Early Music: growing up with rock'n'roll
Although most of my working life has been in the areas of graphic design and the visual arts, with a little writing thrown in here and there, it's music that's been the ever-present companion and stimulant. I'm not a musician, although I have dabbled on the drums, but the enjoyment of music has been an indispensable constant for me.
During the late-70s those elements of graphics, writing, music and earning a living, all came together for a few years during my employment at WEA Records in Auckland, my involvement with the Auckland music scene at the time, and with the band Toy Love in particular.
In recent years there's been an increased interest in those goings-on and I'm sometimes asked to contribute liner notes, images and comments. In doing my best to accommodate all this I've been reminded of how gratifyingly detailed one's memory can often be, while at other times it's alarmingly jumbled, blurred and unreliable. And then there are the black holes into which certain moments in this life of a mostly sentient being seem to have disappeared beyond recall. I must've been there, but where's the evidence?
So I started making a few notes to see if I could get a little clarity on some time-lines, dates and names, and soon found myself expanding on these with other impressions and details. But trying to knock the complexities of the 70s into shape proved a little daunting first-up, and this process soon became a trawl through earlier childhood incidents and images that seem to have stuck with me. So I decided to work with that for a while; as for the later stuff, maybe later. The notes below are a result of briefly setting down a few close-to-the-surface music-related memories from the period up until I left home in 1967, and then catching various other shreds of memory that bubbled up over time and finding a place for them in this very loose narrative.
I make no claims for what is merely a scrapbook of the mundane; not at all special or enthralling but it's all I've got, or at least what I can remember of it. I have no interest in nostalgia for its own sake, but I am interested in the way our past shapes us, "The unexamined life…" and all that.
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My mother once told me that when I was a toddler I would hold onto the edge of the couch and bob up and down to the music on the radio. But my own earliest clear memory of radio is more traumatic, being the day I stuck a fork into the back of one and got an almighty jolt for my curiosity. I was no doubt lured by the seductive glow of the valves and it was a lesson well learned, I can honestly say I've never done it again. In my mind's eye I've always placed this incident in the sitting room of our home in Papakura, just south of Auckland, New Zealand.
Early to mid-50s: Papakura
It was Wednesday 30th December 1953 when the young Queen Elizabeth II rode past our house. I was nearly five years old and
stood waiting with my family among the blackened stalks on the roadside which had been burned off only days before, much to
the disgust of my mother. We watched the solemn line of cars pick up speed heading down the Great South Road from Papakura towards a scheduled luncheon at Te Kauwhata. As the car with the little flag on top went by I fancy I glimpsed the Queen’s silhouetted head framed by the car window, like a postage stamp, and although there was to be no Queenly wave for us I doubt
that anyone complained. She was probably thinking about lunch.
I couldn't be at all sure when I first heard "God Save The Queen", but I have a vague memory of it blasting out from a radio somewhere around this time or a little later.
We lived on the corner of Rogers Road (now Gatland Rd) until sometime in 1956, and across the back paddock was a family with a wind-up gramophone. As a seven-year-old I would regularly walk over to the neighbours’ house, dodging the cowpats lurking in the long grass, stick my head in their kitchen door and ask to play the gramophone. I’d put on the gleaming 78 and listen for the umpteenth time to the song about a cherry, and watch the run-off groove swinging gracefully in and out from the label.
The wee wee man in a red red coat
With a stick in his hand and a stone in his throat
Come a riddle, come a riddle
Come a rote-tote-tote
We would sometimes visit another family who lived near the Ardmore aerodrome (although I wouldn't swear to the location) who had what seemed to be an extraordinary abundance of toys including, most memorably, a tiny clockwork gramophone that played yellow plastic records of nursery rhymes. I can still see the yellow discs with their brightly coloured labels scattered around the floor in that sunny front room.
Very early images like these are like a few clear frames scattered through a degraded old film, and although my life since has been largely untouched by royal fever, the lure of the music has never faltered.
Late 50s to early 60s: Auckland
My parents’ bedroom in our house in Douglas Street, Ponsonby, had a big old cathedral-style radio with a magic-eye tuner, that stood on the bedside table. It was the best place to lie in the semi-dark and listen to the Lever Hit Parade on 1ZB and the Auckland Hit Parade on 1YD. And that’s what I did, either alone or with my older brother. If I was alone I might strike some rockin’ poses in front of the wardrobe mirror, only to be reminded about it years later by my mother who had sneakily caught my act through the slightly open door one night.
My brother has told me that he too was fascinated by the magic eye, convinced it had the potential to make contact well beyond the normal realm of the wireless. One evening he tried shouting into it as a plane flew overhead, hoping, as he says, “the pilot would hear me through some miracle of transmission”.
Reading Chris Bourke’s great book Blue Smoke, a list of the top selling singles from 1958 caught my eye. Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the Diamonds, all now part of the rock’n’roll canon, but at that time plenty of other non-rock’n’roll hits like “Moonlight Swim”, “Sugartime” and “The Story Of My Life” were all compelling for me in their own way. The Monotones’ “Book of Love” and Hank Thompson’s “Blackboard of My Heart” (take the chalk and make a mark / and hope it turns out right) were equally evocative and appealing. I think that we sensed the different energy of the rock’n’roll records, but in other ways it was all just hit parade music and with only about an hour and a half of it a week being broadcast, I hung on every note (I was going to call it “pop music” but it was never called that at the time). And we regularly tuned into 1ZB’s Sunday request session in the hope of hearing a couple of our current favourites at least once more before the hit parade rolled around again later in the week.
In the very early days my sense of where this music actually came from was vague to say the least, and for a while I probably assumed most of it was somehow NZ music. I think that to me as a little kid, the idea that records and other cultural objects might have come all the way from America to NZ seemed a bit of a stretch. I'm sure I started to figure it out pretty quickly, but I was still a little sceptical when a friend pointed out his neighbour's beaten up old car in Lincoln Street and insisted that it had been made in the USA. I remember it now as looking like a 1930s Mercury, nearly worn out but sleek and beautiful, and perhaps a seed of desire was planted at that moment which lead to me being the happy owner of an dark green 1952 Studebaker in the mid-70s.
Many songs that I heard over and over at the time, but have rarely heard since, are still well embedded in my memory and hearing them out of the blue on the car radio or while station-hopping late at night, evokes for me that front bedroom in Ponsonby and the framed picture of Jesus with a flaming heart that hung on the wall at the end of the large bed. My mother had lived in this family home as a girl and young woman, but had moved out when she and Dad married. When I was about seven we ended up back there and although my parents were not particularly religious, the trappings of the previous generation’s more ardent faith were still in place, perhaps in deference to my wonderful grandmother who we now shared the house with.
The pale light from the hallway seeped into the room as Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel”, gothic and self-pitying, lurched out of the wireless while the fiery heart of Jesus hovered over me on one side and the eerie, green magic-eye tuner stared down from the other. There’s no forgetting that.
My brother Tom and I, along with our neighbour Barry (an aspiring bodgie from his quiff to his brothel creepers) loved the speedway nights at Western Springs stadium out by the zoo. We’d walk or ride our bikes through Grey Lynn in the dusk, up and down Hakanoa and Francis Streets, eager for the noise, the lights and the smell of methanol and cinders. I have an autograph book signed during those splendid evenings by stars of the stock car and motorcycle circuit, including our favourite, Bryce Subritsky. The organisers would often feature the hot new novelty hits over the PA system between races. One night they played Paul Evans’ just released and terminally twee “Seven Little Girls (Sitting In The Back Seat)” over and over again, and as we walked back up the hill and through the large swinging gates I could hear a couple of voices along Old Mill Road, belting out the words with gusto on the way home.
One weekend afternoon in 1959 my brother and I headed to Western Springs to see something other than the speedway racing, a kind of variety show with many different attractions but I remember only one, Johnny Devlin and the Devils. I knew all the hits and had seen the pictures and the hubbub in the papers, and I watched transfixed from behind the safety fence along the oval track as these five guys on a tiny, low wooden platform played the first live rock’n’roll I’d ever heard. I’ve recently seen photos that show me how clearly this image has stuck in my mind. They confirm my memories of the lurex shirt (blue, I think), the stand-up bass, tiny amp and that the guitarist was wearing shades.
The Everly Brothers were huge when I was young. That engaging and influential sound seemed to be always in the air and in your head, and phrases from each new hit would immediately become common currency. Although I do recall a 1ZB announcer who wasn’t at all keen on their new record, saying something like, “So he's a bird dog, but just what is a bird dog? It's all a bit silly”. I was probably 10 yrs-old and didn’t know much about anything, but I somehow knew what a bird dog was; mostly I was just flabbergasted that he didn’t like the record.
When I was ten an illness kept me away from school for several weeks, with most of those days being spent in bed. I listened to daytime radio a lot and became very familiar with the orchestral theme tune for a particular afternoon slot on the NZBC National Programme. The sound of those few bars stuck in my mind as an intermittent background music to that episode in my life. Years later, as I reveled in a belated investigation of the classics (the onset of CDs making high quality second-hand classical vinyl available and affordable in great quantity), I heard that same music again when I dropped the needle on the 1st movement of Mozart’s 40th symphony, and instantly recalled those afternoons listening to the radio in my sickbed. Classical music had had almost no presence in my youth but the fact that it was those few bars of Mozart that did sink in, doesn’t surprise me. As I became more familiar with the piece, its dark shifting moods following what had sounded to me like an almost jauntily elegant opening, was just the kind of payoff I needed as someone whose curiosity about the classics far exceeded his knowledge.
The only other classical piece that I remember at all from back then was Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” with its spoken commentary, which turned up almost every Sunday morning on the 1ZB children’s request session. Snatches of the commentary linger faintly and I can still hear the sound of the drumming as the hunters approach.
Plenty of radio advertising jingles lodged themselves in the brain during this period, but none more so than the ditty for Geddes Dental Renovations (top of Queen Street on the corner / and the number's 492) to the tune of "Oh My Darling Clementine". As Chris Bourke points out in Blue Smoke, it got played on Auckland radio every single day for almost forty years, and I heard my share. To this day I could sing both verses without a moment's hesitation, underwater and with a mouthful of Jaffas, if ever I were called upon to do so.
Sometime in the late-50s I noticed that the pokey little milk bar along Ponsonby Road just off my daily beat, had an old jukebox in the corner. This particular model had a small round opening in the front glass where you reached through, picked out your choice of 45 and placed it on the turntable. You then put your coin in the slot and it would play. I remember looking into the glass front to read the instructions and realising that not many of the records were familiar to me; and anyway it was sixpence a play, money I just didn’t have for such an indulgence. But I was busting to see and hear the jukebox working. Unfortunately there almost never seemed to be any customers in the shop when I walked past, and although I loitered around the door a couple of times waiting for someone to play the machine, nobody did. One day I looked in and the jukebox was gone. I was disappointed in myself that I hadn’t saved up some change from the two shillings picture money I got most weekends, so I could have reached through the hole, chosen a record and dropped a sixpence in the slot. Not long after, the milk bar closed forever.
Maybe the first time I learnt of Little Richard was when I saw his name written on the cover of a school friend’s exercise book, alongside the names of some Hungarian soccer stars and other heroes of his, most of whom meant nothing to me. He said that his uncle from Samoa told him Little Richard was the best rock and roller and his uncle would know because he had a record by him. It sounded unlikely to me and I tried to conjure up Little Richard in my mind; small like a kid maybe, but in a shiny shirt. I’m quite sure I must’ve seen the man himself on film soon after, which would have cleared that mystery up, but perhaps merely replaced it with the different and lasting enigma of the Georgia Peach. In April 1959, this same friend went to see Johnny Cash at the Auckland Town Hall and brought the illustrated concert program to school later that week so we could all have a look at it, and I had a good long look. He could draw great hot rods too, and once told me something about the baseball player Yogi Berra that I’ve forgotten, but I never forgot that name; in many ways he was the hippest guy I’d met up to that point in my life but unfortunately his own name eludes me.
During my boyhood in Ponsonby we were within easy walking distance of at least six picture theatres: the Britannia, Avon, Playhouse, Tivoli, Cameo and Esquire, and it was just a trolley-bus ride to get to the theatres in town. The Regal (originally the West End, est. 1913) once operated at the top of our street but it had been reduced to a factory of some sort by the mid-50s, much to my sorrow. We mostly went to the Brit at the Three Lamps or the Avon near the corner of Ponsonby Rd and K. Rd; although the Tiv near Grafton Bridge was worth the longer stroll for a cartoon parade, with plenty of Daffy Duck, Mr Magoo and Looney Tunes. So we got to most of the rock’n’roll films that came through, Don’t Knock The Rock, The Girl Can’t Help It, Rock Around The Clock and the rest. We also caught fringe R&R vehicles like Sing Boy Sing with Tommy Sands, and pseudo-biopix like The Tommy Steele Story. The UK TV spin-off 6-Five Special would be advertised as featuring the hits and stars of the day but when we saw it the only act we’d heard of was Lonnie Donegan, but Lonnie really was big at the time so we didn’t mind.
Naturally we hit the early Elvis films as a matter of course, from Love Me Tender through to GI Blues. But it was Jailhouse Rock with it’s iconic cell-block dance sequence that I liked the best, and even if I hadn’t watched that scene a few times since, I’m sure it would’ve been the only thing about those Elvis films to stick firmly in my mind through the years. Except, that is, for one moment during (I think) Loving You where Elvis is sitting in a drugstore booth and he turns to look over his shoulder, languid and cool, and I heard a couple of girls in the row behind me make a sort of low, thrilled noise – another pre-teen moment in which I got a strong hint about something that was clearly crucial.
We went to the flicks almost every weekend so the rock’n’roll films made up only a tiny percentage of what we saw, and apart from the musical acts there was often little that was memorable about them. But in a way they were all more or less equally fascinating because they were the only places we could see those acts; nuanced notions of authenticity and relative quality were a long way off and I happily just took it all in. Bill Haley, Little Richard, Elvis, Tommy Steele, Chuck Berry, Fabian, Fats Domino, Cliff Richard, Lonnie Donegan, Gene Vincent etc, it was fun to see and hear them all looming and loud on the big screen. And bodgies and widgies jived in the aisles.
When I got to see these films again in later years, so little about them apart from some of the musical performances seemed familiar that it was much like seeing them for the first time, but with a clearer understanding of how the acts had just been shoehorned into clichéd plotlines. It’s difficult to remember how my brother and I, and our friends, responded to them first time round. We would act out the cowboy and Tarzan flicks and rehash the funny bits from the comedies as we walked home along Ponsonby Rd, stopping off at the top of Williamson Ave for thrupence worth of chips. With the rock’n’roll films, I’m sure some of them impressed us more than others, but along with a lot of the other movies in those pre-TV days, they all played a part in fleshing out for me an idea of a wider world, of other places over there somewhere and maybe even reachable some day. That this weird rock’n’roll creature, tricked out with a look and sound that I couldn’t resist, was invading the small world of my youth at just the time when I was old enough to somehow get it, was a nice accident of timing and a true blessing.
There was one moment that did hit a little harder than most, and I know that over the years many others have said the same. I don’t remember the order in which I saw these films, but among the earliest that had a rock’n’roll component was Blackboard Jungle, although I must have first seen it two or three years after it’s initial NZ release in late ’55. When Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” roared out through the opening credits it was the first time I’d heard the music so loud and so enveloping. As much as the rest of the film intrigued and confused me, and it did, its main impact lay in the excitement of those opening seconds. I next saw the film sometime in the mid-60s and immediately realised, with that smidgeon of self-knowledge I’d gained in the meantime, that it had been a moment when something that I was already intuitively drawn to, suddenly seemed essential.
I especially liked catching the trolley bus into the city and going to the Civic, with its astonishing 1929 Moorish-baroque interior, now preserved for the wonder of future generations. I watched fascinated every time as the Wurlitzer organ rose up slowly from the bowels of the orchestra pit at the interval, and listened to the organist playing while I carefully manouvered the chocolate layer off my ice cream Topsy. One Saturday afternoon I took my little brother there but the theatre was full (I don’t remember what particular blockbuster it was) so we wandered over the road to see what was on at the St James (now the Westend) and then up around the corner to the Embassy (now the site of the City Library), and I decided that its feature The Entertainer might be alright. It seemed that it might have something to do with music, but as we walked down the aisle I did notice that we were the only kids in the place. I haven’t seen it since but still have a shadowy image of Olivier’s Archie Rice character standing onstage before a restless audience. I was probably puzzled, intrigued and bored by it to varying degrees and I have no idea what little brother, four years my junior, made of it. When we got home I told Mum that it was a bit strange but OK, but I wish we could’ve got into the Civic. A couple of days later she read part of the Auckland Star’s review of The Entertainer out loud to Dad; maybe something about the Olivier character’s angst or his gin-soaked wife. They both burst out laughing at the thought of their callow young boys trying to make something of it all, although, typical of their common sense they clearly didn’t see any harm in it.
A musical prelude to all movie programs at the time was the playing of “God Save The Queen”. The drums would roll and the projection of Her Majesty on horseback often started as the curtains were still opening, giving an effect not unlike the wavy image at the beginning of a movie flashback. Hundreds of kids would dutifully stand up all at once, the rattle of their seats dropping back and the rustle of popcorn bags adding to the din.
When I was given my first pair of blue jeans (from Keans) I immediately put them on, went to the top of Douglas Street and walked up and down Ponsonby Road for a few minutes doing nothing in particular before returning home. The next opportunity for a public reveal, probably the flicks on Saturday, was just too long to wait.
Some of Rick Nelson’s singles struck a chord with me and “Poor Little Fool” was one of them, but I realised many years later that
I’d always heard the opening line completely wrong. “I used to play around with hearts that hastened at my call” sounded to me like “I used to play around the park, pacing in my car”, and that’s the way I sung it to myself for a long time. But, I mean…“hastened at my call”? (Since first writing this I've come across the NZ cover version of "Poor Little Fool" by Paul Walden in 1958, that appears to make the same mistake, although I don't recall the Walden record at all).
And there’s the time, somewhat earlier, when my mother overheard me singing: “Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the gland”, and quietly corrected me – “It's glen, dear”.
Standing in the sun on the asphalt quadrangle at Richmond Road School, in a makeshift band playing “Rock Around The Clock”.
A one-off, one-song item as part of a variety concert in front of the whole school. A couple of Samoan classmates up-front are strumming it out on ukuleles while a guy from down my street plonks along on a tea-chest bass, and I’m at the back trying to keep up on a school tambourine. We reckon we’re a skiffle group and in a way we are, maybe.
Once in a while we would hear the sounds of the Salvation Army brass band playing on the back of a truck in a street nearby. We’d cut through the property of a friendly neighbour and join the other locals gathered around to watch and listen. One Xmas they parked right outside our gate and I sat on the front veranda overlooking the footpath, enjoying my choice spot in the balcony as the band stormed through its repertoire of carols; while a couple of bonnetted Sallies moved cheerfully among the crowd rattling donation boxes.
Recently, as I wandered around a Melbourne op-shop they were playing Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear” (1959), which I hadn’t heard for many years. Not only did the lyrics readily come back to me, but also a clear image of our childhood bedroom with its Robin Hood wallpaper, that my brothers and I shared… as if the song and wallpaper were part of a package deal in my memory.
Something similar happened not too long ago when I overheard another Johnny, Johnny Horton, doing his historically dodgy
“Sink The Bismarck” (1960). Once again it came with a strong sense of that house and home and our little white mantle radio. Horton’s “Battle Of New Orleans” was another “historical” item we’d sing along to and mangle the lyrics. And I thought of Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” (1958) and how we drew pictures of the purple people eater for a radio station competition, while not really being sure if the people eater was also purple, or only the people it ate. While checking the release date in Wikipedia I notice it mentions that this confusion was common at the time. Anyway, we made the people eater purple too, and put a horn on its head just as the song says. Despite their tinny toy-like sound, the sax break at the end and little guitar fills earlier in the song were gestures towards a genuine rock’n’roll feel that were typical of some of these novelty records. And although the intention was usually to parody R’n’R, such moments could still lift these records a little when the jokey appeal had worn thin. The Cadets’ “Stranded In The Jungle”, David Seville’s “Witch Doctor” and the Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley Oop” were cut from a similar cloth and were among the many novelty items that lit up that little world of ours and provided an endless stream of catch phrases. As did records like Peter Sellers’ “Goodness Gracious Me” (with Sophia Loren, 1960) and deliriously absurd Goon Show spin-offs like “Bloodknock’s Rock and Roll Call” and the “Ying Tong Song”. Sellers’ 1959 parody interview with rock'n'roll Svengali Major Rafe Ralph and one of his stable of live-in protégés Twit Conway, was a regular request session item; although the innuendo in the Frank Muir and Denis Norden-penned script escaped us at the time.
Major Rafe Ralph: “Conway, best you go to your quarters. Tell Vince and Donny I'll be along very soon for some hip-twitching practice.“
Some hit records just seemed to be more of an event than others, The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” (1958) was one of those. Mournful and stark, the plucked banjo prominent, it cut through immediately and for a while it seemed that everyone was talking about it. “Goodness sake, that’s a miserable song”, was the earliest comment I can remember my mother making about any music. The record started quietly with a spoken intro that was the first time I heard the phrase “eternal triangle”, and when the extra vocals came in on the second chorus the song took off. I liked it a lot.
And "Quiet Village" by (The Exotic Sounds of) Martin Denny was probably just as stirring to my imagination then, as the Beatles’ lysergically charged but not dissimilar "Tomorrow Never Knows" would be many years later. Two journeys into the heart of exotica, one across the astral plane and the other through the Tiki lounge.
Not so long ago I had mentioned to a friend of mine in California that I was feeling a bit flat that week and he attached an mp3 of the Beach Boys’ “Country Air” to his reply to cheer me up. He and I had spent many unhurried hours playing those mid-period Beach Boys albums in our respective digs in Parnell in the early-70s. In thanking him I said that its breeziness had always reminded me of The Four Preps’ “26 Miles (Santa Catalina)” from about 1959, which had stuck with me over the years, and that they both seemed to conjure up brighter, more carefree times, and other nostalgic delusions. I heard “26 Miles” again recently and although it can never be the evocative sound it had been for the pre-teen me, I still see why it had appealed to that 10-year-old despite its schmaltzy "romance, romance" refrain.
My father was deeply involved with the Ponsonby Rugby Football Club. One afternoon in 1960 he took me to Eden Park to see the All Blacks train before they left for South Africa. The Howard Morrison Quartet’s “My Old Man’s An All Black” (based on Lonnie Donegan’s hugely popular “My Old Man’s A Dustman”) was heard everywhere at the time and we all knew the words. The song’s gentle protest at the exclusion of Maoris from the team in response to South African pressure (“There’s no Horis in that scrum”), couched in a novelty song context, might strike a puzzling note in retrospect; but the light-hearted, non-threatening tone reflected an era in which such issues were not seen to be so important by the vast majority of people. But not by everyone – that afternoon, way up on the almost totally empty old terraces of Eden Park I could clearly see two seated figures holding each end of a modest-sized but boldly written banner saying, “No Maoris No Tour”.
A slight digression on the subject of rugby. In Stranded In Paradise, John Dix’s terrific history of NZ rock’n’roll, it says that I played on the wing opposite the future All Black Bryan Williams… close, but not quite. Bryan and I did play in the same team for two or three years, both at the Ponsonby club and Richmond Road School, although I was always at second-five and this was only in the schoolboy grades. At the time I may have dreamed of being an All Black but only Bryan was ever going to make it. I saw him win our School Sports Day 100 yards race at Grey Lynn Park by about 10 yards; and during a game at Cornwall Park, as Bryan was sailing away towards yet another try, a couple of opposition backs standing near me stopped in their tracks, looked at each other and said in one voice, “He’s too fast!”. He sure was.
I played for the Ponsonby club right through the junior grades and for much of that time our halfback was Brett Neilson. Brett and I got along OK and his dad was our coach for a couple of seasons, so our parents sometimes visited each other with us kids tagging along. I stayed over at Brett’s house in Te Atatu a couple of times and Brett’s dad would take us all to a movie (one Saturday it was the original 3:10 to Yuma) and later we’d have fish and chips sitting on the plushly carpeted lounge-room floor as a treat. The Neilson’s house was newly built and its slightly moderne décor was, to me, an intriguing contrast to the pre-war ambience of the old home in Ponsonby. I particularly recall a big glass bull with prominent dangly bits striking a threatening pose atop the TV set.
Anyway, Brett’s dad once said that rock’n’roll drummers weren’t much good and that jazz was where you found the real musicians. It was the first time I heard anyone make such a comparison. I was interested to hear more but just too young and ignorant to know what to ask. I had no idea if rock’n’roll drummers were any good, to me they were just a part of what rock’n’roll sounded like, and jazz was a completely unknown country. Brett said he was starting drum lessons.
Although AKTV2 started broadcasts in 1960, we didn’t have TV at home until we moved to Hamilton and it was always a bonus to visit a friend’s place where there was television. Even when there were only test broadcasts in the late-50s, we would go as a family to my Uncle Jim’s in Mt. Roskill and sit in his garage workshop for a couple of hours watching obscure variety acts and fuzzy travelogues on the 9-inch receiver that he'd cobbled together. When I lingered over the full-page colour ads for 21-inch TVs in the US Saturday Evening Post, they represented an achingly remote and futuristic way of life. In ’60-’61 I sometimes biked over to a friend's place in Grey Lynn to watch the early evening kids’ shows. I can still see their gloomy sitting room and hear the theme song from Gerry Anderson's pre-Thunderbirds animated series “Torchy the Battery Boy”.
In late-1961 our family moved to Hamilton and, apart from the some vague rumours, the next time I learned anything of Brett was in a newspaper article about the fast-rising Auckland band the La De Da’s and their new 45, “How Is The Air Up There?” (Feb. 1966). When I first heard it on my little silver transistor I was astonished, it was noisier and better than I could ever have expected. One day as I heard the record being pre-announced on the kitchen radio I ran over and turned it up loud, “Listen Dad, this is Brett’s band”. A few seconds later Dad looked up from the dining room table with a pained expression and Mum was waving her arm saying “Turn it down, I can’t hear myself think”. I’m sure they were genuinely curious, for a moment, but in the end it was just too alien, messy and loud. But I was very impressed, Brett had come through with the goods!… and the drumming sounded just fine to me. If you check out the early La De Da’s group photos you’ll notice that Brett, unlike the others in their motley modness, is often dressed in a trim dark suit and tie, looking just like a jazzman.
Late 1961 to 1967: Hamilton
I guess I was starting to sort a few things out and as I entered my teens it was becoming clear that The Shadows, Del Shannon and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs offered me something that Percy Faith, Bobby Rydell or the Four Lads generally did not. I never got sick of Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That” or Johnny Kidd's "Shakin' All Over", while Bryan Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny…etc” was plain embarrassing and I didn’t want my parents to assume that that was my sort of music. But then, as now, I liked a lot of different stuff and it was still necessary to check out any rock’n’roll related film that came to town, no matter how lame it was likely to be. A bunch of us went to Twist Around The Clock and Don’t Knock The Twist, we had to see Chubby Checker and whoever else might be featured (in this case Dion, the Marcels, Gene Chandler among others). It wasn't long before I was dancing to “Let’s Twist Again” with the older sister of a girl I was interested in two doors down, swivelling like mad in my socks on their lounge room parquet floor.
I'm pretty sure I was unconvinced of the merits of "Let's Get Together" (#6 on the Lever Hit Parade in March 1962), sung as a duet by Hayley Mills and her sassy American other self in the original The Parent Trap; but I'm also pretty sure I got some enjoyment from the film itself due to my crush on Hayley, which must've lasted for, well… days.
I'm doing homework in my room in Coldwell Place, the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” comes over my little silver trannie and I hear it for the first time. So fresh and exuberant, almost exultant, as if a window has been flung open on the future.
I saw a newspaper article, maybe in the 8 O’Clock sports edition entertainment section, with a photo of the Rolling Stones, a new band expected to rival the Beatles. Beatles’ “rivals” came along thick and fast for a while (Dave Clark Five!) just as “next Dylans” were to do for so many years. I really couldn’t see how these Rolling Stones could be their rivals, they looked a little too strange in that early photo and couldn’t possibly sound as good, could they? Soon after that, out of the blue, I heard “Poison Ivy” on the trannie and thought, “That might be those Rolling Stones”. I was wrong (but close, the Stones had already covered it too), it was Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs who had hit big with it in Australia. Soon enough my best friend got hold of the first Stones album and we played it to death, slinking around his sitting room after school to “I’m A King Bee”, while his little sister giggled at us through a gap in the sliding kitchenette doors. There was certainly room in my life for any other “rivals” that might come along if they were going to be this good.
Lying on the sitting-room floor watching the Beatles in grey suits miming “Help” on some TV pop show. Dad walks through the room and stops for a few moments, watching the TV. He goes into the kitchen and I hear him say to Mum, “I can see the appeal of those blokes, it’s not a bad song”. Mixed feelings; affirmation from Dad is always welcome, but then again this is sort of my world and I don’t want him to like it too much.
1965 going into ’66 was a big year. I bought my first record player for £2 off a guy down Clarkin Road, and I soon had the Beatles’ Help (I saw the film twice the first week it showed in Hamilton) and the Animals’ Animal Tracks. I mowed neighbours’ lawns for peanuts, in our street and down Bankwood Road, and I soon had the Spencer Davis Group’s second LP and the Byrds’ first. Economic strictures made EPs attractive, I got the Animals, the Who, Kwyet Kinks and more Spencer Davis Group. Steve Winwood’s adolescent kinda-Ray-Charles tenor, the band’s spare, bluesy sound and the moody monochrome graphics, all somehow spoke to me at the time. That second SDG album, Keep On Running, was the first record to get me really hearing the piano, and Chris Welch’s reference to Horace Silver in the liner notes was an early signpost towards jazz.
But there was never enough pocket money, radio play or friends with records to enable me keep up with all that I wanted to hear, and that abiding desire to discover music that’s new to me and that might be astonishing was well entrenched. The stations played almost exclusively the hit singles of the day, great as so many of them were, but it was becoming clear with every visit to the very few record shops in Hamilton, that the best groups were filling whole LPs with tracks that might be just as good, or maybe better – I needed to know. I haunted a couple of these places, flicking through the racks to check out any new releases and occasionally testing the patience of the proprietors who seemed so reluctant to let you hear a complete track on the shop turntable. I'd stand there flipping Lovin’ Spoonful and Kinks record covers over and back, always wishing I had the wherewithal to walk out of the shop with a couple of albums tucked under my arm. The beginnings of a compulsion that would consume much of a lifetime and bruise both wallets and relationships. For decades I would have as much trouble walking past a record shop as any drunk has passing a bar at happy hour.
A peculiar thing happened – one day my father said, "I see one of your mates has died, a pop singer called Terry Dene". I had to admit that I'd never heard of him (Dene had some Top Twenty success in the UK in the late-50s). Years later I recalled this moment and looked up a reference to Terry Dene, who was not only still alive but remains so to this day. Weirdly, in 1973 he wrote a book called "I Thought Terry Dene Was Dead". I remain puzzled.
As a family, we went regularly to the Hamilton City Library in Garden Place. Once I’d got my hands on a record player I started looking through the limited assortment being offered in the long-playing album section, clearly bought in by the library according to somebody's criteria of worthiness. So there was no pop. How great it was though, to take home these intriguing looking objects for free, put them on the player and try to find my way into an LP of court music from India or the sounds of an aboriginal corroboree, reading the liner notes and reading them again. Sometimes I did find a little fissure in this profoundly unfamiliar music, a glimpse under its skin, almost a beginning of some kind of understanding. That was enough to keep me interested. I struggled for days with a jazz piano album in an austere blue fold-out cover with no graphics, just type, and some liner notes that were mostly beyond me; I think it was just called Blues. To me this was dauntingly abstract music that was nothing like any of the still limited range of blues I’d so far encountered. These sorts of records clued me to an ever-expanding universe that was waiting to be explored, and told me that I’d not even begun.
Hovering in the doorway of St Chad’s hall in Fairfield, I’m listening to the local group The Paragons practising a bunch of cover versions. I’d biked over there with my older brother who knew The Paragons’ rhythm guitarist Chris Thompson, later of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and other things.
Another time, in the social hall behind St Joseph’s in Clarkin Rd, another Hamilton group whose name I can’t recall plays a great set late one Sunday afternoon. The standout is a cover of the Beatles’ version of “Boys” which they play three times, they know it’s their best thing. Someone from the vestry next door comes in and asks them to turn it down, which they do, a little.
Xmas holidays at Raglan, huddled together with family, cousins, in-laws and friends, in a tent after dinner as night draws in. My brother and his girlfriend strum away on guitars as we sing the songs we all know, old and new and often corny, and my father, by request, gives us a few lines of “Blue Smoke” or “Royal Hawaiian Hotel”.
In the same camping grounds and I’m in the communal kitchen block with a couple of blokes one evening, heating up some sausage rolls and talking about music. One of them is an older guy I hardly know but who is apparently in a band. Other than that the place is deserted. I might have had a small glass of beer back at the family tent and after a little encouragement I get the nerve to struggle through a couple of verses of the Hollies’ “Look Through Any Window”. The older guy says, “A bit flat but not bad”; the other guy says, “At least you know the words”.
My record player had a big, dark-grained wooden cabinet with a lift-up top. I could just squeeze this thing in between my narrow bed and a chest of drawers, and it was easy to reach as I lay there in the dark. When you opened the lid there was a glowing oblong dial for the valve radio, which worked pretty well, pulling in stations from all over the North Island. I took this same radio with me when, a few months later, I moved back to Auckland and I found that if the weather was favourable and the gods were smiling, I could pick up Midge Marsden’s weekly show Blues Is News from 2YD in Wellington. It was often very faint, as if the signal was coming across a huge expanse of water and time, like so much of the music, remote and spellbinding. A little anxiously I tuned in every week hoping for a strong signal, wanting to hear more of this music that threw new light on the records I was playing. Hearing Jimmy Reed do “Bright Lights Big City” or Leadbelly’s “Take This Hammer” didn’t detract from the Stones’ or Spencer Davis's versions that I knew so well, it just gave them a kind of back-story, enriching them and opening up these connected worlds for further exploration. But while I was still in Hamilton, the original blues artists were mostly just a growing list of exotic sounding names, nebulous, almost spectral figures inhabiting much of what I was listening to.
Lying in bed with the transistor when the Animals’ “It’s My Life” comes on one night after my parents have gone to bed. I turn it way up and hunker down under the blankets… “We could still hear it”, said Mum next morning.
I must have been getting a little opinionated about this stuff. In a school corridor discussion I remember insisting that the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” was “not just great now, it’ll always be great”. That sort of thing. Well, at least I got that one right.
We always watched the NZ TV pop shows like Let’s Go and later C’Mon, but it was with greater enthusiasm that I’d park myself on the carpet to catch Hullabaloo and Shindig from the US. Videotape was a long way off, so when something special came on you had to concentrate really hard, drink it in, try to hold onto it. Kinks, Byrds, Animals, Zombies, Turtles and girl groups like the Ronettes and Shangri-Las whose hits I loved, came and went on screen in what seemed like nanoseconds. A frustrating situation, then again I was elated to see them at all.
MOR shows like Dean Martin’s played it very safe with the new groups (I remember Herman's Hermits) but they might come up
with a Motown act, or something unexpectedly wonderful like the Mills Brothers to whet my curiosity. And then there was that remarkable series of “fillers” that played regularly on NZ TV throughout this period, “Mahalia Jackson Sings”. Her imposing presence dominating that featureless grey set, while her singing was an other-worldly drama manifesting right there in our living room.
I was fascinated by the David L. Wolper TV series “The Story Of …” made in 1962–63. These 30-minute docos spent each episode looking at the day-to-day life of a fireman, a wrestler, an American beauty etc, with a determinedly unglossy realness that I’m sure was rare at the time. They would probably be at least as fascinating to see now. I have vague memories of some episodes, but the one that really stayed with me and I replayed over in my mind was “The Story Of A Folksinger” featuring Hoyt Axton. Its portrayal of that swirl of music, frustration, charisma, conflict, family, the gritty light and dark of it all as a way of life, made a real impression on me. I’ve only seen it that once as a 15 year-old and I was mesmerized by its picture of a certain sort of music, the people who made it and how they lived; a peek into a distant world that was both confusing and alluring.
My dad would very occasionally loan me the Austin Cambridge. One evening during my final weeks in Hamilton (possibly a little later, during university holidays before my family moved to Napier), I asked if I could drive down to the little coffee bar near Fairfield Bridge to see the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band – and I got the car! Maybe I’d seen the band do a spot on TV, I can’t remember, but I was determined to catch them when I saw that they were playing nearby. I knew almost nothing about bluegrass and had never heard of Flatt and Scruggs, but I must have caught a little of the music somewhere or other and the ecstatic picking and high harmonies were things I wanted to hear close-up. They were great, and I went back twice more, to hover for an hour or so over a single cappuccino with a handful of other coffee-hoverers and toasted sandwich fiends. To see this stuff performed live and, to my young ears, so miraculously well was a treat and an education.
Dad's standing at my bedroom door, he picks up the cover of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits off the tallboy and studies the pensive-looking Bob holding the serious-looking book and says, “What sort of music is this?” “He’s a protest singer, Dad” (I was 17, give me a break). “Yep”, says Dad, “I should’ve guessed”.
One day I mentioned to my father that I’d quite like the new Spencer Davis Group album for my birthday. Later I overheard him
on the phone talking to a local record shop: “Yes, it’s called Mean Woman Blues, I know, it is a bit embarrassing to say isn’t it”. Everywhere else in the world this album seems to be called Autumn ’66, which would’ve made things a little easier for Dad. The mystery is, why the different title in NZ?
One of the older boys in our form came up to me at school and said he’d got hold of a copy of the new Beatles LP Revolver, but only for a couple of days. This guy had been kept back a year (I never asked why) and he seemed to be a little more worldly, always with a bit of money to spend and fresh tales of after-school trysts with Girls’ High prefects at that edge-of-town park by the river. At the end of the school day a group of about eight of us went over to his place and sat around the lounge room as he put Revolver on the stereogram. Apart from “Yellow Submarine” on the radio (which I wasn't particularly impressed by), I don’t think any of us had heard any of this music before. A couple of guys broke out the ciggies and we passed around the LP cover, talking about the crazy collage on the front and especially Robert Whitaker’s group photo on the back, which suggested a newly adult, more complex Beatleness. The Beatles seemed to be always coaxing us forward, saying “You think you know who we are, but look, now we are this, and tomorrow…”. And although it was of course impossible for us to step back and clearly see it, this aspect of the Beatles was instinctively felt and, in retrospect, hugely important beyond the obvious effects of the music, humour and style. And so we sat there talking quietly as this extraordinary music filled the darkening room. Someone said the piano discord on “I Want To Tell You” was atonal, and I made a mental note to look it up. Revolver played through twice before my friend’s mum turned up and we all got back on our bikes and pedalled off home in the dusk. It was quite a while before I heard Revolver right through again.
For me, there wasn’t much involvement in music at High School besides the regular desultory attempts at “40 Years On” and other dirges at morning assembly. However, there was a brief period of a few weeks when my form had some sort of music classes with an American teacher whose glamorous air, as much as her distinctive perfume, lingers like a vapour in the memory. During one period she offered to discuss any particular sort of music that we might be interested in and asked for suggestions, so I put my hand up and keenly volunteered “rhythm and blues”. The phrase was being bandied about a lot in liner notes and magazines and although I figured I knew roughly what it meant just by its association with the Stones, Animals, Pretty Things etc, I was genuinely interested to learn more. To my surprise she agreed. Next time we had a class she handed around some lyrics for a recent Searchers hit, I forget which one but I knew it wasn’t R&B, and spent a few minutes describing the typical verse, chorus and middle eight structure of a pop song. I felt she hadn’t really addressed the R&B thing, but I was interested enough to pay fairly close attention and I’m convinced I learned something anyway, sitting there in the front row.
I’m a sucker for harmonies in rock’n’roll and the Beach Boys singles sounded terrific to me, whether it was the rousing surf anthems (“Surfin’ USA”) or yearning ballads (“Surfer Girl”, “In My Room”), I liked them. And the Californian dreamworld they conjured up was in a sense remote but not entirely unimaginable to me. I sometimes went to Whangamata or Raglan for the weekend with guys from school who were actual surfers who had the boards, clothes, magazines, lingo, the works. I was friends with some of this crowd in the school context, but despite some wobbly efforts on microscopic waves and a bit of body-surfing, I was never truly one of them in the surfing environment. But I too slept overnight on the beach, chatted awkwardly to the girls, read the surfing mags (noting their often striking layouts), enjoyed the potent double-malt milkshakes, and dozed off on the long drive back to Hamilton.
One evening at home my ears pricked up when I heard a radio announcer say “And here’s a new hit by the first English band to be influenced by the surf sound, Herman’s Hermits”. But their version of Goffin/King’s “I’m Into Something Good” lacked a real beachy tang despite the woo-oo backing, and its cheesy follow-ups soon put paid to that notion.
There were so few sources of information about the UK and US music world. I remember seeing some issues of Melody Maker before leaving Hamilton, but I have no idea who they belonged to, and I borrowed months-old copies of Fab208 from the family of girls who lived behind us. A teen pop and movie paper, Fab208 featured fluffy interviews, diet advice, Hollywood gossip and bland music coverage; but their better photos of bands like the Small Faces, the Kinks and the Who were iconic, and satisfied at least part of my curiosity. As a teenager I was of course intrigued by the style I found in mags like this, and as much as my minuscule clothes budget could support it, influenced by them. When out of school uniform and heading for town I favoured the polo-neck jumper and suedes, or sandshoes (and a little later, specifically white Bata Bullets), a bit of op-shop corduroy and an old sports jacket. In all honesty it was a seriously cheapo and stylistically compromised situation, but it served just fine for a while and through into university. Though things would get a little stranger later on. In the 7th Form my hair was just long enough for my Second XV rugby coach to point out the need for a trim. I resisted, and then broke my collarbone playing against Rotorua Boys’ High and that was the end of high school rugby and regular haircuts.
Somewhere out at Ruakura near the new university I was at a birthday party in somebody’s lounge room, dancing with a girl to a newly released Troggs album. Eventually we wandered off down the semi-rural road outside the house, nattering away until it began to rain and we ran towards a nearby bus shelter. We found ourselves trapped there for a while but it was certainly no problem passing the time waiting for the rain to stop (sounds like a Hollies song). Yet, I still remember thinking that that Troggs record had sounded better than I’d expected and, as nice as the situation was at the bus shelter, part of me was keen to check out a couple more of those album tracks once we’d made it back. Eventually the rain eased. The Troggs album turned out to be pretty patchy, but there was a little more dancing and as the heavy rain set in again I cadged a ride home with a friend whose dad had trusted him with their newish two-tone Holden. In my mind, that evening is an accumulation of mostly unremarkable details that I’ve nevertheless not forgotten, and mainly because it was the first time I ever asked a girl for her phone number.
Although the occasional overseas act did visit Hamilton in the early ’60s, and I believe even the Kinks passed through in ’64, it was quite late in the piece before I was able to finally get to see a big-name band in concert. On Wednesday the 1st of February, 1967, I took the ‘Troggs party’ girl to see the Yardbirds, the Walker Brothers and Roy Orbison at the Founders Theatre. This was one of various line-ups the Yardbirds toured with in the months leading up to their eventual slow morphing into Led Zeppelin. Jeff Beck had been fired in Texas in October ’66 but such was the scarcity of information available at the time I wasn’t aware of that and not at all sure what the line-up would be. So there it was, the astonishing sight of Jimmy Page sawing away at his Fender Telecaster (yes, I’ve checked) with a cello bow on the then unfamiliar “Dazed and Confused”. I dearly loved the Yardbirds’ singles like “For Your Love” and “Shapes of Things” but I don’t recall them playing many of their better known hits in that show. The audience, I’m sure the majority of whom had come to see the Walker Bros and the Big O in particular, were restrained to say the least. Polite clapping followed each number and at one point Keith Relf went to the microphone and said, “You’re a quiet lot, aren’t ya?”. The atmosphere was a bit like their gig in Antonioni’s Blow-Up before the riot broke out, but I was still thrilled to be there.
I liked the Walker Brothers’ hits at their most Spectorean so I was happy to hear “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”, and of course Roy's bill-topping melodrama outdid even theirs. But it was the Yardbirds that I had really gone to see and their fascinating but puzzling set caught me off-guard a little, and in retrospect was just what I needed. I'm sure I left the theatre doubly eager for the life that I hoped would soon come; the one in which I regularly acquired records of all kinds and heard live music that stretched my tastes and opened me up. I sensed that being challenged by music was as important as increasing my enjoyment and knowledge of music I was already engaged with. I knew that hearing the surface noise as the needle headed towards the first track of a record not yet played was an especially charged moment and, similarly in my life, I was ready for that next first track.
I’ve not been back to the Founders Theatre since that night and I never saw the girl again (although I did ring her). A few more tedious days pushing lamb carcasses along rails at the Horotiu freezing works to get a little cash for my first term at University, and I was on my way back up to Auckland. Unworldly and a little anxious, but riding that surface noise with eyes and ears wide open.
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I've posted another piece on music here: a London winter, 1972