212 The Terrace, Wellington! Nowadays it just looks like any of the big white wooden colonial piles next to each other on The Terrace, that long, anxious nerve centre of downtown Wellington strung between damp Aro Valley and dry Parliament, but in the early 1980s it was the loud and seditious HQ of the Wellington punk rock universe. It should be heritage protected, set aside as a cultural shrine, tricked out as a visitor’s centre with guides, glass cabinets, merch – it was a house of revolt, where bands rehearsed, slept, plotted. A guy who called himself Void (real name Geoffrey) lived there. He was a singer with Riot 111. He shouted, “Riot! Riot! Riot!” You knew he lived there because Riot 111 was painted in massive letters and numerals on the roof. It was a two-storey mansion and there were rumours that it was the former residence of a Prime Minister who locked his mentally deranged son in the basement. It had Sunday-horror vibes, good drugs, mean parties.

Too little about 212 The Terrace has been immortalised in cultural histories but Matthew Bannister puts things right in his new book, Songs from The Front Lawn, an appreciation of 1980s creatives The Front Lawn led by Don McGlashan and Harry Sinclair. He writes, “Wellington had its own punk HQ, 212 The Terrace, a flat which included such future luminaries as screenwriter Fran Walsh (The Lord of the Rings) and future Front Lawn member Jennifer Ward-Lealand. Punk valued amateurism over professionalism – anyone could have a go, including women. Both Walsh and Ward-Lealand performed in punk band Naked Spots Dance, and the flat also included members of the Wallsockets, Life in the Fridge Exists, Shoes This High and Riot 111.”

The Front Lawn were an Auckland construct, formed by Westlake Boys High School students McGlashan and Sinclair, but Ward-Lealand signed up and gave them a kind of Wellington edge. When they made their 1989 album Songs From the Front Lawn, they needed a band, and came up with the inspired idea of hiring Wellington’s free-jazz, improv, avant-gardists Six Volts.

As such, the album was a wonderful synthesis of Wellington and Auckland. The two cities have long been at war, in a tense, competitive stand-off, each claiming they are cooler, sexier, smarter, but actually quite often ceasing hostilities to relax and collaborate on creative projects. Bannister’s book studies Songs from the Front Lawn track by track and celebrates it as a rare, beautiful moment in New Zealand music.

He locates another important address, in Islington St, Herne Bay, where Sinclair was living when he composed the track “Walk Around the House”. McGlashan tells Bannister, “It was right next to a dilapidated Buffalo Hall, because late at night, Harry would hear the Buffalos charging, they were a bit looser than Freemasons, they’d sing songs, then they all gather at one end of the hall and charge from one end to the other, with their heads down that informed some of our thinking about ritual.”

Note the “thinking about ritual”: Front Lawn were an ideas band. Sinclair spent the early 1980s acting in an Auckland company called Theatre Corporate. He tells Bannister, “It was a small, almost microscopic theatre which led to an intense, psychological approach. Very Stanislavski, very scientific, and ultimately very tiresome. What I found most exciting in theatre were those things that happened by mistake. I saw a show called Jumping Mouse by Jon Bolton who had studied at Le Coq in Paris so I ended up studying with Phillipe Gaulier and Monika Pagneux, a totally different approach to theatre which was much more external – just coming on stage and being entertaining.”

On their first meeting, Gaulier informed Sinclair that he had “swallowed an umbrella”, a French expression meaning ‘uptight’. “Harry”, he said, “you carry the burden of the Commonwealth”.

Yeah, kind of; more so, he carried the burden of his father, historian Sir Keith Sinclair. I asked Harry to write a self-portrait for ReadingRoom last year. Bannister quotes one of the passages in his book: “Books were very important to my father Keith Sinclair. Like something sacred. For him they were the answer to every problem. If my father was annoyed with us because we were too noisy, he would yell, ‘Get yourself a book!’ For a bookish man he was very loud.”

The scorn is more explicit in the Songs From the Front Lawn. He tells Bannister about a play he wrote at Westlake High. In the final scene, one of the protagonists totally loses it and shouts “Shit! Shit! Shit!” – and the heavens open and a whole bunch of shit falls on him. The protagonist was a stand-in for his father.

“I went to a farm,” remembers Sinclair, “and got lots of cow dung and put it up above the stage. I had to do the show twice because my parents were divorced and I wanted them both to see it.”

McGlashan: “They couldn’t be in the same room together. “

Sinclair: “I played my father, satirising him in quite a vicious way.”

Father issues, experimental ideas, a Wellington-Auckland axis … A lot went into The Front Lawn. McGlashan expands on their name: “It was a metaphor for the clipped nature of New Zealand culture, keeping nature under control … It was a suburban thing, we did shows about breakfast, about smallish, domestic things … Most New Zealand babies hear lawnmowers before they hear radios. It’s not until much later that they learn one is music and one isn’t. The chorus of lawnmowers on Saturday morning is the closest thing we have to communal music.”

All of which is ripe for author Matthew Bannister, who works as an academic in the field of cultural theory at Wintec in Hamilton; the very marrow of The Front Lawn was cultural theory. Their music and their purpose supports all sorts of thinking. Now and then Bannister takes his thinking out for a walk down bullshit alley, and writes jargonese like, “The desire for lost unity covers over the fact that it never existed: we only imagine we are whole, unified beings. At the social level, this is the function of ideology – to make existence cohere. For example, Žižek discusses anamorphosis – just as tears distort our perception of commonplace objects and make them appear other”, etc.

But it’s generally a lively, eminently readable book, generous and appreciative of a landmark album, and it evokes an especially innovative time in New Zealand music. The field was wide open, revolutionary approaches were welcome.

That same vibe, that same 80s feel, is evoked in another new book looking back on the 1980s, CRUSH: Photos from Post-Punk Auckland, by Jonathan Ganley. It’s a slim portfolio of touring bands live on stage (The Clash, New Order, Siouxsie and the Banshees, others) and local bands live on stage and posing for PR snaps (Straitjacket Fits, The Chills, Headless Chickens, others). Ganley was there, a witness to history; he writes of The Birthday Party gig with The Marching Girls at Mainstreet, on May 3, 1983, “The atmosphere in Mainstreet was turning hostile. It was nearly midnight, long after The Marching Girls had played their support set. When The Birthday Party finally walked onstage, an unapologetic Nick Cave looked out at the audience, adjusted the mic stand, and spoke. His words were, to the best of my recollection: ‘You can turn off the disco. The rock stars have arrived.’”

There are 136 images of 34 acts. The photography is black and white. The years range from 1982 to 1990. The stage photographs are kind of generic – someone with a guitar under a stage light – but there are some lovely offstage photos. I loved the two below, of Chris Knox, at his flat in Summer St, Ponsonby, in October, 1983, and Fall genius Mark E Smith at Sounds Unlimited Records, a record store on Lower Queen St, on August 21, 1982.

Chris Knox, 1983, with cup of tea.
Mark E Smith, 1982, with beer

Songs From The Front Lawn by Matthew Bannister (Bloomsbury, $30) is available in selected bookstores and record stores. CRUSH: Photos from Post-Punk Auckland by Jonathan Ganley (self-published, $70) is available from Flying Out Records, Real Groovy Records, and Time Out bookstore in Mt Eden.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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