Chris Parfitt was the voice and face of The Hi-Revving Tongues, although the founder and band leader was guitarist Mike Balcombe, who was a few years older than the predominantly teenage line-up. Parfitt was 16 when his family shifted from Lower Hutt to Auckland in 1964. A career in rock and roll hadn’t really appealed but he attended Claude Papesch’s music school and decided to take up bass guitar, receiving lessons from Bill Belton.
He played a handful of gigs with a band called The Vampires before he was recruited into The Cossacks. Formed in 1965, The Cossacks featured Parfitt, vocalist Paul Edwards, guitarists Ken Williams and John Aikman (later replaced by Nick Scott), and drummer Johnny Ellis.
The Cossacks held a Friday night residency at the Titirangi Youth Club and boasted a strong following in West Auckland but when Benny Levin began handling the band they started playing as far afield as Waihi and Whangarei and scored a residency at Auckland city club The Top 20. Highlights were a national tour with Eden Kane and Australian band The Twilights, a single, ‘Wednesday I'm Glad' b/w 'Rapt’, released on the small Treble Clef label, and an appearance on the TV show C’Mon.
In late 1966, Parfitt was lured into a fledgling but short-lived band, Species Nine, not as bassist but as lead vocalist. In March 1967 Mike Balcombe and bassist John Walmsley formed The Hi-Revving Tongues, adding Parfitt, organist Bruce Coleman and drummer Rob Noad from Species Nine to complete the lineup. Balcombe had already enjoyed some success as a member of The Sierras, who had released half a dozen singles on Gary Daverne’s Viscount label, distributed by Eldred Stebbing’s Zodiac company.
The Hi-Revving Tongues began to make a mark almost immediately, impressing Stebbing, who was later to manage the band and direct their recording career.
The Hi-Revving Tongues began to make a mark almost immediately, impressing Stebbing, who was later to manage the band and direct their recording career. They also won the 1967 Auckland final of The Battle Of The Sounds, and were runners-up to The Fourmyula in the national final. The remarkable thing is that the band didn’t even perform in the national final in Wellington.
When the band discovered that there was no performance fee or expenses covered to compete in the national final in Wellington, and with lucrative gigs in Auckland, they declined to compete but were declared runners-up anyway! Twelve months later The Hi-Revving Tongues entered the competition again (renamed The Battle Of The Bands by promoter Benny Levin) and took out the national final.
Between these two events, the band was to release four singles and a full-length album (the benefit of having Eldred Stebbing as a manager). The first three singles were released by George Wooller’s Allied International, the band having been signed to the label by label boss Fred Noad. These were '(The Psychedelic) Illusion' b/w 'Hate To Go' in October 1967, 'Not Some Of The Time' b/w 'You'll Find Me anywhere' (February 1968), and 'Come Back And Love Me' b/w 'I've Been Lonely Too Long' (May 1968). None were hits, so new manager Eldred Stebbing moved the band across to his Zodiac label and convinced John McCready of Philips to release them via the successful two-company deal, wherein Philips picked up selected Zodiac bands which were seen to have crossover potential.
The first Allied single, written by Balcombe, '(The Psychedelic) Illusion’, often cited as New Zealand’s first recorded example of psychedelic pop. But it was single number four that better exemplified the genre. ‘Tropic Of Capricorn’ (b/w 'Baby I Need Your Lovin'') was written by Parfitt. In 2010 Parfitt confessed to Keith Newman on Radio New Zealand’s Musical Chairs that the first two chords are a direct copy of ‘House Of The Rising Sun’.
1969 brought further singles, including ‘Elevator' (written by George Alexander for the UK group Grapefruit), possibly the band’s best example of psychedelic pop (credited to Chris Parfitt and Hi-Revving Tongues by Zodiac without asking the band, as was the Tropic Of Capricorn album, issued in early 1969) with swirling organ and phased guitar, and a national tour, Blast Off ’68, with Johnny Farnham and Larry’s Rebels.
They were an extremely popular live act, from Whangarei to Dunedin. “One time,” Parfitt remembers, “we were down the South Island for what seemed like two to three months. I think we’d gone down to play just Dunedin and Christchurch and a few other gigs but we kept getting offers to return to these places. We couldn’t get home!”
Part of the band’s appeal was their stage show. Parfitt: “John Walmsley’s father used to make his own fireworks and John knew how to work with gunpowder and magnesium. He made our own smoke machine – the first one burned dried grass and hay and it sent the audience rushing to the door coughing, but he sorted that out. Another time, playing the Auckland YMCA, the fire brigade from across the road came running in.”
Impressed with the strobe lights Larry’s Rebels brought back from Australia, the band built their own. They added audiotapes of World War II bombings to the mayhem of feedback, smoke, strobes and explosions. There were occasional minor injuries on stage. Few NZ bands went as far to entertain; little wonder that The Hi-Revving Tongues was such a popular live act.
In 1969, as part of their Battle Of The Bands prize package, the band sailed to Sydney aboard the Achille Lauro. Their first Australian gig was on the same bill as Max Merritt and The Meteors and The La De Da’s. Stebbing hooked up the band with expat New Zealand promoter Graham Dent, who scored the band two television appearances within weeks of arrival. Parfitt’s brother worked at the Astra Hotel and he secured the band a residency at the popular Bondi drinking hole but it was impressing industry hot shot John Harrigan that changed their fortunes. Resident at Harrigan’s Whiskey-A-Go-Go in King’s Cross six nights a week, 9pm-3am, they earned good money, toughened up their sound and were definitely on the rise when Eldred Stebbing summoned them home.
In August 1969, the single 'Baby Come Back To Me' b/w 'Little Red Rooster' was the first for the band on the Zodiac label, Stebbing and McCready having terminated their joint venture earlier in the year.
During their eight months in Sydney, Stebbing kept the releases coming, including a song the band had forgotten about. “Eldred had wanted us to record a big ballad with strings,” Parfitt remembers, “and he chose ‘Rain And Tears’ [originally recorded by Aphrodite’s Child and written by Vangelis]. It wasn’t us but we did it; we never performed it on stage.”
When ‘Rain And Tears’ entered the national charts (the band’s first and only appearance on the national charts), Stebbing wanted the band in New Zealand to promote it. In August 1969 ‘Rain And Tears’ reached No.1 and two months later collected the Group Award at the Loxene Golden Disc Awards.
Despite the upward curve, the band’s career was following, things were starting to fall apart. Walmsley, unhappy with the decision to return to New Zealand, returned to Australia, replaced by Graeme Thompson; drummer Rob Noad was replaced by Richard Sinclair, who’d spent time with the earlier Species Nine. The band was given a key spot at Phil Warren’s Redwood 70. It was The Hi-Revving Tongues’ final performance.
Oh, there was an attempt to keep it going. A new line-up shortened their name to The Tongues, releasing a self-titled album on Zodiac under that name, but they didn’t last long. In 1972 Balcombe, Coleman and Noad reunited in Australia, forming the nucleus of Caboose, who released a couple of largely ignored singles but had one highlight when they toured Australia with Mungo Jerry and Edison Lighthouse. Caboose didn’t last long either.
Meanwhile, Chris Parfitt pursued a solo career, managed by Barry Coburn. A couple of singles died on the vine. “I wasn’t really happy as a soloist,” Parfitt says, “it just wasn’t my thing. I was always happier as a band member.”
In the years since, Chris Parfitt has continued to play and perform, sometimes on bass, sometimes on guitar. There was Chris Parfitt’s Medicine Show in the early 1970s and there were other bands, in both Auckland and Sydney, where he settled for 10 years (1976-1986) before returning to Auckland. These days he plays in three bands – a rockabilly group (playing double bass) with Billy Hood, a Shadows tribute band, and teaming up with Roger Skinner to play those 60s classics.
Looking back over his career, Parfitt says, “There were times in those early days when I had to knock the day job on the head but I’ve never really considered myself a full-time musician. I’m a cabinetmaker and luthier by trade and it’s been mostly work during the week and play over the weekend. I suppose I could have been a simple tradesman with a small circuit of friends but through the music scene I have hundreds of friends. It’s been a good life. I wouldn’t change it.”