Download The Wellington App for more stories like this.

When Satan rocked the high school social

“Come, come, come to the Sabbat, come to the Sabbat: Satan’s there!” chanted the wildly dancing students. Psychedelic lights swirled and intoxicating rhythms poured from Marshall amps as Timberjack, dubbed “the nation’s most evil band”, brought their black magic rock to the Wellington High School social in 1971.

By Mark Cubey

It was my first year at Wellington High, and I was looking forward to my first school social, an opportunity for co-ed students to mingle with their peers in a non-classroom musical situation.

It was dark. There were men with moustaches and beards on stage pumping out loud and heavy rock music.

And we were all waiting for the band, Timberjack, to play their big hit: ‘Come to the Sabbat’. In the end, I think they played it twice.

It would be many years before WHS would produce two of New Zealand’s greatest bands – Shihad and The Phoenix Foundation – but I’d like to think the vibes laid down that night in an event that somehow snuck under any censorious school radar (WHS principal Cyril Bradwell held some kind of office in the Salvation Army) permeated the hall with a rebellious rock spirit that inspired future generations.

Though even in 1971, music was changing the nation.

The 1970 Hit Parade had seen quality NZ pop topping almost a third of the weekly charts, most notably with the iconic ‘Nature’ by The Fourmyula, voted top NZ Song of all time in APRA’s 2001 poll, and John Rowles’ evergreen ballad ‘Cheryl Moana Marie.’

The overground mainstream was still winning over the underground though, as evidenced by a four-week run at number one by Hogsnort Rupert’s jugband novelty hit Pretty Girl, followed by five weeks of the saccharin Pinnochio by Maria Dallas.

But the year ended with number ones that pushed the edges: ‘Lola’ by The Kinks, a reasonably blatant account of a transvestite love encounter; and Neil Diamond’s ‘Crackling Rosie’, purportedly a paen to cheap wine (possibly a sparkling Mateus Rosé) shared by lonely native Canadian men, and a song that hit bigger in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world.

Both of the latter probably featured at my last primary school disco at Karori Normal School the year before, where we moved about in folk or square dance mode to poorly amplified and less complex singles of the time from the likes of Mary Hopkin (‘Knock Knock Who’s There’), Pickettywitch (‘That Same Old Feeling’ and Edison Lighthouse (‘Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes’).

We were ready for something else.

As it turned out, 1971 was a good time for eastern suburbs Wellington band Dizzy Limit, which had added guitarist and singer John Donoghue to the lineup before embarking for the bright lights of the UK, to return to the capital with new gear, a new look, a new sound and a new name: Timberjack (chosen aboard the good ship Southern Cross as it entered Wellington Harbour on the return trip from the UK).

Their version of ‘Come to the Sabbat’, originally by UK band Black Widow, proved a big hit at their live show, and wowed punters in a visit to Auckland. It was released as a single on Wellington independent label Ode Records, and proved an unexpected hit. Even more surprisingly, it was chosen as a finalist (amongst much blander competition) for the Loxene Golden Disc Awards.

Created as a promotion for an anti-dandruff shampoo, this was a branding masterstroke that ran from 1965 to 1972, culminating in a televised ceremony at which the winner was decided by write-in public votes, with compilation albums featuring the year’s 12 eligible songs released in the run-up to the awards.

Timberjack were never going to win that.

As Donoghue explains on his website, Timberjack Donoghue: NZ Underground Folkrock Troubadour, Dizzy Limit had already had problems with New Zealand television: the video for their top-ten cover of the Beatles medley, “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight’, was banned after its one and only airing.

History repeated with ‘Come to the Sabbat’ which, Donoghue writes, “may well have slipped by unnoticed had it not been selected as a finalist in the 1971 Loxene Golden Disc Awards.

“It was the act of this selection that infuriated the establishment and was to fuel most of the ensuing controversy”.

The band made one appearance on the television music show Happen Inn. According to Donoghue, this “was not without incident and resulted in the band being permanently banned from the show”.

Timberjack then made an independent video for television, featuring band members in monkish garb, full-frontal female nudity, and a skull, all set in what looks like the piney woods of Mt Victoria (Satan does not make an appearance).

This video was also banned immediately after its first and only broadcast, but you can make a call on that judgment by viewing the NZ On Screen archive here:

Come to the Sabbat

Radio bans followed, and Timberjack was dubbed “The Nation’s Most Evil Band”.

Then, Donoghue writes, Timberjack became “so banned that within a short space of time we were able to add ‘New Zealand’s most unemployed band’ to our growing list of achievements. It all proved too much for some band members and the band imploded suddenly, only days away from the date set for the recording of the follow-up single, ‘Dahli Mohammed’.”

Donoghue took the song that he had written and went solo. The peaceful Cat Stevens vibe was a marked change in direction, with no connection to militant Islam.

John Donoghue, 1974

As Suzy Pointon explains in her lengthy profile of Donoghue for Audioculture, he wanted to use his real name on the release. However, producer Terrence O’Neill-Joyce insisted on retaining the “Timberjack” link to the defunct band, so the single (which made the Loxene Golden Disc Awards finals list in 1972) went out as Timberjack Donoghue.

There’s much more about Donoghue’s later career at Audioculture, the “noisy library of New Zealand music”, including writing earworm smash ‘Miss September’ for Bulldogs Allstar Goodtime Band, a stint with Human Instinct, recording and producing the solo albums Spirit of Pelorus Jack (1973) and Timberjack Donoghue (1975), helping form The Warratahs with Barry Saunders and Wayne Mason, and a body of session, production and performance work, both solo and group, that continues to this day.

Andrew Schmidt has an illustrated background story at: https://www.audioculture.co.nz/people/john-donoghue

And that longer profile by Suzy Pointon is here: https://www.audioculture.co.nz/people/john-donoghue/stories/john-timberjack-donoghue-the-road-less-travelled

You can also read about Timberjack singer, Steve McDonald: https://www.audioculture.co.nz/people/steve-mcdonald

I’m just glad that Timberjack got to play my first high school social (and provided the backbone for the performance of ‘Succumb to the Fizzy’ by the Love Factory Band at our infamous meat-and Fanta-drenched support gig for Head Like a Hole… but that’s another story).

I’ve no idea who managed to make that Timberjack concert at WHS happen – probably one of the long haired or afro-sporting seniors. Whoever it was, many thanks.