Bob Marley played his first and only New Zealand concert on Monday, 16 April 1979, at Auckland’s Western Springs. Gareth Shute looks back on that visit and the seismic effect it had on this country’s relationship with reggae music, which continues to resonate forty years later.
In the days leading up to Bob Marley’s 1979 Western Springs concert, there’d been torrential rain. Even that morning it drizzled.
It was Easter Monday and the show was set to start at 3pm, with a short set by local funk act Golden Harvest.
The rain had discouraged some who’d planned to get tickets on the day, so the audience was thinner than it might've been and the grass was squelchy under foot.
Yet nothing would put off fans including reggae musician Tigilau Ness of reggae band Unity, who’d returned from the UK especially to see Marley perform.
Ness’ wife, Miriama Rauhihi-Ness arranged to host Marley’s trio of backing singers, The I-Threes, at her house, befriending Rita Marley, Bob’s wife and a member of the trio. The whole Ness family got to briefly meet Marley, including Tigi and Miriama’s five-year-old son, Che - aka Che Fu. They watched Marley's concert from side of stage.
For the reggae musicians in the audience that day, the show was a revelation. Many of them were already active on the local scene: Carl Perkins of Wellington’s Aotearoa Reggae Band, Herbs and later House of Shem; Boy Grace of Chaos; Dilworth Karaka and Toni Fonoti of Herbs; and DJ Duncan Campbell whose radio show on 95bFM schooled Aucklanders on reggae for the next decade.
“When Bob came out and he was talking about equality, it really took my interest,” says Herbs' Toni Fonoti, “Bob is a messenger, that’s what I got from him … He was on a mission to deliver his message.”
A short time after the concert, a documentary on Marley’s visit made by local music journalist Dylan Taite, was broadcast on TV One’s ‘Good Day’ programme. It included footage of Taite playing football with Marley, as well as a sit down interview.
Fonoti was paying attention: “He was in that tracksuit. I remember recording that interview onto a cassette player and I transcribed it. I was just trying to break through his accent to see what he’s about and what he’s saying. I really love his songs and his music.”
It wasn’t just hardcore reggae fans in the audience that day. Anyone who took a serious interest in contemporary music was there, from 60s rocker Larry Morris to future post-punk label owner Simon Grigg. They wanted to see if Marley could live up to the hype.
The show drew a whole contingent of punk musicians, who connected with Marley’s outsider persona. Marley had courted this audience directly two years earlier with his 1977 single ‘Punky Reggae Party’.
Amongst the punks was Kerry Buchanan from Auckland group The Tearaways, who noticed the gang presence at the concert.
“I was right up front with my girlfriend at the time, in the midst of the all the Black Power guys, but we didn’t really realise it at the time. It was cool because there was no agitation around them – no pushing and shoving, so we got to see it really close up.
“Around that time, there were quite a lot of violent fights between various gangs, but I think the cops and the gangs had organised something to keep people separated – Black Power here, Mongrel Mob there.
“What I did notice was that [Marley] obviously wasn’t a very well man when he was performing.”
Marley was suffering from cancer at the time, and was at the end of a gruelling world tour.
“I remember him going behind the stage quite a bit and coming back. But he had a great band and everything, so they were able to carry it.”
Also in the audience that day was record store clerk Chris Caddick who went on to become head of record label EMI NZ and is now Chairman of Recorded Music NZ.
“My main memory of it was the sheer power of the bass. Reggae is such a bass driven music and that was such a shock to me after spending my teen years listening to guitar-heros like Led Zeppelin and so forth.
“The sound quality of the bass was pretty good, it wasn’t muffled and blurred. It was so different to anything I’d seen before personally. It certainly blew my mind.
“I became a massive reggae convert afterward and started buying up all the Island Records and Virgin Records releases I could find.”
Reviewer Colin Hogg, writing for the Auckland Star, was also impressed:
“Underpinned by the giant bass of Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, the Wailers were brilliant. They worked as one huge rhythm section, with only the lead guitars of the upfront Junior Marvin and the Stone-like Al Anderson rising occasionally for a solo.
“One hour into the set, the band left the stage for a quick smoko after their biggest local hit, ‘Is This Love’. They returned with fire in their bellies for a stunning 20-minute bracket of ‘War No More Trouble,’ Peter Tosh’s ‘Get Up Stand Up’ and an epic ‘Exodus’ with The I Threes dancing across the stage like a brace and a bit of peacock.
“Then it was all over, just when some of us were ready for another hour of Marley and the Wailers, in spite of the mud. But there must be something in those positive vibrations … it didn’t rain.”
Meanwhile, the Herald reviewer seemed almost disappointed that violence hadn’t broken out at the show:
“The Rastafarian spirit, their guiding force, is an angry one, and Marley’s repertoire is strewn with songs demanding vengeance and war. There are songs exhorting people to all sorts of civil disorder in pursuit of their ‘rights’.
“But the Rastas’ mentor has many dimensions, as Marley portrays with his moving lyrical ‘No Woman No Cry’.
“Yesterday’s concert encompassed the whole spirit and it was a rare pleasure to be there. The sight of Bob Marley pulling no punches – musical or physical, was a real Easter treat.”
Marley's concert led to local record importers bringing in vastly more reggae releases in the following years. Not only roots reggae acts like Marley, but also DJ-as-performer acts including U-Roy.
The 1980s saw the formation of many legendary local reggae acts including Aotearoa, Dread, Beat & Blood, and most notably Herbs, who went on to put 12 singles in the Top 40.
Tigi Ness continued playing music, but was also instrumental in setting up New Zealand’s first Rastafarian church, Auckland’s Twelve Tribes of Israel. They had their own band and were responsible for introducing sound system culture to Auckland.
Ness turned his afro into dreadlocks after Marley’s concert and has kept them ever since, in accordance with strict Rasta teachings.
Marley’s influence would come up time and again in the decades that followed.
In the 90s, regular festivals started up in Wellington and Auckland, celebrating Marley’s birthday. Their success was helped by the fact the reggae legend’s birthday coincides with Waitangi Day.
One musician, Thompson Hohepa, who’d been at the Western Springs concert, named his reggae covers band after Marley’s album Catch A Fire. When Hohepa’s band, Katchafire began writing originals, they were a huge hit both here and abroad.
Around 2012, young filmmaker Tearepa Kahi came across the footage of Marley’s pōwhiri. He’d been watching Taite’s documentary Come A Long Way on VHS during his lunch break at TVNZ.
“I almost lifted off my seat, when I saw local kapa haka team Manawa perform a pōwhiri for Bob and the Wailers. When the kaiwero (challenger) came forward, the entire room went dark and all I could see was this young man lay down the taki at Bob’s feet.
“I felt like I was witnessing one of the greatest moments in Aotearoa's history. It was pure cinema. And that was my lightning bolt moment.”
Kahi was inspired to write his film Mt Zion, about a young band trying to get the support slot at Marley’s Western Springs show.
Stan Walker starred in the film. The guitarist in his fictional band was played by real-life guitarist Kevin Kaukau who’d played at Marley’s 1979 concert as part of opening act Golden Harvest.
Kahi thinks Marley’s visit has enduring importance:
“Many people from Boot Hill [a community formed in the late 1960s after the government confiscated the land on which the Orakei Marae stood, forcing people onto the hill above Orakei Reserve] and all around Tāmaki flocked to Bob’s hotel each evening, in the hopes of listening to the man speak and share, which he often did.
“So Bob’s visit was much more than soccer games at the Parnell Rose Garden. He touched a rich vein of Auckland’s community, inspiring them all to keep the fires burning.
“It’s poignant and resonant, given that one month after his visit, a huge Police force invaded a peaceful occupation on Bastion Point and arrested over 200 Ngāti Whātua, Māori, Pacific, and Pākehā people.
“Bob’s visit is inextricably bound to our own march towards social justice.”
In summer 2019, the enduring legacy of Bob Marley was marked fittingly with two shows at Western Springs from local acts steeped in reggae.
In February, reggae turned pop act, Six60 topped a bill that included reggae band, Sons of Zion. They sold out Western Springs with more than 50,000 people in attendance, more than twice the roughly 20,000 who attended Bob Marley’s concert.
A month earlier, Fat Freddy’s Drop brought their dubbed-out version of reggae to Western Springs, the significance of which wasn’t lost on MC Slave, aka Mark Williams.
“I grew up in the neighbourhood. I was introduced to reggae as a teenager. The stories of Bob playing for $8.70 a ticket at Western Springs are rightfully the stuff of legend.
“The concerts at the Springs make the whole neighbourhood come alive and to me are synonymous with summer. But it’s Bob Marley’s one and only concert that without question is the most infamous ever to take place there and has arguably had the biggest impact on the local music scene.
“It was special for us to bring the Fat Freddy’s Drop style of reggae music to the hallowed ground. Bowie might have had the biggest audience at Springs but the cultural impact of Bob’s concert is unparalleled.”
This story first appeared on Radio New Zealand.