Stranded in the States after a tour with a New Zealand theater troupe, drummer Stan Mitchell and his mates made the best of things, settling in for the long haul. First stop was San Francisco, where as Red Alert they got some gigs. Moving to NYC in 1979, now called the Drongos, they caught the tail end of the punk scene, played the punk venues, learned how to busk from an old violinist in the Times Square hotel where they lived and took their gear outdoors to make a name for themselves, fully electrified, on the streets around Times Square. Michael Cobb talks with Stan Mitchell about the “eight-year adventure” known as the Drongos.
Way down under where the flightless Kiwi bird lives, lie a series of islands known as New Zealand. In the north are abundant sub-tropical rain forests, stunning beaches and rolling green hills with more sheep than people. In the south are vast landscapes and alpine ranges made famous by Peter Jackson’s rendition of The Lord of The Rings.
New Zealand was colonized by the British in the 19th century. The mix of native people with the descendants of British colonials created a population with unique perspectives and musical styles.
Drummer Stan Mitchell grew up on a farm on the north island outside of Palmerston North, a mid-size city in an agricultural community. He was raised in a musical household with his talented piano-playing mum encouraging his interest in music from an early age. Seeing a Scottish marching band as a young lad made a lasting impression, and watching The Beatles on TV as a teenager sealed the deal. Mitchell knew what he wanted to do and dedicated himself to drums.
Riding the wave of Beatlemania, Mitchell was soon in demand as a top drummer. After a brief stint as an electrician, he decided to turn professional in the early 1970s and was able to make a living playing pubs around the country. By the mid-1970s, he’d begun working with a band supporting the avant-garde theater group Red Mole. They traveled to the USA, but the theater group continued on to Europe and left the band stranded in the States. Out of this were born The Drongos.
Mitchell landed in Los Angeles, spent time in San Francisco, and moved to New York City in 1979. He caught the tail end of the American punk movement and witnessed new sounds emerging. The Drongos played legendary venues like CBGB, opened for groups like Country Joe and The Fish, and made extra income busking the dirty streets of Times Square.
Today, Mitchell lives in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. He continues to work as a freelance drummer, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator.
PKM: Tell me about the early days of your career playing music in New Zealand.
Stan Mitchell: I formed my first group when I was in high school. We were called Groovlehog, inspired by Jethro Tull and the silly names of the times. We played popular songs by Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, etc. It was the most eclectic repertoire you could think of. I left high school at the age of 15 in 1970. It was an appalling experience. I had a job for about a year as an electrician, couldn’t handle it and decided I wanted to go pro in about ‘72. At the time there was so much live music, it was easy to do. I just put the word out, and I got a gig playing six nights a week, making great money. Everybody just wanted music live and loud all the time. My hometown had a lot of youth culture, so luckily there was always an audience. At age 17, I found myself a gig and never looked back.
PKM: What kind of places were you playing?
Stan Mitchell: At the time, a lot of pubs in New Zealand were connected to hotels. They were like complexes with a working man’s bar with a pool table, and they always had a stage. Three breweries owned all these pubs and would put bands on a circuit. You’d go to a lounge bar for a week, and then they’d send you off to another town for a couple of weeks. They’d always put you up, feed you three meals a day, and pay you really well. And all you had to do was go downstairs, turn on the amps and start. It was absolutely brilliant because we were playing all the time. It was a great scene for young guys and gals too.
I did that for six years before I came to the States. From Monday through Saturday we’d be gigging, and on a Sunday we’d find the jams with the local musicians. It was a great scene. The pubs in New Zealand closed at 10pm on the weekdays and 11pm on the weekends. They were still beholden to the English Blue Laws. It’s way different now, of course. But in those days, you’d play from 7-11, and afterwards, there was always time to play at an after-hour’s gig in a club until four in the morning. So often we’d be playing from 7pm to 4am. My chops got real good.
PKM: Was it primarily local or were there touring groups as well?
Stan Mitchell: Major acts would come through Australia, and it was easy to hop across to New Zealand. I saw a tremendous amount of top international acts and managed to open up for a few of them. I remember opening up for Electric Light Orchestra and hanging out with Frank Zappa and The Mothers. We had a lot of nice interactions.
PKM: Who were some of the significant bands from New Zealand at that time?
Stan Mitchell: There was Split Enz, led by Tim Finn, the older brother of Neil Finn. They were spectacular, very original and theatrical. When punk, post-punk and new wave hit, they fit right in. They added Neil Finn, Tim’s younger brother, and got a hit with “I Got You.” They moved to London, started touring internationally, and did very well for themselves. And then Neil went out on his own with Crowded House. They had a hit with “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”
There was another great singer-songwriter named Dave Dobbyn [who was part of popular NZ rock band Th’ Dudes], who had a small amount of success in the States. In the late 70s, NZ punk rock was in full force with the Scavengers, Proud Scum, The Enemy, The Suburban Reptiles, and the Terror Ways putting their boot into the traditional “pub rock” scene. After I’d left, there were bands like The Clean, The Chills, and Straightjacket Fits, who did very well internationally on a label out of Christchurch called Flying Nun. They had a whole scene and sound going, kind of like Seattle. It was very dirgey, grungy, but avant-garde post punk.
One of the most celebrated artists of the time was a Māori woman named Kiri Te Kanawa who was an opera singer recognized by the queen as a “dame”. For a small country, we have many artists to be proud of.
PKM: How much interaction did you have with Maori people? There’s not much interaction with indigenous people in the USA.
Stan Mitchell: Yeah, it’s a very different situation. Their culture is celebrated, and the language is incorporated in just about every aspect of the culture. It’s taught in schools. Māori have much better representation, and the culture is considered part of the overall national identity.
PKM: What’s characteristic of Kiwis, and how does that filter down to music?
Stan Mitchell: New Zealand is geographically remote but totally plugged in. Sometimes records were released in New Zealand before anywhere else in the world. We got all the English pressings of all the British Invasion bands, so we were all influenced by that. But we were wide open. We’d get music from all over the planet: the best of the US, the UK and Europe. It was very eclectic.
In those days it was very laid back. Māori culture in particular loved harmony singing. There was a strong melodic sense in local music. And a lot of the white kids really picked up on punk when it came along. The highly charged energy resonated with typical teenage angst. So there’s a number of layers. Country music is also popular down there. Interestingly enough, a lot of local radio stations would play country music when the farmers were milking their cows, and by all accounts the milk yield was higher when American country music was playing in the farmyard!
PKM: I imagine there’s similarities between Māori and Hawaiian music.
Stan Mitchell: Yes, very similar. Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley also had a big effect. All of a sudden, you could be dark skinned and a superstar. Māoris really latched onto that. It emboldened and generally encouraged the culture to come to the fore. All the music coming in and out of New Zealand definitely influenced The Drongos.
PKM: What is a Drongo?
Stan Mitchell: Well, a Drongo is an African bird, but it somehow got absorbed into Kiwi lexicon. It means someone who’s a bit of a dimwit, a bit of an idiot. It’s a little more lighthearted than asshole. If someone does something a bit silly, you could say, “Ah, you Drongo!” It’s just a fun word and made a great name because it’s memorable and unusual.
PKM: So how did the band come together?
Stan Mitchell: Initially, we were a musical ensemble to accompany Red Mole, a theater troupe who were very political and kind of radical. They did things on the fly and were very intriguing and popular. They decided to travel overseas. So the music ensemble came with them and eventually we separated. We arrived in San Francisco and played there for about seven months and then moved to New York City in 1979 and became an entity unto ourselves as The Drongos.
PKM: Wasn’t there an LA chapter?
Stan Mitchell: Yeah, we had a plane ticket that allowed us to stop in Los Angeles for three weeks, and that was pretty amazing. There was already another band from New Zealand there called Hello Sailor, who were as big as The Rolling Stones back home. They took us to the Whisky A Go-Go on Sunset Strip and introduced us to the LA punk scene. I remember seeing X and a band called the Screamers at The Whisky. It was just a zoo.
San Francisco was a much smaller scene than LA, but it was really interesting. I remember going to the Mabuhay Gardens. They’d pull the tables out of the way and turn it into a club. There was a young band onstage, who weren’t particularly good, but at the end of the song the audience went nuts, as if it were Madison Square Garden. I was initially taken aback and a bit judgmental, but I started to understand the American character. Americans really get behind their own with encouragement and support. The band gave it everything they had onstage, and the audience gave it right back to them. It really struck me because New Zealand at that point had this holdover of an English attitude, which is a bit cynical and judgmental. It’s called the Tall Poppy Syndrome, where you don’t wanna be the tall flower that gets your head lopped off. So people with talent will often suppress it because they don’t want to be seen as being better than anybody else. It still exists to some degree, but thank god Dave Dobbyn and Neil Finn don’t subscribe to that, and subsequently they are revered, respected and applauded. It’s understandable why America succeeds so often as it does. Americans get behind one another and support and encourage each other with enthusiasm. It was a major revelation to me.
So, we established ourselves in San Francisco, and at that point we were called Red Alert. We ended up with a management team who had us opening up for some famous old school acts like Country Joe and The Fish and Jesse Colin Young.
PKM: What took you to New York?
Stan Mitchell: We’d been waiting to join back up with the [Red Mole] actors, because that was supposed to be the whole point. Finally, that happened in early April of 1979. The entire band picked up and moved to New York. After we’d found a place to sleep, we did three weeks at the Theater For The New City, down on the Lower East Side. After we played that show, the actors moved on to Europe and the musicians remained behind. We were kind of dumped and almost stranded in New York City in 1979 in an extraordinary time in the city’s history. So there we were, all living in one hotel room in midtown Manhattan in Times Square, which was a zoo unto itself, and we started from scratch. That was the start of an eight-year adventure.
PKM: What do you remember about NYC at that time?
Stan Mitchell: It was absolutely gobsmacking and overwhelming. New York had run out of money and was having a very hard time financially. The police department was running on a skeleton crew, crime was rampant, there were muggings all over the place, but there were also millionaires. So there was this extraordinary diversity. Times Square had the sleaziest element of the porn industry and prostitution right alongside the highbrow Broadway theaters. Just the sheer population density took getting used to. This was before Giuliani came along and “cleaned up” the city and sterilized it. There was a lot of street life with buskers, people selling their wares, and just hanging out in deck chairs in Times Square. Every block was like a village and intense.
And of course the Lower East Side was like ground zero for new music. A lot of the buildings down there were burned out, so there was a lot of squatting going on. Unfortunately, there was a lot of drug abuse, but there was also extremely cheap real estate, so you could find a sleazy apartment to live in. So a lot of artists, bands, and creative types could live there quite easily. All the best clubs were down there: CBGB, the Mudd Club, Max’s Kansas City, and later on the Ritz. There was an extraordinary number of bands going backwards and forwards between Berlin, London and New York. So you were getting international acts all inspired by the scene that came out of the Lower East Side, starting with the Ramones, or Iggy Pop before that. CBGB was the club. Talking Heads, Blondie, Richard Hell, Dead Boys, etc.
PKM: Can you describe the scene at CBGB then?
Stan Mitchell: Hilly Krystal had a very open attitude about up and coming bands and was very nurturing. Down on the Bowery, it didn’t matter how much noise you made. CB’s had the equivalent of an outdoor PA but indoors. It was the most phenomenal sounding system.
He’d put on four or five bands a night. If you were a young up and coming band, as we were, he’d put you on early and see if you had any merit. As the night progressed, there’d be better and better bands, and as you got further towards the weekend, he’d have the better drawing bands. We started at 8pm on a Tuesday night, and after a couple of years, we were headlining Saturdays, which was a lovely thing. He’d allow bands to do that to build a following.
The PA system was a monster. Not only was it a huge sound out front, but onstage it had at least four or five monitors, as well as side fills. Everybody had their own mix and could hear what was going on. That’s as good as it gets. We had no idea how to work a system like that. But there was a sound man named Charlie Martin, a really nice guy who’d been around, who took us through the whole procedure, starting with drums.
From that experience, we could play anywhere, including large outdoor concerts, because we knew exactly how to sound check, tune our own monitors and tell the sound people how we wanted it. It was absolutely invaluable, and I can’t think of any other club since then that’s done that. The true value of CBGB was as a community center, a club, and a training ground.
PKM: Are there any musical highlights you remember?
Stan Mitchell: We arrived in ‘79 when punk had kicked the door open for a whole new scene. I remember seeing DNA, who were just a noise band, Suicide, a duo with Alan Vega, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids doing their thing. What was really fascinating was witnessing that whole cultural shift in arts and fashion. Andy Warhol was still a big influence.
Soon after we’d arrived, Sid Vicious stabbed Nancy Spungen and then OD’d, which spelled the end of an era, and a whole new one kicked off with New Wave and alternative. Then it was bands like XTC or Squeeze out of England. Lene Lovich, Nina Hagen and Gary Numan and a number of bands had been energized by punk, and the music started to go in all different directions and became a little bit more sophisticated. A lot of punk guitarists went into rockabilly, going back further into the 1950s to find the roots of rock and roll. Players who cut their teeth on punk began to expand their knowledge.
PKM: Expanding yet also stripping things back to basics, which you guys did. I know The Drongos played as a full electric band in clubs and also as a busking band, including an appearance on MTV. Can you tell us about that?
Stan Mitchell: It was unusual. We sort of had two careers. Early on in the clubs, we’d play full on electric with a keyboard. The music was a lot darker and very much influenced by punk and the more serious side of rock and roll of that era.
At the same time, we had little battery-powered amplifiers, and I had one snare drum. We’d go out busking, and that’s how we were surviving. The music needed to be a little more bouncy and accessible. So we started to move into more of a rockabilly inspired vibe, more like early Beatles and Rolling Stones. Uptempo rock and roll. And it was very successful. We became kind of famous for being this busking band, and eventually took that act into the clubs and incorporated it into our night club act.
We’d made two albums, firstly the keyboard inspired alternative style of music, which did OK. It got very nicely reviewed. For the second album, we took a portable studio and recorded the album live on the street. That went very well and got us a lot of attention. At one point MTV, back when it was still actually Music Television, did a documentary on street performers and included us. It was hosted by Paul Schaffer, and it was a very nice piece of exposure. It’s on YouTube. It was a very exciting time. We must have played to thousands of people over the course of seven years. And David Lange, the prime minister of New Zealand at the time, came down to see us play in the streets when he was in town for a meeting at the UN. There’s a photo of us together.
PKM: Was playing the streets better than the clubs? Did you have a preference?
Stan Mitchell: They were entirely different experiences. I enjoyed both. We played some really nice gigs in some great clubs. We toured a lot on the college circuit, mostly up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and as far west as Cleveland. We had a great following in some of those places, but the street was an intense adventure. And you had to do well playing the street. Otherwise you didn’t make money and couldn’t eat! You know? The rewards and feedback were immediate, so you really had to get your act together, and we did.
When we first got to the city, we were sitting in the hotel room thinking, “My god. How are we going to survive?” We had three days to pay the rent. The hotel was an SRO – single room occupancy. It couldn’t rent out 15 floors to tourists, so they’d rent out the top 10 for people to live there permanently at a reduced rate. Right next door to us, there was this little old guy named Ruben Levine. He played violin and was a classic old school, New York, Midtown character. He’d see us coming and going, and we got talking. He said, “The money’s out there, all you gotta do is go and get it.” And he taught us how to busk, how to play the street, but really do it well. Some people just sat down and played guitar, but others were doing well. I saw some phenomenal musicians on the street, which was the first indication that you could do it legitimately. There were little tricks and guidelines. We made some of the best money we’d ever made as musicians.
PKM: What did you learn from him?
Stan Mitchell: Ruben said, “There are about four or five spots where the sidewalk is larger and wider; those are the ones you want to go for.”
He told us, “Don’t block the sidewalk, and don’t hide in a corner. Make yourself really visible, put a little sign up with a little story saying who you are to add the human element to make it personal. Don’t put your box too close to the band. Put it out further where people don’t feel like they’re encroaching on your space, so they feel more comfortable coming in. Do a little show, not much more than 10 minutes, because people are passing through and can’t stay too long. You’ve got a very good-looking young woman in your band. Don’t stop playing, but get her to go around the crowd with a hat while they’re all still standing there. Once you’ve got your money, say thank you very much and disperse the crowd, so they don’t block the sidewalk. Then you can start up again later.”
It worked really well. It was listenable, sounded full, and was very successful.
Here’s a funny story. Occasionally, I’d see other drummers with full kits on the street. I did that a couple of times. One day I was out there jamming, and along came a famous character called “The Mad Drummer of Times Square”, whose real name was Gene Palmieri. He was a strange little guy who was clearly a little nuts. He was famous for playing post office boxes with drum sticks around Times Square. He even had a little cameo in the movie Taxi Driver.
He was very eccentric and would do himself up with theatrical face paint to look like a ventriloquist dummy. He was definitely part of a community of strange people who lived on the streets in those days, but he was a good drummer. This particular day, he came along with a shopping trolley and snare drum. He stopped and looked at me intensely. We nodded hello. He said, “You’re good, but can you do this?” and played on his snare drum. I played the same thing back, and then he did his thing. It was like the dueling banjos scene from Deliverance but on drums. We were going like that for 15 minutes, and by that time we had quite the crowd around us watching this bizarre scene play out. The next thing I know, I feel a hand tap on my shoulder and a big, fat sergeant with a ruddy face looks at me and says, “We got a noise complaint from the 43rd floor. Move it!”
PKM: Any other impressions of New York City at that time?
Stan Mitchell: This was the ‘80s, the era when come spring the city would open the doors to the mental institutions. So the streets would be flooded with crazy people flooding the streets. Our favorite place was 50th and Broadway. I used to call it the crossroads to the world.
Right under our hotel was a bar called Tin Pan Alley. It was a dive owned by the DaGrossa Brothers, who were Mob-connected and part of the porn industry. Their story has been told in a TV show called The Deuce. One of them partnered up with a southern debutante named Maggie Smith. She was connected to the whole downtown art and music scene. One day we were playing out in the cold. She stopped and asked, “What are you doing?” We told her we didn’t know, we didn’t know how to survive. She said, “Saturday nights are slow at the pub. You wanna come down to see if we can get something going?” So we did and became the house band at Tin Pan Alley. And that was the most extraordinary bar room on the planet. A number of the bartenders were female actors from the downtown scene, and there were locals born and raised in the Times Square area when it was residential. There was an Irish biker gang kind of like the Hell’s Angels. There were techies from the Broadway shows, businessmen from Madison Avenue, sailors from the QE2, musicians from the Lower East Side and touring groups, and old Korean War veterans who lived in the hotels. It was the most eclectic mix of people, and everyone got along. It was our local. And my wife-to-be was working the bar. We hooked up and here we are 43 years later, still together. All the people portrayed in The Deuce were at our wedding. So that’s our story of the sleazy side of Times Square.
PKM: Speaking of the sleazy side of New York, The Drongos made a video. Can you tell us about that?
Stan Mitchell: Yeah! The song was called “Lower East Side Substance Abuser.” It was filmed in an old abandoned railway line that ran the length of Manhattan on the West Side. It was a no man’s land where a lot of homeless lived. We had a loft a half a block away where we could rehearse 24-7. We set up our cameras and invited all our friends to be in the video.
The song itself was kind of a parody of The Ramones. The name came from the sleaziness of drug abuse in New York City and people OD’ing. So many people were doing drugs, huffing gasoline and sniffing glue that they had to create an entire new genre: substance abuse. It was a new term, and I thought, “Man, where have we come as a species?”
PKM: Kind of like “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue?”
Stan Mitchell: Yeah, or “I Wanna Be Sedated.” It was modeled off the three chord songs we heard at CBGB. It was kind of written as a joke but ended up being a hit and got us to #5 in the college charts in the USA and put us on the map internationally. You can see it on YouTube.
PKM: So what happened to The Drongos?
Stan Mitchell: We had a pretty good run for eight years, but we overstayed our tourist visas, and we were basically illegal aliens for a number of years. I eventually married and became legitimate. But Tony McMaster/bass and Jean McAslister/keys were a couple and couldn’t leave the country and get back in. Homesickness kicked in, and the band had basically run its creative course, so we went our separate ways. I remained here with my wife and started a family. The guitarist Richard Kennedy moved to Great Britain, settled in, and has been there for the last 25 years. Tony McMaster and Jean McAslister moved back to New Zealand and did very well for themselves as music educators in Auckland. Tony ran his own PA and special events coordination company. And I remained here and became a freelance drummer and music educator. There’s plenty of other stories, but that’s it in a nutshell.
PKM: Is there a Kiwi community in New York?
Stan Mitchell: It’s small, but if you meet a fellow New Zealander there’s an instant camaraderie. I have a very good friend named Andrew B. White who’s very active musically. He plays bass and is a wonderful graphic designer and music producer. We get along very well and play together on a regular basis. There’s a very well-established bass player named Richard Hammond, who currently has the bass chair in the Broadway production Hamilton. At one point the lead singer for Manfred Mann [Chris Thompson], who sang “Blinded by The Light”, was from New Zealand. There’s not a lot of us, but we get together and go on about our love of meat pies and beer that we miss.
PKM: Is there any Kiwi slang you can give us to say goodbye?
Stan Mitchell: Yeah, “Too right mate!” which means definitely. Also, I’ve witnessed the creation of a word from absolute ground zero to common usage. It’s “Chur doy.” It can mean anything like “Hello. I agree. How you doing?” It’s a general noise you can use for agreement. It started off with musicians. There was a beloved Māori band led by Howard Morrison. They toured the length of New Zealand and played a lot of the smaller towns and sometimes remote, rural areas where people come from miles to see them. Those areas are notorious for people sounding inarticulate, like they’re mumbling. Apparently, there was a little kid who’d say, “Yeah, boy.” But it sounded like “Chur doy.” So it started amongst the musicians as a joke, and it really took on. Now it’s quite common. In fact, I was watching the Oscars a few years ago, and one guy got up from a film that was produced by Taika Watiti, a Māori guy who’s doing extremely well as a director. The actor looked down at Taika and said, “Chur!” I nearly fell off my seat laughing.
PKM: Well, on that note, “Chur doy!”
Stan Mitchell: “Chur!”
Mike Cobb is a writer, musician, and podcaster based in Brooklyn.