Bill Direen. Photographer Unknown.
Die Bilder (Bill Direen and the Builders): Schwimmen in der See
7” EP 1982
I first encountered Bill Direen performing as the songwriter/singer/guitarist with Peter Stapleton and Steve Cogle as The Vacuum Blue Ladder at Christchurch’s unlicensed upstairs venue Mollet Street in early 1978. The Vacuum Blue Ladder were a formative yet impressive band built on the legacy of 60’s garage, US psychedelia and The Velvet Underground. This was music that had a special allure in the punk late 70’s. It shared a raw back-to-basics ethos and it was a fresh musical experience for most of us - whilst still managing to resonate strongly. It sounded mysterious because it was American and our culture and media still looked to Great Britain for artistic cues. Ironically in these post-punk times, this music was especially influential in New Zealand’s most Anglocentric city, Christchurch.
The Vacuum Blue Ladder built on these sounds and created their own special thing. Bill was a folky who had largely mastered singing, songwriting and playing the guitar before he went electric with The Vacuum Blue Ladder. The rhythm section of Peter Stapleton (Victor Dimisich Band, Pin Group, Scorched Earth Policy and The Terminals) on drums and Steve Cogle (Victor Dimisich Band and The Terminals) playing bass were musically well-schooled accomplished players. Bill had just a touch of the theatrical about him with the odd flounce of the head or poised paused uplift of the strumming right hand. But the real drama was in the songs themselves, which were literary, grand and moody.
The Vacuum Blue Ladder were not a punk rock band, but were swept along with and fed on the same nerdy enthusiasms and angry disillusionments. The Vacuum Blue Ladder added another elaborate dimension to the already musically complex Gladstone scene and found an attuned and accepting audience in return. As punk settled into its creative post-punk milieu, Bill found affinities in the experimental and self-reliant do-it-yourself attitude that suited his worldview for the rest of his career.
Bill spent a year in Wellington training to be a radio announcer, with the rest of the Vacuum Blue Ladder occasionally joining him for the odd gig, before his return to Christchurch in 1979. Bill has always been a controlling and contradictory figure in any band he has been part of. It was at this point that the exasperated and disgruntled Peter Stapleton and Steve Cogle left to form the short-lived but monumentally wonderful Victor Dimisich Band.
Bill formed a new band, with a thankfully shorter, simpler name. The Vacuum consisted of John “Segovia” Markie (Axel Grinders, Axemen, The Renderers, Shaft, Don McGlashan and The Seven Sisters) on guitar, the talented Alan Meek (The World) on keyboards and the now moonlighting Peter Stapleton on drums, who was soon replaced by Malcolm Grant (The World, The Bats). I first saw this line-up support Toy Love at the Brevet Club out by the airport. Alan Meek’s organ added layers of atmosphere and musicality to the sound.
Six Impossible Things: Malcolm Grant, Ivan Rodgers and Bill Direen in Wellington 1980.
Credit: Bill Direen Collection
For Bill, it was then back to Wellington where he mixed theatre work with playing - mucking around really - with some local characters. In 1980, Malcolm Grant once again joined up with Bill and these new mates, and recorded the 7” EP Six Impossible Things which was self-released. I spotted a tiny ad for it in Rip It Up and wrote away immediately. These 4 songs proved to be well enough recorded at Sausage Studios so as not to impede the listener's appreciation of the ably played songs.
I was also impressed by the fact that it was self-released. If they could sell a pressing without too much effort, then surely, I, with more of an idea about how record retail worked and where the shops were nationwide, could sell more. Perhaps enough to release records economically. It was the beginning of my thinking about starting a record label. There was so much new music going on and a motivated audience to go with it, that it felt like a pivotal moment, a realignment. All I could see and hear around me were these irresistible, exciting live sounds. The fear was that it would all pass by and be gone, becoming just a vague memory. This was music that needed to be recorded and released, made available. To exist in a recorded state as a document that was available to be listened to.
Bilders Poster. Wood Cut by Ronnie Van Hout
Soon enough Bill was back in Christchurch, and with Alan Meek and Malcolm Grant, recorded the Schwimmen in der See 4 song 7” EP. Schwimmen in der See is an integral part of Bill Direen’s oeuvre and sits at the heart of a substantial body of recorded work that stretches from Six Impossible Things right through to 1983’s Beatin Hearts album and beyond. These are songs that are both complex and unique in themselves, but are also a part of a cohesive timeless body of work.
Schwimmen in der See 7" Cover Artwork
The songs on this record are impeccable. Side One kicks off with 'Girl at Night', which vocally and instrumentally tells a story that has an anti-romantic, air heavy with loss and regret. It’s poignant with a sombre undertow and a sudden frenzy before an abrupt finish. ‘I Thought I Knew You’ begins lightly and has an ethereal quality. A guitar solos, soars and twitters. The song builds with plaintive vocals, and it then quickly fades and is gone.
‘Starry Night’ is first up on Side Two. It has an organ-dominated introduction that is highish in pitch, which all folds down into a 60’s feeling thing before frantic guitar gasps and screamed vocals bring it all to a sudden end. ‘Russian Rug’ is a fabulously long and complex piece with changes in tempo, mood, cut-up vocals, unusual instrumentation and found sounds. A constant is the lyric - “Lie down deep in a Russian rug”. At one point it appears to end, but there is a spacey guitar and organ interlude before we are plummeted back into the final despair of the ‘Russian Rug’ itself. This final part disjointly jumps from idea to idea, sound to sound, which many of Bill Direen’s songs do, with an increasing sense of unease. An unease generated by fragments of guitar and vocals and swirly organ. It’s a timeless 8 minutes of dark deep psychedelic folk rock brilliance.
Die Bilder - ‘Russian Rug’, Videomaker unknown
Bill could never stick with a band name for long, but they tended to drift around “The Builders” name (excepting the likes of the High Thirties Piano, Soloman’s Ball and Soluble Fish) with variations like Bilderine, Bilderbergers, Bilders and many more in this vein, and with this release “Die Bilder”. The name-changes often reflected changes in band personnel with the bands that Bill Direen effectively led, and that nearly always ended in various degrees of disaffection and/or mutiny. Despite this, all through the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, these bands were consistently impressive due to Bill's bright burning and unwavering musical vision supported by an able troop of musical acolytes.
Schwimmen In Der See 7" Back Cover
With this release (“eine flying nun platte” as it says on the back of the cover), I now had some involvement with two of the artists that had inspired me to start Flying Nun, The Gordons and Bill Direen, and I felt this added some prehistory backstory to the label’s origination. It came out at a time when Flying Nun still had less than 10 releases - but it was getting to be a proper little label rather than a one-band job with a distinctly broad roster of artists, as well as tangible results in the form of healthy sales, charting records (in the early 1980s this was considered to be meaningful) and most importantly, genuinely great music. This is one of those records.