Local legends rally for Knox

Chris Knox
Chris Knox
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 Ihimaera.

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 Bollinger.

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, Shepherd says.

"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 child.

"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 label's recordings.

"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 work.

"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.

The Otago Daily Times contacted some of those artists listed above in an attempt to celebrate, rather than eulogise, Knox; the aim being to shed some light on what it is they enjoy about Knox's songs, their thoughts on his contribution to New Zealand music and, also, the reasons for their choice of Knox cover.

Here's what they had to say . . .

Graeme Downes, of The Verlaines: "Chris became disenchanted with the music industry after his experience with Toy Love. He channelled that disenchantment into a DIY attitude that spawned the first recordings of Tall Dwarfs.

"But more importantly, and like any good revolutionary, he offered his expertise and technology - primitive though it now seems - to others that they may get a foothold on the rock and roll ladder and taste the thrill of his ideology.

"Through his efforts and enthusiasm a whole generation of musicians, myself included, were set on a pathway. The alternative universe without him doesn't bear thinking about as far as the health and diversity of the New Zealand music scene is concerned.

"Knox's Driftwood [from 2008 album A Warm Gun] seems to me to offer something of a departure in terms of its lyricism and the sheer emotional weight of its central metaphor.

"Chris has written a good many fist-shaking mortality songs in the past but Driftwood struck me as striking a new conciliatory tone.

"I had a fair amount of email chat with Chris around the time of its release, partly because I'd used another song from the album in a lecture.

"There was a bit of teasing involved, for Chris - having seen Dylan for the first time earlier in the year and been blown away by the experience - had to put up with me needling him that this song seemed to be written under the influence of his royal Bob-ness.

"His reply was, `yeah, Driftwood is totally Geldof,' - a points victory at least, after years of my Bob-olatry falling on deaf ears.

"The main thing that attracted me to cover it was how easy it was for me to inhabit it and make it my own. As other recent email traffic had been about period instrument recordings of Beethoven, I messed with the harmony a little in the style of Ludwig, whilst the quartet instrumentation is pastiche late period.

"There is no greater testament to the strength of this song than the fact that it survived the treatment I gave it. Well, I think it lent itself to the hyper-lyricism I brought to it - the reader, of course, may disagree."

Jordan Luck, of The Exponents: "I believe that if were not for Chris Knox I would not be here. In the late 1970s, I was living in Geraldine ... a guy in our band who was playing bass, Paul Scott, who went on to form Pop Mechanix, went down to Timaru with our guitarist to see The Enemy and they came back with this unique, different attitude about how our music should be played.

"The Enemy's attitude changed everything . . . anything was possible. Split Enz were obviously influential, but this was different. It was real, immediate, and visceral. You know that guitar that a mate's got at school, that he doesn't even use? I thought, 'I'm gonna pick that up'.

"As for Becoming Something Other [from the 2000 solo album Beat, and a song inspired by the mental and physical degeneration of Knox's father], the lyrics really hit home. My dad died in 2001 from Parkinson's. We were kind of happy when Dad died. My mum said his soul had left the shell a long time ago."

David Kilgour, of The Clean: "The Enemy had some great songs - Pull Down the Shades is as good as any old punk classic from the time. There's a huge list of wonderful songs Chris has written and co-written that I couldn't even begin . . .

"The Enemy and friends were a huge influence on me as a person and musician, and still are in many ways. I would not be the same person I am now and I would have not have lived the life I have lived without those guys. I mean it.

"I'd like to say that as well as being like a brother to me, Chris has always encouraged me - from the first time I stepped off a stage until just before his stroke.

"As artists struggling in a world of money, we all have our ups and downs and Chris has always been quick to try and lift my artistic spirits when seemingly down ... I love him dearly.

"When asked, I immediately requested my track be Nothing's Going To Happen, New Zealand's answer to Like A Rolling Stone perhaps. The first Tall Dwarfs EP that it came from was certainly some kind of watershed in New Zealand music.

"I will always remember The Clean staying with the Jessels (what we called the Knox/Hood whanau at the time) and Chris playing the just-recorded tracks straight off his four-track, as it hadn't been mixed yet. Of course The Clean were on our way as well but this just helped kick us up the bottom and see what great work could be done on a four-track ...

"Funnily enough, I ended up doing a semi-instrumental version of the song. I hope my version makes people go back and find the original and the follow-up 'studio' version. I've played this song with Chris and Alec a few times and The Clean used to back up Chris when he did it on a US/European tour we did back in the late '80s."

Martin Phillipps, of The Chills: "I first saw Chris Knox perform with The Enemy - twice - in 1978 and then numerous times with Toy Love and I was constantly impressed by his friendly yet confrontational performance approach and the great quality of the songs.

"By the time The Chills were up and running and then Flying Nun had come into the picture, we had become friends of a sort and I have always taken his advice seriously - if, often, with a grain of salt, as he has always had a tendency to criticise first and quietly make the same changes or mistakes himself. I would still rate him as one of the most influential male figures in my life.

"I chose to cover the song Luck Or Loveliness [from the Tall Dwarfs' 1981 debut EP Three Songs] because of its great, simple raw structure and Alec's guitar-playing and the lyrics, which were hard, cynical yet very true.

"A friend suggested to me that, 'If the Tall Dwarfs were about deconstruction then I had reconstructed that particular song'. I think that's not a bad way to look at it. I thought that there was a different, more intense power within the song which I might be able to bring out and I am, personally, very pleased with the result."

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