31 May 2008

Studio One

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.

Maria Dallas listens to the playback of ‘Tumblin Down’, 1966. Above, Mark Williams at just the beginning of his life.

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.

At left, Rockinghorse debates whose turn it is to get the Kentucky Fried. From left: Wayne Mason, Kevin Bayley and Clinton Brown.

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.

29 May 2008

Fashion crimes

In 1955 an Auckland 17-year-old was in court for obstructing a policeman. He was fined and put on probation for two years. One of the conditions the Magistrate laid down was that the teenager’s probation officer should decide what clothing he was to wear in that period. In his typically sober editorial (one gin every night at 5.00pm in the Wellington railway station bar before catching the unit out to Paekakariki) Listener editor Monte Holcroft thought that, although a clean break with his trouble-making friends and habits was sensible for the youth, “It is unlikely that a change of heart can be arranged by a change of wardrobe.”

Because some teenagers clothed in the garb of “Edwardian dandies and Mississippi gamblers” had appeared in the courts, it did not mean that all of them were dangerous, said Holcroft. The problem was idleness which

“by itself is bad for the young. If it is allied to the strutting habits of the peacock it can lead to provocative behaviour. But provocation is not confined to those who wear eccentric clothes; it was shown by young servicemen who, on a recent weekend, moved into Auckland with some idea of excluding Teddy Boys from the milk bars.”

Corporal Ron Mark rose to the bait so predictably over Hoodie Day that he could be part of the marketing campaign. Mark isn’t old enough to be among the army louts who decided to sort out their peers who happened to be wearing a uniform different to their government-issue outfits. Presumably the magistrate was wearing some kind of kinky wig-and-cape outfit favoured by his tribe. The convicted youth would now be 69: I wonder what he wears down at the Cossie Club?

But what is appropriate when courting the act before m’learned friends? Obviously not the sinister drape jacket and stovepipe trouser ensemble flaunted in a Taranaki courtroom two years later (this Truth item is from 30 April 1957). A suit conservative enough for an undertaker, designer specs and raffish hair-do may not be enough to help an alleged murderer currently in a Dunedin court. But this charming family in Britain could do with a makeover.

26 May 2008

Bird Brain

There are music fans, and there are music fans. There are some who, when you see them coming, you cross the street. The latest New Yorker has an extraordinary profile of a compulsive jazz broadcaster.

It’s written by the editor, David Remnick, who is so prolific he makes me want to have a lie-down. Besides editing the actual magazine – brilliantly – Remnick is quite capable of knocking out definitive pieces on Russia since glasnost, or the history of Israel, or a book on Muhammad Ali.

In the May 19 issue he profiles Phil Schaap, who is now 57 but has been a jazz aficionado since he was just out of naps. He shares his love for the form on radio:

Every weekday for the past 27 years, a long-in-the-tooth history major named Phil Schaap has hosted a morning program on WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station, called Bird Flight, which places a degree of attention on the music of the bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker that is so obsessive, so ardent and detailed, that Schaap frequently sounds like a mad Talmudic scholar who has decided that the laws of humankind reside not in the ancient Babylonian tractates but in alternate takes of ‘Moose the Mooche’ and ‘Swedish Schnapps’.

I had to keep re-checking that opening clause. Every weekday, just on Charlie Parker? Once a week, surely. No. Every weekday: that’s over 9000 hours of Parker. And this is at breakfast time; the programme is supposed to start at 8.20am and finish at 9.40am, but he always keeps the next DJ waiting. Schaap has information he wants to share. As Remnick continues:

… through his live soliloquies and his illustrative recordings, commercial and bootlegged, [Schaap] has provided an invaluable service to a dwindling art form: in the capital of jazz, he is its most passionate and voluble fan. He is … a master of history, hierarchies, personalities, anecdote, relics, dates, and events; but he is also a guardian, for, unlike baseball, jazz and the musicians who play it are endangered. Jazz today is responsible for only around three percent of music sales in the United States, and what even that small slice contains is highly questionable. Among the current top sellers on Amazon in the jazz category are easy-listening acts like Kenny G and Michael Bublé.

To his critics, Remnick admits, Schaap can be irritating and extreme. This is a man who compiles 10-CD boxsets and includes everything, even the sounds the stage crew make while shifting the chairs between songs. The great jazz critic Gary Giddins, formerly with the Village Voice, called Schapp “that most obsessive of anal obsessives”.

Schaap has one of those phenomenal memories that can seem pointless. As a child, he could name all the presidents of the US, in order. This was before he even attended school. “The precocious obsessive is a familiar high-school type, particularly among boys,” writes Remnick, “but the object of Schaap’s obsession was a peculiar one among his classmates. ‘The lonely days were adolescence,’ he admitted. ‘My peer group thought I was out of my mind.’ ”

But here is the difference: at the same freakishly young age Schaap was beginning to befriend the legendary musicians of jazz, and bring them home to meet his bohemian, academic parents. He knew their careers better than they did. Sun Ra once “kidnapped” him before Ra had to give a speech. He wanted Schaap to fill in the details of what Ra had done in his existence on Earth (as opposed to his life on Saturn).

I won’t give it all away. It has a lovely ending, and a link to some weirdly compelling audio of Schaap’s show.

(New Yorker illustration above by Robert Risko: Phil Schaap with, clockwise from bottom, Dizzy Gillespie, Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday.)

16 May 2008

Electrical musical industries

The down-scaling of EMI in New Zealand has been commented on by several bloggers, and the reaction to it is an indication of how much part of the music community it has been. Often this has been almost in spite of itself or, at least, in spite of the very multi-national approach of its head office in London. Over the years in various “territories” (such a term of economic imperialism) there has been an attitude of plunder the colonies of their leisure dollar and give nothing back to their culture, but that hasn’t always been the case in New Zealand.

The original news item to it was linked by
Peter McLennan who now includes todays item from the NZ Herald media column; Simon Grigg has commented with insight on the news, and both he and Graham Reid rue the departure of EMI NZ managing-director Chris Caddick. Why? Because, while still being a good businessman (a real “record man” – ie, he is passionate about the record business) he also genuinely loves music. (Thanks for introducing me to Richard Thompson, Chris!)

For a long while EMI was based in my home town, perched among some very unsalubrious light-industrial buildings in Petone. And of course there were EMI record stores in most New Zealand towns in the 1970s and 80s. I thought I’d share some images from EMI’s heyday, the 1970s. I remember reading in NME in 1981 that the success of the Beatles was so massive that their sales alone brought this massive international corporation a profit all the way until 1975. Plus, of course, there were the enormous sales of Fred Dagg’s Greatest Hits.

So turn off your mind, relax and float downstream ... perch yourself in a vinyl beanbag in the “sound lounge” of EMI’s Lower Hutt corporate headquarters.

Break out the buddha, weve got Cliffs Devil Woman to audition ...

Outside on the Hutt Road, the corporate fleet awaits. As you’d expect from the greatest recording company of the Empire, every vehicle is the Best of British, c1975.

It’s all glamour working at EMI. At the front desk the receptionist wonders how she can turn down yet another lunch invitation from the guy with the comb-over in despatch. She wasn’t impressed by the free promo copy of Strapps, a self-titled debut album, even if it was produced by Deep Purples Roger Glover. The opening track ‘School Girl Funk’ was naff – give me Alice Cooper – and what self-respecting band writes a song called ‘Rock Critic’?

Meanwhile, in the nerve centre – sales – the “girl” in the cowl-neck jumper from Carters and Kiki Dee hair-do is hiding it well that the fellow looming over her has splashed on too much Brut.

For EMI men it’s been Mo-vember ever since the legendary 1973 staff conference held at the Chateau. Cold Duck flowed like water, but it wasn’t a good leg opener as the girls all turned up in dungarees. Blame Linda McCartney ...

Things got so out of hand that EMI head office sent out their apprentice career manager to prove himself. Here he is on the phone back to Britain, worrying about the fruit-and-flowers expenditure (nudge nudge, wink wink) of hot New Zealand recording act Rockinghorse. Mr MS Wells “Mike” to the ladies had just arrived on the corporate jet from EMI Argentina. He’d had plenty of experience sorting out men who wore medallions.

Coming up, Lower Hutt as Muscle Shoals: EMI
s recording heyday.

12 May 2008


Robin Dudding

Editor, gardener, poultry breeder; born Hastings 7 December 1935, died Auckland 21 April 2008.

Watching Robin Dudding examine a new book was like witnessing a master of wine savour the first sip of a rare vintage. It was work – and it was pleasure.

There was a ritual to it. He would put down his 2B pencil and take the book in both hands. The front cover design would slowly be perused, then the back, without comment. He would open it up at random, but properly: wide and flat, seeing whether it stayed open. If the binding resisted, the book wouldn’t be easy to read; if it let out a crack, it would soon fall apart.

His eyes would scan over the double-page spread, checking the typeface, the leading – the spacing between lines – and the white space that surrounded the words. This was crucial: not enough, and he would murmur, “Shame about the mean margins.”

Dudding was a perfectionist, and not just with words, type and paper. He bred champion chooks, pruned fruit trees like a craftsman, fed his family with a bounteous vegetable garden (the peppers came from cuttings given to him by Frank Sargeson), and was a wicked table-tennis player.

For almost 30 years, Robin Dudding was also New Zealand’s most gifted and significant literary editor. He was Charles Brasch’s hand-picked successor at Landfall and went on to found his own literary journal, Islands. This became the leading outlet for creative writing and essays in the 1970s and 80s; at Landfall or Islands Dudding gave many New Zealand writers their first prominent outlet, among them Bill Manhire, Ian Wedde, Lauris Edmond and Jenny Bornholdt.

The man Brasch chose was 31, a part-time primary teacher and part-time editor of Mate, a small-but-perfectly-formed literary journal. Founded in 1957, the magazine had evolved from sessions at the Queen’s Ferry in Vulcan Lane, Auckland.

Kevin Ireland co-edited the first issue with John Yelash, and for young contenders they punched above their weight. James K Baxter, Frank Sargeson and RAK Mason were in the first issue, which was printed by the fabled Bob Lowry. But Mate’s purpose was to champion new writers: also in that debut was Janet Frame, and the magazine’s most successful discovery was Barry Crump.

By issue three, Dudding was the sole editor; he was 22 and working as a journalist at the Auckland Star. Compulsory military training had brought him north from Hastings, where he had worked on the Herald-Tribune. He “seagulled” on the Auckland wharves before becoming a reporter at the Star. The feisty underdog of Auckland’s two dailies, the Star featured venerated bylines such as Noel Holmes, Robert Gilmore and Pat Booth. Gary Wilson, a young reporter with Dudding, remembers everyone in the same room, “typewriters clacking, phones going, teleprinter chattering ... the big boys holding forth with their mix of important and bullshit discussions, all in a haze of cigarette smoke.” It was a tough environment, recalled Dudding, whose beat varied from rugby league to theatre: the arts editor’s desk was nicknamed “queer’s corner”.

Dudding shifted to Christchurch in 1966 to edit Landfall, accompanied by his wife Lois and their young family. Another of his tasks was to edit the Caxton Press’s general books; after five years there was a parting of the ways, allegedly because of the late delivery of a publication.

This is believable: Dudding was interested more in high standards than hasty mistakes. The family – now with six children – headed back to Auckland, and in 1972 he founded Islands. The name and format suggested a sequel to Landfall, and it’s significant that Brasch himself contributed (as he did to Mate). Brasch’s philanthropic offer to financially underwrite Islands was only prevented by his untimely death.

Islands lasted for 15 years and 38 issues, sustained by Dudding’s gritty determination, occasional relief teaching and copy editing, plus the support and sacrifice of his family. A rundown hut in the back garden of their North Shore home became the nerve centre of New Zealand literature.

“Woodspring Cottage may not qualify for the attentions of an Historic Places Trust,” Dudding once wrote, but its “icy interior” had produced eight issues of Mate and 20 issues of Islands. Moving inside to a warmer spot, the cottage “reverted to its original use as a tool shed.”

Dudding took risks as an editor: Islands’ poetry, short fiction, literary and arts criticism could be edgy and challenging. In 1976 he took the bold step of publishing Ian Wedde’s debut novella Dick Seddon’s Great Dive as a complete issue. Despite the title, Dick Seddon portrayed the hazy 1960s with an almost nostalgic tone and experimental style. It won the 1977 book award for fiction.

When Islands was the Mecca of new writing, Dudding would receive “in a good week” about 10 stories and 300 poems. He would reject 97 percent, but read them all from beginning to end. In 1984 he explained why to Metro’s Robert Mannion: “You’ll get a handwritten manuscript on a piece of torn paper, written on both sides – all of which you say you don’t want – you want material typed and written on one side only. Every second word on the manuscript is misspelt and it is barely legible.

“But then you notice it comes from Wi Tako or a psychiatric hospital or something like that. That’s someone who’s sitting in a cell, who for therapeutic reasons, or whatever reasons, is trying to do something with pen and paper. You’ve got to give it some sort of response. You can’t give it that without reading it right through. It’s most unlikely, in fact it hasn’t happened in 20 years, but there may be a jewel in there.”

At its peak, Islands had a subscriber base of 2000; it suspended publication twice in its 15-year run. If every contributor had also taken out a subscription, the magazine could have sustained itself, but Dudding would never make that a pre-requisite for publication.

Instead, he took on freelance editing tasks for Auckland University Press, where he had a long association and friendship with Dennis McEldowney, the managing-editor. Among the major books he edited for AUP were James Belich’s The New Zealand Wars, and he also contributed the “Bookmarks” column to the Listener with a wry, informed eye.

Although Dudding wrote very little – the pithy “Tailfeather” column that dealt with Islands housekeeping matters was his only written contribution to the journal – such was his standing that he became the University of Auckland’s first literary fellow in 1979. When McEldowney went on a long-delayed OE, Dudding stood in to manage AUP. “The job was all that I hoped it would be,” he said later. “But Dennis wanted it back.”

McEldowney, a gentleman and scholar if ever one existed, wrote in his diary of Dudding, “I suspect he is a more rigorous editor than I am ... [he came in] with the typescript he has been editing, in which he has slaughtered a thousand howevers, moreovers, therefores and thuses.”

Dudding could seem formidable, but not for long. His eyes could be piercing, because he was listening, concentrating. He was a backroom literary legend, but not to himself; he didn’t suffer fools but he loved company of all kinds, especially children. In the 1990s, for post-work Friday sessions at the London Bar he would draw together a wide variety of workers and age-groups, with rarely a writer present. His style of humour was the gentle tease: he liked to encourage people to do their best at whatever they attempted. He subsumed his ego to let others flourish.

New Zealand literature’s gratitude to Dudding was finally acknowledged last month when the University of Auckland conferred an honorary doctorate upon him. Sadly, after a long battle with emphysema, he died on April 21, two days before the ceremony. His family accepted the scarlet doctoral robe on his behalf, and the occasion became a moving celebration of a life lived with generosity and courage.

The cover designers are:
Ralph Hotere (Landfall 84, Islands 1 and Islands 16: Dick Seddon's Great Dive), Tony Stones (Mate 9), Michael Smither (Landfall 82), Peter Buckley (Islands 26), and Dick Frizzell (Islands 27). This obituary originally appeared in the Sunday Star-Times on 11 May 2008.

10 May 2008

Burma-Siam Railroad

The UN reacted furiously last night to Burma's military government confiscating food aid intended for more than a million victims of last week's cyclone. Two planeloads were impounded by the junta, prompting a temporary suspension in deliveries. UN flights were resumed last night, in the hope that negotiations would lead to a resolution.

Gordon Brown called the Burmese action "utterly unacceptable". He stopped short of joining France and the US in calling for aid deliveries without Burmese permission, although pressure within his government for such a move is growing.

- Guardian, 10 May 2008

The regime, known today as the State Peace and Development Council, cannot forget that 82 per cent of Burmese voted against them in the 1990 election: they know that the vast majority of their countrymen are deeply estranged from them.

The huge demonstrations by monks last year showed that, however cowed and bullied, ordinary Burmese are angry enough to rebel. The generals fear the ordinary people could rise up again at any time - and that a flood of foreign aid workers could be the spark to ignite the next revolt.

- Independent, 10 May 2008

07 May 2008

Euro trash

If my life depended on naming two Eurovision Song Contest winners, then ciao, baby. I would have come up with the only two Eurovision songs I can actually remember: ‘Congratulations’ by Cliff Richard was an instant ear-worm in 1968, and the arrival of Abba with ‘Waterloo’ was unavoidable in 1974. (No one would have predicted such a catalogue of hits that was to follow.)

It’s a funny thing, memory: it turns out that Cliff didn’t take home the gong, despite being the only unforgettable song that screened on NZBC’s WNTV-1 that night. He was robbed, and by one of the arch fascists of the 20th Century: Franco.

The last war crime of that grisly reign has been revealed. Franco’s flunkies – executives from Televisión Española – crossed Europe to do some backhanding and bribing so that the contest was won by Spain’s Massiel. Her song? ‘La La La’ ... ah, you hum it, I'll play it ...

It’s often said that there’s a formula to Eurovision winners: le royale avec cheese of songwriting. I liked Guardian critic Caroline Sullivan on the similarities between ‘Congratulations’ and ‘Waterloo’:

‘Congratulations’ is actually one of the better entries in his catalogue. It has a hip-swinging loucheness that stays just the polite side of naughtiness, and while it's necessary to watch the video to fully appreciate the piston action of those hips, the song stands up in its own right. It employs many of the devices that Abba would go on to use on their 1974 Eurovision winner, ‘Waterloo’: splats of brass, clanging bells, handclaps and a joyous, surging melody. But guess which of the two is regarded as a fine pop song and which is seen as a crummy throwaway?

So there was Cliff, stood up at the altar of the Royal Albert Hall in 1968. It hasn’t always been a dignified career.

Music journalism is often mad, spotty boys raving, but in general the genre has moved on from this classic (left). It’s the opening of a syndicated
on-the-road with-Cliff feature in NZ Truth, in 1962. I'm sure it doesn't reflect Cliffs attitude to his fans at the time.

03 May 2008

Everything’s Coming Up Dusty

Nicole Kidman is lining up a starring role as Dusty Springfield ... Fans of the British chanteuse, who died of breast cancer in 1999, will get a double dose of their idol when Kristin Chenoweth tackles the role in a rival biopic for Universal. - Guardian, 1 May 2008
Dusty in private: a 1990 interview

Dusty Springfield was always cool in our extended family, but in the 1960s I didn’t realise how cool. My older girl cousins didn’t quite emulate her wigs but certainly mascara and false eyelashes were in heavy use. I have vague memories of watching her television series, mainly for the variety it offered, as did the Johnny Cash show at that time.

By the mid-1970s Dusty in Memphis was spoken about with reverence by rock critics, but you couldn’t find a copy in New Zealand. In 1980 I asked my sister to send one out from London, and therein started a love affair. It is the perfect mix of performer, songs, musicians and producer.
When I requested it, I wasn’t to know that so many of the key people who have been central to my musical journey were present: Randy Newman as songwriter, Jerry Wexler as producer, Chips Moman’s American studios in Memphis, and his band of great players that combined soul, country and pop into one irresistible stew* (recaptured a few weeks later by Elvis for his ‘In the Ghetto’ and ‘Suspicious Mind’ sessions). Dusty in Memphis deservedly became a perennial entry in “great album” lists; even the liner notes (by Stanley Booth) were excellent. (*For a great sampler, go to the Memphis Boys site and click on "launch the jukebox".)

In 1987 Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys plucked Dusty from her exile in the US to duet on ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This’, one of the great singles of the 1980s: it updated her sound while staying true to her early Philips singles of the 1960s.

I jumped at the chance when Rip It Up editor Murray Cammick offered me the opportunity to interview her in October 1990. The album she was promoting was Reputation, produced by PSB's Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe and others. It was a disappointment after the single, and its excellent follow-ups, ‘Nothing Has Been Proved’ and ‘In Private’.

Dusty in conversation sounded just like her records. The husky voice still had an English accent, though the occasional Californian inflection revealed the 20 years she had spent in Los Angeles. But she exuded the same character as her songs: warmth and vulnerability, wit and sensitivity. And girlish high spirits.
Less than 10 years later she was dead, aged 59. Here is the complete transcript of my interview with Dusty.

Did you know that you got your first No 1 hit in New Zealand, with the Springfields’ ‘Silver Threads’?
No I didn’t! That was the one record we made I truly liked. That’s amazing! That’s great! I still like that record.

Do you remember coming out to New Zealand in the 60s?

Yeah! It was part of an Australian and New Zealand tour with, oh, Gene Pitney [left] and the Searchers, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes and all that gang. I remember in Christchurch how pretty the trees were – would they be laburnums? They were lilac coloured, gorgeous. We played Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, Christchurch and Dunedin, which is indeed a very Scottish town.

Are you happy with

[She pauses, hearing a double entendre] The album? [pause] Most of it. Yeah, I think it’s good. Sometimes I bemoan the fact that I’d like a bit more musical freedom, but certainly I think it’s a good album. I’m pleased with it. There are things obviously … I’m never completely satisfied, there are things I’d like to go back and do again, but that will always be the case, it’s the case of everyone I know.

Have you ever wanted to produce yourself completely?
I sort of did [in the mid-1960s], but I never put my name on it. All of them in the 60s, apart from the American ones. But I have no great ... I like to work with somebody else, producing is really hard work. But I certainly … there are two types of producer. There is the technician and then there are the emotional ones who need the technicians to work with. I think that’s fairly much the case with the Pet Shop Boys and Julian Mendelsohn. With Neil and Chris they do the writing and know the sounds they want but Julian is the one who gets the sounds. It would be intriguing to work under those circumstances, to have the fellow there, but then I always produced that way, I always needed a technician to get the things that were in my head.

Why didn't you ever credit yourself on those 60s records?

It wasn’t done. It just wasn’t done. It would have made me look too competent. It was very important at that time – the sort of dolly bird image was not ... it shouldn’t have looked too slick. The British have an innate suspicion of things that are too slick. I don’t know whether its that way in New Zealand, but it certainly – perhaps a little less so now – but still to this day the things that are the most successful with the average British public, you’ve got to keep that slightly amateurish quality, that sort of enthusiastic, having‑a‑go attitude, it shouldn’t be too slick, or if it is slick, you mustn’t let them know that. Getting too many credits on one label, in the middle of a record, was not a good idea.

It was frustrating, but I was allowed my head, I was allowed ... what mattered to me wasn’t the credit, what mattered was getting the job done, and being allowed to do that was quite something, because I was pretty new at it, and I had an A&R man who was quite nice about that. He was having a nervous breakdown in the control room, but the fact is, he let me do it.

It must be frustrating though, now that female performers like Madonna
control their own careers and don’t hold back.

No, it’s nice to see it though. I can be pretty dispassionate about that and say, good on you. [Laughs] I really can say, finally, it started in the 70s with the singer/songwriters started to get a hold. But its nice to see that people are having a major say in their own careers.

Did you have trouble getting
Reputation finished? When you spoke to Rip It Up last year, talked about the Fine Young Cannibals and Miami Sound Machine, people like that being involved.
The Miami Sound Machine was my own dream. Certainly the record company wanted to keep it as much in this country as possible. They finally relented on Dan Hartman, but basically they wanted it to be as British as possible. The Fine Young Cannibals … it’s hard to explain this. When you want to work with specific people, you are open to other people’s schedules. You have to reach compromises and if it’s not possible, it’s not possible.

So that didn’t work out and neither did the thing with Phil Collins, because up until the last minute he was going to produce two. And he was struggling to finish his own album on time, and of course everything runs over; with the best will in the world things run over time, so that didn’t work. But we have a commitment that he’ll do two on the next album, but maybe that won’t work either. That’s the down side of wanting to work with people who have very active careers outside of production. So sometimes you just have to let some things go.

Of course, there’s the problem with consistency when working with so many people – getting a flow through the record.
Well that depends on the sequencing. I wasn’t that keen on the sequencing, but I didn’t have much say in it. But I don’t believe that it’s necessary to work with one producer. A lot of performers have six producers. The early albums I did were all over the place in styles: musical eclecticism. I don’t subscribe to the thinking that it has to be all one sound, because I go nuts with that. I need the freedom to explore other situations. Whether it works or not, I need that freedom. In fact I’d like more freedom, because when I look back at some old archive material, which I’ve been doing recently, I was far more eclectic then. I strain under the restrictions sometimes.

Left: Jerry Wexler, Wilson Pickett, Ahmet Ertegun.

Looking back over your career makes me think of that quote by Ahmet Ertegun about black music: that it’s always running away from the status quo, always changing the style, moving on. You seem that way too.
Yeah well it’s stupid to stand still. This struggle I’m having at the moment ... it’s nice having a past, but sometimes it’s a real cross to bear. Because if you mention that you’d like to do a really good ballad, the tendency is to ignore the fact that contemporary ballads are often very, very successful, that even heavy metal bands, it’s their ballads that stay in the charts for week after week worldwide. The tendency if I say I want to do a ballad is they immediately click back into the 60s, and go, Oh she wants to do a 60s ballad. And I say, No I don’t. Their mindset tells them that, so they get afraid of it.

And you know, I’m not a dance artist. If people want to dance to something I’ve done that’s fine, but I cannot ... it’s a mistake to channel me in that direction. It’s just not right. It’s a sort of unspoken battle to try and establish credibility with your own musical ideas. It takes a while to break down people’s image of you. If they have one. To say, no I don’t want to do a 60s ballad, it’s not going to sound that way …

And you have to point it out to them, over and over again, the success of contemporary ballads. Enormous things: Maria McKee, Mariah Carey – all sorts of huge ballads, that they seem to ignore, but the public don’t. When I say they, I mean A&R people in record companies.

Do you get the feeling that there aren’t many composers today who write the kind of songs that meet real singers’ needs …
It’s very hard to find a good ballad, I must say. That’s my dream really, because I think it’s what I do best. I’d just like to find a strong, slightly R&B influenced ballad for the next album. That’s where I sit most comfortably I think. It’s not easy though to find.

I interviewed Randy Newman last year, and he mentioned two songs you’ve done as being among his favourite covers of his songs: ‘I’ve Been Wrong Before’ and ‘I Don’t Want to Hear It’.
Really? I didn’t know he’d ever heard them. I find that enormously flattering, because I worship his musical style, I really do.

I thought one of his recent songs ‘Falling in Love’ would be right for you.

Really. He’s an amazing writer.

Left: Randy Newman in 1968

Reputation you picked a Goffin and King number: you went back to Goffin and King who you covered on the Memphis record.

I didn’t actually. It’s a bone of contention in a light way, between the record company, the Pet Shop Boys and myself. I didn’t want to do that. But I trust Neil so much that I did it. I really did it for Neil. It’s really the only song on the album I don’t like! I love Goffin and King, I just don’t think it belongs where they put it. It doesn’t work for me there. But excuse me, I’ve been wrong before! [Laughs]
But it genuinely doesn’t sit well with me. For me to be able to accept that somebody is right, and do it anyway, is an amazing step forward for me. Because a long time ago I would have fought and fought and fought and not done it. But I have an innate trust of Neil and Chris, so I did it. I still tell them to their faces that I don’t like it.

They did a wonderful job on ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This’. Why did the album take so long?

Oh yes …

That must have been enormously frustrating for you ...

Oh well. I was being tested. Nobody ever said it, but you were quite aware that the record industry was kind of putting its toe in the water, and debating whether they wanted to get involved on a contractual level for any length of time. And the trust built up through that, and then through ‘Nothing Has Been Proved’ – these were still on a single basis, there was no long-term contract. And then the success of ‘In Private’ was what sealed it I think.

They wanted to see whether it would develop. Things are not that great in the record industry. A&R departments have to have a real feeling that it’s going to work, before they commit money for budget. And the turning point I think was ‘In Private’, in that it was so successful all over Europe. It went beyond just being a hit in England, and they thought, Hey, she can really sell records. And their eyebrows went up and they said, Okay! Let’s take that risk and go for it. But that takes such a long time.

In the 80s the business has been taken over by accountants rather than musical people.

Oh without a doubt. To use a current expression, “at the end of the day, it’s the balance sheet that counts”, not the music. I understand them, and the word industry is well used – that’s what it is. I feel that people who run companies are industrialists, and have to show a profit margin. I mean, this is the time of year when even well known people get dropped off labels, because the bottom line figures are not right for the accountants. So it’s hairy to be in the recording industry, it really is. I have never been that fond of the whole premise of it, but it’s something I do, and it’s something for the most part I enjoy. But I don’t enjoy any of the politics of it. I think they stink.

One legend I’ve heard is that you advised Jerry Wexler to sign Led Zeppelin. Is that true?

Nooooo. But a wonderful idea! I’m not sure I could have done it or not! No, I didn’t hear that. [This may be modesty: the story keeps getting more reliable, and the timing is right: when Led Zeppelin was forming, John Paul Jones arranged her album Definitely Dusty. She then recorded the Memphis album for Atlantic.]

But you did an enormous amount for Motown in Britain, fronting a TV special on Ready Steady Go ...
Yeah, I did an idealistic sort of PR thing, yeah.
[Left: Dusty with Martha Reeves of the Vandellas]
Was that your first introduction to black music?
No, no. Do you want to go all the way back? My first introduction to black music was as a kid listening to Jelly Roll Morton singles, old New Orleans stuff. But on a level of contemporary popular black music, no it was before that. I was getting imports while I was still with the Springfields. I was aware of early R&B before Motown was Motown, and early Stax – those labels that came out of the Memphis. Those were my earliest real influences. Around
61, 62.

It’s ironic that Motown always emphasised longevity in artists’ careers, and pushed them towards cabaret. Whereas you’ve always had to run away from being in that trap.
I didn’t avoid it altogether. That happened to me when I got to the States, when I moved to the States. I fell into that trap. Because that most definitely is where managers who wanted good bread-and-butter artists steered their acts. Because it was at that time a very going concern, the nightclubs and that whole gray area which I hated so much. There was still a massive audience for the nightclub circuit and the hotel chains, which had in each major hotel a room that constituted a nightclub. And they had very major acts there, and you could earn very good money there. It was just an area that I truly hated performing in.

You seem to have had quite a different career in the States. In Britain, it was pop. In America, it was the soul of Memphis and Philadelphia.

Yeah, though Memphis actually happened while I was still living in England. But certainly that was the start of my thinking about going to the States. In hindsight, the Americans have never really understood what I do, they have a great need to categorise things. It makes radio stations very nervous if they can’t pigeonhole somebody because of their formats. And in England I was identified, I could almost do anything and get away with it. But in the States you can’t do that. So I had several very big hits in the States, but because I insisted on being more eclectic than the record companies would like me to be …
Some of the English album material was all over the place, and it worked in England but it didn’t work for the States. So success there was more intermittent. And the ones that were truly successful essentially categorised me, on what I think is a superficial musical level. I just never had a chance to establish a more substantial musical image in the States.

With the
Memphis album, it is intriguing that so many of the great soul players are from a country background.
Yep. And it’s ironic to know now that most of those people who were studio musicians in Memphis have all moved to Nashville. I don’t know that Memphis is a major recording centre anymore.

No. Only Al Green stays there.

[Laughs] Yeah, right.

And yet you were in Nashville 30 years ago with the Springfields (left).
Right. We made a really horrible album there. But I’m still grateful to that time because that allowed me … the first time I ever heard Dionne Warwick’s ‘Don’t Make Me Over’ was in Nashville. I had to sit down very quickly on the bed in, I remember, the Cpitol Motel, with its red carpets. It was really glamorous; I’d never seen a really flashy American motel before. With all the right buttons to push, room service, the works. A really upmarket motel ... but I associate that with hearing Dionne Warwick for the first time, doing that particular record, and thinking, My God this is different. And on the way back stopping off in New York, and hearing the sounds that needed to hear in order to kick my behind into being a solo singer.

Nashville must have still been quite segregated place then, before the civil rights era.
It probably was, I certainly wasn’t aware of that, because when you are recording you lead such a sheltered sort of existence, a tunnel vision thing. All I could think of at that time was trying to sing in tune. It never occurred to me to ... I really went through that experience in blinkers, just going to the studio, going back to the motel, going to the studio, going back to the motel. It had no experience for me further than listening to the radio, and realising what [with incredulous expression] music there was there! To listen to, nationally, being played. And how excited I was by that.

Do you regard the
Memphis record as the great thing that so many critics do?
No. I do realise, and again it’s only in hindsight, like so many other conclusions I reach, that it has a real flow, a real sound, even though I think it lacks certain things in the background, in the musical side of it. It does have a sound. And it does have some quality that some of the other albums lacked. A cohesion. It’s such a credit to Jerry Wexler and [engineer] Tom Dowd – their patience with me. Because I was very intimidated doing it, and very fearful. And people have said, well how could you be.

I mean there’s nothing more deflating to one’s confidence than to have somebody say, “Stand there, that’s where Aretha stood.” And the only person I know who understands that – and I was really surprised and we had a long talk about it – was George Michael. Because he went through the same thing. Only his was like, “That’s where Percy Sledge stood,” or “That’s where Otis Redding stood.” Or something.

And we laughed about it, when I was working with the Pet Shop Boys on the album, we happened to be working in the same studio, and we had a cup of coffee together and talked about it. And I thought, My God. Somebody understands. That I’m not being down on myself. That it was a very real feeling, and that it was something that I had to fight the entire time I was doing the Memphis thing, and it was something I had to conquer. And that it was a true restrictive feeling.

And Jerry and Tom did not understand that. I was so nervous that I lost my voice! With sheer nerves, over thinking, Oh God, I’m not good enough to be here. And they’re going to see right through me – I’m just a white girl trying to sound black. And they actually do see through me …

But that wasn’t the way it was for them, that wasn’t their experience, but it was mine. And the patience they showed in getting it out of me was extraordinary. And that album is such a credit to their ability to work with an artist and look past all the
insecurities, and to have the patience to know that it’ll come eventually.

It’s ironic that Aretha was offered ‘Son of a Preacher’ first but turned it down. She only recorded it after hearing your version.

Yeah. [laughs] And she did a great job. Whenever I did it after that, I always used her intonation.

With that, the tape clicked off, but the conversation continued. What next after Reputation, I asked. (I’d found it rather disappointing: too many producers were involved.) So I suggested Luther Vandross as a producer. This is when Dusty the music fan came out. I jotted down her responses immediately afterwards.

“Oh, that would be a dream!” she swooned. “Whether he’d be available, I don’t know, but he’s one of my absolute idols.”

Or Elvis Costello? “Oh, I did one of his songs a few years ago” – ‘Losing You’ on the bizarre White Heat, 1982) – “He gave it to me before he did it himself. I couldn’t believe I meant something to someone of such a different era.”

Have you any plans to sing live again? “No. Maybe in the future. Friends in Los Angeles used to come into the studio and watch me record, overdubbing line after line. Then when I was going to do some live work, they said, ‘But can you sing a whole song at once?’ ”

One last question: you were on Dame Edna’s TV show recently. What do you think of her dress sense? “Oh, fabulous!” said the diva famous for her sequinned gowns, large wigs and mascaraed eyes. “I had so much fun doing that show. I made a special effort to congratulate his designer for making those fabulous gowns.”

Dusty in Memphis may be timeless, but in 1990 Dusty herself wasn’t looking back. “I never listen to my old records, they sound corny. They make better records now, they sound better. You can do things now I always wanted to do then.”

My conclusion to the original story was, “Dusty Springfield is back, and hopefully in charge of her own destiny.” Sadly, that never happened.

01 May 2008

Satellite spies

Imagine the apoplectic relish with which Muldoon would have reacted to the popping of New Zealand’s spy-base balloon. One element in particular: that the protestors used a sickle to “deflate Dolly Parton” (as one of their colleagues put it).

After Muldoon demanded television time to hector us all over dinner, later that night he would be prepared for round two. On some talking-heads interview programme, he would have snarled at fellow guests and the interviewer, then reached into his jacket pocket for a document to name names. Whoever made that Dolly Parton sound-bite would be declared a fellow traveller, and that piece of paper would prove it.

The RSA generation, anaesthetised by a superannuation bribe that we are now all regretting, shell-shocked by a Springbok tour that just proved him right, and remembering the reds-under-beds frenzy of Truth in the 50s, would have responded at the ballot box. Muldoon was Winston’s greatest mentor.

If there is a theme to these posts it is that history always repeats, like a bad belch. I often feel our political reporting doesn't reflect this. History goes back further than last month’s poll, or sideshows like Marion Hobbs or Dover Samuels. At a guess – if one leaves Ian Templeton out of it – the average age in the press gallery might be 35. This means they would have been 11 when Muldoon drunkenly threw a snap election, six when Winston went to court to get into Parliament, and three when Muldoon became PM.

They weren’t watching Eye-Witness News to see how power was being abused on a daily basis. Signing a painting you didn’t paint, or having your minders break the speed limit to make a photo shoot, doesn’t really feature in the moral corruption hack handicap. Neither does making a decent public servant such as Hugh Logan the fall-guy for a crude attempt at ministerial bullying compare to the vicious personal attacks of Muldoon. These led at least one top public servant to commit suicide and caused a brain drain that lowered the IQ more than any tax exiles ever would.

Last night I watched the film Good Night, and Good Luck, about the pioneering TV journalist Edward R Murrow, who took on the red-baiting junior senator for Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. I didn’t see it when it came out because I felt I didn’t need to; when I was a teenager – not long after Muldoon came to power – I wrote my first feature on Murrow for my journalism tutor. He liked the ending, in which the chain-smoking Murrow’s death from cancer was announced by his former TV channel, then followed by an advertisement for cigarettes.

I thought of our excitable political reporters chasing terriers, and how inadequately their predecessors confronted the great counterpuncher, Muldoon. The journalist he most feared was the satirist Tom Scott, and he reacted by legislating to remove the Listener’s monopoly on programme information. (I also remember US cartoonists rueing the arrival of Jimmy Carter, wondering how – after Nixon – they could caricature someone with a face so bland.)

The forthcoming election is going to be our ugliest, and it is up to the media to lift the level of debate: Trevor Mallard and Gerry Brownlee won’t be doing it.

I’m not hopeful. The lead letter in the Listener this week suggests that much of it will be at the level of talkback radio or the rabid end of the blogosphere. According to someone from Remuera, we need to maintain our constitutional monarchy because “slowly and surely the system is being corrupted”. He then segues from Hitler and Mugabe to write:

Helen Clark has taken enormous strides during her time as Prime Minister to enhance the power of her own position. She now selects the military chiefs and the head of the police, controls the Security Intelligence Service, has absorbed the Governor-General’s office into her own department, and time and time again has trampled on the expressed wishes of the people.

Let us keep our MMP system but grant to the Governor-General the right to refuse vice-regal assent to bills that he/she thinks could be contrary to the people’s wishes. The bill should then be put to a referendum for a final and binding decision.

Was this the most intelligent response to the use of Hitler on the cover in Anzac week – or just the most provocative? The prime minister has always selected the heads of the military and police and controls the SIS. That’s why we have a prime minister. And let’s remember, history buffs, Muldoon’s first acts when he got into power. He tightened up the SIS act, and then transferred Keith Holyoake from his sinecure as “Minister of State” – an invented role – to Governor-General.

Or was it the other way around? With the cutbacks in media research libraries, reporters will have to use some legwork as Wikipedia won’t have the answer.