Why a small New Zealand town is suddenly the new rock music capital of the universe

Devilskin, Jordan Luck Band, Earth Tongue, Dick Move
Clockwise from top left: Devilskin, Jordan Luck Band, Dick Move, Earth Tongue (Image credit: Devilskin Ltd / Megan Moss / Earth Tongue / Mason Fairey)

It's May 27, 1978, and Van Halen are on their debut UK tour. They're supporting Black Sabbath at South London's Lewisham Odeon, and singer David Lee Roth has something to say. "Lewisham!" he barks from the stage. "The rock'n'roll capital of the universe!"

This moment has passed into legend, which – given that Roth was surely making similar pronouncements at every show – tells you something about how far from reality he'd strayed. It's possible to live in London for decades and not be certain you've been to Lewisham, nor be entirely sure where it's located. Ginger Baker and Sid Vicious were born there, but, if truth be told, evidence for the borough's status as a major centre for the arts is scant.    

Roth would have loved Oamaru.  

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Located on the the South Island of New Zealand, the small town of Oamaru overlooks the Pacific. Follow the lines of latitude east, and you won't hit land again until you reach Chilean Patagonia, some 8000km away. 

The town is most famous for being the location of a colony of blue penguins, who scramble ashore every night, watched from the bleachers by tourists who've stumped up $36 for the privilege. A short walk away is the "Historic Victorian precinct", where it's not unusual to see grown-ups in period costume riding actual Penny Farthings. It has a Steampunk Museum. You can't miss it: an ancient locomotive is parked outside, pointed at the sky like a rusting Exocet. Put $2 in the slot and it rumbles and belches fire.

It's the kind of town where the public toilets remain open after dusk without being vandalised, and where the grand width of the rather beautiful main street is a reminder of busier days.  

And yet. For the last couple of weeks Oamaru been a literal hotbed of live rock'n'roll action, from ferocious Polynesian metal to spiky feminist punk. 

While the rest of the world plays lockdown whack-a-mole, New Zealand has – for the moment, at least – stopped community transmission of COVID-19. This means bands can tour. This means there's no social distancing at gigs. This means that for those of us who spend our lives frequenting community halls and grubby bars in search of live music, it's a return to business as usual. 

It feels like a miracle.

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Gig one: Devilskin at the Oamaru Club

Months ago, when the world wasn't what it is now, the Oamaru Club hosted the South Island Darts Championship. Tonight couldn't be more different. Onstage are Shepherds Reign, a five-piece band of Pacific, Māori, and Asian heritage from Auckland. Wearing Ula Nifo (necklaces made from carved sperm whale teeth) they're led by Filiva’a James, a former choirmaster turned correctional officer turned alternative metal frontman, who plays black keytar and rattling log drums and spends most of the set with his face completely hidden behind a thick curtain of tight curls. 

You can hear the clanking, rivet-factory grind of Gojira in their sound – and they play a razor-sharp version of the French band's Stranded – but it's their own, Samoan language Le Manu (1.9 million YouTube views and counting) which is a triumphant, fist-pumping highlight. 

Headliners Devilskin are less of a visual surprise, but then guitarist Nail Vincent and bassist Paul Martin have been sporting the synchronised bald head/red beard combo for the best part of a decade. Back in 2014 their debut album We Rise reached the top of the NZ charts, and 2016's Be Like The River did the same. They're arena metal, with big choruses and bigger ambition, and they dutifully turn in the big venue cliches: Martin strafes the audience with his bass in the style of Steve Harris, while Vincent tells the rabid audience they're "louder than Dunedin."

The band's undoubted trump card is singer Jennie Skulander, who's a proper star, with a voice capable of switching from sweet to savage before dropping into a demonic growl with nary a breath's notice. To borrow from reality TV show parlance, she nails the songs, and while her extraordinary voice might be at odds with her girl-next-door between-song banter, she does bring a chainsaw onstage for the closing Vessel, so not all is lost.

Gig two: Jordan Luck Band at the Oamaru Club

Back in 2011, New Zealand won the Rugby World Cup. At the final whistle, as the players sank to the turf in relief, Why Does Love Do This To Me – a 20-year-old song by Christchurch band The Exponents – was played over the PA. 60,000 people sang along, strangers embraced, joy was unconfined, fireworks lanced the sky, and a nation could breathe once more.    

It's songs like this that have turned Jordan Luck – singer with The Exponents, formerly the Dance Exponents – into something of a New Zealand music legend. Like many NZ groups, whose domestic success wasn't matched overseas, their biggest hits feel strangely precious, as if they're secrets only Kiwis are party to. 

So here's Jordan in 2020, touring the country with his own band, playing those songs and the songs of others. A cover of The Clash's Brand New Cadillac arrives early doors. A smash-and-grab raid on U2's I Will Follow. Iggy Pop's The Passenger. Split Enz's History Never Repeats. A version of Forever Tuesday Morning by The Mockers, another NZ band whose overseas reach was cruelly throttled. The jukebox nature of the setlist gives the evening something of a wedding reception vibe, with business on the dancefloor varying between brisk and slow depending on what's being played.

It's The Exponents' hits which go down best. Who Loves Who The Most fills the floor, and the crowd do the heavy lifting on the chorus. Victoria (once voted the eighth best NZ song of all time, trivia fans) finds the entire room shifting forward. Wives drag husbands onto the dancefloor, as if to relive 30-year-old nights out. And, at the death, Why Does Love Do This To Me provides giddy release, and a reminder that there's not much in music more precious than being able to drunkenly bellow along to the songs you loved at the age when you loved music the most.

Luck's band are partly made up of members of Ekko Park, who offer solid support on the night. Their cover of David Bowie's "Heroes" isn't the best, but they're otherwise bright and slick, and in guitarist Alex Hargreaves they've found a true force of jackrabbit energy. She spends the set spinning and bouncing wildly and ends it clambering over tables. Great stuff.  

Gig three: Earth Tongue at the Settlers Theatre

Otherwise known as the Early Settlers Hall, The Settlers Theatre is a small, wood-panelled room filled with unmatched furniture. Its walls are adorned by 150-year-old portraits of the town's first European inhabitants, who have stern faces and extravagant facial hair. You can almost smell the beard oil. It's also unlicensed, which means you can bring your own booze, so we arrive with a couple of bottles of local Wakachangi lager (marketing slogan: "quite nice beer").

Despite the lack of bar it's a lovely room, and promotor Frances McMillan hopes that the town's convenient location – it's more-or-less halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin, the South Island's two big cities – will attract touring bands. Tonight it's Wellington duo Earth Tongue, purveyors of woozy psychedelia, who are on the second date of their Aotearoa Spring Tour.

First up though, it's the debut show from local band Cuticles. They're raw, and introduce a degree of excitement to proceedings by appearing to play at least one song they haven't entirely mastered. But they're genuinely endearing, and occasionally sound like all the best NZ bands playing at once. Which means they sound like Bailter Space covering The Fall, with frayed guitar, squealed vocals, and the sense that chaos is only a chorus away. They finish better than they start, and that's good news, because they're back tomorrow. 

Earth Tongue need a bigger show. That's not to dismiss them or the Theatre, but they're kind of band who benefit from life-threatening levels of volume and the claustrophobic intensity that's only created when you combine that level of noise with suitably discombobulating visuals. They're good – and the songs from last year's terrific Floating Being album work well live – but the show would benefit from some disorientating video, in order for their full effect to be felt. At the very least, they need a lava lamp. But the raw ingredients are all there (think: Electric Wizard sped up, fronted by Laetitia from Stereolab), and they're great to watch. 

Gig four: Dick Move at the Settlers Theatre

It's the following night, and we're back. Dunedin scamps Sugarcoated Bullets open with a set of scratchy, urgent punk ("We're Sugarcoated Bullets! Fuck you!", they finish, rather splendidly) while our old friends Cuticles return with more lo-fidelity carnage. "It's great to see so many great bands in Oamaru," says our man at the mic. "And not just, you know... blues rock."

As if to prove his point, Cuck are up next. With a debut show just a few short months ago, they're a frightening prospect in full flow, a fearsome hardcore/crust trio with a singer whose small stature belies the enormity of her performance. She screams, and she roars, and the band wail and thunder and occasionally break the speed limit, and it's about as physical a performance as you're ever likely to witness. For some, it's clearly a cathartic experience. "I needed that," says promotor McMillan, as she retreats from the bedlam, a huge grin on her face. 

Headliners Dick Move (great name) are touring NZ in support of their excellent Chop! album, which is as good a punk album as you'll hear this year. They describe themselves as "an essential party punk voice for women, working people, and for all those that are fired up to make change in the world", and while these are clearly laudable aims, the band are also enormous fun. 

Powered by 150mph Minor Threat and Blag Flag riffs, they specialise in short bursts of frenzied energy – none of the songs on Chop! are over two minutes long – and brilliantly engineered lyrics that attack everything from lousy landlords to beer-addled idiots at stag parties. 

Vocalist Lucy Suttor spends the entire show bouncing around the audience, a feat of endurance made all the more remarkable by the fact that she's doing it in a towering Marge Simpson wig (it's Halloween, see). Meanwhile, guitarist Justin Lee's between-song chat finds him taking on the character of a conspiracy theorist, bashing on interminably about 5G and lizard people, but it's OK because everyone's in on the joke. 

Dick Move aren't onstage for long – their songs are too short for that – but they're a vivid, technicolour surge of rage and adrenaline, and they're damn-near perfect. 

It's over. Two venues. Four nights out. 10 bands. And a glorious reminder of the power live music has to transform. Its power to amuse. Its power to startle. Its power to challenge preconceptions, and to change the way you think. Its power to make you forget what's rotten and broken in this poisoned, divided world and to make your heart pound with undiluted glee. 

And no, Oamaru isn't the rock'n'roll capital of the universe. It's far too pretty for that.

But for a short few days it sure as hell felt like it. 

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.