Russell Baillie investigates The Features, the short-lived Auckland post-punk band whose 1979-1980 output has just been re-released.
When it came to nailing the ‘post-‘ to punk, there was no shortage of New Zealand groups swinging the hammer. But among those banging that hyphen into place hardest and earliest were The Features.
The Auckland band lasted for all of a year from late 1979 to 1980. But they achieved a few things in that time. There was the classic single ‘City Scenes’ and then the Perfect Features Exposed EP which effectively became a headstone. They would lay the groundwork for Fetus Productions, the pioneering outfit that was part industrial rock, part art project and a whole other story.
These days, the band’s surviving members are enmeshed in Auckland’s musical and cultural life. And while The Features, with their grim anatomical artwork and menacing sound, weren’t around for long, they accomplished one thing that changed New Zealand music history – they inspired Simon Grigg, don of Auckland independent labels, into the record making business.
Just as Flying Nun’s Roger Shepherd had The Clean as the band whose records he simply had to release, Grigg had The Features. Grigg says he went from mate of two guys in the band to an obsessive who never missed a gig.
Working in an inner-city Auckland record shop – there he is doing just that in a cameo in the ‘City Scenes’ video – Grigg borrowed a few hundred dollars to start his first label, Propeller, to record and release the band. ‘City Scenes’ was the Propeller catalogue’s no.1.
“The Features changed everything for me,” writes Grigg in the liner notes to X- Features, a newly remastered LP of the band’s collected works, jointly released on Propeller and that relative upstart indie, Flying Nun. “They were the reason I decided to start a record label back in 1980. That took me on a journey I still find myself on.”
The album collects the original single and EP and unreleased material, all remixed by band guitarist Jed Town. At times, the tracks can sound like the UK post-punk likes of Wire or John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols’ mob Public Image Limited, which Town admits were big influences at the time.
At others, it can just sound like a drunken fight at a party, somewhere in central Auckland, 1980, set to song. And not just because one song is called ‘Party’ – that was inspired by Town seeing The Ramones at the very un-rock’n’roll Logan Park in Greenlane.
Elsewhere, they’re mischievous – turning The Beatles’ early lovey-dovey hit ‘Do You Want to Know a Secret’ into something vampire-like, while some songs come powered by pogo-paced punk-friendly quicksteps. But across the 14 tracks of X Features you get the sense that The Features were substituting the “oi” of the AK79 era for “art”.
“Post-punk was a real thing at the time. It’s hard to overstate now just how dull punk had become by the end of 78,” Grigg says when asked if he and the band knew they were on to something. “It was a dead-end defined by clichés, media and violence … the whole point of punk was to smash the barriers. Most bands simply became the barrier. The Features and a few others took the punk ethos and ran with it.”
Grigg had been flatmates with Town and drummer James Pinker, who were in The Superettes together. The pair morphed into The Features after the departure of bassist Paul Kean to Chris Knox’s ascendant Toy Love and the recruitment of singer Karel Van Bergen (ex-Primmers) and bassist Chris Orange (ex-Terroways).Both the Primmers and The Terrorways had appeared on year-zero NZ punk compilation AK79.
The new band’s first show was opening for another AK79 outfit, The Marching Girls, at the Gluepot. Soon, The Features were, according to the Auckland Star, “the band of the moment” in the city and headlining venues like The Liberty Stage, and XS Café as well as touring down country.
With the powerful, fluid rhythm section of Orange and Pinker underneath Town’s sharp, ringing guitar (his aluminium-necked Travis Bean) and Van Bergen’s sneering, sarcastic delivery, they were soon standing out from the old punk pack.
“The killer rhythm section was in large part because these guys had jazz, soul, funk, disco roots as well as the rock and roll,” remembers Grigg. “Jed was and still is an absolutely unique guitarist and his voice intertwined with Karel elevated the sound. There was nothing ‘punk’ about The Features really.”
Still, it was loud and fast. But perplexing to the boot boy following of their previous bands. “I think we did inevitably confuse them which is a good thing,” Pinker remembers. “I have been told many times by many different people that we changed their thinking about punk music and set them on another course.”
Orange: “Our sets were fast and loud but very different from the Terrorways or Scavengers. More like The Enemy with mostly originals or godawful piss-takes of pop songs. Most people were into it – but we did have a few people who just wanted a rumble.”
The band had its own inner conflicts. Town and Van Bergen didn’t always see eye to eye. They almost beat each other up on stage at a show at Mainstreet, remembers Pinker.
“Karel and I had major differences in attitude so there was a bit of friction,” says Town. “Karel tried to be sarcastic a lot and came across as up himself,” says Orange. Then again, he says, that was the attitude of the entire group.
“[We were] totally anarchic, completely dysfunctional, and up ourselves like no other band at the time. Except maybe Sheerlux or the Th’ Dudes.”
Then again, The Features were something special. There’s much evidence of that on the retrospective collection.
“I do seriously believe we had something unique in our own little way,” says Pinker. “The mad, complicated songs … and the amazing conflict in the song structures and styles. The vocal anarchy and Chris’ sublime, heavy but exacting basslines.
“God only knows what and where we would have ended up had we stuck it out.”
The Features fell apart in late-1980. Having their gear stolen on a national tour earlier didn’t help. But Town decided to shift to Sydney to be followed by Van Bergen and Pinker. They would join the guitarist in an early first incarnation of his experimental Fetus Productions.
Town’s career continued a singular and often strange path, mixing music and visuals, shifting into techno in the late 80s under a new moniker, ICU. These days he mainly works on movie and television soundtracks while exploring new technology in his artistic pursuits.
He and Orange have occasionally revived The Features on stage in recent years as The X Features. Pinker hasn’t wanted to join in. Van Bergen died in Munich, where he was living, in 2013.
After Fetus Productions, Van Bergen and Pinker played together with Australian industrial group SPK, led by New Zealander Graeme Revell (now a major Hollywood soundtrack composer) before Pinker was replaced by a drum machine.
Van Bergen took his violin skills to London folk-rock outfit, The Band of Holy Joy, which released a run of albums on Rough Trade in the late 80s and early 90s.
Eventually based in London as a drummer-programmer, Pinker played and/or recorded with everybody from The Jesus and Mary Chain, to ambient/soundtrack guitarist Michael Brook to Pakistani World Music star Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Pinker released a couple of albums under the name Heavenly Bodies before returning to New Zealand and establishing himself as a sound artist and curator. He gave up his manager’s job at the Māngere Arts Centre Ngā Tohu o Uenuku last year to work on the score for partner Lisa Reihana’s work at next year’s Venice Biennale. He still does electronic-art music as Haptic and has a band with Tom Bailey (International Observer/Thompson Twins) called Holiwater.
After “they went to Aussie without me” Orange took up double bass and songwriting and played in bands in Wellington and Auckland. He headed to Japan in the early 90s where he played free-jazz. These days he continues to play jazz while tutoring at MAINZ where he runs contemporary music performance programmes for the Bachelor of Musical Arts. He occasionally brings in Town to talk to students about his classic Fetus Productions pop song, ‘What’s Going On?’ Now, with the new album, he’ll be able to show his classes what a cool post-punk rocker he was at their age.
Being a Feature was a formative experience for all involved. Orange: “Playing Jed’s songs in the Features and the contrasts in the band – Karel’s sarcasm continually put up against Jed’s visionary goal for music as true art – were powerful influences on me at the time.”
Pinker: “We were a real band with all the shit – good and bad – and that is always a superb, special thing.”
All the surviving members are understandably chuffed with the reissue, especially Town, who spent three months on the remixes. It’s also getting a release in Europe via a Spanish fan who approached Grigg to put it out on his tiny label.
Pinker: “I have to remind myself that I was in my late teens when we recorded these songs and now after more than 30 years of being a musician, I’m pretty impressed that the band sounded so darn good.”
And the final words go to Grigg, who, in those liner notes, puts his heart on his sleeve. “Jed’s vulnerable, intensely beautiful vocal entry into the magnificent ‘Victim’ is the finest thing I’ve ever released.”
“I love a great many records I’ve released over the years,” says the man who helped back the Screaming Mee Mees, Blam Blam Blam, Nathan Haines and OMC to name a few.
“But ‘Victim’ was and is very special. James and I mixed it at Harlequin after Jed had gone to Australia. I remember playing that vocal over and over and it just destroyed me. The part where Jed comes in after Karel’s vocal … I have no words.”
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