The Waitara freezing works played a pivotal role in the future of one of Taranaki's most successful pop stars. For four summers, Nick Sampson of the Netherworld Dancing Toys worked at Borthwicks to save money for further study. But when he began his second season there, the young man had less academic plans.

After finishing the seventh form at Francis Douglas Memorial College in 1980, Nick was asked to join New Plymouth punk band Nocturnal Projections. They were heading to Auckland and wanted a guitar player. Nick, who had been playing the instrument since he was 14, said yes.

With trepidation he shared these plans with his parents, Kinsley and Catherine Sampson. "My mother and father, to my eternal gratification, were quite calm. They said 'That's fine'. I expected them to hit the roof, but they called my bluff."

His mum disagrees: "We didn't actually take him seriously." Even worse, she can't even recall this important conversation. "A life-changing moment in a teenager's life and they don't even remember!" Nick says.

Second thoughts over French letters

Their low-key (or non-existent) response to Nick's punk dream was subliminally effective. During the Christmas holidays of 1980-1981, he had a job in the casings department of Borthwicks and with the manual labour came plenty of time to think. "As the summer went on and I was working at the works, this common-sense bell was ringing in the back of my head" Nick says.

Over the intestines used for sausage skins and lamb appendixes made into expensive French condoms, the 17-year-old began to reconsider his future. "I thought I was going to run away with a rock and roll band - and instead, I ended up at Otago [University]."

Alleyways lead to The Clean

During his first days in the South Island city of Dunedin, Nick and a mate, David Harris, went rambling. "As good fortune would have it, we were wandering around exploring by the Octagon and we heard this band playing." The lads followed the sound through winding alleyways to a school hall, where they found a band practising. "We didn't know who they were, but they didn't mind us watching." By chance, the Taranaki boys had stumbled upon one of Dunedin's most famous underground bands. "It was The Clean."

The following year, 1982, Nick became part of the city's music scene. At the end of 1981, bass player Graham Cockcroft decided he wanted to put together a big band with horns. "I met Graham through a mutual friend. We had very similar record collections and both thought a high-energy Dexys [Midnight Runners] type band would be great" Nick says. Graham brought in drummer Brent Alexander and the search continued for more musicians.

Playing talent scouts

"Between us we found three horn players around campus and got organised to meet for rehearsals when varsity kicked off in the New Year" Nick says. "Over [that] Christmas I found a heap of old soul records in the second-hand record store in Brougham St. This one bag of old discs provided a lot of the old soul covers we used to do over the years."

In January 1982, Graham put an advertisement in the Otago Daily Times for another guitar/singer/songwriter and Malcolm Black applied. "He was then well known around Dunedin for fronting a successful pub band called Strictly Blues - he's a great blues guitar player" Nick says. "We were very rough and ready in comparison. However, when he met us at our third rehearsal in Graham's mum's basement - belting out In The Midnight Hour and some early originals - he liked the energy and joined up on the spot."

Catherine says Nick rang home to share the news about forming a band. She and Kinsley gave their support on a proviso they hoped would be listened to. "All the parents said 'It will be OK as long as you finish your degrees'," she says. It's Nick's turn for a memory lapse. "Not surprisingly, I don't seem to remember the mums and dads actually having anything to do with it."

In and out with the law

The degree, the Sampsons hoped Nick would complete was a Batchelor of Arts majoring in English Literature. He started out with plans to do law, but soon dropped that idea. "There was too much fun to be had." Like making music.

With Malcolm on side it was time for the group to make plans. "We then had a band meeting in the front bar of the Robbie Burns where everyone except Mal and Tex [the sound guy] got busted for underage drinking" Nick says. That was March 1982.  "By June we had a full set rehearsed."

And a name. Netherworld Dancing Toys was suggested by the band's trumpet player, Alistair Perry. "It's from a line of a Roxy Music song" Nick says. It can be found in Spin Me Around on the Manifesto album, released in 1979.

Next came the launch. "We booked a place called the Orphan's Hall in the heart of Scarfieville and organised The Netherworld Dancing Toy's Consummation Party." They hired a public address system and lights, ordered two mini-tankers, a full range of spirits and booked the Blue Meanies as support. The back-up band starred Andrew Brough, who went on to form Straightjacket Fits with Shayne Carter. Tickets were either $12 a double or $8 a single for ‘all you could drink’.

Debut a 'tremendous shambles'

"As we were a big university band [nine including sound and lighting guy], we sold all the tickets within days - the hall was licensed to hold 300 and we sold over 500" Nick says. "As you might imagine, it was a tremendous shambles. After the Blue Meanies, the PA broke down for an hour - that was Tex's first instance of making gear go with a piece of No 8 wire."

The Netherworld Dancing Toys finally went on - 90 minutes late. "By which time the crowd and barmen were paralytic [extremely drunk]. As we walked on stage for our first gig the crowd went wild - and we hadn't played a note. The rest of the show followed suit."

The next weekend the NDTs played at the Oriental Hotel, which became their regular gig venue. "As most of the consummation party attendees couldn't remember us, but knew they had had a great night, a lot of them came to the pub to see what we were really like. The result was full houses for our first pub gigs. We couldn't have planned it better."

Up the charts with Flying Nun

In August 1982, the Toys played at the Gladstone Hotel in Christchurch and were discovered by Roger Shepherd, the head of a small record company. "He offered to sign us to the fledgling Flying Nun over a jug of ale."

The first three EPs were all released on the Flying Nun label. "Roger probably rigged the first one and it went on to the charts at No 10" Nick says.

Roger and Nick are still firm friends. But the Netherworld Dancing Toys didn't quite fit the alternative music sound. "We had a light show and were about dancing and fun" Nick says.

Such nice boys

"In retrospect I was lucky I didn't go to Auckland as I met such a good bunch of guys - they were really smart and on to it." Much to the relief of his parents. "One thing we did take comfort out of was they made a conscious decision to present a clean-cut, sensible image rather than an aggressive punk or overtly sexual image" Kinsley says. "They never came across as scruffy or scungy. That was apparently a deliberate decision of the four of them."

Nick, amused by his dad's perceptions, puts him right. "Bless him… 'deliberate' in that we were trying to look as Mod as possible in 1982 New Zealand - then the land of crap men's clothing." All the musicians had to choose from back then were the op-shops of Dunedin.

He says Kinsley, the former New Plymouth town clerk and then district council general manager, wouldn't have understood the Mod fashion statement. "He once commented on my Doc Martens, saying 'I'm really very surprised that you've bought yourself such sensible shoes'."

Also down-to-earth but perhaps a touch more streetwise, Catherine says: "Like all young guys, I'm sure they did things they wished they hadn't. But they were a responsible lot."

The Netherworld Dancing Toys were also hugely successful within New Zealand.

Those golden years...

Their first full album, Painted Years, was released in 1985 by Virgin Records. It went gold. They also had a hit single with For Today, which got up to number three on the charts and stayed in the Top 10 for five weeks from July 1985.

The following year, the Toys scooped the New Zealand Music Awards. They won Single of the Year with For Today; Album of the Year with Painted Years; the United Song award (both public and industry votes), again with For Today; and were named Top Group. Nigel Stone was also voted Producer of the Year for his work on Painted Years.

Nick's parents were watching the awards ceremony live on television from their New Plymouth home. "We felt pretty good that night" his dad says.  "Nicholas was wearing my old Harris Tweed sports jacket because he had no decent clothes" he says. "Which Kinsley wore when we were courting" Catherine continues. "It's still hanging down there in the wardrobe." But Nick had fans even older than his dad's jacket.

Switching on For Today

Out in Waitara, Nick's grandmother Elsie Sampson and her cronies probably bumped up the public votes. Kinsley says his mum was a big supporter of the For Today - especially because she knew it was written in her home while Nick was working at Borthwicks. "She and her old friends got switched on to commercial radio so they could hear the song" he says.

Elsie died when Nick was living overseas in England. For Today was played at her funeral. "So part of Nick was there" Catherine says.

Even now that song continues to swirl through their lives like a playful haunting ghost. "Every time I go to Woolworths [supermarket] it seems to come over the speakers" she says.

Kinsley discovers 3D music

As well as being proud of For Today, the Sampsons were supportive of Nick's music career to the point of busting out of their comfort zone.

Kinsley describes the night he and Catherine went see the Netherworld Dancing Toys play at the former Bell Block Hotel. "We stood in the back of the hall. It's the first time I've felt three-dimensional music - sound, visual and the physical thump as the beat hit your body" he says, whacking his chest like a Māori warrior performing the haka.

"That was a night that a car hit a power pole in Bell Block and the lights went out, which is good fun for a rock band." Surprisingly, the crowd was good-natured and people milled about patiently in the dim emergency lights.

After half an hour, the power came back and the show went on. By this time Catherine had moved as far away as possible from the pounding speakers. "The assault of sound was getting to me."

Catherine declines a drag

On the outer rim, she began people watching. "There was this couple sharing a ciggy [of marijuana] and I was watching these two with fascination and they turned around and offered me a puff and so I smiled sweetly and declined."

Another patron, slightly older than the rest, sidled up to her and asked: "Excuse me, what are you doing in a place like this?" Meanwhile, Kinsley was asked if he was a cop.

Another time they went to the White Hart Hotel to see the Toys play. "The Magogs were on the door" Catherine says of the members of New Plymouth's motorcycle club. "You got a stamp on your hand, but it was too dark to see what it said." When she got home, Nick's mum examined her hand in the light. "It said 'Good work'," she laughs.

Having to repeat history

Which was appropriate for the NDTs, especially Nick who finished his arts degree in the middle of a national tour. "He had missed history 101" Catherine explains how he had to sit the first-year paper in his final year to get his BA. "They were on tour and did a lunch-time concert at Hamilton Girls' High [School]. He got on a flight, flew to Dunedin, swotted all night, sat his paper the next morning and flew to Rotorua to join the band for a concert that night." Nick passed. "Well, he jolly well needed to" Catherine says.

Even though the Netherworld Dancing Toys were highly successful, they decided to play at schools because the shows led to a boost in record sales. "We were building next year's pub crowd" Nick says. In 1989, the band released its second album, Everything Will Be Alright, put out by CBS.

Toys no more

The following year, the band wound down. Some may say they broke up, but not Nick. "We didn't really. It's a long story. Virgin UK reneged on releasing For Today and the first album in the UK saying it wasn't of high enough production quality" he says. "In retrospect we all agree we should have taken a gamble and moved to London and gone for it. However, we thought that if we could raise private investment here [the tax deals allowed by law for film investment at the time also enabled a few local albums to get great funding] we could stay here, produce a much better record and secure international distribution - and then tour overseas with international label support.

"For various reasons, including a Government budget that changed the law overnight just when we had secured big bucks, the second album project took a year or two longer than it should have. When it finally came out we'd lost a bit of momentum in NZ and it didn't do too well here." Nick explains why: "It was also over produced and had moved away from the sound that made us interesting in the first place."

Everything not alright

CBS ended up releasing Everything Will Be Alright throughout Europe, but the band wasn't there to promote it. "CBS America got interested in releasing and promoting it, but they got bought by Sony before a deal was negotiated - the result being that projects like us were shelved.

"At that point [early 1990] we didn't have many other options other than staying here and doing more of the same, or just heading overseas into the unknown. Also during the never-ending second album project most of us had taken good day jobs. So while we were still playing it wasn't full time anymore.

"In the end Graham [Cockcroft] decided he wanted to do his OE. Knowing I didn't know what I wanted to do, unbeknown to me he bought me a ticket on his Visa card. A month later we were in London 'to take a look'. He's still overseas and I didn't get back until the end of 1995."   

What they're up to now

Nick says that these days Graham is a ‘super-duper high flying executive for British Gas’, who works with multi-million-dollar budgets for building gas plants in Third World countries. "He was the guy who set up the student radio network. He always had the smarts."

Malcolm Black is still working in the music industry. He is an entertainment lawyer, and an artist and repertoire manager for Sony Music. He looks after New Zealand artists, including Dave Dobbyn, Bic and Boh Runga, Brooke Fraser and Che Fu. He is married to Tracy Tawhia and together they have set up Heart Music to take ‘brown New Zealand music to the world’.

Brent Alexander has a successful business as a designer and builder. "He's built 40 or 50 houses in Central Otago" Nick says.

And as for Nick, he has helped set up the Auckland office of brand design company DNA. Its portfolio includes Telecom, XTRA, BMW, the All Blacks, Great Outdoors, the TV2 International Laugh Festival, Lotteries, St John and Puke Ariki.

While they all follow different paths, Nick, Graham, Malcolm and Brent are as intimate as veteran soldiers who shared a tour of duty. "We are as thick as thieves. We are still really, really close” Nick says.

Reunion for Virgin friend

In the middle of 2003, the NDTs had a private reunion and played at the birthday party of an old friend from Virgin Records. Kinsley explains: "There was a joke once that they would all play for Annabel Carr's 50th. She did the band's first record contracts." Catherine says they have seen the video of the musical get-together. "It's amazing, they still sounded so good - in Annabel's kitchen."

In Annabel's Kitchen... there's a great name for an album. Bit it's unlikely the Netherworld Dancing Toys will do it all again, reinforced by the fact they released a compilation album, The Best Years, in 1996.

But for Nick, the music will never stop. "I still do a lot of playing," he says. "It would be nice to play all the time and not work..."



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