Some ideas just take on a life of their own.
When I started delving into the Unknown Blues' life and times -- and the resulting DVD, ANTARCTIC ANGELS AND THE UNKNOWN BLUES -- I imagined that I'd do a writeup of the film, and call it a day....at the least.
However, that notion quickly fell by the wayside after the filmmaker, Simon Ogston, put me in contact with some of the former Unknown Blues members...one thing led to another, which is how Dave Hogan's interview came onto this webpage...and how you're reading this email chat now with lead guitarist Vaughan MacKay, who's gone above and beyond in providing his own recollections for me. (Thanks to Vaughan for providing all the photos, as well.)
Given the length of this chat session, I thought only fitting to include Vaughan's thoughts separately, so we don't have a super-lengthy block of text to read...so dig in, delve on and don't think you've heard it all...especially when we get to the story of that German military tunic!
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): What made you want to be a musician, and who inspired you -- especially since you switched from drums, to guitar? And how did that percussive approach carry over to your playing style?
VAUGHAN MACKAY (VM): I learned drumming in boarding school and played in the college pipe band. Mainly out of boredom, but once I started learning I was hooked. After leaving school I took a few lessons from a jazz drummer and bought a drum kit. Started playing Shadows, Cliff Richards and Beatles music. Gradually, a few Rolling Stones tracks. As I was drumming I would watch the guitarists at rehearsals and pick up a bit from them. Little by little. I don't think playing the drums influenced my playing style really.
CR: Tell me a bit about your previous band, The Whom -- did they make any recordings, and how were they different (or not) from Unknown Blues?
VM: I played in a few bands before Whom. Whom was a polished outfit, matching Beatle suits. The equipment set up on stage like the Beatles and playing a lot of Beatles stuff. We did play numbers by other groups such as the Searchers, The Kinks, The Animals and a few of The Rolling Stones at my insistance.. The group was tight and strong vocally. We recorded a single with our own song (I can't remember the name) on side one, and "That's How Strong My Love Is" on side two. My one recording as a vocalist. We also appeared on NZ TV playing "Satisfaction" to demonstrate the Fuzz Box...I felt stifled in Whom as they were very conservative. I was getting more and more into the Stones. I was sacked as a result. (Thank God). The Unknown Blues were the complete opposite. We were very serious about our music, but not into uniform dress and a clean cut public image.
CR: What was New Zealand's music scene like before the Stones and the Pretty Things arrived there -- and how did it change from that point on, since bands like yourselves -- and Chants R&B, to cite another example -- drew so much inspiration from them?
VM: I think up to this point Instrumental Guitar bands and American pop were very popular. Bands doing steps on stage and solo performers with show band backing. Conservative.
CR: One of the things that fascinates me about watching the film is how these harder-edged London sounds traveled half a world away. What accounts for the appeal of that music, then and now?
VM: It's easy to play, Is great party music and has a great beat. It is based on american blues and is timeless
CR: I love this description from the Audio Culture entry on the band: "At their peak, they could pack out the swirling psychedelic decorated basement club, playing with local fellow travellers, The Third Chapter and The PIL. One memorable YMCA concert was filmed showing Hancock smashing a redundant semi-acoustic bass, Who-style, in a blistering finale to a hot show. They were not asked back."
Throughout the film, there's an element of "...their reputation preceded them wherever they went." Which gigs were the best -- or most riotous -- and which venues were good for you? (And who were those bands mentioned above -- what they were like? As wild as Unknown Blues, I suspect?)
VM: The Best Gigs we played were The Cellar Club in Dunedin, The Ag Hall Dunedin and a club in Christcchurch. I think it was called Sweethearts. We also played some private dances in Invercargill at Woodend which we ran. They were invitation only and the tickets were about $2.00 each. For this you could drink as much as you could.
After these nights we didn't use brooms to clean the floor. We used Squeegies!!!
Many Invercargill girls lost their "Cherries" at these nights The Third Chapter and The PIL were resident groups at The Cellar Club. They were great musicians and welcomed us to The Cellar. I remember their great parties.
The Dunedin crowds were much different to Invercargill ones. The girls, or some of them, liked to shock. I remember on girl called The Leppy Lady as she was very short, walking into a party in high boots and fur coat. She opened the coat... Stark naked with a very nice figure.. Just one of several memories.
CR: OK, let's talk about that Luftwaffe jacket -- as you probably know, that photo of you wearing it is among the most iconic images associated with the band. As I've mentioned to Dave, and Simon, this is a good 10 years before Johnny Rotten & Co. -- and the New York Dolls, as well -- flirted with such imagery (including the swastika, which we also see in the film).
Obviously, you guys weren't pro-German, or anything like that -- but what motivated you to wear that kind of clothing, and how does it fit into the overall equation of the Unknown Blues' look and sound?
VM: Someone said to me "Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story"... So here is the truth.
We didn't dress or act to upset people. We wore what we wanted to. Dave loved white or yellow and wore leather waist coats. Bari loved jeans and always wore blue suede boots. Rocket wore anything he liked and was very fashion conscious. Wombie changed his style of dress during his time with the Blues but was always tidy and well dressed.. As for me, well, I liked uniform tunics. I had my old school cadet jacket. with Sergeant's stripes which I wore a lot. I also had an old redcoat jacket and ripped the sleeves off as it was too hot on stage.
The Unknown Blues stopped playing in July 1969 and up to that point I didn't own a German tunic. I went up to new Plymouth for four months after that time and during that time bought a German Wehrmacht Cavalry Leutnant's jacket. I thought it looked great. When I returned to Invercargill in November or December we did one or two extra gigs and I wore the tunic on stage during this time. I make the point that it wasn't a Luftwaffe tunic. It was a German army one. Nor was it a "NAZI" tunic, but an ordinary army officer's tunic.
We never played at the RSA according to me extensive band archive. I think the photo was taken at St Mary's. There is no way I would have worn the tunic in an RSA as my father was in German capivity for four years. I was brought up to respect our veterans, not upset them. Hope this clears this up once and for all!!
CR: In retrospect, bands like Chants and Unknown Blues could be considered forerunners of punk -- and the film makes a strong case for that, as well. How do you feel about your association with the term, and the movement that exploded during the mid-'70s (and also resonated strongly in Australia and NZ, too)?
VM: This question just makes me smile. We often used to party before gigs and would go on stage in whatever we were wearing that day more or less. We wern't anti social, in fact I would say we were very social. The girls loved our parties. Some of the snobbie girlfriends of other Invercargill bands would leave their boyfriends and then sneak out to our flat. Yes, we were sometimes drunk in public sometimes but were usually happy drunks..
CR: As I've told Dave, your association with the Antarctic Angels immediately reminded me of another parallel to '70s punk (specifically, the Sex Pistols' diehard fans -- the Bromley Contingent). How did the relationship affect your music, and what did they see in it, from your standpoint?
VM: We were kicking around with a lot of the guys who were later Antarctic Angels before The Antarctic Angels were formed. A lot of these guys loved our music and one by one started buying bikes. Roy Reid, the Founder of The Antarctic Angels, was a close mate and was often our Roadie when we went away. He learnt a bit of guitar and was on stage with us from time to time. RIP, Roy!
CR: Between yourselves and Chants, the talent definitely existed to record an album, or two -- though you primarily did covers, in your own way, and were known primarily as a live phenomenon, Why didn't you achieve more in that arena, you think?
VM: We were never interested in recording. We were a live band. I think when we played there was an excitement which fuelled the crowd which in turn fed back to us and took us up higher. This was not drug fuelled as we weren't into that. We drank a lot but put a good performance above everything.
When we were offered to do sessions for Viking in Christchurch we saw it as an opportunity to get there to play and bracketted the sessions with gigs in Christchurch. I think we spent about four days there. One huge party from beginning to end. We arrived at the recording session after a night of playing and parties. Bari's guitar case was full of beer and someone smuggled in a bottle of whisky..
We were surprised to see some session brass musicians in bow ties there to fatten out the rhythm section. They were really square with bow ties. Man what a circus.. We were doing a cover of John Mayall's "Suspicions" and I laid down a pretty good fat solo. Sounded great but a sax player thought he could do a better one. Had to remind him they were backing musicians on this day.. What a hoot. Later in the day we found a party and then off to play a gig. It was a riot..
CR: What do you think led to Unknown Blues' demise -- did it come down to a lack of an audience for original music, or simply a case of not being able to fend off real life any longer?
VM: The demise of the Unknown Blues came over a few months. I became engaged and wanted to see the North Island. Dave, Phil (Sharman) and Wombie wanted to go to Melbourne.
Bari wanted to stay in Invercargill, although he lived in Melbourne later.
We lost interest to a degree I think. Maybe we were burnt out as we were living in party houses and sometimes the parties would go on for weeks with only brief interludes and playing engagements. Our rehearsals often developed into parties.
CR: How long did you continue playing after the breakup, and is music a significant part of your life today?
VM: After The Unknown Blues broke up I played in another group in Invercargill for about a year. I think The band was called Powerhouse. Bari Fitzgerald was in this band with me along with another friend, Paul Kirkwood, on drums. We played in Dunedin, but by this time The Cellar Club was gone.
I then moved to Dunedin in about 1972. I played as a fill in guitarist for Noah with Steve Brett and Richard Lindsay (a fine guitarist!!)
Around this time I also played with a Group called Roach whose members came from Timaru. Still rock but J. Geils type music. I still have a few guitars around the house and enjoy myself with them, but no more playing (in) public.
CR: How did you react when Simon first approached you about making a documentary about Unknown Blues, since the story had effectively been lost to time (and the memories of the participants involved)?
VM: I was very surprised but became enthusiastic about (the idea). I think it was a great experience.
CR: The chemistry between yourselves come through loud and clear in the film. What other factors do you think made the "classic" lineup (Bari, Dave, Keith, Rocket and yourself) so potent, musically speaking? Did you learn anything new from watching the final product?
VM: Not really, except it was a great week -- there is a chemistry there, but it's hard to define. Rocket's bass and Wombie's drums put down a solid beat and Bari, Dave and I bounced off each other. On a good night a single number could go for two hours. The crowds were all important. It wouldn't have happened in an empty hall.
CR: As the cliche goes -- the reunion footage makes it seem like you'd never been apart. Do you see a day when the Unknown Blues will rise again, or has that day passed, you think?
VM: Not really. maybe four of us will but as for the fifth. Nope I don't think so. I love those guys. We lived through a very special time.
CR: Are there any bands in today's Kiwi scene that you might regard as a kindred spirit?
VM: I really don't know. I have lived in Australia since 1979.
CR: And lastly, the million-dollar question -- any regrets, and what kind of footprint did the Unknown Blues leave on Kiwi music?
VM: No regrets. I think we were all blessed to have been born when we were. We were teens during the pop revolution. What can I say? Met so many wonderful people. It was right in the hippie time and many of those people are lifetime friends all around the world.
****1/01/19: JUST ADDED: Part II of my writeup on White Summer's latest annual reunion show at Hidden Pointe, Benton Harbor...as promised. Happy New Year, and all that sort of stuff.
PLUS: A 1:50 (in other words, nearly two hour) audio clip from Philadelphia, PA (7/10/18), where Mark Andersen and I appeared at Brickbat Books for our book, WE ARE THE CLASH: REAGAN, THATCHER & THE LAST STAND OF A BAND THAT MATTERED...plus, our pre-event interview with Joseph Gervasi, for Loud Fast Philly...over on the Spoken Word Tracks page. Our 60-minute clip from Politics & Prose (Washington, DC, 7/06/18) is there, too.
COMING SOON: My impressions of the MC50 show, Grand Rapids style.
AND: The annual birthday EP for my wife: BUDGIE IS A GOTH, four home recorded tracks, over on Featured Songs, to join its companions (HAPPY TRAILS [LITTLE BUDGIE IS 47], and HAPPY 46TH, LITTLE BUDGIE). Get 'em while they're hot, as they say.
Comment capability's back for now, but stay on topic. If not...I'm taking the toys away again! :-) In the meantime: stay cool. ****
Some ideas just take on a life of their own.