Original photo by Carol Tippet
This Sporting Life: Show Me To The Bellrope
12" LP | 1982
This Sporting Life had its beginnings as a couple of misfit guys growing up on Auckland’s North Shore in the late 1970s. "Misfit" because they were outsiders disinterested in rugby or other traditional aspects of ‘middle everything’ New Zealand life. But society was changing and these sorts of characters were the ones unwittingly leading the way. Inspired by the first waves of punk as communicated by the NME and Melody Maker in print, as well as Barry Jenkins on Radio Hauraki or Radio with Pictures in sound and video, Paul Fogarty and Ben Hayman decided to form a band called Arms For Children.
A whole music scene developed on the North Shore in the late 1970s and started to ripen into something special in 1980 with the likes of the Screaming Mee Mees, Blam Blam Blam, the Ainsworths, Newmatics and others. Arms for Children were one of these bands.
The North Shore scene was soon merged into a bigger central Auckland thing were punk had taken a darker and unprogressive turn with the boot boys. With the Mee Mees and Newmatics being influenced by things Mod and Ska respectively and the Blams doing their own witty and musically inventive thing, it was all a bit of a musical fruit salad amongst a rabble of boot boys. But the North Shore’s more positive, bright and adventurous indie pop sensibility took hold and held sway for a year or so.
The now renamed Alms for Children (AFC) were different to their fellow North Shore bands. They were a punk band transitioning into the post punk world. They had a new singer, Gary “Rodent” Charlton, who had had a “past” in the boot world as a roadie for The Terrorways. One could see the ex boot boy in Gary; there were the ox blood Dr. Martens and a strange self-confident glow that pacified and reassured. Gary had a strident but tuneful voice that suited the eccentric muscular nature of the music. At the same stage the band also added Daron Johns on drums. Daron had moved north from his native Christchurch and brought a propulsive, post punk foundation to the sound of the unit. A single was recorded for Harry Ragbag’s REM Records, with ‘Danny Boy’ being the memorable song with its lurching catchiness.
Following a short time of inactivity as AFC and some experiments with different sounds and lineups, Fogarty and Hayman brought the four back together as This Sporting Life (TSL). One of the constant influences on them both had been the sounds of outfits like Wire, The Fall and The Mekons. It was from the Mekon’s single and the book by David Storey from which it came that they lifted the name. With AFC, they had worked out what they wanted as a sound and TSL was an opportunity to build on that. .
This Sporting Life represented a big step up musically. They were now very different to their North Shore indie-pop scenester friends. They were more of an angular post punk band in the mould of Gang of Four, Wire and The Fall. They had developed into a competent musical outfit playing compelling original material. They were unique in Auckland, they were unique in New Zealand.
Both Chris Knox and Doug Hood saw the band late in 1982, fell for them, and thought they would be a good fit for Flying Nun. I saw them a couple of times that year. The first when they came down to Christchurch to support The Fall (whom Doug Hood was touring) and next at the Rumba Bar in Auckland supporting The Chills, The Clean and The Tall Dwarfs. They brought a different kind of rough-edged sound that complimented the other bands with the contrasts highlighting the various musical differences. This Sporting Life were drawing on more contemporary post-punk inspirations, although very much unaffected by fashion or fad. They had independently arrived at a musical place nearing that wild space inhabited by The Gordons.
The first release, Show Me to the Bellrope of 10 songs, was mostly recorded in June 1982 at Lab Studios (when it was in its initial location on Fanshawe Street along the way to the Auckland Harbour Bridge) with Doug Hood spinning the knobs and coming up with 9 of the 10 songs for the album. ‘Wasting my Time’ was recorded the previous year at Studio 132. The cover harks back to their earlier connections with REM Records, with Chris Williams from Herco Pilots putting together the striking red and green art. Ten songs and the “franked” style sticker demanded that it sold $6.99. One reviewer commented that the record sounded as good on vinyl as they were live (Gary Steel, TOM, May 25-June 8, 1982).
I liked the music. It was very much a part of the post punk zeitgeist that I was absorbed in. You could hear the bark in Gary’s singing voice which was just dynamic enough to fit with the modernity of the sound. Ben Hayman had that big dominant lead instrument bass guitar thing going that, together with drummer Daron Johns, made for a formidable rhythm section blessed with real post punk graunch. Paul Fogarty’s was a fine incisive guitar player with what some said was a terrible amp. The Fall told Paul to “take that crap and take it to a quarry and blow it up” (Raymond Russell, Rip It Up, December 1982). This Sporting Life’s sound was tough, intense and dynamic with the added cynical humour of Gary’s vocals creating just the right tension/balance. The band were good live and made friends.
My wooly vision for Flying Nun was for something mixed and messed up stylistically within the already loose post-punk ‘genre”. The Dunedin bands were markedly different to each other (although many couldn’t hear it), and the Christchurch bands were more aligned with The Velvet Underground to varying degrees of dilution, so it felt like there was a need for other sounds from other places. This Sporting Life (and soon their friends Children’s Hour) were the necessary disrupting outsiders that helped mix and mess things up. They made Show Me to the Bellrope and helped to make Flying Nun a more interesting musical place.
Wind forward to 2018 and Failsafe Records approached Hayman and Fogarty to assemble a release of all the vinyl and live recordings of both AFC and TSL. As well as an interest in the band's work, Failsafe had taken its name from the song by AFC off of their first DIY 7" record. The compilation of 24 tracks along with a booklet of images and anecdotes spanning both incarnations of the band can be found here.