June 29, 2010

Unflash Gordons

Christ, you know it ain’t easy. You know how hard it can be. Yep, it’s a hard life on the road, the current doomy recession-like climate tightening the grip round the gizzards (and wallets) of even the most resilient beings. The Gordons being a case in point.
We with reasonably secure but boring employment, finding it increasingly difficult to pay off the essential HP (stereo) afford nutritional requirements and meet the ever-looming landlord’s rent demands, can be excused for remaining cynical about rock groups who after all gather groupies, consume copious quantities of illegal substances and have the rising phoenix-bird of fame to compensate for any dues-paying.
But this is, at least in some areas of modern music, a myth, a 1970s metal/glamour fixation, part of a parcel which refuses to believe rock’n’roll and the star system has died the death, at least from the inside, or should it be from the outside, of the established, long-stagnant music-biz.
The Gordons spent an unscheduled six-week stopover in Wellington when their van broke down en route from hometown Christchurch to Auckland, because they couldn’t afford to get it fixed.


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The Gordons are Gordon, Gordon and Gordon, otherwise known as Alister Parker (bass and guitar), John Halvorsen (vocals, bass and guitar), and Brent McLaughlin (drums). Not to forget ever-present soundman Dave Peterson.
As they tell it, The Gordons got together for no apparent reason – “it just happened” – in March’s waning days. Alister, moody ina trenchcoat, is the only Gordon to admit to a past. That past was a group called Bastard Cases.
It’s a typical grey Wellington Saturday afternoon. The band have been practising in a suitably cold and dingy Billy D’Club. Morale seems to be at a low ebb, what with equipment breakdowns, and a poor attendance at the Friday night bash. The Gordons really want something to eat, but they co-operate, firstly by slumping round a table to talk, secondly by having their photographs taken holding their instruments, through mirrors, under lights, standing on stage, individually, collectively, sitting down, standing up. Get the drift!
The Gordons walked to Billy D’Club this morning because they couldn’t afford the petrol for their van.
They say that they are well-known in Christchurch, and that’s why they’re moving on. They’ve played all the venues, including “pubs, mental institutions, hospitals, children’s playgrounds.” Their under-age rage, which they repeated less successfully in Dunedin with the features later on in the piece, they look back at as their biggest conquest, as they attracted (along with other bands) a crowd of “400, from 4 to 40 years old”.
Alister and John share the answers between them, with Brent keeping as meek and quiet as his friendly, chubby countenance suggests.
Time wasn’t wasted while held up in Wellington. They recorded a string of songs at Sausage, material which will mostly be worked into shape later in Auckland studios. From seven songs in March, The Gordons now have a formidable, all-original set of 22 songs. What’s more, the album they plan to record in Auckland within six months will likely consist of material recorded specially for it.
While waxing enthusiastic about the raging extremist new wavers they’ve been attracting to their Wellington gigs, they express concern that they’re not getting through to 50 fans per gig, no matter how frantic. They say that it’s unfortunate that “people feel threatened by Billy De Club and the people who frequent it.”
The Gordons make great British-influenced music. “American music sucks,” says Alister. “Brilliant musicians can play things well but that’s a limitation. We’re trying to create rather than just play a song.” And: “Our songs change with the mood of the time – all our songs are open to what’s going on.”
I foolishly ask what sort of things their lyrics say. The songs, they say, “are generally aimed at the illness”. ‘The illness’ they define rather hazily as the “condition/conditioning of each individual” in society.
“We’re just singing about things that matter to us”. People, says John, should also take their own meaning, not just out of the lyrics, but out of the music and the sound.
An interesting thought from smooth, semi-bouffant-haired lead singer John: that the feeling of intensity and loudness from a band should not necessarily be just from the loudness of the equipment itself, but should be generated largely by the band themselves. The Gordons SOUND very loud, but although seeming hard on the ears, you’re less likely to go home with ears actually ringing than by attending the next Rodger Fox Big Band gig!
Their music is admittedly a little hard to handle. It’s ugly, superficially similar, and unrelenting in its intensity. But it’s strong, honest music, in the same way that the chasm between The Gang Of Four and Pere Ubu is strong. Ugly but honest, therefore communicative. While they profess not to be great musicians, what they do at least they do within their musical abilities, making them seem (and they probably are) as adept as any band working the boards. When they’re at their best, they attain that practised density of sound so favoured by the renewed Damned incarnation, and John’s low register vocal chords, oft wrongly criticised for their limitations, complement the darker tones of the music perfectly.
This is the music of the now. I hope they (and exported locals Shoes This High) shock Auckland’s trivial pop bullshit soul revival and fake new wave out of its senseless senses.

Notes: The above story appeared in the September 1980 edition of Wellington music publication In Touch. It was painful to revisit this piece, not only because it’s a dreadful piece of writing, but because it takes me back to those awkward interviews in freezing Wellington rooms with groups who were more often more keen to score food or drugs or sex than talk to some over-serious, painfully shy journo jerk.
I re-publish the piece simply an an exercise in archeology: The Gordons are one of the five best groups to have emerged from NZ, and although I knew not a way to say it at the time, their distinctive hyper-driven atonal roar, reinforced by taut wee nuggets of paranoiac punk-pop, were quite unlike anything else on the face of the earth.
I’m of the opinion that the above was the first article published about the group: I would be happy to see any other journalistic coverage of the group from this early period.
At this point, they briefly added life to ‘the Terrace scene’ in Wellington, an arty, vaguely nihilistic, vaguely decadent post punk scene unlike any other in the country.
Later, they ended up reforming as Bailterspace, ultimately diluting their sound. There’s a LOT that needs saying about The Gordons, but first, I’ll add a few more pieces to provide context.
Note the irony of the group’s verdict that they hated American music; within a decade, as Bailterspace, they would be living in New York.

Christchurch band The Gordons, as the name implies, is not the average rock band.
As the members will point out, they are neither rock, punk, new wave nor average.
The Gordons formed nearly a year ago (March 16, 1980, to be exact) and have since been working successfully around the country, despite their lack of previous band-playing experience.
The Gordons – John Halvorsen (vocals, bass guitar and guitar), Alister Parker (vocals, bassi guitar and guitar) and Brent Mclachlan (drums) – are unusual for many reasons:
* They spend more than $50 a week on guitar strings – “We break a lot of strings.”
* They don’t eat very often – “We just can’t afford it, it’s usually a question of what do we want this week… guitar strings or food?”
* They were recently offered a residency in a South Island hotel for being “commercial rock’n’roll”, yet had their booking at Wellington’s Terminus Tavern cancelled after one performance for not being commercial rock’n’roll.
* Their music prompted a member of a recent audience to smash his expensive photographic equipment, yet they term their music as “pleasant, respectable”.
* Among the performances they have enjoyed doing the most were those at mental institutions, at prisons (Wi Tako most recently), street gigs, and an “under-age rage” – concert for teenagers – in Gore.
Their music is difficult to describe. There are no evident comparisons and an absence of convenient tags. The personnel seldom listen to music other than their own, so the originality is understandable.
Says Halvorsen: “When we formed we didn’t want to be a new wave or punk band. It just turned out we were sort of new wavish, which was fashionable at the time, which had nothing to do with why we were doing it.
“It’s not smooth or highly polished. It’s not what people are used to. It’s not like anything you hear on the radio. If there were lots of other groups around like The Gordons it could sound like commercial music, just because there was lots of other music around like it.”
Words like intense, and loud (very) come into play when describing the songs. It is a blitzkreig of noise with a message. The noise has a myriad of textures, purposefully distorted as it may be.
Halvorsen explains the benefits of a good sound system: “You can get above all the noise and start creating on top of it, rather than just playing the songs, playing the chords in the right place. Most bands do that anyway.”
Like many modern musicians, they do not rate musical perfection over the group’s sound and purpose.
“More than how good you are is your attitude on stage and that affects the music more than how good you are at playing”, says Halvorsen.
Not surprisingly, all their songs are original. Most, they say, were “written in our first week together and it was a time of incredible energy.”
Another peculiarity is that Parker and Halvorsen constantly switch between bass guitar and guitar in performance. Says Halvorsen: “We all write the songs together, but if Alister is on the guitar when it is written he could play it better than I could.”
In November they released a single titled ‘Future Shock’, backed by ‘Machine Song’ and ‘Adults And Children’. This was produced and distributed by the group. They even designed the cover.
Next on The Gordons’ calendar is the writing of some more material and recording another record, a sort of single-cum-LP with one of the tracks running a possible 20 minutes.
The Gordons are playing at The Last Resort for the rest of this week.

Notes: This piece originally appeared in Wellington daily newspaper The Evening Post, Feb 13, 1981.
Words still fail me in trying to describe what it was like to witness The Gordons in concert. When they first travelled to Wellington in 1980, they were stranded there for some weeks, and performed quite a few times around the city at venues I can’t remember. They were often hampered by poor sound quality.
When they came back early in 1981, they performed at The Last Resort, a cafe with performance space in Courtney Place, run by hippies, serving coffee and cake; cushions on the floor. The Gordons had managed to hire a Cerwin-Vega sound system, which at that time in NZ was unheard-of for an underground bunch of punks from Christchurch. They were simply incredible to witness. I’ve never heard anything since which combined the overdriven guitar textures with minimalistic post punk songs in quite the same way. It’s certainly true that in the course of one performance, an awful lot of guitar strings were broken. This meant that there were long delays between songs, that in retrospect, I think these breaks made for dramatic pauses. I think it was also this tour that they played at the Thistle Hall on upper Cuba St, and they were so loud that my ears played Gordons feedback for over a week: free repeat! I think that it was this gig that was closed down by the police, for no apparent reason.
In that very first article, they talked about recording an album with new songs, and it’s clear that early on they had no intention of making an album featuring the rest of the short, sharp shockers that were typified by the ‘Future Shock’ ep. I think it worth re-iterating for the record (so to speak) that ‘Future Shock’ (as stated in the article) was originally released totally independently.  The media, by and large, ignored them at the time. It was some years before groups like Sonic Youth started announcing how much they loved The Gordons, and their legend started to grow internationally.
I wish they had recorded an album of those early pieces. I don’t know if the Sausage studio recordings were ever completed. Most of the Sausage stuff sounded pretty spongey: the legendary ‘Four Stars’ album has some great moments, but it let down by the sound and engineering. A chap who ran the Thistle Hall for some years claimed that he had great desk recordings of the group, and was going to release a live album, but it never eventuated. Their one studio album with Alister Parker is more like a jam session, but it’s still pretty cool, just not a definitive statement.

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here


  1. I also heard the story that there were hours of excellent live material, more than enough for a record. Perhaps it all sounds like jams.

  2. Would love to hear some of those live/lost recordings. Paxed/Disco/Mr Slow/Head Injuries/Murphy’s Law etc. My ears are still ringing from some of those Wgton gigs. Also saw them (twice) at Sweetwaters
    I hadn’t realised I was at their last gig in Taita. Terrible (2nd) album, crap gig. Sounded like some awful metal sludge. Needed Alastair obviously. Otoh Bailterspace are good, but not as sensational/original as Gordons

  3. The gordons played last night. I caught Bailter Space many times a few decades ago and not once did they play a gordons song that i can recall. Last night Bailter Space played Machine Song.

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