Friday, December 19, 2014

Shades of Grey: R.I.P. Chris Sheehan

I thought I’d re-post a blogpost from some 18 months ago concerning Chris Sheehan, who sadly lost his long battle with cancer yesterday. This is the closest thing I can offer to a tribute piece on one of New Zealand’s most underrated musicians. Chris was an inspirational figure for me growing up, and one of the reasons I came to love music as much as I do. My thoughts are with his partner Claire and family … R.I.P. Chris

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The recent social media coverage given to ex-Palmerston North musician Chris Sheehan’s fundraising campaign has been heartening to observe. Sheehan, aka Chris Starling, is presently based in Spain, and is raising funds for a shot at “one last album”. He’s been diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic nodular melanoma, and the outlook for him is apparently pretty bleak. But there is a lot of love and respect out there for his work, and Sheehan’s fundraising efforts have largely been successful thus far. You can contribute to Sheehan’s cause here. I’m personally looking forward to any new work he can offer us.

Sheehan’s sad news, and a wider collective desire for his fundraising to gain requisite exposure, offered the chance for bloggers and mainstream media alike to profile and pay tribute to someone who’s tended to fly under the radar for long periods. From a number of small independent blogposts to that of Wellington blogger Simon Sweetman, whose recent piece on the mainstream Stuff website generated some good support from Sheehan’s homeland.

So with a few of the more high profile aspects of Sheehan’s career … the Dance Exponents, his move to London, the Starlings, the “solo” career, and stints with acts like Curve, Babylon Zoo, the Sisters of Mercy, and briefly, NZ’s own Mutton Birds … having been well documented elsewhere in recent times, by others far more qualified than myself, I’m going to offer something completely different here, and give you my take on an otherwise very much undocumented stage of Sheehan’s career … let’s call it his “Shades of Grey period”:
 
Chris Sheehan circa 2000
I first knew him only as Chris, the teenage guitarist in a shit hot covers band called Shades of Grey at the rough-around-the-edges Café de Paris pub in my hometown of Palmerston North. I’m pretty sure it was 1982, perhaps late ‘81 to late ’82. I would have been 17, going on 18, under the legal drinking age of the time, and there I was, every Friday and Saturday night, frothing with excitement, in the back bar of the Café. I soon became friends with a guy named Jim Conlon, a fellow muso who knew Chris well, and despite the significant risk to my person as the son of a well known local cop (the front bar was the haunt of the local “motorcycle club”), I quickly became a Café fixture, albeit a bit of a wallflower.
 
I wasn’t a big drinker but I craved excitement, the rush of live music, and Shades of Grey with its prodigy guitarist, who I had guessed was even younger than me, was the only game in town.

Shades of Grey played dark pop, punk, and post-punk; covers like ‘London Calling’ (The Clash), ‘Solitary Confinement’ (Members), ‘Rockaway Beach’ (Ramones), and a raft of Cure tunes. They were pretty good, if very raw and occasionally a little too loud for the confines of the small space they occupied. Lead singer Don Stevenson possessed just the right amount of arrogance, and a great punk howl. Drummer Brent Maharey was the epitome of surfer cool, while curly-haired bass player Steve Dodson remained more of a mystery (to me). But the group’s real point of difference was Sheehan, whose sheer unbridled talent propelled the novice band to new heights each and every weekend on tracks like ‘The Fire’ (The Sound), ‘Damaged Goods’ (Gang of Four), and more often than not most spectacularly on the Dead Kennedys’ classic ‘Holiday In Cambodia’. Even something as simple and understated as early Cure b-side ‘Another Journey By Train’ could be transformed into something utterly compelling in Sheehan’s hands.

The Café had a tiny raised “dancefloor” directly in front of what passed for a stage, and when I wasn’t hugging the walls of said dancefloor, I could be found standing directly in front of Sheehan, looking up slightly, mesmerised not only by his expansive repertoire of fretwork and riffery, but by his stance, his posture, and his nonchalant mastery of the instrument he bore. That, and the look of apparent contempt he offered me whenever I caught his eye. With that slight frame, and the shock mop of jet black hair, Chris appeared nothing if not very cool, and his understanding of that seemed absolute. There was certainly something extraordinary about him at that age, and we all knew he’d go a long way. And we knew he’d have to go a long way away from Palmy.    
 
Dance Exponent
That time, and that band, rates as a period of genuine discovery for me, and I’d often spend the weekday lunch breaks seeking out the originals for many of the covers I’d heard the previous Friday or Saturday night. It became a labour of love, and often involved hours on end trekking about Palmy’s limited record shops. The Record Hunter outlet on Broadway did imports, so all was not lost if I couldn’t find what I coveted any particular week. Suffice to say, no covers band since has had quite the same impact on my music collection. And the thrill of those nights at the Café remains with me to this day, the picture I have in my mind’s eye of Sheehan on that poxy little stage is crystal clear. And for my sins, all these years on, I remain friends with a good number of the fellow wastrels I met in that godforsaken excuse for a “lounge bar”.

An early incarnation of the band had a female keyboardist who may or may not have been called Christine, and this was the version I witnessed the first couple of times I saw them. A much later version – one that eventually moved away from the Café to the more expansive Lion Tavern – saw drummer Brent move on, to be replaced by a Turkish stickman called Nihat, who’d previously starred in Snatch, Palmy’s other “new wave” covers band of choice during the era … (and everythingsgonegreen might just indulge itself with a piece on Snatch at some point in the future).

But it all ended just as quickly as it began, and I probably only ever had a handful of conversations with Chris, awkwardly snatched between sets at the Café, before he got the call to join the Dance Exponents, one of New Zealand’s premier pop groups of the time. Chris added a harder, more experimental edge to the Exponents’ work for a period of time, and I was a little disappointed when the recent otherwise definitive documentary on the band tended to race through or gloss over the Sheehan years.

It hasn’t always been easy for Sheehan, and while his work has often attracted a decent level of critical acclaim, it hasn’t always hit the commercial heights lesser talented individuals have frequently achieved.

But I’d be a liar if I said I knew Chris Sheehan very well at all. I’ve just followed his career from afar, and I was merely lucky enough to observe him as a supremely talented work-in-progress, a young guy taking his first formative career steps. I count myself pretty fortunate for that experience, and the chance to add this small story to a much greater whole. I look forward to getting updates on his progress via social media and I wish you all the very best Chris if you read this …

I’d love to be able to offer you a clip of Shades of Grey, but here’s the next best thing – not the best quality clip, but one that showcases some great axemanship from Chris Sheehan:
 
 
 

 

 
 
 

9 comments:

  1. Ahhh ... the memories of great times. I was a class mate of Chris at Boy's High and the first I knew of his guitar skills was a lunch time set in the school hall - it was very interesting to see the reaction of a few of the school staff with such music being played in such a 'hallowed' venue! The back bar at the pub also shared the toilets with the public bar, in a dodgy alley with the motorcycles and their minders ..

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    1. Roy Boxall was on the door and always warned me (as an under-ager) if the bar was expecting a "raid" ... and while there was always a "heavy" atmosphere in and around the Cafe, the front bar (Mothers MC) were always pretty good at ensuring there was no real need for the cops to show. They self-policed. Thanks for leaving a comment, I love the fact that obscure history like this can reach other people 30+ years on.

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  2. Thank you for so accurately capturing this moment in time. Since learning of Chris' situation, I've been thinking a lot about those days – it’s nice to read other peoples recollections as well. It was such a seminal time - the music, and Chris' talent, was outstanding. Being at the Cafe on those nights provided a much needed release valve from living in that locked-in town.

    Thanks for the funny reminder above about the warnings we would get (re police raids… very useful indeed). I’d forgotten about that.

    I remember being almost busted one night… I ran into a guy there, who knew my father from a notable youth organisation. He promptly called the landlord over and pointed me out (15 years old, all post-punk attitude and Siouxsie Sioux hair & make-up). Landlord sauntered over to my table, asked how old I was, to which I replied “Twenty-two. Is there a problem?”. He held my gaze, then looked at the other punter (25 years old, all smug kiwi-bloke attitude), shrugged his shoulders and walked off.

    Thanks to the Café de Paris for being a weekend sanctuary for more than a few teenage wastrels way back then. Thanks to Chris for providing the soundtrack and attitude.

    Fast-forward 30 years or so, and I'm looking forward to hearing Chris Sheehan's new music. Go the fundraiser.

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  3. Thanks L ... nice comment ... "Siouxsie Sioux hair and make-up" .. love it!

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    1. My girlfriend and I were also 15 when we first started to go to see Shades of Grey playing at the Cafe de Paris in the swamp. The sound guy, who turned out to be my best mate in future years, used to let us put our motorbike helmets and jackets under the mixing desk. Mike, you've given me a memory blast, thanks for that. Those nights were the first time I had been able to get into a pub and it was a blast! The music was awesome, great times, great taste and definitely teenage kicks.

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  4. I'm starting to wonder if anyone in the Cafe back bar was the legal drinking age! ... good stuff. I definitely think that because it was for many of us our first "pub"/gig experience that an edge was added to those nights. A sense of excitement that would largely disappear in later years. The appeal of the music (mostly punk cover or hard edged stuff) only added to the sense that it was our secret, our thing, an intimate connection to a band that hardly anyone beyond that bar had (and has) ever heard of. Thanks for the comment B.

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  5. Fantastic blast from the past Mike and for a sweet moment I was back there. I too was underage, being 17, and felt as safe as houses. The MMC accepted us and if trouble was ever to go down they forewarned us to get out. We were there for the music and it was epic!

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  6. I remember a New Years bash there, the Shades playing, me on the floor ever-so-slightly bollixed, enjoying my classmate Chris bashing his stuff out...

    ...when suddenly the band starts calling one of their mates out from the audience. They call and they keep calling, and so the audience (and little me, only just over-age) takes up the chant of this guy's name (wish I could remember who it was).

    Anyway, sure enough, this guy staggers up and out of the crowd, onto the stage, and wordlessly takes the mike. And then the band crashes, immaculately, into Killing Joke's "War Dance". The guy is word-perfect, the band are thunderous, and together they obliterate the song as it's meant to be done...

    ...and then, when it ends and the crowd is going ape, he just strolls nonchalantly off to finish his drink, back in the anonymity.

    Magic night.

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  7. yes austint .. that happened! and Jim Conlon, who I refer to in my post was THAT guy, War Dance being a particular party trick that he and his muso brothers did so well. Ta for the comment ..

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