Smelly Feet – The great Kiwi outsider finally gets an album

November 17, 2022
5 mins read
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In 1981 “Smelly Feet” travelled the length and breadth of Aotearoa performing his confronting tunes to perplexed audiences and hawking his home-made singles. GARY STEEL was there.

 

I remember the first time I came across “Smelly Feet” on a typically blustery, cold day in Wellington’s Manners Mall in 1981. He was busking to no one, really. When I turned up, he finished a song and demanded that I buy his first single, ‘OHMS’ b/w ’A Festured Toe’. I was a bit perplexed at having to pay for a record. At the time, I was receiving piles of free albums each week for my gig as rock critic for local newspaper The Evening Post, and ran my own music magazine, In Touch, on the side. I baulked at the homemade look of the cover: just folded white paper with a few squiggles on the front. The whole thing looked like it had been knocked up in no time at all.

 

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But I dutifully forked over the cash. After all, this “Smelly Feet” was already something of a legend in my eyes. Just a year before he’d been fronting the incredible post-punk group Shoes This High, a band that I’d seen as often as I could when they were resident in Wellington and performed storming sets at the likes of Billy The Club as well as a few privately promoted gigs in odd venues. Shoes This High were nihilistic art punks with a talented guitarist in Kevin Hawkins and a killer rhythm section in Jessica Walker (bass) and Chris Plummer (drums). Brent Hayward ranted and raged and was such a commanding presence onstage (and off) that I found him quite scary.

I wasn’t surprised that they couldn’t get gigs in pubs. The gigs I did catch never sold out and the audience – comprising local punks and bootboys – seemed to spend a lot of time pretending that they didn’t want to be there. It just wasn’t cool to show enthusiasm back then. I’d done all I could to convince people that Shoes This High were special, and even convinced my bosses at The Evening Post that they were worthy of an article. That’s when I got to meet the band and my friend, the great photographer Peter Avery, took some excellent pics of them at the newspaper offices.

Shoes This High had produced one EP in Auckland and up, but until I came across “Smelly Feet” (aka Brent Hayward) on his one-man busking tour I had no idea he’d transformed into this other thing. I took the record home and played it, and it felt like it unwound my psyche. It wasn’t like anything I’d heard before.

Brent was an “outsider artist” before anyone had heard of the term. He’d translated his punk attitude into a one-man acoustic show, and it was all wrong, but it was also just so right. In 2022 there are precedents for this. In 1981 it was hard to get your head around it. “Folk” music was by that time a tame creature, a bunch of boring singalongs with hippy connotations that went nicely with Greenpeace and protest marches. Smelly Feet ran counter to all that, and yet this one-man troubadour act was authentically folk, just with a punk sensibility. To say his guitar skills were rudimentary would probably be an understatement, but somehow the three songs on that first EP worked. He’d managed to construct rough as guts (and slightly out of tune) repeating riffs to accompany his words. He was no lyrical genius either, but in the songs on that first record and the two others that followed over the next year, somehow he painted a real picture of “Godzone” at that moment in time.

Years later, when Hayward was flogging his rockabilly Fats White persona I attempted to interview him for Metro magazine and wound up with an unusable hour of unfathomable answers. In the resultant story (sans quotes), I referred to him as something akin to a punk rock Fred Dagg with a bit of Satan in him, and I still think that description is dead right. Within a year of Smelly Feet, Hayward had moved onto a more easily palatable form of alternative folk with The Kiwi Animal, a duo with Julie Cooper, and later, there were other personas like The Reverend Stinkfinger. He would also go on to some controversy with his explicit and extreme experimental films and performance art projects. And more recently, he would reveal himself as an excellent visual artist.

Whichever persona Hayward has taken on, the sometimes shockingly raw Kiwi personality is at the fore. Hayward can be hilariously funny or really challenging, maybe even dangerous. He’s not the kind of artist that would easily get Creative New Zealand grants and the biography he deserves may never get written. But he’s one-of-a-kind and the contents of those first three Smelly Feet singles stand up well after all these years. Those singles are compiled for the first time on a new LP compilation, Smelly Neu Pollution (Minimum Table Stacks) along with six extra songs that sound like super-rough demos. I guess you’ll find them on Bandcamp as well.

Brent (top left) in Shoes This High. Pic: Peter Avery.

New Zealand had a really dark edge to it in 1981 that was best epitomised by the Springbok tour protests and the way families turned against each other, and the cops overreacted. For those living on the fringes – including punks like Hayward spending lots of time out on the streets in the concrete canyons of NZ’s main cities – Rob Muldoon’s paradise resembled a police state, and there was an oppressive atmosphere because of it. You can almost smell that oppression on these nine Smelly Feet songs, many of them full of short descriptive or observational phrases about life on the mean streets.

Brent in The Kiwi Animal. Pic: Charles Jameson

It’s easy to imagine the song ‘Comparisons’ being turned into a raging post-punk Shoes This High piece. Every now and then, he could almost be an acoustic Mark Smith (The Fall). Every single one of these nine songs is brilliant, but the crowning achievements of Smelly Feet are ‘A Song For The World’ and ‘You’re A Person’. These are both ballads of a sort, both of them featuring memorable, sing-alongable choruses. ‘A Song For The World’ accuses the police of showing more interest in drugs than cold-blooded murderers, a situation that 41 years later has scarcely changed! You’re a person features the desolate line: “The whole world’s been covered in concrete/And it’s too cold to sit.” It’s a cute song with a real sting in its tail and one that always makes me feel happy and melancholy at the same time.

Brent as Fats White

Like so many reissues of lost NZ classics, these tracks are taken off someone’s 7-inch vinyl, as it appears the masters are long lost. (What the heck happened to all those Mascot studio tapes, anyway?) But Smelly Feet was never exactly an audiophile proposition to begin with. I’m just happy to have an actual Smelly Feet album where I can crank up a beaut ballad like ‘North Of Anywhere’, where he sings tenderly: “Picked my nose/First time today.”

Long may you run, Smelly.

* Vinyl stocks are limited, but you can purchase the digital album from Bandcamp.

PS, I forgot to mention that the LP comes with an insert featuring short essays/reminiscences on Smelly Feet by filmmaker Stu Page and Dead C guy Bruce Russell respectively. I didn’t read them until I’d finished my review, lest their perspectives somehow hamper me in the writing of my own, but I pretty much concur with what they say.

 

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

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