New Zealand rock lore must be filled with tales of bizarre venues that have hosted bands — farm barns and ghostly hotels and beer barns full of bikers are just three I can think of. Thus in a nation where dairy farmers form an aristocracy of sorts there has been, no doubt, many a gig in a cow shed.
But the gig that would turn out to be John's final performance — one held in a disused cow shed somewhere around Mangere Mountain — must surely go down in local lore as a particularly savage indictment of the brutal side of the New Zealand male psyche.
How this gig came about I have no idea. Someone in the local punk scene obviously had access to the cow shed and came up with the bright idea of hosting a concert there and one of them had invited John to play.
The two bands asked to play that evening were No Tag and John; a more bizarre double bill from the local scene is hard to imagine. No Tag played fierce, aggressive rock pumped along by huge bass lines, shredding guitar and hoarse vocals. Their songs all had an aggressive tone and may even have featured the occasional "Oi! Oi!" chant. That they were all likeable young men — and their singer a suit-wearing lawyer during the daylight hours — never infringed on the intensity of their performances. And then there was John, this Epsom and Onehunga quartet who were polite and arty and shrill and gently alienated, middle-class neurotics to No Tag's North Shore machismo, their sound owing something to Talking Heads' skeletal funk.
How these two bands came to be on the same bill in a rural cow shed I have no idea — I don't think anyone does (I asked Jock, John's drummer, and he says he never understood why they were there).
The gig was a free one, a party of sorts, not that anyone bothered to serve food or create a party atmosphere. And most of the few dozen punters who turned up to watch the bands were skinheads. John were not the type of band they approved of and John's vocalist David Pinker, a somewhat effete, handsome youth, was not their idea of a "good bloke". John came on first and here memory fails me — did the skinheads start throwing things at John or did David purposely antagonise the skins?
Large bottles of DB were being hurled at the cow shed's floor and walls, shattering and spraying glass across the band.
Whatever, very quickly large bottles of DB were being hurled at the cow shed's floor and walls, shattering and spraying glass across the band. Who very bravely kept playing. And David, who was very much a disciple of Chris Knox and John Lydon, teased the skins, taunting them to throw more, to do their macho best. And so they did. Bottle after bottle shattered. Thankfully none of the skins aimed the bottles at the actual band members, instead they settled on loving the sound of breaking glass. And the band played on.
Get this for weird: a gig in a cow shed with skinheads throwing 750 ml beer bottles at the band. And John's bassist Mark Staufer, to make things ever more truly surreal, was all dressed up for the disco he was going to head to after the gig: shiny slacks, pink embroidered, button-up shirt, sparkling leather shoes, his hair coiffured. He looked stranger than anyone else there, as if teleported in from another dimension. To Mark and his fellow band members' credit they played a tight set, the tensions in the music, the way their songs tilted at rigid New Zealand masculinity, framed perhaps perfectly in this most incongruous of settings.
The band finished their set — surely no longer than 30 minutes — and Jock, Mark and guitarist Graeme Harris all packed up and fled. David was immediately set on by one or two of the skins who had not appreciated his barbed comments. I think they smacked him a few times as I recall him in tears but there was no blood or bruising, thus not a real beating. He and I stayed on and watched No Tag who played their usual furious set. No one threw anything at them and no mention was made of the previous performers. I believe someone swept up the broken glass before No Tag set up. And then we returned to our cars — who gave me and David a lift? No idea — and returned to those suburbs we were so familiar with.
John did not break up because of broken glass. They spoke of playing again. But David, perhaps spooked by how far he had pushed his performance, left for London not long after. Jock and Graeme followed him but did not attempt to restart the band and both returned to Auckland within two years. Mark went on to a hugely successful career in radio and now, I believe, lives in Hollywood — his schoolboy friendship with one Russell Crowe helping him find his way — while Graeme runs his family's art supply firm and has extended it nationwide. Jock is a lawyer for the nursing union and lives in Dunedin where he pursues his musical passion via searching out old vinyl albums. And David ... David is still in London and I very occasionally bump into him. I don't know what he does, if anything, but he has certainly not stepped foot on stage (or in a cow shed) since John's last stand.