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.


Peter McLennan said...

Hi Chris, thanks for the great post! cheers

Russell Brown said...

Wow. NME was only 30 cents? I'd forgotten.

And thanks, as ever, Chris for another lovely post.