26 June 2008

In his own write

Each year as New Zealand Music Month comes round, it feels good to see the bulls-eye T-shirt so widespread on our streets. But May isn’t the right month to celebrate New Zealand music: it should be June. It was in June 1977 that Rip It Up first appeared, and more than any other factor it changed the way New Zealanders perceive their own music.

Rip It Up
only survived because of the tenacious, stubborn Murray Cammick, who founded it with his friend Alastair Dougal. Music journalism in print has never created a hit record – reading about music doesn’t make thousands beat a path to their store – but the impact of Rip It Up has been slow-burning and effective.

While persuading the public that its music was worthwhile, Rip It Up has also inspired many to choose journalism or photography or graphic design as a career. That comes down to the astute judgement of Cammick. Whenever any former staffers meet, we agree on one thing: Murray is the smartest editor we have ever worked for.

In 1997 he asked me to mark Rip It Up’s 20th anniversary with an essay about the magazine and the world from which it emerged. A year later, the Cammick era would be over. Under a corporate publisher Rip It Up now enters its 32nd year looking flash, and with Real Groove and NZ Musician serving different audiences, the New Zealand music scene is well covered. But Trevor Reekie spoke for many when he said in NZ Musician, “Murray Cammick is a legend in New Zealand music and it’s seriously debatable if the local industry would be where it is without his outstanding contribution over the years.”

The Act We’ve Known For All These Years

Rip It Up, 1977-1997

When I first saw Rip It Up I was in journalism school; Rod Bryant, whose brother sang in Rough Justice, was a tutor. Leafing through #2 – the first issue to reach Wellington – with Rod, we both thought the same thing. He said it: “How do they do it? Let’s hope they keep it up.” I was an avid reader for five years before I walked in the door and offered to do some writing. (I felt I needed to do my homework first – after all, the Rip It Up writers seemed to have.)

Since its debut in June, 1977, Rip It Up has become another part of New Zealand life we are all in danger of taking for granted. But although I’ve been a part of it – as a reader or writer – for all that time, I still get that same feeling when I open up each issue.

In an interview for Rip It Up’s fifth anniversary in 1982, Split Enz’s Eddie Rayner was asked what a band needed to succeed. “Longevity,” he replied. It went unsaid that longevity came from reliability, and stamina. Rayner could have been talking about Rip It Up just as much as his band. The magazine discreetly celebrated its birthday by adding five small candles to the cover of issue number 60.

It’s now 20 years since Rip It Up first appeared, with a photo of the Commodores on the cover and the words FREE ROCK PAPER emblazoned larger than its logo. From the moment anybody first saw the magazine – or rather, its title – they remembered it.

At first, it was the name. The shock tactic worked. The title grabbed your eye, while you grabbed for a copy. In 1977, when most music magazines were fuelled by earnestness, Rip It Up suggested a sense of urgency, of anarchy – even a sense of humour. It was like a rallying cry for the iconoclastic music movement exploding in England at that very moment. Only its editors realised the title’s connection with the Little Richard hit (from the first time pop music had been turned on its head). While the editors harboured secret aspirations to that kind of credibility – and longevity? – the magazine could shelter behind the self-deprecating pun of its title.

It suited the excitement and disposability of the contents: popular culture. That was a term no one used then – and even if they had, there were few outlets in New Zealand in which to use it. Personal computers had only just been invented, so there wasn’t a plethora of street mags written by the incoherent for the illiterate. Student papers were full of politics, urging their readers to mobilise for moratoriums. Student radio wasn’t an industry, but seemed like amateur clubs for spotty physics students to play their prog rock.

Out in the “real” world, commercial radio was dominated by the state, whose mono ZM rock stations featured bland pop and LA-wannabe deejays (okay, that hasn’t changed). We weren’t allowed FM radio for five more years (and then squandered the medium). Television was restricted to two channels, with two music shows. Ready to Roll had a great simple concept: the Top 10 in prime time. Lots of Leo Sayer and Abba (who weren’t hip the first time round). The new Radio With Pictures was then just 45 minutes of cheap videos and live clips, without a host. If you couldn’t afford overseas papers such as Rolling Stone ($1.10) or NME (30 cents), for credible comment there were only isolated columnists: Phil Gifford in Auckland, Rob White in Christchurch, Roy Colbert in Dunedin and Gordon Campbell in the Listener.

Few outside Auckland got to see Rip It Up’s precursor from the mid-70s, the excellent Hot Licks (whose name also neatly captured its era). After 27 issues Hot Licks had dissolved, a victim not of its decision to add a cover price of 40 cents, but of music industry politics (its main backer, the Direction Records retail chain, antagonised the main advertisers – record companies – when it started to import records).

But Rip It Up was an independent paper, run by two young enthusiasts, Murray Cammick and Alastair Dougal. At first, the unsophisticated record industry seemed to regard it as a fanzine (though a name for that genre had yet to take hold, either). But when they read the reviews and articles, they realised that this was worth taking seriously. After all, the readers were – and the reviewers weren’t pulling their punches. An early skirmish was when Mike Chunn rubbished Paul McCartney’s London Town, which to EMI was like … blasphemy.

But after a few months John McCready of CBS called Cammick into his office, and booked the back cover and page three for regular ads. He wasn’t doing it because he was hip, or saw Rip It Up as a worthy cause. As the man who developed the massively successful Solid Gold Hits series, and later revolutionised programming at Radio Hauraki and TVNZ, McCready understood marketing and media. Eventually, most of the record companies came on board as a way to reach music fans. They learnt to live with the blunt-but-informed reviews – and learnt the value of securing exclusive interviews with their artists.

Now, with pop culture everywhere – shows like Entertainment This Week all over television, magazines like Who Weekly dominating the newsstands, wall-to-wall video shows, PR image makers, gossip as journalism, hype and hard-sell everywhere – it is reliable reviews which give a magazine the trust and respect of its readership. As the cantankerous American composer and critic Virgil Thomson wrote, “Music criticism may be unnecessary. It is certainly inefficient. But it is the only antidote we have to paid publicity.”

But the quality of the rest of the magazine was seldom acknowledged. Without searching through my archives I can name some moments to treasure: Cammick’s ordeal with Johnny Cougar, before he became Mellencamp (“You wouldn’t f***ing know good f***ing music if it bit you on the f***ing dick”), Alastair Dougal touring with Graham Parker, Jeremy Templer on Hello Sailor’s debauched stay in LA, Russell Brown on the road, Cammick’s punky layouts, Colin Wilson’s world-class illustrations, Kerry Brown’s colour (!) portraits, the campaign against heavy-handed police in pubs, Russell Brown’s sober, thorough coverage of the Aotea Square riot (which outclassed every other publication), Donna Yuzwalk’s subversion of rock as a boy’s club and John Russell’s subversion of the asinine “phoner”.

The other factor that made Rip It Up different from the beginning was its coverage of local music. When the magazine began, no other medium – not even student radio – and few New Zealanders took their own musicians seriously. While Rip It Up’s reviewers could be as cutting as they were enthusiastic, they were usually well informed, many of the writers being musicians themselves. (Even the 70s bandleader who threatened the editor with violence – though he was a hippy rather than a punk – would probably now admit his 15-minute solos were indulgent.)

Any popular culture magazine needs to reflect its era and environment. The do-it-yourself ethic that emerged with punk was also the spirit of Rip It Up, and the spirit which later inspired independent record mavericks such as Propeller and Flying Nun. If Rip It Up’s determination to be a “free rock paper!” was an indication that it was launched in the idealistic 70s, the need to cover its costs with a price tag is a reflection of the revolutionary shifts that have happened in New Zealand society in the 90s. We now have pay-to-watch TV, mobile phones, wall-to-wall commercial radio, glossy magazines, professional rugby – and records are no longer $5.75 (or called records). It may surprise some that Rip It Up’s readership stayed the same after a price went on the cover in 1994. But I think that over the last two decades the magazine has earned – and retained – the loyalty of its readers. That’s what has given it longevity.


Here is Murray interviewed by Karyn Hay in 1985, when Radio With Pictures was at its peak.

18 June 2008

Haere Ra

Sam Freedman,
New Zealand’s Irving Berlin, passed away this week, aged 96. But he shared a lot of aspects with Berlin apart from reaching a great age and being a Russian-Jewish immigrant. Totally self taught, Freedman was New Zealand’s pioneering popular songwriter in the modern sense. Before him, people had written songs that spread by word of mouth or public performance, such as Henare Waitoa and Tuini Ngawai. Freedman wrote for the pop music industry, such as it was in the 1940s and 1950s. And they were hits for singers such as Daphne Walker.

He wrote more than 300 songs, among them ‘Haere Mai (Everything is Ka Pai)’ recently movingly revived for an airline advertisement, and ‘When My Wahine Does the Poi’ (the title is half the battle, Sammy Cahn might say). Walker had the hit version of ‘Haere Mai’ - she is pictured here on the sheet music - and other musicians who recorded it include Peter Posa and Johnny Cooper.

Freedmans peers and contemporaries were Ruru Karaitiana (‘Blue Smoke’) and Ken Avery (‘Paekakariki’ and ‘Tea at Te Kuiti’). Although many people had written songs about New Zealand before, they didn't really reach the public (‘Waiata Poi’ was no Haere Mai’). Together this trio brought popular songs about New Zealand into New Zealand homes.

Here is Eddie O’Strange’s tribute to Freedman, and a link to the ‘Haere Mai’ page on John Archer’s terrific New Zealand Folksong site. It even includes sheet music.

17 June 2008

Texas Tea

From the Evening Post, 1 October 1914:

Auto-Trader (NZ), 20 March 2008

The SUV debate – debunking the myths...

The gas-guzzler label is a red herring. Because SUVs are generally larger vehicles, generally heavier and generally possessing unimpressive aerodynamics, they’re bound to use more fuel than an economical car. (continues)

12 June 2008

His master's voice

Sending Coldplay in as the cavalry may not be the answer required for EMI’s woes, but I’m no auditor looking at the global balance sheets. EMI NZ is about to turn into a branch office of Australia, with only sales reps here. Being the second-cousin to Tasmania has never benefited any New Zealand operation that has found itself answering to Sydney. Staff start to enjoy leaving work around 5.00pm, knowing it frustrates those in head office who want to make bullying phone calls. Now we have mobile phones of course, though there are so many places over here in the bush where the coverage is poor.

When EMI first started in New Zealand, it was called HMV, and mobile phones were pigeons. Among the products HMV was assembling here before the war were toasters, radios, radiograms, irons and even bicycles. All this happened at their Wakefield Street premises in Wellington, a block away from Te Papa. And in the 1950s, if you wanted a new radio put in your car, HMV was the place to go. (There is a great array of photos showing behind-the-scenes 1950s action at HMV at the National Library’s excellent Timeframes site.)

HMV formed its New Zealand branch in 1926, emerging out of a Wellington-based firm called EJ Hyams who since 1910 had been distributing HMV recordings and gramophones here. When Hyams retired in 1931, HMV in England bought all the shares, and the accountant Alfred Wyness became the managing director.

Wyness ran a tight ship, taking all instructions from the UK, and when he retired in 1951 he was succeeded by his son AJ (insert Sopranos joke here). The Wyness dynasty lasted until February 1973, when AJ retired; Shona Laing’s ‘1905’ was in the Top 10, but through Phonogram.

HMV's cricket club, Wellington, 1938. Managing director Alfred Wyness is, of course, the man in the suit.

Curiously, HMV was involved in the first music recording here to be released on disc. In 1927 Parlophone of Australia came over to record Dean Waretini (senior) and Ano Hato, using a mobile unit brought over for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York (the parents of the current Queen). The label above is of one of those early Ano Hato recordings, which were pressed in Australia.

But after that, HMV did nothing to nurture New Zealand music until the 1950s. They didn’t need to: they dominated distribution here so effectively that in the late 1930s, HMV could claim that every record played on radio in New Zealand was released through HMV. If your image of the multi-national record executive is from the 1970s – business trips to Burbank, long lunches, tennis, sessions in the spa – it may be hard to comprehend the Wyness approach.

The company may have enjoyed its monopoly to the fullest, and taken ruthless steps to maintain it, but Wyness was staunchly religious. In the 1950s his son came into the Wakefield Street studio on a Sunday to find a recording session was booked. A grand piano had been hired, transported and tuned. Musicians were waiting. No matter; it was a Sunday: the session was cancelled.

1944: HMV staff assemble army radio sets for the war in the Pacific.

During the Second World War, HMV turned its production plant over to defence needs. They changed from producing fridges and gramophones to assembling army equipment. HMV didn’t set up an Auckland office until 1946, and the man in charge of it had been working for the firm since 1919. Because of import restrictions, a pressing factory was set up in Kilbirnie in 1949, using masters from overseas. The first New Zealand record pressed was Les Wilson singing ‘The Yodelling Cowboy’ in 1953. This was four years after ‘Blue Smoke’ came out on Tanza, HMV’s new local rival (Les’s brother Cole was in the Tumbleweeds, then Tanza’s top sellers).

The departure of EMI NZ’s managing director later this month mirrors what is happening overseas as the company’s new global owner – Terra Firma, the investment vehicle of merchant banker Guy Hands – looks for a new way to make money out of recordings. The end of June will also see the departure of the president of EMI’s legendary US label Capitol, and perhaps Virgin’s president soon after.

Left: possibly the last managing director of EMI (NZ), in a former life.

Neither will be replaced; the latest idea is to have a “president of A&R” overseeing all EMI’s labels. It will be interesting to see which big overseas names will remain with EMI for the local reps to sell, once their contracts come up for renewal. Here on the other side of the music galaxy, New Zealand acts hoping to sell their music don’t have to look far for their new business model: Fat Freddy’s Drop.

Speaking of New Zealand music, the foreign-owned C4 channel is currently showing the taxpayer-funded TVNZ how to bring it to our screens. The 100 magic moments show Rock the Nation has been excellent: well-researched, wide ranging and full of surprises. During the series they have been promoting Making Tracks, of which already three episodes have screened. I’m annoyed I wasn’t watching from the start. It’s a brilliant, simple idea – taking New Zealand hits overseas for other cultures to reinterpret – but probably far more complex to achieve than it looks. The hyperactive host Nick Dwyer is perfect for it; he (lovingly) describes himself as a “cheeky scamp” and I’m sure there is always a future for him endorsing Ritalin. It was very impressive watching him wow dancers in India with his “old-school techno” moves on the dance-floor, and of course the former New Zealander who became Miss India was also very telegenic. If ever NZ On Air money has been well spent on music, it’s with this show.

10 June 2008

Lemon tart

After reading Gordon Campbell’s exacting review of former history teacher turned politician Michael Bassett’s book Working With David, I thought back to David Lange’s entertaining – but dissatisfyingly unfinished – autobiography. The most memorable word in it was his description of Bassett, his cabinet nemesis and distant cousin: “venomous”.

I combined “Michael Bassett” and “venomous” for some lunchtime reading and
among the search results was Brian Easton’s website. Taking a stab at the offerings, this fascinating essay from 1995 came up. It is about Muldoon’s contribution to, and appearances in, New Zealand literature. No fangs, no acid, no scores being settled.

08 June 2008

Mission: improbable

With Hillary now back at base camp, waiting for a call, there is only one person with the right credentials for vice-president. Someone who can attract all those blue-collar votes, from California to the New York island; women, too. Your mission, should you decide to accept it …

05 June 2008

It’s all about Me

For “deranged narcissism”, Hillary Clinton has a rival. The Independent’s obituary page has the grumpy-old-man headline of the week:

Mel Ferrer: Dashing actor-director disgruntled to become known as “Mr Hepburn”

Huckleberry friend: Audrey Hepburn sings ‘Moon River’ in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

04 June 2008

Cooke’s Tour

June 5 marks the 40th anniversary of Robert F Kennedy’s assassination in California, on the evening he won the state towards the end of the Democratic primaries in the 1968 elections. He was the senator for New York at the time, and the event was unforgettable here, let alone in the US if you were a young Democrat.

So I will give the current senator for New York, Hillary Clinton, the benefit of the doubt when she said her reference to the assassination was only about it reminding her that the 1968 primaries had lasted all the way till June. It wasn’t an oblique allusion that the possibility of assassination was more acute for Barack than herself. Not at all.

The Time magazine covers from that year were also unforgettable. In the months prior to June, photos of RFK campaigning had “ascension” written all over them. There was the exuberant Pop Art cover by Roy Lichtenstein in late May, followed just three weeks later by a sombre portrait.

The assassination was cruel on many levels, wrote Time, but cruellest of all was the absence of surprise:

It was the unspoken expectation of the veteran campaigners who traveled with Robert Francis Kennedy that death was always somewhere out there in the crowd. Occasionally an ordinary citizen, a Negro more often than not, gave voice to the same fear: They won't let him live.

The following week Lichtenstein was dramatically used again, in a cover story about gun control. (The editors probably thought they would cheer the populace up the next week with a cover story on the rapidly ascending Aretha Franklin, but unfortunately it made reference to her then-husband’s violent temper, which caused all sorts of havoc in the home.)

I didn’t intend linking to all those stories, but Time – in an exemplary, generous use of its archives – has made it so easy and attractive.

What I especially want to point to is a haunting story I read in the English Listener in 1979. The BBC’s Listener was like the 1950s New Zealand Listener, but with no radio or TV listings, just cerebral stories and essays. It was great reading while it lasted, and in its 50th anniversary issue that year there was a transcript of an old Letter from America by Alistair Cooke.

The epistle ran over the page, and the date that it had originally appeared was at the end. So as you read it, you had no idea of what he was about to relate. Part of Cooke’s charm was that he opened with a long preamble, then took almost until his last line to get to the point. When I read this in 1979 it was so gripping I had to turn the page to confirm that Cooke had been a witness to history. This is reportage at its best; unfortunately the audio link is no longer current.

A good example of a New Zealand public institution making its archives accessible is the Alexander Turnbull Library’s Papers Past project, which has now digitised New Zealand newspapers up to 1915. It’s as compelling as YouTube, and so much less musty.

03 June 2008

I looked up to the sky

Continuing the EMI NZ theme, 18 months ago I interviewed Shane Hales when writing a veterans-on-the-road story for North & South (Oct 2006)*.
I asked him about his time at HMV.

“I recorded in the old studios in Wakefield Street, before they were unceremoniously demolished,” he said, “I loved that studio, we had a lot of hits out of it, along with everybody else.”

Could you fit all 36 of the musicians for ‘St Paul’ in there?

“Everyone, it was a huge studio, in the old fashioned way, they don’t build ‘em like that anymore, you just need the gear at home. The EMI technicians from Abbey Road came out and set it up.”

Was Wellington a happening music town then?

“It was, there were a lot of musicians around. Mike Farrell was here, he worked part time in the EMI storeroom. On ‘St Paul’ we got all the staff out of the EMI offices: we needed a choir. ‘Right, get the staff down, the office girls, the guys in storeroom’ ... everyone came down and they were all told what they were going to sing. They all sang the la la las. We didn’t have the multi-tracking then, we only had about eight-track, so we couldn’t put any more orchestration on it. You had to do the whole thing in one go.

Looking back at it, I’m amazed ‘St Paul’ came out so quickly after ‘Hey Jude’ ...

“Did I tell you about Terry Knight, who wrote it? He’s dead now – but ‘St Paul’ has been released on a Beatles tribute album in the States with a lot of Beatle tribute songs.

“We all stayed at the Royal Oak, the old hotel [on the corner of Cuba and Manners Streets]. I always said I want to be there – it was such a fun place – the drag queens, people up the stairs, the bars were rocking, the house bar stayed open till all hours, all sorts of women were found leaving the hotel at various hours of the morning. A great place, a real rock’n’roll pub.

“And I’d have all the musicians up there to eat, all on the EMI tab, they paid the bills. They called me to the offices one day and said, ‘We’ve been looking at these accounts, they’ve been getting higher and higher’ ... I’d get the wine list and say, Whaddaya want?

“EMI would say it was only supposed to be me in the hotel. So EMI paid their way in that department: social activities. And of course it was great, the Quincys, they were all part of it, the guys who backed me. Bruno Lawrence ... until he was barred, from the EMI studios.

Left: the Quincy Conserve keep Bruno Lawrence surrounded.

“I had come down to do a new album, and I thought well Bruno will be playing drums again, on the Straight Straight Straight album and Richard Burgess turned up. They said ‘No, Bruno’s not allowed in the studios anymore. We had a gold disc reception down in Wellington in 1970 for the Loxene Golden Discs. And Bruno’s band were in it, Quincy Conserve, and we had a big luncheon with Loxene, the managing director and his wife and everyone standing around.

“And we all turned up in jeans, it was getting to that era, the long hair and stuff ... and they were put out about that, and of course Bruno had something wrong with his foot, so he was on crutches, and he stuck his crutch in the managing director’s wife’s face and said, ‘Do you wanna bite my crutch?’

“She was like ‘Aah! Disgusting!’ She complained, and said to her husband, I want that man thrown out. And they tried to tell him to go, and he didn’t want to go. And in the end, he jumped on the table, and they had this big buffet, and they tried to say, ‘Out. Leave. Now.’

“Bruno – having had a few drinks – wouldn’t go. He jumped on the table, on the buffet, as we were about to have lunch, and he kicked the food everywhere . ‘You’re nothing but a bunch of phonies, wankers!’ Screamed his head off at everyone. And the band, the Quincy Conserve, you could see them thinking their careers were coming to a fast end here. They tried to drag him off the table, which made it worse. He’s rolling in the food. He was taken out and he was up in the foyer of the theatre up the road, and they dragged him down the stairs still screaming and covered in food.

“So he was barred, and next day we were supposed to be starting on the new album. I’d just come back from the UK. And they said, Bruno’s not allowed in the studio, he’s been barred. Richard Burgess is drumming. [Burgess, from Christchurch, went on to produce Kim Wilde and Spandau Ballet, and he was in a British group called Landscape that released the unforgettably titled album From the Tea-Rooms of Mars ...To the Hell-Holes of Uranus.]

At the time of ‘St Paul’ you were very much in that tuxedo jacket pop scene, with the velvet bow tie. But by the 70s you could ditch that for jeans.

“Yeah I went into that rapidly,” Shane said, sighing with relief. “I always had a little bit of a complex with [Nilsson’s] ‘Cuddly Toy’, and stuff like that. Because my friends were cool musos. And I couldn’t be, I had to go on TV every week. You were groomed to be a little pop singer. And I’d been in the Pleazers, who were wild and woolly, and all that stuff. Then I was groomed for this nice boy image.

“EMI said to me, no way, you do ‘Cuddly Toy’. You want a hit? I said yeah, they said well you’re doing it. That’s what Peter Dawkins said to me, the very words. And it was a hit. It got me off the ground, got me off to a good start. But they always moulded the songs. It evolved into a sort of 70s image, where the hair got longer, a slight beard grew mainly because I couldn’t grow one anyway. Denims came in vogue, that George Harrison hairy look.

“The 70s changed everything. Then of course I went off to England and I came back totally different. I didn’t even do my songs for a while. For about three, four months I said I don’t sing those anymore, I’m doing my stuff. Of course people would come and they’d go ‘You didn’t do “St Paul”, you didn’t do “Natural Man” ... I love those songs.’

“I thought I’m doing this wrong, so I went back to them and didn’t bother about it again. You grow up quick.”

Soon, EMI: the days of cultural imperialism, 1926-60.

* The rock’n’roll veterans story is here: Devlin on the Road: It's a Long Way to the Shop if You Want a Sausage Roll.