30 March 2009

Rockin’ in the Milkbars

PIE CART ROCK’N’ROLL, Various Artists (Zerox/FMR, 2006)

Peter Lewis2From this distance it’s difficult to comprehend the moral panic associated with early rock’n’roll in New Zealand. It is no exaggeration to say that just the sight of a greaser with winklepickers would make mothers cover their toddlers in their prams. Tanked dads with RSA badges on their lapels would accusingly spit out “bodgie” with the vehemence of the Jew-hating Nazis they had just fought against. Underage drinking and teenage sex are comparatively condoned now with RTD alco-pops and STDs rampant, but in the mid-1950s they so outraged society there was a Parliamentary commission examining youth morals.

So you have to admire the irrepressible spirit displayed by the primeval New Zealand rock’n’rollers collected on Pie Cart Rock’n’Roll. Despite the social opprobrium (and the difficulty of acquiring instruments or 78s) they were stomping up a storm in the years before the Beatles became the acceptable face of the youth revolution. Compiled with typical obsessive zeal by John Baker, our best rock’n’roll archivist, we can now see how many rebels had a cause. Johnny Devlin stole the headlines with his ready-to-tear stage suits, but hundreds of others were trying to shake, rattle and roll. “Maori Cowboy” Johnny Cooper led the way with ‘Rock Around the Clock’, but his ‘Pie Cart Rock’n’Roll’ spoke more about us: “Rock to the rhythm of the pea, pie, pud.” Peter Lewis’s ‘Four City Rock’ kept up the local content – “They’re rockin’ in the milkbars, rockin’ in the halls / Rockin’ on the sidewalks where the Kiwi rhythm calls” – and the splendid photo (above) shows him to be a brooding Brylcreem king.

Max Merritt and his Meteors still outclass all comers, but there is no shortage of apprentices to the master, or aging bandleaders wanting to stay on the bandwagon (among them Benny’s Five with the timeless ‘Haka Boogie’, and Bob Paris Combo with ‘Dragstrip’). Eddie Howell does a fine Elvis, Glyn Tucker is a Buddy Holly ingenue, and Carole Davies that rarity – a sassy singing widgie. Clyde Scott and the Zanyopolis (‘Gravedigger Rock’) deserve a mention on their name alone, but the unsung heroes are the honking sax players. Howard Morrison is as hokey as ever on ‘Gum Drop’, competent but fake next to the kids at the Putiki marae, Sam Mataparae with his Rockin’ Rockers. These acts and many of their members may now be in the great echo chamber of the sky – and their recordings may owe more to Edison than Sun – but their ghostly sounds live on, as does their legacy, down the hall any Saturday night. - Chris Bourke

Look Who’s Talking

THE CONVERSATIONS: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje (Bloomsbury, 2002).

conversations Film directors are like Napoleon, all-powerful and usually vertically challenged. “But even Napoleon needed his marshals,” says Michael Ondaatje in this book, a series of conversations with leading US film editor Walter Murch. Although just one of hundreds of names seen in the credits when the crowd is filing out of the cinema, the film editor is crucial to turning the director’s vision into a viewable reality. The film editor – and many of the greats have been women, like Anne Coates (Lawrence of Arabia, Out of Sight) or Thelma Schoonmaker (longtime Scorsese editor) – is one of the unsung heroes of the form; they can shape the mood, create the pace, make the story work.

It was when Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient was being turned into a film that he befriended Murch, an intellectual as well as a craftsman. Murch’s talent helped Francis Ford Coppola shape some of the most important American movies of the 1970s: the first two Godfather films, Apocalypse Now, and 1974’s The Conversation.  The latter gives this book its title, and was recently restored. Its very subject matter concentrates the mind on the aural side of film-making; it’s about a sound engineer (Gene Hackman) and specialist in surveillance work who hears of a murder plot. Filmed on a low budget between the first two Godfathers, it encapsulates the issues Murch faces in his job. A simple matter like the clothing a character wears can make the editor’s job easy or impossible. If the costume department insists on strutting its stuff, dressing the lead in a variety of outfits, that limits what an editor can do if the story has to be reconstructed at the editing desk.

Murch came to editing after being a sound editor, and he expounds on the use of music and sound in movies. His work on American Graffiti revolutionised the use of pop in movies. conversation posterMost films now have a relentless soundtrack, either telegraphing narrative punches, crassly manipulating the emotions, or inappropriately creating a merchandising tie-in. “Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids,” says Murch. “It gives you an edge, it gives you speed, but it’s unhealthy for the organism in the long run.”

There’s nothing subtle about mainstream movie making now, and The Conversations returns the audience to the basic craft, inviting them in so their experience is enhanced. It’s the best book about filmmaking since Francois Truffaut's similarly illuminating Hitchcock.

23 March 2009

Sweet Little Sixteen

TEENAGE: the Creation of Youth 1875-1945, by Jon Savage (Chatto & Windus).

teenage2 In September 1944, while pimply GIs were killing and being killed as they trudged towards Berlin, a new magazine was launched back home. Seventeen was niche-marketed towards the girls they had left behind; it aimed to tap into the advertising generated by the $750 million spending capacity of American youth. The magazine’s cover lines described its mix: “Young fashions & beauty, movies & music, ideas & people”. Inside, the zeitgeist was hot-wired to capitalism.

This demographic had always existed, in the neverland between childhood and adulthood, but it was in 1944 that a name for it finally took hold: the teenager. The word had been freely used since the mid-1930s, but now it became the accepted description of the age group. Teenagers were not adolescents, and very few were juvenile delinquents; they were no longer rebels without a name, and they now had a cause: consumerism.

The first celebrity photo spread in Seventeen was of Frank Sinatra, whose shows were causing riots among teenage New York girls. Fashion was the mainstay of the magazine, but it also offered advice to its “adults-in-training”. It was a support for young girls, some of whom could only pour their feelings into their diaries: “Girls my age feel very insecure about themselves and are just beginning to discover that they are individuals with their own ideas, thoughts and habits.”

When Anne Frank wrote that, she was about to celebrate her 15th and last birthday in hiding with her family in a cramped Amsterdam attic. Soon she would die in a concentration camp. In Munich, the last executions of loosely organised teenage resisters to the Nazis were taking place. Whether the non-conformity was politically based – as with Sophie Scholl, guillotined a year before – or behavioural, the Gestapo’s reaction was the same. A member of the Hamburg teenage “swing” set was told during his interrogation, “Anything that starts with Ellington ends with an assassination attempt on the Fuhrer!”

Absurd juxtapositions between the grotesque and the banal are Jon Savage’s stock-in-trade. In this epic survey he leaps between continents and cliques, quoting scholars and scaremongers to show the cultural shifts that lead to the teenager becoming an identifiable demographic. Savage, whose previous major work was the erudite history of punk England’s Dreaming, makes no apologies for favouring the bizarre rather than the bourgeois to make his case.

Youth represents the future, he argues, and “the perennial media typecasting of the adolescent as a genius or a monster continues to encode adult hopes and fears.” teenage rebelTo ignore the iconoclasts for the potential Rotarians is to disengage with the future and misunderstand the nature of youth itself.

Which sounds like an intellectual justification for having your cake and eating it. Savage wallows in the sensational aspects of his topic, while dressing his research up with the verbal exhibitionism beloved by the practitioners of cultural studies. His thesis – that the rise of the teenager began many decades before James Dean, and that battles between rebellious adolescents and controlling adults are as perennial as the accompanying moral panics – is sometimes hard to make out. But, like a hormonal teenager, he has a lot of fun making out.

It is a long journey from the grim post-Civil War era to the word “Teenage” beckoning ahead like a neon light at the end of a yellow brick road. Savage handicaps himself by opening with two 19th century case studies to portray his “teenagers: genius or monster?” argument. One is a young artist who dreams of fame and dies of tuberculosis; the other enjoys his notoriety as a serial child-killer. The pair share more than an era, says Savage: “They forced their respective societies to recognise that … it was no longer adequate to think that adulthood immediately followed childhood: they were the harbingers of a new intermediate state that as yet had no name.”

Just out of the starting gates, Savage leaps back a century to quote Rousseau, who warned that puberty had such a profound effect that it represented “a second birth”. The symptoms? “A change of temper, frequent outbreaks of anger, a perpetual stirring of the mind.” In 1762, no one could hear you scream on Bebo or Facebook.

scouting The flamboyant tangents and connections can be dubious or distracting. Oscar Wilde’s youthcentric Picture of Dorian Grey is followed by the success of Peter Pan, reinforcing the desire for delayed maturity. Boy Scout founder Baden-Powell unveiled his manifesto for a junior, survivalist army just five days before attending the opening of Peter Pan. The future of the beleaguered Empire lay in its enfeebled youth, but that was just one motivation, suggests Savage: the other was BP’s obvious arrested development.

Be prepared was the Scouts’ motto, and while they knew how to shine their shoes when the First World War came along, no one was prepared for the slaughter, which included 3 million adolescents. The Great War begat the great cultural shift: it destroyed the automatic obedience that elders had expected from youth, lead to the decline of the power of the churches, and a rise in juvenile crime and truancy.

It also encouraged young people to live for the present moment: Peter Pan morphs into The Great Gatsby. Christianity and Scouting were no match for actual shelling, and with Prohibition making the law an ass, in the 1920s the Bright Young Things partied.

hitleryouth2 But not in Germany, where Hitler realised that youth was a social force too important to be left to its own devices. Savage is strongest when discussing the success of the Hitler Youth movement and reactions to it in Germany. Here, his links make more sense, as he describes the similarities to Scouting – the militaristic over-tones, the emphasis on preparedness – but with an evil purpose beyond imperialism.

Then the Depression halts the party: 200,000 youth vagabonds roam the back roads of the US, while in Britain, Mosley’s Union of Fascists enjoys a brief popularity.

Back and forth he leaps across the Atlantic, covering conformists and rebels, and giving far more space to the latter. In this history, the cliques in American high schools or the lemming-like Hitler Youth uncharacteristically take the back seat while sub-cults take centre stage. In occupied Paris a group of provocative dandies called the Zazous celebrate American culture while, even more precariously, the Hamburg swing kids do the same in Nazi Germany. In Los Angeles the Hispanic zoot-suiters are beaten up by rioting US sailors, then get arrested. (The Zazous and the zoot-suiters both get their style from the ultimate outsiders, the African-American musicians who also provide the soundtrack.)

With its over-reaching eclecticism, Teenage is maddening but compelling; its 500 densely packed pages are also something of an endurance test. Oddly, for a book describing the discovery of the teenager, they are often seen but not heard. Meanwhile, our hip professor has got diverted emulating Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus’s ostentatious mix of pop culture and politics, or updating Luc Sante’s history of underground culture, Low Life.

Savage brings his panoramic survey to a hurried end, with the Hitler Youth being sacrificed by its cynical masters, and the atom bomb obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the New York Times edition announcing the latter, a news item mentions the first polling company surveying the preferences of US teenagers. The new psychology again promotes living in the moment – enter the existentialists – and to be materially oriented. The teenager was on the ascendant and, with the baby boom already under way, this newly labelled consumer would dominate the next 50 years and beyond. - Chris Bourke

(originally published in the Sunday Star-Times, 2007)

20 March 2009

Smashed Palaces

celluloid_circus_sm The Celluloid Circus: the Heyday of the New Zealand Picture Theatre, by Wayne Brittenden (Godwit, $50).

Reviewed by Chris Bourke

The last time I heard 'God Save the Queen' at the pictures, the film was Dirty Harry. The theatre was the King George on Lower Hutt's High Street; the ticket cost 30c. I remember a man wearing an RSA badge ticking off my gang of 13-year-olds. Maybe we were ostentatiously refusing to stand to attention.

That was in 1973, when some filmgoers still saw standing for the anthem as a requirement of citizenship. After all, our cinemas from Kaitaia to Bluff declared their fealty to the monarchy with names like the Regent, the Majestic, the Kings, the Empire and the Empress. I can hear the drum roll, Fernando.

(This is just a trailer. For the main attraction, go to Scoop Review of Books.)

17 March 2009

Warren of Western Springs

Recently I was talking with someone who hadn't heard of Phil Warren, the groundbreaking Auckland promoter who died early in 2002. My friend was too young for NZBC-TV's Studio One and then overseas for Warren's stint in local politics. But with the perennial constipation in Auckland urban planning, always exacerbated by central government, it's timely to remember that a local politician could be visionary, successful - and good fun. This obit first ran in the NZ Listener on 9 February 2002.

Phil WarrenPhil Warren, Impresario

Irrepressible, imaginative, energetic, brash, provocative, entertaining, Phil Warren had all the ingredients to be a classic demagogue. Instead he used his talents to further his passions: entertainment and the region of Auckland. The two connected often; he believed show business and politics were natural bedfellows. Both require the gift of the gab – and a natural charisma to encourage people to get out and vote for you. He knew the old gag – “politics is show business in drag” – and once put it to use when he booked Diamond Lil for a Labour Party conference. Besides all the acts he booked, all the local body meetings he chaired, in the early 1970s he altered the social fabric of New Zealand when he acted like a one-man lobbyist to change archaic laws that prevented licensed drinking after 10 o’clock. “I always vote for Phil,” an Auckland friend once said. “He’s the only politician who believes people should be allowed to go out at night.”

New Zealand after hours wasn’t closed for Warren when he was a teenager in the 1950s: it was an opportunity. He got his start in the music business at 14, working at the Beggs music store. As soon as he left school, he was on the road, selling instruments. Inspired by his jazz trumpeter uncle Jim, he had learnt the piano and played the drums, but realised very early on that other people had more talent – and his was for guiding and presenting them. By the age of 18, he had his own record label, importing R&B and jazz from small labels in New York and Chicago, dealing with dodgy characters in the murky days of music who nevertheless kept their word.

An album of the corny English musical Salad Days paid many of the bills and he started signing local acts to his label, Prestige. In 1958 a young man from Wanganui changed everything: Johnny Devlin was New Zealand’s Elvis, a genuine phenomenon helped along with stunts worthy of Colonel Parker himself. Warren organised “mini-riots” for the media that almost turned into the real thing; Devlin’s stage clothing was loosely stitched so it fell apart when grabbed by fans. ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ sold nearly 100,000 copies and Devlin’s tours were massively successful. This was indeed the Devil’s music: his band was called the Devils, and one tour featured a female impersonator. There were questions in parliament – politician Mabel Howard jumped on the bandwagon – and to deflect controversy Warren arranged a photo call with visiting evangelist Billy Graham.

An empire worthy of Epstein followed: a talent agency and a touring circuit of coffee lounges and dancehalls: the Crystal Palace, Mojo’s, the Montmartre, Teenarama. Their attractions were revolutionary: espresso coffee, coloured lights, mirror balls. Later on, you knocked three times to enter the Crypt, a place that pushed licensing laws to the limit.

beatleinn He was always quick to see a gap. When the NZBS banned Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”, Warren recorded a version by Herma Keil and the Keil Isles and had a bigger hit. When the Beatles were on their way, he opened the Beatle Inn in downtown Auckland. Open Wednesdays to Sundays, including lunchtimes, it was R18: no one over 18 was allowed in. The resident band was the Merseymen, playing an all-Liverpool dance card; the drummer was called Jet Rink. “He’d go into the phone box, take off his cape and turn into Dylan Taite,” Warren recalled in October. “A good drummer, a good entertainer – and about as good a singer as me.” Warren claimed he registered the Beatles’ name locally before they had done it worldwide, and bundled together agency photos into an album called The Beatles Book. “Hardly original, but we sold about 6000 at 2/6 each.”

Acts that appeared on Kevan Moore’s seminal TV music shows Let’s Go and C’mon weren’t exclusively booked through Warren’s agency, but he was a dominant talent spotter and “synergies” did exist for his clubs and tours. He made sure stars such as Mr Lee Grant or the Chicks played for two audiences: teenagers on the C’mon tours, with cabaret shows for their parents.

In the days of one-channel television, Warren’s appearances on the talent shows Studio One and New Faces gave him a household presence: his role as a judge was to play the “big bad heavy”. At home we could be blunt, picky and outrageous, but Warren said these things out loud. Though his own grooming was curious – trimmed beard topped with a comb-over – beware the contender wearing a lurex dress, a home-knitted cardy or unshined shoes.

He toured Johnny Cash as early as 1959, and later overseas acts such as the Hollies and the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger was “one of the smartest businessmen” he ever met, running the band “like the CEO of a high-tech profitable business operation.” He almost came a cropper booking Robin Gibb for the Redwood 70 festival. Later, Rod Stewart’s Faces trashed the Warren family grand piano on stage – and received a bill for their vandalism.

The Hollies were a catalyst for his next phase, the shift into politics. One of the first acts to play the speedway stadium Western Springs, Warren had booked the Hollies at the cheaper rate for an indoor venue. Seeing the large outdoor crowd, the band refused to go on stage until they had renegotiated their deal. They went on, but the show began Warren’s disgust at the appalling facilities of Western Springs. He had many public arguments with the council, which took his fees for the venue, but didn’t put any money back into the fences or the toilets. “The mayor of the day was dear old Robbie, and he said to me ‘There’s no sense being outside the tent. You must come inside the tent’ – though he didn’t say it as delicately as that.”

His career in local politics – Auckland City councillor, deputy mayor, acting mayor, chairman of the Auckland Regional Council, board member or patron of forums, committees, arts bodies and countless societies – closed the era of Phil Warren as King of Clubland. In the 1970s, the clubs had become post-music hall dens of innuendo with names like Dirty Dicks, Bimbos, Adam’s Apple and Doodles – and acts such as Dave Allen and Dick Emery. They were awful, but we liked them – and they kept Warren’s gold Rolls-Royce on the road. (It was called José, as it was bought from profits of a José Feliciano tour.) In the mid-70s the “one-in-a-million chance” of five shows going bad at once lead to Warren putting his touring company into voluntary liquidation. The days of Barbara Windsor, Patrick Cargill, Tony Christie and the Black and White Minstrel Show making box-office magic were over, but Warren was proud of the way he handled it: he sold his family home and traded his way back so that “100 percent of creditors received 90 cents in the dollar”.

My first sighting of Warren was in his Rolls, sitting outside the Six Month Club – he had sub-let his Ace of Clubs venue just before it was demolished to make way for the Aotea Centre. It was 1985 and he was waiting for Rip It Up's 100th issue party to start, and he looked exactly the way an impresario should look.

Three months ago, in October 2001, he bounded into Radio New Zealand’s Auckland studio for the Saturday morning programme with John Campbell. He had leapt at the offer to play his favourite New Zealand music, and knew why he had been asked. His selections went “way, way back, beyond Dave Dobbyn, the Finn boys and Bic Runga” to his friends the Keil Isles, Vince Callaher and Lou & Simon; he name-checked the composers Ruru Karaitiana, Alfred Hill, Peter Cape, John Hanlon. He was outrageous and passionate, an old trouper stealing the show. He even had a CD to plug ­– his nostalgia collection Play It Again, Phil – and a few days later at Apra's 75th anniversary party Warren admitted he had deliberately prevented the host getting a word in edgeways.

As I walked to work last week through the Auckland that Warren helped turn into a music centre, past the venues now pulled down (he supported the destruction of His Majesty’s, a “rat-infested dump”) or currently operating as dance clubs, it struck me that his last campaign combined his two passions, and went back to the time the Hollies had lead him to politics. Battling Mobil Oil to lower the sulphur content in diesel, he had left Aucklanders a lasting legacy: the air that we breathe.

Flags flew at half-mast over Harbour Bridge the day Warren took his final curtain. At the funeral service, Helen Clark called him a “human dynamo”, Howard Morrison declared he was “the boss” of entertainment, and Dean John Rymer recalled the lurid underwear Warren wore to the gym: “He was showbiz right down to the skin.”