the chapped, red lips… you get the picture. ‘No way you’re coming in, mate.’ To which MST promptly charged at one of the bouncers and tried to rip out his throat.

Seeing this horrific scene and anxious to contain and quarantine the bad buzz, a group of conscientious but wasted revellers did what any group of conscientious but wasted revellers would do: they pounced on MST, forced him into a plastic chair outside the tent in the pissing rain and bitter cold, duct taped him to it, and made a citizens’ arrest. That same chair was where he was, hours later, when the cops arrived.

They took him away, no doubt conducted one of the most surreal interviews of their careers, and dropped him back to the site the next day for someone else to sort out.

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Joe: Parachute, the Christian event that used to be held in Mystery Creek, probably deserves its own article. In a small pool, it could make the rightful claim for several years to being the country’s largest and most successful music festival. It was at once a tremendous place for teenage groups to get live experience for the first time, and an incredibly irresponsible place to send your kids unsupervised under the stewardship of lecherous youth leaders. But what I really want to talk about is Late 80s Mercedes.

We got in one year on student media passes, and L80M, described online as a “swing-funk nontet”, were one of the first acts on the big stage. It was hot, flat, punishing weather – we sat down to a series of the band’s numbing, labored covers. ‘Oops! I Did It Again’ as a 3rd-wave ska song? Sure. ‘Zoot Suit Riot’ with the lyrics carefully recrafted to “Throw back a bottle of ginger beer”? The lord is my damn shepherd.

Worst of all this was the frontman, a wa-hey-wacky 24/7 cheesedude who was turning everything into gurning big-band showmanship. Inexplicably, he stripped down to his tighty-whities over the course of a couple of numbers, then introduced the next number with a very special dedication. “I got married a few weeks ago… there’s something so beautiful and strong about the act of marriage… and I want to dedicate this to my beautiful new wife.” Cue a rendition of James Brown’s ‘I Feel Good’.

Amid the near-nude nutty dancing, someone was feeling a little too good. My friend nudged me. “Is the guy poppin’ fresh?” Across two surround screens, the evidence was clear. For the singer was nursing a mighty erection on stage, and in those few glorious moments, he seemed blissfully unaware of it.

What happened next was clockwork. The poor gent ducked into a remarkable reverse shuffle, a measured turtlewalk to the rear of the stage behind the drumkit. The band didn’t miss a beat, ditching the libidinous Brown and switching straight into the national anthem.

We looked around ourselves in disbelief. Had anyone just seen what we saw? Was this Parachute’s Altamont moment, the breaking of a silent but essential spell? Across the field, hundreds of people were suddenly standing despite the heat, arms clasped on chests, bursting into patriotic song.

We lasted two more days, leaving only to get illicit Burger King that gave most of us food poisoning.  Eventually, heaving and shivering on the back of a truck back out to the car park, Parachute’s Eden cast us out.


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