Look Blue Go Purple need no introduction as one of the most beloved groups to come out of Dunedin’s alternative pop/rock scene in the early 1980s. Having disbanded 30 years ago, they have recently reissued their three EPs (plus some additional live tracks) as a double LP called ‘Still Bewitched.’ It’s been well-received, charting in the top 10 of the NZ music charts, and early copies (released on Record Store Day) were on blue and purple vinyl, a nice touch. Amanda Mills talked with Francisca Griffin, Kath Webster and Lesley Paris.
The bewitching tale of Look Blue Go Purple began in the early ‘80s, when Francisca Griffin returned to Dunedin from Canada, and quickly formed The Permanent Tourists with Martyn Bull (The Chills) and Norma O’Malley.At the same time, Lesley Paris was part of an acapella group, The Neanics, with Denise Roughan, Rachel Phillipps, and Jane Dodd. Through O’Malley, they met Kath Webster, whose musical pedigree included classical piano and guitar. The pieces having fallen into place, the five (O’Malley, Webster, Griffin, Roughan and Paris) started to rehearse. Notably, Webster had a guitar – “a big deal,” according to Paris. The name they adopted came from Griffin’s search for an optimistic title.
“I went to the library, to look in the big-ass Thesaurus. Right beside optimism is pessimism, so I [wrote] down some of them too.”
At rehearsal she called out some of the terms listed, and when she read out ‘look blue then go purple’ someone said, ‘That’s it!’ – Look Blue Go Purple.
The new band’s first show was a birthday party at O’Malley and Roughan’s flat in Cumberland Street, playing in the corner of the living room, and their first official show was The Broome Valley Festival, on March 5, 1983.
Songwriting was organic, which comes through on ‘Still Bewitched.’ Early tracks like The Mexican Song were vital to the band’s development,
“Some of those first songs… led onto the other ones. And, I love listening to them and realising the avenues that we were taking,” Griffin thinks out loud. “We were comfortable enough with each other to make up these completely ridiculous things, and get up on stage and play them to our friends, most of whom pretty much didn’t diss us.”
Some criticism does however still stick with Griffin.
“We got seriously dissed when we played at Punakaiki, in Rip It Up. ‘Silly girls playing stupid pop songs’. I think that might have been Gary Steel.”
Inspired by punk, their sound was quite different with flute, vibraslap, and (early on) a monophonic synthesiser.
“We had this willingness… we weren’t so good on guitars yet, so we had to do other things. But as time went on, we had those twin guitar things going on, you know, Kath and Denise, and Norma and the organ,” Griffin reflects.
The band changed instruments around too.
“Maybe we did that for the first couple of years, and I think you really kind of notice that… they were more kind of experimental and angular, and stuff that you get from learning in public,” Paris remembers.
Webster thinks their voices also play a part, as “…female voices, sometimes in harmony – that wasn’t heard in other Dunedin bands of the time.”
They didn’t have to look far for influences either, with The Clean and The Rip being two of their favourites, drummer Paris found local citing Hamish Kilgour (The Clean) and Robbie Yeats (The Verlaines) as inspirational. Griffin, in particular, drew inspiration from her peers.
“I really loved the way Terry Moore played bass, he… is such an amazing bass player,” Griffin reminisces. “That was really cool,” she smiles, recalling the proud moment when Moore said he thought her bass line to Safety In Crosswords was ‘amazing’.
The ‘feminist girl group’ tag has shadowed the band since their heyday – and although Paris says she kind of likes it, Griffin is tired of perpetually being asked about.
“It’s not that I don’t like the question… of course we’re feminists, we’re women – why wouldn’t we be? Why wouldn’t we be sticking up for ourselves?”
Webster has a similar view.
“In an organic, subconscious way we probably were ‘feminist’, but it wasn’t deliberate. It sort of annoyed us that our gender was considered special,” she says. “It just made sense… we were women friends… it wasn’t a big deal to us. It influenced our sound, and our way of doing things.”
Being in an all-girl band in 1980s Dunedin wasn’t such an anomaly, with Cassandra’s Ears and The Delawares also having a full-female lineup, but as Paris notes there weren’t many such NZ bands before them.
“We weren’t overtly feminist… that wasn’t our reason for not having any boys in our band or anything, it was… almost more sort of a meld with punk thing of, we just want to do it this way, thanks,” she explains.
Webster thinks their ‘all-girl group’ status became a big deal for that reason.
“I guess because although there were a few women playing in bands (Jane Dodd, Rachel Phillips) there weren’t many… it was just different enough to be noted.”
Look Blue Go Purple were unique. Looking back it’s clear they had an authentic view, not someone else’s vision of what their group should be.
“If other people had the idea – if we could do it, they could do it,” Griffin says. “I think we encouraged all kinds of people at the time, though – people would say, ‘So great you’re playing music!’”
Fast forward to 2017, and the recently released ‘Still Bewitched’, a double album combining their three EPs that reminds how potent and unified Look Blue Go Purple were, as both a live and studio band. The original EPs are supplemented with previously unreleased live tracks helping demonstrate the evolution of the band’s sound, from their early lo-fi punky style (Spike), to more layered sounds, and sophisticated structures and rhythms (Eyes Are The Door).
The genesis of ‘Still Bewitched’ happened when Griffin visited at Flying Nun’s Ben Howe who told her that ‘…these people in the United States, Captured Tracks, they want a Look Blue Go Purple reissue.’
“My head puffed up, and I thought, ‘Oh yes, let’s do that!’ I started nagging the rest of the band, in the nicest possible way, and away we went.”
The selection of live tracks was down to Griffin’s archiving skills, as she had insisted that as many live gigs as possible were recorded.
“We knew they were going to show us in a different way to than the recordings did,” Paris explains. “It was a different beast live, and there were times when we were pretty rocking.”
With the songs chosen the band got together to listen to them early in 2015.
“We were all together for the first time in a while, and we got to have a listening session the next day at Fran’s house, so that was pretty special. It was hilarious, because at some stage of the afternoon we all had a moment of, ‘Is that us, is that one of our songs?’
“We played one of the songs, and Norma asked, ‘Who’s singing?’ And I said, ‘That’s you’,” Griffin laughs.
Griffin, Webster, and Paris have their favourite songs on the ‘Still Bewitched.’ For Webster the choice is simple.
“As Does The Sun. Beautiful.”
“Safety In Crosswords, I really, really like that song, and also because of what Terry said!” Griffin enthuses. “That bassline was a real adventure for me… that was a direct offshoot [of] those first songs we did like Spike and A Request.”
Paris thinks on the question for a minute.
“I really like Grace, I think it’s such an… odd song, in the structure of it. And, I love Norma’s vocals, that it’s a twisted little song, but she’s singing so sweetly.”
Webster is unabashed in her love of ‘Still Bewitched’.
“To be honest, I was surprised and impressed by our output,” she admits. “So I’m happy with the end result, really stoked that it’s out and being well-received. I’m proud of the achievement of it. Plus, it was great to reconnect with the bandmates… we always worked well together and we still do.”
As a band, Look Blue Go Purple still elicits love, respect, and admiration.
“It could be the democracy of us,” Griffin thinks. “It might take us the whole time we’ve been together, it might have taken us a while to make decisions, but that’s… robust debate.”
For Webster, the music represents “…a slightly naïve element of that period, when anyone who wanted to, could… we were so keen to be collective about everything, no one wanted to shine. Maybe people appreciated that, related to it.”
If the band has a legacy, Griffin thinks it’s a simple one.
“Just do it… and, only do it if you love it. Don’t do it if you want to be famous. Don’t do it because you want to prove something, do it because you want to do it! Play because you have to.”