The Swingers auditioned a lot of drummers. I was playing rhythm guitar, but none of the drummers seemed right. They were all good players but put their licks all over the music, rather than laying down a steady groove supporting the lyrics in the song. We kept it down to a three-piece, so that is how I became a drummer. It was a practical decision as well as a musical one. The band and a sound guy, with all our gear, PA, and lights, could tour in one van. 

We kept it down to a three-piece. It was a practical decision as well as a musical one

We actually auditioned other guitar players, but none had the right vibe for us. Jed Town had a jam with us, he was good and the closest. We thought of asking Dave Dobbyn, too blonde, or Mike Caen, too bluesy, so they never eventuated. We went about six months of rehearsing, three nights a week and all weekend while holding down our day jobs. We got really tight as a band. My girlfriend Julia Dennis, who also made our stage shirts, bought a pair of earrings on K Road that were dangly and garish and called Swingers. So the band was named after some cheap and tacky ’60s retro plastic women’s jewellery.

We finally got to support Split Enz on their Give It a Whirl tour of New Zealand. Our first gig was to 4000 people at the Auckland Town Hall. After that one tour, promoters in all the main centres knew about us. We were offered a residency at the Liberty Stage, at the time not even open, which we gladly accepted. When we were away playing outside of Auckland, there were heaps of new, young, original bands to take our place at Liberty Stage. The Whizz Kids, which later morphed into Blam Blam Blam, Techtones, Electrobeat, Sheerlux, and the Dentists. It became a hub for the new wave scene.

We toured New Zealand a couple of times, and did really well at the Hillsborough in Christchurch thanks to the efforts of Jim Wilson and his team who looked after us, gave us good door deals and got people into the pub. We had some of our best gigs ever at the Hillsborough.

We had a great practice room in an old wooden-floored warehouse up in Newmarket in Auckland. It was so huge, we could kick a soccer ball about, which served us well for getting energised and gig-sweaty by the time we started playing. That’s when we wrote ‘Counting the Beat’, with Bones starting off on bass, me following on drums, Phil Judd on guitar and all of us singing. I remember just setting up, and Bones starts playing the riff. “What’s that?” said Phil. “What’s what?” says Bones. “That riff you were playing.” “Um, I dunno, what riff?” Phil had to physically press Bones’ fingers on the bass fretboard so he could play it and remember what he had done. Once he had, we were off. All the backing vocals came from Bones and I singing while we played through the song for the first time. Phil recorded all our rehearsals, went home, sorted through everything, and wrote the lyrics, which were heartfelt and about his romantic adventures, which is why the song resonates with so many people. It’s actually about real emotions from a real-life relationship situation, not just made up nonsense. Well, my chorus is made-up nonsense. Okay, it’s got both.

In my third year at Elam Art School, I shared a place with Rob Gillies. He started art school in the same year as Phil Judd and Noel Crombie, and he became the sax player for Split Ends, as they then were. I moved into the backroom when Noel moved out. In the evenings, Rob’s girlfriend, Geraldine, would play The Doors, Traffic, Led Zep or MC5’s Kick Out The Jams, while Rob and I sat at the kitchen table drawing endlessly. Rob would always draw these futuristic creatures with strange armour and weapons. Years later, he became the art director of TV shows Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess, and worked for Peter Jackson on The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The day John Lennon died happened to be my birthday ... The romance of playing in a band was tarnished severely for me from that day on.

I have a vivid memory from 1980, after The Swingers moved to Melbourne when I was living with Neil Finn, his wife Sharon, and Noel Crombie. Us boys were chucking a rugby ball around the front garden when it got stuck up a tree. Neil being the youngest was commandeered to go up the tree, but while he was up there, retrieving the ball, Sharon came out of the house and quietly said, John Lennon has been shot – and he died. The fun and games were over. I looked at Neil and he had turned white with shock. The day Lennon died was the 8th of December, and it happened to be my birthday.

My whole life, John was my guiding light in music, philosophy, and fashion, and now that light was out. The romance of playing in a band was tarnished severely for me from that day on. Straight after the No.1 with The Swingers, within months I had recorded two albums – one in Australia and one in England – with The Models. I joined The Models two days after I left The Swingers. Well, I had my first audition, which turned into the first rehearsal with them. The second rehearsal – after getting really stoned and playing through a couple of numbers – the guys decided I had the vibe and everything would be fine at the gig, and we went downstairs to a café for coffee.

I loved playing live with Sean Kelly, Andrew Duffield and Mark Ferrie. They had been playing together for three years before I joined and trusted each other’s performance implicitly. Playing life was a joy, and the gigs went off. Plus, we had the luxury of a good manager, a first-class road crew, soundman, lighting guy, stage guy and luggers. A far cry from The Swingers’ early days in Oz playing three shows in one day and lugging my own gear. Dragging my drum kit up and down three flights of stairs and playing on a lino floor at the lunchtime RMIT gig then going on to a four-set pub gig followed by a two-set club gig. No wonder I got strong and good at playing.

In The Models, the band just turned up to the gigs and left after the gig. Yes, please. They were so casual after being in the very regimented approach in The Swingers; this was a welcome change. I would be like, “So, when does it slow down into the instrumental bit?” And Mark would say, “Don’t worry about it, I will give you a nod”. Rock’n’roll, brother.

We had some sublime gigs, and when we rocked out mid-song in the instrumental jams, we rocked into space. As it turned out, the new drummer position was down to me and Paul Hester. Ironically, I got the gig ahead of Paul and he went on to join Split Enz and then formed Crowded House with Neil Finn. Just before The Mullanes (who became Crowded House) formed, a group of us mates got together, Paul on guitar and vocals, Bones on bass, Rob Wellington on guitar and me on drums. We hired a rehearsal room and had a few rehearsals at full volume. It was very energetic and raw, like the Velvet Underground. One song we did was Paul’s ‘Plastic Fantastic’, which ended up on a Crowded House album. I asked Mark Ferrie recently why they picked me for Models and not Paul. “Because you were more fun,” he replied in a blink.

Three guys staggered across the road in front of our car, singing at the top of their voices, “La da de da, la da de dah.”

Four years later, leaving a late-night gig with Models, three guys staggered across the road in front of our car, arms around each other’s shoulders, singing at the top of their voices, “La da de da, la da de dah.” “Hey Buster, you are famous,” the guys in the band jibed me. I thought to myself, “Oh my God is this what making it means? Is this really it?”

Herb Alpert, the famous 1960s trumpeter, formed a record company with Jerry Moss in America and called it A&M. Their Europe branch had a brilliant roster of artists, including The Police, Joan Armatrading, and Joe Jackson. The A&M boss experienced The Models for the first time at Melbourne’s Festival Hall, supporting his band The Police. When we Models went on stage in Melbourne, Police drummer Stewart Copeland said, “Why [don’t] you guys just give up?” My reply was, “We can’t because we haven’t learnt how to play yet,” as I ran past him onto the stage to a thunderous round of applause. I was bursting with energy. 

The audience was rushing the stage as we tore into the first number. The Models had built a huge following in Melbourne in the three years before I had joined and they already had an album out. Well, it seemed like every Models fan in the world was there as we went down triumphantly with the audience playing a high-energy set of songs they knew backwards, all with a catchy chorus that they could sing along to and a four-on-the-floor beat that you just had to dance to. Andrew’s extraordinary keyboard sounds, paired with Sean’s unusual, unique voice and quirky lyrics gave The Models a very contemporary feel – way, way ahead of the times. We were signed to A&M on the strength of that performance.

Michael Gudinski of Mushroom Records loved us and got us that gig through his Frontier Touring Company. He got the A&M guys there, and then did our English deal with them. Soon, we were living in the middle of London in Chelsea in a beautiful apartment in Sloane Square. There were classic mural paintings on the walls, a huge lounge and connecting folding glass doors to the dining room, leather couches, a glass serving tray for drinks that we used to chop out on. I freaked out when the A&M guy told me not to carry my own luggage – “that was the driver’s job” – when we first arrived at our digs from Heathrow airport. Welcome to the class system. We were a stone’s throw from the King’s Road. Right in the middle of the punk rock and emerging new romantic scene. I loved it.

The toilet walls were covered in blood where people had been bashed, Mohawks everywhere, scary stuff.

We were told by A&M to assimilate ourselves with the London vibe for the first month, which basically meant getting paid to have a party and go out to see bands and clubs. We saw Split Enz at the Hammersmith Odeon, and partied with them afterwards, Kraftwerk, The Jam at the Rainbow, where the whole audience sang every word like a football crowd, Ultravox, Tenpole Tudor, The Cramps – where a fierce looking punk approached Andrew Duffield, took his pint of beer, drank it then gave it back. The toilet walls were covered in blood where people had been bashed, Mohawks everywhere, scary stuff. The Birthday Party in a shit pub sounding shrill and shriek, playing to a mangy audience, some with West Ham Skins tattooed on their necks, even scarier. A New York funk band called Defunkt at the Venue in the middle of London, where they searched punters for weapons at the door – that was all new to me.

When they released Local &/Or General I had no say in it, I was just the new drummer, so the Local &/Or General tour went ahead and the album only sold 30,000 units. The same as Cut Lunch: that stopped selling subsequently fell, plummeted out of the charts. What a waste, all that effort to go and record in England, and the band was no more popular than before.

Then Sean rang me. He said he had been thinking a lot and had decided I wasn’t for the band. Sean had earlier fired our tour manager and sound guy Mark Woods. Bad mistake: Mark went on to mix Men at Work and then Tina Turner, when she was huge in the 80s and had the biggest PA in the world. In later years Mark told me that he always put Tina’s vocals straight through the desk dry, no effects, flat EQ. All the effects were on the band, not Tina. Amazing. He once said that I was the only drummer that he knew of that could turn a gig around. If it was going bad, I could get it back on track and make it go off. I really “dug” Mark big time, he was so sensible, reliable and efficient. But in Sean’s eyes we were for the scrap heap. Cool, I thought, “See-ya, I’m outta here.”

The day I left the Models, Gudinski gave me a job helping out in the merchandising division of Mushroom Records, managed by Adrian Barker. “We can’t get a good man go,” were his words. And that suited me perfectly. I didn’t mind my mate Adrian being my boss, and I was over travel and strange rooms. That teenage desire to stay in hotel rooms so you could make a mess and watch TV in bed had long since faded. I wanted my own place to stay put in, to cook, be with my girl every night, and do a regular job with weekends off. I hadn’t had a weekend off for four years.

That teenage desire to stay in hotel rooms so you could make a mess and watch TV in bed had long since faded.

While at Mushroom, I helped master printer Dave Hodson print the merchandise of T-shirts and caps, then I got to design T-shirts and tour jackets for bands from Frontier Touring, such as Devo, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Go Go’s (basically, any artist on one of Michael’s record labels, among them Joe Cocker, Judas Priest, and local bands booked by Premier, such as The Church, Split Enz and Australian Crawl). Gudinski had it all covered. At one stage, when Australian Crawl were at their peak, during the Sons of Beaches tour, we were printing 4000 T-shirts a week just for them. I did all the press ads for the Enz With a Bang tour. I designed tour posters for Australian Crawl, Noiseworks, Daryl Braithwaite, and album covers for the likes of Andrew Duffield and Pseudo Echo. My cover artwork on Pseudo Echo’s album, Love an Adventure, earned me my first ARIA nomination for Best Album Cover Artwork.

Thirty years later, 2015, and I find myself in Auckland at the 50th Anniversary of the APRA Silver Scroll Award. The Swingers are nominated for song of the year for 1981, the year ‘Counting the Beat’ was released. I had just come good after five years of fighting a multitude of health problems, including bone marrow and blood cancer. Heavy shit, requiring 18 months of chemo and another 18 months getting over the side effects of the treatment. Actually, I am still getting over it. It is hard for me to talk about it because it was such a horrid time. Let me just say I have been to hell and back, to the realm of the half dead. My dreams were filled with dead people I had known. I had to dig deep into my inner resolve just to get through a day. No one knew what I was going through. Thankfully, Support Act in Oz helped me financially through the first year of the cancer battle, and Neil and Sharon Finn helped me out in the second year. But I have touched the bottom of the bottomless pit and kicked off and come back to the surface.

Out of the blue, APRA NZ boss, Anthony Healey, invited me to attend the 2015 awards because The Swingers had been nominated. My renal registrar said, “You should go, you only live once.” My cancer specialist, Dr Brad Augustson, who had basically saved my life, said, “You should go to the 50th anniversary because you won’t be going to the 100th.” Funny bugger. Fresenius, my dialysis supplier, arranged to have all my needs in the room of my hotel when I arrived in New Zealand. I could catch up with my mum and brother that I hadn’t seen in years, other relatives, nieces, kids that I was yet to meet and friends I hadn’t seen since I left New Zealand in 1980. Phil couldn’t make it. He said the anti-social side of his character wouldn’t allow him, so he would just dream about being there. Bones, now a session player in Nashville, was on tour doing a gig in Toronto that night. I was the only one representing the band, with Ian James from Mushroom Publishing there to hold my hand.

I was sick as a dog that night. I had caught a lung infection on the flight over. I nearly passed out a few times earlier in the evening when I was standing up, chatting. I picked at my beautiful three-course dinner and just drank water. My nose was dripping so much I was pinching everyone’s napkins. I was struggling a bit. At one stage I was so hoping we wouldn’t win the award, as I didn’t think I could manage to get up there to accept it. My mind was reeling at what was happening. I hadn’t been out and socialised for years, and now on my first night out I had been interviewed, photographed and filmed. What a buzz.

I had talked to Bones about who I should thank if we won. He said, “No one, we did it all ourselves.” Which in a lot of respects is true. In New Zealand we did do almost everything, writing the songs, getting the gigs, performing, lugging the gear. In Australia, The Swingers were limited to playing terrible gigs, after the relative luxury of supporting The Sports on an Australian tour, until ‘Counting the Beat’ came out six months later. When we were supporting The Angels, the crowd at Blacktown RSL chanted “Angels, Angels, Angels” before, during, and after we played. Poor Juddzy was shattered.

‘Counting the Beat’ was written for our fans. We wrote it so they could dance.

But there were people to thank for our rise to the top in New Zealand. Hugh Lynn, who gave us great gigs at his club Mainstreet. Michael Chunn, who was around then sorting stuff out for us, and eventually released ‘Counting the Beat’ as Ripper Records’ first release. That success allowed them to sign and release other new New Zealand artists. Bryan Staff for recording us at 2ZM. Gary, our first sound guy – he got us sounding big on our first New Zealand tour right from the word go. Murray Cammick for giving us great reviews and a cover of Rip It Up. Michael Gudinski for being a real music fan and flying over from Melbourne to see us play live on a Sunday night at the Island of Real, after which he invited us to Oz. But more than anyone we had to thank the ones that inspired us to write the song.

‘Counting the Beat’ was written for our fans. We wrote it so they could dance. Back then, to get a pub gig you had to play four x 45 minute sets, with encores. That is a lot of songs, and we turned them over, wrote new ones, dropped stale ones. Pub gigs were hard work: intimate, so you had to interact with the audience; they were right there in front of you. Neil Finn once told me that he had only played concerts up until he did a pub tour of New Zealand with Dave Dobbyn, and his opening remark, “I have never played in a pub before” was greeted with a lone but booming: “Well fuck off then.”

Welcome to Kiwi Pub Rock, son.


First published in Phantom Billstickers’ Café Reader, volume 16, winter 2016. Republished with permission.

The Buster Stiggs Story, part one: The Reptiles at the Dawn of Punk