Forty years ago the Screaming Meemees were a genuine pop sensation in NZ. GARY STEEL marks the occasion with two stories from 1981.
Note: I wrote this piece for the short-lived New Zealand Rolling Stone. It was published in the October 1981 edition.
Auckland’s North Shore mop-tops, the Screaming Meemees, shocked chart-scanners last month by becoming the first local act to debut at the top of the national charts. Their long-coming single ‘See Me Go’ leap-frogged to Number One first week in; as rude an awakening for most as seeing those three Joy Division masterpieces nestling in the heights of the bland mediocrity we’ve come to take for granted as “our” charts.
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No one seems to know for sure why the chart-action occurred, and few are willing to hazard a guess. Local industry, though, is wearing a guarded smile and hoping like hell that this isn’t some freaky last bright gasp for NZ Pop.
The Meemees’ vocal lead, Tony Drumm, suggests “it shows people are becoming more indigenous as far as their music tastes go.” He’d like to see record buyers looking more to New Zealand rather than being “so incredibly influenced by what’s going on in other countries.” He also believes local bands should set the prevailing standard.
“Basically, people these days like to buy records from a band they’ve seen,” says Drumm. “Obviously, the band’s got a following so a lot of those people are going to buy the records.” The sales figures seem to back-up his argument: the strategic launching of Meemees’ ‘See Me Go’ in a limited edition of five hundred 12-inch EPs sold out within three days in Auckland where the band’s principal following lies. Although cumulatively it made Number One on the charts, regionally it made Number One in Auckland, Number Six in Christchurch and Eleven in Wellington.
Even more surprising, given the success of ‘See Me Go’, is the fact that the track had already appeared on last year’s Hauraki Homegrown album of Auckland talent. That same Hauraki Homegrown version of ‘See Me Go’ appeared on the seven-inch, while the 12-inch also contained a more recent version of the song.
Why, one wonders, would people want to buy the song a second time? “When that Hauraki thing came out,” says Drumm, “we were unknown. I don’t think people were that fanatical to go out and purchase that just for one track. Stuff that’s on that record isn’t compatible with us.”
Well, why did the Meemees do two versions? “We had hoped to do the definitive version of it. It was a good song, apart from the fact that it was written about two years ago. We just wanted to get it out of the way once and for all. Unfortunately, we didn’t put enough time into it. The second version – it’s a lot tighter but the first one was more spontaneous, the song was fresher…”
The Meemees have had their share of problems getting the record out – bad mixes, label mixups, bad pressings and the like. In short, they’re “bloody happy” it’s out of the way. And despite record company interest in releasing the single in Britain, the band themselves don’t think that, production-wise, it’s up to scratch: “I think we’re capable of better,” explains Drumm.
I’d have to agree. The record’s a cute pop primer; nice old-fashioned melodies and lyrics, very pleasant and quite affecting, yet a little undeveloped. Not having had the pleasure of seeing the band in action for several months, I’ve missed what Drumm describes as a somewhat different music than the single portrays – deeper songs and a potpourri of influences.
Like every group and its trained parakeet, the Meemees don’t want to be categorised. Drumm does admit though that their sphere is within pop: “Quite a broad category I suppose. But within that, we’re not sure what to call what we’re doing.”
The Meemees were part of the sticky Mod invasion from the North Shore which was supposed to have frightened inner city Auckland last year. The Regulators and the Killjoys were their mates. The Meemees, though, are the only band from that period to last, and Drumm says the North Shore Mod image was a load of rotten bollocks: “Things got blown out of all proportion.”
As they’re on Propeller-man Simon Grigg’s books, it’s not surprising to learn that the Meemees cite fellow-Propeller-ites Blam Blam Blam as mentors of a sort. “We really respect them. We’ve learnt a lot from them. Arranging songs and writing songs,” says Drumm.
But, unlike the Blams, the Meemees are a long way from being overtly, or even suggestively, political. A little defensive on this subject, Drumm explains that “we’re not trying to replace reality. I just don’t feel qualified to write political lyrics. Admittedly a lot of the earlier stuff we used to do might appear quite frivolous and silly but at that stage those were the only things we could write. When we started we couldn’t play our instruments, that sort of thing. We’ve grown up with the ‘60s melodies and they were the easiest things to write.
“As we’ve gone on and learnt from the Blams and other people we’ve clarified a lot of ideas for ourselves. And now we’re writing better songs. Just because we don’t take political standpoints doesn’t mean our songs haven’t got any relevance.”
So there we have it – a still teenage group who’ve proved it can be done from NZ. And, as Drumm concludes even if they never make the grade again, he’s sure now that other NZ acts can and will. Message to all radio stations: 20 percent NZ quotas all-round please!
Meanwhile, the continuing saga will see the new Meemees single out next month, and an album released in the New Year.
And here’s a second piece from In Touch magazine.
IT caught up with bright-eyed pop palliative for depressed days, The Screaming MeeMees, at Avalon’s expansive TV studio where they were doing a clip of their latest single.
After an exasperating day of take-after-take-after-take of miming to the two chosen tunes under bright lights and in generally humiliating circumstances, the MeeMees flopped on the floor of the adjoining room to face some questions.
Luckily they’ve a sleeper train awaiting their patronage back to the Queen city tonight – last night on the journey to Wellington they made do with the seated version.
The MeeMees are young! Out of a straight-laced Catholic school last year, they were quick to win hearts in Auckland’s gig-going population.
They speak incredulously of MeeMee badge and t-shirt toting fans – there is no official MeeMees fan club merchandise.
The band don’t mention, either, the “MeeMee girls” I saw wandering around the Sweetwaters site back in January. Yes folks, though close inspection reveals the usual teenage complex complexion problems, this band seem in an obvious ongoing teen-appeal situation.
But their music is where IT comes in, and the MeeMees’ music has obvious merit: good songs with memorable melodies, and onstage instant high-likeability.
So far the band have appeared on both the Hauraki Homegrown and Class Of 81 albums (demos of ‘See Me Go’ and ‘All Dressed Up’ respectively), on a one-off indie single ‘Can’t Take It’, and now their first single-proper through Propeller, a 12-inch of ‘See Me Go’, an almost bona fide minor pop classic.
They stress they’re “more into funky stuff than anything. Disco seems to be a dirty word, but what we’re about is dance music, and disco’s got a really good beat, like reggae and ska.”
Funk to the MeeMees collective means anything from The Brothers Johnson to Talking Heads to David Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’ period. They say this side of the band will emerge more on future recordings.
Despite North Shore origins, they insist they don’t stand for labels, least of all Mod.
“Ideally music should transcend all barriers like that. You don’t have to be a Mod or you don’t have to be that to listen to us…
“People are kind of set in their ways,” they say. “It happens all the time. You hear a song on the radio and you think ‘God that’s a good song’ and you hear it’s by someone like Pink Floyd and you think ‘Fuck, I hate Pink Floyd!’ But you’ve admitted to yourself that you quite like that song. Not that I like any Pink Floyd songs!”
The MeeMees call Wellington a “very so-so place”. The last time they played here hardcore Shoes This High fans gave them a hard time, and they have a dislike of Wellington as a result.
“They can’t see the relevance in music for entertainment’s sake”, say the band of their detractors. “Anything that entertains is just as important as social comment. Escapism… we need escapism. Reality is pretty horrible. There are lots of songs that remind you how horrible life is. It’s good to let people forget about those terrible things.”
The Screaming MeeMees are Michael O’Neill (guitar), Yoh (drums), Peter van der Fluit (bass, keyboards), and Tony Drumm (vocals).
- If you want the full story on the Screaming Meemees check out Alan Perrott’s story at here Audioculture.