The Gordons in 1980 / Photo by Murray Cammick
The Gordons - The Gordons LP | 1981
In 1980, John Halvorsen was pulling together art for newspaper ads for Jim Wilson. Jim booked local and touring bands into The Hillsborough, The Gladstone and The Star and Garter music venues. He was crucial in making Christchurch a hotbed of musical activity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Jim was booking bands like The Features, Toy Love, The Swingers, Blam Blam Blam and The Screaming Mee Mees and a year or so later, the likes of Pin Group, The Clean, The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings, The Stones, Tall Dwarfs and many more - in fact, everyone. The Hillsborough Tavern was a large venue right under the Port Hills where the bigger touring bands tended to play. Jim had booked the Whizz Kids and decided that John would be the support band. The problem was that John didn’t have a band, and he had to get one together, write songs, practice and be ready to play in 3 or 4 days.
Whizz Kids at Hillsborough poster / Kim Barron Collection via Nostalgia Black Hole blog
John found himself a drummer in Brent McLaughlin who, like him, was also from Ashburton (Hinds, actually), who was as steady as it could be and had a practical kind of common sense. The sort of character essential to the development of any band. Alister Parker was found when their soundman Dave Peterson (also from Ashburton), went off looking for some bigger speakers to play through. Alister was a bit flashy due to his experience playing in The Basket Cases, a band of proto-punks (including Jane Walker of Toy Love and Paul Kean of Toy Love and The Bats) who played a lot of appealing covers from glam rock to pre and early punk. He knew how to play his instrument but could do what few covers band players could never manage; he could make up his own guitar lines and riffs, and they sounded modern, spontaneous and experimental - with just a hint of attractive catchiness. He was in the band, and John was now the bass player. The Gordons were formed.
While the newly formed band were busy getting the music sorted, John was on top of his game with what today would be called branding. Perhaps he had been sitting on some of the ideas, but The Gordons logo man (spaceman, deep sea diver come kitchen utensil) seemed to be born suddenly and completely as a thing. It’s an image that would instantly and forever be identifiable with the band as a mascot or a sort of fourth member.
The Gordons played around Christchurch and got away to other centres - and even a prison - where the audience was invited to participate in the music-making. They started to build an audience with many unexpectant punters driven out of venues by their legendary volume. They were loud, alright. “… a tight, steady, thumping beat from the drums that gets you right in the stomach, allied with furious, distorting bass chords. Over the top of this solid bedrock, the guitar roars, screams, tries to obliterate the senses. It’s loud, very loud” (David Maclennan, In Touch, Issue number 8, April 1981). That’s right, loud.
But The Gordons were never just loud for the sake of it. It was part of the overall sonic package. The powerful rhythm section that was the “solid bedrock” to it all and Alister’s patterned textures, overtones and otherworldly harmonics were all critical components in the creation of that volume. It was a complicated thing making something seem so powerfully simple. Amongst the brutality were touches of delicacy, floral hints of a psychedelic past, a small smattering of art school and the odd trace of other post-punk sounds. There was also an element of primitivism in this sonic soup. They hadn’t yet turned into machines. They made this sound in a very human way with old-fashioned equipment and setups; guitars plugged straight into amps and with no effects or crazy tunings. 1980 was the year they got up to Auckland, recorded ‘Future Shock’ at Harlequin Studios, and released it the same year as a 7” single. It was a defining moment in New Zealand music.
After some time back in Christchurch in 1981 writing new material, they were off on tour again, heading back towards Harlequin Studios, where the band had bonded with studio owner Doug Rodgers on their previous visit. There was a generous offer of recording time, but the actual amount of time available was a bit on the short side - 24 hours to record an album’s worth of material. Recording “live to tape”, they managed to record the seven songs they needed to put together an album. Recorded and mixed in 22 hours. It sounded light years better than ‘Future Shock’.
The Gordons - 'The Gordons' album cover
Serious music critics loved the album. They knew they were listening to something both special and unique that would and could not be recreated by any other band. “Intensely original and almost completely self-contained” (Jewel Sanyo, Rip It Up, October 1981). They were certainly doing their own thing on one of post punks’ distant outer orbits. There are some titians on this album that encapsulate the band’s songwriting, instrumentation (or rather the multiple ways they use their three instruments) and sound.
'The Gordons' A4 retailer sheet
‘Spik and Span’ is the album opener, and the tone is set with a big tough insistent rhythm and Alister’s vocals and guitar scattered across the top of it all. The vocal is unusual, high pitched and stressed. There is a tension building on what is not much more than a whole lot of repetition. The tension is finally released after 4 minutes of the songs 5 minutes when the notes seem to collapse and simply roll away.
‘Coalminer’s Song’ is a bed of grinding slabs of sound while guitar clusters scatter and coalesce in the space above. It is a feature of The Gordons that the vocals are sparse and then tend to be repeated; there aren’t many words, a few phrases are recurrent, and much is achieved with very little. “I see the light, and it’s shining bright”. There is a low detuned harmonising vocal, and the mood turns inconceivably dark and crushing.
Roy Colbert rated ‘Right on Time’ as his pick off the album. An awful lot is going on in its almost 9-minute duration. There is a certain tension with both the instrumentation and the vocals that give the song some of its epic shape. It strains to pull itself apart but stretches itself into new sounds, rhythms, and textures. It is dynamic breathless stuff. An unusually scratchy guitar sounds magnificent despite and because of itself. Alongside this, a more conventional heroic guitar sound adds the needed balanced contrast to make the whole teetering thing work. That, and the mournful and then shouty lyrics, twists the entire song into something else. 9 minutes, and there is no padding; this song is packed with sounds, moods and ideas and is simply a tour de force.
Of the other songs, ‘Sometimes’ certainly deserves mention with its weird “spoken/sung” Lou Reed/Velvet Underground vocals, fantastic incessant guitar riff, and the astounding interrupting crunching bass. ‘I Just Can’t Stop’ has a delightful and intentionally feeble vocal and limpid guitar intro before the band takes control with trademark ferocity, which then fades back to the timid vocal and guitar. ‘Growing Up’ is a meander with the rhythm section malevolently plodding throughout, with the vocal and guitar struggling to invent anything much of interest. The last track, ‘Laughing Now’, sounds a bit made up on the spot, in the studio at 4 am.
Flying Nun got involved with the release because the band had no money to get the record pressed. Dealing with Alister could be difficult, if not fraught. The band had grand ambitions that had to be paid for, so any dealings with us involved unrealistic expectations on their part. Because the music was so good and the band so musically essential, the label bent over backwards to accommodate them. The first Gordons album marked the start of a relationship that would endure multiple setbacks, breakups and their eventual reconstitution as Bailter Space.
From rear - Alister Parker, John Halvorsen and Brent McLachlan in 1980 / Stuart Page Collection
The Gordons sound was so “self-contained" and so unlike anything else being created in New Zealand or elsewhere, that one had to wonder how it originated. Perhaps it started at the very beginning, in the original 3 or 4 days of their formation, when they had to write songs from scratch, practice them and be ready to play to a large audience at The Hillsborough Tavern. They managed five songs, but it is easy to see that their much-admired minimalist and repetitious style could have developed in those few short days through bare necessity. They had to be quick and efficient to develop new material, and jamming was probably how they kicked these songs into life. Vision was involved, as were the nuts and bolts that make a vision workable. Basic rhythms and riffs would have been developed and refined with flourishes added on the hoof with a result that sounded like no other and was absolutely brilliant.
Volume. Many bands love volume for its own sake - and so did The Gordons - but with them, volume became part of the art, another dimension to their muscular sound and part of the point of difference. Another advantage of being loud is that it can help disguise or hide inadequacies, a bit like reverb but in a completely different way, a brute force compared to an appealing fuzzy confusion. Did their love of volume come from being a short-term fix during their initial hothouse period? All of these ad hoc “on the hoof” sounds that became songs sounded good in a modern post-punk way.
The Gordons were largely shaped by the adverse circumstances of their stressful, hectic formation, a shape that was refined and perfected and saw them become the greatest of New Zealand’s outsider bands. This self-titled album is the best-recorded document of their achievement.