It's February 1994 and in Auckland, the Big Day Out is bursting noisily into life.
The headline acts are American grunge kings Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins. But while the Big Day Out is just getting going, one of the bands playing that day, New Zealand’s Straitjacket Fits, is calling it quits.
Eyewitness takes us back to the beginning of something good and the end of something great.
Shayne Carter laughs. I’ve just asked him what success in the music business looks like and he’s got just the story. It’s 1994 and his band The Straightjacket Fits is playing the Big Day Out, blowing headliners Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins off the stage.
Two months later, Carter’s in a WINZ office in Dunedin applying for the dole. His Case Officer asked if he was living at the drug rehab facility just up the road.
"She wanted to know when I was going to get a real job. I thought, you mean like yours? We’d been on that band trip, y’know, taken away to America and feted by major labels. It’s a long way from (there) to the WINZ office, but not really. Two months!"
Carter laughs again, but without much humour. He sounds more like someone who has accepted that his definition of success has little to do with how others might measure it, or even how he once might have wanted it.
The Straitjacket Fits formed in Dunedin 1986 when guitarist Carter and drummer John Collie, who had previously played together in a band called the Doublehappys, teamed up with bass player David Wood and guitarist and songwriter Andrew Brough. Right from the start, they seemed to have bigger ambitions than a lot of their contemporaries. They hired a manager (Debbie Gibbs) and with their unique sonic dramas seemingly in place from the start, they signed to Christchurch label Flying Nun less than year after their first gig. In 1987 they released an EP called Life In One Chord. Track number two would become their best known song.
She Speeds, written by Carter with the rest of the band, was a classic from the moment it dropped. It made the Top 10 here and got the band attention overseas. One Australian reviewer called it “arguably the greatest debut single of all time”. In 2011 Apra would put the song at number nine in their top 100 New Zealand songs.
The band’s debut album, Hail, followed a year later and in 1989 the Straitjacket Fits began the first of several international tours. The band signed a six album deal with a major US label that same year and released a second album called Melt. With Carter’s sneering rock songs, Brough’s gorgeous ballads and Woods epic mullet, they were as well placed as any late-80’s band to take on the world.
But as the song says, bands; those funny little plans that never work quite right. Done in by touring and arguments over songwriting, Andrew Brough left the Fits in 1992. He was replaced by guitarist Mark Petersen. An EP called Done followed shortly and the band stepped up to playing on bigger and bigger stages. It seemed they were living the dream. But that’s not how it felt to Carter who started feeling the need for change after the release of their 1993 album, Blow:
"I felt a bit bored with rock music and wanted to explore something else."
Two tough tours followed and by the time they were done, so was Shayne Carter. Grunge was everywhere on the music scene and the sound of the Straitjacket Fits seemed out of place. Carter made his decision and told the band he didn’t want to do it anymore. Tired and broke themselves, they understood.
The Fits were booked to join the Big Day Out Music festival tour through Australia and in New Zealand. The Auckland show, the first time the festival had been in New Zealand, was an obvious choice to be their final gig. They were given what Carter describes as a “sweet spot” on the bill between the two headline acts and were determined to show them and their kiwi fans that they were every bit as good.
"We kicked both their arses."
They ended the set with She Speeds, the song that had started it all for them. And when that was over, so was the band.
The Straitjacket Fits reformed briefly for a national tour in 2005 with Carter reasoning that it was their legacy to screw up if they wanted to. They made plans to play the occasional show together but the sudden death in 2011 of bass player David Woods meant that just wasn’t an option.
Today, Carter is back living in the Dunedin area and has released a string of albums and EPs under the band name Dimmer. He says his drive now is the same as when the Fits formed in 1986; to play the best song he can, as honestly as he can, as often as he can.
"Those gigs we played were transcendent experiences. That to me is success. Maybe I could have had some speedboats and a big house, but I’d much rather play a rocking tune than be out in a speedboat, anyway."
Cartee startled a few people recently with an album of piano-driven songs but he hasn’t permanently swapped his fuzz pedals for arpeggios. It’s just another evolution from a songwriter who was always about more than just life in one chord. Who knows; the next album could be as loud as hell.
"Yeah man! I’m actually writing some really heavy riffs, so I’m quite embracing the rock at the moment."
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