Arguably the most sonically challenging New Zealand act of their generation, influential Christchurch band The Gordons created a sound that still resonates over three decades on.
The inaugural IMNZ Classic Record award, presented in April 2013, went to the 1981 debut album by The Gordons.
In March 1980, band-less art student John Halvorsen (bass, guitar, vocals) was booked into a gig at the Hillsborough Tavern in Christchurch – before he’d even found some other blokes with instruments to be the band. A week later, he had his new bandmates Alister Parker (guitar, bass, vocals) and Brent McLachlan (drums), and together they designed their logo, pasted up their posters over the main act’s (The Whizz Kids), practiced four times, and played the gig.
Somehow smashing fully formed into their first show – just a couple of months after the release of the monumental AK79 compilation of NZ punk – the sheet-metal/stellar-core meltdown of The Gordons was a smack in the still-fresh face of post-punk. They had seven songs at that first gig, and the crowd was so into it that they played them all twice.
Keeping up their hasty pace, The Gordons immediately went on tour, and when the van broke down in Wellington, they couldn’t afford to get it fixed and found themselves stuck there for six weeks. Rather than slowing down or giving up, they recorded their infamously lost ‘Sausage Tapes’ at Wellington's Sausage Studios, only to have the masters (accidentally?) erased.
The loudest band in...
Famous for being the brutally loudest band in NZ at the time, sensitive souls complained of hearing loss while enthusiastic skinheads stuffed their skulls into the speaker boxes for an all-out audio assault.
The terrific thunders and squalls were not dependent on guitar pedals, odd tunings and production; the guitars plugged directly into the amps, with standard tunings.
Very expensive high-quality sound systems were brought in from elsewhere to augment a venue’s setup and “reinforce the resonances”; a gig at the Gladstone in Christchurch required hiring in the best PAs from Auckland and Wellington. The band insisted that this was not loudness-for-loudness' sake, but for quality of sound reproduction, so that listeners to The Gordons became full-on experiencers of their sound. The terrific thunders and squalls were not dependent on guitar pedals, odd tunings and production; the guitars plugged directly into the amps, with standard tunings.
Halvorsen and Parker both alternated between guitar and bass, depending on who wrote the song, and used loudness as their effect, overdriving their amps and letting sounds crash into each other.
The first recordings
With their first EP, Future Shock, wherein white city lights recede in zoom-lens reverb into blackest black background, The Gordons tore open a black-(vinyl)-hole, centred roundly on the South Island. The Christchurch scene in the 1980s was a powerful and multifarious amalgam which has traditionally been dismissed in favour of – or more insultingly umbrella’d under – the nebulous 'Dunedin Sound' tag.
The (initially, non-‘The…’) Gordons quickly sculpted Future Shock in a cheap, midnight-to-dawn recording and mixing session on 8-track at Harlequin Studios in Auckland. The Gordons aimed for the best recordings they could afford.
Struggling just to pay the bills for the sound systems, when it came time to self-release their planned 7-inch, The Gordons managed to set up a credit account with Polygram (with a small deposit) to press the initial 500 copies of the record. By the end of that month they'd sold enough records to pay off the account and press a second run of 500.
This was an independent release on their own 'Gordonoid, Inc.' label in December 1980. Early copies were distributed via an indies network that included Propeller Records in Auckland and the band themselves.
Later in 1981, in a 50/50 deal with The Gordons, Flying Nun distributed, then re-pressed the 7-inch in 1982-83 with a Flying Nun centre label (rather than the spinning Gordon of the Gordonoid, Inc. release). Future Shock (along with the first LP) was officially re-released on Flying Nun in the 12-inch EP format in 1988.
As for their punk cred, the sound was much more Stooges/MC5 era than rubber-stamp-simple Sex Pistols.
As for their punk cred, the sound was much more Stooges/MC5 era than rubber-stamp-simple Sex Pistols – there’s still a bit of boogie there. The astute listener can just about imagine some handclaps in these songs, particularly on ‘Adults and Children’. Though louder than heck and black-and-white bleak, as Simon Grigg says in his RipItUp October 1980 review of The Gordons at the Rumba Bar in Auckland, “...yes, you can dance to them.”
Within the year, The Gordons were back in the studio to record their first full-length album. The self-titled LP (aka Volume 1) is less immediate than Future Shock, loaded with artful noodling, krautrock-ish minimalisms, and psych-influenced timbres. Opener ‘Spik and Span’ starts it off all slow rock-y before taking a sharp left turn at high speed halfway through, and things fall apart spectacularly from there: avant-garde-influenced decon-structures, and even – though any post-punker worth his angular anxiety would deny such tendencies – prog-rockish rhythm and key changes.
‘Right On Time’ might well have been recorded on a different planet from the Th' Dudes' 'Right First Time'though from practically the same period. Its brutalist motorik rhythm is as infectiously repetitive as a dance club trance track but brimming with post-punk growl. 'Coalminers Song' and 'I Just Can't Stop' sound so much like what Sonic Youth would be doing in a few years, The Gordons would likely have sued them, had The Gordons been Americans. 'Sometimes' is a perfect little bit of manic pop-punk, and ‘Growing Up’ is a munted blues-rock workout which leaves the listener completely unprepared for the slippery clangour of album closer 'Laughing Now'.
Amazingly, New Zealanders were ready for this stuff: No.1 hits on the NZ charts in 1981 included two Joy Division songs, as well as local New Wavers The Swingers and Screaming Meemees. RipItUp readers named Volume 1 the best album of 1981.
Disintegration and reformation
After two years of non-stop sonic onslaught, with an album, an EP, a mysterious lost recording, and a tour schedule that would fray anyone's nerves, The Gordons disintegrated. In the grand tradition of musicians taking their art to the edge and beyond, Parker had a religious experience. Unlike earlier fellow travellers Doug Jerebine and Harvey Mann, who found enlightenment through Krishna teaching, Parker found Christ and lost his music.
In the grand tradition of musicians taking their art to the edge and beyond, Parker had a religious experience.
Two years later, The Gordons resurfaced, with new member Vince Pinker (ex-Proud Scum, ex-En Can Ma) taking over for Alister Parker, with a new album and a furious leg of touring.
Once described by writer Andrew Schmidt as ‘The Gordons that Dare Not Speak its Name’, Volume 2 is blessed with the famous cover art, but mostly forgotten by Gordons fandom (and apparently the band as well). After the ecstatic first two releases, it was no longer ground-breaking. The ‘straight-into-the-amp’ aesthetic had gone, and now the vocals (and sometimes everything else) were flanged, compressed or drenched in reverb, and the lyrics were real thin. (The band would make much better use of effects and production techniques later on with Bailterspace.) But there are a couple of serious classics on here: the snaky guitar and This Heat-style truncated funk-drums on second track 'Reactor', as well as re-worked Gordons classic 'Quality Control' make up for the remaining third of the LP which is more in the mould of 80s hard rock/metal: HüsGor Düns meets Gordörhead.
After this classic sophomore slump, the original line-up briefly reformed to re-record the songs from the Sausage sessions, for Jayrem Records. Like the original lost recordings, these were never released.
These two versions of The Gordons – popularly referred to as Mark I and Mark II – only lasted a few years, with a big chunk of time off in the middle and an unsatisfying finish. But they are probably as influential on the sound and attitude of New Zealand rock as The Enemy/Toy Love. And they put down roots, and tendrils that grew throughout NZ music, most significantly blooming into Bailterspace, who – after a couple of line-up changes – could almost be referred to as Gordons Mark III.
After Parker's brief but overwhelming religious conversion, he offered up an initial EP titled Nelsh Bailter Space and some 7-inchers, which featured Hamish Kilgour (ex-The Clean) on drums, Ross Humphries (ex-Pin Group) on bass, and Glenda Bills (ex-Man Ray) on keyboards. Halvorsen and McLachlan had in the interim started Writhe Studios and joined the Skeptics (Brent producing, John guitar). Over the course of the next two years, the new band, now shortened to Bailterspace, attracted back the original Gordons line-up. The ‘New Gordons’ Bailterspace combo continued for the next 10 years, and reformed in 2012 to release Strobosphere.
The 1980 7-inch EP Future Shock was recorded in Auckland at Harlequin Studios and released independently by the band. It would later be reissued by Flying Nun.
John Halvorsen and Alister Parker fronting The Gordons at Christchurch's Gladstone Hotel, 1980