12 December 2010

Blue smoke gets in your eyes

Blue Smoke book cover 100mm x 50mm approxJust what the world needs: another blog. Aren’t they so 2005? But I’ve launched Blue Smoke – the blog to share the stories, elaborations and clarifications that are starting to arrive since the recent publication of the book.

In the latest post, the story of the Maori Elvis, Ray Paparoa: the rock’n’roll prince whose presence is so strong on the cover (that’s him dressed in silk, holding the microphone, snapping his fingers, just above the “belly band”).

07 December 2010

17 November 2010

Where many martyrs fell

Dylan Wilentz UK

BOB DYLAN IN AMERICA, by Sean Wilentz (Bodley Head, $60)

Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton who has written major works on US presidents and democracy. For over 10 years he has also been moonlighting among the low-life as a music essayist specialising in one topic: Bob Dylan. Through his contributions to Dylan’s own website Wilentz was given the title “historian in residence”, as if both parties were bemused by the eminent scholar’s alternative career.

But for Wilentz, the topic of Dylan is almost as big as America itself. His book is a rarity on the groaning bookshelf labelled Dylanology. It isn’t another biography or a train-spotter’s guide (or any of the other sub-genres, which include mad rants), but a series of essays examining the influence US culture and history have had on Dylan’s work. In a wide-ranging, deeply researched argument, Wilentz explains how Dylan is “deeply attuned” to both.

Bob Dylan in America is a historian’s version of Dylan’s Visions of Sin, in which poetry academic Christopher Ricks stayed close to the primary source – Dylan’s lyrics – with a Bible handy. But whereas readers of Ricks needed a PhD in textual analysis, Wilentz remembers to put the story in history. He sees long connections, many of them intricately interweaved. Some of his choices are surprising and many readers will happily indulge him.

Like Dylan’s memoir Chronicles Vol 1, the structure is unpredictable. Wilentz chooses moments in Dylan’s career that aren’t immediately obvious: there is no examination of going electric, Highway 61 Revisited, the “Basement Tapes” or Blood on the Tracks. He begins in Greenwich Village, where the young Robert Zimmerman reinvented himself as Bob Dylan, orphan offspring of Woody Guthrie. Wilentz connects Dylan with another artist of the left’s Popular Front movement, composer Aaron Copland: both are musical magpies of the American vernacular. In recent years, Dylan has gone on stage to an excerpt from Copland’s “Hoedown”. The link seems fresh but tenuous, and Wilentz is on safer ground when examining Dylan’s relationship to the Beat writers, especially his long friendship with an awestruck Allen Ginsberg.

Wilentz leaps about like Dr Who, touching down in 1964 on Dylan’s Chaplinesque concert at the New York Philharmonic (which he witnessed aged 13); the recording sessions of Blonde and Blonde, the climax of 1960s-era Dylan (the closest the book gets to rock music journalism); and the chaotic, carnival atmosphere of the Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975, in which Dylan toured with guests from his past such as Joan Baez and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.

Blind Willie McTellIt is when discussing the last 20 years that Wilentz really hits his stride. After Dylan’s desultory 1980s – which he began as a hectoring Christian, and produced albums of little worth – he reinvented himself (again) by going back, way back. He released Good as I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, two albums that covered folk and early American standards that were dismissed at the time by US critics (though I remember them being championed by Sam Hunt and Barry Saunders). As Wilentz explains – with detailed explorations into old murder ballads and singers such as Blind Willie McTell – these albums can now be seen as the key to Dylan’s current creative burst, which first bore fruit on 1997’s Time Out of Mind. He followed up that foreboding masterpiece with “Love & Theft”, an album with a sense of humour and history that swung like Howlin’ Wolf croaking along to a Bob Wills big band.

History – in his subject matter, and his musical arrangements – has been central to Dylan’s work ever since. To the Americana genre, his latest phase may prove to be as influential as his 1960s prime. The 100 episodes of the Theme Time Radio Hour revealed Dylan as a DJ with musical tastes that were encyclopaedic and eclectic (and one with a gang of producers behind the scenes). This is reflected in his recent albums, Modern Times (his ’60s stage humour was often called Chaplinesque), Together Through Life (in which he revisits Desolation Row as a wise old drunk) and last year’s Christmas in the Heart (another surprise to many – he sounded like Bing Crosby with throat cancer – but not to Wilentz, who connects it with Dylan’s 1940s childhood in the Midwest).

Bob Dylan in America is a dense, rewarding work that leaps about but clarifies the social and historic context of Dylan’s idiosyncratic oeuvre. It is a rare music book that will come off the shelf often, to be consulted in perpetuity, as its insights are too rich to be digested at one sitting.

Originally published at Beattie’s Book Blog

27 October 2010

Dwang me

stairsA quote often used as a lazy slur on music criticism is that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” As they used to say in journalism school, this is one cliche that should be avoided like the plague.

I have most often seen the quote attributed to Frank Zappa. Others given the credit include Laurie Anderson, William Burroughs, Elvis Costello and even Thelonious Monk. After extensive research, Alan Scott finds that the quip first emerged from the mouth of US satirist Martin Mull. Another blogger, Mike Johnston, sought and received confirmation from Mull himself.

Nimmos buildingWalking the streets researching New Zealand’s popular music, including the venues at which it was played, I have often thought my recent book is as much about architecture as music. Buildings such as those that housed the Peter Pan and Dixieland Point Chevalier may be long gone, but some still hold on grimly: the St James on Queen St, the original Dixieland on Queen (now Real Groovy Records), the Crystal Palace on Mt Eden Road. In Wellington, the former Nimmo’s Building (now housing Wholly Bagels) on Willis Street glowers at the kitsch 1980s neighbourhood bully, the Majestic Centre, that obliterated its former dancing partner, the Majestic Cabaret.

14 October 2010

Fix it in the mix

Alongside the 1988 Tex Pistol profile in Rip It Up was a story describing the production of a television jingle. At the time the Fairlight synthesiser was cutting-edge technology for sampling music. It enabled the sampling of real instruments, which could then be played using the piano keyboard. From memory, they cost around $150,000 NZD and could record 16 polyphonic voices, and a sample length of about two minutes. Its competitor the Emulator was cheaper and simpler, but its samples were only 30 seconds long. Ian Morris enjoyed making music for advertising – his showreel is here – it was the industry he found frustrating.

IMAGINE BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN driving across America … in a Honda Civic.” It’s 10pm at Wellington’s Soundtrax Studios, where Ian Morris aka Tex Pistol, Callie Blood and Jim Hall are producing a jingle for a skin cancer cream.

Hall is explaining why one idea – to use Springsteen’s ‘Cover Me’ – wouldn’t work. “Cover me? Springsteen never gets out of his car!”

Fairlight Hall is in the production seat for this job, while Morris engineers and operates the Fairlight synthesiser. Blood, who wrote the jingle, concentrates on the vocal which is being sung by Rikki Morris – of ‘Nobody Else’ fame – in his first commercial appearance. The session’s only been going an hour, but already Rikki’s vocal track is almost complete: squeaky pop over a backing that recalls Georgie Fame’s ‘Yeh Yeh’.

The 30-second jingle extolling the virtues of UV cream quickly becomes embedded in the consciousness, as Ian coaxes his brother through take after take: “Hold that G … make that hot hotter … one more time for Ringo.”

What’s really remarkable is the speed and competence of the work. Morris decides to double-track the vocal as an experiment. He slows down the tape, then Rikki adds another vocal at a lower pitch. At normal speed the jingle sounds as poppy as a Madonna single.

“What we really want,” grins Hall, “is someone blonde and unreasonably young – like Kylie Minogue. ‘I could be so sunburnt …’ ”

Main vocal complete, the musical magpies pick up guitars to work out some fills. Morris plays a line from Exile On Main Street’s ‘Shake Your Hips’, while Hall tries out familiar licks from With the Beatles.

Time for the backing vocals. In walk Annie Crummer and Barbara Griffin, moonlighting from the Holidaymakers’ album sessions taking place in Marmalade Studios next door. Hall plays the backing melodies on his guitar, and within half an hour Blood, Crummer and Griffin have oo’ed and ah’d three-part harmonies. Morris alters the parts of the final chord; the result echoes the famous dissonance that ends ‘She Loves You’.

Vocals down, it’s still only 11pm as the final touches are recorded. There’s some garbage in there, I think it’s the hi-hats,” says Hall. He wants some holes in the final mix, but proceeds to pack more into the jingle. “I think it needs some warm Georgie left hand,” he says, quickly working out a piano part and recording it. “Maybe a sax fill.” Hall works out a riff and records it. “Is that too much like the original?” he thinks aloud.

Meanwhile Morris is tapping away at the Fairlight, fine-tuning tracks already recorded, changing instruments at the flick of a switch from Hammond organ to Yamaha piano to church organ. He decides the opening is a bit limp, so quickly finds a metallic drum sound, works it into a fanfare … and the result booms out like the start of Hawaii Five-O.

“I think I know a way to get bagpipes in there,” muses Hall, but three hours after they began, it’s all been completed: ‘Melanoma with Matt Bianco.’

11 October 2010

Like nobody else

The death of Ian Morris is a major shock for his family, friends and music people throughout New Zealand. Certainly there is nobody who taught me more about pop music. He had phenomenal ears, great taste, the talent to realise his ideas – and could be extremely opinionated and funny. This editorial speaks of how fondly he was regarded in his new home, Hawke’s Bay. This Rip It Up profile comes from the time of his Tex Pistol album Nobody Else, and I post it here to convey what went on in that eclectic musical mind.

A conversation with Ian was always an education: he could play any record and change your perception of it. In a perfect world, he would have been a brilliant teacher at one of the many “Schools of Rock” that now exist. At the very least, he would have been as quoted as Jim Dickinson. Instead, we have the records, and the writing at his website. There was a lot more to him than music, but to get an idea of his outlook, I especially recommend Rock’n’roll/Not rock’n’roll, 62 Expressions to Avoid in a Recording Studio and the musical samples from his boxes of demos and outtakes.

A two-part Musical Chairs doco on Ian Morris is available on the Radio New Zealand site, thanks to Liisa’s initiative and Rianz clearing the music rights. Part one goes from childhood to Cool Bananas; part two covers Tex, the Warratahs, ‘Mr Wolf’ and jingles.

This Gun’s for Hire

By Chris Bourke, Rip It Up, November 1988

Ian Morris on RIU 11 “I changed my name in search of fame to find the Midas touch,” sang Mott the Hoople, perhaps the greatest influence on all those young Dudes. It’s ironic that after a long and varied career in music, Ian Morris should receive most recognition for a busman’s holiday called Tex Pistol.

Now 31, he’s been an engineer (the classic Hello Sailor albums, plus lots worth forgetting), a producer (Cool Bananas, the Meemees album, and lots he wants to forget), and a band member (Th’ Dudes, Pink Flamingos, DD Smash). This month Nobody Else – his first solo album – comes out, still using that cowboy moniker.

“Ian Morris just doesn’t sound poppy enough,” he explains. His first solo project, a single called ‘Boot Up (Let X = Y)’ was done in 1983 using his nickname Jag Moritz. It disappeared without a trace. Morris’s next project was a cowboy epic, so a different name seemed appropriate. Tex Pistol. It had the same hokey flavour as the song, ‘The Ballad of Buckskin Bob’. When released on Pagan in ’86, it also disappeared. But Tex Pistol won the Most Promising Male Vocalist award.

Now happy to be stuck with Tex, ‘The Game is Love’ followed, and the rest is history. It shot to #1, reaching the top on the day when the shops ran out of stock. The follow-up ‘Nobody Else’ also made #1, once again only for a week: U2’s ‘Desire’ was an unstoppable juggernaut.

“Tex started off as a joke, a one-off cowboy thing, and it’s still very much an after-hours hobby,” says Morris. The separate persona suits the musician, whose day-job is now producing music for advertising. “I like Tex in that I can hide behind it. We get clients coming in, people I’ve known for years, saying ‘Who is Tex Pistol?’. They don’t realise it’s me, which is great.”

Morris has a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to success. He experienced our version of pop stardom in Th’ Dudes and DD Smash, and a lot of it wasn’t much fun. “I’ve toured the country a million times. So I don’t envy someone like Ardijah who’ve just put out a fantastic single – but what next? It’s a career move for them, but it’s not for me, which is the advantage I have.”

Nobody Else came about when Pagan’s Trevor Reekie suggested there was enough material for an album. “I thought, oh, that sounds like a bit of self-indulgent pleasure, I’ll have a go,” says Morris, “but in the end, I had to really force myself to go in to do it. Because working all day on a Farmer’s jingle, then having to go back at night to record 140 acoustic guitar parts for the album wasn’t a whole lot of fun. But I didn’t want it to drag on for years and years, I didn’t want it to become an audio Stranded in Paradise – eternally updating and revising.”

The result is a diverse work that, Morris thinks, conforms to the original meaning of album: a collection of songs. “Much as I love ‘Bad Medicine’ by Bon Jovi, all their songs have the same drum sound, the same guitar sound, the same vocal echo, the same overall concept. This doesn’t.”

Nobody Else is certainly a diverse display of Morris’s talents and tastes. He’s a fan of pure pop and productions expansive and sparse. The album’s got a sense of history and humour, and reflects his love of country and classic New Zealand songs. It shows a perfectionist with a commercial ear revelling in the craft of making music.

MORRIS’S RECORD COLLECTION is the best guide to where Tex comes from. He’s got boxes of singles, hundreds of 45s in shocking condition but alphabetical order: Abba’s ‘Mamma Mia’ right through to ... yes! The Zombies’ ‘She’s Not There’ and Zager and Evans’s ‘In the Year 2525’. But there are also Frank Ifield and Cliff Richard hits from his English childhood, and a New Zealand collection that goes from Ash Burton’s ‘Tea at Te Kuiti’ through the La De Das, Fourmyula and Space Waltz to Golden Harvest and the Features.

Ian Morris Hataitai 11Ian Morris, Akautangi Way, Hataitai, November 1988.

Mono copies of albums by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are worn out from teenage years playing them at 16 rpm to learn off the lead breaks. Also from the ’60s, Georgie Fame and Gene Pitney. But the ’70s are of equal importance: Mott the Hoople, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop. More especially Elvis Costello and Todd Rundgren. Plus, the country section: Bob Wills, Gram Parsons, stacks of George Jones. All make an impact on Nobody Else.

Producers: Phil Spector, George Martin, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Mickie Most, Jimmy Miller, Tony Visconti, Chinn-Chapman, Richard Perry, Dave Edmunds, Guy Stevens, Nick Lowe. “All great pop songs have a colourful image. You get a picture in your mind’s eye. Think of some people, you get a very dark two-dimensional image of what they’re doing – all very serious. Think of Sgt Pepper, it’s a tapestry of sound. The songs were great, but it’s the sound of them that has so much character. Sonic painting.”

Pure Pop for Now People. Abba: “Brilliant songs, great melodies. The lyrics – who cares? Just the sound: ‘Ma Ma (chang chang) Waterloo!’ Great sound.” Tomorrow’s Hits Today. Current faves: “ ‘Drop the Boy’ by Bros and Bon Jovi’s ‘Bad Medicine’.”

What about cover versions, Yesterday’s Hits Today? 1988’s worst: Everything But the Girl’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’. “She [Tracey Thorn] has done it exactly the same, only she can’t sing.” And the Breakfast Club’s ‘Drive My Car’. “It’s always hard to do Beatles songs, to capture that feel. Think of the good ones: Elton John, Joe Cocker. Even Ray Charles couldn’t do ‘Yesterday’.

“In my first band, with Peter Urlich, we used to play Eastern Suburbs rugby clubs. Chillum. Peter thought of that. Jeans above the navel and curly hair. We used to play rugby dos, farmers’ daughter’s weddings. Stones’ songs. Chuck Berry, Creedence. Lots of rock’n’roll, but no Beatles. It’s like people doing Dave Dobbyn songs. Only Dave can do them.

“The day the term singer-songwriter was termed was a dark day for music … People forgot that music is entertainment – above all else.”

“People frown on doing covers. I have endless discussions with Trevor. He loves originals. I’m chuffed ‘Nobody Else’ is an original too. But look at Ella Fitzgerald. In those days, Cole Porter would write a song then everyone would have a bash at doing it. There are no definitive versions – maybe Frank Sinatra’s version – but everyone had a bash.”

Ken Avery, who composed ‘Tea at Te Kuiti’ and many other novelty songs in the ’50s, bemoaned the effect of the Beatles: suddenly you were dead as a songwriter unless you could perform as well. Although Morris co-wrote Th’ Dudes songs and half of Nobody Else, he agrees. “The day the term singer-songwriter was termed was a dark day for music. All of a sudden you had no credibility unless you were moaning about your own particular problems. People forgot that music is entertainment – above all else.

“I listen to Paul Kelly and think it’d be great to write an album of fantastically honest Ian Morris songs. I could, but it would be a heap of old toss. I’m more into interpreting things.”

What about the witty references to the past: ‘Sweet Dreams’ strings, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ percussion, ‘Respect’ BVs, ‘Here There and Everywhere’ and ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ chord changes? “There’s two things happening there. A couple of the songs are pastiche, in the truest sense of the word: sending it up and adoring it at the same time. That’s ‘I Don’t Know What Came Over Me’, which is wearing a bit thin, but what the heck. Also any musician is only the sum of his or her influences and their interpretation of them. That’s why Rikki’s song (‘Nobody Else’) is pretty Beatles-ish. And country music is mongrel music – there’s no musical form that hasn’t influenced country. It’s part of the way music evolves, people say, ‘Ooh, that’s great, let’s do this with it.’ The steals are obvious. Rappers are the biggest thieves, and so boring. They probably think country’s boring.”

“Producers have to rehearse the band, chop songs around, throw things out, say to the bass player, ‘You’re useless – fuck off.’ ”

Working in the ad industry, is he torn by the way jingles exploit great music? “No, not at all. I always end up thinking about the geezer who wrote the song. I don’t think I’d ever let ‘My Old Friend’ become a beer ad. It’s my choice. Maybe if I needed the money. But if Bobby Womack really wants $5000 from Brut for ‘It’s All Over Now’, it’s up to him. Mick and Keith won’t let any of their songs be used – they don’t want $10,000 from New Zealand.” It’s when the remakes are badly done and the client tries to shove his chemical formula for soap powder into the lyrics that he takes offense.

Production is a mis-used term, says Morris. “On my passport, it says ‘audio producer’ because it’s such a broad term. I do engineering, write songs, produce, make audio.” George Martin was the first producer to be an influence, Alan Parsons the first engineer. ‘When I started at Stebbing’s, ‘Year of the Cat’ was the studio song. Walk into a new studio and you’d put on Al Stewart to check the monitors.

“But Parsons was more a good engineer than a producer. That’s where people get confused, they mistake a sparkly bright sound as good production. Paul Streekstra [at Auckland’s Harlequin studio] used to get great sound, much better than me. But producers have to rehearse the band, chop songs around, throw things out, say to the bass player, ‘You’re useless – fuck off.’ They’ve got to talk to the record company. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. And a lot of psychology. Every performer has a quality curve: you’ve got to be aware of when they’re not getting any better.”

The next producer Morris followed was Guy Stevens, who did Mott the Hoople and later the Clash’s London Calling. “His production was the antithesis of George Martin in that he got the band completely pissed and speeding out of their tits. If you put on London Calling the bass drum is a flabby, horrible sound, but it just jumps out at you. A fantastic alive sound that captures the band in all its dimensions. After I heard Guy Stevens, I produced a record by the Furys, which I love. It’s terrible, sounds awful but it’s got a great band sound. Which harks back to guys like Sam Phillips. He just got people to turn on a really great performance.”

HOW DID Morris become a producer? Leaving school, he answered an advertisement in the New Zealand Herald: Engineer Wanted. He became the “bum boy” at Stebbing’s Studios, the Abbey Road of Herne Bay. “It was like growing up in the BBC, because they did everything perfectly. It was a great way to learn, because once you know the ground rules you can break them.”

His awareness of pop production was sharpened during the late ’70s when he engineered, with Rob Aickin producing, some classic moments in local rock: albums by Hello Sailor and Th’ Dudes, ‘I Need Your Love’ by Golden Harvest. “I got a lot of my commercial ear from Rob. He wasn’t really a musician, he just recognised a good blend of sound. A great snare drum, good sounding vocal and a good hook was all he was after. But after I left Stebbing’s he carried on and did a couple of things I thought were terrible. They had a great snare drum, good hook, good sounding vocal, but really crappy songs. You do need a good song.”

Special moments: Golden Harvest. “They were pure pop, the songs were written as three-minute singles. Verse chorus hook – your classic pop song.”

Hello Sailor. “We tried to mould the songs into singles: ‘Gutter Black’, ‘Blue Lady’. We double-tracked the guitars, the saxes, cut things out of the middle. But they weren’t three-minute singles. They’re classic New Zealand songs, but not classic pop songs like ‘Tiger Feet’ by Mud [1974], which is. ‘Blue Lady’ isn’t.”

Still, people always ask about that ‘Gutter Black’ drum sound. “I’d just heard Low by David Bowie, where the snare drum is put through a harmoniser on every track. We didn’t have a harmoniser but we had a mechanical flanger. So I put a mic down the end of this huge studio, played the snare through some big speakers at the other end, then put it through the flanger. It’s just a big drum sound. It was an experimental time.”

“I realised that not only had I put the kitchen sink in there, I’d put the blender and the electric knife in as well.”

Especially for Th’ Dudes, whose second album particularly shows an eclectic blend of influences. “It was great, being able to work with your own stuff like that, but it was very hierarchical: Dave and I at the top, then Peter, then the rhythm section, Bruce and Lez. But it was very much Dave and my ideas in the end.

“Our strengths? Probably what they are now – Dave writes some great lyrics and great songs and I put them together, sonically. On those days we were throwing the extraneous in. We’d think, ‘Oh that’s a great lick, we’ll have to use that.’ So it ended up being a real porridge. Far too many things going on. But there’s some good stuff there.”

Post Dudes, Morris and Dobbyn (“Mordobb”) honed their craft on ‘Lipstick Power’, Dobbyn’s first solo single. “It’s such a weird song. It’s pure Dave. About four or five bits of songs pieced together. Like modular homes, you just join ’em together. For the B-side [the Isley Brothers’ ‘Behind the Painted Smile’] we were trying to capture the early Diana Ross sounds, the handclaps like the Supremes, so we put on our metal-tipped shoes, went into the studio, banged on some boards and went clap clap clap.”

In the early ’80s, Morris became Auckland’s producer-about-town, working with countless local bands: Naked Spots Dance, Tin Syndrome, Shadowfax, Gurlz. And the Meemees album, If This is Paradise … I’ll Take the Bag. “It was a very transitional album for them. So their next single, ‘Stars in My Eyes’, which I didn’t do, was their most critically acclaimed, because they’d done the album. It was funny because we’d gone into the studio to record a single, but they were just so bad I sent them home to rehearse for two weeks. But they had very simple songs, and it was a great exercise to take these very simple songs and throw these hooks into them. But then again that’s a very porridgy album.

“I realised that not only had I put the kitchen sink in there, I’d put the blender and the electric knife in as well. Then I started listening to Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, and it became apparent it was the arrangement that mattered. I think that culminated in ‘The Game of Love’ because that was a very sparse arrangement, there’s not one note that shouldn’t be there. The tendency when recording is to say, ‘It’s still not right, what should I add to make it better?’ Now I think, ‘What should I get rid of?’ ”

Apart from the Furys, the project has fondest memories of is recording the Taihape band Daggy and the Dickheads in 1982. He often joined them on stage and covers two of their songs on Nobody Else.

“We just hit it off. It was just the honesty, and it was an occasion where the spirit in the studio actually came out on the vinyl. The Dickheads reminded me of those days of playing at the Eastern Suburbs Rugby Club, when we just got up and played Chuck Berry and had a real good time ... and they’re huge characters.”

Ian Morris and Al Hunter CB 1989 Ian Morris as Tex Pistol, with
Al Hunter, January 1989

Another thing Nobody Else inherits from country music is its air of mateship. The title track is written and sung by Morris’s younger brother Rikki, an ex-Crocodile. There’s a Steve Earle-ish cover of the Warratahs’ ‘Hands of My Heart’ on which vocalist Barry Saunders appears. John Mayall’s ‘Sitting in the Rain’ was a hit for the Underdogs, the band of Auckland jingle writer Murray Grindlay. ‘Buckskin Bob’ (by fellow Dude Lez White) and ‘Winter’ were both in the Dickheads’ repertoire. Morris’s ‘My Old Friend’ features a duet with the Dickheads’ Mark Kennedy, and his ‘W11 to Whanarua Bay’ is a rock’n’roll romp about a reunion.

The most satisfying thing about the album? “Getting it finished. And I think Rikki is going to be huge. I think part of the problem with Rikki is that I was his brother. It’s probably taken me a while to stand back from his work and look at him objectively. I always like his songs; years ago we were going to do something together. Maybe one of his songs will be the next single. Who can say what Rikki would have done if he hadn’t been my brother? He may never have recorded anything. So I guess I’ve both helped and hindered him.”

What next for Tex? “Because it’s not a career move, it’s a hard one. Sometimes I think I might just drop Tex and concentrate on Rikki, because he’s a songwriter, or rather more consistent and prolific than me.”

AFTER YEARS working in the backroom, or the backline of a band, Morris says the response to Tex is heartening. “Oh yeah, it’s a buzz. But the biggest buzz is that people on the street like it. You can get all the awards and all the good reviews in the world, but it means shit if the people on the street don’t like it. That meant a lot to me with ‘Game of Love’ and [‘Nobody Else’] so much to Rikki – he played a lunchtime concert at a school in Otara and the kids just went wild! That’s the great part of it. Getting a good review, sure it bolsters the ego, but in an unsatisfying egotistical way, where you think you’re doing a Great Work, which is a load of crap. But when some kid down the road likes it, it’s a real heart-warming boost. You don’t think, Wow, I’m great – you just wonder at it.

“You live in such an isolated community. That was always the problem when I was producing so many bands. I just couldn’t make them see. I’d say, ‘Let’s leave that bit out of the song, it’ll work better.’ They’d say, ‘No, my girlfriend really likes that bit. And that’s why they’re making that record: for their girlfriend or for themselves to have a piece of vinyl with their name on it. It’s a complete waste of time. As Willie Nelson says, ‘You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothin’ to say.’

“I obviously didn’t make ‘The Game of Love’ for myself. But don’t ask me why I make records. I don’t like to think about it: the answer’s probably fairly insecure.”

Rock’n’roll’s a loser’s game

It mesmerises and I can’t explain

The reasons for the sights and sounds

The grease paint still sticks to my face

So what the hell? I can’t erase

The rock’n’roll feeling from my mind.

– Mott the Hoople, ‘Ballad of Mott’

Chalkie in the Upper Mids

Ian Morris as engineer or producer: some selections (a list in progress)

Th’ Dudes: ‘Walking in Light’, ‘Bliss’, ‘Right First Time’

Al Hunter: ‘Blue Skies Waiting for Me’ (with Jim Hall)

Southside of Bombay: ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf?’

Hello Sailor: ‘Disco’s Dead’ (with Rob Aickin)

Dave Dobbyn: ‘Behind the Painted Smile’, ‘Just Add Water’, ‘Feel Someone Else’s Pain’

DD Smash: ‘Devil You Know’, ‘Guilty’

Warratahs: ‘Tightrope’

Warratahs: ‘Akautangi Way’

Daggy & the Dickheads: 'Winter’

Tex Pistol: ‘Ballad of Buckskin Bob’, ‘Boot Hill Drag’, ‘Winter’, ‘My Old Friend’

Jukebox Jury

Ian Morris: the singles collection (to be continued)

George Jones: ‘She Thinks I Still Care’, ‘Good Year for the Roses’

Leon Russell (as Hank Wilson): ‘Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms

Frank Sinatra: ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’

Paul McCartney and Wings: ‘Silly Love Songs

Abba: ‘Waterloo

Mud: ‘Tiger Feet

Dr John: ‘Let’s Make a Better World’

Elvis Presley: ‘Suspicious Minds

Elvis Costello: ‘Baby It’s You’ (with Nick Lowe)

Ella Fitzgerald: ‘Don’t Fence Me In

Jerry Lee Lewis: ‘39 and Holding’, ‘Over the Rainbow

Keith West: ‘Excerpt from a Teenage Opera’ (aka "Grocer Jack")

King Solomon

Solomon Burke, RIP – an interview from 2002.

Solomon in red When Solomon Burke makes an entrance, it’s obvious that royalty has arrived. I once witnessed the self-proclaimed King of Rock’n’Soul take the stage. It was just a few blocks from Chicago’s Chess Studios, on the fabled Michigan Avenue. Solomon was resplendent in an ecclesiastical purple cloak with gold trimmings. A crown sat atop his pompadour, but eclipsing it all was his massive scarlet suit, which needed a volume control of its own.

Solomon Burke is a giant, in all respects, as testified by the hits he rattled through that night: ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’, ‘Cry to Me’ (both covered by the Stones), ‘If You Need Me’, ‘Just Out of Reach’ … he came across like an affable, hammy Don Corleone, making an offer no one could refuse: he was the Godfather of Groove.

Nearly 15 years later, I’m wondering what to call him in a conversation about his just-released Don’t Give Up On Me. Given his royal status, perhaps it should be Your Highness? “You can call me anything you want,” he says, “except James Brown and Bobby Womack.” Solomon then chuckles at his own joke; his laugh is slow and a little wheezy, but has all the hearty warmth of his legendary voice. Jerry Wexler described it as “an instrument of exquisite sensitivity”, but Solomon is also legendary for being a preacher, a bishop in the House of God for All People, a licensed mortician fond of Six Feet Under, the father of 21 children and an entrepreneur with notorious cheek.

Solomon Burke, c1968A few months back, Burke took a phone call from someone wanting him to join Fat Possum. Having just been asked to join the Big Bears, he thought it was a football team looking for a mascot – and money. Instead it was the manager of the hip blues label, offering to record Solomon singing tunes especially written for him by some fans; people with names like Dan Penn, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Van Morrison and Tom Waits.

Burke was a little dubious, but agreed to meet the intended producer Joe Henry (Scar) at a Jewish deli in LA. “They have the best lox and eggs and bagels you could ever find … I’m thinking, Lord God, this guy is kinda young, can he handle it?” Then Henry ordered hash browns smothered in onions, scrambled eggs with lots of cheese. “The waitress asks, ‘What kind of cheese?’ Joe says, ‘Cheddar cheese, American cheese, whatever – and I want two pork chops fried crispie – with a side order of gravy.’ And I’m thinking, This is our producer! This is the man! He is the man!”

Henry was born in North Carolina so he could talk Southern culture with Burke: ham, grits and biscuits. And musically they clicked as well; in only four days Henry captured a greasy Southern soul sound. He knew what he wanted – “something between The Band’s Music from Big Pink and Sam Cooke’s Nightbeat” – and when Billy Preston couldn’t make the gig, he crucially augmented the young band with an organist from Burke’s church.

“Brother Rudy Copeland is 29 years old, blind but a great player with a fantastic sense of humour. He came in and made the whole session. A beautiful situation. I said just follow me babe, do what we do in church.

“If the organist feels you, they can project that spiritual reality type of feeling with whatever you do. If you’re singing …” – and here Solomon starts serenading ‘Ole Man River’ down the phone – “the organ swells and it’s like strings and flugelhorns working together all on one chord.”

Solomon Burke, Tom Dowd, Jerry Wexler, 1968Solomon Burke at the microphone with Atlantic’s Arif Mardin, Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler, c1965

Solomon thanks the Lord, with good reason. “I’m so proud I was chosen to make this record,” he says, but the feeling was shared. Elvis Costello wasn’t satisfied with just posting in his apocalyptic art ballad ‘The Judgment’, he had to drop by the session. “He didn’t say anything to the engineers, he just came into the studio where I was and said, ‘Hi, I’m Elvis’. Everyone else was running round saying ‘Elvis is here! Elvis is here!’ I thought, these people have cracked up. I thought maybe they were seeing a reincarnation of Elvis Presley. Then with that great accent of his, he says, ‘Hi my name is Elvis Costello – did you do my song yet?’ ”

Solomon hadn’t even heard it – “For a minute it was, hold it, the guy might take the song back” – but Costello sat down and sang it for him. “I’m sitting there getting a free concert from Elvis Costello. I’m thinking, give me a camera, someone take a picture quick.” Costello described how he’d written it: with his wife, he’d taken a line from Burke’s ‘The Price’, from 1964. He said, “It’s our favourite song – ‘where the price ends, the judgment begins’. And bam! It was, Give me the song!”

Burke doesn’t have any problems combining his work in the church with his work on stage. “They’re all one. It’s all God’s music – depends on how you proclaim it and name it and how you deliver it. And I try to deliver every one of these things with a message: a song of love, a song of happiness, a song of joy. And the secret of the ministry is to preach good news: that’s the gospel, and every one of these songs has a good-news message.” As the Tom Waits song suggests, just keep a diamond in your mind. “That’s a great song. Don’t think small of yourself, think big: something that’s not going to wear out, that you can put a price on. Put a diamond in your mind; keep your diamond in your mind.”

Burke oozes sincerity – as a televangelist, he’d be bigger than Telethon – and so he should. He’s been a preacher since he first took to the pulpit in his family church at the age of seven. At 12 he was broadcasting his “radio ministry” regularly. It’s no wonder that the title song brought along by his old friend Dan Penn especially touched a chord. “For him to come up with that song was a mindblower! Because it not only says, don’t give up on me. It also says, don’t give up on you. We all fall short, we all have bad days, nobody’s perfect, but there’s always tomorrow. And as long as you believe there’s a tomorrow, there’ll be a tomorrow.”

Once again it’s time for Solomon Burke to swap his cassock for a cape and switch the altar to a stage. He thanks the Lord for his good fortune – and the rest of us can only add, Amen.

First published in Real Groove, July 2002.

27 September 2010

Quid Pro Quo

Igg Pop on Word cover Mark Ellen, editor and/or co-founder of Mojo, Q, Smash Hits and now his own (independent) The Word, writes in the latest issue:

I'll never forget being taken for lunch by the new MD of all the titles I was involved with at EMAP [publishing behemoth], a tiny little man who looked like Mr Burns from The Simpsons.

“Why are there so few five-star reviews in Q magazine?” he enquired.

Because there are so few five-star records.

“So five-star reviews have enormous value?”

They do indeed.

“Why don’t we sell them then? If people want five stars, they can pay for them.”

It was going to be a long lunch. And the starters hadn’t even arrived.

15 September 2010

I’ll have what she’s having

The Blind Institute has made an undervalued contribution to New Zealand music. It spent years training its students to be piano tuners, and great musicians such as Julian Lee, Joe and Claude Papesch, Tai Paul and Stewart Gordon passed through its doors. And the long-lasting Radars combo, whose 30 year career – which included backing Ricky May – included a stint in the 1990s playing at the Gluepot’s corner bar. I wonder if the Institute’s annual ball swung like this.

Found at the Oxford American site, where you can also witness Roy Head, “the Good Ole Boy version of James Brown”.

14 September 2010

19 August 2010

Temple of Low Men

“Pulp Fiction” is the headline of this cartoon strip in a recent Sydney Morning Herald. “The All Blacks,” it explains, “decide the Wallabies are no longer worthy of the haka and prepare a new version to Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’.”

Read the rest here. I can’t imagine a New Zealand newspaper being so good-natured towards the Australian rugby team when the All Blacks were down on their luck. But if they were, to which tune? ‘Saturday On My Mind’? 'The Ball is in the Air’?  ‘Up and Under’? ‘Ears are Burning’? ‘Ruckless’?


Spotted by: Pat of Beijing

17 August 2010

Career opportunities

Max Merritt

One of the most perceptive interviewees for my Crowded House book was an Australian roadie called Geoff Lloyd. When I asked him for an interview he said, “Sure. I was lucky – I was on the up escalator.” He worked with them as the band evolved from wannabes to touring the US in their own bus.

This advertisement, from a UK music magazine in April, 1976, epitomises the “up escalator”. At the Nashville, now a Kensington gastro pub, the 101ers are headlining for £1. Soon they would evolve into the Clash. On the 3rd they are double-billed with the Sex Pistols who, three weeks later, are reduced to a support act, their name appearing in tiny type. Other acts appearing that month include the Stranglers, AC/DC and the wonderfully named Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra.

But who is on the night after the Sex Pistols have been reduced to a support act? Max Merritt and the Meteors, regarded by many as the greatest R&B band to emerge from Australia and New Zealand. Max would have just reached top floor with his hit ‘Slipping Away’. On the up escalator were moments like this:

Advert spotted at the great blog RockPopFashion

16 August 2010

In the Ghetto

Thirty-three years ago today I was on a bus going through Wellington when I spotted the Evening Post’s billboard for that night’s paper. THE KING IS DEAD, it said in a huge typeface. Below, in smaller letters: ELVIS PRESLEY R.I.P. He was 42. This piece on Elvis’s oft-maligned 1960s recordings was first published in Real Groove in 1993.

elvis hawaii

ELVIS wasn’t everywhere in the mid-60s. But I would come across him some Saturday afternoons, when my brother would dub me on his bike, with my sister and the kids next door trailing behind, down to the Deluxe theatre in Lower Hutt.

Before we settled in to watch Carry on Constable, Robin Hood or It’s a Mad Mad Mad World, there’d be some shorts: usually, a widescreen trailer for Lawrence of Arabia, and some scenes from the latest Elvis flick.

There he would be, guitar in hand, singing along to a hidden orchestra; on the back of a truck, on a boat, a horse, or with a hula hoop around his hips. He seemed from another age, and was definitely uncool. But that wasn’t the reason we didn’t see the movies: we weren’t allowed to, just as our parents didn’t let us see the movies of our favourites, the even more subversive Beatles.

“Elvis is dead?” said John Lennon in 1977. “He died when he went into the army.” That’s the accepted line, the shorthand version of rock’n’roll history. The explosion of pop music in the 60s has meant the music Elvis made in that period was irrelevant, his output a mere footnote that says he wallowed in bland material and mediocre movies until his phoenix-like comeback at the end of the decade.

Elvis army Of course it’s not as simple as that. But now, with Elvis being not merely the king of rock’n’roll but an icon - a symbol of faith or farce depending on your point of view - a more complex synopsis has been difficult to convey. Finally, with the release of Elvis: From Nashville to Memphis, the Essential 60s Masters, the big picture can be seen, by both blinkered acolytes or sneering Goldmanites. Over 130 tracks, limited to his non-movie, non-gospel studio recordings, we can hear the development of his music and understand its diversity and inconsistencies.

The surprise of the five-CD set is not how much good material there is, nor how much dreck. It is what the chronological programming tells us. When the chips were down, Elvis could rise to the challenge. When the material was worthy of his talents, Elvis responded. Most significantly, the magnificent Memphis sessions in January 1969 were not a happy accident, but the logical conclusion of Elvis gradually asserting himself against the Colonel and his publishing cabal.

The thorough booklet by Peter Guralnick - the most musically illuminating essay ever written about Elvis - places the developments in context. When Elvis entered the small RCA studio in Nashville on March 20, 1960, after his two-year army stint, the pressure was on. He had to have a single out by the end of the week, and it had to be good. Twelve hours later, he had six cuts down without any strain. The results were consistently excellent, and ran from rock’n’roll (‘Stuck On You’) to doo-wop (‘Fame and Fortune’) to blues (‘It Feels So Right’).

Ten days later he was back in the studio. The single was out, so Elvis felt relaxed, exuberant. As he said the day he arrived at Sun Studios, he could sing all kinds of music. In this second session he covered pop, gospel, R&B; the first of the grandiose Italian ballads in which he could emulate his idol Dean Martin (‘It’s Now Or Never’), and the grittiest blues he ever recorded (‘Reconsider Baby’). elvis is backThe album was intense, vibrant and creative; they called it Elvis Is Back.

By the time he returned to Nashville to record the follow-up, aptly titled Something For Everybody, he’d made two films, GI Blues and Flaming Star. Both had soundtracks, and the GI Blues album far out-sold Elvis Is Back; Blue Hawaii was the biggest album of his career. The pattern was established, and the rot soon set in. Elvis’s next non-movie album was called Pot Luck, and it sounded like it. He wouldn’t make another studio album until 1967.

There was the odd single that showed he still had it, when he believed in the material: the assured Pomus-Shuman double banger, ‘Little Sister’ and ‘His Latest Flame’, ‘Return to Sender’, ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’, ‘Devil in Disguise’, ‘Viva Las Vegas’. With Elvis Is Back it looked as though he was going to fulfil all the promise of the 50s. As Guralnick says, “The only thing that stood in his way was success.” Success won. With so little effort needed to make the movies (three a year) and the soundtracks that sold so well, why bother to take risks?

Elvis had no A&R person looking after his creative interests; RCA had shifted responsibility for him to the marketing department - and Colonel Parker was only interested in maximum returns for minimum outlay. Therein was the core of the problem. Parker would only let his boy record songs published by Hill & Range, who co-owned Elvis’s two publishing companies. A team of hack writers churned out songs for the movies. Parker argued that if his boy couldn’t have a cut of the publishing action, his boy wouldn’t cut the song. So good songwriters quickly stopped offering their songs.

(An example of the Colonel’s style: when Lionel Newman, the Hollywood conductor and Randy’s uncle, visited New Zealand in 1985, he told me a story about Love Me Tender, on which he worked. They needed one more song as a title track, so Newman recommended one written by his pianist. Parker loved it. “That’s a fine song we’ve just written, Elvis!” he said. ‘Love Me Tender’ is credited Matson/Presley.)

Elvis spanks It was an impasse, says Guralnick. “Music had always been the motivating force of his life, it had been his one sure source of emotional expression and release, but with both live performance and serious recording efforts effectively cut off, he turned increasingly to other avenues of spiritual expression.”

When the sales of the soundtracks began to plummet - ie, they didn’t reach the Top 10 - it was time for a change. In May, 1966, Elvis left the sterile Hollywood musicians behind and returned to Nashville to record a gospel album with a new producer, Felton Jarvis. The oceans of mediocrity were about to be turned back.

When Elvis died, that lonely night on the toilet in 1977, it was Felton Jarvis who said the immortal words, “It was as though someone told me there were gonna be no more cheeseburgers in the world.” At the time I thought that summed up the crass side of the Elvis myth. But I didn’t understand the full story, or the part Jarvis had played in it.

Jarvis had begun his career in the late 50s as an Elvis imitator; he recorded ‘Don’t Knock Elvis’, then had greater success producing a more gifted Elvis imitator Marvin Benefield (re-naming him Vince Everett after Elvis’s character in Jailhouse Rock). So he knew his stuff, and, unlike the unadventurous Chet Atkins, who’d been producing Elvis since his return, he was energetic and enthusiastic. How’d he get the job? “Chet didn’t like staying up late,” explained Jarvis.

Mahalia and Elvis Elvis was once asked if he knew many gospel songs. “I think I know all of them,” he replied. Gospel would always be the musical hearth to which he’d retreat in times of need. (There’s a telling scene in This Is Elvis, in which he starts talking dirty in the back of a limo. “The microphone’s on,” someone warns. Elvis gives a nervous laugh, then sings, “What a friend we have in Jesus …”)

Elvis – seen above with Mahalia Jackson – felt at home during the sessions for How Great Thou Art. He slipped easily from the sacred songs to secular diversions such as the raunchy ‘Down in the Alley’ and the exquisite Dylan obscurity ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’ (this was 1966, remember). Young pianist David Briggs brought pure gospel chords to ‘Love Letters’ and hillbilly guitarist Jerry Reed provided a country edge to ‘Guitar Man’. They enjoyed recording the latter song so much they romped seamlessly into ‘What’d I Say’ (deleted on the single but included here). ‘Big Boss Man’ was just as exhilarating - but then the business interests intervened. Jerry Reed was hit up for the publishing rights to his song. He refused, and left; and so did the spirit of the session.

Those songs (many were used to pad the Spinout soundtrack) laid the groundwork for The Great Comeback of 1968-69: the TV special and the sensational soul album From Elvis in Memphis that are now legend. For the first time since the Sun sessions in 1955, Elvis returned to a Memphis studio. The city was just peaking as a recording centre. The players, producer, songs and artist all connected to make sublime music; a perfect mix of soul, country and gospel. Among the singles were ‘In the Ghetto’ and ‘Suspicious Minds’, and Elvis had to fight the Colonel to record them without owning the publishing. (Parker had also wanted the TV special to be all Christmas tunes.)

elvis 1968 comeback Once again, Elvis was back as a creative force. I’ve always had a vague memory of another TV appearance around the turn of the 60s, in which he says, “I’ve been away a while and some great songs have been written.” It’s gotta be the Beatles, I thought. And sure enough, he launched into ‘Hey Jude’, one of the many gems on this box-set (a studio version cut in Memphis but not released until 1972).

After the Memphis sessions, Elvis had a new energy, which the Colonel quickly dissipated through another cynical, soul-destroying money spinner: Las Vegas. Elvis’s career in the 60s was a roller-coaster of creative highs and lows. It’s easy to blame the Colonel - and, given the greed and exploitation, justifiable. But, as for Brian Epstein and the Beatles, there were no rules for handling the massive success, there was no precedent to guide artistic development. We can have “Given the material and the manager” arguments forever. What we’ve got are the recordings; given the odds, it’s remarkable how many of these 130 tracks are not just listenable, but full of wonder.

© Chris Bourke

12 August 2010

Let them eat cake

Marie Antoinette Dunst Politicians get enough airtime so I am loathe to let them invade this space. But twice in the past week I have come across an extraordinary sight that, to quote Taika Waititi, brought “a little bit of vomit to the back of my throat.”

While going about my daily business, harming no one, I observed two politicians currying favour – or moonlighting – by cooking on a morning television show.

The title of the segment is clever if off-putting: “Meet Your Member”. My first experience was seeing Phil Goff, the leader of the opposition, trying to cook steak. Stuck in one spot, I had to witness just how long this took, and how much talk was involved. Extensive research has revealed he was actually preparing barbecue wraps. By the time they were ready, any guests would have been sloshed.

It seemed curious that this was taking place while the big news story of the morning was the first death in battle of a New Zealand soldier in Afghanistan. Surely the former minister of defence – who was involved in sending the troops overseas – should have been holding a press conference, expressing his condolences? One hopes that this photo opportunity was pre-recorded or, as they say in the trade, something he prepared earlier.

Yesterday I had a second encounter. As with Goff, the sound was mercifully down. On screen, Peter Dunne, hairdresser to the stars, was making a meal out of making a curry. It did look colourful and appetising. When the recipe flashed up, I saw there was something for everyone, it was a veritable polyglot of community interests: potato (Irish), cumin (Arabs, Indians), onions and garlic (French), ginger (Chinese), chillies (both green and red, just in case). But wait, there’s more …

When will Ahmed Zaoui be invited on to share his kebab recipe?

10 August 2010

Picnic at Hanging Rock

The summer of 1987-1988 was like an economic “phoney war” similar to that we just experienced, 20 years on, with the 2007-2008 financial crisis. In the months following the 1987 share-market crash, we were waiting for the impact to hit. One of the casualties was surely the Neon Picnic rock festival, which went belly up hours before show time. But the global financial woes were just one of many things that caused the Picnic to be cancelled. The directors were inexperienced and completely out of their depth. The festival was targeted at late-1980s yuppies; the ticket itself was a brightly coloured credit card. And on the bill was a diverse range of quality acts but no real drawcard to drag the mythic, well-heeled, musically broadminded sophisticates into a paddock. They needed a Bon Jovi to draw the bogans and underwrite the whole thing. (Eleven years later, Sweetwaters 1999 was similarly wrong-headed and mismanaged – and by someone with much more experience.)
Neon Picnic headline

This article from Rip It Up, February 1988, and more about the Neon Picnic, can be read at AudioCulture.

09 August 2010

Small Town Talk

99211-65414-1 Home towns are often ungenerous places. I was reminded of this at a Wellington preview of Predicament, Jason Stutter’s debut feature made from Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s novel, published posthumously. Slow moving at first, it became engrossing and finished satisfyingly entertaining. It was beautifully shot (Simon Raby), with witty, careful art direction (John Harding; set dresser Amber Richards) and haunting, subtle music (Plan 9). The performances also benefitted from being underplayed (above, from left: Hayden Frost as the naive Cedric, bullied by Heath Franklin as Mervyn, and Jemaine Clement as the sinister, deeply bent Spook).

The audience – film industry types at different levels of involvement, degrees of separation, and envy – were cautious in their response. No, this wasn’t the premiere of The Rite of Spring: riotous enthusiasm or even anger would have been inappropriate. But a reluctance to be caught saying anything positive dominated the apres-fin atmosphere. Clement, they could bravely agree, was excellent. But the gothic element should have been cranked up, some said; the director was too faithful to Morrieson’s novel, mused others. And Predicament is Morrieson’s weakest, bluffed a few in response. While not a rollicking, flawless success like the lost-in-legal-space Came a Hot Friday, the film festival’s scheduler stuck his neck out giving Predicament such a prominent spot. It isn’t too hard to predict a long domestic tail for the film, and a fast-track future for its director.

PredicamentOne who doesn’t have to bluff about his knowledge of Predicament is Ian Richards, New Zealand literature’s expatriate essayist. Richards, the author of the moving biography of Maurice Duggan, To Bed at Noon, has been quietly working away on his scholarly passions in Japan: deeply researched papers on New Zealand lit, and his short stories. The results can be read on his aptly named website No Frills New Zealand Literature. Like Walker Percy in his essay collection Signposts in a Strange Land, Richards has the knack of an irresistible title: ‘On Being a Provincial’, ‘Cycling for Safety: a Memoir’, and in fiction, ‘You Don’t Need to Be Married to Have Fun’, and – referencing Fairburn – ‘The Squalid Tea of Mercer’.

With no deadline, no set word lengths, and seeking little attention, Richards can take the time to get it right. He recently completed an epic essay on the novels of Ronald Hugh Morrieson and Ian Cross. The title isn’t up to his usual standard – ‘Two New Zealand Books: The God Boy and The Scarecrow’ – but perhaps he was tired. The essay stretches to 40,000 words, and is packed with riches. A risk-free prediction is that it will become a one stop shop for students, who are likely to be more generous than the gatekeepers of the past. (Even Morrieson’s academic champion, C K Stead, barbs his praise – as he does in Sam Hunt documentary, Purple Balloon and Other Stories. Richards quotes Stead: [Morrieson] “enjoys telling a story and tells one at least as grippingly as any novelist we have had. I suspect, even, that he is only fitfully conscious of doing more, and that all the rest happens largely by instinct”. He then follows up to describe the rich cultural background of Morrieson, suggesting his talents were no accident.)

Paradise Be it Morrieson or Manhire, Richards is always readable, sharing his keen intelligence and insights without pretension. But if life seems too short to wallow in full-bodied essays occasionally longer then the original texts, light relief is offered at No Frills NZ Lit by Richards’s own short stories. On the website he features updated versions of several stories from his 1991 collection, Everyday Life in Paradise. Like Morrieson’s novels, they suffer from two unfashionable traits: humour and accessibility. The stories sparkle like well-cut, polished gems.

18 July 2010

The Joy of Books

Gwenyth and booksNormal transmission is about to be resumed. The books are coming out of boxes and, soon, a permanent connection to the interweb. By the looks of things Gwyneth Paltrow looks too distractible to be a good unpacker. Or perhaps she neglected to make her bookshelves earthquake secure. This image by Vogue’s Mario Testino, from the books fetishist site Book P*rn, a celebration of the bookshelf and book collecting.

30 April 2010

Liquor King


beer We all know the results of the US prohibition on alcohol sales: good jazz, a proliferation of speakeasies … oh, and organised crime. This week the government increases the price of tobacco (why not go further, like Australia, and put cigarettes in brand-free packets that look like poison?). It also came down on ‘gardening’ shops that have been selling cannabis growing tools for years, but chooses to cherry-pick a careful report on alcohol abuse.

So this aside in a long piece in Smithsonian magazine on Wayne B. Wheeler, the US religious zealot who managed to get the prohibition law passed, had special resonance. Just how hard was it to get around a loophole?

As declarative as the 18th Amendment was—forbidding “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors”—the Volstead Act allowed exceptions.

You were allowed to keep (and drink) liquor you had in your possession as of January 16, 1920; this enabled the Yale Club in New York, for instance, to stockpile a supply large enough to last the full 14 years that Prohibition was in force.

Farmers and others were allowed to “preserve” their fruit through fermentation, which placed hard cider in cupboards across the countryside and homemade wine in urban basements.

“Medicinal liquor” was still allowed, enriching physicians (who generally charged by the prescription) and pharmacists (who sold such “medicinal” brands as Old Grand-Dad and Johnnie Walker).

A religious exception created a boom in sacramental wines, leading one California vintner to sell communion wine—legally—in 14 different varieties, including port, sherry, tokay and cabernet sauvignon.

Early closing in pubs might see an increase in churchgoers there for the altar wine.

29 April 2010

High Priest on Queen

Stephen Stratford, the “literary gossip” who creates mischief over at Quote Unquote, reflects on a childhood epiphany: seeing Thelonious Monk live in concert in Tauranga. It reminded me of an anecdote I heard that, combined with a great photo that once seen is never forgotten, made the history books.

The story is twice removed but I can claim some ownership as it appears in Redmer Yska’s marijuana history because I told it to him on Lambton Quay (and also about the picture which he then used on p79 of his 1990 book New Zealand Green). He credited a mutual friend, though that kind of suited, also …

Monk on TimeMonk’s New Zealand visit happened in 1965, and one of the curiosities about it is that it happened under the auspices of what is now called Chamber Music NZ. So the beatniks of Tauranga would have been well outnumbered by Brahms loving farmers’ wives and their bemused husbands. Bob Owens probably heckled.

More beatniks were at an apres-gig Auckland party (perhaps that one in Parnell mentioned by Stratford). Monk was sitting down, surrounded by acolytes. He said, "Anyone got a cigarette?"

Instantly, the gaggle of Abe Lincoln-bearded young jazzers and hipsters around him flicked out their Rothmans. Monk was surrounded by a circle of erect filters.

Monk looked around them all, then said, "No. I mean a special cigarette..."

The person who was present and later told this story - artist Pat Hanly - said that almost no one there knew what Monk was referring to. But someone did, and sorted him out.

After another function pianist Mike Perjanik gave Monk a lift in his (I think) Ford Prefect back to the Montmartre or some club near Queen Street. But that's another story.

Instead, here is a link to Time magazine’s 28 February 1964 cover story on Monk. The image is by the Russian artist Boris Chaliapin, who painted so many Time covers when it gave the subject instant worldwide status. At the time, the Beatles had just conquered the US, but it would be three years before they received a cover. Monk’s cover had been planned for the last week of November 1963, but it was naturally bumped for the JFK assassination.

Which reminds me of another story. Janis Joplin was lined up for a cover of Newsweek in 1970, then almost as important as Time. Rock musicians were almost never on the cover of the two newsweeklies then, and the music press had yet to enter the mainstream. Joplin’s cover was pulled at the last minute because former president Dwight Eisenhower died after many years of illness.

Joplin shrieked, “Fourteen fucking heart attacks and he has to die in my fucking week?!”

24 March 2010

The boys are back in town

fourmyula08 More than 40 years since their psychedelic success in coloured kaftans, looking like the Wiggles on Star Trek, the Fourmyula shuffled on stage without pomp or ceremony. The band may be legendary, but its members never seemed like stars: they were the boys next door.

(More here.)

Home taping is killing music

michaelhoustoun No it’s not – but it’s hurt a lot of spivs in satin jackets. The hills are alive with the sound of music. So are the flat-lands of Manawatu. This just popped into my mailbox:

“Santa Claus welcomes you to

FREE Music Downloads



(just click here and you're away)

Here are the first in a series of recordings made specifically for the internet.

The works are J.S. Bach's  French Suite No. 5 in G, BWV816 and S. Rachmaninoff's Thirteen Preludes, Op.32

There will be music by Prokofiev, Brahms, Chopin and Debussy to follow.

All tracks are available in MP3 right through to 24bit super hi-fi versions.

So...just as soon as you've forwarded this message to your entire address book (smile), tune in, sit back, and make those tedious emails you have to write a lot happier!” 

Prompt: Howie’s Hot Five

22 March 2010

Do the Mash Potato

frisky 2 Are we all sitting up straight? We are. The demeanour of the woman in the purple hair and glitter mortarboard insists upon it. "Welcome," she says menacingly, "to the School of Pop."

More fun than Jack Black taking over the stereo: Frisky and Mannish deconstruct pop at the Festival of the Arts, Wellington. More here.

12 March 2010

Border Radio

As a band, Calexico is perfectly named: their music is a road trip to the cinematic imagination. It takes us to Calexico, a sun-bleached crossroads where a fleapit theatre plays Sergio Leone and John Ford westerns on permanent loop. (More here)

08 March 2010

My Baby Just Cares For Me

nina Lisa Nina Simone’s daughter Lisa – who goes by the stage name “Simone” - has put together a tribute show, Sing the Truth, which played the festival in Wellington on Saturday. During the day I ran into ceramicist Christine Harris, who reported that “Simone” had just bought her entire stage outfit – frock, earrings, hair clasp – from her daughter, Carly Harris (the woman who is single handedly bringing colour to New Zealand streets). The show was a knockout (as was the frock, if I can be allowed a Hartnell moment). I reviewed it for the New Zealand Herald online …


It was destiny, it was church. Nina Simone was called "the high priestess of soul" and the musicians and audience gather to pay homage, if not worship. They leave uplifted by four exhilarating African-American singers. (More here)

Since posting this review a couple of days ago, I have been contacted by the show’s producer in Brooklyn, NY, Danny Kapilian. In fact it was Danny who conceived, produced and recruited the artists for Sing the Truth. I’m happy to give credit where it’s due, especially as he was behind the great Harry Nilsson tribute CD from the mid-1990s, For the Love of Harry.