There’s a riot goin’ on: Riot III

January 16, 2024
4 mins read

Riot III’s explosive and controversial music gets a respectful reissue 43 years later. GARY STEEL, who was there at the time, digs in.

They were dark days. In 1981 there were huge protests against the Springbok tour of New Zealand. On one side were the rednecks (and government, and by dint of that fact, the police) who didn’t give a fuck about the entrenched racism of South Africa (apartheid). On the other were outraged New Zealanders of all stripes who wanted the tour stopped. There were the usual “troublemakers” (activists) but for the first time swathes of ordinary citizens came out of their homes to march the streets.

Even my parents, who usually scorned protest action, were in support of the protest action, and appalled when members of their church encountered police batons during their peaceful protest. The event divided families and divided the country.

Meanwhile, Wellington’s post-punk movement was going through a messy but productive last year of furtive activity. Like a firework with one last enormous explosion to finish, the underground scene pulled out the stops and put down some sounds on plastic, notably the contributors to the legendary **** album (Naked Spots Dance, Beat Rhythm Fashion, Life In The Fridge Exists, The Wallsockets) and Riot III with its incendiary debut single, ‘1981!’.


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The mood of the time was edgy, to say the least. Muldoon’s repressive National government ruled the roost and excessive taxation made the importation of musical gear almost impossible for aspiring musicians, and especially young punks on the dole. Wellington was a city on a faultline with stiff public servants trotting dutifully off to their civil duties each day, but also a city that attracted artists and bohemians and young people drifting north. Cuba St and its environs was scabby but a perfect contrast to the Beehive at the other end of town, while the Terrace and down the hill to Boulcott St still had large affordable flats that made great crash pads and rehearsal spaces for young bands. While the few pubs still offering live music (rather than disco) mostly spurned punk-oriented bands, unlicensed venues like Billy The Club and Thistle Hall became the go-to for the Wellington music underground.

Check out my interview on Radioactive talking about the bad old days in Wellington here and here.

Out of this angry foment came a force to be reckoned with named Riot III, whose single ‘1981!’ was a direct and provocative call to arms response to the Springbok tour and the lamentable attitude of the government and appalling actions of police at the time. The band’s vocalist and chief provocateur was a young chap who called himself Void, and he was a one-man publicity machine. Where most of the Wellington punks didn’t have a clue how to promote their endeavours, Void had a great instinct for a story that would be remembered.

TVNZ was in many ways still stuck in a 1970s headspace and it turned down the very rough and ready video clip of the very rough and ready single, ‘1981!’, with a hilarious letter of rejection signed by Head of Entertainment Tom Parkinson and quoted on the red “Obi” that’s a feature on the recently released deluxe reissue of the song, which also includes the b-side call to arms ‘Ake Ake Ake’ and six more tracks. To be fair, it must have been a shock to those TVNZ executives sitting out in the freezing cold Upper Hutt Avalon “towers” receiving an unsolicited video from a bunch of unknown punks. Back then, rock groups generally tried to cadge free videos by getting them made at the TVNZ studios in downtime.

The overall impact of ‘1981!’ was probably quite small but it seemed like a major event to me at the time, immersed as I was in the music of Wellington’s post-punk underground, and unimpressed with the kind of flaccid AOR rubbish that TVNZ, commercial radio and pubs in general seemed to think we should be listening to. Personally, I was more interested in the mysterious grooves of Naked Spots Dance and the Cure-influenced ruminations of Beat Rhythm Fashion than the rather “oi-oi” punk sounds of Riot III (and I was growing tired of the pervasive idiocy and sometimes violence of the bootboy contingent at various gigs around town). But I could see that they had something; enough to convince me to feature Void on the front cover of my music fanzine/arts and entertainment freebie TOM a year or so later.

Although I kept a copy of the 7-inch ‘1981!’ single all these years, I don’t think I’ve played it since 1981. It was thrilling, therefore, to discover how fresh it sounded on the marvelous limited edition 12-inch release on Leather Jacket Records.

While the original 1981 single is pretty basic, the reissue looks splendid, and was obviously a real labour of love by those involved. Stuart Page’s design and layout captures the spirit of the original track by properly reproducing the cover, with its controversial intermingling of Hitler/Nuremburg rallies, rugby and Muldoon. The red “obi”, a protective inner bag (why don’t more LPs have these?) and a 4-page illustrated booklet with pics and news coverage from the time all go to make this a really nicely put together package.

You can’t escape the fact that these are raw recordings made by a band that espoused the genuine punk trademarks of barely competent musicianship, but of course, that’s not what it’s all about. Careful mastering (and a nice clean slab of vinyl) means that ‘1981!’ and its follow-up, ‘Move To Riot’, sound better than ever and the music really conveys the unrestful times and the anger generated by a repressive social/political environment. The accompanying b-sides and the extra live material all go to paint a picture of one of NZ’s few dedicated political music groups. As Void says elsewhere, what’s the point of going to protests only to have to listen to some weak-ass folk singer? I don’t know if Riot III was ever used in a protest or sung in unison by a crowd, but wouldn’t have have been great?





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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