My Garageland story starts on Wednesday 13 March, 1996, at the Wailing Bongo bar at Waikato University. But because it’s a story, it changes with every retelling. This is the latest version:
There was a Flying Nun trio playing at the Bongo – Chris Knox, Superette and Garageland. Excellent. So I was in a good mood. But several months earlier I’d had my heart broken by a boy, and he was there that night too. I caught a glimpse of him by the bar and it brought back all these painful memories.
In the middle of Garageland’s set was their song “Struck”, from their 1994 “Come Back Special” EP. That song is the blues for suburban white kids. It has four chords – C-sharp, G, G-sharp and E. Its simplicity is its power.
“I have regrets, I have no cigarettes,” the verse drawls, before it begs, “Pleeeease play me ‘Benny and the Jets'”. And by the time the chorus came, the song had dragged me deep down into misery. It goes, “I’m kinda struck by the way I fucked up.” I couldn’t not react to that. I left the dancefloor, slumped into a dark corner and cried.
And I’ve never had that sort of experience at a gig since.
Garageland ruled the mid-to-late ’90s. I saw them play heaps, both on their own and as support for touring international bands. I never bought any of their albums cos I knew all the songs from seeing them live and I wasn’t sure if anything could top the “Come Back Special” EP.
The band was four school friends, Jeremy, Andrew, Mark and Debbie. They came straight outta suburban Pakuranga, aptly took a Clash song as their name, and managed to write songs that were all about what it was like to be young, a bit dorky and dissatisfied in the ’90s. Garageland were about when you’re 20 and you drink cos it’s fun to do, not cos you need to make the pain go away.
By the time their third album was released in 2003, complete with the awful song “Who The Hell Do You Think You Are” and the equally awful pretentious video set in a strip club, I’d gone right off Garageland. In fact, I didn’t even know they’d split up until I saw the posters that started appearing around town a few weeks ago promoting their reunion gig, and even then, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go.
But one fact clinched the deal: Debbie was going to be back in the line-up. She was the original guitarist and was the coolest thing ever. She had this cool red guitar with fake flowers stuck to the strap. She was far more colourful than was really allowed by mid-’90s “alternative” rock standards. And it always seemed to me that when she left the band, something changed. The band became a little darker.
So, the King’s Arms was packed full of excited Garageland fans. Finally the band took to the stage looking a little older/greyer/fatter than in previous years, but the coolness was still there. (And, y’know, I was never into him back in the day, but Jeremy was looking rather hawt in his rectangular specs.)
They started with “Fay Ray”, and somehow it didn’t feel old or nostalgic. I didn’t find myself reminiscing about ye olde Hamilton in the ’90s, or 20-year-old Robyn. It just felt like me in Newton, Auckland, 2007, seeing a cool band play.
The Pixies have a lot to answer for. Not only were they one of the bands that helped shape Garageland’s sound (the quiet-loud structure, the Santiago-esque drilly guitar bits), but they were also the inspiration behind Garageland’s reunion.
And I like these Pixies-style reunions. It goes like this: A band is big in the ’90s. They run of out energy and break up. Years pass. The band reforms and plays gigs comprising of their greatest hits. There’s no pressure to promote an album, and no burden to write new material. It’s just a good night out.
The distance of time helps reveal the best songs. Garageland’s set was dominated by their early stuff – the “Come Back Special” EP and their first album, “Last Exit to Garageland”. The audience got what it needed.
I reckon the highlight may have been “Fingerpops”. It was a grinding, teasing performance, with each verse held together by the audience yelling along, “I love the way your… fingers pop.” It was kind of a flirty, sexual experience between the audience and the band.
Then there was “Come Back”, with the rousing, shouty chorus. Almost predictably it took on special extra meaning at a reunion gig. It felt really good to be in the audience shouting at the beloved band, “Come back! All is forgiven!” Whether you were like the indie kids up from Hamilton who were in primary school when Garageland was first around, or some hardened ol’ gig-going senior (heh), Garageland were there and they were playing for you.
Near the end, Debbie Silvey came out and joined the boys, and was just as cool as she was back in the day. Interestingly she didn’t sing, which was a pity cos her sweet vocals added a nice layer to the Garageland sound – especially on the glorious “Not Empty”. But she still had her red guitar and played those little wiry accents that made the Garageland sound.
Which brings us back to “Struck”: it wasn’t played. All four of the other songs on the “Come Back Special” EP were played, but for whatever reason, “Struck” wasn’t. All around me people were yelling out for it, but maybe it belongs to an earlier time, a darker time. Like Garageland’s MySpace page sez, “Remember kids, if you remember the 90’s fondly you weren’t depressed enough to want to forget it. Good old bad times, good times.”
So if Garageland won’t let me wallow in the past, then what does that leave me?
Well, in “Beelines to Heaven” there’s a bit that goes “I just got into rock ‘n’ roll. And I don’t think I can just say no. And I can’t sleep at night.” And that’s what music love is to me. It’s this thing that comes along and grabs you when you least expect it and totally transforms your life. And you can’t ditch it – once it’s there, it’s there for good.
I’m still smoking on a pop cigar and it doesn’t taste that bad.