Eight Living Legs first appeared in the Auckland alternative scene in about 1981, but it wasn't the first time they'd played music together. In fact, in many respects they were already seasoned musicians, having been playing instruments through high school, even in various semi-professional capacities.
Drummer Huw Dainow, guitarist Bryn Driver and bass player Robert Carey lived in Te Atatu South (in West Auckland) and were schoolmates. I first saw them play after our guitarist, Dieneke Jansen, met Robert at university. Huw was always tinkering with cars and often found work as a mechanic (he became fully qualified later) and Bryn worked in prepress, as he still does, with some time out as an architectural draftsman.
Where our band (Flak) had musical influences and expectations way ahead of our abilities, the Legs had musical confidence to burn. On stage Huw would feel his way around the kit, playing incredibly tight rhythms with a tactility and feel way beyond most drummers of his age, while a grimacing Bryn would stand as if anchored to the deck of a heaving ship, legs braced, body swaying as he sent out blistering bluesy licks at breakneck speed or harnessed feedback to power chords. Robert, imposing, almost gaunt, would pace restlessly, sweeping the air dangerously with the long neck of his Fender.
Robert did most of the singing, voice gruff or pleading, sometimes wailing. His voice had a good range. On stage the band had presence, some songs that could-have-been should-have-been hits, and crowds loved 'em. I always enjoyed an Eight Living Legs concert - lots of people did.
We often shared gigs - the Hunters and Collectors' support and playing before the Dead Kennedys were highlights. By a strange coincidence, the trio were all left-handed, just as we were (three-piece, left-handed).
In a review published in Rip It Up (June 6th 1983) Russell Brown wrote "Eight Living Legs' confidence meant they succeeded where Flak didn't quite" and this is an accurate summation. Russell also wrote of Legs "They were hard, angry, played with space well."
was the Auckland heyday of the Legs, and that's when we talked Flying Nun into doing a dual EP - the support of Chris Knox was a big factor in FN's agreement, I'm sure. We were all planning on heading overseas so we decided on three songs a side and called it 'Emigration'.
The recordings clearly showed our lack of experience in the studio. Recordings were horrendously expensive in those days and you often ended up with a technician who knew nothing about the genre. And cared less. With the meter ticking, you said yes to stuff that was decidedly second rate, or went with the advice that it could be fixed in the mix - which you then couldn't afford.
Flying Nun, with their habitual inattention to detail and general all-round disorganisation in those days, dragged their feet so much the vinyl didn't come out for over a year. By then, Eight Living Legs were in London and Dieneke and I had moved to Amsterdam. The Legs came to see us in our flat there - on listening to tapes we realised how awful the recordings were and how decidedly irrelevant the whole exercise was, so we co-wrote a letter saying 'please stop the record!' and sent it off.
On another visit, months later, we went out shopping for music - Amsterdam in those days housed John Peel's favourite record shops. We found our disc in the Imports bin, complete with premium price.
'Dismay' doesn't quite do the emotion justice. Apart from the fact we thought the record should never have been released and had made that clear to Flying Nun, they'd left a colour off the sleeve and an entire track off the Flak side. Even Eight Living Legs' material sounded thin and anaemic - as (now renowned) Dutch musician Ferry Heyne said at the time, "It sounds like it was recorded in a matchbox"!
The Emigration EP didn't do the band justice, and it's great having the opportunity to hear tracks from the time re-EQ'd. (The Legs' humour is all over Emigration's liner note; gems include "All fan mail send to Big Rock Stars Ltd, FreePost (no stamp required), Private Bag 000, Auck", "Contains no fast songs, 'yeah mans', lead breaks or pop star drum beats" and some pseudo-classical music notes.)
But it wasn't the end of the band. Robert had added piano, violin and God knows what other
instruments to his repertoire over the years, Bryn had taught himself sax and Huw could handle guitar and bass, too. A couple of gigs in London were not encouraging - in those days, unless you had a British press wanker gushing over you or a very sharp manager, you literally paid to play in a London venue, and there was no hope of getting the money back when you couldn't afford the publicity to get punters there.
Bryn was working, Huw was working, Robert was experiencing London life, living in a squat pretty dire by any standards. Bryn drifted away from the band, having other responsibilities, and James Murray, Roberts' cousin, who had also moved to London, took up guitar. James had been drummer in the Auckland band Exploding Budgies, also the starting point for David Mitchell of the 3Ds.
A gig or two followed. The new line-up did some pretty good recordings in the London studio where they practised, but gigging seemed virtually impossible.
We heard all about this, and resolved to do something.
The Dutch scene couldn't have been more different. No Maggie Thatcher, a rich history of plundering Asian spices, a very healthy portfolio of US investments and a liberal, left-wing government that supported the arts meant that bands got paid for gigs even with minimal audiences. Besides, Dutch bands actually helped each other. So we organised a five-gig tour for them, Amsterdam, Wageningen, Eindhoven ... We hired a van. We (now called If; Dieneke, me, Dutch guy Rob Bleuzé on drums) played with them at two of the gigs while Svätsox and/or Naadafinksa did the others. Dieneke played violin with them on a couple of songs.
This was a new Eight Living Legs. Without the staunch, electric-blues-rooted artistry of Bryn Driver to anchor them, the stage presence had become almost demonic. With their faces daubed in red paint and James cranking feedback out of his guitar, joining the feedback loop aurally sometimes by singing into his Rickenbacker's sound-holes, the Dutch audiences were shocked, excited, mystified and bewildered in equal measure. The Legs were on fire.
But that was it, really. After that, the band drifted apart in the stultifying London atmosphere.
Robert went on to do a few recordings with other people, writing increasingly introspective songs, and even performed a few times. Huw worked in many bands over the years, both during and after the Legs era, always just under the cusp of making it as a serious musician. James ended up moving to Amsterdam where he still lives, working as a lighting technician of some repute, well grounded in the music industry. Bryn, ever the working man, was the first to move back to New Zealand permanently - he still plays in pub bands occasionally, and is working on creative projects.
Huw is now back here too, writing music, still a consummate drummer but also playing bass, working as a mechanic with a special interest in American cars.
Robert is still in London but is, for probably the first time, seriously considering moving back to New Zealand after 20 years. He signs his emails 'RD Carey: Mycologist, Primitive Technologist and Misanthropist' - but this isn't as tongue-in-cheek as it sounds - he has many other strings to his bow, having taught maths to immigrants, designed textiles, worked for a photographer, cleaned a gay bar and paraded as a transvestite, among other things.
After all is said and done, I think Eight Living Legs was a band that should have made it. Perhaps if they'd been a bit more savvy about the move to London, laying some groundwork first, things would have been different. Like many a promising band, maybe they just needed to 'be discovered'. They probably deserved it more than most of the New Zealand bands of the early '80s - they were engaging, consummate musicians, tight as all hell, professional yet with a quirky, stroppy humour that came across live.
In person, a night with the Legs was always a side-splitting occasion. Wit and intelligence coincide - sometimes they collide. Any two of the band in the same room for any length of time - even now - makes for a bloody entertaining and rewarding night.
Perhaps what let them down was no one outside the band having enough faith or vision to see them for what they were. Perhaps it was the personal insecurities of the individual members undermining their musical endeavours. Probably it was just supremely bad luck - but if you never saw or heard Eight Living Legs, you missed out. End of story.
- Mark Webster, February 2005
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