“When they were all on the same planet and in the same key they were the most frightening damn band you ever saw. Ugly as sin and twice as mean, they had a reputation for hard drinking, fist fights and amateur arson…” - Bruce Russell, Scorched Earth Policy Foaming Out cassette liner notes, 1991.
To be fair, I think the “amateur arson” thing was just someone accidentally falling asleep in bed with a lit cigarette.
People always go on about that mythical thing called the ‘Dunedin Sound’ as if it was one unified aesthetic which of course isn’t true. I gravitate more to the idea of the broader “Southern psychedelic moment” Bruce Russell refers to in his liner notes of his monster Flying Nun compilation Time to Go - The Southern Psychedelic Moment: 1981 - 86. The murkier end of things.
If you look at the two common factors in most of my favourite New Zealand groups, it is Mary Heney and Peter Stapleton. They were the bracings of any group they were in, and both of them passed away in 2020.
The family tree includes The Pin Group, Scorched Earth Policy, The Victor Dimisich Band, and The Terminals. Heney (she did it all, really - drums, guitar, vocals and that magnificent organ) and Stapleton (lyricist and drummer) made singular and important contributions to Aotearoa’s subterranean musical underground. Here’s a roundup of some of my favourite Heney/Stapleton moments.
I’m Not Like Everybody Else - Scorched Earth Policy. Foaming Out cassette (X/WAY20 Xpressway Records, 1991)
For years I thought I had imagined I’d heard a ferocious and rough-hewn version of I’m Not Like Everybody Else (an intoxicatingly heady version more in line with the Chocolate Watchband’s rendition than the original by The Kinks) with Heney shouting, “I don’t want to take trips like everybody else!” And then I found it again on the Xpressway Foaming Out cassette. When the group was formed, it was Stapleton who suggested they recruit Heney from all-female Christchurch group 25 Cents to play organ. It reminds me of the crucial role Una Baines played in The Fall and Blue Orchids, who with her cheap Elgam Snoopy organ added a definitive and unique swirling psychedelia to both groups. With an aesthetic obliquely informed by the the dark and heavy but blackly funny Pere Ubu, and Captain Beefheart, the essential Nuggets and Pebbles compilations, The Sonics, The Remains, Velvet Underground, the 13th Floor Elevators - Scorched Earth Policy (and any group with Heney and Stapleton) was a group with exquisite music taste (Stapleton was known for his extensive collection of records). They also covered Insanely Jealous by The Soft Boys.
“His brain is like a slot machine.” This is like a demented and menacing pub-rock singalong. There was a perceived tough image perhaps also helped by the scene in Matthew Bannister’s book Positively George Street where he recalls how members of Scorched Earth Policy once showed up at someone’s flat just to tell David Pine “how much Sneaky Feelings and their wet music sucked.” For all their toughness though, there’s a strong sense of black humour, often seen in Stapleton’s lyrics and Heney’s droll delivery. “Their eyes are too close, their eyes are insane...”
From experience, it’s always a fun time DJing the Flying Nun re-issue of this record because the tracklisting on the label is wrong. Apparently The Victor Dimisich Band was initially recorded and mixed in under five hours for a total bill of less than one hundred and fifty bucks. Native Waiter is lush, darkly romantic with a sense of melodrama, and is fired along by Stapleton’s propulsive drums and Heney’s primitive organ.
It just occurred to me that while The Pin Group auspiciously gave Flying Nun its first catalogue number FN001 with 1981’s 7” Ambivalence, for some reason they never appeared on any of the celebratory Flying Nun compilations until the 2006 Flying Nun 25th Anniversary Box Set FN500 - which I didn’t even know existed until now. Here we have Heney, always telling it how it is. “And you know that it can’t last,” she cautions. See also Suzanne Said by The Shallows - multiple guitars working off each other, sublime dual vocals by Roy Montgomery and Heney with the vaguely optimistic suggestion that “the night might take your disease away,” and hopeful refrain, “tomorrow’s another day…”
In 2017 I interviewed Stephen Cogle of The Terminals/VDB for Australia’s Vice. Stapleton wrote the majority of the lyrics for that band and I asked Cogle about the backstory of the abstruse but joyous rush of a song Frozen Car. Cogle said:
“In those days Peter used to work as a wharfie on the wharf and they were working on refrigeration containers. And one day they opened one up and inside it was a frozen car! And that's how the song came about.”
And apparently Cockroaches (from the same album), with the brilliant dynamic vocal interplay between Heney and Cogle, was about hippies being like cockroaches. There’s that sense of the absurd and dark humour again...
Main Photo: Roy Montgomery, Ross Humphries, Mary Heney, Peter Stapleton, Peter Fryer (from top left, going clockwise) The Pin Group Go to Town EP lineup.