Since the late '70s, Chris Knox's can-do attitude has
inspired a long list of musicians both here and overseas. Last
weekend, in tribute to the songwriter, who suffered a stroke
earlier this year, a collection of friends and fans celebrated
the release of a double album. Shane Gilchrist reports.
Last week was a busy one for Chris Knox.
The influential New Zealand songwriter, who suffered a
debilitating stroke on June 11, attended a media conference
on Tuesday, November 17, with fellow recipients of the Arts
Foundation Laureate Awards, carver Lyonel Grant, musician
Richard Nunns, photographer Anne Noble and writer Witi
Undergoing residential rehabilitation, Knox couldn't take
part in the night-time presentation ceremony, so the award
was picked up on his behalf by friends Roger Shepherd,
founder of Flying Nun records, and music journalist Nick
A couple of days later, Knox's cartoon character, Max Media,
who had been "resting" since mid-June, reappeared in the
Timeout entertainment section of the New Zealand Herald.
And last Friday night, Knox joined a large bunch of friends
to celebrate the release of the double tribute album Stroke
at Auckland venue the King's Arms.
That the 57-year-old was not content to remain among the
audience, but rather got up on stage and contributed vocal
phrasing to a song was typical, according to a couple of
those present at the gig.
The Verlaines founder and music academic Graeme Downes:
"Chris sang a song at the gig last Friday. Wordless, because
words currently fail him, but musical nonetheless in the
phrasing and pitching of the sounds he generated. But, above
all, it was the attitude of the delivery - defiance, defiance
and more defiance. Chris, to borrow from Dylan Thomas, is not
about to go gently anywhere, and never has".
The Clean's David Kilgour: "At sound-check for the tribute
concert, I was told Chris wanted to play a 'song' with me and
Noel Ward along with the Nothing rhythm section. We made it
up on the spot on the night and it's one of the most intense
and wonderful moments I have ever had on stage. This man has
courage and is a great living force. His days as an artist
are not over yet; it's just part two".
Knox, who since the mid-'70s has fronted The Enemy, Toy Love
and Tall Dwarfs as well as performing his own solo material,
has been a mentor to a variety of musicians, either directly
through his early recordings of Flying Nun bands, or
indirectly by way of his uncompromising artistry.
Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd recalls the first time he
saw Knox, in 1978.
As a Christchurch punk rocker, Shepherd and a few friends
drove his unreliable Morris 1100 for four and a-half hours to
visit Dunedin for the first time.
The venue: a Beneficiaries Hall crammed with surfers, bogans,
punks and "future friends".
The band they had all come to see was The Enemy.
"They were the real thing," Shepherd recalls.
"Raw and concise but sophisticated musically and fronted by
Chris Knox. He looked the part, was extremely confident and
oozed charisma. Significantly, he could sing rather well.
"There was no doubt that this was the best punk band in New
Zealand. And that was confirmed when the band relocated to
Auckland. The Enemy transmuted into Toy Love and influenced a
huge number of bands that came after them. It was because of
their formidable music and performances as well as their
attitude and experiences ... 1980s New Zealand music was
shaped by them."
But, equally, Knox was shaped by his own early experiences,
"As a music, film and comic-loving only child growing up in
Invercargill, he made the escape to the big city of Dunedin
via university. That was soon dropped and he worked causal
jobs while honing his critical skills seeing and heckling
bands at the Captain Cook.
"Punk rock energised many into forming bands and Chris was
one of them. It was his doorway to a life that would
eventually revolve around the interests he had developed as a
"Writing songs and singing with The Enemy was the start of a
journey that saw him travel through the major record company
experience, react against it and find his own voice by
recording at home and releasing personal and idiosyncratic
records that would influence many around the world.
"And let's not forget how important Chris was in the
emergence and development of Flying Nun Records," Shepherd
says in reference to Knox's involvement in a variety of the
"In many ways, Chris is a shining example of the modern
version of the Renaissance man. He is the archetype
'post-punk' man. He is an intelligent and gifted individual
who jumped into the fray of the initial punk explosion and
then developed his thinking and skills with new and diverse
"Primarily, he is an exemplary New Zealand songwriter and
musician but has also done important work with video and
film, the long-running Max Media cartoon strip, and as a
critic in print, on radio and television.
"He worked only in areas that interested him. Those were
defined in childhood and his experience with The Enemy
allowed him to move into a creative world that eventually
afforded him a lifestyle on his own terms, a lifestyle
altered by his recent stroke.
"Despite this setback, I have no doubt Chris' creativity will
continue to emerge and evolve."
Want further proof of Knox's standing? Read the liner notes
to Stroke, which was released last week (proceeds will go
towards the cost of Knox's rehabilitation).
The double album features 34 cover versions of Knox songs,
recorded by musicians from New Zealand and overseas,
including Knox's long-time musical companion Alec Bathgate,
Neil and Liam Finn, The Verlaines, Kilgour (brother Hamish
also makes a contribution), The Chills, The Bats, Shayne
Carter, Don McGlashan, Boh Runga, Jordan Luck, Will Oldham
and Lou Barlow.