From his time with The Enemy and Toy Love through to Tall Dwarfs and his solo career, Chris Knox has been a hero to many, domestically and abroad, for his passionate performances, his writing and his ethos: a DIY song-craftsman. The image of Knox as the man in the stubbies and jandals is a crucial part of understanding the charm of Knox the artist, the performer.
As a young punk Knox performed self-lacerating live gigs with The Enemy and Toy Love. With Toy Love guitarist Alec Bathgate he formed Tall Dwarfs, a duo that repurposed Beatles and Beach Boys melodies in and around noisy, fuzzy, scuzzy guitar riffs and monotonous drum-machine patterns.
Knox released Not Given Lightly from the album Seizure in 1990 – the song has become an enduring classic. It is a small dent into the mainstream, fitting for Knox who flirts between the fringe and the mainstream as a subversive film reviewer, cartoonist and TV art-show presenter. He is punk grown up, gone to college. He is punk, still happy tinkering in the back shed to make his own music and videos and album covers.
Knox’s contributions to New Zealand music are far-reaching. He owned the 4-track recorder that captured many of the earliest Flying Nun performances. There at the birth of the label, Knox is, still, one of the first names people think of when the iconic label comes into conversation. He drew the sketch that was used on the cover of The Clean’s Boodle Boodle Boodle EP.
And then there are his songs. From Seizure: Face Of Fashion, Woman Inside Of Me and Statement Of Intent – quirky, playful, passionate, biting, satirical, and sardonic. In just three minutes, with guitar and drum-machine and a purloined Beatles melody or a trace of punk’s derision Knox has been able to convey so much. Literate pop songs that were bashed together in the garden shed; a homily on the state of the New Zealand music industry held together with crooked nails and sticky tape.
With 2000’s Beat, his 10th solo offering, Knox jubilantly bashed out It’s Love before offering creeping paranoia and insular thoughts. He contemplated mortality and acknowledged the decline of health in his father. Songs such as My Only Friend, When I Have Left This Mortal Coil, The Pulse Below The Ear and Becoming Something Other are all devastating in their simplicity and potency.
In 2002, under the pseudonym Friend, Knox released Inaccuracies & Omissions, a manifesto of noise and improvisations that channelled his love for all things fringe, for the art that sits outside and away from the song as a concise piece.
But with 2005’s Chris Knox And The Nothing and 2008’s A Warm Gun (both recorded in a “proper” studio with a real band, The Nothing) Knox returned to the trademarks of his best writing. Sincere, personal songs that feel – instantly – universal. Sardonic putdowns that are playful and irreverent; that aren’t bitter but contain bite.
In June of 2009 Chris Knox suffered a stroke. Recovery has been slow – but Knox has approached his recovery and battled with the ordeal with grace and humour. He has taught himself to draw with his other hand, he has been keeping a visual diary of his recovery. He has continued to write and record music. He has even performed with The Nothing. His friend Shayne Carter (Straitjacket Fits, Dimmer) has been a crucial support – Knox appeared at the 2010 Laneway Festival with Carter for a short set. The wordless vocalising from Knox, over slabs of guitar and drums, have him back at his punk-rock roots.
Just a few short months after his stroke, a tribute album called Stroke: Songs For Chris Knox was released. It featured a who’s who of New Zealand musicians and many international names. Artists that have worked with Knox or taken influence from his work.
Local artists included Jordan Luck, Alec Bathgate, David and Hamish Kilgour, The Bats, The Verlaines, The Mint Chicks and SJD. International guests included Yo La Tengo, Bill Callahan (aka Smog), Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy), A.C. Newman, Stephin Merritt (from Magnetic Fields) and Lou Barlow.
Knox even appeared on the album himself. Twice. Once with The Nothing for a new song, Nappin’ In Lapland and again with Bathgate for a Tall Dwarfs reunion (Sunday Song).
The artists gave their time for free – the money from the double album was raised to support Knox’s recovery. And it also serves as the perfect tribute to the power of Chris Knox’s songs, proving his hero-worship both here and abroad. The body of work proving a strength all of its own as Knox’s own flesh had weakened. His spirit, in his recovery and in his songs, remains something for New Zealanders to be proud of.
Click here to read my interview with Alec Bathgate.
Some of the text here first appeared as an essay in the book On Song