It was only in 1973 that HMV changed its name in New Zealand to EMI. This was right in the middle of its heyday as a company recording local music, as opposed to just selling overseas artists. Their local efforts had begun back in 1955 with the recording of Johnny Cooper’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ and in the 1960s and 1970s the HMV studios in Wakefield Street, Wellington, hummed with activity.
It was here – for its own label, and independents such as Viking – that Allison Durbin recorded ‘I Have Loved Me a Man’, Mr Lee Grant ‘Thanks to You’, the Fourmyula their minimalist ‘Nature’ and Shane his epic ‘St Paul’. Peter Dawkins gets a lot of well-deserved credit as a producer, but to everyone who ever recorded at HMV – Maria Dallas, Blerta, Nash Chase, the Kal-Q-Lated Risk, Fred Dagg, Daggy & the Dickheads, the NZSO, and countless others – one man was HMV.
That was Frank Douglas, the engineer at the studio from its inception, when it evolved out of Lotus Studios. He stayed on during the studio’s ill-fated move to Lower Hutt in 1976, right to its closing in 1987. In 1992 Nick Bollinger interviewed him for William Dart’s quarterly Music in New Zealand. The article is probably the most thorough technical account of the HMV/EMI recording period. Douglas spoke of building the equipment, the arrival of stereo, the adding of more and more tracks. He discussed how they achieved effects like phasing, and the big productions of Durbin and the Avengers.
Other names that should be mentioned are the arrangers such as Don Richardson and Brian Hands – both of whom died recently – and Garth Young. HMV started to employ in-house producers; besides Dawkins there was Howard Gable (who produced and later married Durbin) and Alan Galbraith.
Galbraith had the idea of employing a house band for all recordings: Rockinghorse. This band featured, among others, Wayne Mason (ex-Fourmyula) and Clinton Brown, both of whom were later in the Warratahs. Kevin Bayley was regarded as Wellington's leading guitarist at the time. Keith Norris was the drummer. They backed everyone from the Yandalls to Jon Stevens to Mark Williams, and their work stands up. However there is a big difference in the sound achieved at the old studio (think of the presence in Durbin’s big hit) and the new one, which was a much bigger room and had a new desk. There’s a thinness to the later albums, despite the playing.
Douglas said the shift out to the Hutt ruined everything. Advertising agencies didn’t want to come out and record. “We had beautiful new studios out there but lost 80 percent of our clients in the shift. The management of EMI in England said it would make no difference. ... EMI at the Hutt became basically a manufacturing unit. We did cassette mastering, disc cutting and the odd recording.” Richardson told me that the Rowling Labour government's imposition of a sales tax also had a big effect on local recording (Muldoon later lifted it to 40 percent), but for a few years HMV eclipsed the efforts of Stebbings and Astor and other studios in Auckland.
Next: Shane tells tales. The B&W photos are by Frank Douglas, courtesy Music in New Zealand. Colour photos EMI.