Women have been shabbily treated by the music business. A music business like most businesses owned and run by men. Yes, women have appeared on stage performing: as backing singers, occasional keyboard players and sometimes, "if pretty enough", as the lead singer. The reaction to all of this when things started to get a bit more enlightened in the 1980s was the loose development of “women’s music” as represented by the formation of all women groups. In an environment of prolonged macho dumbness in the New Zealand music world this was a welcome development and a necessary attempt to redress the ingrained gender imbalances as well as the larger societal issues that helped create them. Some excellent music came out of this “movement” but it has always remained clear that this was about making music as a means to expound on women’s issues and propagate women’s perspectives. The music was the vehicle and secondary to the destination which was the message.
When Look Blue Go Purple formed in February 1983 they were also consciously an all-woman band. “We deliberately set out to be an all-woman band, it was deliberate but not from any radical feministic standpoint. It’s still feminist though, in that we all wanted to play with other women” said bassist Kathy Bull (AKA Francisca Griffin). With that decision came the desire to not play loudly, like their friends in the local Dunedin all men groups generally did. They had all played in mixed groups. They wanted to hear each other play.
The mixed group thing was an important part of the post punk experience in New Zealand as it was internationally. All the late 70s and early 80s music scenes in New Zealand had plenty of groups that men and women played together in. Mixed flatting might have come late to Dunedin but mixed bands was as natural as anywhere.
Look Blue Go Purple were inspired by the promise of punk and more directly by the musical adventure that was The Clean and the other local Dunedin bands that were their friends and mentors. Already they had a clear sense of what they wanted. They were a band of musicians first and foremost and they wanted to play to their strengths which revolved around multiple singers harmonizing, keyboard (Norma O'Malley) and guitar (Kath Webster and Denise Roughan) interaction and some ethereal flute (Norma) all held together by intriguing and distinctive rhythms (Kathy Bull [AKA Francisca Griffin] on bass and Lesley Paris on drums). With what came out of their individual selves and the way they interacted with each other they had found their own very special sound. Complex, not rushed, understated. Their own, not reverby but still incorporating the drones of their town. It is a unique and special sound that is a bit rock but more of an alternative kind of folk pop.
After two years of practicing and playing around Dunedin (mainly venues like The Empire and The Oriental as well as parties and art galleries) the band were ready to record. There was a failed attempt to record in Dunedin using Radio One equipment before the band headed to Auckland. The four songs recorded in March 1985 at Lab Studios with on and off Chill Terry Moore became their debut EP Bewitched. The songs: “Circumspect Penelope”, “Safety in Crosswords”, “Vain Hopes” and “As Does the Sun” were like a blast of fresh air when first heard on release in August 1985. The songs had evolved from the early punky efforts to more complicated sounds. Witty, intelligent and knowing lyrics, fine unison vocals and harmonies, excellent keyboard and guitar interplay all driven nicely by the distinctive and confident rhythm section. The sophisticated sound is an ever shifting blend of gentle musical layers that flow and drift across each other in the most satisfying of ways. Tasteful, full of character and always assured.
Obviously, the lyrics are written from a women’s point of view and this is one of the bands strengths, women's concerns and perspectives including the everyday nitty gritty interactions between men and women. They quietly go about their business of exposing the small inequalities that exist and that prefigure greater systemic issues. The songs are often about relationships, the observations are subtle and there is plenty of humour.
The band put together a memorable record cover based on a fabric pattern as found on a dress worn by band singer and guitarist Kath Webster. It’s a swirly but restrained 1960s pattern. An example of that era before things became addled and then scrambled. The shades of purple are remarkable, it is a beautiful thing and it made for a stunning record cover.
A music video was made for “Circumspect Penelope” by Pat O’Neill. Otago Peninsula is caught in perfect light as the band travel out of Dunedin in a Borgward Isabella (an elegantly designed post war German car). There is a wander down a windy path through a vegeative idyll of native bush. The sun is low so the night is near. Now we have live footage of the Masked Ball at the Oriental Tavern. The band look regally luxuriant in their outlandish masked costumes. The dancing audience are into the spirit of the event but show less poise while recklessly navigating the dancefloor. Roy Colbert makes an appearance as a visitor from the planet of the apes. The video adds to the public perception of Dunedin and its sound, there is sunlight and plenty of jollality as well as excellent music being made by women as well as men.
As the collective Dunedin scene started to strain in the mid 1980s with the bigger more ambitious bands moving away and those remaining tending towards the more musically marginal, Look Blue Go Purple added a different kind of musicality and complexity to the mix of what Dunedin had to offer. Different kinds of songs played in a different way with an inevitably different viewpoint. Look Blue Go Purple became the much loved glue that kept the whole Dunedin scene special, together and developing for those extra couple of years when it could have so easily sunk back to being ordinary.