Blam Blam Blam’s records stunned Grant McDougall’s adolescent mind. He reflects on their impact and what it was like to finally see them live on their reunion tour, which brings them to The Others Way tonight in Auckland.
It is winter, 1981. I am 12 and in Form 2 at Gisborne Intermediate. The Springbok tour is taking its cataclysmic toll on the country. Gisborne is where the first game of the tour, against Poverty Bay, is played. It dominates the news, all the grown-ups I know are bickering about it, my teacher takes the day off work to lead a protest, even us kids are arguing amongst ourselves about it.
At the same time, two songs are released that will have an enduring effect on me. One is Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ a NZ #1 in the singles chart, and, to this day, my all-time favourite song. Obviously, I will never see them live – as the Verlaines’ singer-guitarist Graeme Downes has famously more than once observed, “Ian Curtis was dead before Joy Division records were even available in New Zealand”.
The other is Blam Blam Blam’s ‘There Is No Depression In New Zealand’, which is a top 20 single.
I have also started frequenting Vibes, recently remembered by Propeller label boss Simon Grigg as “one of the best record shops in the country”. Vibes is ran by Tony Murdoch and I swiftly become, in effect, a little brother to he and his friends. I am young, naive and impressionable, so I quickly, eagerly and gratefully absorb the post-punk and new wave records they suggest I blow my pocket money on.
Among these records, of course, is ‘There Is No Depression In New Zealand’. I find the song really exciting, but there is clearly something else about it – but what, I can’t quite put my finger on it. I can figure out a few things, though. Unlike my parents and their friends, they clearly don’t like Mr Muldoon. There is a picture of a farmer on the sleeve front and a rugby player on the back, but they seem to be making fun of them.
The lyrics are also printed on the back. Here’s a few lines:
“There is no depression in New Zealand,
There are no sheep on our farms,
There is no depression in New Zealand,
We can all keep perfectly calm”
There is a picture of the band, too. One is smoking, one looks surly, one looks stoic. They are not like Devo or the Psychedelic Furs, that much is certain.
Later that year their second single, ‘Don’t Fight It Marsha, It’s Bigger Than Both Of Us’ is released. It too is a thrilling song and a top 20 hit. It’s utterly stupid to say this now, but in the context of the times it was exciting and, dare I say it, cool to buy something from Auckland, instead of London or LA.
By buying the records on Ripper and Propeller it was if I was connected to the excitement of a music scene. The big boys and girls at Vibes would go to see these bands when they played in Gisborne, tell me about them and – gasp ! – even hang out with them when they visited Auckland. I did not need Spandau Ballet or Haircut 100 when I had the Screaming Meemees and the Newmatics.
Sometime towards the middle of 1982 I see posters for a Blams gig at the Albion River Bar. By now I am all of 13, so I’ll be doing homework, not going to the gig, alas. The good news is that the tour is to promote their debut album Luxury Length. I happily buy it; the cover is quirky and there are 11 songs!
The bad news, I read in next month’s Rip It Up, is that Blam Blam Blam have split up, after a car crash. This is sad and unfortunate, as if I’d been given a really neat birthday present and someone else had broken it.
Later that year I treat myself to the single by Tim Mahon’s post-Blams band Export Lamb. It comes in a brown paper bag and now goes for stupid money on Trade Me.
Obviously I will never see the Blams live as well, it seems – then, unexpectedly, a live album, The Blam Blam Blam Story, appears in 1984. It’s the closest I’ll ever get I console myself, even if the wimpy and crappy Netherworld Dancing Toys are on the other side.
The years go by. I see Don McGlashan’s subsequent acts The Front Lawn, The Muttonbirds, his solo band. They all have their moments, but I still wish I could’ve seen the Blams. About ten years ago I walked past him on George St, Dunedin, where I now live. He was wearing a bomber jacket and instead of thinking, “Look, Don McGlashan, the man whose songs like ‘White Valiant’ and ‘A Thing Well Made’ so spookily reflect our national character”, I found myself thinking “Look, Don McGlashan from Blam Blam Blam”.
Then, a few months ago the internet tells me that Blam Blam Blam are reforming for a short tour culminating at The Others Way festival in Auckland. I go slightly weak at the knees when I see it begins with a Dunedin show. My debit card is swiftly whipped into action. Thirty-eight years on, I will be seeing Blam Blam Blam live after all!
It is winter, 2019. August 22, last Thursday. The Cook is chocker. The crowd is two-thirds middle-aged and one-third young people, pleasingly. I recognise a lot of people, friends. They are like me, former teenage music freaks, eager for the buzz their songs once gave us, the acknowledgement that we had –hopefully still have – our fingers on the pulse of music and politics, even if we are now section managers, university admin types, fashion lecturers, architects and the like.
The young people are there, I assume, simply because they have great taste in music. They have no direct experience of the Muldoon era, the Springbok tour or watching Radio With Pictures, so have probably heard of the Blams through their parents or through Don McGlashan’s latter work.
I make my way near the front, the band take the stage and rip into, appropriately enough, the ‘Dr. Who Theme’ – a pop culture tribute played by a band that are now pop culture icons.
Mark Bell is on the left. The man is one classy guitarist, effortlessly letting go great lines and – always the sign of a great player – never shooting all his bullets in one round, instead throwing different twists and tricks in each song. Tim Mahon is on the right. He looks nervous and apprehensive, but plays bass with precision and drive. Don McGlashan! Don McGlashan is wasted as a guitar player. He is a formidably good drummer, polyrhythms ebbing and flowing effortlessly. Endearingly, they are obviously still all close friends.
The set is generous, extensive, well-paced. I and umpteen others of my vintage are vigorously throwing ourselves around to the music. Maybe not with the energy we once might’ve, but certainly with enthusiasm, and hopefully not with embarrassment.
After the Muldoon-putdown ‘Respect’ I tell the young man next to me that I once met Muldoon. “Wow,” he says. I’m just glad he didn’t ask if I had a Gold Card. ‘Blue Belmonts’ and a fiery ‘Got To Be Guilty’ are early highlights.
Towards the middle is an enthralling ‘Beach On 42nd St’ and a sublime version of ‘Martha’. During ‘Businessmen’ Tim Mahon acts the part, stalking the stage with his phone to his ear.
A brilliant ‘Learning To Like Ourselves Again’ features near the end. For a much-deserved encore they blast out ‘Luxury Length’ and a rousing ‘No Depression’.
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They have not put a foot wrong. I tell a friend that their more socio-political lyrics might’ve been spurred by the Muldoon era, but they seem eerily prescient of today’s wider geo-political issues.
The merch table is doing a roaring trade and so it should. Blam Blam Blam’s music has remained strong, defiant and enthralling. I do not begrudge them any dosh, it is well-deserved.
These days I still have family in Gisborne and I quite like rugby. I tell the young people I work with that I have seen many things in my life, but I hope I never see anything as appalling as the Springbok tour ever again. I have seen Blam Blam Blam live, something I never thought I’d do. The songs were played with conviction, verve, urgency and a whopping great sense of excitement and fun.
As a 12-year-old I would’ve been delirious with joy to have been in the same room as them. As a middle-aged man, I’m a little more dignified and simply smile very contently. Now, if someone could just get the Screaming Meemees to reform…
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