Mark Hough, AKA Buster Stiggs, passed away on Sunday at the age of 63, following a long battle with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
Buster was a force in New Zealand music over the years, forming a band called After Hours with a teenage Neil Finn in 1976, before drumming in influential punk outfit, Suburban Reptiles. In 1979 he formed The Swingers with Phil Judd and Bones Hillman, going on to co-write the Trans-Tasman #1 hit, Counting The Beat.
Buster was also a member of The Models in 1981, before focussing on his work as a graphic designer. He moved to Perth in the mid-‘90s and continued to perform in outfits such as Buster N’ Lil and Catbeach. He also provided advice and support for emerging artists and worked for WAM.
I first met Buster not long after he moved to Perth. He was always an affable, good-natured guy who had an aura of having seen it all – mainly because he had. He faced ill health with strength and dignity over these last few years and had a lot of very dear friends in his corner. He was indeed loved and he knew that.
I was honoured to be invited to visit Buster in hospital last month. When I entered his room he offered his sincere condolences on my mother’s recent passing. I can’t describe how touched I was that a man who was facing his own mortality could be so selfless. We sat with a mutual friend, Simone Harle, and talked of collating Buster’s memories and photographs for a book. There was a lot to cover. “But there’s no hurry, Bob,” he assured me.
Sadly, that was the last time I saw him.
In September, 2015, Buster was awarded New Zealand’s APRA Silver Scroll. For some reason in 1981, it was not presented so for the awards’ 50th anniversary, it was retrospectively/belatedly awarded to The Swingers, who dominated that year with Counting The Beat. Here is an interview I did at the time with Buster about the song and the award for X-Press Magazine…
What are your recollections of the period of time when you wrote, then recorded Counting The Beat?
The Swingers were born out of my punk rock band, The Suburban Reptiles, but the punk scene was highjacked by skinheads and boot-boys. I wanted to move away from that scene and play regular gigs. When we wrote Counting The Beat we had already rehearsed for six months and toured New Zealand several times as headliners. Our first gig was supporting Split Enz on their Give It A Whirl tour. We played to 4,000 people at the Auckland Town Hall.
After that tour everyone in New Zealand knew about us and we were offered a residency in a new Auckland pub called Liberty Stage. Many new indie bands started off there. We also got offers to play in the other big cities at the biggest venues. Back then the band started at 8pm and finished at midnight so we did 4x 45-minute sets. About 45 songs every gig.
Did you know once the song was in its realised form that you had something pretty special?
Counting The Beat came about from a second songwriting burst after all that experience playing to big audiences who all wanted to dance. We hired a warehouse and would play indoor soccer to get a sweat up before we rehearsed. It originated from me trying to find a different drum. Instead of the standard boom-boom-thwack I just went thwack-boom-thwack. Bones (Hillman, bass – later of Midnight Oil) joined in with an intuitive bassline which he didn’t know what he was playing until Phil (Judd, vocals/guitar) refreshed his memory, physically placing Bones’ fingers on the notes. We all had mics, so the chorus hooks came from Bones and me just trying to fill out the three-piece sound. David (Tickle, producer) got Bones to play the track three times, that is why the bottom end is so huge, unlike a lot of the funky white boy soul coming out at the time with slap bass.
We recorded all our jams on a ghetto blaster which Phil took home and then worked up the lyrics. By this time we had collectively written over 60 songs together and we were a tight little live unit. Recording came later after a tour of New Zealand with Mi-Sex, doing two townhall gigs a night. By this stage we had played the length and breadth of NZ numerous times. Michael Gudinski saw us play and invited us to Australia.
I lived with Neil and Sharon Finn and Noel Crombie when we first arrived in Australia. The Enz were recording True Colours and Neil invited me down to sit in on the sessions. I formed a great friendship with the then 21-year-old producer, David Tickle, mainly because I rolled the best joints. He had already produced I See Red, had run Ringo’s studio where Imagine was recorded as a 15-year-old. He had worked with the Stones and engineered Blondie. He boosted my confidence no end, telling me I was better than Blondie’s drummer because Clem (Burke) kept hitting the mics during the takes. During the takes for Counting The Beat he joined us in the studio and danced, becoming the fourth member of the band. I did the same when Bones put down the bass tracks. After Counting The Beat he returned to the USA and did front of house for Prince during the Purple Rain years. David always said it would be number one.
Once the song was officially released, things escalated quickly for the band. Were you surprised at how quickly the song went big in Australia?
When it did go number one after four weeks, the fastest-rising single since Eagle Rock, we were living the dream. It came at the time of the introduction of new FM radio stations in Australia and they played it because it was new, fresh and made their station sound good. It still sounds good because we weren’t trying to be a style or a sound, it came from us wanting an audience to dance. It has no drum fills, it is one beat and one main bass riff all the way through. It’s a dance song before we knew what dance music was and fortunately we didn’t put a use-by date on it.
It’s a song that’s never really gone away, it’s timeless. Your thoughts?
It has been licensed regularly over the years so new generations have got to know it. I was once referred to as the Kmart guy by the daughter of a friend whose studio we used when we recorded the Cat Beach acoustic album in 2000.
What was it like to receive the Silver Scroll all these years later?
Being honoured with the Silver Scroll was a real blast and very humbling. I never realised it was such a big hit in New Zealand – nine weeks at #1 or #2 in the NZ charts and the biggest selling single on both sides of the Tasman in 1981. It’s part of New Zealand music culture now. Even Kody winner of the 2015 Silver Scroll used to play Counting The Beat in his old band, The Mint Chicks.
The actual award night was awesome. The show finished with the magnificent Silver Scroll Band doing a rocking version complete with string and brass sections fronted by the singer/guitarist from Kiwi legends Straight Jacket Fits. The song has never sounded so good, as past present and future became one. At the end of the show a beautiful woman approached me and said, ‘Can I whisk you away Buster?’ ‘My god, I’m gonna get lucky!’ I thought. She continued to get my photos taken and be interviewed in the media room.
So yeah, a night to remember. No sex, not much drugs, just lots of rock’n’roll and a euphoric feeling of being part of the NZ music community. It was worth the wait of 34 years, for I was able to celebrate the fruits of my labour as a young, blinkered 25-year-old with my contemporaries and a whole bunch of new Kiwi artists.
Buster Stiggs is survived by his son Ash. Sincere condolences to all his family and friends.