11 November 2015

Bach played the blues

Toussaint MotionAllen Toussaint was a gentleman: the way he carried himself, and every note he played. The much-loved New Orleans pianist, composer, producer and arranger, who unexpectedly died of a heart attack this week aged 77, also carried the history of his city’s music inside him. It had not just a rich past but an exciting future.

He was gracious and humble, always preferring to bring out the best in other performers rather than take the limelight. A stalwart of the city’s R&B since the late 1950s, he made only a few solo albums (1972’s Life, Love and Faith and 1975’s  Southern Nights are especially recommended) and rarely gave performances. But each year he had a showcase spot at the Jazz & Heritage Festival, and with good humour and a great groove he performed the hits he wrote for others. He was a tentative singer, but that was more his personality than a limitation, and to hear the familiar songs performed by their composer gave them extra depth and heart. On stage, he would often wear lurid, sequinned outfits, showing another side of his character, but he would bring forward the musicians he had hired for the one-off, highly rehearsed gigs, preferring to share the spotlight.

He seemed to be ubiquitous in New Orleans, wandering around the Jazzfest grounds immaculately dressed in a bespoke suit and leather sandals, his trimmed moustache and formal graces giving him the air of a black Clark Gable. He was the prince of the Crescent City. I was taken to see the New Orleans Symphony – a son of Shostakovich was conducting – and Toussaint was in a box in the circle, like he was holding court; he was the orchestra’s patron. It seemed appropriate – he was courtly – but he was just at home in a dirt-floor juke joint like the Dew Drop Inn where he started out.

I only met him once, and sadly it wasn’t for an interview. I was walking through New Orleans in April 1989 – Royal Street in the French Quarter – when I spotted a Rolls-Royce with the number plate PIANO. The Rolls was stuck in traffic in the narrow street, and as I got closer I saw it was Allen Toussaint at the wheel. I had my camera in my hand – for the number plate – and the electric window slid down.

Toussaint car“Did you want to take a photo?” he said with a grin. “Yes please, Mr Toussaint,” I said. “I saw your concert last night – it was wonderful.”
“Thank you,” he replied. “Did you want me in the car or out of the car?”

I was stunned, and before I answered he had a quick word into the brick of a phone wired into the dashboard, and stepped out. He put on a jacket, to complete his silver suit – with a tie, of course – and posed with a straight back standing beside the Rolls-Royce grill and number plate. I got down on one knee and took a vertical photo; the moment I clicked the shutter I realised the late afternoon shadows on his face would make it underexposed. There wasn’t enough time to get a flash to warm up; I thanked him, said I worked for a New Zealand music magazine called Rip It Up and gave him a card. He responded with another big grin, said “Wonderful”, got back in his car and glided off when the light turned green. A brief encounter, but it told so much about his character. (He also had a car with the plate SONGS, pictured above; the photo I took is below.)

It was only when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, and he had to abandon his flooded New Orleans home – which contained his archives, destroyed – that he won more of a national profile in the US. This, despite writing hits such as ‘Mother-in-Law’ and ‘Fortune Teller’ in the 1960s, ‘On Your Way Down’ and ‘Sneaking Sally in the Alley’ and – a special favourite – ‘What Do You Want the Girl to Do’ in the 1970s. In that decade, countless mainstream artists came to him to be produced – Robert Palmer, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Joe Cocker – with the Meters often the backing band. And the Band came calling when they wanted the horns arranged for the Rock of Ages and Last Waltz concerts. His greatest albums for others are probably Yes We Can – which he wrote and produced for Lee Dorsey, his favoured singer – and Dr John’s two mid-70s classics, In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo.

Toussaint sandalsHomeless after Katrina, he settled in New York for a while and started playing a lot more gigs, made an album with Elvis Costello (with whom he had worked in the 80s), plus an excellent album of local jazz standards, and devoted a lot of time and energy to rebuilding his beloved home town.

Toussaint stands alongside Louis Armstrong as one of the giants of New Orleans music. His influences were omnivorous: Bach, Gottschalk, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, also Haitian and Cuban music. He was a scholar of the piano, and an exquisite performer. You can hear the history of New Orleans in his music; somehow in a tune like ‘Country John’ off his 1975 Southern Nights album he mixes the interweaving lines of Dixieland jazz with 50s R&B and 70s funk. Witnessing him play ‘Southern Nights’ as twilight fell on a sticky New Orleans day it all came together.

Toussaint’s first break was playing on a Fats Domino session, pretending to be Fats when he was away on tour. Then he wrote ‘Java’, an instrumental that sold millions for Al Hirt. Toussaint was addicted to the rhythms of his home town: the syncopation that evolved from funeral parades, in which two bands would answer each other. He could turn the blues into pop, in the same way that his blind schoolfriend Snooks Eaglin could on an acoustic guitar. ‘Sneaking Sally Through the Alley’ is an example: a pop song with drumming from a funeral march, and harmonies like clarinets weaving through a brass band.

His first No 1 songwriting and production credit was ‘Mother-in-Law’, which singer Ernie K-Doe rescued from a rubbish tin. Backing vocalist Benny Spellman always claimed it was his deep-voiced response with the title that made it a hit; certainly that line was crucial but not nearly as much as Toussaint’s rippling, irresistible piano.

Songs such as ‘Lipstick Traces’ and ‘Fortune Teller’ and ‘I Like it Like That’ followed: simple songs with infectious rhythms. Herman’s Hermits attempted ‘Mother in Law’ and the Dave Clark Five had a go at ‘I Like It Like That’. The Rolling Stones tried ‘Fortune Teller’ and also – gamely – ‘Pain in My Heart’, originally a hit for Otis Redding (it was a re-write of ‘Ruler of My Heart’, which Toussaint wrote for Irma Thomas). (For these last two, and many others, he used his mother’s maiden name as credit: Naomi Neville.)

Toussaint’s biggest hit was ‘Southern Nights’, as covered by Glenn Campbell. Or maybe ‘Lady Marmalade’, which he produced for Labelle. He was a like one-man Motown coming out of New Orleans: the leading writer of pop R&B in the South. A group that idolised him was the Hawks, a white rock’n’roll band scuffling round the juke joints of the South. When they made it years later as the Band, they invited him to arrange ‘Life is a Carnival’ and those concerts mentioned above. And they paid tribute to him on the covers album Moondog Matinee with a version of Lee Dorsey’s weary-but-happy ‘Holy Cow’.

Out of the thousands of interpretations of Toussaint’s hundreds of songs is one that’s been forgotten here: Auckland R&B group the La De Das’ version of ‘Ride Your Pony’. And another that hasn’t been forgotten, Larry’s Rebels with ‘I Feel Good’ (original here, thanks Murray). Plus, I’ve just been sent a link to John Rowles doing a wonderful live version of ‘Yes We Can’ in New Zealand c1973, with the great Billy Nuku on drums. Who’s the bass player?

But usually it’s the original versions that stayed the distance, such as all those hits he wrote for Dorsey – everything he did gohn be funky – and local teenager Irma Thomas. ‘It’s Raining’ was his showcase for her: the feathery piano and drip-drop backing singers show how Toussaint could add his flair to the simplest rock’n’roll tunes. Understatement was his signature, plus polyrhythms that turned funerals into carnivals.

Toussaint’s funeral in New Orleans will be one of the last great carnivals. His take on the city’s rhythms put a smile on every face and a dance in every step. #

Allen Toussaint by CB april89025John Rowles covers ‘Yes We Can’ live in New Zealand c1973, with Billy Nuku on drums.

Paul Kelly on Allen Toussaint.
Richard Williams pays tribute.
New Orleans writer Dominic Massa’s obituary.
Toussaint plays ‘What Do You Want the Girl to Do’, 2011.
Allen Toussaint’s official website.
‘Soul Sister’ off Toussaint’s Life Love & Faith.
Lee Dorsey with ‘Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky’.
Hour-long BBC doco on Allen Toussaint.
The complete Southern Nights, 1975.
The complete Desitively Bonnaroo by Dr John with the Meters.
Sheet music for Toussaint’s post-Katrina instrumental ‘Tipitina and Me’ in which he turns Professor Longhair’s exuberant song into a minor-key lament.
And finally, the terrific documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together in which Toussaint (and Tuts Washington) tries to corral his mentor Professor Longhair.

08 January 2015

Caught in a trap

If you’re looking for the real Elvis, you’ve come to the right place.

LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS: The Rise of Elvis Presley, by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown).

elvis mourns momA photograph captures the teen idol on the steps of his newly bought mansion, hugging his father: both men are utterly bereft. Gladys Presley is dead. Vernon Presley has just lost his wife; Elvis, his mother.

What follows makes a heartbreaking con­clusion to Last Train to Memphis, the first volume of Peter Guralnick’s two-part bio­graphy of Elvis Presley. While fans keep a vigil at the gates of Graceland, in the kitchen, Elvis’s cousins and cronies get drunk. In the music room, Elvis sobs and keeps hugging and kissing his mother’s body in its silver casket. A doctor adminis­ters a sedative so Elvis can sleep before the funeral, for which Hollywood stars fly in from the coast. Elvis has to be helped into the church; he sobs as his mother’s favourite gospel group sings hymns. At the cemetery he leans over the coffin and cries out, “Goodbye, darling, goodbye.” Four friends drag him to his limo, where he declares, “Oh God, everything I have is gone.”

That night, he tells his childhood sweet­heart that his life is getting out of control. He is surrounded by new friends, they depend on him now, he can’t walk away. “I’m in too far to get out.” A few weeks later, Private Elvis Presley, serial number 53 310 761, is on a troopship to Germany. The rollercoaster ride of the past three years is over. Elvis is 23.

Guralnick is the leading historian of American roots music: blues, country, R&B and soul. Unlike many pop writers, who rely on hyperbole or ego, he writes with the sober eye of a musicologist and the ear of a true fan. As a consequence, his prose sings with authenticity. And his books – among them Lost Highway, Feel Like Going Home and Sweet Soul Music – have always been in print, unlike most pop books.

Elvis dances 1950sSince the late 1960s, Guralnick has been leading the battle to have Presley discussed as a serious artist. If a campaign was neces­sary then – when Presley was lost in his own genre of B-movies – now, it’s long overdue. Albert Goldman’s 1981 book Elvis was a ground-breaking necrography that dripped with malice; heavily marketed, it changed the world’s image of Presley to a sad joke with a cheeseburger in both hands.

Since then, the running joke that “Elvis is Alive” has only shifted the myth away from the music. And no one could have predicted last year’s marriage between Michael Jackson and Lisa-Marie Presley. That’s what happens when you start reading the tabloids. When it comes to Elvis, it’s best to keep a sense of humour and perspective -and return to the primary sources.

Guralnick has compiled his biography like a detective, interviewing first-hand observers and comparing their stories to sort out the accurate from the apocryphal. Contemporary news reports and previously published accounts are quoted when the par­ticipants are no longer available (ie, dead). Guralnick also consults archive tapes of Presley interviews and recording sessions, TV shows and concert film footage.

The closing scenes described above may sound melodramatic, but Guralnick’s fastidious research makes them utterly credible. The difference is in his attitude -he knows that what drives musicians is often not a quest for stardom, but a sense of vocation. The biography is not hagiography. He delivers the evidence, not a verdict, and avoids speculation, sensationalism and pop psychology.

Elvis and Col Tom ParkerGuralnick’s Presley is a complex character. At school he’s desperately shy, but wears flamboyant clothes. He speaks to no one, but explodes with energy when encouraged to sing. He loves gospel music, but also schmaltzy ballads and raunchy R&B. He lives by the Bible in public, but in private doesn’t turn away any women. He’s an odd mix of awk­ward humility and supreme self-confidence. Above: Elvis and the Colonel.

The story is familiar, but never before has it been told in such evocative detail (Guralnick fills in the facts behind Greil Marcus’s intellectual flights of fancy in Mystery Train). It takes off with Presley’s metamorphosis from misanthrope to musician. The moment in which Elvis, Scotty and Bill discover the sound – by countrifying “That’s All Right [Mama]” – is pure magic. Guralnick’s style is almost novelistic, but scrupulously sourced.

Certain themes recur: Presley’s awareness of his image (every outfit is lovingly described) and of every nuance of his perfor­mance – hiccup, hip shake or “affable sneer”. Meanwhile, dark clouds loom overhead: the growing Memphis mafia of hangers-on, the increasing crassness of Colonel Parker’s management hustle, the increasing mail from Presley’s draft board – while his mother sits at home drinking beer, missing her baby.

Elvis armyLast Train to Memphis finally tells the story properly, with sensitivity and insight. It answers the simple questions, the ones that have been hardest to answer: why Elvis sang the way he did, and why his music affected the world so profoundly. And, crucially, what affect fame had on him. Guralnick has re-established the credibility of the early career. Now we can trust him with the vital question of the second volume: did Elvis die when he went into the army?

First published in the NZ Listener, 28 January 1995. If he is alive, Elvis is 80 today. I was going to link to his version of Dylan’s ‘Tomorrow’s a Long Time’ but this is a lot more fun …

02 December 2014

Bumper Christmas Retro Music Edition

1. Song Mining
Dylan by Elliott LandyI recently interviewed Greil Marcus about his book The History of Rock’n’Roll in Ten Songs (it can be heard at Radio New Zealand's website here). With the imminent release of The Complete Basement Tapes – six CDs, well over 100 songs that Dylan wrote while woodshedding with the Band in 1967 – I had to ask about them. I wondered whether – now that the sessions were finally seeing daylight – this would change the public’s fascination with them. Marcus’s response shows that his fascination with the Basement Tapes hasn’t dimmed since he wrote a whole book on the sessions, Invisible Republic, in 1997:
You know there’s a lot of material – there’s 30 something songs – that have never been heard before, that haven’t been bootlegged or leaked out, song by song, on Dylan’s own Bootleg Series. Certainly there’s stuff I never heard before. And what’s fascinating about it, in the context of the whole set – which I think is going to start this conversation all over again – is you know how down-to-earth and ordinary and ah, work-like a lot of the stuff is.
The [phrase] that leapt to mind when I was listening to the stuff that I hadn’t heard before was “song mining”. These people are digging into what look like songs but they aren’t really. And you just keep digging to see if you find something in there that will explain itself, that will say, ‘No! No! Go in this direction, not that direction’ Really digging in the ground, and finding a root, and grabbing onto that root and thinking, ‘Well this root must lead somewhere, and maybe you find where it leads and maybe you don’t. These are people mining for songs.
And I think that when people listen to all of this material – and its 140 tracks – they’re going to be fascinated by the way that fragments and cover versions of songs that weren’t that interesting to begin with, and experiments that really don’t go anywhere, surround these songs that seem like gifts from the Gods. It’s going to make the whole question of creation, of creativity and writing, and playing and improvising, even more mysterious than it already is.
In some ways the mystique of the Basement Tapes I think is going to be washed away – replaced by the spectre of a bunch of people getting together every day to fool around – in a clubhouse, in a kind of boy’s club.
On the other hand you can say, Well okay, but where did this stuff come from. My God: ‘Tears of Rage’, ‘I Shall Be Released’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ … did some visitation come down and strike these people with lightning, and then go away and leave them to play with ordinary hands – as they weren’t doing for a few weeks?
I don’t know. But I love the way there is stuff here that is mediocre, that is second rate, and stuff that seems like junk – it sounds bad and it’s very hard to hear – and has flashes in it that are as strong and as disturbing as anything in the formal masterpieces that these sessions produced.
So I think you can tell by the way I’m answering that I don’t know. That I don’t know how to answer your question. That it’s as if you have to learn how to start listening to the stuff as if you’ve never heard it before. And see what story it tells.
2. His Back Pages
At last, a one-stop shop of Greil Marcus’s archives: articles, interviews and reviews, regularly updated. It was a very smart idea to compile a series of links to all the songs in his “Treasure Island” of essential discs Marcus added to Stranded, the 1979 anthology he edited in which music writers wrote about their “desert island disc”. (The essays by Lester Bangs on Astral Weeks, and M Marks on It’s Too Late to Stop Now are unsurpassed. Bangs’s masterpiece aside, one of the best reviews of Astral Weeks I ever heard was from an older woman who just said, “You breathe in, you breathe out, you breathe in, you breathe out.”)
3. Writer’s block
Of the six artists featured in Marcus’s 1975 classic Mystery Train (Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, the Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley) only Newman’s career seems to have continue, rather than ended with pathos. Still, the exposure didn’t come without a cost to his productivity. In 1983 – I think in San Francisco’s BAM magazine – Newman said:
When I’m writing songs, the minutes are like hours – I sit there with nothing, just a big picture of Greil Marcus in my mind hanging over the piano as I think, ‘Ah, I don’t think this guy is gonna like this one, because I’m doing the same stuff he criticised me for before.
Marcus’s response? “You know, anybody who reads something I’ve written and comes back and tells me something about it that I didn’t know – that’s a valuable a reader as I can ever hope to have. And that’s happened with musicians and people who aren’t musicians. I really can't talk about other people’s reactions to my work, at least not positive reactions, it just comes off as self-congratulation. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to write, to find people to publish me, and to find people who read me. So that’s all I can say.”
4. Country gentlemen mystique
Speaking of the Band, I stumbled upon these 1969 reviews from the Village Voice of the Band live at the Fillmore, and of their second album. The writer, Johanna Schier, has a charming straightforward style, with a wry wit, a talent for an apt metaphor – and musical insights. (Though she describes Robbie Robertson on stage as “sweetly bashful”, she also hears Smokey Robinson in the chorus of ‘I Shall Be Released’). Schier soon befriended Janis Joplin, and with her future husband John Hall wrote ‘Holy Moon’, the b-side of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’. The pair then founded the group Orleans.
5. Ballad of a Teenage Queen
JLL1We have heard a lot from Jerry Lee Lewis over the years, especially about rock’n’roll and the Devil, but little from his child bride, Myra. At last, she breaks her silence. “They were looking for a place to stick the knife into rock & roll. And Jerry gave it to them—well, I did, I opened my mouth.”
6. Click track
From David Hepworth, a link to a batch of classic Motown hits with the vocals removed. I know, that seems criminal, but it is so illuminating to be able to concentrate on the Funk Brothers.
7. Down the avenue again
Van Morrison’s paranoia about YouTube seems to have dissipated. Three extraordinary, lengthy clips have recently been added to the site, without legal intervention thus far. The legendary It’s Too Late to Stop Now 1973 shows at London’s Rainbow were broadcast by TVNZ later in the 1970s on The Grunt Machine and talked about for years; a high-def version has been up for a while. Now, two other full-length concerts from the same period are online. At Winterland in February 1974, in B&W, the band is his usual combo from “Street Choir” period – also featured at the Rainbow, but lacking the string quartet. With a completely different – and integrated – band, but several of the same songs, he can be seen in full colour at the Orphanage, San Francisco in July 1974 (note the presence of Tom Donahue, the deep-throated influence on all FM rock jocks). Both feature Morrison’s ‘Caravan’ can-can schtick. Perhaps best of all is this 10-minute clip from the Fillmore East in September 1970, introduced by Bill Graham: maybe the earliest filmed version of his ‘Cyprus Avenue’ tease. As a taster to the Winterland gig, here he is covering Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman’.

8. Funky, funny and fun
More back pages: here is how the Victoria University of Wellington’s student newspaper Salient reviewed Abbey Road in 1969. Mike Bergin described the medley of songs on side two as “a mess”, whereas that was the only passage Nik Cohn liked in his New York Times review. But Bergin showed a lot of promise in this and other reviews; sadly, he died not long afterwards in a car accident.
9. Back to the Island
In July, Glenn Jowitt – one of New Zealand’s greatest photographers – died suddenly. He was mourned in Auckland by about 400 of his closest friends in a moving, multi-cultural ceremony. The NZ Herald asked me to write an obituary.
10. Take the Coltrane
A crucial influence on Glenn was the expatriate New York photographer Larence Shustak, who taught him at Ilam School of Fine Arts in Christchurch in the mid-1970s. Glenn was a dedicated music fan and an enthusiastic guitarist (in the 70s he even looked like his hero, Gram Parsons). A connection he had with Shustak that I never knew until researching for the obituary: in the 1950s Shustak took many compelling shots of New York jazz musicians.
11. A little bit frightening
Musical racism 101: ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, or how to express the whole of Asia in just nine notes. No, not the lyrics – which are bad enough – the influence of the arrangement has been even more pervasive, reports NPR.

11 November 2014

Close Encounters

Originally published in the NZ Listener in November 2010.

ROCK MUSICIANS AND photographers are natural-born partners: show-offs need an audience, and a Nikon lens loves a show-off. For some photographers, like Auckland’s Bruce Jarvis, the scent of the hunt has been a life-long quest. Shooting first as fans, many become professionals, and Jarvis’s tenacity at capturing live shows secured him access that today’s photographers can only envy.

Jarvis’s work is the backbone of a large-format book Live: Gigs that Rocked New Zealand, that portrays the flamboyant visitors in our midst. From the first international rock’n’roll tour – Johnny Cash and Gene Vincent, in 1959 – to Lady Gaga’s aerobic fashion-show earlier this year, the performers are freeze-framed at the peak of their careers. Some of the images – such as ZappaJarvis_thumb1Jarvis’s portraits of a satanic Frank Zappa, an exultant Bob Marley – belong in the rock photo hall of fame. But even more than the performers, it is the settings that resonate. In the background, a vanished New Zealand hovers like a vaguely remembered backdrop.

At the Beatles’ civic reception outside Auckland’s Town Hall in 1964 – how the councillors criticised Mayor Robbie for his generosity – one can glimpse the area now lost to Aotea Square. Out of sight are the 7000 fans who wagged school that morning. Instead, we spot the Market Hotel, one of many Edwardian corner pubs that are long since gone like the Vauxhall Velox seen cruising an almost empty street. Twenty years later, in the same area, a panoramic shot by Bryan Staff shows DD Smash’s drummer Peter Warren surveying a calm, peaceful crowd of thousands. The “Thank God It’s Friday” celebration to welcome the summer of 1984 will soon be renamed the Aotea Square riot.

The surprises often come from the unsung heroes who turn emotion into emulsion: the jobbing photographers rostered on for the day by a newspaper’s picture editor. At the Turnbull Library, saved from destruction, are gems from the files of deceased papers such as the Evening Post. These go beyond the requisite Maori welcome parties, the gimmick poses and the bland equivalents of rock stars kissing babies. Among the treasure are action shots of the Who, smashing their equipment on the Wellington’s Town Hall stage in 1968. Viv-Prince-from-natlib.govt.nz_thumbSomehow, the Pretty Things’ out-of-control drummer Viv Prince found time to sit for a formal portrait during the band’s notorious tour in 1965. He wears a woman’s leopard-skin hat, the coolest of rimless shades, chain bracelets of the style favoured by bodgies – and across his knuckles, a sticking plaster that testifies to his many scrapes while here.

As glamorous as some of the stars appear – the Temptations, stepping out in the 1970s’ finest flared suits; Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, elegant in herringbone tweed – it is the species Kiwi Rock Fan that makes these photos special. Invading the Rolling Stones’ stage in 1966 is an ecstatic fan, resplendent in homemade polka-dot mini skirt. Almost as gleeful are the navy-blue helmeted constables coming to Mick Jagger’s rescue.

Parked ostentatiously before the muslin-clad crowd waiting for Rod Stewart at Western Springs stadium in 1977 is a Ford Falcon emblazoned with Radio Hauraki’s logo. Beside it mooches a deejay in denim flares and manky long hair, while staff members or girlfriends attempt cool in satin jackets and bad posture. Their attitude: we are closer to the action than you.

StonesbyLloydGodman_thumb1The images also evoke the months of excitement that once came with the news that an overseas act was about to play “the Springs”. Long before the mammoth 1980s shows by David Bowie and ZZ Top, the Auckland speedway amphitheatre had hosted Little Richard, Elton John and Neil Diamond. For the first time we can see the Rolling Stones’ 1973 show in colour, thanks to a roll of film shot by Lloyd Godman. He didn’t need a flash – they played on a sunny afternoon – and it turns out that Jagger’s diamond-studded, low-cut, satin jumpsuit was turquoise.

Presented en masse, many of these shots have a “They walked this Earth” quality. They also answer the perennial question asked of visitors as they step off the plane: how do you find New Zealand? (It was apparently a wide-eyed Australian reporter who enquired “How many of you are there in your quartet, Mr Brubeck?”).

The Beatles look jubilant, although reports later came back that they described New Zealand as being like Britain, before the war. The Rolling Stones – specifically, Keith Richards – said of Invercargill it was “the arsehole of the World”. We remember these jibes, and almost more than the concerts we remember the interaction that these troubadours – grizzly or courteous – have with the locals.

Contrary to their surly reputation, in 1966 the Rolling Stones look cheerful, with their shirts off, enjoying the sun beside their Wellington motel swimming pool. The Guess Who play an apr├Ęs-gig jam at Tommy Adderley’s speakeasy Grandpa’s (sadly, no one was there to record the night in 1973 that Keith Richards turned up with a guitar and sundry other Rolling Stones).

Afterwards, when the litter has been cleared from the town halls and the paddocks that once hosted festivals, the anecdotes turn into urban legends. The Great Ngaruawahia Music Festival of 1973 is now remembered more for Corban Simpson’s nude performance than for headliners Black Sabbath headlining or the early appearance by Split Ends. Two years later, live on stage at the Te Rapa Racecourse, is Slade’s gormless Dave Hill; he is resplendent in an early mullet, a glitter-pasted forehead, a silver frock coat and platform boots. The promoter of this 1975 one-day festival – the cape-wearing Byron de Lacey – sounds almost mythological.

An Auckland school teacher friend says that every year – for nearly four decades – some 15-year-old aspiring guitar heroes in his class ask him the same question. “Sir, have you heard the Led Zeppelin song Stairway to Heaven?” Yes, he replies. “In fact, I heard them play it live at Western Springs in 1972 – before many of us had heard it on record.”

Really?” they gasp. “Led Zeppelin played ... here?”


The Viv Prince shot is from the Alexander Turnbull Library’s collection of Evening Post negatives. The reference number is EP/1965/3179.