Unknown Blues band a blast from the past

They've been there, they've terrorised that. After 43 years, Southland's wildest rock band, the Unknown Blues, is getting back together for one more noisy gig. CHRIS CHILTON reports.

Dave Hogan swears the band members beat each other up on stage just once.

The gregarious frontman of Southland's most famed underground rock band of the 1960s is uncharacteristically hazy on the details when asked about the Unknown Blues' reputation as boozing, brawling, antisocial louts.

He concedes the story about bashing each other on stage might have had something to do with an incident involving a "bird" two of the band members had their eye on at a gig in Dunedin in the late 1960s.

As Hogan tells it, one of the band members might have enjoyed an intimate liaison with said bird in the alley behind the club the band was playing at that night, and was so preoccupied that he didn't make it back on to the stage in time for the start of the second set.

When the happy chappie did finally reappear mid-song, the spare corner in this two-way love triangle might have taken offence and swung a couple of punches at his bandmate.

It was all over pretty quickly, Hogan says. Nobody missed a beat and the show went on.

It was a long time ago, he says. They are all still good mates, playing raucous, blood-raw rhythm 'n' blues. "We pre-dated punk in attitude, if nothing else," he says cheerfully.

The Unknown Blues are a cult band built on legend, some of it true and some of it is just getting to be a better story as the years go by.

It's true that they were thrown out of their first gig, a Waverley Bible class dance in 1966, because they were too loud.

It's true they liked a drink or two. "There was never any hint of drugs. It was totally alcohol-fuelled, like a good old-fashioned Southland rugby team," Hogan says.

And it's true that they were good mates with the Antarctic Angels bikie gang, a similarly loud and antisocial crew who added to the atmosphere of many an Unknown Blues gig.

But when John Dix wrote in his history of New Zealand rock, Stranded In Paradise, that the Unknown Blues were popular with promoters because of their floorshow potential, "stumbling around stage drunk, destroying tambourines and microphones and arguing and brawling among themselves", well, maybe, the truth was somewhere just south of that.

Hogan says at the time that kind of publicity didn't do the Unknown Blues any harm at all, as they left their trail of empties and exhausted audiences from Invercargill to Christchurch.

"Let's just say the notoriety has been added to. If that goes down in folklore any publicity's good publicity, as they say, as long as they spell the names correctly."

It was 1968 when the classic lineup of Hogan, guitarists Vaughan MacKay and Bari Fitzgerald, bass player John "Rocket" Hancock and drummer Keith "Wombie" Mason played their last gig together.

"We had no ambition to go to Auckland, to make a record, to do anything," Hogan says. "It was really just the next party, the next gig, and we really didn't give a stuff."

The band kicked on until 1970 with some different members, but 43 years is a long time between drinks for these hell-raising, middle-aged rockers.

They will be having a few, no mistake, when they reassemble tomorrow night at the Invercargill Workingmen's Club for the Southland Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame show, where Hogan will be among the inductees.

Rehearsals at the Southland Musicians Club this week have gone amazingly well, he says. It's like riding a bike.

"We had to get a bit of rust off the pedals, but after that we were cool.

"I'm quite amazed how quickly things are falling into place."

There's a bit of the old fire and spark, Hogan exclaims with a hearty laugh, and they are taking their repertoire for tomorrow's gig right back to where it all started.

"We started out playing pretty thrashy versions of the blues stuff out of England in the 60s, stuff like the Pretty Things, the Yardbirds, early Stones – we thought, we'll just do the same stuff.

"That's what people will remember us for anyway. And it is the right stuff to be doing, because everybody has got big smiles on their faces."

The band took its name from the title of a 1965 song by the Pretty Things, chosen by boyhood mates Hogan and Phil Sharman.

Sharman was the Unknown Blues' first drummer and, in 1969-70, their last bass player. He died of cancer a year or so ago, and the band's show tomorrow will be dedicated to him.

"I wish he was here," Hogan says. "Phil would have loved it. He and I were the kids down Crawford St who came up with the name before we could play. We knew we were going to have a band."

It is quite something that five musicians who haven't been in the same room together since 1968 can pick it up again so quickly and he concedes, with a touch of regret, it might be the last time it happens. Four – Hogan and Mason (Melbourne), MacKay (Brisbane) and Hancock (Sydney) – are scattered in Australia, while Fitzgerald's blue 1938 Ford 81C pickup truck is a daily sight on Invercargill's streets.

Hogan is probably the only one who has continued anything like a regular gig in the ensuing four decades, and he is still making a mark in Melbourne with his pub band The Meltdowns. In 2005, they won the Australian Blues Song of the Year award with Little Lies.

"I'm not a big rock star by any means," he chuckles, "but I've never stopped."

The five reunited band members got together for a few quiets at the musos' club last Sunday before ripping into a week of rehearsals.

Naturally, conversation at the bar turned to Unknown Blues' place in southern rock history, where they slot chronologically in between the sharply dressed beat bands of the early 60s and the big rock bands of the 70s.

A few of the old hands who had followed them on to Southland's stages were there: Bob Daley (the Farthings, Vision), Trevor Daley (Justice, Hard Times, Vision), Taff Hewton (State Of Mind, Justice) and Ian Kennedy (the Echophonics).

Unknown Blues' lead guitarist Vaughan MacKay put it like this.

"You don't know how much you owe us, guys," he said.

"After we'd been and gone, you guys could get away with murder. People would say, `That's bad, but it's not as bad as those Unknown Blues guys'."You want rock 'n' roll? The Unknown Blues are very rock 'n' roll.

Southland