JOHN DONOGHUE

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First published in August 2009, last updated February 2013

John can be contacted at info@timberjack.co.nz

I was born in Northland, NZ. My family moved around the North Island a lot in the first few years of my life before finally arriving in Miramar, Wellington just before my eighth birthday in 1956.

One day, as things were beginning to settle down, “It’s in the Bag” came to town.

This was B.T. (before television) and “Its in the Bag” with Selwyn Toogood was the highest rating radio show In NZ.
The venue was the Miramar Central School Hall, and was fully booked out.  My parents had purchased our tickets early, so we had good seats, and could see everything.

“It’s in the Bag” featured a short break during the live broadcast.  This was so their technicians could play a pre-recorded “Message from our sponsors.”  A local act had been booked to fill in this gap for the live audience.  The local act that performed that night was “The Swampdwellers Skiffle Band”.  Selwyn Toogood himself announced them on.  Carrying Washboards and Tea Chests, they rushed out onto the stage and began belting out a highly animated Lonnie Donegan song.  Before they could finish a red light came on and they rushed off again. 

To an eight-year-old this was wildly exciting and totally amazing.  I thought that the Swampdwellers were by far the best band I’d ever seen. Of course, they were the only band I’d ever seen, but all that aside, life’s never been the same since.  I recognised the “Swampdwellers” guitarist, Mike Shackleton.  Mike was the same age as my sister Marion and our Mothers worked together at “The Lamphouse,” in Maupuia Road.  Mike also had a younger brother Andy who was closer to me in age.

After the “It’s in the Bag” show, I became very interested in what the Shackleton boys were getting up to after school and on the weekends.

The Shackleton’s house in Brussels Street had a big old shed out the back.  The boys had taken it over and the Swampdwellers held their band practices there.  There were a variety of musical instruments lying around and there was an old wind-up gramophone that sat on a bench surrounded by piles of ‘78’s.  Andy also had formed a Skiffle Band, with his schoolmates Rod Stone and Johnnie England.  They called their band “The Skiffle Scholars.”  About dinner time when the Swampdwellers packed up and left the shed, the Skiffle Scholars took over.  They had a banjo, a ukulele, a washboard and a Tea-Chest bass with the name of the band painted on to it.  Sometimes when they were practicing they would let me sit in with them, usually playing the Tea Chest.

Inspired by the adventure of it all, I formed my own Skiffle Band at Miramar Central Primary school. The members of my band were Ian Stephen, Eddy McDonald, Laurie Thomas and Dave Reid.  We would perform in the school playsheds on rainy days.  I played my Dad’s old Tenor guitar that he had tuned to an open “C” chord for me.  The rest of the band played percussion instruments that we borrowed from the school.

We had our first serious public performance at a school concert held in the very same hall that the Swampdwellers had performed in.  For this big event I borrowed Andy’s tea chest bass for Dave Reid to play.  I had named my band “Johnnie and the Cutthroats” as we were all dressed in pirate costumes for a Play we were performing in that evening.  However, Andy’s Tea Chest still had "Skiffle Scholars" painted on it so people assumed that was our name of our band.

It turned out to be a life-changing night for me and people who were there still remember it.

After that my Dad built us our own tea chest bass and we changed the name of our band to “The Rhythm Wreckers”.  We painted the band name on the tea chest ourselves, spelling “Rhythm” wrong, of course...

Later I commenced piano lessons from Mrs McKercher who lived a few doors from us up Rex St.  She and I engaged in several years of mutual torture that would lead eventually to Ian, Laurie and I reforming the “Rhythm Wreckers” in 1960 as a piano band.  This band we named “The Vultures”.  This was to be my last band at Primary School.

One day Andy and I were out in the Shackleton’s shed when suddenly, for no apparent reason, he tore his banjo apart and rebuilt it as a snare drum.  That “snare drum” became the centrepiece of a "drum kit" he built out of all sorts of pots and pans and old buckets and stuff.  He would sit in with Mike’s band when they practiced in the old shed.  In no time at all he became their regular drummer.

This really marked the end of the Skiffle Era in Miramar and British group “The Shadows” was now becoming the major influence on the Local Bands. Already “The Swampdwellers” had gone electric and become “The Premiers", and so “The Skiffle Scholars” followed and became “The Librettos”.

Not to be left behind the "Vultures” went electric and became first “The Crescendos,” then “The Strangers”.

Anyone curious to find out what happened after that could look at.....timberjackdonoghue.com 


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