It was 2016, and I was in San Francisco for the first time, strapped into the passenger seat with a New Zealand punk legend at the wheel.
The city flashed by to a soundtrack of full-throttle guitar noise.
From Haight Ashbury to North Beach, The Mission to Telegraph Hill, we hammered up hills and plunged down valleys in a much-abused VW Golf, my driver hollering over the din.
“Listen to this bit!” shouted Andrew Boak, turning up a song that was already so loud, the inside of the car sounded like a jet engine with a knackered bearing.
He was blasting a demo by his own band, Blank Spots.
Burly, snarling and kinetic, it sounded like music that might be made by a bunch of snotty 17 year olds, though Boak is in his 50s.
Once a punk, always a punk, I thought. Also – for Christ’s sake, can you turn this down!
But Boak has made a career out of turning things way the hell up, and he’ll be doing just that when he flies back to Auckland in May to host the latest in a series of raucous live events.
“Mate, this latest Punk It Up will be a blast!” he assures me over the steady hum of traffic.
“This is the fourth one we’ve done, and it’s gonna be the best yet. I can’t wait.”
Three years on from our first meeting in San Francisco, Boak is in that same car when I call, trapped in a traffic jam near his work as a computer geek in Silicon Valley.
“Some of New Zealand’s best punk bands of the 70s and 80s will be reuniting for the night. Spelling Mistakes… X-Features… Proud Scum. The Terrorways have just confirmed, too. The Newmatics are even getting back together! There’ll be stalls and DJs, too, and I’ll be playing in our punk covers band, BankRobbers.”
A north shore kid with a surfeit of emotional energy, Andrew Boak played guitar with Auckland punk band No Tag in the early 80s.
They became notorious, playing hard and fast in front of volatile crowds of heavy-drinking punks and boot boys.
Fights were frequent, and more timid souls stood near the back so they could get out in a hurry.
Boak later worked in radio, sang backing vocals on American punk band Dead Kennedys’ Bedtime For Democracy album, toured as a guitar tech with The Chills, PJ Harvey and My Bloody Valentine, and ran San Francisco house music label Imperial Dub Recordings.
But punk remain his deepest love.
“This music has never let me down,” he tells me.
“It’s loud and fast and exciting and political, and the culture around it celebrates collective action and personal responsibility.”
It’s more than four decades since this music reared up in New York, London, Manchester and elsewhere, but the enduring appeal of punk is unsurprising to Boak.
“A lot of punk tracks have killer pop songs at their core, and they work on a lot of levels. People listen to techno for the rising peaks, and house music for those kick-drums the same tempo as your heartbeat. They listen to classical music for the melodies, and the massive dynamic contrast between those huge bits where the whole orchestra’s charging along and the quieter solo passages. Punk has elements of all that for me, plus it’s huge fun to get up on stage and play it for people.”
Boak occasionally encounters detractors who dismiss punk rock as a dusty relic, the kind of music a person should “grow out of” once they’ve got their rebellious teenage phase behind them.
“But it’s got nothing to do with age, really. Punk songs were often about the things in society that needed to change, demanding that everyone have the freedom to live their lives without governments or capitalist corporations impinging on their human rights. Punk songs were angry for a reason, with a strong spirit of resistance, and a lot of us still relate to that. Just because you’re an old punk in your late 50s doesn’t mean your politics have changed.”
Sure enough, Boak’s latest songs still seethe with righteous outrage.
Hectic, furious, full of hairpin hand-brake turns, new single Not My President by his San Francisco punk trio Blank Spots hurtles by in less than two minutes and sounds like it could have been recorded in 1978 by The Ruts or The Skids.
The cover image features Donald Trump looking, frankly, demented. Nice work.
Boak makes the point that performing such venomous tunes can be therapeutic; it gives you a safe outlet for your anger in an increasingly stressful world.
“If I didn’t play this sort of music, I’d probably be on America’s Most Wanted list for getting too angry and killing someone. Playing fast, aggressive music is a vent for me to blow off steam. It releases endorphins that make me happy so I can go through the rest of the week as a calm, smiling, productive member of society.”
Boak has lived in San Francisco for over 25 years but flies back to the homeland every year or two to stage a Punk It Up show and gather the old clan.
“Punters come along partly to reconnect with people they hung out with 40 years ago, when New Zealand was a very different country. A lot of punks in Auckland formed close friendships during the depths of the Muldoon era, when there was high unemployment and getting drunk and wasted in a loud room somewhere was about your only leisure activity.”
In the late 70s and early 80s, a vibrant subculture gathered around Auckland’s punk bands because they offered high excitement and an almost tribal sense of camaraderie.
“For some people, those early punk days were the best years of their lives, but most of those people have fallen out of touch now. Punk It Up gets them all in the same room again over a few beers with a brilliant soundtrack.”
Several past Punk It Ups took place in Auckland’s now-demolished Kings Arms, and Boak had a hell of a job finding a suitable venue for the latest event.
Eventually, a brainwave struck.
Joining other key venues of the day – Windsor Castle, Island of Real/ XS Cafe, HQ Rock Cafe, Moody Richards, Disco D’Ora – one of Auckland’s most infamous early punk hangouts was on Durham St West.
A former rock’n’roll club during the 1960s and early 70s, the upstairs room had previously played host to The Pretty Things, The Rolling Stones and The Temptations alongside dozens of local bands before falling derelict.
After reopening as Zwines in March 1978, this manky warehouse became second home to pioneering NZ punk bands such as The Scavengers, The Enemy, Terrorways, The Aliens, Idle Idols, Suburban Reptiles and The Stimulators.
Zwines was “dirty… very old… a seedy, smelly black hole that was, for a brief moment, the epicentre of Auckland’s cutting-edge live scene,” recalls former Suburban Reptiles manager Simon Grigg, who has written extensively online about the club and the bands who played there.
Boak discovered that the building is now a bar and wedding reception venue called The Bluestone Room.
It seemed too good to be true – a punk reunion inside Auckland’s original punk club – so he booked the place.
“Zwines was ground zero for New Zealand punk, though the place could be pretty intimidating back then. Some younger punks like No Tag were too scared to go up there, even though it was unlicensed and there was no age limit. It will be amazing to put a stage and lights and a PA back into that place, even though it’s costing us thousands extra to do it.”
One of the bands Boak has booked for Punk It Up IV is Spelling Mistakes, who made their stage debut at Zwines almost 40 years ago to the day, in a double bill with Proud Scum in May, 1979.
Former Spelling Mistakes bassist Nigel Russell now lives near Paparoa on the Kaipara Harbour, and sells high-end audio equipment to recording studios.
Poet Sam Hunt lives half a kilometre away, and broadcaster Paul Henry also has a place nearby.
And I’m amazed to hear that Jed Town of fellow punk miscreants, X-Features, lives right next door.
Who’d have thought two young reprobates who once made a fearsome racket in Auckland’s inner-city punk dives would become a couple of country gentlemen 40 years later?
“I can’t get over it myself, actually,” says Russell, “but there you go. Life is weird.”
Formed from the remnants of Get Smart and The Aliens, Spelling Mistakes comprised Warwick Fowler (a.k.a. Warwick Hitler), brothers Julian and Nick Hanson, and Russell, who replaced earlier bassist, Keith Bacon.
After winning Windsor Castle’s 1980 Battle of the Bands, they released the single Feels So Good on Simon Grigg’s Propeller Records, still a much-loved local anthem today.
Spelling Mistakes also recorded an infamous ode to the genitalia of actress Rena Owen (Once Were Warriors, Star Wars II and III, A.I.), who was part of the punk scene at the time.
Russell has been making music ever since, he tells me.
He collects vintage synthesisers, playing from time to time with old mates from Danse Macabre and Car Crash Set.
And there was a recent a gig at Dargaville’s historic Tokatoka Tavern, former haunt of craggy gum-diggers, alongside X-Features/ Fetus Productions’ Jed Town and Johnny Payne from Hallelujah Picassos.
“Spelling Mistakes also got back together for a few shows in 1999 to celebrate our 20th anniversary and recorded some songs. We’ve played a couple of previous Punk It Ups, too, which are always huge fun.”
Yes, let us not forget fun. Alongside speed and anger, punk had no shortage of wit.
It makes my heart glad to recall a time when this nation’s scruffy young musical upstarts gave themselves such splendid names as Des Truction, Jonathan Jamrag, Zero, Ronnie Recent, Mal Licious, Tommy Vomit, John No-One, Spike Bastard and Jimmy Sex.
Some of the above will be attending this latest Punk It Up, bless them, hopefully heckling from the side-lines like the old days.
But does Russell feel there’s anything peculiar about reunions like this – a strange tension, perhaps, between punk nihilism and middle-aged nostalgia?
After all, punk is traditionally the preserve of the young and disaffected, not the wrinkly and heavily-mortgaged.
How does it feel to be on stage as a grey and paunchy old bugger, hurtling through songs so intimately connected with youthful rebellion?
“It feels great!” Russell assures me.
“These songs are still brilliant to play, because our drummer Julien always knew how to write a f…… good tune. Really, the music itself doesn’t feel as though it’s aged at all, even though the musicians have. And it’s great to be able to play those songs again to an appreciative audience, without all the crowd violence we had the first time ’round.”
Russell vividly recalls the spark that ignited his enthusiasm for punk more than 40 years ago.
“I was watching TV when Dylan Taite interviewed the Sex Pistols in 1976, and that was the magic moment for me. It suddenly made the whole band thing seem attainable. It felt like anybody could get on stage and do it, even if they could only play in a super basic way; you just needed some energy and commitment. I mean, I’m a rat-shit bass player, really, but I just got up and did it. It was inspiring to see bands like The Scavengers at Zwines, so I started practicing. I was hooked.”
By the time Spelling Mistakes started playing around the city, it had become a pretty violent scene, the crowds infiltrated by disaffected skinheads.
“There was all sorts of aggro from the boot boys, and boot girls, for that matter. After Proud Scum moved to Australia, we inherited a lot of that audience and the drama was sometimes good fun, but eventually all the venues around Auckland stopped booking us. That spelt the end of Spelling Mistakes, ultimately. We could no longer get a gig anywhere because of the crowd we’d attract and the damage that ensued.”
Spelling Mistakes lasted just two years, 1979 and 1980.
“The early punk era in this country was pretty short, but it felt like a very exciting, rebellious thing to be part of during a very conservative time in New Zealand’s history when there wasn’t a lot of other compelling stuff to do. Even so, realistically, the entire Auckland punk scene back then probably consisted of only two or three hundred people.”
Zwines only had around a two-year run, Russell reckons. He’s hugely looking forward to playing in that room again, almost 40 years to the day since Spelling Mistakes debuted there alongside Proud Scum.
“That place is now surrounded by apartments and hotels, so it remains to be seen how they go with the noise on the night. But at least it will be easy to get in the door without injury.
“In the old days, people took exception to the fact that a place like Zwines even existed. You had to run the gauntlet.
“There was a disco called Babes downstairs, so you had to carefully consider when to make your run for the stairs. We used to sprint up the alley to get to Zwines, and people from Babes would try and ‘deck a punk’ on the way past.
“Like a lot of other things in this life, it was all about timing.”
* Punk It Up IV takes place on Saturday, May 25 at Zwines, Auckland (The Bluestone Room – Durham Lane)