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Vietnam Were Like the New Zealand Joy Division and Their 1985 Record Is Getting Reissued

Tim Scott

Tim Scott

The groundbreaking Wellington post-punks are celebrating the release of their debut EP – 30 years after the first vinyl edition was issued.

In 1985 New Zealand's Jayrem Records released a 12" vinyl EP of brooding post-punk by Wellington's Vietnam. Until then the young four-piece had enjoyed a brief career touring New Zealand before relocating to Australia and disbanding. Known for a unique sound and lyrical intensity, the eponymously titled debut has long been considered a lost Kiwi classic and after years of being out of print, Spanish label B.F.E. Records are set to re-release it.

Bassist and keyboardist Adrian Workman, drummer Leon Reedijk, guitarist Peter Dransfield and vocalist Shane Bradbrook were high school friends when they started jamming in a garage in the working-class suburb of Wainuiomata in 1982. Inspired by suburban isolation and the UK post punk sounds of Joy Division and The Cure, they wrote dark and melodic songs that reflected typical teenage malaise and the tense New Zealand political climate of the time that saw anti-apartheid South African rugby boycotts and the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior. 

After a number of shows on the local pub circuit the band entered a national 'Battle of the Bands' competition, where performing a set that included a cover of Martha and the Muffins "Echo Beach", they came close to beating a significant corporate rock band. One of the judges Karyn Hay, host of television program Radio With Pictures, continued to support the band through their career and aired their video "Victory".

Shortly after the album release Workman migrated to Sydney with Dransfield following him a year later. After several attempts to reincarnate a version of the band under different guises the band went their separate ways in 1988. But with the album reissue the band are reforming for a special NZ Fringe show at Wellington's Meow on Feb 18.

Noisey: What was Wainuiomata like in the late 70s/early 80s?
Adrian Workman: It was probably peaking in the mid to late 70s, in terms of employment and population. For me, it was a great place to grow up compared to living in big cities. 'Wainui' was proudly working class and had a strong sense of community. 

By the early 80s the national economy was a mess and Wainui, like many places was hit hard as factories closed. Like any teenager I was quite restless, and living in the valley seemed quite oppressive at times. It wasn't uncommon to see groups of bored youths wandering around or hanging out in parks on weekends. There was probably a bit of tension too, which added to the mix. Most weekends there were parties to go to, and through these I was exposed to some great music. I've made some lifelong friends along the way and the valley has certainly produced its fair share of success stories. 

Much has been said of Dunedin's Flying Nun scene but what was the Wellington scene like at the time? Was there much in the way of punk or post punk? 
When we formed in 1982 the local punk scene had already undergone a significant shift away from the 1977 roots. There was more diversity emerging and post-punk was making itself known. That's where we fitted in. Pubs were still resistant to booking bands, so many gigs were held in alternative venues like community halls. It was a vibrant scene, it was also very volatile. Gigs were often marred with violence as a result of different factions of the punk community coming together in the one place. The bands were supportive of each other generally, sharing equipment and collectively promoting shows. 

Image: Allan Potter

Were you surprised how you did in the Battle of The Bands competition? 
We had pretty much thrown in the towel in 1984 probably as a result of playing too many gigs in a short space of time and wearing out our welcome. But that night we played the gig of our lives.

To this day, when I listen to the recording I still get goosebumps, not because it was flawless, but because of the energy! Leon's drums took us to a new level. We were a bunch of unknown teenagers up against some pretty seasoned acts. The eventual winners were a polished rock band whose management were also the event organisers of the national competition! They played a cocky set before us and I'll never forget their faces after we walked off stage. The story goes that there were three judges, including said management representative, two of which selected us as outright winners. Pete met a judge recently, who disclosed he had to score us out of the winning spot on the night to save his job. We were never meant to win. That's why School of Rock is my favourite music movie.

How much of an influence did Joy Division have on the band?
We never plotted a particular musical course in any great depth. I did listen to Joy Division and I think Shane did as well. As a bass player I was heavily influenced by Joy Division's Peter Hook and Simon Gallop of The Cure. The use of effects and the way they melodically contributed to the music was a revelation. Lyrically both bands also spoke to me, they captured the heaviness and despair of the era. I had a very opportune beer and a chat about politics (of all things) with Robert Smith after a Cure show in Wellington in 1984. After that encounter the parallels between Robert Muldoon's NZ and Thatcher's Britain and their influence on music really made sense.

The album was released a few years after U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday". Did their pop with a political edge influence your sound?
Yeah, I'd say we probably were influenced by U2 in some way. NZ was pretty quick on the uptake for new bands and they were always destined to be something special. I remember listening to Boy in 1980 and being blown away by Steve Lillywhite's production. I saw U2 in Wellington in 1984 and it remains one of my top five gigs. They were just so fucking tight, and this was before the sequencers and fluff that they introduced later. 

Image: Karen Downes

Your album came out a few months before the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. What was the reaction to this by the local punk and post punk scene?
Not much at a guess. I think the punk and post-punk scene had engaged so vigorously in the politics of the 1981 Springbok Tour (which saw NZ descend into civil chaos for months) that there wasn't much left in the tank. The upshot of those events contributed to the splitting of the Wellington punk scene. 

There was a very strong response from indigenous and mainstream music however. In particular, pioneers of Pacific reggae, Herbs had been writing songs of protest about nuclear testing in the Pacific for some time. Their 1982 song "French Letter" had charted well and a follow up single "Nuclear Waste" was released in 1985. Mainstream artists like Split Enz also reformed for protest gigs.

You relocated to Sydney a month after the EP release? Why was that? 
I was pretty much on my way out by the end of 1984. There was a lot of stuff going on for me personally and I was really struggling. Pete and I negotiated that I would hang in there a bit longer to record some material. He went off and surprisingly secured an Arts Council grant which enabled us to finance the recording and get the deal with Jayrem. Vietnam never played a gig after the release of the EP. I'm still not particularly comfortable with my decision to leave the band at this time, but there were other factors at play.

When did you first notice new found internet interest in the band? 
About five years ago someone posted the video to "Victory" on YouTube, and shortly after Frankie Teardrop, a New York blogger reviewed the EP on his website. Phrases like 'lost Kiwi classic' started being bandied about and there was an enigmatic air attributed to the band due to our lack of presence on the web. I struck up a relationship with Frankie and we have become good friends. I mailed him a mint copy of the EP last year for Christmas and he now spins "Victory" regularly when he DJ's in New York's alternative clubs.

Vietnam's LP will be available Feb 1 through B.F.E. and distributed in Australia through Homeless.

Vietnam perform Feb 18 - Wellington at Meow with 'Die Glocke' featuring Eugene Pope from Flesh D-Vice, Dragan Stojanovic (Axe Men & Vas Deferens), Rob Barnett (D.I.Y.), John Savage (Jungle Mice) and Dead Simple featuring Glen Wilson of 'Unrestful Movements' .

Lead image: Neil Monkhouse