Rural Week NZ

Daggy and the Dickheads: NZ's Underrated Sheep Shearing Rockers

“We thought we were pop stars for five minutes.”

by Hussein Moses
31 May 2017, 2:04am

They were sheep shearers by day and a rock 'n' roll band by night. At least that's how it started. Over the three years they were together, Daggy and the Dickheads built their way up from playing local pubs in Taihape—the small New Zealand town just north of Palmerston North that they called home—to some of the biggest stages in the country. But the band never quite made a lasting imprint on the New Zealand music scene like others from the early-1980s would manage to, perhaps due in part to their stint being so short-lived and the fact that their humble beginnings always set them apart from everyone else they came up alongside.

It was the name that first drew people in, says former singer Mark Kennedy. British broadcasting legend John Peel caught wind of the band because of it and a little closer to home, presenter Ian Watkin from Palmerston North radio station 2XS FM would latch onto it, too. "He'd say, I want to know about this band Daggy and the Dickhheads from Taihape; it's got to be the greatest name ever," says Kennedy. "It stuck, but I knew immediately it was bad. I don't even like saying it now."

It was innocent enough: one of the band members was known around town as Daggy—"it was after some bloody Fred Dagg anecdote probably"—and Kennedy's brother had just been working as a sheep shearer over in Australia where everyone would jokingly call each other "dickheads". It was a different time back then and some took the colloquialism a bit too literally. "Some radio stations didn't like saying it and I know the record company—we were with Warner for a little while—and they fucking hated it," says Kennedy. "How will we market these pricks? We can't say this in America, we'll get bloody sued. The Brits thought we were downright offensive. Any British people that heard of us thought, you can't be serious—you may as well just swear at the Queen."

Along with Kennedy's brother Paul, another pair of brothers Tim and Dan McCartin and bassist Grant McLean, the band formed at the end of 1980. (Neil Mickleson and Th' Dudes' Lez White would also take on bass duties over the years they were together.) At first, they didn't have any other ambition but to make a racket. "It was just to play and make a noise," says Kennedy. "There were no goals. We got more ambitious as it grew. For a start, it was just let's see what it sounds like. Whether we could put enough together to do a night on our own in the pub was a big deal. It was very modest."

The music scene in Taihape was virtually non-existent, except for a cover band or two that would come through town and play songs from acts like The Eagles, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Fleetwood Mac. "Musicianship was high, but they were a little bit dull," says Kennedy. Instead, Daggy and the Dickheads took note from everything from The Beatles to the glam rock era to the first wave of punk bands that came out of England in the late-70s.

"As many people came to see us as they did to see Elvis Costello."

"We weren't copying other bands around us," Kennedy says now. "That's the thing. Most of my stuff was got through NME and the records I bought. I wasn't copying anybody in New Zealand. When I got to Auckland, I realised a lot of Aucklanders were copying other Aucklanders—more successful ones. It was obvious to me that the most successful groups were getting copied by the younger guys. We never did that because we didn't have anybody to copy."

They would only end up releasing two singles and a five-song EP when they were together, but it was their live shows that helped attract interest from all corners of the country. They landed slots at Brown Trout Festival and Sweetwaters, and even ended up playing support for Elvis Costello when he came through Palmerston North in 1982. "As many people came to see us as they did to see him," Kennedy says. "He wasn't that big in the provinces." A high point came when they played a university tour around New Zealand: "You know what student orientation is like. It was mental. There were a couple of thousand people at every gig. We thought we were pop stars for five minutes."

Country Calendar, the long-running New Zealand documentary series, followed the band as they went about their day jobs fencing and shearing sheep on the farm. Kennedy says it was a lot of fun, but in the end only helped to typecast them as hay seeds. Rural life would have its perks, though. "We would make a hell of a racket because it was well out in the country—you weren't annoying anybody. There was an old woman who lived 200 yards away and lived on her own. There was a funny time where she was a bit ill and so we took her to hospital and one of the nurses came over with a transistor and said 'have you heard this?'—which was us—and she said 'I hear it every night'.

Eventually the band got ambitious enough to move to Auckland. They did it with no jobs, no safety net, nothing. It got tough and tensions within the group combined with being broke got the best of them. "There was never a lot of money around for a touring band in New Zealand and then there was the odd bit of friction. We got sick of it, basically," says Kennedy.

"The other thing is New Zealand records sounded cheap because they were cheaply made and people used to have this thing that New Zealand musicians weren't as good. It was nothing like that; there was just no money spent on it because there wasn't much to make out of it. There was only people like Split Enz who had been away and got a big name in another country that made any real money out of records."

New Zealand musicians today will be familiar with that reality. But for Daggy and the Dickheads, looking back on the highlights of their short-lived career is enough to outweigh the struggles that came with it. These days, Kennedy is back working on a farm out in Taihape, while the other members of the group all live in different towns. Tracking him down was a little tricky: email isn't a big part of his life, so it was a matter of resorting to snail mail to get the word out to him. The band has reformed for the odd nostalgic set here and there over the years, but right now there's no plans to see it through again.

"My only disappointment was that we didn't make more records. I never expected to be a real career musician, but I suppose for a short while we thought it was a possibility," says Kennedy.

"It was really exciting, but it was one of those things."

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