GARY STEEL had the misfortune to grow up in Hamilton during the ’60s and ’70s. Both brutal and boring, the city left a lingering scar on his emotional psyche.
At least it seemed that way to me, an introverted, adolescent malcontent who would slope through high school with as much enthusiasm in the core curriculum as an inchworm on diazepam.
It didn’t help that the first day at Hamilton Boys’ High School, the deputy principal took me aside, stubbed his bony fingers into my chest and said, “So you’re Steel. I knew your brother. He was trouble. I’ll be watching you.” My brother, seven years older than me, had ended up tousling with a scissors-wielding principal over a haircut that was around a millimetre too long. That was his sole indiscretion, apart from not liking or playing rugby.
Hamilton Boys’ High School was, and is, a rugby school. Those who failed to participate were denigrated and ostracised. The head of the First XV would strut around the changing sheds proclaiming the weaklings “poofs” while touching up their balls. It was fucking miserable, and I would have vivid dreams about burning the place down well into adulthood.
I was hoping and wishing for an escape clause, and convinced that only the new counterculture and its underground rock music were going to build a brighter future. Ha!
Hamilton was okay as a boy. We lived on a classic quarter acre in a new residential development in Hillcrest, although it was actually at the bottom of the hill and its crest and today, it’s a rundown ghetto of rentals. In the 1960s, there were still unsealed roads and farms a few blocks away and even apple orchards for boys to raid and spooky old houses with even spookier old men ready to chase naughty trespassing boys away with a waving rifle.
When Dad started giving me the princely sum of 5 cents’ pocket money every week, at first I spent it all on hot chips. You could get a huge newspaper-clad bag of salty sensations, ride your bike to a clump of trees (near where they were doing unimaginable things with animals at Ruakura Research Centre), and scoff them down with a mate in your secret hiding spot.
But around the same time, I got smitten with the idea of buying records with my paltry allowance. I would churn through the sale racks making arbitrary choices, ending up with a load of clunkers and a few beauts, like Roy Orbison’s haunting ‘Where Is Tomorrow’, Tommy James & The Shondells’ sweetly psychedelic ‘Crimson & Clover’, and Larry’s Rebels brooding b-side ‘Stormy Winds’.
A solitary child with chronic hay-fever and few friends, I would spend hours playing with Mum and Dad’s portable gramophone, which played 16rpm, 33rpm, 45rpm, and 78rpm records, and with its tiny speaker, sound terrible on all of them. With a vigour resembling obsession, I worked my way through my parents’ sad collection of light classical, light opera, war tunes, show tunes and crooners, discovering that I could make them sound really weird if I turned the spindle myself, and especially cool if I spun the record backwards.
It was music, but it wasn’t my music, and the only one of their records that I really fell in love with was Spike Jones In Hi-fi (A Spooktacular In Screaming Sound), a 1959 album that satirised the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show with ghoulish versions of standards. I didn’t know how to explain it back then, but I loved the precision playing, the complicated and lightning-fast passages in Spike Jones songs, the odd sounds and the zany, sometimes outright surreal humour, and years later, I found the perfect rock and roll correlation in Frank Zappa.
I liked classical music too, and would studiously wend my way through my brother’s boxed sets of various long-dead composers’ works, but Spike Jones and his City Slickers had something they didn’t: it entertained, it took the piss, it was crazy shit. Years later, I read an interview where Jones talked about the time he’d attended a concert of Igor Stravinsky’s works, conducted by the composer himself, and been more taken by the sounds of Stravinsky’s squeaky shoes on podium than by the music itself, and that really grabbed me. Music could just be sound: organised or otherwise.
Then my sister started taking me to “happenings” at Hamilton Lake, Sunday afternoon concerts starring bands like Ticket and Human Instinct. The sun may have been shining but reggae wasn’t a thing then, in suburban Hamilton, and the sounds were heavy psychedelia. By then, my head had melted upon discovering my sister’s records: compilations of The Who and Jimi Hendrix, the first Doors album, Donovan and Janis Joplin.
I began accumulating hot and heavy psychedelic singles: Cream’s ‘White Room’, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile’. By 1970, my allowance had gone up to 15 cents a week, and I was able to go halves with my sister (who is five years my senior) on my first two LPs: Led Zeppelin II and III. I played them to death and beyond, captivated by their heaviosity and their dynamic punch.
Back at school, in 1971 BLERTA performed a lunchtime concert at Peachgrove Intermediate, which blew my tiny mind. This was incredible stuff, dirty longhairs from a dirty old bus, leading an assembly room of 12-year-olds hand-in-hand to ‘Dance Around The World’, giving our teachers the impression they were kiddie entertainers. But they were really there to subvert the system, blast our eardrums with freak rock like the incredible ‘Freedom St Marys’, Corben Simpson’s wailing just as impressive as Robert Plant’s. It tied in nicely with my unhealthy interest in ‘underground’ culture: the Whole Earth Catalogue I’d seen at my sister’s flat with its references to marijuana, and the sex education manual, The Little Red Schoolbook, which I somehow obtained but had confiscated in class.
My parents were humble, self-deprecating and somewhat sheltered working class Methodists with a naïve view of the world, and God-bothering was essential to their lives. I was made to go to church and would sit on the hard pews sighing with boredom as the old ladies sang those dreary hymns out of tune and the alluring smell of the Colonel’s magical mix of herbs and spices seeped in from the new Kentucky Fried Chicken takeaway across the road.
I knew it was time to act when I turned 12 and they started talking about confirmation. At the same time, the minister took me aside and told me that good Christians don’t let hair over their ears and that it was time to tidy mine up. The CSN&Y song ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ suddenly had new relevance. I never went to church again, but Mum and Dad never stopped asking, or lecturing. It was their world, and I had punctured it, but I didn’t believe in their God in the sky and that book with all its fairy tales.
Subconsciously though, I went looking for a substitute, finding some solace in the Essene Scrolls (which portrayed a strikingly different Jesus), Eastern spirituality, Herman Hesse, and any other philosophical strand that struck a chord. That chord was practically shredded with the discovery of Creem (“America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine”) which I read from cover to cover from 1972 on, fascinated that these writers were in some way creating, actively and imaginatively responding to the music and the culture, starting a conversation about this revolution in sound. And the weird thing was that, more often than not, they would rave about music that I didn’t really rate, or rage against music I loved, but I didn’t mind, because I could learn about how everyone has their own perspective, and how people have strong opinions on things that they love, and hate. And still have fun with ideas, and words.
Untied from my sister’s influence, I started discovering music that she couldn’t quite fathom, like the so-called progressive rock of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, King Crimson and Henry Cow, the Dada-esque convolutions of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa and his Mothers, the singer-songwriter fusions of Tim Buckley and Joni Mitchell, and the stoned freak-show of (From The Planet) Gong.
Keith Emerson was my first real rock hero, wrestling with multiple keyboards in his shiny armadillo suit and conjuring the most insane sounds out of mutilated Hammond organs and the brand new kid on the technology block, the Moog synthesiser. I couldn’t understand why none of my school friends (the few that I had) could get into these fantastic sounds.
My best buddy at high school (until I failed School Cert and was put back a year) was Ian Chapman who, like me, was saturated with music fandom. Except that he was all about the then-burgeoning glam movement. [These days, Chapman’s stage name is Dr Glam, while his day job is a senior lecturer in contemporary music at Otago University. He’s a David Bowie aficionado who lectures about the late legend around the world.] We wouldn’t have had the language to argue our respective cases (prog vs. glam), and I can imagine it was more a case of simply extolling the virtues of one’s obsession until the other one got bored hearing about it. Perhaps if I’d had the words, I would have said: If glam was early ‘70s youth going “fuck this, we want to wear shiny things, put on makeup and rage!” then progressive rock was a more considered and moral response, as if to say, “We’re going to explore the horror, articulated through far-out post-psych musical constructions that you need to listen to multiple times to get the gist of.”
For me, glam was the symptom of a new disease in rock – decadence – and I hated its lack of moral centre, its avoidance of any sense of meaning beyond getting it on and strutting your stuff. Living in Hamilton in the early ‘70s felt like a dead zone waiting for a dystopian future, and EL&P and King Crimson summed up my fear and rage perfectly in songs like ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’, the 19-minute ‘Tarkus’ sci-fi horror epic, and the fear-of-computers ‘Brain Salad Surgery.
It had to have meaning. In the early ‘70s, the counterculture was still relatively underground, and popular entertainment seldom acknowledged its incredible influence on a new generation who were suddenly aware of the ills of society, like a new branch of science called ecology that called to question the industrially polluting practices of big industry, the anti-war movement, the back-to-the-land movement, and the belief that the generation gap between us and our parents could not be breached; that they’d turned down the wrong path into lives of consumer-driven suburban hell and nuclear families. While folkies wrote protest songs about these issues, groups like EL&P harnessed the architecture of classical music and the technology of rock to create a massive spectacle with which to project a dystopian future.
But what no one seemed to see was the connection between bands like EL&P and King Crimson and the clammy low-budget brilliance of Doctor Who. TV in the early ‘70s was saturated with mindless entertainment, jugglers and puppeteers and acrobats and idiotic gags. There were only a few cracks through which the Daleks and Cyberman could creep, but both prog and sci-fi were indicative of a world soaked in fear: worried about the Cold War and rapid progress and unseen foes, a world that seemed to be teetering on the edge. And Doctor Who, through the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, had pioneered the spookiest electronic sounds this side of Emerson’s Moog extrapolations.
Hamilton was so starved of music that I would save up to attend just about any concert at the Founders Theatre. Highlights included a very young Shona Laing, Quincy Conserve, Corben Simpson (who, off his head on something, took to the stage before anyone arrived in an outstandingly strange performance), Ragnarok, Split Enz (I can still hear the catcalls of “poof!” and “wankers!”), Donovan and probably the best of all, former Monkee Mike Nesmith. Stewart McPherson had brought him to town to perform his brilliant meditative concept album The Prison, which he played to approximately 15 people. As we were scattered around in the seats we’d been allotted, Nesmith implored us all to come and sit in the front rows, and then performed one of the most intimate and beguiling sets I’ve ever witnessed.
Having been streamed into ‘D’ classes until I flunked School Cert, I suddenly found myself in ‘A’ classes the second time around. There were only two boys who wanted to take art, so Gary Smith (later of Wellington electronic group The Body Electric) and myself had to head off to Hamilton Girls’ High School for those lessons. My attempt at music theory was thwarted by its last-minute unavailability as a subject, so I had lots of library reading time. Finally recognising that I was good at only one thing – words – when I got UE accredited they encouraged me to apply for a job at the Hamilton Public Library. That would have been my fate, had I not been accepted into the journalism school in Wellington. Bye Hamilton, I won’t be back.
One of my last and abiding memories of Hamilton in the ‘70s is an image that seems to capture its very essence: the teenage son of the head of the local Assembly Of God ministry, it was reported, had stabbed himself repeatedly, then crawled along Victoria St, leaving a trail of blood, before expiring.* They were mean streets, the residents a bad mix of conservative farming stock, conservative Christians (at one time, Hamilton had more churches than just about anywhere else in NZ) and malevolent teens hanging around Garden Place on a Friday night because there was NOTHING ELSE TO DO. I had to laugh when, about 10 years after I left, I heard that the town’s slogan was ‘Where It Happens.’
Gary Steel has been inflicting his rancid opinions on the denizens of our fair isles for over 35 years, a rebel without a pause. “New Zealand’s most acerbic music writer”, according to another music writer, Steel (known at school as ‘Steet’, ‘Mama Fatlegs’ and ‘Babs’), has published his own rags IT and TOM, edited teen fanzine RTR Countdown and hi-fi Bible Tone (all noticeably defunct), and contributed his flabby prose to a vast tract of NZ publications, from the NZ Listener to the Star-Times to the Sunday Herald and Metro. He runs/ruins the Witchdoctor entertainment site, and contributes to AudioCulture and basically, anyone who’ll have him.
Notes: * The bit about the Assembly Of God boy dying in the street may be simply my fevered imagination, or there may be some grain of truth in it. I’m probably rather hard on poor Hamilton. If I lived there now I’d probably accept it with all its flaws and be better able to appreciate it.
A BIG THANKS TO THE PHANTOM BILLSTICKERS CAFE READER ( AND ITS GURU JIM WILSON AND EDITOR DAVID EGGLETON) WHICH COMMISSIONED AND PUBLISHED THIS PIECE IN THEIR AUTUMN 2017 EDITION. CAFE READER IS A QUARTERLY PUBLICATION PACKED FULL OF GREAT ANECDOTES, INTERESTING PERSPECTIVES, AND POETRY.