Top Photo L-R - Stephen McIntyre, Lindsay Davis, Mark Rastrick
Ballon D’essai: Ballon D’essai 12”EP 1981
The name says it all. Ballon D’essai or a “balloon trial”, which is a fancy French way of saying “floating an idea”. This is exactly what happened back in 1980 in Christchurch with a young band. Ballon D’essai were a beginner band of arty schoolboys taking up the music thing to see how it would fly and to where.
Being a bunch of Christchurch Boys’ High School students interested in art meant they were outsiders in this most rugby focused of Christchurch secondary schools. Because they were still in their teens they seemed unbearably enthusiastic compared to the jaded 20 year old wrecks that could be found down at The Gladstone listening to the Pin Group but an important attribute of the Christchurch scene at this time was the diversity of its participants and the music they made, all sorts were welcome.
Christchurch punk rock scenester and singer of The Newtones, Tony Peake, was an enabler who ran the record department at the University Bookshop out on the Ilam campus. The University Bookshop record department was very important for several reasons. Tony was very well informed about music in general and specifically about reggae (which was still actually a force in music but one which would soon fade), punk and post-punk. At a time when import records were very scarce because of import licensing controls, the University Bookshop was a key record shopping destination. And as it was a record shop it was a venue for an awful lot of talk about music. Tony befriended and encouraged these school uniformed young men from nearby Christchurch Boys High School to act on their musical interests and form a band. Their early efforts soon pulled together as Ballon D’essai. Through Tony Peake they started to make contacts amongst the musical likeminded around town.
Tony had his own band on the go and had already self-released a single. The Newtones (with ex-Vauxhall Mark Brooks and drummer Graeme van der Colk) were an integral part of the Gladstone scene and a big part of their appeal was their soundman Fred Kramer manipulating the guitar sound from the desk. When Ballon D’essai started supporting The Newtones they had the good fortune of also getting experienced soundman Fred Kramer who was soon doing their sound wherever they played.
These young men were precocious but never callow and their open friendliness and curiosity saw them befriended by the loudest of them all, the Gordons. As well as hanging out with Tony they would visit the Gordons flat and talk about musical things from a different perspective. Ballon D’essai became the Gordons favourite support band when they played around Christchurch and as a consequence became familiar with playing to the bad vibe boot boy dominated audiences that the band attracted and could not shake. Sometimes the Gordons supported Ballon D’essai.
Poster by Mark Rastrick
Ballon D’essai’s youthful friendliness also saw them bond with Auckland’s Screaming Meemees, a new wave pop band with an historic number one single in ‘See Me Go’ and at that time the most talked about band in the land. Ballon D’essai twice got to play support for the Meemees when they came to visit Christchurch. The Meemees also had a troublesome following that they could not shake. They were loathed by the Christchurch boot boys, perhaps because they had had a hit, were a pop band, were from Auckland or had a guitarist that wore a red bandana around his lower left leg. The atmosphere for the Meemees second The Gladstone visit was grim by mid-afternoon and by the time Ballon D’essai came on the menace was palpable. I wonder how the Meemees ever managed to get on to the stage let alone off it. Ballon D’essai and the Meemees holed up backstage and somehow dodged it all as the massed boot boys took on the police outside The Gladstone using empty glass jugs as weapons. There was a no-wearing of boots policy at the venue after that.
Being young and often in their school uniforms did not stop Ballon D’essai from being full participants in The Gladstone scene; they added considerably to the diversity of what was bubbling away. Mark Rastrick was an extremely energetic frontman. The band featured two bass players in Matthew Campbell and Stephen McIntyre, a splintery post-punk guitarist in Lindsay Davis and the rock to which everything clung, Scott Wilkinson on drums. The art school aesthetic and conceptual thinking saw the band often playing live with props or trying out other antics to make it all more interesting and a bit of an experience. Perhaps it all helped to mask the fact they were still learning to play their instruments although Mark really was distraction enough.
The band went to record an EP at NightShift Studios in 1981 and Fred Kramer was there to help out while Arnie Van Bussell pushed and twirled the knobs. The outcome was four songs: ‘Testimony to Paradise Street’, ‘War Effort’ and ‘Sanitarium Peanut Butter’ which is not actually named on the record sleeve. Instead, the title was replaced with an illustration of a jar with some partial lettering on it. I guess the fear of litigation was high. These songs are very well recorded compared with some of the murky recordings coming out of NightShift around this time. The sound is simple, trim and clear. The songs are a bit complicated in a post-punk way but here there is space for them to remain uncluttered as they unwind. There is a spikey post-punk feel, the guitar can be tastefully discordant in places and some effects drift in and about. The vocals are restrained which adds to the pleasing brooding atmosphere of the record although there does seem to be just a touch of apocalyptical fear running through a couple of the songs which was typical of the young of this era.
Back record cover - Mark Rastrick and Matt Campbell, printed by Leslie Maclean (Black Spot)
Song four also lacks a song title and another illustration on the back cover has to do, this time of a cartoon figure. The track itself is a minute and a half of what the band have elsewhere called ‘Instrumental Dirge’. It is a musical doodle thought up quickly as they ran out of time in the studio to help fill out what was planned to be a full four-song 12” EP. It represents the sort of noisy unstructured end of alternative music that Mark Rastrick in particular would later gravitate towards
Record cover - Matt Campbell and Stuart Page, printed by Leslie Maclean (Black Spot)
I was determined to keep the Flying Nun catalogue number sequence on track. This EP should have been FN003 after the Pin Group ‘Ambivalence’ kicked off with FN001 and The Clean ‘Tally Ho!’ with FN002 (or was that Ying1?). Of course, Ballon D’essai insisted on FN007 because the number alluded to the to the James Bond phenomenon that only youngsters of the time would still have been interested in. I crumbled and gave in and my first attempt at early catalogue number regimentation fell by the wayside. Worse, it opened the gates wide open for catalogue number mayhem. To ram the victory home the band made sure that the “FN007” figured prominently on the front cover itself. The discarded FN003 did successfully go to the next in line, The Clean Boodle Boodle Boodle EP but there was nothing but catalogue trouble after that.
The band said they would look after printing the cover and could they insert a comic? Being into art and design they were also into comics and had produced one already. The second one was included with the record. The band had enlisted the help of Ilam Art School graduate and photographer Stuart Page who had a set up in the Students Union Building at the University of Canterbury. He helped print the spectacular cover design by Mark Rastrick and Matthew Campbell of a fighter jet flying over an urban setting in glorious purple and silver, with FN007 on the tail. Stuart would also make covers and posters for other bands including his own, the Axemen, as well as the Builders and Children’s Hour. Stuart was a talented photographer who was soon working in film and video and who would make many music videos for Flying Nun recording artists such as Snapper, Skeptics, The Clean, Superette, Headless Chickens and David Kilgour among others.
Poster by Mark Rastrick
Over the years considerable confusion has grown over the record's title. Typical of a Flying Nun release of the time the uncertainty stems from the actual labels on the record itself. As well as featuring no song titles or playing speeds, the side one label is largely blank and side two has a random “This is a Level Crossing” printed on it. The absence of a title anywhere else on the record led some to assume this was the name of the record. Not so, it is a self-titled release.
The Ballon D’essai story is one that emphasises the social and collaborative nature of getting a band started and keeping it going in the early 1980s. There was more to the scene than just what was happening around the city centre where most record shops were situated, the key venues such as the Star and Garter and The Gladstone were found and Flying Nun was based. A lot of activity was centred on the University where Ballon D’essai facilitators Tony Peake and Stuart Page were based and where a good number of important music events took place at the students union building. The band understood that not much happened without a good dollop of networking with the likes of key personalities: Tony Peake, Fred Kramer and Stuart Page not to mention with other seemingly incongruous bands like the Gordons and the Screaming Meemees. These are all relationships all based on real friendship rather than calculating connections, and the Christchurch scene was all the better because of it.