GARY STEEL had great expectations of NZ new wave band Flight X7 in this 1980 feature on the band. History had other plans…
If I said that Flight X7 is my best bet for “local group makes big” sweepstakes this year or next, you may smirk, say “who?” and skip the page. But you’re still reading, aincha? That’s because you’re (1) Not narrow-minded, (2) not one of the thousands who only venture from the safety of their TV sets for overseas Town Hall sound travesties or (3) someone who has seen the band in action.
It’s hard to understand why they’ve taken so long to get where they are, which isn’t far. Flight X7 are two-years-old. “It’s taken a long time to cultivate any type of following or interest, says guitarist Paul Jamieson, with whom we spoke to in the narrow confines of an upstairs “chat room” in an inner-city motel. “We’ve always been overshadowed by other bands.”
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Paul puts the initial resistance down to the band “trying to create a space illusion bit, but doing it in a way that wasn’t commercially acceptable.” At this juncture in time, 1977, the year of p$$k, the band went under the Flight 77 moniker, and consisted of Jeff Clarkson (vocals) and “three other people.” Warwick Keay (bass) joined soon after and in July ’79 Paul joined. The name of the band by then had changed to the present Flight X7.
In October last year came more upheavals, signalling a new direction for the band. Mark Stanton (keyboards, “very much the technician”) and Tim Powles (“a very solid drummer”, and descendant of His Lord And Lady…) joined the corporate.
Paul was in an Auckland punk band called Panic before joining X7, Mark came from Sphinx (“they broke up as a result of his leaving”), and Tim Powles emigrated from Wellington ex-hopefuls Medusa, who also disintegrated.
Jeff is the main man. He’s the focal image, lead singer and predominant writer. “There’s a few of Warwick’s numbers, a couple of mine, but the direction of the band is influenced mainly by Jeff’s writing.
The unchallenged highlight of any X7 set is an oldie, ‘Radio Love’, “a good indication of the things Jeff’s writing. It’s an amazing song, a very big song. In other bands he was writing that type of thing, very Genesis, type of classical, beautiful music, but now he’s writing three-minute pop songs with a steady beat and nice melody and a chorus. He sets himself the targets and if he doesn’t write himself a song a week… well, he feels he’s wasted or something!”
A Flight X7 set is all originals, bar two, soon to be dropped from the repertoire. This is a good sign, providing they can get the gigs, and in their case a sensible move. “There’s really not much point in doing covers anymore.” Fair enough. If your own material’s strong enough, why bother?
As of writing this, X7 were due to sign with Polygram and cut a single, ‘Waiting For The Red Light’. “To me, it’s a very accessible song, a very easy song to listen to, very catchy. It’s as good as anything that’s being played on the radio at the moment. I can’t see it from an objective point of view, but I feel it’s quite strong.”
It’s actually a twee song, and the band would do much better to release something with a little more heart and guts. ‘World’s Apart’, perhaps? Radio could be a problem for X7. Their music is addictive and powerful but seems to lack in any sort of charming melodies. I feel that they’re likely to lose out in this area, particularly with today’s diabolical radio programming.
The majority of songs would benefit from a gutsy, throbbing, bass-heavy mix. This on an NZ album? “For an album, we’ve got certain songs which are more topical, deeper, maybe more instrumental. Powerful songs musically rather than catchy.”
And what of influences? “We’re very much setting our own direction. We’re not trying to copy. As soon as we pick up our instruments it all happens. None of us is from the same influences. The end result is that Flight X7’s music is not influenced by anything. Just the people in it.” Ask a silly question!
The whole X7 operation is geared towards the big business angle which made Mi-sex, a band it’s impossible not to compare them with. An example of this is that they’re one of the few bands in their position to employ two full-time sound and lighting men is the sixth and highest quality sound system in the country for touring.
They’re certainly set their sights high: “I feel that one day the band is going to be quite commercially successful. I don’t think it will be excessively on the New Zealand market. We’re trying to get a deal whereby the record is released simultaneously here and in Australia.” But, says Paul, Oz need not necessarily be the next port of call. Britain or America are as likely. In the meantime, back to Auckland!
They nearly dug their grave early on when they played a foolish prank on August Auckland rock paper RIU: “We were in RIU’s bad books for a long time, because the band played a prank when they were Flight 77. RIU had a favourite band poll, and the band filled out something like 5000. RIU got wind of it. I mean it was a silly thing to do, very silly.” But it seems, all is now forgiven. Paul says they now do from nine to 11 gigs a week in Auckland. That’s a lotta hard work.
“There are so many bands in Auckland that the competition is enormous. If you’re not gigging regularly… frustration causes people to look inwards and bands just fall to bits really quickly.”
What about Wellington? Paul blames the Capital’s static music scene on the lack of venues and observes: “The Last Resort is running at a handicap in that it’s not licensed.”
But “Auckland is just booming at the moment – there are lots of new places opening.”
Are Auckland bands that much better than their Wellington counterparts? “Auckland bands seem to be more uptempo, more aggressive. There’s an element of urgency, and intensity, about them, whereas Wellington bands seem to be more MOR.
“Rough Justice was an obvious example of a Wellington band who were very good musically and I personally liked them very much, but there was no mass appeal. It was very cultured. Wellington’s a cultural city.
“Auckland changed incredibly through the new wave movement. Auckland musical values just sort of flipped over. Things just changed. I remember going to see Rough Justice at the Gluepot three or four years ago playing to a full house. The last time I saw them just before they broke up there would have been a hundred people there because a band like Sheerlux was playing somewhere else.”
‘Flight X7 fuck robots!’ claims a piece of graffiti in a local loo. Perhaps this is the key to the X7 muse! They’re written some incredibly powerful music to go with the tritest, falsely socially conscious (as in fashionable) lyrics and general subject matter. Their three-minute singles material is not a little contrived also. I do not wish to imply that this is a barrier to commercial success. Mi-sex (again), an even more contrived band, made it on the same premise.
It’s plain from the start that these boys are no new age mutant mongoloids, Devo-clones or ra-ra-robots. They’re much too human. As soon as Jeff starts trusting his emotions in lyrics, these songs, many musically powerful, will become outright winners.
But I’m very confused. How can anybody become new wave on a whim? Surely you’ve either got certain attitudes or you haven’t. And whether you’re new wave or not must surely depend in which respects you tend towards certain sorts of attitudes. It’s a matter of degrees of peerage, social and political awareness, etc. You can’t make the step as a calculated move, a stance.
Enough sermonising. That’s a problem when you like a band: in the cause of objectivity, you may give them a bad review. And likewise, it works the other way.
The facts are that Flight X7 have a solid core of faithful fans. That at the end of a good night they will get an encore or even two. And that audience feeling is one of ‘experience’ rather than the usual ‘cruise down to the Last Resort and socialise/pose attitude.
Tim drums with studied concentration, hitting the beat fast, fair and square, and powerfully. Half-forgotten classical tuition no doubt comes into its own here. Paul is the odd man out. His amiable, smiling demeanour and orthodox, economical rock guitar doesn’t really fit. But I find it quite complementary nevertheless. Jeff is a typical new wave singer: dressed in black he’s a small live-wire, athletic and sometimes menacing on stage but friendly and intelligent off. He’s got charisma and a good singing voice. But Mark’s the one to watch! As Paul says, “he makes amazing sounds. He has this way of bringing sounds out of the machine.”
He does, and I don’t know how. Trade secret, s’pose. He plays unobtrusive but necessary keyboards much of the time, but this is not for lack of inspiration. He knows the beauty in leaving space in music. It’s the embellishments that shock and delight. Lovely, loud synthetic chiming sounds, and like some demonical Keith Emerson taking his keyboards into the realms of sub-sonics. It’s like an earthquake vibrating through our mortal frames – amazing.
Warwick Keay on bass is complementary, playing plenty of well-defined frills, as well as the usual chunky rhythm stuff.
If they can stride present management problems and overcome the obvious and to many-a-band unsurmountable problems of rock life in NZ, they’re obviously halfway there.
Author note: Jeez! Reading this again for the first time in 40 years I just wanted to tell the guy who wrote it to SHUT THE FUCK UP! That’s me. So, sorry for all the palaver. It goes without saying that if I got the chance again I’d write this story in an entirely different way. Sigh. I know that Flight X7 are kind of looked down on by connoisseurs of NZ music but they were a powerful live act when I experienced them several times in Wellington in 1980, and one of the few who actually put the effort into SOUNDING good. If anyone is capable of providing an update on what happened to the band and to its members, by all means, let me know. I’m aware that Jeff ended up making a career of new age music (I would occasionally bump into him at one of those crystal-gazing/natural health fairs through the late ‘80s and early ‘90s) but have no idea about the others, or what happened to put an end to the band’s plans. One of the YouTube clips notes that Paul Jamieson died in 2006 at the age of 48, which is sad to hear. UPDATE: I’m told that “Powles, Keay and Stanton went on to form The Knobz. Powles probably had the most successful career, joining The Church. Paul Turney, who was in the later lineup, has had an interesting career as a sound archivist in the UK.