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")

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting that Chris - a really interesting look at Ian Morris' approach to music, and a timely tribute to him. RIP Ian.