Some of the most fascinating stories -- from a journalistic perspective -- are the ones that don't get told right away. In some cases, though, "right away" is a matter of definition. Just ask the members of Unknown Blues, who tore up New Zealand from December 1966 to June 1970.
Taking their name from a track by the Pretty Things -- whose August 1965 tour, along with a previous outing by the Rolling Stones, provided the jump-off point -- the Unknown Blues and their biker fan following, the Antarctic Angels, burned a permanent footprint into local fans' memories as a loud, wild and rude outfit to reckon with...drinking heavily from the well that yielded Buddy Guy, T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters...plus the amped-up white blues of Chicken Shack, Cream, and Fleetwood Mac.
And that's where the story sat after the band broke up. Like many local acts, then and now, the Unknown Blues remained a live phenomenon: aside from a couple of sessions that didn't satisfy the parties involved, the Unknown Blues left no recorded footprint behind.
And that's where paths diverged for the classic lineup: lead singer Dave Hogan has continued playing with various bands (Blues Hangover, Southern Lightning, The Paramounts). So does guitarist Bari Fitzgerald, who plays locally -- in and around the band's Invercargill stomping grounds.
The remaining members (bassist John "Rocket" Hancock, drummer Keith "Wmobie" Mason and lead guitarist Vaughan MacKay), on the other hand, left music and got on with real life. If you didn't catch them in their prime, you wouldn't have seen or heard the story -- which filmmaker Simon Ogston has now documented in this snappy, roughly-hour-long documentary.
The resulting DVD ("Antarctic Angels And The Unknown Blues") emerged, as we'll see, while Ogston set about documenting the story of another long-unheralded local New Zealand legend (Chants R&B) for a totally different documentary project ("Rumble & Bang"). From there, nature simply took its course.
But that's perfectly fine, because the Unknown Blues story is more than that of an inspired local band -- although that's the obvious starting point. It's also a great human interest story of five guys who had the time of their lives, but didn't give a damn, and have no regrets now. As far as I'm concerned...that's the perfect exclamation point.
Having stumbled across the story myself, I threw out some fishing lines to Simon, and the band, as well...and this is what emerged. Enjoy...and long live the Unknown Blues!
SIMON OGSTON (7/12/14 INTERVIEW)
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): First, tell me a little about yourself: how did you end up in the film business, and what did you do before starting Bellbird Pictures?
SIMON OGSTON (SO): I'm largely self-taught, I started working in TV in 2006 as a reporter, then started Bellbird in 2009 with the intention of making family history films, then went off the rails and started making doco's about underground Kiwi music
CR: You stumbled on the Unknown Blues Band while researching the Chants (story). How did that connection come about?
SO: I was interviewing someone about the Chants R&B and he told me that "if you think these guys were wild, you should check out the Unknown Blues". Up until that point very little was known about the band, just a very brief mention about them and the Antarctic Angels in a few NZ (New Zealand) books. Of course this lack of info added to the band's legend. Everyone who ever saw the group in or around Invercargill in the 1960s has never forgotten them.
CR: In a sense, both bands' stories follow the familiar arc that you see in films like "That Thing You Do!": band forms, gets some local notoriety, makes the odd record, then splits up and gets on with real life. What made you decide that both stories were worth telling?
SO: Yes, this is the story for most bands. I guess I'm interested in groups that pursue their own approach and in the process develop something that is distinctive to NZ rather than just mimicking overseas groups. With the Unknown Blues in particular, the story had basically been lost to time and I thought it was worthy of recording just because it was so out of the ordinary at the time - like in most Western countries, the late '60s were a time of significant social change in NZ.
CR: Tell me a bit about the lone Unknown Blues recording that features in the film -- where did you source that clip, and can you tell me where/when it was recorded?
SO: Somebody recorded that live performance off their radio at home, I'm not sure who. The band did record a few songs in a studio in Christchurch but these were ruined by engineers in bowties who insisted on overdubbing a brass section. The recordings have been lost, probably forever.
CR: The talent was certainly there, so why didn't both bands achieve more, you think, recording-wise? Why didn't they write more original material?
SO: Not sure -- I guess the concept of writing your own music was largely yet to filter into NZ at that point, most bands played exclusively covers, although their versions did differ significantly from the originals.
CR: Although both bands had strong blues/R+B leanings, they arguably fall into the proto-punk category, too...to what extent do you think is this perception accurate, or is it more a case of how "polite" (quote-unquote) New Zealand society viewed such endeavors at the time?
SO: I think the rawness of the Unknown Blues in particular is a connection with punk, a general preference for playing loose and raw rather than technical proficiency.
CR: I'm (also) thinking of the swastika affectations and images like (guitarist) Vaughan McKay playing in the Luftwaffe military jacket -- I'm intrigued at how that sort of imagery surfaced well before Johnny Rotten or the New York Dolls were toying with it.
SO: I guess the desire to provoke a reaction among a generally more conservative society has been around a long time. For most people it was the most shocking thing they could think of. Having said that, I would wager that wearing a Luftwaffe jacket into an Invercargill RSA in 1967 was considerably more dangerous than the exploits of Ron Asheton or Sid Vicious.
CR: As a biographer and historian-type myself, I know -- and so do you -- at how difficult it can be to pin down stories that weren't particularly well documented (or only sketchily documented, at best). What were some of the challenges that you faced in making both these films, and how did you deal with them?
SO: The main challenge, as always, is a lack of any funding. I found most band members' memories were pretty intact and everyone was pretty open about talking about it. Having such a wealth of photos was a real plus. It's a shame there's no film footage in existence.
CR: How's "Antarctic Angels" been received since its release?
SO: The Unknown Blues film has been popular among the gang/band's old cohorts, it's been a great way of bringing some old friends together. I think they're very happy the story has been preserved for posterity
CR: And the million dollar question: what's up next? Your website mentions a documentary on the Skeptics -- how's that coming?
SO: The Skeptics film "Sheen of Gold" is out now on Flying Nun Records, and can be ordered from their website. The next film will be on Phil Dadson and his percussive ensemble From Scratch.
CR: Are you done with music for now, or is there another great cult story somewhere in the pipeline, just waiting to be told?
SO: There's a few things in the works, we'll see what happens...
"...WE WERE MORE THAN READY TO BE CORRUPTED":
DAVE HOGAN RECALLS HIS UNKNOWN BLUES EXPERIENCE (8/02/14)
CR: The Keith Richards comments cited near the beginning of the film ("How the fuck can you stand to live here?") are priceless. What was New Zealand's music scene like before the Stones and the Pretties arrived -- and how did it change, since bands like yourselves (and Chants R&B) clearly drew so much inspiration from both of them?
DAVE HOGAN (DH): In short, very conservative. It was the era of short back and sides haircuts and every member of the Unknown Blues was definitely a “post war” baby. I was the baby of the band, born in 1949. When we heard The Pretty Things and Rolling Stones it was like nothing we had ever head before. On top of that they looked like nothing we had seen before and we more than ready to be corrupted.
CR: What other bands and/or musicians proved influential in your development as a frontman, and a harp player?
DH: Before the British R&B bands I personally loved early rock and roll. Elvis, Jerry Lee, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, etc. So that was the initial musical grounding.
CR: One of the fascinating elements in Simon's film, to me, is how those harder-edged London blues/rock sounds traveled so far away. What accounts for the appeal of that music, in your mind, and what kind of effect did it exert on the local scene?
DH: Like everywhere else in the world at that time there seemed to be the thought that you were either a Stones or Beatles person. New Zealand was no exception. There were plenty of conservatives and plenty of rebellious extroverts – the Unknown Blues definitely fell into the later category.
CR: Other than those Stones/Pretty Things tour stops -- what, do you feel, was the catalyst in your own band's formation?
DH: At school I was asked by the vocational guidance officer what I wanted to be. To which I replied a singer in a rock and roll band. I was about 14 years old at the time, so I guess what I did was a given.
CR: Throughout the film, there's definitely an element of "...their reputation preceded them, everywhere they went." What were some of the best and/or most riotous gigs, in your opinion? The best venues?
DH: The Cellar Club in Dunedin was always fantastic and our first ever gig at a Christmas Bible Class Dance in Invercargill was probably the most riotous and set the precedent for things to come.
CR: In many respects, you and the Chants could be considered proto-punk forerunners -- albeit with strong R&B leanings -- to what extent is this accurate, you feel, or does it say more about how "polite" New Zealand society viewed such goings-on?
DH: Back in the 60’s a “punk” was prison term for young men who provided sexual favours to other prisoners. We definitely didn’t fall into that category, however I did enjoy the attitude of the Sex Pistols, New York Dolls, etc, when they provided “punk” with a new definition a decade later.
CR: I'm thinking, in particular, of some the more compelling images in the film, particularly Vaughn wearing that Luftwaffe jacket. -- a good 10 years before Johnny Rotten & Co. flirted likewise with such imagery (and six years if you count Johnny Thunder's swastika T-shirt -- don't know if you've seen that photo).
Obviously, you guys weren't fascists, but how does that imagery fit into the equation of the Unknown Blues' look, and sound?
DH: We like to provoke not just with our music but also with how we looked. Alongside Vaughan’s German Gear there were yellow jeans, pink Denim Jackets and our bass player “Rocket” was known to borrow clothing from his eldest sister’s wardrobe – and that was way before Boy George.
CR: Your adoption by the Antarctic Angels is another interesting element -- right away, I thought of the Bromley Contingent's early loyalty to the Sex Pistols as another common element with punk. What do you think the Angels saw in your music?
DH: Those guys were our neighbours, school friends and relatives. They were also up against the system and it seemed only natural that we fell in together and got into some very hard partying.
CR: Between you and Chants, the talent definitely existed to record a full album or two -- you were known mainly as a live phenomenon, so why didn't you achieve more in the vinyl realm, you think?
DH: The Unknown Blues were taken into a recording studio by a representative/manager from Viking Records and laid down two tracks for a proposed single. The tracks scrubbed up pretty well, but the record company representatives decided that we were a bit too rough and ready to be launched onto the New Zealand scene as potential pop star material.
CR: What factors led to the band's breakup? Towards the end, as the Audio Culture entry on Unknown Blues makes clear, you had a fair amount of lineup changes -- was it a case of breaking up the original chemistry, or a lack of a wider audience for original music?
DH: Rocket left the band to move to another city. Vaughan got engaged to be married and plain and simple the gigs had dropped off.
CR: Looking back, what kind of imprint did Unknown Blues leave behind on the Kiwi rock scene?
DH: Internationally known Punk Chris Knox of Flying Nun records has said that we were a direct influence. Thanks Chris. Also, we have been mentioned in a couple of books on the history of New Zealand Rock and Roll. And Hell! We have been inducted into the World’s Southernmost Hall of Fame.
CR: How did you feel when Simon first approached you about making a documentary about the Unknown Blues' life and times? I imagine that you had to be surprised, since the story had effectively been lost to time.
Were there any surprises, for you, in terms of what people remembered (or didn't remember -- this being the '60s, after all)? What does Antarctic Angels say about the era in which Unknown Blues existed?
DH: First off, I thought Simon was stark raving mad to even suggest such an idea. I mean, who gave a shit about us? Then when I met and spoke to Simon he proved to be the nicest guy in the world and somehow he convinced me that such a project made perfect sense. I am so grateful he did.
CR: Seeing the reunion footage makes plain that -- as the old cliche goes -- it's like you'd never been apart.
Do you see a day when the band will play again, or has an exclamation point has effectively been put on Unknown Blues' existence for good?
DH: Playing with the Unknown Blues again after a break of 40 years was truly one of my life’s highlights. However, as much as I would like it happen again, I wouldn’t put any money on it.
CR: Obviously, playing with a guy like John Stax keeps a foothold with your roots. What are your current musical influences, and how do you see yourself fitting -- or not fitting in, as the case may be -- with what's happening now? What's your favorite record of all the ones that you've made since the Unknown Blues era?
DH: I still love the Blues, The Stones and The Pretty Things, so what I play really hasn’t changed at all since I started. I love them all, but here is the time to plug a live album that Southern Lightening have just recorded. It contains all the good old stuff and it should be out by the end of this year.
CR: Lastly, any regrets -- or did everything happen for a reason, in the end?
DH: I have always refused to regret anything, mistakes and all. Rock on everyone.
LINKS TO GO
AUDIO CULTURE: CHANTS R&B PROFILE: http://www.audioculture.co.nz/people/chants-r-b
THE UNKNOWN BLUES PROFILE: http://www.audioculture.co.nz/people/the-unknown-blues
BELLBIRD PICTURES: http://www.bellbirdpictures.co.nz/
DAVE HOGAN'S MELTDOWN: http://www.davehogansmeltdown.com/
THE SOUTHLAND TIMES: "Unknown Blues Band A Blast From The Past": http://www.stuff.co.nz/southland-times/culture/5687368/Unknown-Blues-band-a-blast-from-the-past