Photo: Taken from video 'Ronnie Van Hout Presents The Pin Group
The Pin Group: ‘Ambivalence’ FN001 | 7” | 1981
Soon after telling a few friends that I was going to start up a record label, Roy Montgomery of The Pin Group approached me about releasing a single he planned to record. The Pin Group fitted the idea perfectly as they were a key band in our local Christchurch indie music scene that loosely orbited around the music venue that was - The Gladstone Hotel.
The Pin Group came after two local bands I admired greatly, The Gordons and The Vacuum Blue Ladder (Bill Direen, later of The Builders and Steven Cogle and his Victor Dimisich Band), and who partially inspired me to start Flying Nun. The Pin Group may not have sounded like either but shared bits of the aesthetic of both, the different responses to the utter bleakness of Christchurch in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The post industrial strands of post punk also suited The Pin Group perfectly.
The Pin Group were a band of disparate but like-minded musicians committed to making their own kind of music, a music influenced by some old sounds given shape by recent happenings in London and New York. In our little scene in the early 1980s, The Pin Group were almost exclusively ours, largely hidden to those outside our group, never leaving town or playing other venues, only ever playing at The Gladstone.
The Pin Group were special. Singer, songwriter and guitarist Roy Montgomery was self-contained and an intellectual in the making. His guitar playing was a thin strum and lead guitar breaks were rare and largely inaudible. He didn’t really have a singing voice but his deep monotone did hold the listeners' attention. Roy was distant to the point of remote and he was very cool.
Peter Stapleton was a hard hitting and metronomic drummer, a discerning collector of records who had an inquisitive intellect and a wry way with words who was a lyricist and a poet.
The original bass player, Desmond Brice, proved wobbly on the beat and departed the instrument but not the band, staying on as lyricist. Ross Humphries replaced Desmond and his strong and expressive bass sound helped to fill the musical space that Roy struggled to occupy. He synced with Peter to form a sternly steady rhythm section and he added needed variety as an alternate singer. Ross’s involvement not only beefed up the sound but he introduced the band to his friend, art student Ronnie van Hout who was soon soon printing colorful Warholian images as gig posters.
The Pin Group at the Gladstone, December 21, 1981 by Ronnie Van Hout
And the name? Roy was managing one of the Christchurch EMI shops but it always felt like he was marking time there. He had plenty of other abilities and interests. Later he would learn Russian and teach at a tertiary institution. For now he would call his band of post punk bohemians the “Pin Group”. It’s a mathematical idea, a subgroup of Clifford algebra related to the spin group. It has a ring to it.
In Christchurch, where flamboyant cover bands ruled most of the big live music venues, The Pin Group must have seemed like a dour thing indeed. The songs thumped along without fuss or unnecessary splash. Tempo and volume ebbed rather than flowed. Covers bands were pure escape while The Pin Group were art-house soundtrack makers to the grey grim and Springbok Tour tainted city that Christchurch was that winter.
The band recorded a couple of songs at Arnie van Bussel’s Nightshift Studios in his home in Woolston. It was a basic 4-track affair and it was accordingly cheap. Part of the deal was that you got Arnie to help engineer, look after his gear, issue instructions and run a commentary on your progress. Arnie was the straight to blunt-talking type but did form a long-standing rapport with the urbane Roy Montgomery.
The two tracks recorded, ‘Ambivalence’ and ‘Columbia’, sound quite accomplished to my ears now. There is a relentless persistence and drive underpinning both songs, a bit like a restrained Velvet Underground - which is something I don't remember hearing then but is an obvious feature when listening now. In 1981, these recordings sounded very alien and confronting in an environment that was saturated with smooth sounding music designed for commercial radio play. The mainstream thinking that you wrote and recorded music for radio play dominated and to make music for any other reason or purpose was incomprehensible. The Pin Group were not going to be played on the radio any time soon, then or now. But 'Ambivalence' did chart for one week in October 1981 at number 36.
Ronnie Van Hout Presents The Pin Group 1981
The lack of radio play was also the experience of Flying Nun’s other early “signing”, The Clean. The Clean also recorded their debut single 'Tally Ho!' at Nightshift for an even rougher sounding result. But 'Tally Ho!', released just a week after 'Ambivalence', captured and rode a national wave of crossover enthusiasm that took the song to the top 2, creating a phenomena out of The Clean and then the other bands from their home town of Dunedin that were to follow.
The music of the two nearby cities was different. Dunedin boasted a connection to the colourful end of the 1960’s, to bent electrified folk and a deep respect for the song. The indie scene in Christchurch followed the Velvet Underground wagon and the darker musical figures of the 1960s where it seemed that sound was more important than song.
There were two two more Pin Group recordings and vinyl releases (another 7” single with ‘Coat' and 'Jim' and a 12” EP called The Pin Group Go to Town) before the band came to what seemed like a pre-ordained and planned end. The members were to all dissipate into other projects in the future. Roy went on to the Swallows 7” project and then Dadamah with Peter Stapleton before pursuing his own successful career creating guitar soundscapes. Ross Humphries connected with Hamish and David Kilgour in The Great Unwashed and later reemerged with The Terminals. Peter Stapleton kept on drumming and writing lyrics for Scorched Earth Policy and The Terminals. Peter sadly passed away in 2020.
Ronnie van Hout was an artist that liked his colours bright and bold, and you can see it at play on all of the Pin Group gig posters that he designed and printed that year. For 'Ambivalence' he changed tack to black. It was in keeping with post-punk record covers of the time but this was perhaps a little more nihilistic than most. It took me a while to notice that it was more subtle than it first appeared, it was actually black on black and depicted an image of helicopters. An illusion to US “black ops” with clandestine undercover secret operations that were real when they were not conspiracy theories.
FN001 - The Pin Group - 'Ambivalence' 7" cover by Ronnie Van Hout
The Pin Group’s ‘Ambivalence’ was released in September 1981 and felt like a fitting piece of musical backing to the scenes of protest and appalling police behaviour around that winter's Springbok rugby tour. New Zealand was certainly a different place that spring - and so was I with Flying Nun’s first piece of musical documentation recorded, pressed and released.